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Amir Hamza in the land of Qaf

April 12, 2008


YEARS ago, a friend asked me which book had most influenced me. I couldn`t come up with an answer then and there, but on subsequent reflection, I concluded that Joseph Heller`s

Catch-22, with its anarchic contempt and distrust of authority, had made the most profound impression on me.

However, some books, like ideas, lie dormant in the recesses of the mind, and work their magic slowly, opening windows to strange landscapes and concepts. Ultimately, they can transform the way you think and perceive everyday reality.

I must have been six or seven when my father went on an official trip to New Delhi, and brought back a couple of volumes in Urdu from a larger work called the Dastan-i-Amir Hamza. These books were about a character called Umar Ayyar, and the stories they contained were a dazzling collection of adventures in which the resourceful Umar ran rings around his enemies, while encountering peris, devs and sorcerers. Although details about these adventures have grown hazy, I remember clearly his zambil, a magical bag into which Umar could stuff any object, and pull it out when he needed it. I have gone through most of my life wishing I had Umar Ayyar`s zambil.

With this background, you can imagine my delight when, five years ago, I learned that the Victoria and Albert Museum in London was holding an exhibition of the remaining illustrations of the Dastan-i-Amir Hamza. Commissioned by the Emperor Akbar, a group of Iranian and Indian artists laboured for years to illustrate the text of the epic. Carried away by Nadir Shah, the collection was broken up and now, barely 100 survive. Measuring around three feet by two, these are not miniatures, although this project is said by art historians to be the precursor of the Mughal school.

When I arrived in London after a particularly rough couple of months in Pakistan, the first thing I did was to go to the V&A. The stunning exhibition fully lived up to my expectations, and I took my time savouring the 80-odd paintings on display. Each illustrated a particular adventure recounted in an extended caption that accompanied it. I went back a couple of times, and bought a catalogue containing glorious reproductions of the originals. It is one of my most prized books.

The central character of the Dastan, Amir Hamza, is supposed to be the uncle of the Holy Prophet (PBUH), and embarks on a series of adventures that bring him fame and fortune across much of the known world. Composed over 1,000 years ago, this epic has travelled by word of mouth from one Muslim city to another until it was being recited from Istanbul to Jakarta. In each country, it took on the character and colour of the local surroundings and mythology, and was recited by storytellers to entranced audiences.

I was in Pakistan again late last year when I came across a review of the English translation of the epic. I immediately ordered it from Amazon, and have been reading it slowly, enjoying the fine translation and the sheer wonder of the tale. Amazingly, this is the first modern translation of the complete Dastan into English, and is based on two 19th century Urdu versions. A labour of love, it was rendered into English by Musharraf Ali Farooqi over seven years in Canada. We have much to be grateful to this scholar he has not only made the epic accessible to a wider audience, but has done so with great verve and panache, while remaining faithful to the original texts.

Once I had read Farooqi`s translation spread over nearly 1,000 pages, I realised why Umar (called Amar in the translation) Ayyar had been my favourite character all those years ago. Ayyars were spies and tricksters in the employ of kings, and were masters of disguise. Umar Ayyar was widely acknowledged as the Prince of Ayyars, and in an era when treachery and double-dealing were commonplace, his loyalty to Amir Hamza was exemplary. Brave and resourceful, he outwitted all of Hamza`s many foes.Of course, Amir Hamza is cast in heroic mould as he slays giants, courts princesses, converts thousands to the True Faith, and fights evil from India to Greece. Much of the book is set in Persia, and centres around the intrigues taking place at the court. But for 18 years, Amir Hamza disappears from this world to battle djinns in the mythical land of Qaf.

Although the book can be read as a series of adventures, it reveals a lot about the period in which it was composed. It is a rollicking tale of derring-do in which the heroes and villains are all too human. Although the true love in Amir Hamza`s life is Mehr Nigar, this does not prevent him from ending up in other beds as he goes off on his many quests. Often, he and his friends get inebriated after an evening of carousing. The role of the saqi, or cup-bearer, is an important one. And friendships are formed between Chinese, Indian, Persian and Arab princes. All this speaks of a tolerant society in which public behaviour was not dictated by a literal interpretation of the scriptures.

The story also underlines the tensions between Islam and pre-Islamic Persia. The Sassanid faction in Emperor Naushervan`s court plots constantly to displace Amir Hamza, finally convincing their lord that the Arab hero is a threat to his power. From this point on, a succession of armies are sent to defeat Amir Hamza who, by this time, is in the land of Qaf, leaving Umar Ayyar to defend Mehr Nigar. Umar uses all his cunning to outmanoeuvre and outfight Naushervan`s forces.

Despite the romance, colour and magic this ancient epic contains, the sad truth is that very few of the younger generation have even heard of it. While western adventure stories are popularised in films and television, our vast stock of fables and fairytales are dying out from a lack of interest.

I have often wondered why this epic has stayed in my mind for over half a century. I suppose it is because the possibility of imaginary worlds where magic is commonplace, and danger lurks behind every corner, has allowed me to escape an often humdrum existence. n