Posted in Medievalists.net
March 12, 2022

Song of the Banu Sasan: A Story of Outcasts from the 10th century


By Abu Dulaf, translated by Brad Fox

The Banu Sasan was a name associated with bands of thieves, beggars, and other outcasts beginning in the eighth century. Stories and legends surround them, and many poems were ascribed to them. What follows is one such poem, extracted from a text written down by the tenth-century Iraqi traveler and writer Abu Dulaf. It’s written in slang, and Abu Dulaf ’s version includes lengthy notes, which can be read as satirical, pedantic, or simply interesting. Clifford Edmund Bosworth published a faithful but not very accessible English translation, including Abu Dulaf ’s notes and adding his own, in 1976. I’ve integrated some material from those several layers, while striving for a taste of the original qasida—a poem essentially unrecoverable, but still somehow recognizable.

Eyelids wet from exile and scorn
and heart charred to embers from pain
I’ve tasted passion’s twins—both sweet and bitter
and roamed in freedom, so can only stand the free
even more after decades as an outcast
I’m stripped bare—a black branch among green leaves
I’ve seen marvels and all the colors of doom
and now I’m pleased to the core whether fasting or feasting
I’m the heir and defender of that legendary dynasty
I’m the scion of the Banu Sasan

We wander the world, seek nothing but glory
and our separateness is our distinction
we’ve been tossed around and turned inside out
and shaped like desert sands in the wind
but we savor our days both in lean times and luxury
we’re drunk nonstop and always enflamed
we taste the sweetness of life in sex and in souse

We’re the best of the best on land or at sea
our stallions pound the ground worldwide
we exact our tax everywhere, from China to Egypt
in Muslim lands or anywhere else
the whole world is ours and everything in it
and if it’s bad in one place we move on
we summer where it’s cool and winter under date palms
we respect no authority so no one doubts our supremacy
and we come in all colors
whoever you ask has stories

We claim everyone hot for ass and pussy
every pleasurer of great swollen cocks—
or use your own two hands
and you’ll need no seducer, no virgin
no moaning about celibacy or raising a dowry
no menstrual stains or labor pains
or babies at the doorstep

We are every madman and madwoman with charms at their throats
with dangling earrings and leather-brass cuffs
all the scammers and hucksters and ranters passing hats
all the plate-lickers and scrap-scroungers crying Help me I’m cold
who sneak a taste at the market or beg at the bank or set off at dawn
with egg-yolk pus blisters and bandaged heads

with sesame-oil bruises and razor cuts
crying The Bedu! The Kurds! It was the jinn who mugged me!
and all those fake borderzone refugees—the evil Greeks cut my tongue out!
and those jihad pleaders who embezzle donations
and all who sprinkle rosewater, burn incense
or sell perfume by the side of the road
and every quack dentist who yanks a maggot from your mouth
and all the escape artists writhing out of chains
and the pickpocket magicians who relieve you of your jewelry
with the aid of a fine silk thread
and whoever harangues you with tales of the Israelites
or goes around dressed like a monk or a pilgrim
then shares out the take with his crew
all those Ramadan hunger artists scarfing liver in secret
and the bloodsucking divines in their hairshirts
and we are those skilled equestrian beggars who dodge and lunge
and the Roman refugees waving locks of hair
as if their brother’s been ransomed in Byzantium

And we are every beggar with a bent spine
and every beggar who pretends to be deaf
and all the mutilated beggars with their hacked-off hands
and the roadside gangs—those lords of dust
and all those Bible-reading zealots who pretend to convert
and whoever hands out water claiming descent from Muhammad
or flubs their tongue like a Bedu or tricks pilgrims or fakes blindness
or babbles all through afternoon prayers
whoever lies around with their ass oozing oatmeal enemas
tossing piss-soaked rocks and farting up the mosque
until the congregation is so discommoded
that they pay him to go away

