A Devil in the Gaze
Depicting social non-conformism in the Maqâmât al-Harîrî

Pier 13, New York, last year - The man in front of me took the one cent piece out of his pocket, put it on his thumb and with a fingertwist made it flip through the air as I watched it turn from side to side. It was my first day in the city, I was penniless and I bet 100$ that Lincoln is represented on the coin looking from left to right. I won. How come?

Mosul, North Iraq, XIIIth century - The powerful ruler Badr ad-Din Lulu is indeed delighted: he has a clever book illustrator - challenged to represent social hierarchies he apparently relied on readings of mathematics. He depicted the sovereign, who detains absolute power, as transcendental to common space, able to skip from one dimension to another - in his dedicatory portrait on the fist page his regards are actually peering out of the flat sheet of paper into the world of three-dimensionality. Judge cadis, embodying law, will be drawn looking from right to left as is the norm for the direction of writing in Arabic Script. Common people instead will show no preference in which way to look, gazing chaotically in all directions, confined into a 2D frame. Whereas outlaws and jesters will be the sole granted glances contrary to the linear way of writing. - The ingeniosity of the painter made him a good fortune and opportunistically remembering it later... mine also!

The Issue

The different kinds of regards and the symbolic meaning they are intended to convey are of common knowledge to numismatists. But it is baffling to see how widespread the phenomenon is even outside a regulated field such as the monetary production.

If one considers painting, there should be no reason à priori to handle the direction of look in a special way and certainly not to subordinate it to writing! Moreover: psychology emphasis the even attention given to left and right when compared to vertical positions.

Arts however provide us with examples where preferential laterality is extensively used. The picaresque Arabic short stories known as the Maqâmât are in this regard particularly valuables inasmuch they represent a landmark both in Arabic Literature and in Islamic Painting, having developed into a literary and iconographic high praised genre. Further, as their contents is almost deprived of easily picturable subjects such as marvelous landscapes, big battles or fancy court receptions, and consist mainly of witty puns and hard-to-break linguistic riddles, their illustration puts a considerable strain on their painter, forcing him to find innovative solutions.

fol. 110r° Subsequently I show the results of an analysis of laterality in one of the most famous Maqâmât manuscripts, the Bibliothèque nationale Schäffer 5873, the rymed novel by the XIth century Basran author al-Harîrî, telling the adventures of Abû Zayd, this Oriental Till Eulenspiegel. The manuscript was copied and illustrated by al-Wâsitî in 1234 for the ruler of Mosul, the atabek Badr ad-Dîn Lû'lû'.

Description of the illustrations


                         left   center right
           Position:     39     10     23
               Gaze:     41      -     31
               Walk:     41      -     31

 Gaze & walk in the      yes           no
     same direction:     66             6

Be it the position of Abû Zayd inside the miniature, the direction of his gaze or walk, there is a clear tendency toward one side. The adopted direction is contrary to that of the Arabic script.


                                 right   left     total
                         Alone:      0      3         3
               With aquintance:     12     10        22
         Other private setting:      4      1         5
   Public setting with general
   attention given to Abû Zayd:      3      5         9
Public setting where only partial 
attention is given to Abû Zayd:      2      4         6
                          Qadi:      9      1        11
                      Assembly:      6      5        11
                        Mosque:      2      1         3
                         Party:      2      1         3

Classified by themes, lateralisation is again very clear. Striking features are the scenes depicting receptions at the qadi - the most official setting of all the themes involved - where the preferential lateralisation is nearly total; discussions of Abû Zayd with his friend are quite "equilibrated" scenes; and the portrait of Abû Zayd alone - where he seems to behave "normaly". Other themes have too few occurences to let any deduction been made. (The sole frontal gazes are those of Badr aad-Dîn Lû'lû' and the calif in the frontispieces.)


            white   black   blue    other    without
 Beard:     57      13       -       -       2
Turban:     26      13       -      31       2
 Dress:     10       7      38      16       -  

A visible feature of Abû Zayd is his white beard and blue dress. As either a white beard or a blue dress apears almost in every miniature, they help identifiying Abû Zayd. He appears only in one illustration completly in black (beard, turban and dress) - but in this occasion his gaze runs from left to right, thus preserving at least one of his special marks.

