Drug Overdose, Disability and Male Friendship in Fifteenth-Century Mamluk Cairo
By Kristina Richardson
postmedieval: a journal of medieval cultural studies, Vol.3:2 (2012)
Abstract: Shihab al-Din al-Hijazi (1388-1471) was an unexceptional legal student in Mamluk Cairo, who, at the age of 24, overdosed on marking nut, a potent plant drug valued for its memory-enhancing properties. As a result of the overdose, boils broke out all over al-Hijazi’s body, he was unable to eat or sleep, and he lost significant cognitive power. After recovering from the overdose, he abandoned his legal studies and became a leading poet. Most interestingly, al-Hijazi wrote a letter to his dear friend Salah al-Din al-Asyuti (d. 1455) on the tenth night of overdose detailing his suffering, his social isolation and the solace he had found with an unidentified Turkish slave soldier who was suffering the same physical and social discomforts. The letter is an indictment of his fellow Cairenes who had ignored or mocked him in his illness, though the non-Arab, unfree soldier condemns most forcefully the social body of 15th-century Cairo and their misguided constructions of blighted bodies.
Introduction: The English term ‘disability’ focuses on physical and cognitive performance and productivity – what the body can or can not do. The equivalent classical Arabic term aha literally means ‘blight’ or ‘damage,’ and it can refer to objects both inanimate (crops, trees) and animate (human and non-human animals). The category of blightedness certainly encompasses ‘disability,’ but it incorporates aesthetics and character. Blights disrupt beauty and can constitute character flaws. Like ‘disability’ or ‘handicap’ today, the meaning of blightedness was changing and performing new work in culture throughout the Islamicate Middle Ages. For instance, from the eighth to the thirteenth century, blue eyes were included with such impairments as blindness, deafness and paralysis on Arabic-language lists of people with physical defects, and as early as the ninth century, Arab poets wrote erotic verses to individuals with such physical blights as blue eyes, crossed eyes and ophthalmia.