x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 28 July 2017

The Art of Party Crashing: joke your way in

Want to get into a party but don't have an invite? A new translation of a 1,000-year-old Arabic text shows that not much has changed when it comes to gatecrashing

Dr Emily Selove says her translation of The Art of Party Crashing shows
Dr Emily Selove says her translation of The Art of Party Crashing shows "a rather different perspecive to the austere image Islam has from that period". Courtesy University of Manchester

It sounds like the behaviour of a confident party crasher at the forthcoming Dubai International Film Festival. "Who are you?" says the host on the door. "I'm the one who saved you the trouble of sending an invitation," comes the cheeky reply.

Except this isn't a 21st-century retort. It's a 1,000-year-old joke from an 11th-century Baghdad cleric, published in a fascinating new translation, The Art of Party Crashing, a tongue-in-cheek compilation of stories, advice and anecdotes. Its translator, Dr Emily Selove, who has spent the past seven years combing through the wisdom of Al Khatib Al Baghdadi, says it casts Arab culture and history in a different light.

"It's completely overlooked in the West, but there's a wide body of Arab literature that's a lot of fun and hugely comic - sometimes obscenely so, actually. It completely belies the idea some might have that Muslims have always been uptight," she says.

The Art of Party Crashing is one part of a broader genre that included books about parties and banquets, tricksters and misers. Baghdad was, in the 11th century, one of the centres of literary production, gathering together whole libraries of bawdy poetry and stories of misbehaviour. "Meanwhile, in Europe, a couple of monks were scratching away on parchment," Selove says.

Al Baghdadi was a noted Sunni Muslim scholar, and introduces the jokes, stories and satirical interludes with a hadith where the Prophet Mohammed helps uninvited guests get into parties. And while the tone is certainly irreverent from that point onwards - Al Baghdadi also says "every serious-minded person needs to take a break" - Selove thinks there is a definite message that it is better to be a party crasher than a miser. Not least because it's more fun.

"What you find when you look at these stories is that they're all about people who really love good food above all else," she says. "I suppose you might call them spongers: their main business was to go to parties uninvited and eat the most expensive food they could get their hands on. One crasher advises not eating too much bread because it takes up the vital room in your stomach that could be saved for the really good stuff.

"They also follow pretty singing girls, so it does offer a rather different perspective to the austere image Islam has from that period. But it's the motivation of one party crasher which is the real crux of Al Khatib Al Baghdadi's point. He says that he does it because people are hypocrites; publicly they pretend to be generous but in private they don't want to give you their food."

The Art of Party Crashing, then, asks for generosity of spirit. It does so by suggesting that the way into a free banquet is to tell good jokes. But do these stand the test of time?

"They are 1,000 years old," admits Selove, now based at the University of Manchester's School of Arts, Languages and Cultures. "But to me it doesn't feel like it. I saw the Wedding Crashers movie while I was translating it and couldn't believe the similarities. I've loved it when I've realised that I've been laughing at a 1,000-year-old joke. It makes me feel closer to the time, somehow."

And, perhaps, closer to a shared sense of humanity. "Well, I guess it feels very important right now to recognise we're all human beings and the past isn't that different. We all like jokes and parties."

But don't blame Al Baghdadi if you can't get in to the premiere of Life of Pi next week.

The Art of Party Crashing (Syracuse University Press) is out now, Dh127