Data Interpretation

fol. 51 r° The data are showing a pronounced lateralism in the depiction of Abû Zayd. His position is in the majority of cases to the left of the image and his regards and Speaking direction, as well as his direction of advance are from left to right. Thus Abû Zayd is predominantly opposing writing direction. The scenes where this is especially evident are the audiences to the cadi [f107r], thus implying a difference in power (indicated also by placing the cadi on a higher level - stapled pillows - than the ground floor occupied by Abû Zayd). Scenes of public gatherings [f110r] and private dialogues [f150v], where words can fuze from every mouth with the same authority, do not present any preferential lateralisation. The protagonist appears in too few occurrences alone to make valuable inferences [f51r/f4v], but at the outcome of the book, after seeing him prefer the direction of writing, a reader will have the impression that Abû Zayd drops his many masks when alone - philosophical issue and psychological insight in the artist's mind.

Direction and context are not the only methods to singularize Abû Zayd. Color is used to point at him: he is generally white bearded, wears a white turban and is dressed in blue [f12v]. This is in striking contrast with the black garment of the officials (allusion to the traditional color of the Abbassid house?) [f18v]. The other individuals that are consistently white draped are dead being interred [f29v]. As in the case of the sovereign having the power to exit the mortal's world, Abû Zayd ghostly appearance cant but fortify his image as a dweller of marginal places, in contact with supranatural underworlds.

In Harîrî's novel Abû Zayd appears under varying disguises - hard to unveil him, it is only the skillfull mastering of Arabic language that hints at who he may be. So, the miniaturist had full liberty at varying his appearance, but always he provided at least one identification mark. Once showed in a mosque, he is black bearded and dressed completely in black [f84v]. But he still has an attribute typical of Abû Zayd: he addresses the crowd in a way in which an imam wouldn't do - from left to right.

Identically painted scenes do exist. In al-Wâsitî's Maqâmât there are two, the only difference being that they are mirror reversed. Both concern tête à tête discussions between Abû Zayd and an acquaintance of his [f148v-152r/f166v-162v]. The mirror images are in a most clearly way ascertaining that there is no question of laterality, no one has a higher status than the other, they are equal, in sharp contrast to scenes involving representants of the social hierarchy.

Al-Wâsitî seems even to offer us the key to how one should read his paintings. The link between the character orientation of individuals and the script orientation is explicit in scenes depicting writers: normality will adopt a positioning at the right of the space, whereas non-conformist will do the contrary [f122v]. This emerges quite naturally if we consider that the illustrations were not considered as self-sufficient, independent parts of the book. Most of them are indeed inserted between the lines of text, so that writing surrounds the pictures. Literally speaking, they are to be read between the lines!

fol. 79 r° A revealing accident enforce even more the laterality phenomenon with a comic flavor. In two occasions Abû Zayd appears imberb. Having read the text wrapping around the image I realized that he couldn't be the one that out of his customary accessory I supposed he might be. The image displayed a young and imberbe Abû Zayd (i.e. gaze to right, white turban, blue dress) attentive probably to his customary companion engaged in writing on a scroll [f79r]; respectively one seated in the middle of a mosque among the congregation (i.e. right look, white beard) listening to a beardless youth addressing the people from the top of a rock [f164r]. Whereas the text spoke of Abû Zayd as writing he himself a letter, respectively an old man speaking seated on a big stone. The illuminator (who was also the calligrapher!) visibly forgot the plot. But he, or a later corrector, tried - as a careful examination of the original reveals - to rectify the incoherence and scratched in the writing scene the white beard of Abû Zayd away, making us believe he is not he but the other one, even if he still bears the dress of Abû Zayd. ...Addiction to the writing's direction can be tricky!

What Abû Zayd teaches us

Throughout the Maqâmât we have seen that commonly sovereigns are depicted in the middle of illustrations, governors and cadis to the right, common people scattered around and anti-norm characters to the left. On the vertical sovereigns will appear on the upper row, cadis slightly elevated on the middle row and opponents at the bottom. Thus the space is hierarchized, first following the gravity line from top to bottom, then according to the direction of writing on the horizontal. This disposition was adopted for podiums on award offering ceremonies in sports, for the sequence in which strokes are drawn when writing Chinese and for buttons on handheld telephone sets (but not on computer keyboard numeric pads!).

