Sometimes in Samarkand, in the evening of a slow and dreary day, city dwellers would come to while the time away at the dead-end Street of Two Taverns, near the pepper market. They came not to taste the musky wine of Soghdia but to watch the comings and goings or to waylay a carouser who would then be forced down into the dust, showered with insults, and cursed into a hell whose fire, until the end of all time, would recall the ruddiness of the wine’s enticements. Out of such an incident the manuscript of the Rubaiyaat was to be born in the summer of 1072.
These are the first sentences of Samarkand, an early novel by Amin Maalouf that I read recently, drawn to it because in it, Maalouf weaves together fact and fiction in a story that has at its heart the Rubaiyaat of Omar Khayyam, written in Samarkand in 1072. I’ve never read the Rubaiyaat in its entirety, but I have dipped into a rather beautiful edition of Rita’s, published by the Folio Society in 1955 (above). During all the years that this little book has been in the house, I knew little of the man who originally penned its verses a millennium ago, only that they had been translated by the Victorian scholar Edward FitzGerald. I suppose it was the verses that celebrated the pleasures of earthly life – wine, love, song – over the uncertain promise of the afterlife which held my attention:
Awake! for Morning in the Bowl of Night
Has flung the Stone that puts the Stars to Flight:
And Lo! the Hunter of the East has caught
The Sultán’s Turret in a Noose of Light.
Dreaming when Dawn’s Left Hand was in the Sky
I heard a Voice within the Tavern cry,
“Awake, my Little ones, and fill the Cup
“Before Life’s Liquor in its Cup be dry.”
Ah, fill the cup – what boots it to repeat
How Time is slipping underneath our Feet:
Unborn Tomorrow, and dead Yesterday,
Why fret about them if Today be sweet!
One Moment in Annihilation’s Waste,
One Moment, of the Well of Life to taste –
The Stars are setting and the Caravan
Starts for the Dawn of Nothing–Oh, make haste!
How long, how long, in infinite Pursuit
Of This and That endeavour and dispute?
Better be merry with the fruitful Grape
Than sadden after none, or bitter, Fruit.
And lately, by the Tavern Door agape,
Came stealing through the Dusk an Angel Shape
Bearing a Vessel on his Shoulder; and
He bid me taste of it; and ’twas–the Grape!
The Grape that can with Logic absolute
The Two-and-Seventy jarring Sects confute:
The subtle Alchemist that in a Trice
Life’s leaden Metal into Gold transmute.
One of the first illustrations of the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam from a manuscript c1500.
FitzGerald’s purpose was not to produce a literal English of the original (for which there exist only manuscript copies made 300 years later, such as the copy in the Bodleian Library in Oxford). Instead, he created entirely new lines, images and even whole quatrains, leading some critics maintain that it is really an English poem with Persian allusions. He restructured the Persian source so that the poem moves from dawn to night, and interwove echoes of Greek and Roman literature, the Bible and Shakespeare, so that ‘the Rubáiyát seems at once exotic and familiar, as if its lines have always existed’.
Decorated title page of an early manuscript of the Rubaiyat from Shiraz, dated 1460, Bodleian Library
Each quatrain or ruba’i (a verse of four lines whose first, second and last lines rhyme) is a meditation on the fleeting nature of life. Human life is a bubble poured out with wine or a piece removed from a chess board:
And fear not lest Existence closing your
Account, and mine, should know the like no more;
The Eternal Saki from that Bowl has pour’d
Millions of Bubbles like us, and will pour.
We are no other than a moving row
Of Magic Shadow-shapes that come and go
Round with the Sun-illumined Lantern held
In Midnight by the Master of the Show;
But helpless Pieces of the Game He plays
Upon this Chequer-board of Nights and Days;
Hither and thither moves, and checks, and slays,
And one by one back in the Closet lays.
