STORIES, STORYTELLERS AND HEROS IN THE MUSLIM- ARAB WORLD

LITERATURE IN THE ARAB WORLD


Abu Shady, the last professional hakawati (traditional story teller) in Syria, at Al-Nawfara Coffee Shop in Damascus

By some reckonings, the world's oldest known book is a 1,600-year-old Coptic Psalter found in 1984 at Beni Suef, Egypt. Paul Halsall of Fordham University wrote: “ The spread of Islam after 622 CE meant the eventual dispersal of the Arabic language from Morocco to Mesopotamia - a vast region where it displaced numerous other languages. Arabic speakers have long noted their language's poetic power and the prime example is the Qu'ran. [Source: Internet Islamic History Sourcebook, sourcebooks.fordham.edu]

Arthur Goldschmidt, Jr. Wrote in “A Concise History of the Middle East”: Poetry was “an important means of artistic expression, instruction, and popular entertainment. There were poems that praised a tribe, a religion, or a potential patron; some that poked fun at the poet's rivals; others that evoked the power of God and the exaltation of a mystical experience; and still others that extolled love, wine, or sometimes both (you cannot always be sure which). Prose works were written to guide Muslims in the performance of worship, instruct princes in the art of governing, refute the claims of rival political and theological movements, or teach any of the 1001 aspects of living from cooking to lovemaking. Animal fables scored points against despotic rulers, ambitious courtiers, naive ulama, and greedy merchants. [Source: Arthur Goldschmidt, Jr., “A Concise History of the Middle East,” Chapter. 8: Islamic Civilization, 1979, Internet Islamic History Sourcebook, sourcebooks.fordham.edu /~\]

“You probably know the popular stories that we call he Arabian Nights, set in Harun al-Rashid's Baghdad, but actually composed by many ancient peoples, passed down by word of mouth to the Arabs, and probably set to paper only in the fourteenth century. You may not have heard of a literary figure equally beloved of the peoples of the Middle East. The Egyptians call him Goha, the Persians say he is named Mollah, and the Turks refer to him as Nasruddin Hoja. One brief story will have to suffice. A man once complained to Goha that there was no sunlight in his house. "Is there sunlight in your garden?" asked Goha. "Yes," the other replied. "Well," said Goha, "then put your house in your garden."” /~\

In spite of associations with Islamic puritanism, Arab literature often dealt wih sexual themes, including homosexuality, clever, philandering women and even bestiality. Amro Hassan and Jeffrey Fleishman wrote in the Los Angeles Times, “Arab writers and poets through the centuries have spiced their tales with explicit language and carnal desire. Even during the height of the Islamic Empire, when Sharia law dictated virtue across the Middle East, storytellers revealed a fondness for the unholy.” [Source: Amro Hassan and Jeffrey Fleishman, Los Angeles Times, July 11, 2010]

Websites and Resources: Islamic, Arabic and Persian Literature Islamic and Arabic Literature at Cornell University guides.library.cornell.edu/ArabicLiterature ; Internet Islamic History Sourcebook fordham.edu/halsall/islam/islamsbook ; Wikipedia article on Islamic Literature Wikipedia ; Wikipedia article on Arabic Literature Wikipedia ; Wikipedia article on Persian Literature Wikipedia ; Persian literature at Encyclopædia Britannica britannica.com ; Persian Literature & Poetry at parstimes.com /www.parstimes.com ; Arabic Poetry web.archive.org ; Arabic Poetry from Princeton princeton.edu/~arabic/poetry ; Thousand and One Nights wollamshram.ca/1001 ; 1001 Nights fairytalez.com ; Book of the Thousand Nights and a Night, Burton, gutenberg.org ; Islamic Stories islamicstories.com


1,600-year-old Coptic Psalter found in 1984 at Beni Suef, Egypt, the world's oldest known book

Arabs traditionally have not been big readers. Their literature and stories have traditionally been kept alive orally by storytellers. An Egyptian publisher told Reuters, “People say no one reads anymore, but no one read in the first place.” People prefer television and chatting. In 1835, Britain's Lord Macaulay scoffed that "a single shelf of European books [is] worth the whole literature of India and Arabia."

Illiteracy is relatively high in some places. Many of those who do read, read only religious texts. There are shortages of new books and translations of foreign works. Publishers mainly produce religious texts and educational publications. According to a United Nations report fewer books that have been translated in the Arab world since the 9th century than the number of books published in Spain in a single year.

