I am a big fan of using a frame story as a literary device. A story within the story that parallels events in the novel. I love this so much that I have use it in every single one of my novels. For the novel Take The Highway, I chose the story within the story to be about Antar and Abla. The reason I was drawn to it is because it is a story of enormous courage. As the protagonist goes through heartbreak she requires heaps and loads of it. This story provides encouragement and support at different parts of the novel.
Without further ado, I give you Antar and Abla.
Where I grew up everything that happened before the advent of Islam is called Asr Al Jahiliya (age of ignorance). And thus, it’s dismissed as unworthy of knowing. The pharaohs, the Babylonians and a whole slew of civilizations—they’re just wiped under the carpet and ignored. It’s hard for some to reconcile the idea that in the Middle East, there were great societies, wellsprings of knowledge and even refined manners, before Islam. Sure, the ancient civilization of Sumer invented writing. And yeah, the ancient Egyptians invented graffiti. But how refined could those people really be? How valuable was their knowledge? When their minds had not yet been illuminated, by insightful eloquence of a single verse of the Quran?
However, there are some stories so compelling that a mountain of religious pride can’t prevent the waves of retelling to seep through from one generation to the next. This story, the story of Antar and Abla, which I am about to tell you is one such story.
In fact, I have read in a history book in a dusty old library back home that when the prophet Mohammed heard the story of Antar, he was so impressed by the nobility of his spirit, he declared in awe, ”I have never yearned more to meet a man in person.”
Prepare yourself, my dear reader, you are about to hear a story like no other: Historically correct, yet of such mythical proportions that had Shakespeare, Scheherazade and Steven Spielberg knocked their heads together for one thousand and one nights they could not have produced a more satisfying narrative. For a mountain moved to meet prophet Mohammed, but do you think the chosen one was moved by just any tale?
Antar, whose full name is Antarah Ibn Shaddad al Absi was born in the 6th century in Najd—the northern part of what is now Saudi Arabia. His mother Zabibah was a black slave from Africa and his father was ….. well! … back then people didn’t ask the son of a slave who his father was. It was a rude question or at least an inconvenient one. For only free men got to boast of heritage and lineage and a slave was just a slave. A child born into slavery only knew for certain who his mother was. When Antar was born he was called Antar son of Zabibah, but most members of the tribe of Bani Abs didn’t bother remembering his name. He was called Hey You!, Boy. He was summoned with shouts and finger snaps.
There was something exceptional about Antar right from the start. At first only his mother noticed. But quickly it became hard to disguise. By age nine he could pick up a stray sheep and carry it on his shoulders back to the flock. By age twelve he could carry four pails of water all at once without a rest, while grownup slaves carried them one by one. After that, he just grew and grew and grew. He became tall and strong. His muscles pulsated with the yeasty energy of rising bread. His curly hair shined in the sun. He was full of raw brutish physicality. Then one day everything changed by an unexpected encounter. Antar was refilling the water jug in his master’s tent. In the sleeping quarters he caught a glimpse of his master’s wife combing the hair of a young woman called Abla. Abla’s hair was smooth as silk and flowed like a reed mat. Her restrained giggles reminded Antar of the song of the nightingale. Her skin was the color of wheat. Her eyes were more alluring than the eyes of a gazelle. She had many folds, bumps and curves in her body. A sudden feeling of weakness came over Antar. His muscles felt like dough. His blood began to flow like spoiled milk. That night Antar went to bed in feverish daze and when he woke up the next morning, the strangest thing came out of his mouth. It was poetry.
Before I continue this story, I need to explain something. You know the old proverb “If the prophet Mohamed won’t go the mountain, the mountain must come to Mohamed”? Well that proverb is unfamiliar to us from the Middle East because it was made up in the West. When God decided to impress the Arabs he couldn’t use the usual tricks he used in the past to impress other people. Healing the sick, raising the dead or parting a sea—That was just a magic show for kids. The Almighty knew that these were hardened desert people who saw sand dunes move in front of their eyes and where a few drops of water created the greatest miracle of all—life. Do you think these people would have been impressed with a moving mountain? Naaaah! When God needed to get the attention of the Arabs, he knew he had to work harder. Become extra creative. He would have to impress with a perpetual miracle that would dazzle them for thousands of years to come. These hardened desert folks forget quickly. And so God inspired the words of magnificent eloquence that are the Quran. The only miraculous ability bestowed on this prophet was the ability to open his mouth and utter words arranged in a perfect geometry of beauty and meaning. I am telling you this because I am trying to impress on you the importance of poetry in Arabic culture. In this cultural context, over time, Antar would become one of the top poets of Arabia. Before Islam, there were seven poems that were displayed in the kaaba (the most secret shrine in Islam today). These poems, back then, were considered the finest examples of Arabic poetry. Antar would attain the distinguished honor of being one the poets in this exclusive club.
I am skipping ahead. Let’s go back to Antar and abla’s dazed confusion. Encountering Abla awakened in Antar not only poetry, but a sense of nobility. Antar became the first practitioner of the power of positive thinking. Perhaps he is the one who invented it. Long before the book The Secret was published, Antar decided that he would visualize everything that his heart desired and then proceed to behave as if his dreams were realities on the ground. As such, from that day on, Antar behaved as if he was a high nobleman of Bani Abs and he expected people to treat him accordingly.
