The Fortunate Youth

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(From the ‘iqd al farid of Ibn ‘abdi Rabbihi)

Abdul Qasim Isma’il the Wise, they say,
To entertain his friends along the way
From Iraq, as they journeyed to the Haji
Towards Mecca on the annual pilgrimage
Told this tale—he vouched for it—among
Others of men who died on hearing a song.

Camped in the desert at night, when they had fed,
The host of heaven wheeling overhead,
Its beauty and its splendour before long
Turned their talk to the force and power of song,
Poetry and the fatalities of love.
And Abdul Qasim, watching the stars move
Spoke of their influence on the lives of men.
‘The poetry of the Arabs,’ he added then,
‘Is no less powerful, as my tale, indeed
Demonstrates. It concerns the great Yazid
Ibn Abdul Malik who is counted nine
In order of Caliphs of the Umaiyad line.’

It seems that in Medina in his day
There lived a slave-girl famed in every way:
Fairest of face and form in womankind
But even more fair in traits of heart and mind;
She read the Koran, recited poetry,
Sang like an angel and was said to be
As perfect in Arabic as in her own tongue
And therewith pleasant, blooming, fresh and young,
So that, as these attractions spread her fame,
The Caliph sent for her and, when she came,
Yazid completely lost his heart to her
And pondered gifts and pleasures to confer
Which might more closely bind her to his heart.
But, though she thanked him smiling, for her part
She wanted nothing, she said; if she could please

The Caliph, it sufficed her. Words like these
Gave reason for the Caliph to reflect
That perfect power is powerless to perfect
The bond of love he so yearned to fulfil
With this enchantress. Sure, there might be still
Some person in Medina left behind
To whom she was attached in heart or mind.
So, shrewd and gentle, hoping to have earned
Her love by princely means, one day he turned
To her and asked, ‘Have you, perhaps, a friend
Or some relation whom you could commend,
Someone you love or someone who loves you
Back in Medina, so that I could do
A kindness, grant a favour to him, make
Provision in his necessity for your sake?’

‘Amir al Muminina,’ she answered, ‘O
Commander of the Faithful, Kinsmen? No,
Not in Medina, but there are just three
Friends of my mistress who were good to me
Whom I have always wished to do some good.
But up till now, of course, I never could.’

So then the Caliph wrote the three names down
And sent them to the governor of The Town,
Saying, ‘Pay ten thousand dirhams as a fee
To each and send them on posthaste to me.’
The governor did so and despatched them straight
To him and when they came to Yazid’s gate
Permission was asked and given. With no delay
The Caliph welcomed them and bade each say
What he desired most and it should be done.
Two answered and were gratified, but one
Was silent and when asked he shook his head
And when the Caliph asked again he said,
‘Commander of the Faithful, no, indeed
Believe me, there is nothing that I need.’
Yazid asked, ‘Is there really nothing, then,
That I can do to meet your wish?’ Again
The young man paused and then he said, ‘Well, yes,

Commander of the Faithful, but my guess
Is that you will not do it.’ ‘Yet ask! for you
Must see I can do nothing unless you do.’
‘And have I promise of security
Commander of the Faithful?’ ‘Yes,’ said he.
‘My promise with pleasure.’ ‘Then if you think it right,
Command your slave girl, So-and-so, to delight
And honour us by singing three songs of mine
And I shall pledge her in three cups of wine.’
Then Yazid’s face fell and he left his seat
And went in to the slave girl to repeat
The youth’s request. She sighed, ‘So he is here.
Do this thing, prince, for what have you to fear?’

So when it was morning he sent for the young man.
He was brought to the presence. Yazid began
To give his orders: first three chairs of gold
Were brought. He sat and the slave girl was told
To take the next and the young man the third.
Then food was served according to his word
And they took breakfast. When the meal was done
And the three cups of wine poured one by one,
He called for fragrant herbs and perfumes there
And straightway all their odours filled the air.
Then, turning to the youth at last, the dread
Commander of the Faithful quietly said,
‘Say what occurs to you; ask what you will!’
He said, ‘Tell her to sing: Unless it kill,
Love so afflicts me that no peace I know.
I beg her only that she let me go
Or force this torment to the final pang.’
So Yazid gave his order and she sang.

Then Yazid drank and after the young man
And after him the slave girl raised her can,
And when they had drained their cups, at Yazid’s word
And three more measures of wine were brought and poured,
He said to the young man, ‘Now ask again!’
He said, ‘Would you command her next to sing:

I asked from the Vale of Na’mani but one thing:
A flower spray of the ‘arak tree for Hind
But no one to deliver it can I find.
You, my companions stumble and turn away
And Hind is absent; where, you will not say.’

She sang it. Yazid drank; the young man too
Drank and the slave girl, each in order due
And they sat silent. Until Yazid stirred
And three fresh cups of wine were brought and poured,
Then Yazid, calm, although his look was dire
Turned to the youth and said, ‘Ask your desire!’
The young man said, his voice was faint and low,
‘Tell her, Commander of the Faithful, now
To sing a song she knows, for she has cause:
Nearing on my part and withdrawing on yours …’

There his voice broke, faltered and died away.
She took her lute then and began to play
And Yazid ordered her once more to sing.
Once more the exquisite pure voice took wing
But had not finished the second verse before
He fainted and Yazid said, ‘Stop! No more!
Go, see how he is!’ She went to him and said,
When she had shaken him, ‘Lo, he is dead!’
And he said, ‘Weep for him!’ But she said, ‘No,
Commander of the Faithful, for even so,
You are alive.’ ‘Weep for him!’ I say,
‘For, by God, if he were alive, this day
He should not go without you!’ With a grim
Gesture he left her.
So she wept for him
And Yazid ordered a funeral and began
A fine tomb for that fortunate young man.

Abdul Qasim fell silent and on high
The silent stars swept on across the sky.

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