friendship: weeping & laughing in the Tale of Attaf

Perspectives: Chiharu Shiota at Sackler Gallery

The Tale of Attaf the Syrian (The Power of Destiny) begins with Caliph Harun al-Rashid restless and uneasy. The Caliph, the Commander of the Faithful, opened a book. Reading it, he both wept and laughed profusely. His companion, his vizier Ja’far ibn Yahya, exclaimed:

O King of the Age, how is it I see you reading and weeping and laughing at one and the same moment when no one does that except madmen and maniacs? [1]

Ja’far’s sensible question infuriated the Caliph. The Caliph immediately expelled his vizier:

Get away from me and address me not again nor sit as vizier until you answer your own question and you tell me what is written and decreed in that book I was reading and you learn why I wept and why I laughed at one and the same hour. Out and away with you, and don’t face me again except with the answer, or else will I slay you in the most brutal way.

Ja’far ibn Yahya was a member of the Barmakids family. The Barmakids, thought to have Indian origins, were closely associated with al-Rashid. They served him as favored advisers and ministers.  However, in 803, al-Rashid turned upon the Barmakids, confiscated their wealth, imprisoned leading members, and executed Ja’far. In the Tale of Attaf the Syrian, al-Rashid’s strange rejection of Ja’far prompted Ja’far to leave Baghdad and journey to Damascus. The close relationship between the Caliph and his vizier became distant.

Influential ancient literature presents ideal friendship as persons being willing to lay down their lives for their friends. The story of Damon and Pythias, known in fourth-century Greek culture, told of Damon’s willingness to lay down his life for his friend Pythias. Damon and Pythias were followers of the philosopher Pythagoras. While both were in Syracuse, Pythias was sentenced to death for allegedly plotting against the tyrant of Syracuse. Pythias begged for leave to travel home to settle his affairs and say farewell to his family before he was executed. Damon pledged to remain in Syracuse and be executed in the place of Pythias if Pythias didn’t return. The tyrant accepted that ancient form of bail and allowed Pythias to travel. Unfortunately, his return was delayed. Just before Damon was to be executed, Pythias returned. He recounted his extraordinary efforts overcoming obstacles that had hindered his return. Impressed with Damon and Pythias’ dedication to each other in friendship, the tyrant pardoned both from death.

The friendship of Damon and Pythias doesn’t just concern that story. A renegade Jew living in the eastern Mediterranean area instructed his followers similarly about friendship. Foreshadowing his brutal execution in love for his friends, he told his followers:

This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. [2]

Friendship among men has been central to the formation of large-scale human societies. The men who have created and led such societies throughout history have needed trusted, loyal men. The personal safety of the ruler, sound administration of the realm, and defense against external enemies has depended on friendship among men. Across Eurasia, in organizations of warrior men like the comitatus, men pledged to lay down their lives for each other and for their ruler. Fear and material interests haven’t been and probably cannot be a sufficient basis for long-lasting, large-scale human societies.[3]

Laying down one’s life for a friend was culturally elaborated into laying down one’s wife for a friend.  Consider a story about the pre-Islamic Christian Arab Hatim Tai. He was renowned for his generosity. Abu Said of the Banu Hilal tribe sought to test Hatim Tai’s generosity. Disguised as a dervish, Abu Said went to the tents of the Tayy (Tai) tribe. Hatim Tai, who was his tribe’s chief, invited all to come to this table. Abu Said declared that he would have a meal with Hatim Tai only if he received Hatim Tai’s wife. Hatim Tai, with his wife’s acquiescence, agreed to give her to Abu Said. Early the next day, Abu Said departed with Hatim Tai’s wife.

