Oraib (797–890)

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Oraib (797–890)

Arabian singer of Arab classical music who was one of the most famous and wealthy of her era. Name variations: Oreib; Uraib; Arib. Born in Baghdad (presentday Iraq) in 797; died in July or August of 890; illegitimate daughter of Garaf ibn Yahya al-Barmaki also seen as Jafar ibn Yahya al-Barmaki (husband of Abassa ).

Although many in the West believe that all Arabian women were confined to the harem, this is not true. The legendary Oraib, and many like her, refused to be confined, even though for a time she was a slave. Oraib was the illegitimate daughter of Jafar al-Barmaki. The Barmak family was of Persian origin; many of its members held high administrative positions in the government and they were also known as patrons of the arts. When Oraib was six, her mother died and her father was executed; consequently she was sold into slavery. Eventually, she came into the hands of Abdallah ibn Ismail al-Marakibi, an overseer of Caliph Harun al-Rashid's horses, who took her to Basra (now Iraq) to be educated. Arabian songstresses were highly educated, and so Oraib learned calligraphy, grammar, poetry, singing, and playing the lute. Exceptionally beautiful and talented, she was also headstrong, but al-Marakibi refused to sell her when approached by al-Amin, then a crown prince. When al-Amin became caliph, he had al-Marakibi imprisoned, fined him 500,000 dinars, and took Oraib. She remained in his court until he was murdered in 812.

Though al-Marakibi forcefully reclaimed Oraib when the caliph was murdered, she escaped from him. The new caliph, al-Mamun (r. 813–833), considered the singer to be part of his inheritance and confined her to the royal harem. Despite this, she continued to meet with her lover, Mohammed bin Hamid, until al-Mamun had her thrown into the dungeon, whipped, and fed on bread and water. When she was unrepentant, he admired her stance and released her to marry her lover. Even so, the caliph loved her, gave her the surname al-Mamuniya, and asked her to accompany him on his expedition against Byzantium. When al-Mamun died, his brother inherited Oraib but freed her.

When al-Mutawakki succeeded to the throne in 847, Oraib had great influence over him, and the court of Samarra became her domain. By this time, she had established her own singing school and had become a very wealthy woman. There was a great rivalry between two schools of music during this period. Oraib was the foremost singer of classical music, a school of Arabian music led by Ibrahim al-Mausuli (d. 804) and his son Ishaq (d. 850) which dominated. However, the romantic school led by Ibrahim al-Mahdi was making inroads with the help of songstress Shariyya . The public was divided in its loyalty to both singers. Oraib and Shariyya often appeared in public together, with one half of the audience applauding its favorite, and the other half booing her. At age 70, said to know 21,000 melodies, Oraib continued to sing at the court of al-Mutazz, and on his orders music theoretician Yahya Ibn Ali made a collection of her songs. Oraib lived into her 90s, surviving ten caliphs. Her songs were performed for centuries after her death, and she is remembered as one of the Arab world's greatest singers.


Cohen, Aaron I. International Encyclopedia of Women Composers. 2 vols. NY: Books & Music (USA), 1987.

John Haag , Athens, Georgia