Kings and Heroes as Friends and Foes: the Example of Si\rat cAntar Abstract
This article explores the relationships between the kings and the hero in Si\rat cAntar. It demonstrates the evolution of a pattern of conflict development and resolution as the story progresses. A comparison of the relationship between the hero cAntar and King Zuhayr with the relationship between cAntar and Zuhayr’s successor King Qays, shows how the conflict development and resolution pattern gains in importance as cAntar’s status in his society increases. Examples of the same or similar patterns found in other siyar such as Si\rat al-Ami\ra D_a\t al-Himma, Si\rat al-Ami\r H>amza al-Bahlawa\n, and Qis>s>at Fayru\z Sha\h Ibn al-Malik D>a\ra\b are briefly considered. The article proposes that the development of such a pattern of conflict is important to the narrative structure of the literary genre of the siyar.
Kings and Heroes as Friends and Foes: the Example of Si\rat cAntar
In this article, I will discuss the relationship of the hero of Si\rat cAntar with first, King Zuhayr, and then his son King Qays, and I will demonstrate the importance of this relationship to the narrative structure of the Si\ra. As Si\rat cAntar progresses, a pattern of conflict between the hero and the king develops, and I will consider the reasons for this and its impact on the narrative. Unlike the Persian Sha\hna\meh, which is an epic chronicle built around a king-list of fifty Iranian monarchs, the Arabic medieval siyar are not the histories of kings, but of their champions. In Si\rat cAntar, Si\rat al-Ami\ra D_a\t al-Himma, Si\rat Sayf Ibn D_i\ Yazan, as well as in the Persian stories of the same genre, Si\rat H>amza al-Bahlawa\n and Qis>s>at Fayru\z Sha\h1, the central element of concern is the hero, regardless of his social status. The heroes in the siyar champion the kings and their causes and may or may not be princes themselves. But the hero does not exist in a social vacuum; it is natural that the siyar take into account the importance of kings because they constituted an integral and essential part of the social fabric. However, the hero’s exploits are presented as being vastly more interesting and action-packed than those of the more limited role of the king2, but at the same time, they are subject to the king’s orders and desires and at least some of their actions are influenced by his personality, so the king-hero relationship can become the driving force of the narrative. Because the kings have so much power, they can be directly responsible for decisions that lead the hero to undertake specific actions, and this catalytic role is important to the story’s structure. This is also true for foreign kings who may come in contact with the hero. A king who requests the hero’s help gives him the opportunity to accomplish deeds that he might not otherwise have undertaken. In the first volume of Si\rat cAntar, for instance, cAntar helps Kisra\ against Caesar and his renown spreads as far as Persia and the Byzantine empire. In Si\ratH>amza al-Bahlawa\n, the king Kisra\3 of Persia calls upon the Arab H>amza for help in saving his kingdom. In D_a\t al-Himma, the Arab caliph Ha\ru\n ar-Rashi\d does not hesitate to ask cAbd al-Wahha\b to come from another part of Arabia to help him. Due to the king’s social importance4 in the story, the siyar tend to develop these characters in depth, presenting detailed portraits of them. Let us consider the two main king-hero relationships in Si\rat cAntar.
The king-hero relationship during the reign of King Zuhayr
In Si\rat cAntar, the narrator begins the hero’s story by presenting not the hero, but a detailed portrait of the king, Zuhayr. The narrator recounts three stories that show the king’s main personality traits. This initial portrait is immediately followed by a portrait of the hero, again built around three stories. However, the king figures in these stories about the hero as well; the narrator introduces the hero in the context of his relationship with the king. Later in the Si\ra, the hero will become more independent and carry out actions that have no direct relation to the king, but the narrator considers this relationship important enough to incorporate it into the basic portrait he presents of the hero. At the beginning of his tale, he answers the question “what kind of person is cAntar?” in such a way that he is also addressing the question “what is the underlying structure of his relationship with the king?” Obviously, he considers the role of the king a significant one to his narration.
