When I was a young boy growing up in rural Pakistan, my grandfather would entertain me with stories of a man called Abu Zayd. He was a rascal who roamed from place to place conning people with his wit and stunning use of language. Each story began with Abu Zayd giving an eloquent sermon in the mosque or the bazaar. "How long will you persist with your folly?" he would ask the people who gathered around him. "How long will you cheat, steal, and do and eat all those things that God has forbidden? How long will you be greedy and chase material goods?" He never failed to impress, both by his message and his oratory; some gave him money and thanked him, others he would cheat. But Abu Zayd lived a life of luxury in a cave, with his two wives, where he greedily consumed forbidden things and did exactly what he had denounced in the bazaar.
Years later, I realised that my grandfather was retelling the stories from The Assemblies of al-Hariri. It is, without doubt, the most celebrated literary work in Arabic. Written during the 11th century, it consists of 50 "encounters" or short stories, each with a particular moral. Narrated by Harith Hammam, an admirer of Abu Zayd, the stories mix words from the Qur'an, well-known proverbs and phrases, and classical poems and put them into the mouths of characters.
Hammam meets Abu Zayd in far off places like Baghdad and Alexandria, Shiraz and Samarkand, disguised as a blind old beggar, a lazy husband taken to the court by his wife, or a stranger who arrives just in time for a good meal. Hammam pays dearly for each encounter just as each story inevitably leads to a deeper question. A number of stories explore the nature of fate and the issue of ends and means. In one story, Abu Zayd cons a number of wealthy people pleading abject poverty and in urgent need to bury a "shrouded corpse". When he is caught and asked to show the corpse, he points to himself. In another story, an Arab finds a sheep in the desert. Wishing to kill it for food, he can find nothing to slaughter it till the sheep begins to scrape the ground and uncovers a buried knife.
But The Assemblies is not just a compendium of moral tales. It is more about use of language and word-play, and is designed to teach the rules of grammar, rhetoric and poetry. That is why it has been the subject of countless commentaries. Al-Hariri, who gets his name from the fact that he was a wealthy trader in silk (harir), was an exceptionally ugly man. When his visitors were taken aback by his look, he would tell them: "I am a man to be heard, not seen". The Assemblies were written to be read aloud. And added to and expanded so the readers could make the stories their own.
Which is precisely what my grandfather did. Both men made me what I am today.
Ziauddin Sardar's 'Balti Britain' is published by Granta; he will be speaking at the 'Independent' Woodstock Literary Festival, Sunday 12 October at 2.30pmReuse content