The Adventures of Amir Hamza

By Ghalid Lakhnavi and Abdullah Bilgrami. Translated by Musharraf Ali Farooqi. Modern Library, 948 pp, $57, hardcover

Could there be a more appropriate time for the urtext of Urdu to appear in English? Abridgments of this Islamic saga have dribbled into print ever since the Victorian era, but only now has the complete tale—assembled from the oral tradition by 19th-century scholars Ghalid Lakhnavi and Abdullah Bilgrami—been made available to the anglophone West.

Homeric in its scope and relentless in its pace, The Adventures of Amir Hamza is one of the world’s great fables, and it is presented here in muscular and ornate form. Admittedly, those who resist the geometric incantations of Islamic art and music will have an equally hard time with the Hyderabad-born linguist Musharraf Ali Farooqi’s translation. He is not interested in compiling a Coles Notes version of this story; instead, plot is piled upon plot and battle upon battle, many of the latter won by the supernatural strength and valour of the title character.

And just who is Amir Hamza? A poor scholar’s son cheated of his meagre birthright but later raised to glory by occult means, he quells rebellious courtiers, vanquishes mighty demons, and eventually wins the hand of the Persian emperor’s beautiful daughter, Mehr-Nigar. His tale is a love story, a battle epic, and a fantastic voyage all at once, and it can certainly be read for pleasure—or you could just wait for the film version. Peter Jackson’s a cinch for the director’s role.

Given recent geopolitical events, however, academics are already picking through Amir Hamza’s entrails for clues to the Pakistani national psyche, and good luck to them. Trying to make sense of the modern world through this ancient lens is like trying to tie George W. Bush’s world-view to the troll-haunted horror that is Beowulf.

Hmmm. On second thought, there might be something to this line of inquiry. And those gearing up to ride once more into the Hindu Kush would do well to consider the fate of Akhzar Filgosh, a warlord defeated by Hamza’s comrade, the trickster-like Amar Ayyar. Suicide is Filgosh’s ultimate fate—but only after he’s upended overnight in front of his command post, with a flagstaff rammed up his rump. The message is clear: don’t mess with Hamza’s men, or their descendants.