In fact, the narrator of Si\rat cAntar presents the entire career of King Zuhayr before mentioning the hero, cAntar. The narrator builds Zuhayr’s character, as we have noted above, by telling three stories about him, one after another, which demonstrate his primary characteristics of youth, strength and cleverness. In the first story, he tells how Zuhayr avenges his father’s murder. Despite his youth, his social status as heir to the throne and his personal qualities of leadership allow him to amass a sizeable army to accompany him on the punitive expedition to avenge Jud_ayma’s death.5 Zuhayr understands the importance of personal and family honour; had he not taken this act of revenge, he would have lost all credibility and respect in the tribe and would have found himself unable to rule. The expedition also demonstrates his courage and physical strength, for he returns unharmed and we know that such expeditions were always risky and subject to miscalculation.6 Such stories of revenge are an important element of the Si\ra’s narrative, for often they lead to much larger engagements. If the hero or king seeks revenge only to find that his object is an ally or member of a much stronger group, or the vassal of a more powerful kingdom, what begins as simple revenge can develop into full-blown warfare, and can continue at length by introducing interwoven subplots into the story. However, in the case of Zuhayr’s revenge for his father’s death, this is not what happens. The narrator uses this incident only to start building a portrait of the king’s personality. This character development takes precedence over the potential action-story of the revenge itself.
The second story in the narrator’s portrait-developing sequence takes place soon after the first one. Zuhayr manifests evidence of extreme self-confidence as well as a lack of mature judgement, and decides to immortalise his name by destroying the Kacba and building a new site of religious pilgrimage elsewhere.7 His tone is arrogant:
“Inni cazamtu cala\ an abni\ .. baytan .. wa usami\hi al-bayt al-h>ara\m wa a\muru an-na\s an tah>ujja ilayh fi\ kulli ca\m .. wa man kha\lafa amri\ aw cas>a\ni\ anzaltu bihi al-mas>a\’ib” (Si\rat cAntar, 1:93)8
Earlier similar attempts by the king D_u\ Yazan (Si\rat Sayf) and Abraha (as cited by Arab historians9 ) had either been aborted or unsuccessful. This does not deter Zuhayr. However, he is capable of learning from those wiser than he, and he listens to his counsellor who paints a grim picture of the fate of anyone daring to defy the gods by tampering with the Kacba. The young king’s courage, though misguided, is clear from the incident as is his developing wisdom. The narrator must allow Zuhayr to abandon his plan as he does because his character is needed to continue the story.
The final story in the trilogy which provides us with Zuhayr’s initial portrait emphasises Zuhayr’s cleverness10 according to the standards of the time. The story concerns his desire to marry and start a family. To avoid offending his clans’ chieftains, Zuhayr seeks a wife outside the tribe. He learns of a Bedouin with a lovely daughter whom her father refuses to allow to marry. The king befriends the Bedouin, orders his own men to attack the family and “saves” them. The father gratefully offers Zuhayr the girl’s hand in marriage in return for his valour, not even requesting the customary bride-price.
Having presented these three anecdotes concerning the king, the narrator finally introduces cAntar for the first time. Once again the narrator tells us three stories but he starts much earlier in cAntar’s life. This is our first indication of the hero’s greater importance than the king to the story. It is significant, however, that the personality of the king is already fully developed, for this will directly affect the relationship between cAntar and Zuhayr. At the beginning of the story, cAntar is in a very weak position, for he is not only a young boy (the first time we see him interacting with the king, cAntar is only 4 years old) but a slave, the lowest member of the tribal society. Thus in their contact, the narrator is juxtaposing the highest and lowest members of the society. Zuhayr notices the boy’s qualities during their first contact which occurs when Zuhayr tosses a piece of meat in cAntar’s direction but the meat is caught by a dog. cAntar fights and kills the dog; Zuhayr admires his courage and remembers him:
“... t_umma adkhala [cAntar] yadayhi fi famih [al-kalb] wa qabad>a cala\ shidqayh fashaqqa h>ankah ila\ katifayh.. fatacajjaba al-malik Zuhayr gha\yata al-cajab .. wa qa\l wa -lla\hi ma\ ha\d–ihi al-fica\l illa\ dali\l ash-shaja\ca liha\d–a\ al-ghula\m al-musama\ cAntar wa la\ budda an yas>i\ra min ashjaci ash-shujca\n” (Si\rat cAntar, 1:112)11
The first story about cAntar is one of courage, which will be the hero’s dominant characteristic throughout the Si\ra. In addition it parallels the first story told about Zuhayr avenging his father’s death which also emphasises the character’s courage.