In Samarkand, Amin Maalouf traces the story of Omar Khayyam’s manuscript through the relationship between three prominent 11th century Persians who may (or may not) have sworn a lifelong pact of friendship and mutual support while they were students: Omar Khayyam himself, poet, mathematician, and astronomer; Nizam al-Mulk, vizier or chief minister to the second Sultan of the Seljuq Empire, Alp Arslan; and Hassan-i-Sabbah, who later established the Shia sect which came to be known as the Hashshashin or Assassins, directing its operations from his mountain fortress of Alamut.
British Orientalism: an illuminated manuscript of the Rubáiyát by William Morris, illustrated by Edward Burne-Jones, 1870s.
Blending historical fact and fiction, Maalouf paints a picture of 11th-century Persia, its courts and intrigues, in evocative and languid prose. But this is more than an exotic tale of power and romance: Maalouf offers a novel of ideas which aims to reveal the distant roots of 20th (and 21st) century conflicts and the history that is common to the Middle East and the west. He achieves this in the first half of the book by telling the stories of Khayyam, Nizam al-Mulk and Hassan Sabbah, each of them a scholar and thinker, but who each draw different conclusions about religion, politics and the meaning of life.
In the second half, Maalouf jumps forward to the late 19th century and the story of an American journalist, Benjamin Lessage, who develops an interest in the Rubáiyát and, learning of the existence of an original manuscript, embarks on a quest to find the book. The journey takes him to Persia, where he becomes involved in the revolt of 1905 which demanded that the Shah establish a democratic state with a constitution. Maalouf shows how the attempts by Persians to create a democratic state were thwarted by the colonial powers – Russia, France and Britain.
Woven through these events is Maalouf’s fictional saga of Khayyam’s own manuscript of the Rubáiyát – seized by Hassan Sabbah, leader of the Assassins sect, then lost when the fortress of the Assassins is destroyed, rediscovered centuries later, only to be lost again when it vanished on the maiden voyage of the Titanic. Fiction, too, is Maalouf’s account (based on a probably apocryphal story recounted by Jorge Luis Borges) of a pact formed between the young Nizam al-Mulk (at that time known as Abdul Khassem) and his two friends, Omar Khayyam and Hassan-i-Sabbah. They agreed that if one should rise to prominence, that person would help the other two to do likewise.
Nizam al-Mulk is the first to achieve prominence, appointed vizier to the sultan Alp Arslan. To fulfil the pact he offers Omar Khayyám a position as the sultan’s chief spy. Omar refuses, realising he is ‘being offered a paradise shackled to a hell’. Preferring to stick to poetry and the study of mathematics and astronomy, he tells Nizam, ‘When it comes to secrets and those who reveal them, I am on the side of the secrets. … My curiosity about people and things is expressed in a different way’.
Nizam respects Khayyam’s decision and magnanimously sticks to his promise, awarding him a handsome annual retainer, as well as building him an observatory. Khayyam makes a further, fateful, decision – to recommend for the post his friend Hassan, who accepts the appointment, and years later plots to depose Nizam as vizier, before fleeing and eventually conquering the fortress of Alamut, from where he establishes the Assassins. One of Hassan-i-Sabbah’s many victims would be Nizam al-Mulk, assassinated in 1092 by a member of the Assassins.
So the poet-astronomer Omar Khayyám, whose poems reveal a philosophy that advocates living for the moment, questioning certainties in an uncertain world, and living for this life not the next; a man accused in his lifetime of being an atheist and deemed by Sufis who read his poems as one of their own, was instrumental – at least, according to this tale – in assisting at the birth of Islamic terrorism.
An agent of the Order of Assassins (left, in white turban) fatally stabs Nizam al-Mulk, a Seljuk vizier, in 1092. (Topkapi Palace Museum)
Hassan-e Sabbāh founded his community in the late 11th century at Alamut in the Alborz mountains of northern Iran. There, Hassan devoted himself to study; for 35 years he found solace in austerity and frugality, and never left his quarters. As well as philosophy, he was well versed in mathematics, astronomy, alchemy, medicine, architecture, and the major scientific disciplines of his time. Meanwhile, branches of his sect spread throughout Iran, Syria and beyond.