The market for novels is very small. A bestseller is a book that sells more than 5,000 copies. Writers rarely sell many books. Their only hope of making any money is from films or soap operas made from their works. Writers are censored by the government and intimidated by Muslim extremists. According to the United Nations report there “is a lack of hospitality to anyone of free spirit, anyone who is a dissident, anyone who is different.”

The people of Cairo are regarded as big readers. Books stalls and sidewalk book hawkers are a fixture of city streets. The selection includes paperback novels, religious texts and anti-Zionist polemics. Many books are bootlegs from which the writers receive no copyright fees. Sometimes even newspapers print an entire novel on its broadsheet pages with little or no money ending up in the hands of its author.

Story Telling in the Arab-Muslim World

The Arab and Muslim world has a rich tradition of storytelling. Many cultures contained storyteller districts. Traditional storytellers are called “rawi” . They traditionally told stories are often about heroes like Antar. Storytellers are a dying breed but still occasionally perform at coffee houses in Damascus, Fez, Cairo, Bagdad and other places. These days the custom has large been supplanted by more modern forms of entertainment.


a storyteller reciting from "Arabian Nights" in 1911

Story-telling is usually done at night, because, according to an old Arab superstition whoever tells a story during the day will grow horns and see his gold turn into iron. Ramadan is often a time of storytelling. The epic stories often have rhymes so the storytellers, who were often illiterate, can remember the lines better.

Romance stories are believed to have originated in the Arab world. Popular heros included Antar (see Below), Iskandar (Alexander the Great),Baybars, from the the Mamluks who defeated the Mongols, and Banu Hilal, from the Arab tribe that migrated to the Maghreb. Although based on real life figures, the heros often have magical powers and fight demons, monsters and spirits.

Storytellers in Morocco

Even in the age of television, smartphones and the Internet, the art of storytelling remains alive in Morocco. In cafes and markets and at wedding parties, storytellers recall tales from “The Thousand and One Nights”, tell stories about Muhammad and Muslim saints and tell tribal histories and stories that have been handed down through the ages. The storytellers have a lot in common with troubadours from the Middle Ages. They often travel about from place to place and perform with a lute-like instrument. [Source: Philip Schuyler, Natural History, May 1996]

Describing a typical storyteller who works in Marrakesh, Philip Schuyler wrote in Natural History wrote: “Muhammad Bariz has been telling stories on Djemaa el Fna for the last five years, and for twenty-one before that—starting at age ten—he plied his trade from market to market across northern Morocco...The rhythm and repetitions of the text have a stronger effect on the ear than on the eye. Then, too, the flexibility of performance allows the teller to embellish—or eliminate—certain details as befits the audience. Bariz has stories for every occasion, he says, stories that last an hour, stories that last three days, stories that last a year.”

“Today he tells of a righteous and honorable man, Ali Shar, whose ill-bred neighbors seek to corrupt his honor. After several failed attempts, they succeed in getting him first drunk and then addicted to drink. This is only the initial episode in a long tale of love, loss, and the reversal of fortune, but all too quickly its is time to leave. One by one, young men peel off the circle and go on to other business, but before they go, most step forward to hand Bariz a few centimes or a dirham...We will have to come back tomorrow to hear the next installment.”

Hodja Nasreddin


Nasreddin

Hodja Nasreddin is a sort of Muslim cross between Aesop and Mark Twain and the source of countless stories and fables with moralist messages. Almost every child in Central Asia and the Middle East learns Hodja stories the same way that children in the West learn fairy tales ascribed to the Grimm brothers and Hans Christian Anderson.

Hodja Nasreddin was a 13th century sage, humorist, storyteller, mullah and a Sufi (Hodja is a title of respect given to someone who has completed the hajj to Mecca and is often used to describe revered teachers and judges). He was famous for his wisdom and the use of humor to draw the attention of listeners to his lectures.

The Hodja stories are humorous and have a moral message. The Hodja is a lovable character, who is never critical or negative, and has a penchant for practical jokes and getting into scrapes. In Turkey Hodja is known as Nasrettin Hoca. Every child learns about him in school and knows several stories about him. Often pictured with a tall turban sitting backwards on a donkey, he was born in Sivrihisar, Turkey in 1208 and died in Aksehir, a small town in Konya Province in central Turkey in 1284. Some say he was born in the city of Khoy in West Azerbaijan Province of Iran.

