The Romance of Antar

14-01-25 - READING Antar

A medieval rep­re­sen­ta­tion of Antarah Ibn Shad­dād

Ear­ly Ara­bic lit­er­a­ture is not well-known in the Eng­lish-speak­ing world, and some ele­ments of it might sur­prise some­one who is only famil­iar with the stuff from lat­er peri­ods. Among the ear­li­est works in Clas­si­cal Ara­bic are a num­ber of tales that can only be called “chival­ric romances”, which strong­ly resem­ble the sort of thing you would expect in Mal­o­ry or Chré­tien de Troyes. What would most sur­prise a mod­ern read­er is the treat­ment of female char­ac­ters.

Antarah Ibn Shad­dād al-‘Absī [عنترة بن شداد العبسي], a sixth-cen­tu­ry Arab of the Banu Abs tribe in the Hejaz, was of mixed Ethiopi­an and Arab descent, famous in his day as both a sol­dier and a poet. The Arab soci­ety of the Hejaz, at the time, was much more like that of the Euro­pean ear­ly mid­dle ages than one would imag­ine, with plen­ty of knights in armour and chain mail engag­ing in jousts and mak­ing implau­si­ble vows to fair maid­ens. His auto­bi­o­graph­i­cal poems were includ­ed in the Mu‘allaqāt [المعلقات], a set of poems con­sid­ered so fine that they were hung on the side of the Ka’ba at Mec­ca [the name means “those which are hung”]. Cen­turies lat­er, the mate­r­i­al was reworked into the Epic of Antar, or Romance of Antar. This found it’s way to Europe only when the painter Éti­enne Dinet trans­lat­ed it into French in 1898. This trans­la­tion made enough of an impres­sion to inspire the com­pos­er Niko­lai Rim­sky-Kor­sakov to com­pose his Sym­pho­ny #2, sub­ti­tled “Antar”. But nowa­days, it is large­ly for­got­ten by Euro­peans. 

I pos­sess a copy of the romance ren­dered into Eng­lish by Éti­enne Delé­cluse and Epipha­nius Wil­son, pub­lished in 1900 by Colo­nial Press. Here are some remark­able pas­sages:

Zahir con­tin­ued his jour­ney, until he reached the Saad tribe, when he dis­mount­ed from his horse. He was cor­dial­ly received and was pressed to take up his abode with them. His wife was at that time soon to become a moth­er, and he said to her: “If a son is giv­en to us, he will be right wel­come ; but if it be a daugh­ter, con­ceal her sex and let peo­ple think we have a male child, so that my broth­er may have no rea­son to crow over us.” When her time came Zahir’s wife brought into the world a daugh­ter. They agreed that her name should be actu­al­ly Djai­da, but that pub­licly she should be known as Djon­der, that peo­ple might take her for a boy. In order to pro­mote this belief, they kept up feast­ing and enter­tain­ment ear­ly and late for many days.
 About the same time Moharib, the oth­er broth­er, had a son born to him, whom he named Khaled (The Eter­nal). He chose this name in grat­i­tude to God, because, since his brother’s depar­ture, his affairs had pros­pered well.
 The two chil­dren even­tu­al­ly reached full age, and their renown was wide­spread among the Arabs. Zahir had taught his daugh­ter to ride on horse­back, and had trained her in all the accom­plish­ments fit­ting to a war­rior bold and dar­ing. He accus­tomed her to the sever­est toils, and the most per­ilous enter­pris­es. When he went to war, he put her among the oth­er Arabs of the tribe, and in the midst of these horse­men she soon took her rank as one of the most valiant of them. Thus it came to pass that she eclipsed all her com­rades, and would even attack the lions in their dens. At last her name became an object of ter­ror; when she had over­come a cham­pi­on she nev­er failed to cry out : “I am Djon­der, son of Zahir, horse­man of the tribes.”

