4 JANUARY 1868, Page 27

HARM'S ARABIC ASSEMBLIES.* Tim chasm which parts the Western from

the Eastern nations is one of the greatest and most enduring facts in history. Each circle of nations has existed almost from the birth of history apart, knowing little and caring less for the other. What have the ancient Greeks to tell us even of the Persians, with whom they came into constant contact, generally but not always hostile? or of the Armenians, or even of the tribes of Asia Minor of Oriental origin, although their own settlements actually bordered on the lands of these, and must have included within their walls a large immigrant population from the adjoining districts ? Curious religious rites must have been practised in their streets, Eastern ballads must have been sung under their windows, evidences of no mean civilization among their neighbours must have met them everywhere ; yet how much do we learn of all this from the great historian of Halicarnassus in that very district, no mean observer of manners and customs? The very term " Barbarian "—though not used in the offensive sense which now attaches to it—of itself proves a want of interest, and therefore of discrimination, in all that concerned their Eastern neighbours. Even of the Phoenicians they thought they had discovered enough wren they found the great Phoenician god to be their own Hercules, and the chief goddess to be their Aphrodite, though these identifications were as superficial as possible. So with the Romans—how much did they know or care of the kingdom and people of Mithridates, or of the Parthians, with whom they came into the closest and not most agreeable contact? They were all Barbarians alike, whatever evidences of ancient civilization and present admirable organization met the eyes of their not always victorious legions. In later times the rise and rapid spread of Islam added the embitterment of religious dif- ferences to the previous estrangement. Yet it is a great mistake to look on this as the cause of the modern separation. It can be so considered only by those who look no further back than to Mohammed ; but if we look further back to the older times we have just indicated, we see the same estrangement still existing, and can regard Islam only as the greatest index of the difference of feeling between the West and the East, which from the strong dormant religious feeling which it awaked, gave expression and roused into action, but certainly did not create a spirit strongly antagonistic to the Western civilization.

Yet this chasm is surely not destined to last for ever. We can- not boast that the Orientals have everything to learn and nothing -to teach. This idea is summarily confuted by the fact that all spiritual or revealed religion—all religion, that is, which has any element of permanence in it—has come from them. Moses and Jesus were as truly Orientals, in spirit as well as in birth, as Mohammed. The idea of the bond between God and Man, in- volving mutual obligations and affections, appears as the natural popular faith in the East in all ages. In Europe it had to be distinctly inculcated as a doctrine, and was only gradually and slowly received. The Oriental is by birth and inmost nature religious ; the European, even after so many ages of Christianity, is so more by education (educing the dormant feeling) than by any necessity of his nature. Of course the Western civilization has countervailing virtues which do not come by nature to the Oriental. Truth and honour among men as men—as distinguished from mere kindliness to guests and neighbours—is characteristic of the Western world, and certainly not of the Eastern. But the great fact remains that there is much to give and to take on both sides, which forces on us the belief that in the providence of God the estrangement is not to last for ever.

The present age is an auspicious one for such an approximation as we 'desire. We have no longer the obscurantist religious fana- ticism of the Middle Ages, which could see in the Infidels only the enemies of God, and acknowledged no duty towards them but that of extermination ; nor the atheism of the last century, which would deem all human faiths equally worthless. Our historians feel themselves impelled, not by idle curiosity, but by a sense of duty, to look at both sides of the shield. Writers like Washing- ton Irving and Prescott have contributed a very powerful influence, and shown us how much goodness and knowledge was possessed by the 'impostor' Mohammed and his followers, and by the hated Moors of Spain.

It is surprising how little their good example has been followed up in this country by men able to introduce us, as they do not, into the interior workshops of the Arabic literature. The number of Englishmen who have some acquaintance with Arabic (the

• The Assemb!ies of Al-Flariri. Translated from the Arabic, with an Introduction, and Notes Historical and Grammatical, by Thomas Chenery., M.A. Vol. I. contain- ing the First Twenty-Six Assemblies. London : Wi1iiams and Norgate. 1867.

language of Indian law) must be very considerable ; thwe who, from their position in some part of our vast Eastern Empire, or at our Oriental diplomatic or consular stations, nay/allays it, is prob- ably still greater ; yet how few have given us translations of even the most notejl works of Arabic literature, or anthologies as speci- mens of works too large to be profitably translated entire ! To the Germans, with none of our great opportunities, and the French with far fewer, we are indebted for almost all our books of this kind. We therefore hail with a special gratification the book we have selected for review.