Hodja Stories

One Hodja story goes: The village boys like to play practical jokes on Nasreddin because he was such a good sport about it. One day they accompanied Nasreddin to a hammam (public bath) with eggs concealed under their clothes. After they arrived and had settled in, the boys said, “Let’s play a game. Anyone who can not lay an egg has to pay the bill for everyone. The boys then promptly set down their eggs in a roar of laughter. Without missing a beat, Nasreddin responded by crowing and flapping his arms like wings. “For all these hens there must be a rooster, “ he said, “And as the rooster, of course, In need not pay the bill.”


Molla Nareddin

Another Hodja story goes: one day a villager borrowed a pot from the Hodja. When the Hodja returned it, the pot had a smaller pot inside. When the villager asked why, the Hodja told him the original pot had been pregnant and it gave birth to the smaller pot. The villager was perplexed but happy with his good fortune. A few weeks later the Hodja asked the villager if he could borrow a large pot. The villager agreed, expecting a similar result as the previous time. [Source: Lonely Planet]

A few weeks passed and the villager didn’t get his large pot back. When he asked why the Hodja told him that the pot died. The man said that was ridiculous, pot’s don’t die. “Ah,” the Hodja told him, “but you were quite happy to learn that a pot could become pregnant and give birth, so it’s only fitting that you accept the consequences of the large pot’s mortality.”

Hamza and the Hamzanama

Hamza is an epic hero who had also adventures likes those of King Arthur and the Round Table. In real life he was an uncle of Muhammad. He battles dragons and pagan enemies. The “Hamzanama” a spectacular illustrated book commissioned by the Mughal emperor Akbar (1542-1605). It has over 1,400 huge illustrations, many of which were displayed in an exhibition at the Sackler Gallery in Washington D.C. in 2002. William Dalrymple wrote in the New York Times: “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.” The story is largely set in the Iraqi cities that were the site of fierce fighting after the American invasion of Iraq in 2002. [Source: William Dalrymple, New York Times, January 6, 2008. Dalrymple’s latest book is “The Last Mughal: The Fall of a Dynasty, Delhi, 1857.” *-*]

The “Hamzanama” is “said to be the longest single romance cycle in the world, 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... 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.” *-*


Kathakar storyteller in India

“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.

Book: “The Adventures of Amir Hamza: Lord of the Auspicious Planetary Conjunction” by Ghalib Lakhnavi and Abdullah Bilgrami, translated by Musharraf Ali Farooqi (The Modern Library, 2008).

Hamzanama Storytellers

William Dalrymple wrote in the New York Times:The “Hamzanama” “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. [Source: William Dalrymple, New York Times, January 6, 2008 *-*]


The Spy Zanbur Bringing Mahiyya to the City of Tawariq, Folio from a Hamzanama ca. 1570

“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.” *-*

One blogger wrote: “I was first introduced” to the “Hamzamama” “via an Urdu version of these adventures written/translated for young adults by Maqbool Jahangir. It has 10 parts (~200 pages each) and it is written in a style that once you start reading it, its hard to put it down. Yes, it includes giants, jinns, fairies, sea voyages, romances, and battles - all linked to Amir Hamza and two of his trusted friends. In fact, I got into the habit of reading books through this series and my siblings (and now their kids) had the same experience. I absolutely loved this epic and I still have these books with me. [Source: irtiqa-blog.com, January 8, 2008]

Stories in the Hamzanama

Amir Hamza battles dragons and pagan enemies. William Dalrymple wrote in the New York Times: ““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. [Source: William Dalrymple, New York Times, January 6, 2008 *-*]

“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. *-*


Hamza heroes fight

“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... 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. *-*

“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.” *-*

Modern English Translation of the Hamzanama

In a review of a modern translation of the “Hamzanama,” William Dalrymple wrote in the New York Times: “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 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. [Source: William Dalrymple, New York Times, January 6, 2008 *-*]

“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. *-*

Antar


Antar

Antar ibn Shaddad was a courageous hero, poet, and adventurer who lived in the 6th century. The illegitimate son of a desert sheik and an African slave, he won his freedom with his courage. He had a black beard and mustache and rode around on a black steed. It is not clear whether he was a fictional character or a real person.

The oral tale of Antar did not find its way into print and book form until the 18th century under Ottoman rule. By that time the story ran for more than 3000 pages. Reading it outloud takes several months. In the 9th century a number of poems and stories about him were collected and written down by a writer identified as al-Asmal. The collection is available in English as the “Story of Antar” . The stories are a fixture of Arab television and film.

The heroic stories of Antar are similar to those of King Arthur and his court. It has been theorized that Antar stories brought back to Europe by the Crusaders launched the age of chivalry in medieval Europe.

Antar’s true love Alba is the paragon of virtue and beauty. The two want to get married but can’t because Antar is the bastard son of a slave. In an attempt to win her hand Antar repeatedly performs acts of great bravery, strength and kindness to win over Alba’s family but is repeatedly rebuffed.

Antar Stories

There are hundred of stories and episodes of Antar’s adventures. One compilation fills 32 volumes. Antar stuck of up for his tribe, defended the oppressed, showed no remorse for to enemies, and admitted his powerlessness to women. "The eyelashes of the songstress from the corner of the veil are more cutting than the edges of the cleaving scimitars," he said.

One story catches Antar as he prepare for a long journey over hundreds of miles of desert through territory controlled by hostile tribes. Only there can he find 1,000 camels that Alba’s father cruelly demands he bring back. Of course he has to overcome a number of obstacles but ultimately brings the camels back only to be sent off on another wild goose chase.

Describing a modern storyteller reading a Antar story, Thomas Ambercrombie wrote om National Geographic: "To prove his love for the fair damsel Abla, Anatar would fight the lion...But to prevent Antar from escaping, his feet were bound by the villain, Munzar...The lion sprang, looming large as a camel, but Antar cut him in midair with his sword and cleaved him two. After this Antar faces off alone against an army of 40,000 to win the hand on his true love. While the storytellers tells the story the crowd hold their breath, shouts and praises Allah.”

Antar Poem

Have the poets left in the garment a place for a patch to be patched by me;
and did you know the abode of your beloved after reflection?
The vestige of the house, which did not speak, confounded thee,
until it spoke by means of signs, like one deaf and dumb.
Verily, I kept my she-camel there long grumbling,
with a yearning at the blackened stones,
keeping and standing firm in their own places.
It is the abode of a friend, languishing in her glance,
submissive in the embrace, pleasant of smile.


Antar on a horse

Oh house of 'Ablah situated at Jiwaa,
talk with me about those who resided in you.
Good morning to you, O house of 'Ablah,
and be safe from ruin.
I halted my she-camel in that place;
and it was as though she were a high palace;
in order that I might perform the wont of the lingerer.
And 'Ablah takes up her abode at Jiwaa;
while our people went to Eazan, then to Mutathallam.
She took up her abode in the land of my enemies;
so it became difficult for me to seek you, O daughter of Mahzam.

I was enamored of her unawares,
at a time when I was killing her people,
desiring her in marriage; but by your father's
life I swear, this was not the time for desiring.
And verily you have occupied in my heart the place of the honored loved one,
so do not think otherwise than this, that you are my beloved.
And how may be the visiting of her,
while her people have taken up their residence
in the spring at 'Unaizatain and our people at Ghailam?

I knew that you had intended departing,
for, verily, your camels were bridled on a dark night.
Nothing caused me fear of her departure,
except that the baggage camels of her people
were eating the seeds of the Khimkhim tree throughout the country.
Amongst them were two and forty milk-giving camels,
black as the wing-feathers of black crows.

When she captivates you with a mouth possessing sharp and white teeth,
sweet as to its place of kissing, delicious of taste.
As if she sees with the two eyes of a young, grown up gazelle from the deer.
It was as though the musk bag of a merchant in his case of perfumes
preceded her teeth toward you from her mouth.
Or as if it is an old wine-skin, from Azri'at, preserved long,
such as the kings of Rome preserve;

Or her mouth is as an ungrazed meadow,
whose herbage the rain has guaranteed,
in which there is but little dung;
and which is not marked with the feet of animals.
The first pure showers of every rain-cloud rained upon it,
and left every puddle in it bright and round like a dirham;
Sprinkling and pouring; so that the water flows upon it
every evening, and is not cut off from it.


