Maqāma (Arabic: مقامة; pl. maqāmāt, مقامات; literally “assemblies”) are an (originally) Arabic literary genre of rhymed prose with intervals of poetry in which rhetorical extravagance is conspicuous. The 10th century author Badī’ al-Zaman al-Hamadhāni is said to have invented the form, which was extended by al-Hariri of Basra in the next century. Both authors’ maqāmāt center on trickster figures whose wanderings and exploits in speaking to assemblies of the powerful are conveyed by a narrator. The protagonist is a silver-tongued hustler, a rogue drifter who survives by dazzling onlookers with virtuoso displays of rhetorical acrobatics, including mastery of classical Arabic poetry (or of biblical Hebrew poetry and prose in the case of the Hebrew maqāmāt), and classical philosophy. Typically, there are 50 unrelated episodes in which the rogue character, often in disguise, tricks the narrator out of his money and leads him into various straitened, embarrassing, and even violent circumstances. Despite this serial abuse, the narrator-dupe character continues to seek out the trickster, fascinated by his rhetorical flow.
Manuscripts of al-Harīrī’s Maqāmāt, anecdotes of a roguish wanderer abu Zayd from Saruj, were frequently illustrated with miniatures. al-Hariri far exceeded the rhetorical stylistics of the genre’s innovator, al-Hamadhani, to such a degree that his maqamat were used as a textbook for rhetoric and lexicography (the cataloging of rare words from the Bedouin speech from the 7th and 8th centuries).
The maqama genre was also cultivated in Hebrew in Spain between beginning with Yehuda al-Harizi’s translation of al-Harīrī’s maqamat into Hebrew (ca. 1218 CE), which he titled mahberot itti’el (‘the maqamat of ‘Ittiel’). Two years later, he composed his own mahberot, titled Sefer Tahkemoni (‘The Book of Tahkemoni’). With this work, al-Harizi sought to raise the literary prestige of Hebrew to exceed that of Classical Arabic, just as the bulk of Iberian Jewry was finding itself living in a Spanish-speaking , Latin or Hebrew reading environment and Arabic was becoming less commonly studied and read.
Later Hebrew maqamat made more significant departures, structurally and stylistically, from the classical Arabic maqamat of al-Hamadhani and al-Harīrī. Yosef ibn Zabara (end of 12th-beginning of 13th c. CE), a resident of Barcelona and Catalan speaker, wrote the Sefer sha’ashu’im (‘Book of Delights’), in which the author, the narrator, and the progonist are all ibn Zabara himself, and in which the episodes are arranged in linear, not cyclical fashion, in a way that anticipates the structure of Spanish picaresque novels such as the anonymous Lazarillo de Tormes (1535) and Guzmán de Alfarache (1599) by Mateo Alemán.