In the early thirteenth century a column of light blazed from the top of a shaykh’s head when he walked home at night. It lit up his surroundings as if it were day, astonishing all who observed him. When he led prayers, his halo filled the dark corners of the mosque, and the people lavished him with coins. But beneath the fine linen of his turban, his secret squirmed: he had woven forty glowworms into a hairnet.
In the medieval city of Tinnis, on Egypt’s Mediterranean coast, a prophet was legendary for his ability to cure lepers and resurrect the dead. His sanctity was so great that even creatures of the sea would pay him homage. When he strolled along the shore, the fish leapt from the waters to kiss his feet. But the creatures were drawn to something besides his spiritual purity: he had coated his toes with a potion—one part human feces, one part basil, and one part Persian gum resin, all mixed with jasmine oil—that worked like catnip on fish.
The Artuqid emir Rukn al-Din Mawdud, whose kingdom spanned the region of the Tigris River in what is now southeastern Turkey, was fascinated by such schemes. Perhaps he sensed that his own power, too, was only a fleeting illusion. He had come across an intriguing treatise called Deceit Disrobed and Doubt Dispelled, an eleventh-century exposé of hoaxes, but the emir found himself longing for something “shorter and easier to understand.” He turned to a shadowy writer who lingered at his royal court and must have seemed familiar with the underworld—its beggars and swindlers, false astrologers and shoplifting mystics, known to hightail it from mosques with oil lamps, ornate door latches, and even the doors themselves.
The writer, born Jamal al-Din ‘Abd al-Rahim ibn ‘Umar ibn Abi Bakr al-Dimashqi, was called al-Jawbari, after the village of his birth, now a suburb of Damascus that has been almost entirely destroyed in the Syrian civil war. An inconspicuous traveler, al-Jawbari roamed from the west coast of Morocco to the Hejaz in the Arabian Peninsula, across Mesopotamia and on to India, befriending along the way alchemists, doomsday preachers, pseudo-doctors, and the well-oiled dervishes who could rise unscathed from flaming barbecue pits. (The secret was in the flame-resistant properties of frog fat.)
Al-Jawbari had studied more than three hundred books on the occult and natural sciences, including an apocryphal magic textbook called the Book of Illusions that was misattributed to Plato, and wrote his own, on the celestial bodies and geomancy, although none of these works has survived. Arriving at the Artuqid ruler’s citadel sometime around the mid-1220s, al-Jawbari at first declined the emir’s request, but Rukn al-Din insisted, and soon the writer found himself contractually obliged to divulge on paper the ruses and stratagems of an illicit field of knowledge that, he claimed, had never before been revealed to the public.
In 1232, before al-Jawbari finished his assignment, Rukn al-Din was dethroned by an Ayyubid conqueror and held captive, bringing the Artuqid dynasty to an end. But the book he had commissioned, Kitab al-Mukhtar fi kashf al-asrar (The Book Containing a Selection Concerning the Exposure of Secrets), outlasted him. The text has now been translated into English for the first time by Humphrey Davies for the bilingual Library of Arabic Literature series, under the title The Book of Charlatans. Organized into thirty chapters by criminal type—from spurious dentists to house thieves—it provides us with an unusual glimpse into the street life of medieval Islamic societies rarely captured in more elevated Arabic literary sources.
The Book of Charlatans resembles the medieval genre of the mirror for princes, but rather than imparting advice for the upright ruler, it instructs in all manner of depravity and fraud. There are tricks for lighting candlesticks using only your fingertips, and for forging documents with a powder of white lead. There are quack medical remedies reminiscent of a certain former ruler’s suggestion to inject bleach. We learn how to make someone instantly collapse by pointing in their direction (brew a potion composed of “one part each of blue henbane, opium, lettuce seed, stinking nightshade seed, cress seed, marijuana, and fig milk” and smear it under your armpit). For the charlatans, specialists at creation ex nihilo, abjection becomes an art.
As early as the eighth century, records from the Muslim empires report the existence of collectives of roving beggars calling themselves the Banu Sasan, or Sons of Sasan. They were experts in vagabondage, sometimes hiring baggage handlers to transport their spoils. It is unclear who Sasan was, though it is often said he was a Persian emperor’s disinherited son who, deprived of his birthright, set out with a ragged entourage to live off their wiles. Others say the word Sasan derives from the Sanskrit sasa, or hare, the crafty creature who famously tricks a lion in the animal fables of the Kalila wa-Dimna. (The word may also come from the Persian sas, a parasitic worm.)
