Al-Hariri, Maqamat (Assemblies)

Introduction: The scholar, poet, and Seljuq administrator Abu Muhammad al Qasim ibn Ali al-Hariri (1054–1122) grew up in Basra (modern Iraq) in an educated and well-to-do family. He is best known for his writings in an Arabic literary form known as maqamat ("assemblies," "settings," or "sessions," because they were originally recited to an assembled audience). Maqamat combine rhymed prose and poetry and are full of amusing wordplay. Al-Hariri's Maqamat consists of fifty tales about the antics of Abu Zayd, a trickster from northern Syria, who repeatedly plays pranks on the traveling merchant al-Harith. The gullible al-Harith is duped every time.

Maqama 34 takes place in a slave market in Zabid, Yemen, where Abu Zayd cons al-Harith into purchasing a boy who cannot legally be enslaved. As in many of the tales, Maqama 34 both illuminates and critiques the diverse economic, legal, and religious realities that structured people's lives in the Islamicate world. The passage on the page illustrated in the textbook is shown below in boldface type.

Translation: Some passages have been simplified and words added in brackets to aid comprehension.
The merchant al-Harith ibn Hammam narrated at the Zabid slave market, "I was traveling with my mature [ أكمل رشده ] boy [ صحبني غلام,] to whose education I had contributed until he became an adult; my morals pleased him. During our trip, my faithful son [the servant or slave] died. As he grew up, until he reached thirty, neither was his voice ever raised nor did he ignore any of my orders. After his death, I was left lonely; I became . . . like any other senior who couldn't prepare a single meal for himself. At first I seemed to have no need for a young boy [ ولا أريغ غلاما. ], but now—and after loneliness knocked on my door—the effort to stand and sit was unbearable. I believed that this is the time to find someone to fill to my needs, so I intended to come to the slave market at Zabid to find my [new] servant.

Ibn Hammam reached his destination of Zabid and said, "I'm looking for an obedient handsome boy, an always thankful, polite, brave, and active servant, who is keen to . . . bring food at the time of his master's needs. Thankful and grateful at all times. Clever and wise. Quick in response. Able to satisfy my needs. I'm in a hurry to find what I'm looking for. None of the slave-sellers gave me proper attention; they all nodded their heads but seem to forget my request. I decided not to rely on them. How could I give them my trust while their only purpose is to trade slaves, to sell and gain money? I will browse myself and get estimates. After that, a veiled slave-seller came and showcased his charming boy. . . .

"When I stared at his perfect creation—pretty face, pure, heavenly soul—I wondered if this was a regular human being! This is truly a genuine king! Then I asked about his name, not because I needed to know, but to watch his skills in tact and eloquence, as well as his accent and pronunciation. The boy didn't open his mouth with either a sweet or a bitter word. I was angry. I slapped his face and said, 'Shame on your ugly face.' The boy started to laugh loudly and nodded his head and chanted, 'Why do you feel angry, me being silent, not answering your question or revealing my name; does that justify your request? If what you seek for your satisfaction is only my identity, then good! I'm Joseph, I'm Joseph! I'm free, I'm free. Now that I've disclosed this, what do you think? Do you know me now?'

"I was astonished by his words. My mind was blown by their charm and sweetness, to a point where I forgot the story of Joseph the prophet [the biblical figure whose brothers sold him into slavery in Genesis 37:2–36]. I could do nothing but bargain with his master. And get a better price.

"I expected he'd look at me pitifully and then raise the boy's price. Rather, he said, 'If I reduced the boy's price and lowered his subsistence, he will gain the blessing of his lord and be showered with his love. Blessed be his master. I would rather endear this boy to you and reduce the price for you. Weigh two hundred dirhams if you want to. And thank me as long as I live!' I paid him the money immediately. It is considered halal [permitted] for me to buy him at a cheap price.

