In Amir Hamza’s cortege marched the Father of Racers, the Lord of Mischief-Mongers of the World, the Clipper of Infidels’ Whiskers, the King of Dagger-Throwing Tricksters, Khvaja Amar Ayyar, sporting his headdress of brocaded silk, brocade singlet, broadcloth tasseled shoes, and trickster’s sling, and bedecked with many such contrivances. He was accompanied by his pupils and continuously sang in six high-key notes, twelve musical styles, and twenty-four melodies in twenty-eight manners of improvisation.I’m halfway through Musharraf Ali Farooqi’s excellent The Adventures of Amir Hamza, the first complete English translation of the great Islamic epic Dastan-e Amir Hamza. The story, which evolved over hundreds of years through a rich oral tradition, is about the many conquests of the adventurer-hero Hamza, an uncle of the prophet Muhammed. One of Hamza’s companions is the mercenary rogue Amar Ayyar (ayyar being the word for trickster or spy), the most colourful character in a book populated with them. Many of the funniest passages in the epic are the ones about his incessant mischief-making. When he is born, the wise vizier Buzurjmehr studies his face and pronounces:
“This boy will be the prince of all tricksters, unsurpassed in cunning, guile, and deceit. Great and mighty kings and champions will tremble at his mention and soil their pants in fright upon hearing his name. He will be excessively greedy, most insidious and a consummate perjurer...yet he shall prove a trustworthy confidant to Hamza, remaining staunch and steadfast in his fellowship!”
(Shortly after this little speech is made, the infant Amar commences his long career in crime by sucking the ring off Buzurjmehr’s finger.)
During this conversation I had with filmmaker-writer Saeed Mirza last month, he spoke about the spirit of iconoclasm and irreverence in medieval Islamic literature, which is something that doesn’t get much press nowadays; and about characters like Mulla Nasruddin, “the classic Fool, who poked fun at royalty, protocol, mindless ritual and orthodoxy”. Amar Ayyar seems to belong to this tradition too. He appears largely exempt from the conventional dictates of morality: he schemes, deceives and robs his way through life, mostly with an eye on gathering as many purses of gold as possible; he plays several pranks on an unfortunate mulla, including lacing his food with a strong laxative; and he even speaks cheekily to Allah’s prophet Khizr, who has made a divine visitation. His pranks are sometimes excessive and you can’t help cringing at the fate of some of his victims. And yet no one seriously takes him to task. Hamza, the epic’s protagonist and general object of adoration, is Amar’s friend for life and fondly indulgent of everything he does, and Amar’s status as a heroic figure is never in doubt - in fact he’s often the prime mover in the story, using his bag of tricks to rescue his friends from seemingly hopeless situations. At times, Hamza himself seems almost passive in comparison!
Characters like Amar, and the general bawdiness that runs through the epic, give the Dastan-e Amir Hamza a subversive quality. Which is why I’m curious about the conservative, seemingly strident tone of some of the passages, especially the ones where Hamza and his friends subjugate various people and make them convert to the “True Faith”. Even if you look at the epic as an exciting Arabian Nights-style fantasy, some of these passages can be disturbing. (After Hamza conquers Landhoor bin Saadan Shah, the Khusrau of India, we are told that “Landhoor then ennobled himself by converting to the True Faith, renouncing idol worship”.)
Not sure how this sort of thing coexists with the more iconoclastic side of the book, but I’m hoping for a few inputs from Musharraf Ali Farooqi, with whom I’ll be having an email discussion soon. Watch this space for more on The Adventures of Amir Hamza.
(Also see this blog about the dastangoi tradition of storytelling, which has helped keep many of these tales alive for modern audiences. And this online exhibition of some of the works in the Hamzanama, a series of 1,400 paintings commissioned by Emperor Akbar to illustrate Hamza's adventures.)