The remains of the Alamut fortress.
Samarkand was first published in 1992. The contemporary parallels to the events in Maalouf’s narrative are unstated but clearly intended by an author whose personal destiny has been shaped by events in the Middle East in the last 40 years. Soon after the Lebanese civil war broke out in 1975, Amin Maalouf, then a journalist in Beirut, took refuge in his ancestral mountain village. It was a war in which he refused to take sides, and one that ultimately forced him to join other members of his family in exile. Maalouf left for Paris, where he has lived since 1976. Three years later, covering the Islamic revolution in Iran, Maalouf was perplexed by a religious revolution in the late 20th century, and it is this puzzlement that underlies Samarkand: ‘I wanted to understand the relationship between politics, religion and culture in that part of the world.’
His novels are marked by his experience of civil war and migration, the feeling of being ‘poised between two countries, two or three languages and several cultural traditions’. Their characters range across a Mediterranean and Levantine world that vanished at the end of the First World War, a world where Greek and Italian mingled with Arabic and Turkish, and Druze rubbed shoulders with Christians, Jews and Sunni Muslims (a story that has been told in Rageh Omaar’s excellent BBC2 series The Ottomans that concluded last week).
Perhaps the most powerful conclusion that flowed from Rageh Omaar’s final programme was the sense that, in the Middle East, the legacy of the First World War is still with us: the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, the carving up of its territories by Britain and France into countries whose borders make no sense, the western pursuit of oil and profit, and the terrifying consequences of nationalism. Towards the end of Samarkand, when the American Benjamin Lessage finds himself swept up in the events of the Persian constitutional revolt of 1905, he listens to another young American, a teacher, who explains his sympathy for the revolt against the Shah and the colonial powers who determine the country’s fate:
When I arrived in this country, I could not understand how grown and bearded men could sob and work themselves up over a murder committed twelve hundred years ago. Now I have understood. If the Persians live in the past it is because the past is their homeland and the present is a foreign country where nothing belongs to them. Everything which is a symbol of modern life and greater freedom for us, for them is a symbol of foreign domination: the roads – Russia; the railways, telegraph and banking system – England; the postal service – Austria-Hungary….
Samarkand, city of the book’s title and the place where Omar Khayyam penned the poetry of the Rubáiyát, had fallen under Russian rule in 1868; after the 1917 revolution the city became the capital of the Uzbek Soviet Socialist Republic. Now, following the collapse of the Soviet Union, it is the second city of Uzbekistan.
Samarkand, Richard Karl Karlovich Zommer, 1910: an example of Russian Orientalism
In Murderous Identities (1998), Amin Maalouf wrote of how, as a Lebanese Christian, ‘the fact of simultaneously being Christian and having as my mother tongue Arabic, the holy language of Islam, is one of the basic paradoxes that have shaped my identity’. The Chilean writer Ariel Dorfman has commented, ‘at this time of fundamentalist identity seekers, Amin’s is a voice of wisdom and sanity that sings the complexity and wonder of belonging to many places’.
Maalouf is sceptical of all religions:
I have the profoundest respect for people who behave in a generous way because of religion. But I come from a country where the misuse of religion has had catastrophic consequences. One must judge people not by what faith they proclaim but by what they do.
At the Tomb of Omar Khayyam, Jay Hambidge: late 19th century American Orientalism
Let the last words be those of Omar Khayyam:
Ah, make the most of what we yet may spend,
Before we too into the Dust descend;
Dust into Dust, and under Dust to lie,
Sans Wine, sans Song, sans Singer, and – sans End!
Why, all the Saints and Sages who discuss’d
Of the Two Worlds so learnedly, are thrust
Like foolish Prophets forth; their Words to Scorn
Are scatter’d, and their Mouths are stopt with Dust.