"When the deal was achieved and his master's pocket was filled, I wasn't expecting the consequences. I immediately realized then that what was considered cheap is indeed precious! The boy's eyes became dull. His tears poured forth as clouds. Then the boy looked at his lord and said 'For God's sake, could someone like me be sold in a slave market! . . . In order to satisfy the hungry stomach, where is fairness? Where is the law? Is it common to pay that much of your money for an impossible deal?'"

The narrator said, "When the sheikh الشيخ [the veiled man] heard the boy's verses and sensed the boy's poetry, he sighed in relief. And he cried until the strangers heard him. He then said to me, 'This boy is considered one of my sons. I don't distinguish him from my liver. I treated him fairly, but for my old age and exhausted body I'm forced to sell him; I have never thought of selling him until my departure [death].' The boy's owner asked Ibn Hammam to take care of him, while he also asked Ibn Hammam to entertain the boy and give him comfort if he felt sorrow: 'Farewell my son.' Then the old master left and immediately disappeared the moment he said goodbye. Al-Harith ibn Hammam then said, "I made him a promise, the most prominent of which was modesty." After that, the boy continued hissing and wailing. But Ibn Hammam thought it was tears of loyalty from leaving his previous owner, not because of his now being enslaved. The boy said, 'Oh God, we are not on the same page; do you think I was disappointed and whining because of leaving my master, you fool?! My problem is bigger than you can grasp with your limited mind.' The boy chanted, 'I'm free, my sale is not permitted, is my enslavement legal for you? Why, when I called myself Joseph, didn't you get it? Why wasn't it clear enough for you to set me free? Because I'm a free man!!!! Why don't you get it still?! You are just a stupid man who got ambitious.'" Ibn Hammam then said, "In the beginning, I thought he was joking or playing a kind of game, but shockingly, his response was firm; the truth has been said, and he was released from enslavement. Then we had an argument that followed with a fight and ended in court. When we clarified the situation to the jury and described the whole story from the beginning, the judge declared, 'Didn't the boy warn you? His claims were an indication of his freedom; instead you were wrong. After all, your explanation is evidence that the boy warned you and that you didn't listen. He alerted you but you didn't care. So cover your shame and silence it; adjust yourself, not him. Forcing the boy into servitude is not allowed; he is completely a free man. My proof is his father, who brought him yesterday before the sun rose, and proved he was the father who raised him.'

Ibn Hammam then asked the judge, "Do you know his father? Shame on this man." The judge then said, "No one doesn't know Abu Zayd. The jury is aware of his actions." Ibn Hammam said, "The traitor! I felt the grudge in my heart and realized the plot that was planned to set me up, the veiled man who played the role to deceive me. I decided that I would never deal with a veiled person in my whole life. I'm still feeling the sorrow of losing my money, and that the scandal occurred among my people. When he saw my anger, the judge said, 'Your lost money has taught you a lesson, so be aware of what is wrong with you. And keep your companions away from what has befallen you. Gain the morals of patience to be blessed, and be a person who benefits from his faults.' Harith ibn Hammam then said, "So I bid him farewell, wearing a dress of shame and sadness, pulling my tail of shame and stupidity. After that . . . I was trying to avoid encountering him [Abu Zayd] when I saw him walking toward me on a narrow road. He quickly came closer with a warm greeting. I frowned and my anger increased, and he asked, 'What's wrong with you?' I answered, 'Did you forget your intended fraud? Your unlawful plot?' Abu Zayd then chanted a poem: 'Why are you so angry at me! Do you think it was an easy attempt to sell a free boy for money! History revealed how Joseph's tribe sold him; I want you to excuse my situation, as I'm financially drained and in need of dirhams. If you really understand, you will have mercy on me. Stop blaming me and being harsh.' Then he continued and said, 'It is apparent that I apologize for what I put you through. However, your dirhams are nonrefundable. If you are deeply upset with me and emotionally hurt, why wouldn't you give me some sympathy instead of complaining about the money you spent? . . . If I ignored your arrogance and accepted your greed, you got to cry over your wicked mind.'" Al-Harith ibn Hammam said, "He forced me with his charming words and his magical streaming wisdom. In the end, I became calm and forgave him."

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