Antar and Abla

The fly enjoyed yet alone, and so it did not cease humming,
as is the act of the singing drunkard;
Humming, while he rubs one foreleg against the other, as
the striking on the flint of one, bent on the flint,
and cut off as to his palm.
She passes her evenings and her mornings on the surface
of a well-stuffed couch, while I pass my nights on the back of
a bridled black horse.

And my couch is a saddle upon a horse big-boned in the leg,
big in his flanks, great of girth.
Would a Shadanian she-camel cause me to arrive at her
abode, who is cursed with an udder scanty of milk and cut off?
After traveling all night, she is lashing her sides with her tail, and is strutting proudly,
and she breaks up the mounds of earth she passes over with her foot with its sole, treading hard.
As if I in the evening am breaking the mounds of earth by means of an ostrich,
very small as to the distance between its two feet, and earless.
The young ostriches flock toward him, as the herds of Yemenian camels
flock to a barbarous, unintelligible speaker.

They follow the crest of his head,
as though it was a howdah on a large litter, tented for them.
He is small headed, who returns constantly to look after his
eggs at Zil-'Ushairah; he is like a slave, with a long fur cloak and without ears.
She drank of the water of Duhruzain and then turned away,
being disgusted, from the pools of stagnant water.
And she swerves away with her right side from the fear of
one, whistling in the evening, a big, ugly-headed one;

From the fear of a cat, led at her side, every time she
turned toward him in anger, he met her with both claws and mouth.
She knelt down at the edge of the pool of Rada', and groaned
as though she had knelt on a reed, broken, and emitting a cracking noise.
And the sweat on the back was as though it were oil or thick pitch,
with which fire is lighted round the sides of a retort.
Her places of flexure were wetted with it and she lavishly poured of it,
on a spreading forelock, short and well-bred.


Hakawati (storyteller) in a Marrakesh square

The length of the journey left her a strong, well-built body, like a high palace,
built with cement, and rising high; and feet like the supports of a firmly pitched tent.
And surely I recollected you, even when the lances were drinking my blood,
and bright swords of Indian make were dripping with my blood.
I wished to kiss the swords, for verily they shone as bright
as the flash of the foretooth of your smiling mouth.
If you lower your veil over yourself in front of me, of what use will it be?
for, verily, I am expert in capturing the mailed horseman.

Praise me for the qualities which you know I possess, for,
verily, when I am not ill-treated, I am gentle to associate with.
And if I am ill-treated, then, verily, my tyranny is severe,
very bitter is the taste of it, as the taste of the colocynth.
And, verily, I have drunk wine after the midday heats have subsided,
buying it with the bright-stamped coin.
From a glass, yellow with the lines of the glass-cutter on it,
which was accompanied by a white-stoppered bottle on the lefthand side.

And when I have drunk, verily, I am the squanderer of my property,
and my honor is great, and is not sullied.
And when I have become sober, I do not diminish in my generosity,
and, as you know, so are my qualities and my liberality.
And many a husband of a beautiful woman, I have left prostrate on the ground,
with his shoulders hissing like the side of the mouth of one with a split lip.
My two hands preceeded him with a hasty blow, striking him before he could strike me;
and with the drops of blood from a penetrating stroke, red like the color of Brazil wood.
Why did you not ask the horsemen, O daughter Malik!
If you were ignorant, concerning what you did not know about my condition,

At a time when I never ceased to be in the saddle of a long striding,
wounded, sturdy horse, against whom the warriors came in succession.
At one time he is detached to charge the enemy with the lance,
and at another he joins the large host with their bows tightly strung.
He who was present in the battle will inform you that verily I rush into battle,
but I abstain at the time of taking the booty.
I see spoils, which, if I want I would win;
but my bashfulness and my magnanimity hold me back from them.
And many a fully-armed one, whom the warriors shunned fighting with,
neither a hastener in flight, nor a surrenderer;


Indonesian storyteller on the island of Maluka

My hands were generous to him by a quick point with a straightened spear strong in the joints;
Inflicting a wound wide of its two sides, the sound of the flow of blood from it leads
at night the prowling wolves, burning with hunger.
I rent his vesture with a rigid spear,
for the noble one is not forbidden to the spears.
Then I left him a prey for the wild beasts, who seize him,
and gnaw the beauty of his fingers and wrist.
And many a long, closely-woven coat of mail,
I have split open the links of it with a sword,
off one defending his rights,and renowned for bravery.

