Excavating the Arab Queen

Live Storytelling Performance

In a book called How to Teach Math to Black Students by Shahid Muhammad, the author, an African American teacher, describes how his African American students were failing in math, until one day he begins his class by sharing stories about the African contributions to the discipline of math, and observes a transformation in his students. Students go from failing in math to succeeding.  

In reading this book I felt like Newton’s apple had fallen on my head as the thought flashed: We are the stories we read! I began to think about the impact of seeing ourselves in stories and being omitted from them had on us. I realized that my identity as an Arab woman was one that was invisible in the stories I read. I could not think of one single historical female character that I saw myself in. Why was that? Were there none? Or were they just removed from history?

I began to research a story that I could bring back to life through a performance. I found the story of a woman named Zubaydah bint Jafa'r from the 8th century. I had grown up learning the famous 8th century King, known as Harun Al-rashid. What I didn’t know was that he had a wife who was Queen and that her name was Zubydah bint Jafaar. 

Queen Zubaydah was as influential or perhaps even more influential than King Harun in some respects. After Harun’s death, Zubaydah conducted one of the most complex hydro engineering projects in her time, building a canal from Baghdad to Mecca to save hundreds of thousands of pilgrims dying from thirst. The remainder of that canal can still be seen but the sad part is, very few people know that Zubaydah was behind it, let alone know who Zubaydah was.

The process of bringing her story to life began with trying to excavate what I could find about her, which was very little. This is because as men were often the ones writing history, they seem to have had trouble writing more than a sentence about women of great significance. And so, I had to make do with the small bits and pieces of information I found and do what any good scholar would do which is to fill in the gaps using my logic and research. 

In bringing her story to life I tried to imagine what her upbringing was like. The natural landscape that surrounded her, how she might have traveled on the pilgrimage path, how she thought of the idea of the canal, how bold the idea was given the monstrous landscape. How she executed it, despite being told her idea would fail! 

Through this excavation, what came to life was a woman in command, a strategist, a visionary, an athlete, a powerful unstoppable woman with an ability to bring her imagination to reality despite all doubts. A woman who brought water to a desert.