Abu Said’s request for Hatim Tai’s wife was a test for friendship. While traveling home, Abu Said placed his sword between himself and the woman when they slept. When he arrived home, he gave the woman her own tent and did not bring her into his tent. Abu Said then invited Hatim Tai to visit. Abu Said hosted Hatim Tai with great hospitality. Abu Said also offered his sister to Hatim Tai. He accepted. He took the woman home. There, uncovering her, he discovered that she was his own wife.[4]

Laying down one’s wife for a friend occurs with literary, religious, and cultural sophistication. In the story of Abu Said and Hatim Tai, Abu Said placing his sword between himself and the women is an ironic literary wink to the repressed phallus. Zayd ibn Harithah, a companion (close friend) of Muhammad, divorced his wife Zaynab bint Jahsh so that Muhammad could marry her.[5] The European Latin poem of Lantfrid and Cobbo, probably from the tenth century, tells of Lantfrid giving up his wife to his dear friend Cobbo. Like in the story of Abu Said and Hatim Tai, Cobbo left with Lantfrid’s wife. Cobbo, however, soon returned with the woman. He gave her, untouched, back to Lantfrid.[6] Historically and right up to the present, men’s lives have been socially less valued than women’s lives. For a man, laying down one’s wife for a friend indicates a more socially sophisticated friendship sacrifice than laying down one’s life for a friend.

In the even more culturally sophisticated Tale of Attaf, Attaf gave up intercourse with his wives to offer hospitality to Ja’far. Attaf, a handsome, noble young man with a godly smile, noticed the traveler Ja’far just outside of Damascus. Attaf invited Ja’far to join his banquet. Attaf and Jafar quickly became close friends. After the banquet, the time came for sleep:

eunuchs came in and spread for Ja’far delicately crafted bedding at the head of the hall in its place of honor. The eunuchs placed other bedding alongside. Seeing this, Ja’far the vizier said to himself, “Perhaps my host is a bachelor, and so they would spread his bed to my side; however, I will venture the question.” Accordingly he addressed his host saying, “O Attaf, are you single or married?” “I am married, O my lord,” said Attaf. Ja’far followed up, “Why then do you not go within and lie with your wives?”  “O my lord,” replied Attaf, “my wives are not about to take flight, and it would be nothing but disgraceful to me were I to leave a visitor like you, a man whom all revere, to sleep alone while I pass the night with my wives and rise early to enter the baths. I would consider such action to be uncourteous and failure to honor a luminary like your Honor.  In very truth, O my lord, so long as your presence deigns to favor this house, I will not sleep with my wives until I say goodbye to your Worship and you depart in peace and safety to your own place.”  “This is amazing,” said Ja’afar to himself, “and perhaps further events will be more so for me.”  So they lay together that night. When morning came they arose and went to the baths. Attaf had sent there for the use of his guest a suit of magnificent clothes. He had Ja’afar put the suit on before leaving the baths.

This account of sleeping together decorously suggests same-sex eroticism. Subsequently, by day, Attaf took Ja’far around Damascus to see the various places and sights. At night, they returned home to sleep together as they did on the first night. These activities continued for four months.

Ja’far apparently tired of his affair with Attaf. Ja’far suggested that he would like to wander about Damascus by himself. Attaf graciously offered Ja’far a carriage. Ja’far declined. Attaf then gave Ja’far some money. A Victorian archaic-English translation of the Tale of Attaf poignantly has at this point:

Ja’far took from Attaf a purse of three hundred dinars and left the house gladly as one who issueth from durance vile

Wandering about Damascus, Ja’far’s eyes found a beautiful young lady:

a model of comeliness and loveliness and fair figure and symmetrical grace, whose charms would animate all who gaze upon her

Ja’far fell desperately in love with her at first sight.[8] That beautiful young lady turned out to be one of Attaf’s wives. When he found out the cause of his friend’s dangerous lovesickness, Attaf arranged to divorce that wife and have her marry Ja’far.