The Sasans were immortalized by the poet Abu Dulaf in the Qasida Sasaniyya, a tenth-century taxonomical ode to the varieties of mendicants and their acts, including al-mitrash, a person who waves around his own severed hand to incite pity, and fashshasha, the tactic of farting in the mosque. (The worshipers, Abu Dulaf noted, give the uncouth practitioner money to go away.) The scoundrels sing:
We exact a tax from all mankind, from China to Egypt
And to Tangier;…
When one region gets too hot for us, we simply leave it for another one.
The whole world is ours, and whatever is in it, the lands of Islam and unbelief alike.
The rogues spoke a secret language, al-Sin, or “the S,” the first letter of an Arabic word for magic, simiya. To encrypt their conversations from passersby, the beggars played on euphemism and metaphor, scrambled Arabic in sound and meaning, and borrowed freely from foreign tongues. The Book of Charlatans preserves much of this argot; while Davies does not attempt to decipher a line that al-Jawbari writes in al-Sin, he does provide us with an ample online appendix of rare words appearing in the text, from ‘azbara (to screw with) to mafatih jumlah (skeleton keys). The Book of Charlatans also contains the earliest surviving use of the word hashish to refer to cannabis, imbibed in al-Jawbari’s pages by law-breaking dervishes who eat the leaves roasted or crushed with honey.
The Banu Sasan had parties “better than any king’s,” al-Jawbari raves, “amazing good times.” The elder masters tended to form pederastic apprenticeships with young beggar boys, lending material for the more obscene episodes in the book. Al-Jawbari writes of a particularly profane holy man who pretended he had located the ant who speaks to the Prophet Solomon in the twenty-seventh chapter of the Qur’an. Wrapping the ant in a bundle, the charlatan tells an adolescent boy that he found it feasting on human flesh in the cemetery, an insect with an anthropomorphic face who exclaims, “Glory be to God!” Luring the boy away from his family, the master and two accomplices concoct an elaborate plot to rape him, involving fake coins, the ant, and a host of moralizing angels.
It remains unclear to what extent al-Jawbari was implicated in the ruses he describes. At every turn, the polymath of crime distances himself from what he has witnessed, and he self-consciously discriminates between true, divine miracles and con jobs. His stated aim is to educate the people, so that they will not be cheated by such schemes. Yet he admits to making fake pepper out of mung beans, in a section ominously followed by recipes for lethal poisons. A few pages later, the author is praised by a charlatan he is interviewing. “Seriously,” the man says, “I didn’t think you’d be so well informed. You’re a real scholar. If you’d just put on dervish patchwork, you’d be the shaykhliest man of the age.”
After revealing a trick of his own invention, which involves writing with an ink made of milk that is invisible at first but turns red when it ferments, al-Jawbari offers a disclaimer:
I wrote this book only after reading many others and keeping company with all the masters of these sciences and subterfuges. Despite this, I swear by Mighty God, Causer of Causes, Sempiternal of the Sempiternal, that my soul never gave in to me and I was never able to persuade it that it was in its interest to do such things; I declare it innocent of involvement in anything of the sort!
“On the other hand,” he continues, “it is better to know things than to be ignorant of them.”
This may be true, but the delight of reading The Book of Charlatans comes from what al-Jawbari leaves mysterious: the myriad tricks that, even after being debunked, remain bewitched. A Sufi dervish, al-Jawbari tells us, has the power to stop a torrential rain by grinding together oleander leaves, mandrake root, marijuana, and an astringent of pomegranate rind: “He uses this as incense and stands as though praying to the Almighty, at which point the rain removes itself from the land in question.” Al-Jawbari never explains how the procedure works; the magic lingers in nature’s raw ingredients.
In another section, al-Jawbari reports that he visited a 160-year-old Egyptian monk, Ashmunit, famous for his ability to divine the future. Al-Jawbari reveals the secret of the monk’s clairvoyance, passed down through generations of his family:
He takes a mole, holds it underwater till it dies…. Then he pounds the mole well, together with half its weight of the flesh of a curlew and a quarter of its weight of the heart of an ape and the same of a male talking parrot. He kneads all of this together with the water he’s set aside, in which he drowned the mole, and makes pills from this.
When the monk swallows a pill, he is flooded with visions of forthcoming events, though how this works remains as opaque as the ground-up mole.
Al-Jawbari’s final chapter is devoted to the group he considers the wiliest con artists of them all. “Women are more cunning, devious, treacherous, audacious, and immodest than men,” he warns. “Their hearts know no fear.” As a woman is apparently unrestrained by fear of God, the sword, or loss of honor, “vile deeds will emanate from her naturally.” Yet al-Jawbari provides us with only a slender array of examples of what women get up to, mainly ruses to hide adulterous affairs. As the chapter follows several hundred pages exposing the deceits of men, we are left with the sense that women are so skilled that he was never able to see through their tricks, and so they too remain enchanted.
What do we learn of a world seen only through its illusions? Hoaxes, whether modern or ancient, tend to act as mirrors for the greater confidence games around us, from the claims to power of politicians and kings to the self-righteousness of those who assert they have greater access to God. The language that political economy provides for explaining why one group possesses vastly more wealth than another is fittingly sorcerous: from “the invisible hand” to commodity fetishism to “all things solid melt into air.” Hoaxes point toward the deeper scams that we perceive, and can even expose, but are still powerless to change. Many of al-Jawbari’s tricks concern ways to create false impressions of sanctity, authority, power, and value that are only fake until they are real.
“I stood before God, Mighty and Glorious,” said a severed head on a bloody tray, in an illusion al-Jawbari witnessed firsthand. Before an aghast crowd, the head reported how the angels showed him what befalls us in paradise or in hell. Particular torments awaited those who slandered a certain shaykh, who arranged the trick, and whose heavenly pulpit the head claimed to have seen: it was “the highest of all; it had been set up right under the leg of the Throne” of God Himself. This type of trick was not only deceptive but deadly. The shaykh would pay an accomplice to play the part of the severed head: willing but oblivious, the actor was killed hours later to preserve the ruse. Yet among those who witnessed it, the mirage left an indelible impression of the shaykh’s spiritual authority; the trickster was celebrated and worshiped, gaining legions of followers.
Al-Jawbari takes pains to distinguish true religious teachers from the charlatans, but in his enumerations of those who wear Islam as a cloak for fraud, one wonders whether there isn’t a latent criticism of establishment ecclesiasts such as the ulema, learned men who may too arrogantly stake a place for themselves next to God. “And with Him are the keys of the Unseen. None knows them but He,” warns the Qur’an (6:59): In a theology in which God is ultimately unknowable and beyond human comprehension, how can some men claim to know more about divine matters than anyone else? Even our English word “hoax” may derive from debates around religious authority, dating from the Reformation. In the 1690s the Archbishop of Canterbury argued that before the term “hocus pocus” became a spell highly effective for decapitation, its root was a bit of pseudo-Latin used to satirize the liturgies of Catholic priests.
In The Book of Charlatans, surfaces are never what they seem. Al-Jawbari includes a lengthy section on how to dye horses with hair potions to increase their price. A white steed shampooed with pomegranate blossoms transforms into a deep dark red; speckles are made with a concoction of marshmallow leaves. Elsewhere, the author reveals a recipe for fake pearls using snail slime and talc, and one for a lapis lazuli “wash”—involving resin and tar—that may be used to transform any object into precious stone. Fraudulent alchemists used a “sauce,” or dukkah, to make it appear that they could turn base metals into gold. They tricked wealthy patrons into becoming their benefactors, including the legendary sultan Nur ad-Din, who successfully fought off the Crusaders but was fooled by the sauce.
In al-Jawbari’s retellings, it is all fair game; his attempts to convey disapproval are often unconvincing (the horse-dyers, he notes, are his friends). His science of counterfeit wealth poses the question of why some men enjoy such vast quantities of riches in the first place, leaving others to beg, swindle, or steal. Absent from The Book of Charlatans is any discussion of punishment for these crimes. For a deeper hoax was that of the authority of the police: in many medieval societies, such as the Baghdad described by the tenth-century historian al-Mas‘udi, the police were often retired criminals themselves. Worn out from the athletic exertions of thievery, they would join the police as tawwabun (repentants). They were able to apply their well-honed insights into underworld networks and techniques, yet tended to let bandits go free in exchange for a portion of the bounty.