And we’re the ones who tie their necks with towels so their faces turn red
and we’re those evening bread beggars with their lamentations
and the bookish scolds against wine and vice
and the furnace-lovers covered in ash
and the fortune-telling scammers who hand coins to their marks
then lead them like lambs to slaughter
and those who say their father was Christian and their mother a Jew
but the prophet came to them in a dream
and whoever claims they escaped from a street gang
or dyes their face and hands with ochre
and spouts suras right there in the market

And we are everyone who smears his beard with red dye like a Shi’a
and counterfeits Karbala relics
and all the invisible ink readers with their copper-water and flames
and anyone who can con the Kaisan
or rhapsodize about Hussein until the crowds weep
and we’re that pair who stake out each end of the market
then whip the crowd into a frenzy
for ‘Ali on one side and Abu Bakr on the other

And we’re the streetside hadith-tellers with their trunks full of books
and all the whore-spawn beard-shavers blaspheming the crowds
And we’re the heartbroken bawlers with oil-dabbed eyes—those elegant beggars
and the punk who won’t move out of your way
until you lose your patience and shove him
at which point he says: Fuck off, cum-sack! I’ll wipe my ass with your beard!
What’s a cum-sacks’s head but a sack for my cum!—
and he won’t stop blocking you till you cough up a coin

And we’re everyone who hires children to go around looking miserable
or who throws down prayer beads, candies, and salt
or hustles prefab amulets—This one made just for you!
or pretends to be deaf or yanks molars or sells cures for the blind
or scribbles down charms and spells from an old grimoire
or starts fires with a mirror or cures madmen and cripples
by dousing them with smoke or spraying them with spittle

And we’re the door-to-door panhandlers—those excellent beggars
and whoever pretends to fast then sneaks a drink from the river
and whoever gloms onto hajj caravans promising paradise to the pilgrims
brokering dirt-cheap plots in Ridwan’s garden
and the guy who dyes his hands like a Sufi and shaves his upper lip
until it’s smooth as a washbowl or a freshly waxed vulva
and we’re those Persian and Nabataean beggars who never learn Arabic
and whoever interprets dreams like Ibn Sirin
or sells arsenic or stones to tell iron from gold
or passes off beads as if they’re tears of David
and all the boys in blackened rags leading a blind man like a father
and whoever teaches beggar kids to unfasten their clothes

And we’re the astrologers with their omens and signs
who read astrolabes and furnace flames and shout The end is nigh!
and we’re that kid doubled over with a scrapheap on his back
and the other boiling broth where beggars squat
and we are every fearless snake-charmer without a care in the world

unfazed by the sight of a viper—
who grab the slit-eyed snake and yank its venomous fangs
so it’s ready for shows and competitions
where the angel of death is just an arm’s length away
and some keep safe while others get bit

We do the damndest things to earn our bread

And we are that quack doctor with his bag of hooks and lancets
and the gambler staking cash and clothes
cursing God when his luck caves in
and we’re the conniving blind—those elevated beggars
and we’re the trainers of fierce lions and tigers
and the dirt-smeared kids leading bears and monkeys
and those pliers of fatteners or toothache narcotics
who slip in powders that cure farts
or urinary tract infections or constipation
then say It was this magic charm—I’ve got more right here a
nd those model citizens and straight-laced tenants
who bolt on the rent in the night
and whoever grazes in the square like a camel

And we are every poet in the world—desert tramps and city prowlers

And we are the scattered Medinans and spoiled Meccans
and we are that renowned Baghdad khalif
who asked to pay in installments
for bread begged from his own emir
and all the strongmen grinding date-pits with their teeth
and breaking iron with their hands
and whoever gums up their skin with dragon’s blood
and we are the beggar boys—those beardless youths
dressed in white and acting like idiots
and we’re the lech who leads one of them off
so hungry he’ll eat drug-spiked stew
coming to on a mat in a bone-bare house
where there nothing’s in store for him but lies and abuse
and his captor’s booze that knocks him out
and his captor’s cock that fucks him senseless

