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.