Book of a lifetime: The Assemblies, By Al-Hariri of Basra

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 2.30pm

Suggested Topics
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Taylor Swift won Best International Solo Female (Getty)

Brits 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Shining star: Maika Monroe, with Jake Weary, in ‘It Follows’
film review
Arts and Entertainment

Brits 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Paloma Faith arrives at the Brit Awards (Getty)

Brits 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Anne Boleyn's beheading in BBC Two's Wolf Hall

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Follow every rainbow: Julie Andrews in 'The Sound of Music'
film Elizabeth Von Trapp reveals why the musical is so timeless
Arts and Entertainment
Bytes, camera, action: Leehom Wang in ‘Blackhat’
film
Arts and Entertainment
The Libertines will headline this year's festival
music
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Dean Anderson in the original TV series, which ran for seven seasons from 1985-1992
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Muscling in: Noah Stewart and Julia Bullock in 'The Indian Queen'

opera
Arts and Entertainment
Olivia Colman and David Tennant star in 'Broadchurch'

TVViewers predict what will happen to Miller and Hardy
Arts and Entertainment
Kevin Spacey and Robin Wright in season two of the series

Watch the new House of Cards series three trailer

TV
Arts and Entertainment
An extract from the sequel to Fight Club

books
Arts and Entertainment
David Tennant, Eve Myles and Olivia Colman in Broadchurch series two

TV Review
Arts and Entertainment
Old dogs are still learning in 'New Tricks'

TV
Arts and Entertainment
'Tonight we honour Hollywood’s best and whitest – sorry, brightest' - and other Neil Patrick Harris Oscars jokes

Oscars 2015It was the first time Barney has compered the Academy Awards

Arts and Entertainment
Patricia Arquette making her acceptance speech for winning Best Actress Award

Oscars 2015 From Meryl Streep whooping Patricia Arquette's equality speech to Chris Pine in tears

Arts and Entertainment

Oscars 2015 Mexican filmmaker uses speech to urge 'respect' for immigrants

Arts and Entertainment
Lloyd-Hughes takes the leading role as Ralph Whelan in Channel 4's epic new 10-part drama, Indian Summers

TV Review

The intrigue deepens as we delve further but don't expect any answers just yet
Arts and Entertainment
Jason Segal and Cameron Diaz star in Sex Tape

Razzies 2015 Golden Raspberry Awards 'honours' Cameron Diaz and Kirk Cameron

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Syrian conflict is the world's first 'climate change war', say scientists, but it won't be the last one

    Climate change key in Syrian conflict

    And it will trigger more war in future
    How I outwitted the Gestapo

    How I outwitted the Gestapo

    My life as a Jew in wartime Berlin
    The nation's favourite animal revealed

    The nation's favourite animal revealed

    Women like cuddly creatures whilst men like creepy-crawlies
    Is this the way to get young people to vote?

    Getting young people to vote

    From #VOTESELFISH to Bite the Ballot
    Poldark star Heida Reed: 'I don't think a single bodice gets ripped'

    Poldark star Heida Reed

    'I don't think a single bodice gets ripped'
    The difference between America and Israel? There isn’t one

    The difference between America and Israel? There isn’t one

    Netanyahu knows he can get away with anything in America, says Robert Fisk
    Families clubbing together to build their own affordable accommodation

    Do It Yourself approach to securing a new house

    Community land trusts marking a new trend for taking the initiative away from developers
    Head of WWF UK: We didn’t send Cameron to the Arctic to see green ideas freeze

    David Nussbaum: We didn’t send Cameron to the Arctic to see green ideas freeze

    The head of WWF UK remains sanguine despite the Government’s failure to live up to its pledges on the environment
    Author Kazuo Ishiguro on being inspired by shoot-outs and samurai

    Author Kazuo Ishiguro on being inspired by shoot-outs and samurai

    Set in a mythologised 5th-century Britain, ‘The Buried Giant’ is a strange beast
    With money, corruption and drugs, this monk fears Buddhism in Thailand is a ‘poisoned fruit’

    Money, corruption and drugs

    The monk who fears Buddhism in Thailand is a ‘poisoned fruit’
    America's first slavery museum established at Django Unchained plantation - 150 years after slavery outlawed

    150 years after it was outlawed...

    ... America's first slavery museum is established in Louisiana
    Kelly Clarkson: How I snubbed Simon Cowell and become a Grammy-winning superstar

    Kelly Clarkson: How I snubbed Simon Cowell and become a Grammy-winning superstar

    The first 'American Idol' winner on how she manages to remain her own woman – Jane Austen fascination and all
    Tony Oursler on exploring our uneasy relationship with technology with his new show

    You won't believe your eyes

    Tony Oursler's new show explores our uneasy relationship with technology. He's one of a growing number of artists with that preoccupation
    Ian Herbert: Peter Moores must go. He should never have been brought back to fail again

    Moores must go. He should never have been brought back to fail again

    The England coach leaves players to find solutions - which makes you wonder where he adds value, says Ian Herbert
    War with Isis: Fears that the looming battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

    The battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

    Aid agencies prepare for vast exodus following planned Iraqi offensive against the Isis-held city, reports Patrick Cockburn