I’ve been working on my Arabic again. God knows how long this will go on. I’ve been translating a chapter from a 10th-century story cycle called the Maqamat. The word means “assemblies” or “stations” or “the place where you stand to tell a story.” When Abdellatif Kilito writes about them in French, he calls them “séances.” I’ve called them “sessions,” as in the Savoy Sessions or the Basement Tapes. The one I’m working on one is by an Arabophone Persian named Badi al-Zaman Hamadhani. His maqamat were much imitated, to the point that the imitations became a genre unto themselves.
In each chapter the narrator tells a story of trickery, cunning, deceit, always about the same trickster. The narrator and the trickster meet over and over again, in one town and then another and another. Each situation is different but we always know what’s going to happen, so the point is not drama, it’s just a showcase for wit and style and absurd vocabulary. They’re written in an incantatory form of rhyming prose called saj’, which, I understand originated with fortune-tellers and seers. The rhymes, when they appear, are irregular, sometimes stressing the end of long lines, sometimes tumbling after each other rapidly. And there’s a rhythmic quality based not on regular meter but on the repetition of word forms and phrase structures that seem endemic to Arabic. I’ve been experimenting to see if there’s a way to suggest this in English that isn’t unbearable.
I’m about halfway through this first attempt. I’m sending it out to you all so you can make fun of it, correct it, ignore it, or drive someone crazy reading it out loud.
THE SAIMARA SESSION
Badi al-Zaman Hamadhani
‘Isa ibn Hisham said he heard this story from ibn Ishaq, aka Abu al-Anbas al-Saimara, and it goes like this:
Here’s what my brothers left me, who I picked out and groomed and tried to keep out of trouble. I told them stories, taught them lessons, if they’d only listen and learn and act like they heard me.
I came from Saimara to the City of Peace, with bags of dinars, goods and gear. I had nothing to fear, so I went around with business barons and real estate titans, high earners and heirs to fortunes. That’s who I chose to hang out with, to rescue from monotony, not stopping at dawn and not at night with a nightcap.
We ate roast suckling goats and baked Persian soufflés, charred platters of lamb and the best kebabs in town. We had honey-wine so renowned and singing-girls so famous, their names echoed off the distant battlements. I ordered peeled almonds and sugar cane candies, armloads of roses and sweet aloeswood incense. And I was smarter than Abdullah bin Abbas, wittier than Abu Nuwas, bigger hearted than Hatim and braver than Basim, more connected than Masrur, shrewder than Shaban, and more poetic than Jarir. I was fresh like the Euphrates and worth more than a body sublime.
The full letter: