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Remember when reading a story to your children at night was a comforting settling-in ritual for child and parent? The practice continued in our household, well-beyond the childhood years into early adolescence and even as part of regular holiday gatherings of adults by introducing more complex serial tales from world literature such as The Journey to the West, a Chinese Buddhist romance about the fantastical adventures of monk Tripitaka to India to bring back Buddhist scriptures. He is accompanied by trickster Monkey and others who both help and hinder the monk on his pilgrimage (See the one volume abridged edition entitled The Monkey and the Monk: An Abridgment of The Journey to the West by Anthony C. Yu.) Likewise The Thousand and One Nights in one of its less shortened versions, as in Robert Burton’s burlesque language also can be useful as a bridge into adult literature of great depth and linguistic versatility such as James Joyce’s Ulysses or The Man without Qualities by the Austrian novelist and essayist Robert Musil. With the addition of poetry, our family has become open to reading aloud and appreciative listening, an impromptu auditory performing cast where each in turn as was their wont to share snippets of literature aloud, with lively discussion ensuing about the nuance of narrative art and the power of spoken language to evoke thought and sway feelings.

We are happy to introduce a new resource  for the informed imagination the unabridged translation from the Urdu of the Islamic epic of fantasy, romance and war:

The Adventures of Amir Hamza (Dastan-e Amir Hamza)–compiled and written down in Urdu by Ghalib Lakhnavi, enlarged and augmented in Urdu by Abdullah Bilgrami, introduction by Hamid Dabashi, translated by Musharraf Farooqi (Modern Library) In the tradition of such beloved classics as The Thousand and One Nights and the Persian Shahnameh, here is the first unabridged English translation of a major Indo-Persian epic, The Adventures of Amir Hamza–a panoramic tale of magic and passion, and a classic hero’s odyssey that has captivated much of the world.

This Islamic saga dates back hundreds of years, perhaps to as early as the seventh century, when oral narratives of the deeds of the prophet Muhammad’s uncle Amir Hamza spread through Arabia, Persia, and the Indian subcontinent, expanding into a marvelous chronicle of warriors, kings, tricksters, fairies, courtesans, and magical creatures. The definitive one-volume Urdu text by Ghalib Lakhnavi and Abdullah Bilgrami appeared toward the end of the nineteenth century, but English translations of this text have always been censored and abridged–until now.

In Musharraf Ali Farooqi’s faithful rendition, The Adventures of Amir Hamza is captured with all its colorful action, ribaldry, and fantastic elements intact. Here is the spellbinding story of Amir Hamza, the adventurer who loves Mehr-Nigar, the daughter of the Persian emperor, Naushervan. Traveling to exotic lands in the service of his emperor, Amir Hamza defeats many enemies, loves many women, and converts hundreds of infidels to the True Faith of Islam before finding his way back to his first love. Guided by a Merlin-like clairvoyant called Buzurjmehr, protected by legendary prophets, and accompanied by his loyal friend, the ingenious trickster Amar Ayyar, Amir Hamza rides his devoted winged demon-steed, Ashqar, into combat against a marvelous array of opponents, from the deadly demon, Sufaid Dev, to his own rebellious sons.

Appreciated as the seminal Islamic epic or enjoyed as a sweeping tale as rich and inventive as Homer’s epic sagas, The Adventures of Amir Hamza is an extraordinary creation and a true literary treasure.

It's hard to think of an epic more dazzlingly splendid, and strangely forgotten, than The Adventures of Amir Hamza. Although it is some 10 centuries old, the work's first major English translation was published only at the end of last month, finally bringing to the world the legend of the reputed uncle of the Prophet Muhammad. A radiant warrior who saved kingdoms, wooed princesses and journeyed to fantastical realms, Amir Hamza was cherished in the courts of India's Mughal emperors and celebrated in places as far flung as present-day Georgia and Malaysia. But of late, his memory has been in desperate need of rescuing.