If Mr. Chenery had simply wished to give us an idea of some of the masterpieces of Arabic literature, he might have done so with infinitely less labour to himself, and possibly with handsomer acknowledgment from his critics and readers, by choosing some other and easier work. But he seems to be made of iron ; no labour daunts him. Be selects the most intricate and diffi- cult writer among the Arabic classics ; whose every line contains an obscure allusion, a play upon words, a rhetorical device of some sort ; on whom voluminous commentaries have been written to make the work intelligible to the writer's countrymen. And he has done well in choosing Hariri. The man who can translate Hariri ought. ; let easier books be left to smaller scholars. Mr. Chenery might, perhaps, have won more popularity by choosing a less difficult book, but he has preferred to lay the foundation of a great reputation among scholars, which we think he will achieve by this bold venture. Nor is it this ambition only or principally which probably guided him to Hariri. In receiving a translation from a rich and varied foreign literature like the Arabic we welcome most warmly the most characteristic works, which show the peculiar mind and habits of the nation most clearly. Many refined German critics consider Goethe's 1phigenia a more perfect work than Faust ; but an Englishman who is looking out for a specimen of German literature would far rather have the purely German play than the mere imitation of a Greek drama. So here ; Hariri's rhetoric and ingenuity may not be to our taste, but they are intensely Arabic, and therefore to the enlightened reader far more welcome than even such lyrics as might have flowed from Petrarch's pen. We should read foreign literature as we should travel in foreign countries, to enlarge our insular ideas, and see things (for the time being) as others see them, and not reserve our praise for those things only of which we can say, How English ! If on returning home we find that we return to the old love, skill the change of scene and the new experiences have been good for us, as they must at least have shown us life, virtue, and intellect possible under other conditions than we had known. Let no one, therefore, be deterred from looking into Hariri by any such ob- servation as that his mode of writing is very foreign to English taste.

" Mohammed al KAsim ibn 'All ibn Mohammed ibn 'Othmdn al

Hariri was born at Basra [often spelt Bassorail, from the corrupt modern pronunciation], in the year 446 of the Hijra (A.D. 1054 or 1055), and he died in 515 (1121-2) or 516 (1122-3), in his native city. His life was, there- fore, contemporary with the first Crusade, and the irruptions of the Chris- tian hosts added much to the political troubles amid which his lot was cast. The whole aspect of the Mohammedan world has changed since the days when Basra, with its sister and rival city Kufa, had been founded by the victorious Arabs of 'Omar's Khalifato. Power had passed from the Arab race in Syria and Irak In the boyhood of Hariri, Toghril Bog, the grandson of Seljuk [the Turkish conqueror], had been con- firmed by the powerless Khalif Al Ka'im hi-amr allah in all his con- quests, loaded with honours, saluted as King of the East and West, and endowed with the hand of the Khalif's daughter. In the next reign, that of Al Muktadi, the Seljuk Turks captured Jerusalem, and by their outrages against the Christian pilgrims excited the Western nations to the Crusade."

But the political and military decline of the Arabs in Asia, and the extinction of the Khalifate of Bagdad by the Turkish con- quests, was by no means the knell of Arabic art and literature. As Mr. Chenery well says, "In Asia the Arabs were to the northern invaders all, and more than all, that the Greeks were to the Romans." The Turks had recently adopted the religion of Islam ; but the language of its Scriptures put them in religious

matters in complete dependence on the Arabs. The activity of the Arabs in literature of all kinds of 9ourse added enormously to the hold which, as custodians of the Stliiptures, they had over the illiterate Turks. The literature of the Khalifate, therefore, con-

tinued to be as Arabic as before. It is, however, a priori improb-

able, and contrary to frequent actual experience, that the loss of nationality or of freedom should make no difference in the cha- racter of the literature. Iu this case we may surely regard the excessive scholasticism of the Arabic writers, their taste for the oddest and idlest literary conceits, their wonderful elaboration of the forms of diction alongside of perfect poverty of matter, their pleasure in obscurity of style, and their addiction to writing large commentaries only rendered necessary by this very obscurity, as largely due to their political subjection. These characteristics are often, but, if our view be correct, erroneously, treated as inherent in the Arabian character. We find them most where the political sphere is the narrowest ; and least of all in Mohammed himself, whose mission is generally admitted to have been mainly prompted by his experience of very similar unrealities in the only form of Christianity that met his eye, that of the clever but degenerate Byzantines.

