Thursday, February 28, 2008

Final notes on the Amir Hamza epic, and a conversation with the translator

[Warning: very long post. But no more on the Hamza epic after this]

I don’t think much of phrases like “important/essential book” or “one of the year’s most significant publishing events” (pompous, best reserved for jacket descriptions written by the marketing divisions of publishing houses), but more than once I’ve been tempted to use them for The Adventures of Amir Hamza, Musharraf Ali Farooqi’s outstanding 950-page rendition of the epic Dastan-e Amir Hamza (an earlier post here). As the first complete English translation of a medieval classic that has been in danger of neglect, this is a landmark work in its very conception – invaluable to students of Islamic heritage and Arabic literature – but the excellence of its execution makes it a fantasy-adventure that can be relished by readers from all backgrounds.

The Hamza tales, which evolved over hundreds of years through a tradition of oral narratives, are about the exploits of the eponymous hero, who was based on a real-life figure. The story proper begins with the wise Buzurjmehr, a vizier to the Persian emperor Naushervan, discovering that the latter’s life and throne will be protected by a young man hailing from the city of Mecca. Using his clairvoyant powers, Buzurjmehr (who is a Vidura/Merlin/Gandalf figure in this book) determines the identity of this infant and has him raised under his supervision. On growing up, Hamza achieves everything that he has been prophesised to do, and a lot more besides; but when he falls in love with Naushervan’s daughter Mehr-Nigar, things begin to get complicated. Further, much to the frustration of Hamza’s friends and his beloved, there is a long, enforced separation when he must travel alone to the magical land of Qaf to help defeat a rebellious band of demons. In the meantime, his companions (led by the irrepressible Amar Ayyar, prince of tricksters and the epic’s most colourful character), stay behind on earth and pit their arms (and wits) against numerous enemy forces.

But these are just the bare bones of the plot, and they don't convey the sweeping vibrancy of this epic, its Arabian Nights-style richness of characters and incidents, and the bawdy humour that runs through it. Nor do they suggest the consistently high quality of the prose in Farooqi’s translation. In a disarming Preface, he describes escaping into the world of the Dastan-e Amir Hamza as a child, his reacquaintance with it years later, and the peculiar dream that led to his taking up the intimidating task of translation. His passion for the work, and his personal stake in it, are on view throughout.

Farooqi never compromises on the dastaan flavour, which is so crucial to the effect of a story that has come down over many generations. Each chapter has a florid opening that supplies a metaphor for the story-telling process (“The fingers of ancient scribes straddle the provident dark reed, galloping their mount in the sphere of rhetoric...the dove of the stylus trills its notes inside the vestibule of the page”). A shift in the narrative is typically marked by a sentence like “Now let me tell you of Amar Ayyar...” or “Hear a few words about Bahram Gurd...” and you can almost hear the storyteller at a Mughal-era campfire saying the equivalent lines in Urdu. When a Prophet or some other venerated figure is mentioned, there is a phrase of exaltation in parentheses (“peace be upon him!”), and numerous other stylistic devices simulate the oral storytelling tradition. And yet, despite all these devices, The Adventures of Amir Hamza is consistently engaging for a modern reader – it’s exciting, funny, heroic, irreverent and moving in turn – though reading it with little prior knowledge of context is a bit like being introduced to the Mahabharata through a full-blown translation rather than a gentler medium like an Amar Chitra Katha comic or a granny’s tale.

Scattered notes

– There are passages where the principal characters demonstrate their essential natures over and over again, or participate in encounters that read like repeats of earlier incidents (this is especially true of the first two-thirds). Book Two, for instance, features the running motif of Amar using some trick or the other to foil the enemy’s plans; when provisions dry up, he looks around for a new fort to which his army can move, uses his ayyar disguise to secure this fort, and then resumes the defence against Naushervan’s troops. This carries on for some time, creating a minor sense of déjà vu, though there is enough new in each episode to maintain one’s interest.

– There is similar repetition (and no great subtlety) in the many passages where Hamza, facing a mighty foe in single combat, invites him to deal the first blow and then, after dodging it, slashes the enemy in two (“like a raw cucumber, with not a single fibre connecting the two parts”) with his sword – thus “freeing the avis of his soul from its corporeal prison” and sending him to Hell. (Note: anyone who dies fighting Hamza or his men necessarily goes to Hell.)

