While reading the book From one to zero. A universal history of numbers by the French historian Georges Ifrah I came across a retelling about an old joke about homosexuality but I cannot find any references to it elsewhere. This is from the English translation, page 58-59:

More obscenely, Ahmād al Barbīr al Tarābulusī could not resist offering his pupils the following mnemonic for the gestures representing 30 and 90: "A poet most elegantly said, of a handsome young man: Khālid set out with a fortune of 90 dirhams, but had only one third of it left when he returned!" plainly asserting that Khālid was homosexual (Fig. 3.32), having started "narrow" (90) but finished "wide" (30).

Hand signs for 90 (narrow) and 30 (wide)

(Any typos are mine - quote is typed in from the book)

I'm trying to figure out how credible this is, and who Ahmād al Barbīr al Tarābulusī really was. He is mentioned in a chapter that talks about number systems in the Islamic world roughly between 600-1200 CE, but only as "a writer on secular Arab and Persian texts".

Googling the name does not lead me anywhere and the book only contains a list of almost 900 bibliographic references starting on page 601 - I cannot find any that matches Ahmad, al-Barbir or al-Tarabulusi.

The book is something of a "popular science" book, so it's not as well referenced as a scientific text should be. It has received a lot of praise, but also some criticism, but the criticism mostly seems to be centered around the author ignoring a lot of sources, and not obvious falsifications.


  • Who was Ahmād al-Barbīr al-Tarābulusī?
  • Did he publish the joke (or "poem") mentioned in the book? When and where?
  • 1
    The gestures are some sort of numeric sign language? – Gort the Robot Apr 4 '19 at 21:49
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    I don't suppose this book footnoted that story in any way? – T.E.D. Apr 4 '19 at 23:48
  • @T.E.D. I'm afraid not. It contains a long list of sources used to write the whole book, but a lot of it is original research. I can not find any source for Ahmad, al-Barbir and/or al-Tarabulusi. I will update the question with the location of this text in the book, in case someone has the time or interest to see if I have overlooked something. – pipe Apr 5 '19 at 19:38
  • @StevenBurnap I think it was simply an extension of counting on ones fingers but quickly forgotten after we started to count by writing things down. It was also used in Europe with very similar signs. According to this book they were somewhat archaic even a thousand years ago when this "joke" was mentioned. – pipe Apr 5 '19 at 19:48
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    If you have access to a university library you can look up this article in the Encyclopaedia of Islam (second edition): referenceworks.brillonline.com/entries/encyclopaedia-of-islam-2/… – fdb Apr 8 '19 at 10:10

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