People who loved Antar tried to dissuade him from his foolish ways. Zabibah, his brother Shieboob and other slave friends told him: “Be reasonable. Get your head out of the clouds.” Antar didn’t listen.
He stormed into his master’s tent and asked him: “Hey Shadad! Are you not my father?” Shadad gasped with horror and beat him within inches of his life. From then on, Antar referred to him as “father” and Shadad would beat him each time, until he got tired of the whole exercise and simply ignored the offensive word that his slave was in the habit of using.
One day Antar went to the sword maker and asked him for a sword. The sword maker laughed. “What need does a slave have with a sword when all he does is herd sheep and carry water?” He explained to Antar what was obvious: “Swords are for warriors. A free man has something to fight for because he has something to lose. What does a slave have to lose? Nothing. If we are raided by another tribe you will simply be the slave of another master.” Antar punched him and ransacked his workshop. The sword maker finally relented and made a wooden training sword for Antar: “Here is your toy sword for your pretend warrior games.”
Antar would steal away during free time behind a giant rock in the outer edges of his tribe’s encampment and there he would practice swinging his pretend sword around. Swishing it in the wind. Slicing the air. Attacking sand dunes. Fantasizing about becoming one of the great warriors of his time.
One day the tribe Hat raided Bani Abs. All the brave warriors saddled up their horses and rode off to fight the enemy. Antar was left behind as usual. Some of the women took advantage of the absence of husbands, fathers and brothers and decided to go to the oasis to have a little party. The women dismissed any danger with giggles: “We have full trust in courage of our men, they are the bravest in all Arabia.” The women’s-only merriment was proceeding joyfully, when 20 of the Hat warriors arrived intending to capture the women for slaves. “Help! Help!” Abla called out. When Antar heard her voice a volcanic rage overcame him. He grabbed the man that was attempting to kidnap Abla by the neck and proceeded to strangle him with his bare hands. He took his attacker’s sword and fought single handily against the rest of the 20 men. As he hacked and sliced with clothing soaked in blood, Antar roared like a lion. Those who didn’t run away in defeat were killed.
When all was over, all the Bani Abs women took turns thanking Antar for rescuing them, calling him a hero. Each one looked at him with new admiration. Finally, it was Abla’s turn to acknowledge him. Her hips swayed from side to side as she walked towards him. She looked at him with those mesmerizing eyes and touched his forearm with her finger. Antar took a deep breath, for his torment was unbearable. He had defeated 20 men and roared like a lion. Abla’s touch turned him into melted butter. His feet could barely support him. “Thank you Antar,” she said in her honeyed voice that conveyed meanings within meanings. “I will make sure that everybody in the tribe knows of your courage today.” Antar was lucky he didn’t faint as she sauntered away towards her tent.
When the leader of the tribe, Sheik Malik, heard of what happed at the oasis he immediately ordered Antar to appear before him. Feeling honored, Antar kneeled before the sheik. The Sheik fed Antar rice with lamb meat cooked in milk with his own hand—a gesture of respect. The Sheik would roll up a bite size portion of meat mixed with the meat stew and plop it into Antar’s mouth as thanks for saving the tribe’s women and with it the tribe’s honor. On that day Antar became a free man. He was awarded a horse called Abjar. A special sword was commissioned for him called Al Thamie, which means The Thirsty One. Antar was happy but not satisfied. There was one more thing he desired on that day the sheik couldn’t give him. He approached Shadad and asked to be acknowledged as his son. After hesitation, Shadad conceded. “I hope you will do a better job obeying me as my son than you did as my slave,” he said, biting his lips and shaking his head with disbelief at his own words.
From then on Antar son of Zabibah became Antar Ibn Shadad. But all was not well among the tribe of Bani Abs. A more difficult challenge lay ahead.
Try to put yourself in the shoes of any the young men of Bani Abs. Each trying to prove himself to his father and his community. Each one dreaming of becoming a sung hero earning looks of admiration from young women. And then, out of nowhere, marches in a slave of little preparation and much disadvantage grabbing all the limelight. There was much resentment brewing in the tents of Bani Abs that night and many nights to follow. Everywhere Antar went whispers trailed behind his back: “He is not one of us, look at him, he is black.”
Antar was busy with a different matter altogether. Behind the giant rock where he practiced his sword he was now practicing a set of new moves. Daily Antar and Abla met. Him regaling her with his poetry, stealing kisses and playing entertaining games. Laughter entered Antar’s heart. Life became the pouring rain that the deserts crave.
Assured of Abla’s feelings towards him, Atar gathered all his courage and proceeded to ask for his beloved’s hand in marriage from her father. Abla’s father wasn’t enthusiastic about the prospect of Antar and Abla as a married couple. But instead of simply refusing, he devised a clever plan. One that would get rid of the wretched man that had enchanted his daughter once and for all. He said yes. As a dowry for his daughter, he asked for three thousand red camels. Red camels are rare and the only person who ever owned such a beautiful herd was king Noaman of Iraq. Abla’s father thought: “If Antar doesn’t die crossing the desert, he will certainly be killed by the mighty king while attempting to steal his herd.” The was truly mission impossible.