Musharraf Farooqi, the 39-year-old translator, is an unlikely savior. Growing up in Pakistan, he read of Amir Hamza's exploits in abridged Urdu versions adapted for children — virtually the sole form in which the epic survived into the 20th century. Farooqi, who admits to not being the most diligent student, would drift into daydreams inspired by the stories in class, imagining, he says, that he was a demon "running around with a tree trunk and clobbering humans with it." In university, he frequently shirked his prescribed engineering curriculum for a pile of dog-eared folk tales scrounged from secondhand bookstores. The mythological universe that his favorite hero had led him into was simply too intoxicating to leave.

The hypnotic depth of these fables is partly due to the fact that they are the product of more than one brain. Indeed, Adventures belongs to an ancient Persian canon of oral literature known as the dastan, which includes popular stories generated, modified and passed down by village elders and royal poets alike. Dastan fables were subject to endless revision, shimmering and shifting depending on who was telling them and who was listening. When a few unnamed storytellers recited their dastan of Amir Hamza to an Indian publisher in 1883, the transcription yielded 46 volumes, each some 1,500 pages in length.

Though their roots are in Persia and Arabia, the stories of Amir Hamza blossomed most fully on the Indian subcontinent — a crossroads of religions, languages and narrative styles. "When it entered India, the sky was clearly the limit," says Muhammad Memon, professor of literature and Islamic studies at the University of Wisconsin. The richness of India's modes of cultural expression — particularly its blending of Sufi Islam and the mythological repertoire of the older strains of Hinduism — prompted opulent embellishments of the epic, deepening its playful world of myriad magical creatures and warlords riding rhinoceroses.

It is this aspect of Adventures, rather than any religious element, that has ensured its longevity. Though Amir Hamza is cast as a slayer of infidels and a servant of the "true faith," the work is far from being a collection of Islamic parables. Amir Hamza in fact campaigns in the service of an infidel — Naushervan, the fire-worshipping Persian Emperor. A Merlin-like sage, Buzurjmehr, sends Amir Hamza on quests and expeditions that are sometimes far from chivalrous. And while our hero's love for Naushervan's half-Chinese`daughter, Mehr-Nigar, is enduring, the story is punctuated`by his frequent dalliances, including a romp with an otherworldly fairy. The mischievous and frequently lewd antics of Amir Hamza's trickster accomplice, Amar Ayyar, would also have mullahs tearing their hair out — as well as audiences laughing out loud.

The most notable devotee of Adventures was probably the Mughal Emperor Akbar, whose court in the 16th century became the epicenter of Persian literary culture. Akbar was so enchanted by these swashbuckling accounts of derring-do that he commissioned 1,400 exquisite canvas folios depicting scenes from them (five of the paintings accompany this article). According to C.M. Naim, professor of Urdu studies at the University of Chicago, the illustrated Hamzanama (as the collected works are known) is "the Taj Mahal of medieval painting."

On display in prominent museums in London and New York City, the pictures provide a glimpse into the life of the Prophet's daring uncle. Their elaborate detailing and subject matter also offer a visual clue as to why he isn't better remembered. Historically, says Memon, Amir Hamza's stories were narrated in episodes "as performance — it was not just a book you can pick up and read alone." Indeed, recitals often took place in front of paintings like those of the Hamzanama. But with the advent of modern printing presses, the complexity and poetical phrasing of the dastan — so perfect by the flickering light of a fire and before a richly colored canvas — began to seem affected, if not a little odd, set down in stark, black-and-white text. Amir Hamza needed to breathe the air of a premodern era — "when rational people could still sit and listen to a storyteller," as Memon puts it, "and believe in djinn and spirits."

