The Adventures of Amir Hamza: Lord of the Auspicious Planetary Conjunction.
Written by Ghalib Lakhnavi and Abdullah Bilgrami, translated by Musharraf Ali Farooqi. 948 pp. The Modern Library. $45.
Dastangoi, or story telling is one of those neglected and almost forgotten arts which once enthralled the masses as well the royalty of the Perso-Islamicate world. Story tellers traveled throughout the Persian speaking realm narrating fantastic tales of bravery, courage, faithfulness, betrayal, and cunning. These stories provided instant entertainment in an age when outlets for such indulgences were few. Among this oral tradition of the east, the Dastan-e Amir Hamza occupies a pride of place among such classics as The Arabian Nights and the Shanameh. In the Dastan, Amir Hamza is a composite character of righteousness and bravery loosely based on the personality of Prophet Muhammadâ€™s (s) uncle by the same name.
His hair raising encounters with demons, warriors, tricksters, fairies, kings, and magical creatures would give tough competition to the characters of modern day genre of fantasy writing. Emperor Akbar, at the age of 16, was so taken by the charms of the Dastan that he ordered his artists to produce an illustrated version which would eventually fill 14 enormous volumes. Unfortunately, however, this monumental piece of work was lost and only parts of it survive. It was not until the end of the nineteenth century that a compact one volume Urdu text of the Dastan was produced by Ghalib Lakhnavi and Abdullah Bilgrami. This version has now been faithfully rendered into English by the Toronto based translator and author Musharraf Ali Farooqi.
Farooqi has succeeded in translating the epic in a highly readable manner while remaining faithful to the original Urdu. Sample this: â€œThe gazetteers of miscellanies, tale-bearers of varied annals, the enlightened in the ethereal realms of legend writing, and recokeners of the subtle issues of eloquence thus gallop the noble steed of the pen through the field of composition, and spur on the delightful tale.â€
The fantastic tales coupled with the textual deftness of the translator, The Adventures of the Amir Hamza, Lord of the Auspicious Planetary Conjunction, keeps the reader fixated from start to the finish. It was not without reason that Maulana Ashraf Ali Thanwi in his famous Baheshti Zewar had warned proper women from reading the Dastan. Musharraf Ali Farooqi, who is coincidentally the grand-nephew of Maulana Thanwi, takes it even further. He writes, â€œTaking modern-day sensibilities into account, I would just add that men, too, must not sit down with this book without a bottle of smelling salts close at hand.â€ The bookâ€™s lucidity and ornamentation is enough to transfer anyone into an enchanted world.
The Dastan provides an insight into the society of the Perso-Islamicate world complete with the courtly manners, dress, myths, and legends. In a world increasingly marked by rhetoric of clash of civilizations the appearance of this translation is a fitting reply to the likes of Bernard Lewis who mock the supposed lack of artistic excellence in the Islamic civilization. More importantly it reinforces the qualities that are common to all: courage, truthfulness, fidelity, and honor.
Coinciding with the publication of this translation, it is hopeful to note that there has been a revival of sorts in the Dastangoi tradition in India and Pakistan. While Mahmood Farooqi and Murtaza Danish Hussaini have kept the tradition alive in India, there is evidence that it is gaining currency in Pakistan as well. Karachiâ€™s International Schools Educational Olympiad 2008 for the first time held a Dastangoi theater performance competition last month.