Arabian Geishas

Qaynah (the singular is qinay) were women in pre and early Islamic Arabian society. They were part servant, part singer, and part prostitute. Some qaynah were purchased and owned by one man, usually a king or wealthy noble, while others worked out of a hanah, which was, as far I understand, a classy bar and brothel.

The role of the qaynah was similar to that of the Japanese geisha. She was a hostess and expected to be ornately adorned, attractive, and servile; but it was her artistry as a singer that could bring a qinay wealth and widespread fame. Indeed, the qaynah were the preeminent singers of pre-Islamic Arabian society and the names of some of the more renowned are still known to us today.

The qaynah sang two types of songs, the sinad and the hazaj. Percussion, woodwind, and stringed instruments might accompany both types of song. The sinad was the more serious of the two and used classical Arabian poetry, which was a storehouse of history and moral lessons, as its source. The hazaj style was more whimsical and intended for entertainment. It used simpler meters and more instrumentation.

Eventually schools were setup to train qaynah. Some of these schools lasted hundreds of years past the introduction of Islam into Arabian society. Despite the existence of these schools, no transcribed melodies or rhythms (beyond the poetry meters themselves) of qaynah music have survived, so we can only guess at the music’s character and what the “extraordinary, virtuosic singing of the qiyan,” might have sounded like. Indeed, most of the information we have about qaynah and their music is from texts that copied texts that copied texts (like what you are reading right now!) and focused on the sociological aspects of the period rather than music theory.

So where did all the qaynah go? One theory is that they are still here, only invisible. This is of course, ridiculous. What is more likely is that Arabian society simply outgrew them. The widespread success of the Islamic empires meant the incorporation of many new musical traditions into Arabian culture. It also meant a shift in social norms so that it became acceptable for people from all parts of society to be sing. Most importantly, men also became professional singers and began supplant women in the field. However, the schools that were setup to train qaynah remained important despite these changes in culture and they still left their mark on the new music being created and absorbed by Arabian culture.


My primary source was The Music of Arabs by Habib Hassan Touma. Which is where I got the above quote from.

Guitar Atlas, Middle East by Jeff Peretz. No bibliography for this book but I suspect Habib Hassan Touma may have been Jeff Peretz's source for his info on qiyan.

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