Courtly and clerical thinking about idealized friendship contributed to the development of the horrors of courtly love in medieval Europe. That thinking, heavily influenced by Cicero’s De amicitia, privileged relational abstractions of friendship. Friendship was a voluntary association of autonomous equals. Friends were self-aware and self-controlled. The perfect friend was another self. Those lifeless ideals of friendship prompted men to believe that they must woo and win that one woman who is their other self, perfectly matching them except that women are exalted and men must serve them.[7] Weeping and laughing in the Tale of Attaf, Caliph Harun al-Rashid reveals better understanding of friendship and love.

Differences among men and between men and women are ineluctable reality that does not necessarily make friendship impossible. Cicero observed that “in the whole range of {Greco-Roman} history only three or four pairs of friends are mentioned.”[9] That literary history is a poor guide to actual human relationships. Friendships depend on faith, hope, and generous care. Friendships encounter faults and risk despair and forsakenness. Large-scale societies need many such friendships, especially among men.

Back in Baghdad, Ja’far told Caliph al-Rashid the story of Attaf. Doing so reconciled him to the Caliph. Ja’far returned Attaf’s wife to him untouched. Attaf had suffered impoverishment, imprisonment, and near execution after his generosity to Ja’far. Ja’far made Attaf ten times as wealthy as he was before he had met Ja’far. At Attaf’s request, the Caliph pardoned Attaf’s persecutor. With this happy ending, the bloody historical ending of the relationship between Caliph al-Rashid and his vizier Ja’far could almost be forgotten.

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Read more:

Notes:

[1] Tale of Attaf the Syrian, from Arabic trans. Burton (1886) vol. 6.  A longer title for that tale is The Power of Destiny, or, Story of the Journey of Giafar {Ja’far} to Damascus comprehending the Adventures of Chebib (Habíb) and his family. Chebib (Habíb) seems to have been an alternate name for Attaf. Burton used the Arabic text of Dom Denis Chavis (Dionysius Shawish), transcribed about 1790. Chavis was a Syrian monk who had studied in Constantinople and come to Paris. Mahdi (1995) pp. 51-61. Since the Chavis manuscript refers to cannon fire, it’s probably from later than the fourteenth century. Burton’s text also includes a second English translation of another manuscript of the Tale of Attaf. The translator of that text was Alexander J. Cotheal, Consul-General for Nicaragua in New York. Cotheal acquired his manuscript from the estate of “a deceased American missionary who had brought it from Syria.” The manuscript was written in 1685. Burton describes the text in the Supp. Vol. 6 (Vol. 16 overall) in his translator’s forward. Burton’s description of the Cotheal manuscripts and Cotheal’s English translation is placed immediately after Burton’s translation of the Chavis manuscript. Another version of the Tale of Attaf was brought back to England by Dr. Patrick Russell, “the historian of Aleppo,” in 1771. Mahdi (1995) p. 56. I have modernized and clarified Burton’s translation, which itself was a quite loose translation from the Arabic.  All subsequent quotations from the Tale of Attaf are from Burton’s translation of the Chavis manuscript. Cotheal’s manuscript seems to be a latter version of the tale.  It explicitly indicates that it is the text of a reciter (rawi).

[2] Jesus of Nazareth, in John 15:12-13.

[3] Valerius Maximus, who flourished 14 to 37 GC, declared:

It {friendship} deserves almost the same veneration that we pay to the rites of the immortal gods. The survival of our state depends on those rites, but our survival as private people depends on the power of friendship. And if the temples are the sacred homes of the gods, then the loyal hearts of humans are like temples filled with the sacred spirit of friendship.

Factorum ac dictorum memorabilium, Bk. 4, 7.1ext, from Latin trans. Walker (2004) p.  152. Friendship wasn’t just a matter of “our survival as private people.” In a letter to Charlemagne in 798, Alcuin declared his desire to help his friend Charlemagne in any way that he could. Alcuin wrote to Charlemagne:

And if this is to be observed diligently in a friend and coequal, that the integrity of his {the friend’s} mind should remain inviolate, how much more in a lord and in such a person who loves to exalt and govern his subjects in all honor?

