Eat Your Heart Out, Homer
By WILLIAM DALRYMPLE
January 6, 2008
THE ADVENTURES OF AMIR HAMZA
Lord of the Auspicious Planetary Conjunction.
By Ghalib Lakhnavi and Abdullah Bilgrami.
Translated by Musharraf Ali Farooqi.
948 pp. The Modern Library. $45.
In the summer of 2002, as Pentagon strategists were planning the invasion of Iraq, a short distance away, on the National Mall in Washington, the Smithsonian’s Arthur M. Sackler Gallery was showing one of the most interesting exhibitions of Islamic art seen in the United States for years. The show illustrated a story largely set in the Iraqi cities that would shortly become the targets of the Pentagon’s munitions.
On display was a single work of art: a painted manuscript of the “Hamzanama,” a spectacular illustrated book commissioned by the sympathetic and notably tolerant Mughal emperor Akbar (1542-1605). To the delight of art historians, the Sackler brought together the long-dispersed pages of what is probably the most ambitious single artistic undertaking ever produced by the atelier of an Islamic court: no fewer than 1,400 huge illustrations were commissioned. More than anything else, it was the project that created the Mughal painting style, and in the illustrations one can see two artistic worlds — that of Hindu India and of Persianate Islamic Central Asia — fusing to create something new and distinctively Mughal.
But the exhibition was of great literary importance, too. The “Hamzanama” was once the most popular oral epic of the Indo-Islamic world. “The Adventures of Amir Hamza” is the “Iliad” and Odyssey” of medieval Persia, a rollicking, magic-filled heroic saga. Born as early as the ninth century, it grew through oral transmission to include material gathered from the wider culture-compost of the pre-Islamic Middle East. So popular was the story that it soon spread across the Muslim world, absorbing folk tales as it went; before long it was translated into Arabic, Turkish, Georgian, Malay and even Indonesian languages.
It took particular hold in India, where it absorbed endless myths and legends and was regularly performed in public spaces in the great Mughal cities. At fairs and at festivals, on the steps of the Jama Masjid in Delhi or in the Qissa Khawani Bazaar, the “street of the storytellers” in Peshawar, the professional storyteller, or dastango, would perform nightlong recitations from memory; some of these could go on for seven or eight hours with only a short break. The Mughal elite also had a great tradition of commissioning private recitations. The greatest Urdu love poet, Ghalib, was celebrated for his dastan parties, at which the Hamza epic would be expertly told.
“The Adventures of Amir Hamza” collected a great miscellany of fireside yarns and shaggy-dog stories that over time had gathered around the travels of its protagonist, the historical uncle of the Prophet Muhammad. Any factual backbone the story might once have had was through the centuries overtaken by innumerable subplots and a cast of dragons, giants, jinns, simurgh, sorcerers, princesses and, if not flying carpets, then at least flying urns, the preferred mode of travel for the tale’s magicians.
Across the Persian-speaking world, from Tabriz to Hyderabad, people gathered around the dastango as he told story after story of the chivalrous Hamza and the beautiful Chinese-Persian princess he longs for, of the wise and prophetic vizier Buzurjmehr and of the just emperor Naushervan. Then there were Hamza’s enemies: the ungrateful villain Bakhtak, whose life Hamza spares, only for Bakhtak to work unceasingly for the hero’s demise; and the cruel necromancer, giant and archfiend Zumurrud Shah. In its fullest form, the tale grew to contain an astounding number of stories, which would take several weeks of all-night storytelling to complete; the fullest printed version, the last volume of which was finally published in 1917, filled no fewer than 46 volumes, averaging a thousand pages each.
Today, however, the Hamza epic is more or less extinct as a living oral tradition: while some children in Iran and Pakistan may still be familiar with episodes, the last of the great dastangos, Mir Baqar Ali, died in 1928, a few years before sound revolutionized the Indian film industry that itself had borrowed much of its style and many of its plots from the dastangos.
If the Sackler’s “Hamzanama” exhibition was the first time a Western audience had been exposed to the Hamza story, it also acted as a wake-up call to Urdu and Persian scholars. It quickly emerged that this epic, said to be the longest single romance cycle in the world, had been almost forgotten. Barely a handful of scholars had engaged with it, no modern scholarly edition was in print in any language, and no complete English translation had ever been made. Yet the story had had huge influence, not least on Indian drama and cinema, as well as on the development of the Urdu and Persian novels, early versions of which were often derived from the dastans.
Hence the importance of this remarkable translation, which has just been published by the Modern Library. It is the feat of the Pakistani-Canadian scholar Musharraf Ali Farooqi, who has worked from an Urdu edition published in 1855 by Ghalib Lakhnavi and later revised by Abdullah Bilgrami in 1871. Although a fraction of the size of the 46-volume edition, this unabridged translated version still weighs in at an impressively heavy 948 pages.
Even in translation, “The Adventures of Amir Hamza” is a wonder and a revelation — a classic of epic literature in an interpretation so fluent that it is a pleasure to sit down and lose oneself in it. The story line itself is endlessly diverting and inventive, and the prose of the translation is beautifully rendered.
Moreover, the book gives a unique insight into a lost Indo-Islamic courtly world. For although “The Adventures of Amir Hamza” was originally a Persian production set in the Middle East, the Urdu version shows how far the story was reimagined into an Indian context in the course of many years of subcontinental retelling. Though the original Mesopotamian place names survive, the world depicted is not that of early Islamic Iraq, but of 18th-century late Mughal India, with its love of gardens, its obsession with poetic wordplay and its extreme refinement in food, dress and manners. Many of the characters have Hindi names; they make oaths like “as Ram is my witness”; and they ride on elephants with jeweled howdahs. To read “The Adventures of Amir Hamza” is to come as close as is now possible to the world of the Mughal campfire — those night gatherings of soldiers, sufis, musicians and hangers-on that one sees illustrated in Mughal miniatures, a storyteller beginning his tale in a clearing of a forest as the embers of the blaze glow red and the eager faces crowd around.
For the modern American reader, “The Adventures of Amir Hamza” has importance beyond mere aesthetic enjoyment. The narrative opens in Ctesiphon, not far from Baghdad, and encompasses places now in modern Saudi Arabia, Pakistan and Afghanistan, most of which the West now sees largely as areas of violence and strife.
At this perilous moment in history, the Hamza epic, with its mixed Hindu and Muslim idiom, its tales of love and seduction, its anti-clericalism (mullahs are a running joke throughout the book), its stories of powerful and resourceful women, and its mocking of male misogyny, is a reminder of an Islamic world the West seems to have forgotten: one that is imaginative and heterodox — and as far as can be from the puritanical Wahhabi Islam that the Saudis have succeeded in spreading throughout much of the modern Middle East.
William Dalrymple’s latest book is “The Last Mughal: The Fall of a Dynasty, Delhi, 1857.”
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