A Muslim Hero Rides Again

Painting of the demon Argan Div offering a weapons chest to Amir Hamza, uncle of the prophet Muhammad
Painting of the demon Argan Div offering a weapons chest to Amir Hamza, uncle of the prophet Muhammad (Brooklyn Museum/corbis)
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Reviewed by Diana Abu-Jaber
Sunday, January 6, 2008


By Ghalib Lakhnavi and Abdullah Bilgrami

Translated from the Urdu by Musharraf Ali Farooqi

Modern Library. 948 pp. $45

I grew up in a family of Middle Eastern storytellers: My immigrant father loved to recount nostalgic adventures in which he starred as the epic boy-hero. I assumed families across America all told their own epic tales at dinnertime. I'm still surprised when friends tell me their families watched TV as they ate, but perhaps this is simply a long-distance form of oral narrative.

No matter the format, the need to trade stories seems to be innate, part and parcel of the development of language itself. So a publication like The Adventures of Amir Hamza is exciting for its exuberant celebration of the long art of storytelling, as well as for the way it showcases the legendary figures of the oral tradition. This Indo-Persian Islamic saga originated in tales based on the swashbuckling life of Amir Hamza, uncle of the Prophet Mohammed. While the legends are purported to be more than a thousand years old, the definitive one-volume Urdu text of this epic, by Ghalib Lakhnavi and Abdullah Bilgrami, emerged in the 19th century. But up until now all English translations of the book have been censored and abridged. This sensitive new translation by Musharraf Ali Farooqi is filled with lyrical resonance, reflecting the fluidity of the spoken word, and delivers the 900-plus pages of the ancient story in all its flamboyant glory.

The Adventures of Amir Hamza represents a marvelous dovetailing of fantasy, history and religion. This book demonstrates the ways that colorful storytelling can be an important part of both religious texts and adventure yarns, and the way a charismatic figure may become something very like public property, capturing the popular imagination and giving storytellers a vessel for their ideas.

Lovers of The Book of the Thousand Nights and One Night will immediately notice many stylistic similarities between the two epics, such as an open-ended story structure that allows one adventure or set of characters to roll endlessly into another. In addition, there's a familiar cast of supernatural characters, including angels, jinns, giants and dragons. Both works also offer a remarkable use of linguistic flourishes. Here is a true literature of excess -- the literary antecedents to Hollywood's special effects -- showering the reader with earthly marvels. There are passages describing the exploits of war, the pleasures of the palace and the hardships of poverty. And there's a capacious quality, a generosity of imagination that seems to invoke the layers and centuries of storytelling that went into the creation of these books.

Here is just a sliver from a chapter entirely devoted to describing a feast for the Persian emperor: "There was jewel-encrusted lettering on the crevices of the marble enclosure. Trees with branches and leaves of emerald, and flowers of pearls and rubies, were embedded in the walls, and in their branches were perched nightingales, parrots, mynahs, turtledoves, ringdoves, laals, quails, sina-baz, doves, green pigeons, and black cuckoos, all made of turquoise, emerald, sapphire, and rubies."

Amir Hamza springs from this densely woven tapestry, a bravura hero, accompanied by his miraculous steed Ashqar Devzad and Hamza's sidekick, the wily scoundrel Amar Ayyar. Together, the friends ramble to distant lands, getting into all sorts of entanglements, righting wrongs, winning contests and routing villains. They are divinely gifted, blessed and protected by angels and prophets, guided by the mystical visionary Buzurjmehr and directed by the emperor Naushervan. Hamza falls in love many times and converts hundreds of miscreants to the true faith.

Their experiences -- along with those of several other heroes and villains in this book -- are replete with cautionary lessons and morality tales. These stories offer up an education in justice, fairness and karmic evolution, as well as a broad spectrum of illustration and reflection on fundamental human states like love, jealousy, revenge and rage. An example: "Love is not engendered by a beautiful aspect alone;/By comely speech, too, it is oftentimes implanted."

Interestingly, right and wrong aren't always what they appear to be. These stories offer a glimpse into the complexities of an older world, in which blood feuds, auguries, dreams and their intricate interpretations determine motive and actions. It's a literal yet magical world, meant to instruct through diversion and history, serving up Islamic esoterica and funny old bits of wisdom. On the topic of indigestion, the book observes, "Some consume the eggplant and some are by the eggplant consumed."

A true marvel of literary and intellectual engineering, The Adventures of Amir Hamza marks the passage of oral narrative into print and synthesizes translation, varying editions and genres into one coherent work. It comes with extensive notes and a very helpful list of characters, among other useful extras. Readers who prefer their heroes to be unequivocally heroic and who are ready to enjoy special effects on the page will love losing themselves in this complex yet ancient world of the imagination. *

Diana Abu-Jaber is the author of "Origin" and teaches at Portland State University.

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