The first daily in the Arabian
The story of the Islamic Warrior
Every once in a while you have a dream where you're capable of speaking a language other than your own, like the time I dreamt I spoke German, as a composer in a vaguely renaissance setting. That imaginary feeling of fully comprehending another way of vocalizing life, of penetrating another cultural realm, became real in one instance, during a performance in New York City. It came to me this very night while witnessing Dastangoi: the Adventures of Amir Hamza, at the Asia Society's headquarters in Upper Man
Before I delve into how this momentary linguistic delusion took hold, I should offer a brief explanation of the evening's performance and the venue.
In a nutshell, Dastangoi is a narrative adaptation of the 'Tilism-e-Hoshruba,' dealing with the exploits of Amir Hamza, the Islamic warrior, against the emperor of sorcerers, Afrasiab. One of many exciting cultural events to take place this week during the 'Muslim Voices' festival, the evening's performance, adapted and directed by Mahmoud Farooqui a Delhi-based writer and performer, was truly a marvel.
The headquarters of the Asia Society, one of the organizers of the festival, was the perfect venue for this masterly exercise in storytelling. It's no easy feat to transform a modern stage into a setting so intimate that a sensation of ease and warmth is present as in one's living room. The stage, a low wooden platform with a mattress and pillows, two candles on either side, two books, two silver cups and a water pitcher, was elegant as it was humble.
Before the performance began, here's a quick excerpt from the accompanying booklet, which provided an excellent summary of the history of these tales:
The word Dastangoi literally means storytelling. It is a form of oral extempore composition and narration, which deals principally with war, romance, adventure and sorcery. Dastangos [storytellers] were expected to be efficient in the arts of literary composition...and performance. Popular in India, following Persian and Arabic traditions, since at least the sixteenth century, the form reached its apogee in Urdu in the nineteenth century. Building upon the one-volume legend of Amir Hamza the eponymous Ara
b warrior's adventures, the Urdu dastangois, through repeated oral tellings over generations, so expanded the story that it took a wholly new life and color. It became wholly indigenized, Indianized, in spirit, details and context.
And so the performance began with a generous introduction by Mr. Farooqui on the art of Dastangoi, who explained how the dastangos were basically a living oral encyclopedia of language and history. He told us that saying "Vah!" is an Indian form of applause, a tradition which the audience was encouraged to engage in. A synopsis of the story was given, our tale being "The Dragon Army and Barq (the Frank) Ayyaar." Ayyaar? Hold on a minute. Any native speaker of Kuwaiti Arabic knows exactly what an ayyaar is
- that is, a trickster.
Which, coincidentally, corresponds with the Urdu meaning. I was amazed by the number of words I understood during this performance, which was recited entirely in Urdu. Words like asli (authentic), mashhoor (renowned), 'ajeeb (marvelous), ghareeb (strange), jooti (shoe), jasoos (spy), khali (empty), sharaab (drink) and so on. I wondered whether these words were borrowed from Urdu into Arabic or vice versa...
In any case, the story itself, despite its conventional framework of good triumphing over evil, was littered with surprising moments of plot twists and gorgeous, otherworldly settings. For a start, it takes place in the Tilism-e-Hoshruba, a magical realm between the earth and sky, obscured by a river of fire. In one tale Amir Hamza's best friend Amar and the ayyaar Barq battle Azlam Zadu and his dragon army. In another, Amar saves the sorcerer Aafat's life disguised as the latter's wife Hilal.
But turning back to linguistic delusion, several times during this performance I really believed that I understood Urdu (and the ten words that are shared with Arabic). An unlikely occurrence, since there was literally a super title (the opposite of subtitle for those who do not frequent the theater) every five minutes, the rest of the monologue was only understood by speakers of Urdu. In other words, the dasntangos had cast a multi-layered spell on me, like the sorcerers in their epic tales.
A spell of time-travel transported me to the jasmine-scented court of a Mughal monarch where I was the lowliest servant, where too ignorant to comprehend the linguistic niceties of court tales I stood in desperate enchantment at the raw skill of the storyteller. Living proof that the performative elements of storytelling are a universal language: one of tone, gesture and, last but not least, talent. The lack of adornment, whether musical or visual, highlighted the real oral virtuosity of the performers. Sadly, I could never fully comprehend the delight felt by native speakers of Urdu that night, but for a moment in the breakdown of time and space, I believed I did.