– At one point a frustrated Bakhtiarak, one of Hamza’s many enemies, says, “Verily Amar spoke the truth when he claimed that the chosen of God can neither be killed nor imprisoned. Each time heavenly succour comes to their aid, the Creator of this Universe sends them relief, and none may torment them.” It’s easy to understand his frustration. Only rarely (at least until the final few chapters) does one get the sense that Hamza or Amar Ayyar are in genuine danger. On the occasions that they don’t succeed in using their own prowess to get out of trouble, they receive divine help: Prophets appear to forewarn them, or to bestow magic stone tablets that will advise them what to do at every step during a particularly hazardous mission; when Hamza’s sword uncharacteristically fails to cut through a monster’s hide, the Prophet Khizr materializes and blithely kills the creature himself; and several times, Ayyar is saved by the deus ex machina of a Naqabdar (“Veiled One”) who appears out of nowhere. Really, when you add this wealth of celestial aid to the fact that Hamza is already the greatest warrior of the age (and Ayyar the greatest trickster of the age, capable of fooling people by assuming any shape or appearance), you find that the dice is heavily loaded against the bad guys (or the infidels as they are more properly known). No fair fight, this.

But Bakhtiarak’s speech is also interesting because it highlights the lack of complexity in the negative characters. The impression one gets is that the villains (that is, Hamza’s antagonists) know that they are the bad guys and that God Almighty is firmly on the other chap’s side; but they continue trying to defeat him because, well, that’s what they are around for. This is a reminder that the Dastan-e Amir Hamza is a snowballing oral myth passed down through the generations by people who are convinced of the supreme rightness of Hamza’s cause and the unquestioned villainy of anyone who opposes him. Naturally, this means that there is little scope for nuance in the portrayals of Hamza’s adversaries (except, of course, the ones who realise their folly in time, convert to the True Faith and join his camp). After all, even the conversations between the villains have been made up by Hamza groupies, so to speak.

– As I’ve mentioned before, the epic is extremely ribald in places, and doesn’t shy away from cheerful references to human excrement and bodily functions in general.

– William Dalrymple has a review of The Adventures of Amir Hamza here. While I agree that the epic is “a reminder of an Islamic world the West seems to have forgotten, one that is imaginative and heterodox”, I’m not so sure about it “mocking male misogyny”. In my view the tone is sometimes misogynist in a more straightforward way. There’s a disturbing scene where Aadi, one of Hamza’s companions, a gluttonous and lustful general, rapes a 12-year-old virgin from the enemy camp, inadvertently killing her in the process. Though Hamza initially rages about the crime and threatens to have Aadi put to death, he forgets about the whole matter surprisingly fast when told, “Just imagine that in the same way Your Honour took a fortress by storm, he too forced open a citadel of virtue!” (Aadi, though never a likable character and often an object of ridicule, continues to be described as a “dear companion of Hamza” till the very end.) I suppose it’s possible for a modern mind to imagine that the episode is some sort of commentary on the evils of conflict, or military conquest-as-rape, but this would be another case of imposing the moralities of our own “enlightened age” on a work that was very much the product of its own time. I don’t think this passage holds up to being interpreted as ironical or tongue-in-cheek.

However, a few other passages do. One character I found interesting in this context is Aasman Peri, whom Hamza marries after he travels to Qaf. When she asks him how she compares in beauty with Mehr Nigar, his beloved on earth, he unthinkingly replies, “You cannot even hold a candle to the charm of Mehr Nigar’s maids”. Whereupon she gets angry and yells that he shouldn’t think too highly of himself just because he’s the Lord of the Auspicious Planetary Conjunction, the progeny of Prophet Ibrahim and what have you, and they start battling each other with daggers right there in the bedroom, in a scene that makes Hrithik and Aishwarya’s sword-fight in Jodha Akbar look like the nuzzling of a pair of lovebirds.

Eventually Aasman Peri’s father appears and berates her for fighting her husband thus, but she doesn’t give in: she repeatedly uses her powers and influence to delay Hamza’s return to earth, eventually stretching his stay in Qaf to 18 years, and causing him much anguish. She’s certainly an example in this book of a powerful, strong-willed woman, and despite her constant hindering of Hamza’s mission, she isn’t an unsympathetic figure; the eventual meeting between her and Mehr-Nigar is a gentle, affecting one. (Incidentally, the Hamza-Aasman Peri story also reminded me of Arjuna’s trysts with the lovelorn princesses Chitrangada and Ulupi during his yearlong exile in the Mahabharata.) Hamza’s mourning for Mehr-Nigar late in the book is equally affecting, and as the story draws to a close it gets progressively darker, the jingoistic heroism of the earlier chapters being replaced by a slightly more measured, even melancholic tone.

A conversation with Musharraf Ali Farooqi

Farooqi is based in Canada and is currently working on a novel and a picture book, as well as on The Urdu Project, an online resource for the study of the Urdu language and literature.

In India, epics like the Mahabharata are not just available in a huge variety of translations but there are also several modern revisionist tellings. Why have Islamic epics like the Dastan-e Amir Hamza not been similarly preserved?

There is no excuse for us not to have worked on this very important classic. Forget about translations, even a proper, annotated Urdu version of the Dastan-e Amir Hamza is not available. Recently, Indian scholar, author and critic Shamsur Rahman Faruqi published three volumes of his monumental study of this dastan, which I acknowledge in my book. He addresses both the single-volume version, the one that I have translated, and the larger, 46-volume version which was published by the Naval Kishore Press between 1883-1917. It is the first time in the history of this dastan that a proper, informed, and methodical study has been made of its various facets. We cannot be thankful enough to him for this work. Until recently, Gian Chand Jain's Urdu Ki Nasri Dastanen was the only book of substance that documented many of these dastans and their writers and story-tellers.

As far as India is concerned, there's also a political dimension to this neglect. Along with the geographical divide of 1947, a communal divide of the joint Indo-Muslim cultural heritage also came about. A mindset was allowed to develop which slowly distanced young Indians from those aspects of their culture that reinforced an integrated Indo-Muslim identity. But it would be reckless to assume that this policy alone was responsible for killing these dastans. What have all the Pakistani state-funded learned bodies done to preserve this literature in the 60 years they have been in existence? In the end it boils down to one thing: whether we are comfortable with and proud of our cultural identity. Our intellectual inquiries are informed by it. Without knowing – or making an effort to know – who we are, there will be no intellectual and scholarly effort to reclaim our joint heritage.

But if such an effort is made, we would find that the "sanitised" versions of our cultural identity thrust upon the people of the Indian subcontinent, first by their colonial rulers and then by their own governments, do not hold up to close scrutiny. That would be the first step in any renaissance of our literary classics.

Are there other similar Islamic epics that are waiting to be rediscovered or translated?

I prefer to use the term "Indo-Islamic epics." There are scores of these dastans that have never been translated. Gian Chand Jain's book has a detailed list of this literature and its history in the Indian subcontinent. I am currently working on the translation of the magical fantasy Tilism-e Hoshruba, which was recently made into a TV serial by the Sagar Arts in India. Bostan-e Khayal is another book that is equally important. Both these were the favourites of Mirza Ghalib, too.

I'm curious about the orthodox, strident tone of the passages where Hamza and his friends subjugate various people and make them convert to the "True Faith". This seems at odds with the large doses of iconoclasm that runs though the book. How would you explain these seemingly contradictory aspects?

Every adventurer and conqueror out to win renown has the same concerns and preoccupations as Amir Hamza. His goal is to subdue enemies and triumph against the threats and challenges that face him. It is true that Hamza and his companions do wholesale conversions, but what is also very obvious is that Hamza is doing this in the service of Naushervan, the Persian emperor who is himself a fire-worshipper and an infidel, and who does not convert.

When we look at Hamza's complete situation, we see that these conversions are clearly a medieval warrior's attempts to win allegiance. Once an adversary converts, the threat is neutralised, Hamza can leave him behind and move on to meet his next challenge knowing that his back will be secure. Looked at in this way, there is no real discrepancy between these passages and, say, the unholy pranks played by Amar Ayyar.

The tone is very bawdy in places – is that partly because of the way these stories have been passed down through the generations, through the oral-narrative tradition?

I believe the Hindu epics also had an oral component, but as far as The Adventures of Amir Hamza is concerned, some of its tone could well be a function of the oral storytelling tradition as you suggest. The Urdu language is itself replete with humorous expressions, which have also been celebrated in our poetic tradition.

In paintings from the Hamzanama, there is repeated mention of Hamza's arch-enemy Zumurrud Shah. Why is this character not included in your translation?

