Adventure Book of Abu Dulaf Part One

Abu Dulaf

I came to the world in Tus, in the year

The kinsman of Juq became Ghazni’s amir.

My mother was poor and my father was dead

(A brawl in a wine-den, a knife to the head).

We lived in a hut made of mud-brick, with slate

Supplying its roof, and an apple-tree gate;

And round us a dozen the same could be found,

But rising above us, on top of the mound,

An elegant pile of stonework provided

The house where a squire and Poet resided.

So often I’d look at that mound! How I’d gaze

With ears pricked to hear as he read from his lays.

He stood on his roof and appeared not to know,

Nor care, that I watched him from so far below.

Then often, whilst watching and listening to him,

I fell to the ground, from a blow by Qasim.

‘You pansy!’ the Poet’s son called as his stick

Went crack on my knees. I replied with a kick.

‘Now don’t try to struggle,’ he cried, ‘or I’ll give Shahnameh

You such a hard slap - I’m Rostam, you’re the div!’

Not only Qasim gave me tough times; our peers

Would rain me, because of my background, with sneers.

‘So where is your baba?’ they chirped. I would smile,

But deep down inside I could feel the bile.

I’d run from their taunts; in the fields I’d hide

And there, in the silence and empty, I tried

To speak out those tales, and tutored my tongue

Till deeds of the heroes could sweetly be sung.

I worked hard as well when we met the school-master;

However hard others, I always learned faster.

I practised my readings and often I’d borrow

His books of the poets, returned on the morrow.

But still by my peers I was taunted, until

The night when I went to that house on the hill.

I’d borrowed a book of the master’s. ‘Once learned,’

He said, ‘to the Poet it must be returned.’

My memory wafts to me, like in a dream,

The smell of the smoke and the pots full of steam.

I climbed to the door but saw nothing inside

Except for the books, bound in animal hide,

That lined every wall in their tottering towers -

As fragrant to me as a rich garden’s flowers.

One book lay, still open, and oh! what a thrill

To look on those words that a goose-feather quill

Had fashioned with oak gall from Pars and to pore

Through words I’d once heard as I sat on that floor! Persian poet and lover

Those verses, they oozed out and trickled, as sweet

As honey; but others boomed, like a drum-beat

And out of my tongue, like an army, advanced;

Then melting, to rhyme’s liquid rhythm they danced. 

Oh - what reverie! By that book I’d been caught

And gave to the world outside not a thought;

At least until out of the story I tumbled,

As if from the gardens of heaven I’d stumbled.

‘Explain yourself, boy!’ said the Poet and squire,

Whose eyes blazed like sulphur when touched by a fire.

‘Explain I declare!’ he exclaimed with a curse,

And flung me in anger away from his verse.

I hid in a corner and raised up an arm

To shield my body from serious harm.

Another man, wearing a bright scarlet frock

With matching red boots, stepped between us to block

The Poet’s next strike. ‘Abu’l Qasim,’ he yelled,

‘I tell you, by God’s law, this boy can’t be held

To blame just for singing so sweetly your tale.

His tongue is delightful - a true nightingale!’

This man, Lord Qotayba, now told me to raise

My voice once again and breathe life to the lays.

And when I grew tired, he told me next night

To come to the house once again and recite.

I did, and the next night as well, and another;

And each time I took back a fee for my bother.

Then one moonlit night, in the silvery hush,

I saw that my way out was blocked - an ambush?

Qasim cried out  ‘Ha!’ and he lifted his stick

As if he was ready to give me a lick.

But stepping towards me, his stick hit the floor: The court of Sultan Mahmud

Our enmity, so it appeared, was no more.

‘My friend,’ he exclaimed, as he hugged me, ‘let’s play

At backgammon, putting our weapons away.’

From that night, the thump and the crack of his stick

Was lost to the sound of the counters, their click

Was matched by the coins that I took: for each night

The Poet would pay me to hear me recite

His verses. I can’t say my fortune was made,

But truly I knew that I now had a trade:

A poetry singer, a Shahnameh-khwan,

Reciting the legends and lore of Iran.