Al-Ḥarīrī’s Fifty Tales: The Tongues of God and Man

Bruce Fudge on al-Ḥarīrī translated by Michael Cooperson

Al-Ḥarīrī, Impostures: Fifty Rogue’s Tales Translated Fifty Ways. Translated by Michael Cooperson. Library of Arabic Literature. New York University Press, 2020. $20 (hardcover)

Impostures is ostensibly the translation of a twelfth-century Arabic text entitled “The Maqāmas.” Nobody knows how to translate maqāma because we do not know what exactly the man who coined the term had in mind. Semantically it has to do with standing up, perhaps “occasion for standing” or something like that, which is appropriate since a maqāma’s main feature is spectacular public oratory, usually delivered, for what it’s worth, from a standing position. It certainly does not mean “imposture,” yet the title here is more than apt, setting the tone for a translation that takes extraordinary liberties, with extraordinary success.

A maqāma is a short text, usually a few pages, in which the narrator arrives in a city and joins a gathering of learned men. A stranger, usually shabby in appearance, makes an eloquent speech, sometimes a stirring sermon, sometimes a dazzling display of linguistic dexterity, generally concluding with a plea for financial aid. The stranger takes his reward and goes on his way, only to be accosted by the narrator who recognizes the same scoundrel he met in all previous episodes, and realizes that the entire performance, however brilliant, was a scam.

Many maqāmāt were composed over the centuries in different languages, right up to the present day, but there are really only two Arabic collections of renown. The first is that of al-Hamadhānī (ca. 968-1007), who hailed from northwestern Iran and invented the genre apparently on his own. The second, which eclipsed the first, was that of al-Ḥarīrī (1054-1122) of Basra in southern Iraq.

In al-Ḥarīrī’s fifty tales, the narrator, al-Ḥārith ibn Hammām, is on a perpetual quest for what we might call meaning, but which he refers to mainly as intellectual and aesthetic delights in the company of learned and eloquent men (not too many women here). The rogue whom he always recognizes too late is named Abū Zayd. The narrative is, however, of limited interest. The trickster tales have their charms, but the star of the show is the Arabic language and the tricks al-Ḥarīrī can make it perform. The anecdotes are almost entirely in rhymed prose, something very rare in English, but a common feature of Arabic belles-lettres. The bibulous, silver-tongued scoundrel Abū Zayd amazes his audiences with moving pleas for aid and sulfurous sermons against the very vices to which he is so passionately committed. He recites poems, asks riddles, gives speeches that can be read forwards or backwards, others where he alternates letters of the alphabet, such as a passage in which every second word has no dots (an English equivalent would be something like using only letters with straight lines and no curves, so A, E, F, H, I, etc.).

Arabic is well suited to such pursuits. The morphological structures are such that words fit certain patterns, and thus rhyme and wordplay come relatively easily. Its words are also capable of impressive polysemy. Students complain about the complexities of Arabic grammar, but its rules are clear and easily learned; more ambiguous is the lexicon, as many words can have vastly different senses. Does ḥarām here mean “sacred” or “forbidden”? Is ghubār “dust cloud” or “morally impeccable”? Is tanjīm “to practice astrology” or “to pay in installments”? As the late Oxford Arabist A. F. L Beeston put it, “in Arabic of all periods, the semantic spectrum of many lexical items is apt . . . to seem unduly diffuse.”

Al-Ḥarīrī stretched the “semantic spectrum” to near breaking point, and this and his other clever tricks were part of his age. Poets played with formal elements of their verse in ways that might strike the modern reader as excessively favouring form over content. As the retired Oxford Arabist Geert Jan van Gelder cautioned, one should not be prejudiced against wordplay and punning: “they are very common in most periods of pre-modern Arabic literature and one should not be shocked to see them in a heart-felt elegy.”

Literary tastes reflected the scholasticism of the time, which emphasized philological minutiae at the expense, some think, of context and content. To show off, scholars composed things like an instructional text in Islamic law that, when read vertically instead of horizontally, contained several other short but legible treatises on grammar and prosody. Or one might try to confound and impress readers by finishing a manuscript and, instead of noting the date in conventional terms, writing that he completed it work on “the second tenth of the second third of the third sixth of the second half of the eighth tenth of the tenth tenth of the first century of the second millennium after the Prophet’s exodus” (12 Ramaḍān 1098/22 July 1687).

There was a lot of this sort of cleverness out there, but cleverness will only take you so far. Al-Ḥamadhānī and al-Ḥarīrī went beyond “clever” to what we could call genius, to take the reader from a wry smile at some lexical game to a sense of wonder at what language is capable of.

This is a tall order for a translator to reproduce, and the majority of those who have tackled the Maqāmāt have been content with literal renderings that reverse the originals’ priorities, faithfully reproducing the narrative but not the language. No such timidity for Michael Cooperson:

Al-Ḥarīrī’s Impostures do not simply include some excessive verbal performances; excessive verbal performance is what they are about. It seems to me, therefore, that any translation that fails to reproduce this feature sells the original short. The problem, of course, is that so many of the fireworks are tied to particular features of Arabic. . . Strictly speaking, none of these features can be translated; they can only be imitated. And the only way to imitate them is to throw out the rule book.