It is at times of greatest precarity, from natural disasters to revolutions, that the tricksters thrive—from the crafty Sasans to a more nefarious species of strongmen, preying on uncertainty and desperation. Al-Jawbari writes of how swindlers in Egypt profited during several periods of terrible famine, after the Nile flooded too high or not high enough to irrigate the land. A hustler advertised pills to prevent starvation, enabling one to last for months without eating and to donate any scraps of food to one’s family. “I’d say whatever spells were appropriate over them and flog a pill for one silver piece,” he boasts to al-Jawbari, revealing that he did a brisk business of three hundred a day. Yet the backdrop to his hoax was the wider scandal—that Egypt’s overlords were not doing more to alleviate the crisis.
During a particularly acute eleventh-century famine, the chronicler al-Musabbihi in Cairo wrote of the government’s inept response, including hoarding and mismanaging grain stores, encouraging price-gouging of bread, using flour merchants as scapegoats, and punishing them with beatings. Al-Musabbihi hinted at the people’s anger toward the caliph, whose regime still dared to collect taxes in starving towns that were on the verge of revolt. The charlatan’s pills, however—secretly made of Nile mud, cane syrup, and cumin—did block feelings of hunger, and customers kept coming back for more.
In 2011 a wave of e-mails from the “wives” of fallen or imperiled dictators of the Arab Spring flooded inboxes across the globe. “I have lost confidence with everybody in the country at the moment,” despaired a fake Mrs. Suzanne Mubarak, the wife of Egypt’s toppled president, Hosni, in search of a safe place to hide her wealth. “The UN and the Western world have freeze most of our assets,” confided an impostor of Colonel Muammar Gaddafi’s widow, Safia, writing in haste under house arrest. She sought a “foreign reliable partner” to trust with $18 million. “I will meet you where ever you want me to,” she promised, if only the recipient would provide her with their bank details. An e-mail signed by Syria’s First Lady Asma al-Assad mentioned “a Profitable business transaction,” but noted that it might not suit the recipient’s sense of ethics. “If my offer is of no appeal to you, delete this message,” “Mrs. Mubarak” instructed, “and forget I ever contacted you.”
I didn’t delete the messages I received. The spam e-mails were perfect artifacts of the time, symbolizing the autocrats’ greater scams against nations that were now rising up. I imagine the wives’ e-mails could fill a chapter in our own colossal book of charlatans. (Would it survive, like al-Jawbari’s, for the next eight hundred years?) Other sections might taxonomize the grifters, the Ponzi schemers, the pundits who spin intricate webs of disinformation, creating the climate for new strongmen to seize power.
While tricksters lurk on the margins during periods of calm, in times of crisis, when we are all on edge, they tend to become the center. Egypt was, as Walter Armbrust argues in Martyrs and Tricksters, his recent ethnography of the 2011 revolution, the vanguard in what became a global age of the trickster-politician, from Trump, Johnson, and Farage to Erdoğan, Putin, and Modi. Seizing moments of instability, bringing about states of permanent upheaval, tricksters draw all of us into their illusions, eventually making them entirely too real.
At a press conference in 2014 the Sisi regime announced that it had cured AIDS and hepatitis C using a mysterious medical device. An Egyptian military physician, General Ibrahim ‘Abd al-‘Ati, who turned out to be neither a licensed doctor nor a general, explained, “I take AIDS from the patient and nourish the patient on the AIDS by giving him a skewer of AIDS kofta,” referring to a type of meatball. Sisi’s minister declared that widespread treatments would soon begin. The homeopathic remedy could have been dreamed up by one of al-Jawbari’s quack practitioners. But rarely in The Book of Charlatans do the hoaxes backfire; even when their absurd, organic ingredients are exposed, debunking never seems to diminish the effect of the trick. Al-Jawbari reminds us that the ways to stage pageants of power are infinite, yet the tricks we possess to actually solve our problems are few.