Felicia Appenteng

William Dalrymple of The New York Times proclaims, "Eat Your Heart Out Homer" about this story which was one of the most popular oral epics of Medieval Persia.  It spread throughout the Indo-Islamic world and absorbed folk tales of various cultures and was translated into Arabic, Malay, Turkish and Indonesian languages as well.  This is a newly published translation by Pakistani-Canadian scholar Musharraf Ali Farooqi.  The stories center around a character who is the historic Uncle of the Prophet Muhammad.  On this Sunday morning, please enjoy a selection of this fascinating collection of stories, as published on the New York Times website.   

"The florid news writers, the sweet-lipped historians, revivers of old
tales and renewers of past legends, relate that there ruled at
Ctesiphon in Persia (image of Heaven!) Emperor Qubad Kamran, who
cherished his subjects and was a succor to the impecunious in their

He was unsurpassed in dispensing justice, and so rigorous in this
exercise that the best justice appeared an injustice compared to his
decree. Prosperity and affluence thrived in his dominions while wrong
and inequity slumbered in death, and, rara avis-like, mendicants and
the destitute were extinct in his lands. The wealthy were at a loss to
find an object for their charity. The weak and the powerful were
equals, and the hawk and the sparrow roosted in the same nest. The
young and the old sought one another’s pleasure, neither ever deeming
himself the sole benefactor. The portals of houses remained open day
and night like the eyes of the vigil, for if someone stole even the
color of henna from the palm, he was ground in the mill of justice. The
thief therefore did not even dream of thieving, and if perchance a
wayfarer should come upon someone’s property on the road, he took it
upon himself to restore it to its owner. Compared with Qubad Kamran’s
fearlessness, might, and valor, Rustam was the same as a hag most
decrepit and cowardly.

This imperious monarch had forty viziers, who were the epitomes of
learning, wisdom, and prudence; and seven hundred wise men before whom
even the likes of Plato and Aristotle were abecedarians. All these
viziers were peerless in intellect and cognition, and so accomplished
in physics, arithmetic, ramal, jafar, and astrology that they did not
consider the likes of Galen and Euclid and Pythagoras fit company for
themselves, let alone their equals. The emperor had seven hundred privy
counselors, each more adept than ancient masters in arts and letters
and in the decorum of assembly. And at the emperor’s command were four
thousand champion warriors, to whom Sam and Nariman and Rustam and Zal
would alike present the sword of humility in combat and accept from
their hands the badge of slavery. Three hundred sovereigns who reigned
over vast tracts paid tribute to Emperor Qubad Kamran, and bowed their
heads in vassalage and obeisance before him. And one million mounted
warriors, intrepid and fierce, and forty troops of slaves, clad in gold
and finery, waited, deft and adroit, upon the emperor at his court-the
envy of Heaven, the adornment of Paradise!

In the same city there also resided a savant by the name of Khvaja
Bakht Jamal, who traced his lineage to the prophet Danyal (God’s favors
and mercies be upon his soul!). He was unrivaled in learning and the
sciences of hikmat, ramal, astrology, and jafar, and was truly a
successor beyond compare of the ancient philosophers. Malik Alqash, the
emperor’s vizier who had often made use of the divinations of this
sage, offered himself as a pupil to Khvaja Bakht Jamal, and became so
attached and devoted to him that he would not hear of parting even for
a moment from his master. Before long, Alqash, too, became adept at
ramal. His fame spread far and wide, and he proved himself such a
consummate practitioner of the art, that he was deservedly labeled
Khvaja’s distinguished disciple, second only to his master.

One day Alqash said to Khvaja Bakht Jamal, "The other night as
idleness weighed on my heart, I decided to cast lots in your name.
Reading the pattern, I discovered that your star is in the descendent,
and some vicissitude of fortune will befall you. Your star shall remain
in the same house for forty days. Thus it would not bode well for you
to step out of the house during this period, or trust anyone. Even I
must suffer under this burden of separation, and not see you!"

Following Alqash’s advice, Bakht Jamal secluded himself from the
world, declining to receive either visitors or friends. Of the foretold
days of ill-boding, thirty-nine had passed without mishap. On the
fortieth day, Khvaja felt wretched to be shut inside his house, and set
out carrying his staff to see vizier Alqash, to bring his only faithful
and affectionate friend the news of his health and welfare.

By chance, instead of the thoroughfare, he followed a deserted road
to the riverside. As it was summer he took refuge from the burning sun
under a tree’s shade. While he sat there, his eyes suddenly beheld a
building most imposing, save for its outer walls that had fallen to
ruin. Some curiosity led him toward it, and as he drew near, he found
most of the apartments inside in a state of decay, and the vestibules
in ruins, but for one that had survived ravaging and still stood-in
desolation and disarray like a lover’s heart. In that vestibule there
was an antechamber whose entrance was bricked up. Removing the bricks
he found to his right a door with a padlock. Khvaja thought of forcing
it open with a brick or stone, but when he held the padlock in his
hand, it came open of its own accord and fell to the floor. Stepping
inside Khvaja discovered a cellar. There he found buried Shaddad’s
seven boundless treasures of gold and jewels. Seized by fright, Khvaja
was unable to take anything, and retraced his steps out of the cellar,
then hastened to Alqash’s house to give him the propitious news.

