Ibn Daniel[Full name Chams Eddine Mohammed Ibn Daniel el-Moussili]
BirthMosul, Iraq (1238)
DeathCairo, Egypt (1310)
Arab doctor, poet and man of the theatre, author of the oldest shadow plays in Arabic. After the Mongols took over Baghdad in 1258, and at the beginning of the so-called “decadent epoch”, Ibn Daniel, originally from Iraq, settled in Cairo and wrote the three oldest texts that we possess for the Arab shadow theatre: Tayf el khayal (The Shadow Spirit), Ajib wa gharib (Strange and Bizarre), and El moutayyam (The Lover).
These texts show that the play performances were not improvised. They were written in advance in the form of dialogues, a style totally foreign to the Arab culture of the times, and they included poems and musical passages.
The performance was conducted by a single artist called el rayyis (the chief or leader), sometimes accompanied by two musicians. Ibn Daniel composed the music, created the characters, directed the show and encouraged the public to contribute financially through the agency of his puppet characters.
The first play, Tayf el khayal, resembles a farce. Emir Wissal requests the assistance of a matchmaker to find himself a wife. On the day of the wedding, he lifts the veil of his future wife and discovers that she is extremely ugly. This is followed by the death of the matchmaker and the emir’s repentance that takes him to Mecca to gain forgiveness for his sins. The story, although simple, deals with the political situation within the country: the author seems to praise the laws adopted by Sultan Zaher Bibars against debauchery and libertines. In reality, Ibn Daniel rails against the Mamluk Sultanate, mocks its reforms, and presents to his public a play that is full of broad and provocative ribaldry.
The second play, Ajib wa gharib, is quite different. This is a drama that approaches the circus, composed of a series of conjuring tricks, juggling, taming of animals, magic, etc., which depicts acrobats and popular life of the Egyptian souks at the time of the Mamluks. The play also ends with the pilgrimage of the characters to Mecca.
The third play, El moutayyam, is very licentious with regard to the mores of the times. It features a bashful lover ready to do anything to satisfy his beloved. The play ends with a big party where each guest relates personal experiences and erotic pleasures, when suddenly the King of Death appears to take the lover. This unfortunate begs for mercy and asks to travel to Mecca to repent his sins (as in the two other plays).
Three of Ibn Daniel’s plays have survived due to four manuscripts, the oldest of which (1425) is preserved at the Süleymaniye Library in Istanbul. The second manuscript (1441) is preserved at El Escorial, near Madrid. The third is in the National Library of Cairo, and the fourth, at Al-Azhar Library in Cairo. Between 1901 and 1909, orientalist Georges Jacob published texts from the three plays. Between 1910 and 1912, Paul Kahle edited two of the plays. He also discovered the carved/perforated leather puppets dating from the Mamluk period, some of which were used in Ibn Daniel’s plays. These puppets are conserved at the Islamic Museum of Berlin. In 1963, in Cairo, Ibrahim Hamade published the three plays in a “revised” edition with many of the passages deemed offensive removed.