Monday, April 20, 2015

A Blind Chessmaster in Damascus

In her book Disability in the Ottoman Arab World, Sara Scalenghe mentions the visit of the blind Hammad al-Basri to Damascus in 1529:
He was known for his skills as a chess player, skills of such repute that the most celebrated players of Syria, Egypt, and the Hijaz traveled to Damascus to compete with him.  Al-Basri not only defeated them all but also inspired awe with his ability to play five opponents on five different chessboards simultaneously.  Some skeptics doubted his blindness, a suspicion that al-Basri would assuage by covering his eyes before each game.  Understandably, such feats gained him great fame and, eventually, the honor of playing in the presence of the sultan in Istanbul.
I suspect that this was not the first time Damascus hosted a blind chess players, as for centuries the Middle East has had a tradition of the blind achieving great intellectual heights.

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