Alqash’s face brightened at the sight of Khvaja. He made room for
him on his throne, and after expressing joy at seeing his friend, said,
"Today was the fortieth day. Why did you take such trouble and
inconvenience yourself? Come tomorrow, I had intended to present myself
at your door and receive great joy from the grace of your genial
company." After making small talk Khvaja mentioned the seven treasures
to Alqash, and recounted the windfall, saying, "Though I was blessed in
my stars to have come upon such an untold fortune, it was found on
royal land, and lowly me, I cannot lay claim to it, nor is it indeed my
station! I resolved in my heart that since you are the emperor’s
vizier, and an excellent patron and friend to me, I should inform you
of this bountiful treasure. Then, if you saw fit to confer a little
something upon your humble servant, then that bit only would I
consider-like my mother’s milk- warranted and rightful!"

Alqash was beside himself with joy when he heard of the seven
treasures, and ordered two horses to be saddled forthwith; then he
mounted one, and Khvaja the other, and they galloped off in the
direction of the wasteland. By and by, they arrived at their
destination. Alqash became greatly agitated and ecstatic the moment he
set eyes on the seven hoards, and so violent indeed were his raptures
of delight on the occasion, that he was almost carried away from this

While murmuring gratitude to his Creator for bestowing such a
windfall on him, the thought suddenly flashed across Alqash’s mind that
Khvaja Bakht Jamal was privy to this secret, and all that had come
about. Alqash reasoned that if some day Khvaja Bakht Jamal chose to
betray him to the emperor in order to gain influence at the court, the
vizier would find himself in a sorry plight. That would indeed put his
life in great peril, and not only would he have to wash his hands of
this God-given bounty, but also the emperor might declare him an
embezzler and depose him. It would be small wonder if at that point the
contents of his house were confiscated and the building razed; he
himself would be thrown into the dungeon, and his family exposed to
humiliation and ruin, with all traces of his honorable name forever
erased from the face of the earth. It would be by far the lesser evil,
Alqash thought, to kill Khvaja right there, and then lay claim to the
boundless treasure without the least anxiety that the secret would some
day come to light, or that someone might one day reveal the secret.

Once resolved, he immediately bore down upon Khvaja and put the
dagger to his throat. Confounded by this turn of events, Khvaja cried
out, "What has got into your head, Alqash? Does a good deed deserve
evil? Is that how a favor is returned? What injury have I done you that
you resolve to punish me thus?" And much did the poor old man groan in
the same vein, and seek compassion, but to no avail. The heart of that
villain did not soften, and his sympathy remained unstirred.

When the frail man saw that there was no escape from the clutches of
this blackguard, and that it was only a matter of a few breaths before
the candle of his life would be snuffed out by those hands, he
entreated in despair:

Advertise well how I was laid low by your hand,
That no one shall consider being faithful again.

"O Alqash! I see that you are bent upon my murder, and on dyeing
your villainous hands with my innocent blood. But if you could find it
in your heart to act upon my last words, I shall entrust them to you
and die with at least this debt toward you." The ungrateful wretch
shouted back, "Make haste! For the cup of your life is now ready to
overflow, and the thirst of my inclement dagger is ordained to be
quenched in your blood!" The poor man spoke:

Such was my lot that friend proves a foe
And the guide waylays me on the trail.

"There is hardly any money in my house to last my family beyond
tomorrow," Khvaja continued, "and even less food. I would to God that
you might send them enough to survive. And inform my wife, who is
expecting, that if a boy is born to her, she must name him Buzurjmehr,
and if a girl is born, she may follow her own counsel." After saying
this he closed his eyes and began reciting the kalma, seeking divine
absolution, as he was to die an innocent man. Whereupon that heartless
villain cut off Khvaja’s head with his unrelenting dagger, destroyed
his horse, too, and interred the two of them in the same vault where
the treasures were buried.

After sealing the door, Alqash went to the river to cleanse the
blood from his hands and the dagger, and also to wash his hands of the
faith that he had forfeited in exchange for short-lived riches. Then he
rode away to his house, glad in his heart and thrilled. The next day,
he returned to the place with great pomp, and after surveying it,
ordered the prefect to build a garden for him on the site, bound by
walls of marble, and a turquoise chamber erected over the vestibule,
where he would give audience, and to have this heavenly abode furnished
with rarities and wondrous curiosities. As soon as the order was given,
the prefect sent for masons, laborers, and sculptors from the city, and
began the construction. In a matter of days, the garden, the marble
walls, and the turquoise chamber were ready, all of which delighted
Alqash greatly, and he named the place Bagh-e Bedad.

Then he called at Khvaja Bakht Jamal’s house, and told the family
that he had sent Khvaja off to China to conduct trade, and he should
soon return after turning a profit. He then communicated to them
Khvaja’s wishes. He consoled and comforted the family, and bestowed on
them a rich purse, mentioning that more would be available whenever
there was need, and that they ought not entertain any fears of
adversity. Then Alqash returned home, with the grim truth buried in his

My life passed as passeth the wind on the plains;
Alike with bitterness and joy, coarseness and beauty
All the harm the tyrant inflicted on us
Passeth over us, and resides with him."



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