The “Material Worlds” project is best described as an umbrella project, a broadly defined (in fact potentially boundless) project focused on various aspects of Indian and Indian Ocean material culture and materiality, as evidenced through documents from the Cairo Geniza. Thus far it includes a substantial 120,000 word research monograph, Abraham’s Luggage, three articles (one co-authored), and plans for a further collaborative project with Amir Ashur on metal working and metals circulation.
The “India Book” is filled with loanwords that often defy translation, even if their context often gives a good pointer to the type of thing referred to. The footnotes of India Traders of the Middle Ages are filled with identifications and, just as often, puzzled or speculative suggestions. In an article entitled “Borrowed words in an ocean of objects” I made a humble start at untangling some of these terms and explored the voyages of two Indic loanwords – tālam and fātiya – into Judaeo-Arabic and Arabic and their peregrinations across the centuries in the Yemen and even as far as Egypt’s Nile delta.
It was a privilege to be able to propose “Borrowed words” for inclusion in a festschrift dedicated to M.G.S. Narayanan, one the preeminent historians of medieval South India, and edited by my colleagues Kesavan Veluthat and Donald Davis Jr. Irreverent History: Essays for M.G.S. Narayanan appeared in 2014 with Primus Books in New Delhi.
Started in the summer of 2011 as a “quick” article about TS NS 324.114, a list of luggage drawn up by an India trader in South India, the article eventually grew into a double length book and the major output of my 2011-13 Leverhulme Major Research Project on “West Asia in the Indian Ocean World 500-1500.” Instead of the macro survey and synthesis I first intended, Abraham’s Luggage is an exploration of the micro-historical potential of the “India Book documents, a study of one West Asian in the Indian Ocean of the period.
Abraham’s Luggage offers a fresh and methodologically sophisticated perspective on Jewish merchant activity in the Indian Ocean – a component of the broader trade connections that developed between the Islamic Mediterranean and South Asia in the Middle Ages. Premised on a close reading of a unique twelfth-century document found in the Cairo Geniza – a single list of luggage drawn up in India by the north African merchant Abraham Ben Yiju – the book focuses on the domestic material culture and foodstuffs that structured the daily life of such India traders, both on land in India, and at sea onboard the ocean-going ships that underpinned their mobility.
Drawing on anthropological insights into the connections between material culture, foodstuffs and identity construction, the book explores the varied motivations and logistical challenges involved in maintaining a home away from home, and the compromises that necessarily ensued. Abraham’s Luggage represents one of the first synthetic works to make use of the so-called “India Book” documents, a sub-corpus of the Cairo Geniza typically exploited for its contribution to business and economic history. In so doing, it demonstrates the huge potential of the Geniza for writing new and different Indian Ocean histories, even from the most unprepossessing ephemera.
The volume is due out later in 2017 with Cambridge University Press in their Asian Connections series.
Historians of material culture can only be fascinated by the complex materialities developed within rabbinic Judaism. Together with my colleague Phillip Ackerman-Lieberman, a specialist in Jewish law, we unravelled and probed a cryptic set of questions about sīnī or ‘china’ vessels sent by the Jewish community in Aden to Fustat in the 1130s. Our article sees porcelain as a disruptive substance and technology that challenged existing material taxonomies within rabbinic Judaism. In the process we uncovered what we believe to constitute the earliest datable and locatable query about the status of porcelain within Jewish law, a topic still of considerable debate, as well as important new evidence for the complex reception of Chinese porcelain in the Middle East.
The resulting co-authored article appeared under the title “Chinese porcelain and the material taxonomies of medieval Rabbinic law: encounters with disruptive substances in twelfth century Yemen” in issue 2.2 (2016) of The Medieval Globe, a new medieval studies journal, and also features in the standalone edited volume I edited Legal Encounters on the Medieval Globe (Kalamazoo MI: ARC Medieval Press, 2017). Thanks to a chance meeting with James K. Chin of Hong Kong University we hope to see this article translated into Chinese for the Journal of Maritime History Studies.
Economic and political history of northern Malabar
Another festschrift contribution – yet to appear, so I cannot reveal the title of the volume and its recipient – this article expands and complements material included in the introductory chapters of Abraham’s Luggage.
The surviving letters, memoranda and annual accounts of the India traders are rich with allusions to the commerce and, with less focus, the politics of northern Malabar during the 1130s and 1140s, a period for which local, Indian, sources are few and often opaque. Thus, rather than fitting neatly into a secure historical context this Indian correspondence contributes substantially new information for the history of the region in the 12th century and often challenges understandings of Malabari history. “India in the “India Book: 12thcentury northern Malabar through Geniza documents” pieces together new information on the politics, economy and networks of the northern Malabar coast during these decades to propose a more rounded understanding of the geography and chronology of Jewish trade in South India.