Home Office Artifacts: Jamal J. Elias

Discover the stories behind the Professor of Religious Studies’ home office items—in his own words.

Thursday, July 30, 2020

Photos and text by Jamal J. Elias

This is a picture of my home office where I’ve been working (with the encouragement of my three dogs) since quarantine began. My desk isn’t always this tidy, but I just started a new book project and did a major cleaning of my desk to signal a fresh start. I normally have a laptop in front of me, but I find that when I’m working primarily with texts in the Arabic script, I can write longhand much faster than I can type. The sources for my current project are mostly in Persian, Ottoman Turkish and Arabic, all three of which have different keyboard layouts, so it’s just easier to write things out.


A flamenco guitar made by a gifted luthier from Ithaca, NY. I love flamenco music and dance, and have played flamenco guitar for years and studied it in Granada and Jerez de la Frontera. I’m still terrible at it! When I’m working on something that requires a lot of thought, I find it very helpful to take a break and practice a difficult falseta (short melody) or some scales.


This is a kind of lute that is very popular in Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Tajikistan. I acquired this one while travelling in a remote part of northern Pakistan, close to the Chinese border. At this time when travel is not an easy option, it brings back fond memories of sitting among towering mountains under a glowing Milky Way, playing this rabab while close friends sang.


The flowered box was painted for me by an artist specializing in vehicle decoration while I was conducting research for a book on Pakistani truck decoration roughly two decades ago. I use it to store microfilm copies of manuscripts, which is what one had to use before the advent of scanned pdfs. They are easily damaged and require a film viewer that is becoming more and more difficult to find.


This is a photograph of my partner and Penn alumna, Mehrin (“Mir”) Masud-Elias, which I took when we were visiting a Muslim shrine in the Atlas Mountains while I was leading a Penn Alumni tour to Morocco. A former student of mine downloaded the picture from social media and had it printed and framed as a gift. I love it because of all the memories and feelings it invokes.


This shelf houses handwritten Islamic manuscripts and old lithographically printed books. I don’t collect them for their own sake but buy ones I find (and can afford) that are directly relevant to my work. The first one I acquired was while I was a Ph.D. student and was important for my dissertation, and the most recent one is connected to my current book project on the followers of the famous Persian poet, Rumi. Both of those manuscripts are quite rare; the recent one used to belong to one of the most important 20th-century Turkish scholars of Islam, and I cherish it doubly for that reason.

Here is a detail of a handwritten manuscript on metrics in Ottoman Turkish poetry. Entitled “Shahidi’s Gift,” it was written by one of Rumi’s disciples.

Not included in this photograph is the other side of the room, which is a total mess because it’s where my dogs have taken possession of every piece of furniture.


This is the oldest one, Belina, bouncing on the couch.


Here is a posed picture of the two younger ones, Sierra and Soleá. 
(Photo credit: Taryn O'Rourke of Bigg Mugg Photography)