But a literature of this kind might, nevertheless, have great merits. The school of Basra had even in the first century of the Hijra fixed the Arabic grammar, a matter of the greatest im- portance to the language of a conquering race, which would be adopted by foreign and subject peoples, who would corrupt it if it had not been previously sufficiently studied to be fixed beyond the danger of corruption through mere ignorance. It need scarcely be added that the standard by which it was thus fixed was the Koran, and the speech of Mohammed's own tribe. The

school of Basra had retained, and even added to, its importance, up to the time of Hariri. His predecessor, of a name as long as Hariri's, but known as Badi' az Zeman, or the Wonder of the Time, composed the first Makamat, or Assembly,—or Seance, as De Sacy

calls it. This was a new form of literature, which became very

popular with both writers and readers, from the scope it gave to the introduction of any number and any kind of stories, serious, comic, religious, or moral. It is conducted in the first person by a narrator who is supposed to be speaking to a circle of listeners who form the Assembly ; but being too long for delivery at one sitting, it is divided into a number of sittings (herein resembling the Arabian Nights) ; hence the plural title. In his wanderings

the narrator constantly meets a clever improvisatore, a character as native to the Arabs as to the Neapolitans; and hears him declaiming to his knot of listeners, now in one form, and now in another, sometimes at a funeral in the garb of an ascetic speaking deep religious sentiments on death and judgment, sometimes at a feast in a merry vein ; but always opening the purse-strings of his hearers before he concludes, and then discovered by the narra- tor, who has been carried away by his eloquence as much as any of the hearers, and seen in his real character as a scamp and a

hypocrite. Though the reiteration of the denouement makes the

trick seem stale, and the number of ' Assemblies' which the weld would stand must surely be limited, there is humour in the very idea and scope for any further amount in the

working out. The Assemblies of Hariri are written in rhymed prose—a curious species of composition, of which the Arabs are very fond. Mr. Chenery institutes a sort of comparison between

this and the Hebrew Biblical poetry. There also there is no regular alternation of long and short syllables, but the verse consists of

two or more members of about equal length, readily appre- hended by the parallelism of language and thought in the

members. In the Hebrew, indeed, ryhme is not introduced ; the Arabs make the members still more evident by rhyming the final words. It is a higher style than plain prose, and couched in more ornate language ; and is therefore well suited to the nar- rative of these Assemblies.

We have not space to quote a whole assembly, and the humour is scarcely apparent in a mere fragment ; but the following may give some idea of the seventh, all the verses not absolutely neces- sary being omitted :—

" Now when the congregation of the prayer court was gathered, and the crowding took men's breath, There appeared an old man in a pair of cloaks, and his eyes were closed :—And he bore on his arm what was like a horse-bag, and had for a guide an old woman like a goblin.— Then he stopped, as stops one tottering to sink, and greeted with the greeting of him whose voice is feeble.—And when he had made an end of his salutation ho circled his five fingers in his wallet,—and brought forth scraps of paper that had been written on with:coloura of dyes in the season of leisure,—And gave them to his old beldame, bidding her to

detect each simple one." Said Al Harith, son of Hammam, " Now when I had looked on the garb of the verses, I longed for a know- ledge of him who wove it, the broiderer of its pattern Then did the old woman hasten back, retracing her path to seek her scroll ; and when she drew near to one I put with the paper a dirhem and a mite :- And said to her, If thou haat a fondness for the polished, the engraved (and I pointed to the dirhem), show me the secret, the obscure ;—But if thou wiliest not to explain, take then the mite and begone.'—Then she inclined to the getting of that whole full moon, the bright-faced, the

large But it troubled my heart that perchance it was Abfi Zayd who was indicated, and my grief kindled at his mishap with his eyes. . . . So I cleaved to my place, but made his form the fetter of my sight, until the sermon was ended, and to leap to him was lawful.—Then I went briskly to him and examined him in spite of the closing of his eyelids. And lo ! my shrewdness was as the shrewdness of Ibn 'Abbfis, and my discernment as the discernment of Iyits.—So at once I made myself known, and presented him with one of my tunics, and bade him to my

bread Then he opened his eyes, and stared round with the twin balls, and lo ! the two lights of his face kindled like the Farkadfin- And I was joyful at the safety of his sight, but marvelled at the strange- ness of his ways.—Nor did quiet possess me, nor did patience fit with me, until I asked him, What led thee to feign blindness; thou, with thy journeying in desolate places, and thy traversing of wildernesses, and thy pushing into far lauds?' But . . . . he sharpened his look upon me, and recited :—

'Since Time (and he is the father of mankind) makes himself blind to the right in his purposes and aims,

I, too, have assumed blindness, so as to be called a brother of it;—what wonder that one should match himself with his father ?'

Then said he to me, Rise, and go to the closet, and fetch me alkali that may clear the eye, and clean the hand.' Then I rose to do what he bade But when I returned I found that the hall was empty, and that the old man and woman bad fled away.—Then was I extreme in anger at his deceit, and I pressed on his track in search of him.—But he was as one who is sunk in the sea, or has been borne aloft to the clouds of heaven."

In this passage many phrases occur which obviously demand a commentary, which is amply and ably supplied, and yet not over- done, by Mr. Chenery. This first volume contains 162 pages of translation of the original text, and 378 pages of introduction and notes. The second volume will complete the work.