The Feast of the Barmecides… a quaint phrase no one now knows about

I must have been a few years old, when I came across the term “The Feast of the Barmecide” in probably one of the school textbooks, an English reader, of my elder sister.  Called the Radiant Reader, if I remember correctly, it had a wide and eclectic selection of prose and poetry from all over the world, and magnificently evocative photographic plates alongside…. I particularly recollect the story of Wayland Smith, and this particular story I have mentioned. Pity, they don’t bring out books like it any longer. Poor students.

However, it was there when I read about the Feast of the Barmecides, and I must confess that even as intelligent I was at that age and time, the exact meaning eluded me.

However, it was years later when I re-read The Arabian Nights (the Burton translation), (which I happened to leave with someone during my absence from Delhi and have to expeditiously retrieve), that the passage in question rang a bell.  Though I had earlier read Naguib Mahfouz’s excellent retelling, the account of the feast does not appear in this version — which is set in a different city,  but it was when I read Hanan al-Shaykh’s splendid rendition of the old tales that the old phrase came back to me, easily separating the long years and piles of memories since those early days.

Our language at one time was replete with such references, an indication of the wide expanse of our reading, but this is not the case any longer among the coming generations – a sad foretelling of the atmosphere of sterile imagination and sparse vocal capability they are growing up with.  It is at this time, I look with pride myself on my “sarmaya-e-alfaaz” or vocabulary,  the gift of indulgent and understanding parents and a host of dedicated teachers, not limited to those of the language.

I just asked five people – all of the same profession but equally divided among backgrounds and gender – if they have understood this term and none even knew it.

Well, here I could just cut a long story short and straightaway explain the reference. But as those who know me will attest, that is never my way, while also do me the justice to remember that I invoked The Arabian Nights, where a story leads to another, and it to another and so on and on….. and that is the method I will too adopt.

So rather than a mere explanation, let me share the meaning of this quaint phrase from the source material itself….. but with a twist. I have translated the passage in question in Urdu, to see how it seems in this most refined language.

I must also say that this will be the first in the initiative to rehabilitate the memory of a most generous man, and the counsellor and companion of a monarch, most magnificent and worthy (save in one respect)…. but all that later.

For now the story…. which begins from the operative point. For those inquisitive enough, I will give the exact details later.

~~~~ Ab bad yeh rahta hai ke main aapko qissa sunaun apne chathe bhai ka, jis ka naam Schacabac tha. Ham sab ki tarah us ne bhi, hamare waalid se, sau chandi ke dinar virasat mein mile the, jo uski samajh se ek bada khazana tha, lekin us ne bad-qismati jald hi se jab luta diya aur jeene ke liye bheekh mangne ki zaroorat padhi. Apni meethi zabaan aur shareef harkaton ki wajah se us ne apni naye karobar mein taraqqi ki, aur khaaskar tawaaju diya bade makaanon ke khidmatgaron se dosti karne main, ke isi tarah unke maalikon tak pahunch paaye.

Ek din voh ek bahut alishaan makaan se guzra, jiska saamne ek khidmatgaron ka hujum tha. Us socha ke makaan ki shakal se to aisa lagta hai ke vahan se achchi kamaai hogi, to voh dakhil huya aur poocha ke uska maalik kaun tha.

“Bhale aadmi, aap kahan se aaye hain?” ek khidmatgar ne kaha. “Aap khud nahi samajh sakte hai ke yeh kisi nahi ho sakti, sivaye ek Barmaki ki?” kyunkar Barmaki khandaan apni darya-dili aur khush-akhlaaqi ke liye mashoor the. Yeh sunte, mere bhai ne khidmatgaron, jo kai the, ke voh use kuch khairaat nawazege. Unhone mana nahi kiya, lekin adab se kaha ke voh andar jaaye aur unke aqa se khud baat kare.

Mere bhai ne unhe shukriya ata kiya aur daakhil huya us imarat mein, jo itni badi thi ke use Barmaki ke kamre tak pahunchne mein achcha waqt lag gaya. Aakkhir kar,  ek kamre jo tasveeron se saja tha, use sofe par baitha ek buzurg mile, jisne uska istaqbal is khush-khalqi se kiya, ke mere bhai ko apni darkhvast pesh karne ki

“Mere Huzoor”, usne kaha, “aap mere mein ek faqeer dekh rahe hai jo aap jaise ameer aur darya-dil insaanon ke sahaare se zindagi basar karta hai.”

To continue/Jaari rahega…

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