And we’re that boy who shakes and gnashes his teeth
claiming the jinn are at him for smacking a cat
and whoever goes around with a bowl and a strainer and ten brooms
scouring market halls and gutters and threshing floors and furnaces

and whoever can recite the Qur’an like Abu ‘Amr
and all those subtle theologians
who preach depravity before devotion
and we are that donkey-woman whose husband won’t beg
so she ties up her fist and claims her fingers are cut off
or flops them like they’re limp and dead
or bandages up an eye like she’s half blind

And we are the pot-jugglers of Kabul
and all the tightrope walkers and pulley-rope climbers
and we’re the black-skinned bandits of the Zanj and the Zutt
but not the brown-skinned bandits like the Kabbaja
and we’re the illustrious day drinkers—spat on all over town
and we’re that pious and submissive scholar
seen sobbing salty tears in the square
who then shits behind the minaret and wipes his ass on the mihrab
and if he fasts—I swear he breaks it by noon
and we are the bald beggars, panther-black with furnace soot and bare assed in the market
crying Strike blind this grocer, O Lord!
Our boss—may he shit himself!
and may the butcher go stiff with paralysis, O Lord!
and the fabric-seller—may he never recover!
and if you try to stop him he blesses you
with the pungent fruits of his anus

And we’re those strutting studs who giggle and flirt through Friday prayers
and every saucy beggar queen prancing like a thoroughbred while her husband looks on and all the throbbing hard-ons at Eid

And we are everyone who hopes only to scavenge the land
or hide behind humility on a sad stone bench
and every naked waif cowering in the mosque
and all the patient poor in their quilted scraps and rags
who roll up their prayer rugs and tramp around nonstop
and the rag-pickers, always ripping and sewing
with their mats home to great nests of lice
and everyone sleeping in the snow and mud
without so much as a ragged old coat
whose every glance is a glower and every look is a leer
and who won’t let up till they’ve fleeced all donors

And we’re those filthy boys in bathhouse stoke rooms
branded with poverty and restless as demons
crumb-collectors and ration-snatchers

piling dried up crusts like freshly winnowed wheat
to share out among themselves
and who tip the bathhouse stoker like good-hearted souls
with a couple of nuts and half a radish

O God—make it rain on the Banu Sasan!
See them bare and buff and puffed up and proud
strong-backed and shackle-scarred
their muscles rippling like Numrud bin Kan’an
and they never make ablutions or even wipe their ass
they take pride in heresy and apostasy and thievery
and whoever doesn’t like it
can roll their scorn inside their prayer mat
and kindly fuck off

Woe to whoever chases satisfaction
it’s never like you thought
raven-black or parrot-bright or moon-colored like a dove
as for me—I’ve milked fortune’s tits one pair after another
I’ve circled the earth as many times as al-Khidr
and for the free—roaming’s like fire to gold
so if you’ve got a problem with my wandering—hear this:
didn’t the sayyids wander with all their prayers and vows—
those saintly descendants of the prophet?
you see their graves from Kufa and Karbala to Baghdad and Samarra
in Tus where the camels kneel and Bukhara by the
Shakri Canal Salman and ‘Ammar were wanderers—so was Abu Dharr
their holy tombs dot the world like shining stars

If I could squelch my desires—quench this thirst in my heart
I’d call this place my home and start issuing decrees
I’d fly my flag of glory high in victory
or I might never make good
maybe no one can help me
then I’ll never give up my search
but if one day I roll up, all rich and famous
I’ll eat crushed reeds and lote-tree leaves
in just a shirt and a towel
and be content

Brad Fox is a writer and translator living in New York. His novel To Remain Nameless is out on Rescue Press. You can learn more about his work on bradfox.org, or follow Brad on Twitter @bredfoks

This article was first published in ArabLit Quarterly, a magazine that focuses on translations of Arabic works, medieval and modern. You can learn more about them through their website, and get their issues by signing up to their Patreon.

Top Image: A thief that has been caught and is having his hand amputated. Scene from a painting made in Safavid Iran, circa 1560-70.

Medievalists.net March 12, 2022 at 11:02PM

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