So how to do for English what al-Ḥarīrī did in Arabic? Cooperson has translated each maqāma into a different English idiom. Many are literary, based on famous authors or works. Thus we have tales of Abū Zayd as if penned by Chaucer, Edward Gibbon, Charles Dickens, the explorer of Arabia Charles Doughty, e. e. cummings, Virginia Wolf, James Joyce, P. G. Wodehouse, and in the style of a Shakespearian cross-dressing play, a Gilbert and Sullivan operetta, and many more. Some maqāmāt he retells in a particular dialect or register: Singapore English, Nigerian English, Cockney rhyming slang, nineteenth-century Australian, Harlem jive, to name a few. Then there are those using cant or jargon: that of thieves of various times and places, psychology and counseling, even sewing and tailoring (“Two disputants had buttonholed the judge to pleat their case”). But these idioms are only the beginning, as Cooperson further applies to himself constraints as similar as possible to those of al-Ḥarīrī himself. Some of these are relatively conventional, if uncommon, such as adopting the “iambic tetrameter favoured by Swift” and all kinds of rhyming and metrical rules. Some contraints require greater acrobatics: an epistle that can be read backwards or forwards, one with alternating words of Latin and German origin, and even a cryptic crossword.

It is a lot of fun to read what is more or less the same anecdote fed through these different ways of speaking and writing, all with scrupulous philological notes and glosses covering an astonishing range of material, not least on the words and phrases of the original Arabic. Anyone interested in language in general or English and its literatures will enjoy Impostures, and those who can read al-Ḥarīrī in Arabic can marvel at the surprising and myriad ways in which Cooperson manages to maintain a certain fidelity to the original.

Writing in Classical Arabic is itself a constraint. It is no one’s mother tongue, a strictly literary language that is inherently stately and eloquent, but ill-suited to representing speech and dialogue. This is the case even in modern written Arabic, which can seem stilted and awkward if translated too literally. Moreover, classical Arabic was in theory a pristine and timeless idiom, its vocabulary fixed in the seventh and eighth centuries, the language of the Qur’an and the Prophet Muhammad. It would not do to toy with its grammar or syntax, or to contaminate its lexicon with foreign words or new coinages. (In reality, it was not so pure and immutable, but it is true that the literary language has changed far less in fourteen centuries than, say, English or French.) There were (and are) many varieties of spoken Arabic, but today very few think the vernacular appropriate for literature. Moreover, even al-Ḥarīrī’s playfulness never really shakes off the sense that this was a sacred language, invariably full of religious references and larded with Quranic quotations, and that one cannot escape the interested presence of the one true God.

If al-Ḥarīrī’s Arabic is inescapably the language of pure monotheism, then Cooperson’s English has either many gods or none at all. With its vast array of genre, dialects, registers and historical, geographic and social variations, it could not be more different from classical Arabic. The resultant riot of cultural references and allusions is a delight. In the Indian English Imposture we can read: “When at last the night sloughs off its mortal boil, so to say.” How about scripture (here Qur’an 12: 97) in Spanglish: ‘Above todo sabio,’ dice el Corán, ‘is someone qui sabe más.’ The classical Arabic debate on the merits of scribes versus those of accountants is rendered in management and business jargon, where we might need help to understand “you’re pulling some of those data points right out of the RDB.” The glossary soberly informs:

RDB  rectal database (the source of opinions pulled out of one’s ass)

An Italian orientalist memorably called al-Ḥarīrī “the embalmer of a dead language.” Many Europeans found the word games superficial, evidence of cultural decline or oriental decadence. (To be fair, some Arab critics felt the same way.) Is it all a matter of verbal sorcery or is there something more to the antics of the swindling and serenading Abū Zayd? Not far beneath all the fun and games of the Maqāmāt lurks something more sombre. Cooperson goes as far as to say that “despite their humor and occasional raunchiness, the Impostures are suffused with a desperate sadness.”

Perhaps it is the perpetual wanderings of al-Ḥārith and Abū Zayd; perhaps it is that the convivial conversations can only ever provide temporary relief or fulfillment. Perhaps it is the ubiquitous tension between the different uses of language: to speak the truth, to entertain and to deceive. And if the language of the Revelation can be put to such nefarious purposes, what might that say about everything else we think we know for certain?

Al-Ḥarīrī does not make such questions explicit, but the nature of language, the problem of the Word of God on the tongues of men, was a perennial question amongst Muslim scholars, and the Maqāmāt betray this awareness of how meaning is much slipperier than we think. Indeed, we might say this is the main theme of the work, and it is further testimony to Cooperson’s achievement that in comes out so vividly in the Impostures.

Al-Ḥārith, the narrator, shifts back and forth between joy in his friend’s outrageous company, and urging him to repent of his wicked ways. Abū Zayd, for his part, is unrepentant, at least, that is, until he repents. The logic of Islam must give the last word, as it were, to God, and in the final Imposture we find the wily wine-loving gourmand has retreated to his home town, subsisting on bread and oil and speaking only to pray and praise God. Or so we are told, anyway. If we have learned anything from the forty-nine previous Impostures, it’s that you cannot believe everything you read.

Bruce Fudge is Professor of Arabic at the University of Geneva.