Of course, Djai­da [aka Djon­der] falls in love with Khaled when she sees him “scour the plains on horse­back with his war­riors, and in this way waxed greater in bod­i­ly strength and courage”. But Khaled is smit­ten, not with Djai­da, but with Djon­der! :

Khaled also vis­it­ed his cousin. He salut­ed her, pressed her to his bosom, and kissed her fore­head, think­ing she was a young man. He felt the great­est plea­sure in her com­pa­ny, and remained ten days with his uncle, reg­u­lar­ly tak­ing part in the jousts and con­tests of the horse­men and war­riors. As for his cousin, the moment she had seen how hand­some and valiant Khaled was, she had fall­en vio­lent­ly in love with him.

Djaida’s moth­er arranges to have her pre­sent­ed to Khaled’s par­ents in her undis­guised female state, and attempts to arrange a mar­riage between the male and female war­riors. But Khaled will have none of it: 

My moth­er, I can­not remain here any longer. I must return home amid my horse­men and troops. I have no inten­tion of say­ing any­thing more to my cousin ; I am con­vinced that she is a per­son whose tem­per and ideas of life are uncer­tain; her char­ac­ter and man­ner of speech are utter­ly des­ti­tute of sta­bil­i­ty and pro­pri­ety. I have always been accus­tomed to live amid war­riors, on whom I spend my wealth, and with whom I win a soldier’s renown. As for my cousin’s love for me, it is the weak­ness of a woman, of a young girl.” He then donned his armor, mount­ed his horse, bade his uncle farewell, and announced his inten­tion of leav­ing at once. “What means this haste?” cried Zahir. ”I can remain here no longer,” answered Khaled, and, putting his horse to a gal­lop, he flung him­self into the depths of the wilder­ness.

Djai­da is furi­ous at this rejec­tion, and responds as only a war­rior would:

I should like, if God gives me the pow­er, to make him taste the fury of death, the bit­ter­ness of its pang and tor­ture.” So say­ing, she rose like a lioness, put on her armor, and mount­ed her horse, telling her moth­er she was going on a hunt­ing expe­di­tion. Swift­ly, and with­out stop­ping, she tra­versed rocks and moun­tains, her excite­ment increas­ing as she approached the dwelling-place of her cousin. As she was dis­guised, she entered, unrec­og­nized, into the tent where strangers were received. Her visor was, how­ev­er, low­ered, like that of a horse­man of Hijaz. Slaves and ser­vants received her, offered her hos­pi­tal­i­ty, com­port­ing them­selves towards her as to one of the guests, and the most noble per­son­ages of the land.
 That night Djai­da took rest ; but the fol­low­ing day she joined the mil­i­tary exer­cis­es, chal­lenged many cav­a­liers, and exhib­it­ed so much address and brav­ery, that she pro­duced great aston­ish­ment among the spec­ta­tors. Long before noon the horse­men of her cousin were com­pelled to acknowl­edge her supe­ri­or­i­ty over them­selves. Khaled wished to wit­ness her prowess, and, sur­prised at the sight of so much skill, he offered to match him­self with her. Djai­da entered the con­test with him, and then both of them join­ing in com­bat tried, one after anoth­er, all the meth­ods of attack and defence, until the shad­ows of night came on. When they sep­a­rat­ed both were unhurt, and none could say who was the vic­tor. Thus Djai­da, while rous­ing the admi­ra­tion of the spec­ta­tors, saw the annoy­ance they felt on find­ing their chief equalled in fight by so skil­ful an oppo­nent. Khaled ordered his antag­o­nist to be treat­ed with all the care and hon­or imag­in­able, then retired to his tent, his mind filled with thoughts of his con­flict. Djai­da remained three days at her cousin’s habi­ta­tion. Every morn­ing she pre­sent­ed her­self on the ground of com­bat, and remained under arms until night. She enjoyed it great­ly, still keep­ing her incog­ni­to, whilst Khaled, on the oth­er hand, made no enquiries, and asked no ques­tions of her, as to who she was and to what tribe she might belong.
 On the morn­ing of the fourth day, while Khaled, accord­ing to his cus­tom, rode over the plain, and passed close to the tents reserved for strangers, he saw Djai­da mount­ing her horse. He salut­ed her, and she returned his salute. ”Noble Arab,” said Khaled, “I should like to ask you one ques­tion. Up to this moment I have failed in cour­tesy towards you, but, I now beg of you, in the name of that God who has endowed you with such great dex­ter­i­ty in arms, tell me, who are you, and to what noble princes are you allied? For I have nev­er met your equal among brave cav­a­liers. Answer me, I beseech you, for I am dying to learn.” Djai­da smiled, and rais­ing her visor, replied: “Khaled, I am a woman, and not a war­rior. I am your cousin Djai­da, who offered her­self to you, and wished to give her­self to you; but you refused her—from the pride you felt in your pas­sion for arms.” As she spoke she turned her horse sud­den­ly, stuck spurs into him, and dashed off at full gal­lop towards her own coun­try.