Following the traumas of partition, which created Pakistan as a haven for India's Muslims in 1947, the multicultural and multiracial Adventures was even regarded as vaguely suspect. "It reminded Pakistanis of a cultural identity that undercut their religious one," says Farooqi. "It needed to be ignored." But Farooqi, thankfully, could not ignore it. After a stint in journalism in Karachi, he moved to Canada in 1994 and, while dabbling in children's fiction, set up the Urdu Project, an online journal of translations and literary criticism. Then, on a wintry night in 1999, Farooqi says that a "horse-headed gent" and an "elephant-eared lady" — figures from the dastan — came to him in a dream and told him to embark on a translation of the epic.

Farooqi decided to heed the call. But instead of tackling all 46 volumes of an 1883 text — which he knew nobody would read in its entirety — he decided to tackle a blend of two shorter versions: the 1855 rendering by the Urdu poet Ghalib Lakhnavi, and an 1871 text by the Urdu scholar Abdullah Bilgrami, who took Lakhnavi's edition and added various flourishes and refrains to restore its original bardic character. Even so, Farooqi's translation is almost a thousand pages in total. It was a Herculean labor. "When I looked at the first page," Farooqi confesses, "I thought 'What the hell is this?'" Translating the heavily Persian form of classical Urdu required seven years, which Farooqi spent shuttling between archives in South Asia and libraries the West, poring over manuscripts and microfilm.

By completing the task, Farooqi has given world literature a gift. That's not to say that it's without flaws. The faithful rendition occasionally gets a bit confusing — mostly due to its whirlwind of countless characters and lightning-quick changes of scene. But it does succeed in offering, in Farooqi's words, "a bridge between [Adventures] and the modern world." Non-Urdu-speaking readers can at last appreciate an epic "on par with anything in the Western canon." And, with luck, the classical pantheon populated by indomitable Achilles, cunning Odysseus and righteous King Arthur will now be joined by a new beloved hero: mercurial, mighty Amir Hamza, astride his winged-demon steed, soaring to the heavens.

“The Indo-Islamic Dastan-e Amir Hamza is a rip-roaring, bawdy, magical journey into the fantastic life and exploits of Amir Hamza, the paternal uncle of the prophet Muhammad....the story is reminiscent of the tales of Homer and King Arthur and The Arabian Nights. Farooqi's unexpurgated and unabridged English translation from the Urdu is masterful….Destined to become a classic.” – Library Journal

Shahnameh: The Persian Book of Kings by Abolqasem Ferdowsi, translated Azar Nafisi, and Dick Davis (Penguin Classics Deluxe Edition) The great national epic of Persia—the most complete English-language edition

Wherever Persian influence has spread, the stories of the Shahnameh become deeply embedded in the culture, as their appearance in such novels as The Kite Runner amply attests. Among the greatest works of world literature, this prodigious narrative, composed by the poet Ferdowsi in the late tenth century, tells the story of pre-Islamic Iran, beginning in the mythic time of creation and continuing forward to the Arab invasion in the seventh century. The sweep and psychological depth of the Shahnameh is nothing less than magnificent. Now one of the greatest translators of Persian poetry, Dick Davis, presents Ferdowsi’s masterpiece in an elegant combination of prose and verse.  

The Shahnameh, or Book of Kings, by the Persian poet Abu al-Qasim Firdawsi, is Iran's national epic and one of the great epics of world literature. Abu al-Qasim (who used the pen name Firdawsi) was born around 920 CE near Tus in northeastern Iran into a family of small landowners. He died about 1020 or 1025.

With more than 50,000 couplets, Firdawsi's epic is of monumental size. It treats the mostly legendary history of Iran from the creation of the world and the reign of mythical kings to the end of the Sassanian dynasty and the Arab conquest of Iran in the first half of the seventh century.

The Shahnameh is based both on written records, among them an unfinished epic by the poet Daqiqi, and on oral tradition. The best-known episode of the epic is the tragic fight between Rustam, one of the epic's major legendary heroes, and his son Sohrab. After Ferdawsi completed the revised version around 1010, he presented his work to his ruler, Mahmud of Ghazna. But the latter remunerated the poet in such a miserly way that Firdawsi wrote bitter satires against the sultan.


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