The “Hamzanama” was once the most popular oral epic of the Indo-Islamic world. “The Adventures of Amir Hamza” is the “Iliad” and Odyssey” of medieval Persia, a rollicking, magic-filled heroic saga. Born as early as the ninth century, it grew through oral transmission to include material gathered from the wider culture-compost of the pre-Islamic Middle East. So popular was the story that it soon spread across the Muslim world, absorbing folk tales as it went; before long it was translated into Arabic, Turkish, Georgian, Malay and even Indonesian languages.
It took particular hold in India, where it absorbed endless myths and legends and was regularly performed in public spaces in the great Mughal cities. At fairs and at festivals, on the steps of the Jama Masjid in Delhi or in the Qissa Khawani Bazaar, the “street of the storytellers” in Peshawar, the professional storyteller, or dastango, would perform nightlong recitations from memory; some of these could go on for seven or eight hours with only a short break. The Mughal elite also had a great tradition of commissioning private recitations. The greatest Urdu love poet, Ghalib, was celebrated for his dastan parties, at which the Hamza epic would be expertly told.
“The Adventures of Amir Hamza” collected a great miscellany of fireside yarns and shaggy-dog stories that over time had gathered around the travels of its protagonist, the historical uncle of the Prophet Muhammad. Any factual backbone the story might once have had was through the centuries overtaken by innumerable subplots and a cast of dragons, giants, jinns, simurgh, sorcerers, princesses and, if not flying carpets, then at least flying urns, the preferred mode of travel for the tale’s magicians.
Across the Persian-speaking world, from Tabriz to Hyderabad, people gathered around the dastango as he told story after story of the chivalrous Hamza and the beautiful Chinese-Persian princess he longs for, of the wise and prophetic vizier Buzurjmehr and of the just emperor Naushervan. Then there were Hamza’s enemies: the ungrateful villain Bakhtak, whose life Hamza spares, only for Bakhtak to work unceasingly for the hero’s demise; and the cruel necromancer, giant and archfiend Zumurrud Shah. In its fullest form, the tale grew to contain an astounding number of stories, which would take several weeks of all-night storytelling to complete; the fullest printed version, the last volume of which was finally published in 1917, filled no fewer than 46 volumes, averaging a thousand pages each.
Sunday, January 27, 2008
The Adventures of Amir Hamza
Reviewing THE ADVENTURES OF AMIR HAMZA: Lord of the Auspicious Planetary Conjunction by Ghalib Lakhnavi and Abdullah Bilgrami (Translated by Musharraf Ali Farooqi, see the blog here), William Dalrymple talks about the tradition of dastaangoi (storytelling). Most of the stories in this tradition, the remnants of which I experienced as a child, came from the stories of Amir Hamza or the Arabian Nights. All these stories fascinated me as my grandmother, my aunts or even clever-tongued servants in the house narrated these stories of adventure in the hurricane-lamp-lit semi-darkness of hot nights in my village. Perhaps that's why I can never feel the same excitement for a Harry Potter or the adventurers of the Middle Earth: