A heart-warming tale

How’s about a story? This is taken from the Siyasatname, or “Treatise on the Art of Government” written in the 11th century by the famed prime minister Nizam al-Molk who served the Seljuq dynasty. Does that mean anything to you? Probably not. Well, I love this book because it’s written in a sort of earthy, off-the-cuff language and filled with lots of gory details, particularly when it comes to dealing with your enemies (hint: dig as many holes as you have enemies, it comes in handy later. For the burying alive part). Also, Nizam al-Molk was an interesting guy and apparently really knew his stuff when it came to running a kingdom. Unfortunately, those heretics came back to bite him, an event eerily foretold in the closing passage when he says (more or less) “Now I’m off on a trip to Baghdad, so I’m handing this over to the scribe just in case I don’t make it back alive and he can pass it on to the king.” Well, funny story… remember those heretics? Some of them happened to be followers of Hasan “Old Man of the Mountain” Sabbah, head of the Batini sect of Shi’ism best  known today as the Assassins (hashishan, supposedly because they were were hopped up on hash). And so it goes.

This is from the chapter entitled “On Not Hurrying Through Your Work”:

There was a wise old man who was well-known throughout the city of Herat […] It happened that the Sultan came to Herat and stayed there for some time. [A man by the name of] ‘Abd al-Rahman Khal was staying at the house of the old scholar. Later, while drinking wine with the Sultan, he said “This old man has a house and can be found there every night. They say that he spends all night in prayer, but I opened his door today and I saw a jug of bitter wine and an idol made of brass.  He spends all night boozing and worshipping his brazen idol.” ‘Abd al-Rahman Khal had brought a jug of wine and an idol with him, knowing that as soon as he had told the Sultan this news, the Sultan would order the old man to be killed that very hour.

So a servant and another man were sent out in search of the old man, but another man came to me and said “Send someone and fetch the wise old man.” I didn’t know what the pupose of these summons was. An hour later, another person came and said “Don’t send anyone to fetch the old man.” The next day, I asked the Sultan “What was that all about last night, with the “Go summon the old man,” “Don’t summon the old man”?

“That was the audacity of  ‘Abd al-Rahman Khal” and he told me the whole story. He said, “I told ‘Abd al-Rahman Khal, “Even though you have told me these things and shown me the bottle of wine and the idol, I will not issue commands which are based on falsehoods. Take my hand and swear on my head and soul whether what you have told is the truth or a lie.” He replied “A lie.” I said “O scoundrel, why would you tell such lies about the old man and wish his death?” He answered, “Because he has a really nice house and I knew you would give it to me once he had been killed.”

Note: After completing this passage, I looked at Hubert Darke’s translation to double-check a few points (which I have chosen to omit as they added nothing to the narrative). I found that we had rendered a few lines in almost identical language. There are only so many words, after all. I made no changes to my translation after looking at Darke’s, so for all of you who thought “Now where have I heard that before?” and reached for your dog-eared copy of The Book of Government, or, Rules for Kings (Hubert Darke. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1960), please refrain from sending indignant letters to the Time Literary Supplement exposing my crimes.  I assure you all is above-board. See Links at right for the Google copy.

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About M.C. Smith

translatingpersian@gmail.com View all posts by M.C. Smith

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