The Dastan-e Amir Hamza had many variants. The story of Amir Hamza's arch-fiend, Zamarraud Shah or Laqa, was part of the longer, 46-volume Hamza epic. You can think of the longer Hamza version as a collection of many independent fantasy adventures, which employ the main characters from the basic Hamza legend. The fantasy component in that book is much larger and more detailed than in the single-volume version by Ghalib Lakhnavi and Abdullah Bilgrami, which I have translated. Adventures and characters were incorporated into the oral legend, both before and after the book came out.

Islam tends to be seen globally as a restrictive, conservative religion. Do you believe epics like this one can help expose readers to a more dynamic aspect of the medieval Islamic world, and thus help bridge the cultural divide between East and West?

Some people read the Foreign Affairs. I keep myself politically updated by watching Hollywood action movies. They used to have Russian villains. Then for a short while I saw Japanese villains because their cars were selling better than the US autos. Now we have beareded Arabs waving kashnikovs. I am not too worried. If the Chinese do not adjust their currency, soon the bearded Arabs will be replaced by the evil Chinese businessman. And if India maintains its annual growth rate an Indian villain would not be too far behind. The role of the global villain keeps changing according to the political agendas and motivations of the major powers, and it is silly to think that the current western political narratives on Islam will have a long life. You cannot fool everyone all the time, I firmly believe in that.

A book like The Adventures of Amir Hamza can certainly be used in building bridges, because it is as fat as a brick! But jokes aside, I don't think we can throw books at people in any kind of cultural dialogue just to prove that we are liberal. Any kind of dialogue or consensus between peoples and cultures should be built on mutual respect and the traditions of tolerance and co-existence. Once that atmosphere is created books like The Adventures of Amir Hamza would certainly have a positive influence, and would be read for the right reasons.

What would those reasons be?

For its value as a great example of storytelling, a vibrant part of world literature, and as a cultural record. A book can be a part of the composite picture of a culture, but I do not believe that a single book, or merely books, can represent it. I think in the 20th century we grew increasingly distant from our literary culture. That is why we have produced so few good works of literature. It is precisely because of this atmosphere that the publication of The Adventures of Amir Hamza in English translation sounds like a big deal. In a vibrant literary culture, these occurrences are routine. This was the case in the late 19th and early 20th century in India, when the Naval Kishore Press and many independent presses published important literary titles in the thousands.

[A version of this interview appears in this Sunday’s Business Standard]


  1. Do you know Mahmood Farooqui?
    He has done quite a few performances in Delhi.I think this type of stuff is best savored audio visually.I tried to pitch the idea of releasing a dvd version to him.I don't think he is too keen on that.I think it would be a great project.
    Both these projects,the translation and the rendition,I believe,are the brainchilds(brainchildren?) of Shamsurrahman Farooqui.

  2. Have met Mahmood socially a couple of times, don't know him too well. I know Dan Husain better. From the couple of performances I've seen, they're both seriously good (not that I'm any sort of expert on dastangoi).

  3. Jai,

    Enjoyed reading all ur posts and the interview on the Daastaan thoroughly-no news there, this blog is one of my favs:)

  4. His response about Hollywood villains is hilarious, but if you really think about it, it is true, isn't it? Maybe, just maybe, in the new Superman V, Rex Rathore will be some Desi steel baron trying to take over Krypton.

  5. super entry. thanks for this.


  6. Well written post enjoyed reading it, I often visit SiliconIndia, it’s a networking site, and they have a publishing section where you can publish your contents. You write so well why you don’t share your contents in SiliconIndia, so that people interested get to read good material.

  7. Persian epics seem to lend themselves to rap. Check this out:

  8. I'd read the book's Malayalam translation as a child. The names are slightly different. The library did not have the last volume and it was pretty frustrating not knowing if Amir returns..

  9. Thoroughly enjoyed your post! I am an actor living in New York City and have been so taken with the Dastan-e Amir Hamza that I am currently trying to produce a large-scale theatrical version of it that would tour the Middle East, South Asia, the US and Europe as a cultural bridge project. Seems like the perfect story to do something of this nature. I'm happy to know that there are others, the translator Farooqi included, that feel similarly. Wonderfully insightful blog! Cheers.

  10. Thank you for your notes. I love the epic. We are readng it in my class on South Asian History right now.