The Lover of the Hand

'The Lover of the Hand' was originally written for the AAWW's call to review a book from Ibn al-Nadim's Kitāb al-Fihrist (Book of Lists). They explained their call as following:

In late 10th-century Baghdad, a book-seller named Ibn al-Nadim (d. c 998) created a catalog of his holdings. His collection was extensive, covering a vast world of literary output, with texts on Arabic grammar and lexicography, history and biography, law and tradition, philosophy, mathematics, medicine, romances, magic, and alchemy, to name just a few. His list, named Kitāb al-Fihrist (Book of Lists), contained some 7,000 titles with bio-bibliographic information about writers, poets, and literature. Al-Nadim kept meticulous notes on the comings and goings of the literary world. (His Book of Lists, for example, is where we learn about Hazar Afsana, which becomes 1001 Nights.) It was in his world that there lived the great poet (and neo-prophet) of Arabic, al-Mutanabbi (d. 965).

In 1258, Baghdad was plundered and burned by the Mongols, marking the end of an era in which cultural and scientific programs of collection and translation had flourished. The leading scholars, writers, poets, sufi masters, jurists, and historians would leave Iran and Iraq and create new centers of learning and new literary diasporas across Asia and Africa and Europe. Delhi or Istanbul or Damascus or Cairo would become other Baghdads, sites of translation and research and poetry for the centuries that followed. Most of the volumes catalogued by al-Nadim were lost. Yet the index remains.

for they are gone…

Let us ask you to remember March 5, 2007. On that day along Al-Mutanabbi Street, the historic book-selling district in Baghdad, a bomb detonated, killing 27 and obliterating the cultural and literary heart of the city. Baghdad has not stopped burning. 

We also want to be neo-futurists. To take a page from Borges’ imagination, and bring into being that which already exists. To commemorate Ibn al-Nadim, and to remember Mutanabbi Street, we call on you, our fellow writers, to help us reimagine al-Nadim’s literary world. Left with the skeleton of his collection, we solicit brief imagined reviews of the titles in al-Nadim’s Book of Lists. Join us as we take a small step in reconstructing the heart and history of literary Baghdad, and to tie us all in knots closer and tighter than we acknowledge elsewhere.


I responded with a review of the apparently anonymously authored book, The Lover of the Hand. It's anonymity, as I make clear below, is a dangerous deception.

A review of The Lover of the Hand

We in Baghdad have our differences, I know. The dust had not even settled over al-Balkhi's disagreement with Ahmad ibn Fadlan about whether the known geographical world can reoccur again in perfect form, before Ali ibn Sahl Rabban al-Tabari saw fit to reignite the debate with the Christians over whether the Trinity can be understood through human perception. 

Despite these differences, my reader, about one thing we can all agree. The perilous doctrine of acquisitionism has no place in our land. 

The book in front of us is a most dangerous manuscript. This anonymously published edict purports to be a description of a man met by Abu Sahl 'Isa ibn Yahya al-Masihi on his travels near the Caspian Sea. 

The man in question, who in the book is only known as J., spends hours in front of the waves, moving his hands this way and that, like a dancer, in search of what he terms, "the true gesture." By this nonsensical term, the author claims that J. intends to be searching for a unique gesture, one that has not been made in the history of humanity. J., apparently, loves hands so much, that he believes them capable of individuality. 

As must be clear to you by now, my dear reader, this story is a sham, designed to sneak acquisitionism into Baghdad. The author of this book places his argument in the mouth of al-Masihi, who refutes J.'s claims in the following manner. All actions of man have already taken place, in the actions of God. Man merely acquires stage dramas, already scripted—for only God is capable of innovation and novelty, and so man must be an imitator.  

In one fell swoop, the author of the book destroys J.'s search for a unique gesture, and introduces his iniquitous doctrine. For if God originally created all gestures, 'al-Masihi' claims, then ultimate moral responsibility for the actions of the hands of men must lie with God: even the actions of a heretic such as J., who, in his search for a novel gesture, wishes to dethrone God. Thus, 'al-Masihi' claims, God himself searches for his own abnegation.  

God guide us against such heresies! Even the silliest ass, perusing the pages of Al-Kindi, realizes that God creates only grammar, and not actions. God creates the scope for actions, which, while not novel, are human.

If, say, a fire were to sweep the streets of Baghdad, setting ablaze the delicate pages stored in Ibn al-Nadim’s book store, we can be certain that God provided us only with fire, and not with action, and that the blaze set in motion can only be understood in reference to human hands. And if, say, fire wreaks havoc in the great city of Baghdad, in the years to come, again and again, through the hands of local idiots and foreign invaders, we look in vain to God to provide answers: for God provides grammar, and humans, politics.