Middle East

Friday Fun Link, Several Months Late


Last summer, the Australian literary journal Meanjin published "The Secret History of the Flying Carpet," a brilliant Borgesian hoax by Azhar Abidi. Written in the form of a serious scholarly essay, the story presented a poker-faced argument that flying carpets really did exist and were an important technology in the medieval Middle East -- until they were destroyed by the local establishment:

Flying carpets were discouraged in the Islamic lands for two reasons. The official line was that man was never intended to fly, and the flying carpet was a sacrilege to the order of things, an argument that was spread enthusiastically by a zealous clergy. The second reason was economic. For the establishment, it was necessary to keep the horse and the camel as the standard means of transport. The reason was that certain Arab families, who had access to the inner chambers of successive rulers, had become rich because of their vast stud farms, where they bred hundreds of thousands of horses each year for the army, merchants and the proletariat. It was the same with camels. Certain Egyptian king-makers (listed by Ben Sherira as the Hatimis, the Zahidis and the progeny of Abu Hanifa II) owned camel farms, and enjoyed a total monopoly on the supply of camels in the whole of the Islamic empire. None of these old families wanted their privileges usurped by a small group of poor artisans who could potentially wreck their markets by making flying carpets popular. Thus they were undermined.

Thanks to the mullahs' propaganda, the Muslim middle class was beginning to shun flying carpets by the mid-eighth century….

The results were predictable: Many people really believed the story, which was soon reprinted as fact on at least two Iranian websites. And Abidi got a contract to write a novel.