From Latin trans. Jaeger (2012) p. S107. Alcuin, a scholar and adviser to Charlemagne, described his friendship-dedication to Charlemagne like that of a warrior of the comitatus. Advisers to leaders in the Islamic world similarly presented themselves as loving, subordinate friends to the ruler. Waqid ‘Amr ibn-Tamini’s account of Babak and the Khurrami revolt in the early nineth century in central Mesopotamia includes a reference to a chief’s comitatus.

[4] Crane (1921) pp. 202-3, from German of Prym & Socin (1881) vol. ii, p. 24. Prym & Socin’s source was a manuscript they received from a Jacobite Christian in Damascus about 1870.  Since the text is in Neo-Aramaic, it may convey a quite ancient story.

[5] Qur’an 33:37. Ibn Hisham, who died about 830 GC, edited one of the earliest surviving versions of ibn Ishaq’s biography of Muhammed, the Prophet of Islam. Ibn Hisham’s text states that Zayd ibn Harithah divorced Zaynab bint Jahsh so that Muhammad could marry her.

[6] “Lantfrid and Cobbo,” Cambridge Songs, Song 6, from Latin trans. Ziolkowski (1994) pp. 22-7.

[7] On the influence of Cicero’s De amicitia and the connection between ancient ideals of friendship and the development of courtly love in twelfth-century Europe, Ziolkowski (1995). On men serving women, see, e.g. the United Nations’ current HeForShe campaign.

[8] Ja’far fell dangerously lovesick. His ever solicitous friend Attaf called for a doctor. The doctor diagnosed Ja’far’s lovesickness from his pulse. That was a popular story that goes back at least to Valerius Maximus’s account of Antiochus’s lovesickness. Antiochus fell in love with the wife of his father, King Seleucus. To save his son, Seleucus gave him his wife. Valerius Maximus, Memorable Deeds and Sayings, Bk. 5, 7.ext 1. trans. Walker (2004) pp. 190-1.

[9] Cicero, De amicitia, sec. 15. An editorial note explains:

The three pairs are Theseus and Pirithous, Achilles and Patroclus, Orestes and Pylades; the fourth, probably in Cicero’s mind (Cic. Off. III.45; Fin. II.79), was Damon and Phintias (vulg. Pythias).

Cicero praised above all the “friendship of faultless men.” Id. sec. 22, 100. Such men are very rare.

[image] Perspectives: Chiharu Shiota, at Sackler Gallery through June 7, 2015. My photograph.

References:

Burton, Richard Francis. 1886. Supplemental nights to the book of The thousand nights and a night. Vol. 6. Benares: Printed by the Kamashastra Society for private subscribers only.

Crane, Thomas Frederick. 1921.  “The Sources of Boccaccio’s Novella of Mitridanes and Natan (Decameron X, 3).”  The Romanic Review 12(3): 193-215.

Falconer, W.A. ed. and trans. 1923. Cicero. De amicitia (On Friendship). Loeb Classical Library, Harvard University Press, vol. XX

Jaeger C. Stephen. 2012. “Alcuin and the music of friendship.” MLN – Modern Language Notes. 127 (SUPPL. 5): S105-S125.

Mahdi, Muhsin. 1995. The thousand and one nights. Leiden: Brill.

Prym, Eugen, and Albert Socin. 1881. Der neu-aramaeische Dialekt des Ṭûr ‘Abdîn. Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht.

Walker, Henry J., trans. 2004. Valerius Maximus. Memorable deeds and sayings: one thousand tales from ancient Rome. Indianapolis: Hackett Pub.

Ziolkowski, Jan M. 1994. The Cambridge songs (Carmina Cantabrigiensia). New York: Garland Pub.

Ziolkowski, Jan. M. 1995. “Twelfth-Century Understandings and Adaptations of Ancient Friendship.” Pp. 59-81 in Welkenhuysen, Andries, Herman Braet, and Werner Verbeke, eds. Mediaeval antiquity. Leuven, Belgium: Leuven University Press.

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