At first, Khaled is sore­ly con­fused, but:

His dis­taste for women was changed into love.

Now it’s his turn to be furi­ous, for Djai­da accepts anoth­er suit­or. After defeat­ing him, Khaled press­es for mar­riage with her. But she demands of him a daunt­ing series of tasks before he can win her. These include win­ning sev­er­al wars and amass­ing a for­tune. Last of all, he must

… go into the wild and marshy places of the land, in order to attack hand to hand in their cav­erns the lions and lioness­es and their cubs, and bear them slain to the tents, in order to pro­vide meat for all those who attend­ed the fes­ti­val.

But Djai­da will not be con­tent with such a wimp. She needs a real­ly tougher man. So.…

She dis­guised her­self in coat of mail, mount­ed her horse, and left the tents; as three days of fes­tiv­i­ties still remained, she hasti­ly fol­lowed Khaled into the desert, and met him face to face in a cav­ern. She flung her­self upon him with the impetu­os­i­ty of a wild beast, and attacked him furi­ous­ly, cry­ing aloud, “Arab ! dis­mount from your horse, take off your coat of mail, and your armor; if you hes­i­tate to do so, I will run this lance through your heart.” Khaled was resolved at once to resist her in this demand. They engaged in furi­ous com­bat. The strug­gle last­ed for more than an hour, when the war­rior saw in the eyes of his adver­sary an expres­sion which alarmed him. He remount­ed his horse, and hav­ing wheeled round his steed from the place of com­bat, exclaimed: ”By the faith of an Arab, I adjure you to tell me what horse­man of the desert you are; for I feel that your attack and the vio­lence of your blows are irre­sistible. In fact, you have pre­vent­ed me from accom­plish­ing that which I had intend­ed, and all that I had eager­ly desired to do.” At these words Djai­da raised her visor, thus per­mit­ting him to see her face.
 “Khaled,” she cried, “is it nec­es­sary for the girl you love to attack wild beasts, in order that the daugh­ters of Ara­bia may learn that this is not the exclu­sive priv­i­lege of a war­rior?” At this cut­ting rebuke Khaled was over­come with shame. “By the faith of an Arab,” he replied, no one but you can over­come me ; but is there any­one in this coun­try who has chal­lenged you, or are you come hith­er mere­ly to prove to me the extent of your val­or?”
 “By the faith of an Arab,” replied Djai­da, “I came into this desert sole­ly for the pur­pose of help­ing you to hunt wild beasts, and in order that your war­riors might not reproach you for choos­ing me as your wife.” At these words Khaled felt thrilled with sur­prise and admi­ra­tion, that such spir­it and res­o­lu­tion should have been exhib­it­ed in the con­duct of Djai­da.
 Then both of them dis­mount­ed from their hors­es and entered into a cav­ern. There Khaled seized two fero­cious wild beasts, and Djai­da attacked and car­ried off a lion and two lioness­es. After these exploits they exchanged con­grat­u­la­tions, and Djai­da felt hap­py to be with Khaled.”

I won­der if any­one in the Mus­lim world today, con­sid­er­ing the cur­rent atmos­phere, would dare to make a film ver­sion of this chival­ric tale, which once hung upon the very walls of the Ka’ba?

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