Imagine that Homer’s great epics weren’t transcribed until the 19th century and continued to live as oral performances over the years. As they circulated around the Mediterranean, they no doubt would absorb much of the local custom and color; enriched by various traditions, they’d even pick up bits of new verse. Well, that’s exactly the history of this magnificent compendium of fantastical storytelling, an Urdu-Persian adventure narrative that’s every bit as compelling as the best the West has to offer. The tales of the super-heroic Amir Hamza have entertained listeners in Arabic, Turkish, and Indonesian languages (among others) ever since the 9th century and have come to great prominence, especially in Muslim India, where in the 19th century these tales of conquest and conversion were written down in the form here translated for the first time into English. Reading this huge and never-ending story, you’re likely to recall Arthurian romance as much as ancient Greece. At the core is the legendary Hamza (“the Conqueror of the World, the Quake of Qaf, the Latter-day Suleiman, and Uncle of the Last Prophet of Times”): as defender of the One True Faith and warrior of chivalric principle, he crosses the subcontinent, defeating all those who refuse to renounce fire worship or threaten the kingdom of Emperor Naushervan. He even contends with evil spirits during a long sojourn in the spirit world. Separated from his true love for 18 years, Hamza brings justice everywhere he goes, often accompanied by his loyal Ayyar, who’s part trickster and part magician, an Asiatic Merlin. Highly moral in outlook, these tales of Islamic triumph also revel in much merrymaking — Hamza enjoys his many wives, all of them quite powerful women in their own right, and their lovemaking is always stimulated by “flagons of roseate wine.” No fundamentalism here, but a wonderful reminder of Islam at its most magnanimous, and as inspiration to a great work of world literature. –
About the Writer
Thomas DePietro, a former contributing editor of Kirkus Reviews, has also published in Commonweal, The Nation, and The New York Times Book Review. He recently edited Conversations with Don DeLillo, and his book on Kingsley Amis is forthcoming.