Whose hands are ready, with gambling arrows when it is winter,
a tearer-down of the signs of the wine-sellers, and one reproached for his extravagance.
When he saw that I had descended from my horse, and was intending killing him,
he showed his teeth, but without smiling.
My meeting with him was when the day spread out,
and he was as if his fingers and his head were dyed with indigo.
I pierced him with my spear, and then I set upon him with my Indian sword
pure of steel, and keen.
A warrior, so stately in size as if his clothes were on a high tree:
soft leather shoes are worn by him and he is not twinned.

Oh, how wonderful is the beauty of the doe of the hunt,
to whom is she lawful? To me she is unlawful;
would to God that she was not unlawful.
So, I sent my female slave, and said to her,
"Go, find out news of her and inform me."
She said, "I saw carelessness on the part of the enemies,
and that the doe is possible to him who is shooting."
And it was as though she looked toward me with the neck of
a doe, a fawn of the gazelles, pure and with a white upper lip.

I am informed that 'Amru is unthankful for my kindness
while ingratitude is a cause of evil to the soul of the giver.
And, verily, I remember the advice of my uncle, in the battle,
when the two lips quiver from off the white teeth of the mouth,
In the thick of the battle, of which the warriors do not complain of the rigors,
except with an unintelligible noise.
When my people) defended themselves with me against the spears of the enemy,
I did not refrain from the spears through cowardice,
but the place of my advance had become too strait.

When I heard the cry of Murrah rise, and saw the two sons of Rabi'ah in the thick dust,
While the tribe of Muhallam were struggling under their banners,
and death was under the banners of the tribe of Mulhallam,
I made sure that at the time of their encounter there would be a blow,
which would make the heads fly from the bodies,
as the bird flies from off her young ones sitting close.
When I saw the people, while their mass advanced, excite one another to fight,
I turned against them without being reproached for any want of bravery.
They were calling 'Antarah, while the spears were as though
they were well-ropes in the breast of Adham.


Kurdish Dengbesh storytellers


They were calling 'Antarah, while the swords were as
though they were the flash of lightnings in a dark cloud.
They were calling 'Antarah, while the arrows were flying,
as though they were a flight of locusts, hovering above watering places.
They were calling "O 'Antarah," while the coats of mail shone with close rings,
shining as though they were the eyeballs of frogs floating in a wavy pond.
I did not cease charging the enemy, with the prominent part of his throat and breast,
until he became covered with a shirt of blood.

Then he turned on account of the falling of the spears on
his breast, and complained to me with tears and whinnyings.
If he had known what conversation was, he would have complained with words,
and verily he would have, had he known speech, talked with me.
And verily the speech of the horsemen,
"Woe to you, 'Antarah, advance, and attack the enemy,"
cured my soul and removed its sickness.
While the horses sternly frowning were charging over the soft soil,
being partly the long-bodied mares, and partly the long-bodied, well-bred horses.

My riding-camels are tractable, they go wherever I wish;
while my intellect is my helper, and I drive it forward with a firm order.
Verily, it lay beyond my power that I should visit you; so,
know what you have known, and some of what you have not known.
The lances of the tribe of Bagheez intercepted you and the perpetrators of the war
set aside those who did not perpetrate it.
And, verily, I turned the horse for the attack, while his neck
was bleeding, until the horses began to shun me.

And verily I feared that I should die, while there has not
yet been a turn for war against the two sons of Zamzam;
The two revilers of my honor, while I did not revile them,
and the threateners of my blood, when I did not see them.
There is no wonder should they do so, for I left their father
a prey for the wild beasts and every large old vulture.

Epic of Gilgamesh

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons

Text Sources: Internet Islamic History Sourcebook: sourcebooks.fordham.edu “World Religions” edited by Geoffrey Parrinder (Facts on File Publications, New York); “ Arab News, Jeddah; Islam, a Short History by Karen Armstrong; A History of the Arab Peoples by Albert Hourani (Faber and Faber, 1991); Encyclopedia of the World Cultures edited by David Levinson (G.K. Hall & Company, New York, 1994). Encyclopedia of the World’s Religions” edited by R.C. Zaehner (Barnes & Noble Books, 1959); Metropolitan Museum of Art, National Geographic, BBC, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Smithsonian magazine, The Guardian, BBC, Al Jazeera, Times of London, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, Associated Press, AFP, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

Last updated September 2018

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