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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

Amir Arsalan

Muhammad 'Ali Naqib al-Mamalik

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Title: Amir Arsalan
Author: Muhammad 'Ali Naqib al-Mamalik
Genre: Novel
Written: ca. 1880
Length: 536 pages
Original in: Persian
Availability: Amir Arsalan has not been translated into English
  • Amir Arsalan-e namdar was first published in this form in 1961, edited and introduced by Mohammad Dja`far Mahdjoub
  • Amir Arsalan has not been translated into English; a slightly abridged German translation by Rudolf Gelpke was published by Manesse in 1965 as Liebe und Abenteur des Amir Arsalan (by Naqib al-Mamalek)

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Our Assessment:

A- : impressive and very entertaining epic and fairy tale

See our review for fuller assessment.

The complete review's Review:

       Muhammad 'Ali Naqib al-Mamalik was a naqqal -- a storyteller -- at the court of Nasr-ed-Din Shah (ca. 1831-1896). It was he who told the story of Amir Arsalan to the Shah, night after night -- but it was apparently the Shah's daughter, Fachr-ed-Douleh, who transcribed it and is thus responsible for preserving Naqib al-Mamalik's wonderful epic.
       Amir Arsalan is a modern Persian classic. It has remained wildly popular in Iran for the past century, but it was only in 1961 that Mohammad Dja`far Mahdjoub edited and presented a definitive text, far superior to the simpler versions that were all that was available until then.
       A German translation was published in 1965, but this classic tale has apparently never been translated into English (or French). (The German version has apparently also been out of print for decades.) It's a shame: this is a marvelous adventure novel, of universal appeal. It is also an interesting literary-historical curiosity, a product of what was still an oral tradition yet easily passing as a novel, an interesting bridge between old Persian tradition and modern Western influences (with which Nasr-ed-Din Shah, who travelled extensively though Europe, was certainly very familiar).

       The first part of Amir Arsalan takes place in the "Orient and Occident". The story begins with Cairo merchant Chadsheh No'man setting out for India. On the voyage there his ship passes by an island, and he stops there. He finds a beautiful if disheveled woman there; it turns out she is the Banu of Malekshah, the ruler of Rum (Constantinople/Istanbul). Rum was conquered by King Patras, a European invader, and Malekshah killed. The Banu was taken prisoner, but wound up on this island as she was being transported to Europe.
       No'man falls in love with her and abandons his journey to bring her back to Cairo with him. It turns out she is pregnant (with Malekshah's child), but when she gives birth No'man eagerly passes off the child as his own. He names the boy Arsalan -- meaning: 'Lion'.
       The child is immensely gifted, learning not only Arabic and Persian, but also seven European tongues. Bored with his studies by the age of thirteen, he also develops into a great hunter and warrior -- leading, soon enough, to him impressing the Egyptian khedive with his courage and prowess.
       The arrival of a Western envoy at the Cairo court brings great change. He has been sent by King Patras -- the king who conquered Rum and killed Arsalan's real father. The king reveals Arasalan's true identity , and demands that the boy, his mother, and No'man be delivered to him -- or else soldiers will invade and lay waste to the city.
       Arsalan, acting as interpreter at the court (since he is among the few that understands the foreigner's words) is outraged, angry both at No'man (for keeping the truth about his royal ancestry from him) and the presumptuous foreign envoy. The envoy gets killed, and his countrymen can also do little against the angry Egyptian mob: of a hundred from the foreign ship only one survives.
       To prevent King Patras' wrath coming down upon Egypt (once he hears about this unfortunate turn of events), Arsalan suggests that he, the true object of Patras' anger (now more than ever), leave the country. He wishes to go reconquer Rum -- and that's exactly what he does, easily routing the Western forces there and assuming the throne that had been his father's.
       All goes well for Arsalan -- until he comes across a painting of a beautiful princess, in whom he falls hopelessly and head over heels in love. Who is she ? None other than Farokh Lagha, King Patras' daughter .....
       Arsalan can't leave well enough alone and be satisfied with ruling Rum. Even the oft-consulted astrolabe warns that any adventures in the Occident don't look at all promising. But Arsalan can't help himself and soon sneaks off to Patrasia, the capital of King Patras' empire.
       He's lucky in who he runs into: the gateways to the city are well-guarded, but Arsalan tries to enter via the one in the charge of Tawus -- who recognises him but is (like all good, wise folk) in fact, in secret, a Muslim. Tawus and his brother Kawus take in the youth, and, going by the name Elias, he works in their coffeehouse. The problem is: there are others who suspect he is really Arsalan as well, most notably two of the king's wazirs, the sun-minister Shams and the moon-minister Qamar. (Shams is the closet-Muslim, so we know he's the good guy.)
       Both wazirs often come to visit the coffeehouse, insisting Arsalan should reveal his true identity -- and warning him about each other. But Arsalan-as-Elias sticks to his story.
       Things get more complicated when Princess Farokh Lagha is promised to King Papas' son, Prince Hushang. Desperate Arsalan manages also to catch the eye of the princess, and he finds his love reciprocated -- but their positions are almost hopeless. The ever-resourceful Arsalan can't quite prevent the marriage, but he (and Farokh Lagha) prevent pretty much everything else and the wedding night doesn't turn out all too well for Hushang.
       Arsalan is a suspect in some of the goings-on, and police-commissioner Almas is sure he is guilty -- but with the help of evil wazir Qamar Arsalan first evades and then disposes of this threat too. Unfortunately, all does not turn out immediately well, and at the end of the first section of the book it looks like Farokh Lagha has also been murdered .....
       The second half of the book transports Arsalan (and most of the action) to another world, of fairies and demons and genies. Here he is tested, again and again, in his desperate efforts to find his beloved and return her, alive, to the real world.
       Again, everyone seems to know who he is (though he always tries to deny his identity and pretend he isn't anyone of consequence -- which, by the end, doesn't even seem particularly convincing to him). He can almost never be sure who to trust (as he is repeatedly instructed not to believe what he will be told, and often to kill).
       He finds himself in wild realms where everyone has been turned to stone or (frequently) in vast deserts, and he has many very strange encounters. He must retrieve secret weapons which are the only things that can be used to achieve certain ends, and there are also some very unpleasant potions which must be prepared from the remains of some of those he must kill.
       Things look pretty bad for Arsalan, on more than one occasion, but he manages, eventually, to triumph. And, after a four-year other-world odyssey he returns triumphant (and forgiven) to Patrasia (where poor King Patras has all this while been fighting King Papas (who was avenging Hushang's death ...)).
       All's well that ends well, and after all the many adventures that's what happens here.

       Amir Arsalan is grand entertainment, especially the first part. Arsalan's early, more realistic adventures are an excellent and only slightly over-the-top adventure tale in best classical tradition. The wily, talented youth, the love that blinds to all else, the evil wazir -- versus all the good folk on the boy's side, a King whose opinion shifts quicker than the wind: it's all nicely done. The second part is far more fantastical, and since everything goes a lot of the subtlety is lost. Still, it makes for a good set of fairy tales in best Arabian Nights tradition, with some neat inventions and ideas (and some inspired evil).
       Despite being a fairly long work, Amir Arsalan is fast paced and action packed. It's never boring, and -- with one adventure leading immediately into the next -- really is quite hard to put down.
       Certainly recommended.

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Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Persian author Muhammad 'Ali Naqib al-Mamalik died in 1891.

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