fol. 1v°fol. 2r° Analyzing spatial disposition is a valuable method for decoding the relative importance accorded to picturesque elements. The first double-page of the Maqâmât depict Badr ad-Dîn Lû'lû, ruler of Mosul and al-Musta'asîm bi-l-llah, caliph of Islam, governing from Baghdad. They appear surprising when viewed the way they are presented [f1v/f2r]. Not only Badr ad-Dîn occupies the first page, the caliph the second, but he is bestowed with greater power, being the only of the two who has the frontal 3D view, whereas the religious leader is confined to 2D, gazing obligedly from left to Badr ad-Dîn: the apparent equality between the two deriving from their positioning in the upper register is misleading (a dichotomy between wordly and religious power appears also expressed in the same way in the cadi and mosques scenes of the Maqâmât).

Historically this is not an artist's fantasy: Badr ad-Dîn grew out into an independent ruler and indeed he toppled the Abbasid caliph. The reflection of this situation in the Maqâmât can help us to ascertain problems of dating historical facts.

A trustworthily painter

fol. 107r° Abû Zayd is an ordinary confidence man, a chronic swindler, a gigantic liar, even a queer pimp and a thief, but little of his obscure behaving emerge to visibility because his speech is as medusing as Kipling's boa eyes and Carroll's Cheshire-Cat smiles, lasting enough to let him get out of reach. The illustrator of the Maqâmât managed with comparable subtility to preserve his characters disguised manners. He never depicted Abû Zayd outwardly as eccentric or shocking (except for one scene where he bluntly skirts his underwear in front of his already running away interlocutor [f75r]). Contemplating the scenes without knowing the script behind them, one cannot guess which personage should be Abû Zayd, even if he knows that he must be a quite bad fellow. But he is also a tricky one and inconspicuously eludes the vigilance of cadis: could you tell seeing a depiction of a justice court, the judge to the right, Abû Zayd to the left, that by his face he must be indeed a notorious non-conformist?! No: being engaged in a disputation / dialogue they cant but face each other. But if we remark the frequency in wich this scene is depicted invariably in the same way - cadi to the right, Abû Zayd to the left - and know what kind of upside-down world Abû Zayd is expected to represent, then we laugh and understand the ingenious device of script direction used by the painter to get the message through.

Al-Wâsitî deserves even more praise (had I speak so if I did know him?) for his remarkably rich wowing of distinct spheres, especially independent in his contemporary culture: he depicts eminently oral stories by mean of visual images basing his work on a characteristic of writing!


Added value to our observations could be gained by extending the inquiry to all the illustrated Maqâmât manuscripts. We could better appreciate the talent of al-Wâsitî and learn how the tradition evolved. The Kalîla and Dimna Fürstenspiegel, our Roman du Renart, and the Persian national epos Shahname abounds in good and evil characters - it would be a feast to see how they behave in relation to laterality. Armies on march or engaged in battles, from Ottoman painting, and Mamluk court etiquette are two other delightful subjects. We could also study what happened to lateralisation in the course of translation of illustrated books from Greek into Arabic and then into Latin, before moving to other writing ecosystems: Indian, Chinese, Mayan?

But the Maqâmât are not coming out of nowhere and we should be able to find interesting parallels beyond them, in the whole Islamic Painting. Nevertheless true understanding could only be acquired by insights into literature: Fiqh Islamic Law for norms regarding connotation of right and left; proverbs for popular beliefs; Mathematics and Physics for their scientific treatment coupled to Philosophy and Linguistics for their impact on speech.

The goal is the study of spatial representations of abstract concepts: social hierarchies, good / bad antinomy, emotions, color, time. The next step would be Historical Psychology. For the present, if we want a realm as fascinating and more familiar, on a quiet day one should buy a ticket for the biggest Museum of Fine Arts next to him, go straight to the paintings of the Italian Renaissance masters and look for the 'Annunciations' for how the Angel and Virgin Mary were placed one in regard to the other and why it is so.


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Geominy W., R. Suckale & K. Hermann-Fiore, "La sculpture et le regard orienté", talk series at the Louvre Museum, Mars 2000.
Grabar Oleg (1984) - The illustrations of the Maqamat, Chicago, University of Chicago Press.
'Ukâsha Tharwat (1992) - Maqâmât al-Harîrî min khilâl minâmât al-Wâsitî, Cairo, Dâr as-Shurûq.
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