Antar charged forward with the aid of his trusty horse through sand storms, across sand dunes, nearly perishing in a quicksand pit. Upon emerging barely alive in Iraq he was taken hostage while attempting to steal the camels. Soldiers placed Antar in front of king Noaman in chains.
“Who dares steal from me?” The king asked in anger. Antar identified himself. The king was stunned. “You are Antar? The man whose reputation has crossed the desert? The Antar I heard of is brave and honorable. The Antar I heard of is not a thief.”
Antar was struck by raging emotions at this accusation. It hurt to be called a thief. It hurt that his whole entire life he was treated like garbage simply because his skin was black. It hurt that time and again he rescued his people in battle yet they continued to deride him as an inferior. He wasn’t stupid! He knew full well that Abla’s father was attempting to get rid of him. Antar remembered all the beatings he had received as a slave. All the indignity he had endured. He had worked so hard to earn his freedom. Yet here he was again, in chains, humiliated, all because his people were unable to accept him as one of their own. It would have been easy for him to feel angry, bitter even. It would be natural to seek revenge. It would have been easy for him to hate all of Bani Abs. But there was this love, this yearning in his heart for Abla. No matter how much he despised his treatment at the hands of the Bani Abs, he was unable to feel anything but love towards the tribe that formed the family of his beloved. All that emotion twisted and knotted in his chest. Inside his belly there was a simmering ready to boil over. In that moment, it burst forth in words of poetry. Antar gave himself to it. Words to describe the love between Antar and Abla.
|ألا ياعبلُ قد زادَ التصابيْ ولجَّ اليومَ قومُكِ في عذابي|
|وظلَّ هواكِ ينمو كلَّ يومٍ كما ينْمو مشيبي في شَبابي|
King Noaman heard these words and was transported to a time when he too was a young man and stupid in love. He heard the anguish in Antar’s voice. The poetry conveyed the depths of the injustice that he suffered. This is the point in the story where we get discover what was truly exceptional about Antar. It wasn’t his unprecedented physical strength. It wasn’t his bravery in battle. It wasn’t the eternal eloquence. It wasn’t even the inspiring romance between Antar and Abla. What was truly exceptional about Antar was the nobility of his spirit. Whenever presented with a tough choice he allowed himself to be driven by love instead of hate.
The king begged Antar to stop, afraid he would start crying, and offered him a deal: “I will give you the three thousand red camels. In return, you will fight in my army for two years.” Antar agreed heartily. This was the first time Antar had been offered a fair deal. So this is how, three years after leaving his home, he returned with camels, servants, silks, treasure, perfume, jewellery and riches the likes of which nobody in Bani Abs had ever seen before.
Finally Abla’s father had no choice but to relent. All the noble men of Arabia were now afraid to ask for Abla’s hand in fear of Antar’s wrath. Antar’s rejoicing was short-lived, however, as Abla stated that she had her own requirement before marriage. “What?” Antar said, bewildered. “I have brought you three thousand red camels, riches, treasures, and servants. What more could you possibly want?” Abla waved her hand dismissively. “That is nothing. You did all those things to impress my father. Now you have to do something to impress me.”
Abla continued explaining her demand:
“Among the women of Arabia there is a raging debate going on. Those with sense say that I am the most beautiful woman in the desert. Those that lack it claim that Jaida bint Zahir of Bani Zubaid is even more beautiful. I want you to go capture Jaida so that she can become my servant on my wedding night. Everybody coming into my tent to congratulate me on my nuptials will be able to see us side by side. That will dispel whatever doubt there is about my rightful title as the queen of the Sahara.”
“Was there ever a woman harder to impress?” Thought Antar.
Poor Antar did as was asked of him.
Antar and Abla had a lavish wedding that lasted for ten days and nights and was attended by dignitaries from far and wide. I could happily state “The End” at this point and let you fantasize about a happily ever after. But alas, your storyteller reads too many books and researches his stories thoroughly. Any time two strong willed people are united by the bonds of marriage, sparks fly. Antar and Abla had a passionate relationship but also fought like cats and dogs. When things got heated between Antar and Abla, she would ridicule him, saying “When I met you, you were a nothing but a slave. I am the daughter of a nobleman.” Antar had a few choice words as ammunition as well. Abla was unable to conceive children. Antar wasn’t shy to remind her that she was a failure as a woman. Despite her beauty and nobility she lacked the most important thing that a woman should possess. Eventually Antar married a second wife to satisfy his desire for offspring.
In case you are worried about Jaida bint Zahir, things turned out alright for her. Proving to be a complete failure as a servant, Antar returned her to her husband a few days after the Antar and Abla wedding.
Antar died in battle close to his 90th birthday. He died same way as he lived—exceeding his contemporaries in all that they held dear: Nobility, eloquence, courage and romance, but all the same never quite accepted by his own people.