The second story takes place later when cAntar is menaced with death for having killed a fellow slave, and Zuhayr intercedes on his behalf. When cAntar tells him he had killed the slave for having harmed an old woman, Zuhayr recognises a kindred spirit and becomes cAntar’s patron. He predicts that cAntar will become a “champion of women” as well as a strong and courageous man (Si\rat cAntar, 1:126-176). As if to emphasise its importance, the story is immediately repeated with only slight variations: cAntar kills another slave, belonging to ar-Rabi\c, and the king again saves him from the slave-owner’s wrath. As the narrator builds cAntar’s physical and moral portrait, he is at the same time further developing Zuhayr’s moral portrait, showing us the king’s concern for the weaker members of his society. The king’s taking a personal interest in him at this point in the Si\ra also highlights cAntar’s exceptional qualities. As we have said, much of the narrator’s early character development of the hero is in relation to the King Zuhayr.
In the third story the narrator uses to develop cAntar’s character, the king bestows on him the epithet “Protector of the cAbs Tribe” after the hero saves the tribe during the absence of its own warriors (Si\rat cAntar, 1:156). King Zuhayr even goes so far as to sit at the same table with cAntar and treat him as a friend by drinking wine with him. By eating at the same table, he shows the tribe’s nobles that he does not scorn cAntar. The king encourages cAntar in his dream of becoming a knight by giving him a sword and a horse. Although they cannot be equals, their relationship is much friendlier than we would expect to find between a king and a slave. This close relationship is thanks to cAntar’s extraordinary qualities but also thanks to Zuhayr’s surprising openness and tolerance. If we contrast Zuhayr’s acceptance and protection of cAntar with his son King Qays’ attitude, it immediately becomes clear that not every tribal king would have reacted as Zuhayr did.
The narrator’s introduction of the characters of cAntar and Zuhayr early in the Si\ra is completely logical from a structural point of view; what is more interesting to note is that these initial portraits do not change as the Si\ra evolves and time in the story passes. Zuhayr is presented as a good and just man, and he doesn’t change. cAntar is presented as a courageous rebel who refuses to accept the lowly station fate and the moeurs of the tribal society have imposed on him, and although in the thousands of pages which follow, he is shown in more detail as a character, his fundamental attributes of courage and individuality remain constant throughout.
After the initial relationship between king and hero has been established, the Si\ra follows its course, but from its complicated story-line, we shall consider only those aspects pertinent to the king-hero relationship. In general, King Zuhayr supports the young hero cAntar, reinforcing the initial positive impression the narrator presented of the king. Early in the story, when cAntar finds himself in conflict with his father over the question of being recognised as a legitimate son, he leaves the tribe. King Zuhayr not only sends an army under the leadership of his own son Ma\lik to seek him out and bring him back (Si\rat cAntar, 1:211) but upholds his demand to be recognised by his noble father Shadda\d and to become a full-fledged member of the tribe. Zuhayr continues to champion the younger man, and in moments of strong emotion, shows clear affection for the hero:
“....nahad>a al-malik Zuhayr...wa masha\ binafsih ila\ cAntar wa qabbalahu bayna caynayh wa qa\l...wa la\ taku\n cindi\ illa\ kama\ anta al-walad wa ana\ awwal man yakhd>ac laka min al-mulu\k...wa anta al-yawn ibn cammi\ wa lah>mi\ wa dami\...”
(Si\rat cAntar, 1:275)12
King Zuhayr’s support of the protagonist is not completely altruistic in nature. The hero’s physical strength is very useful to the king, so theirs is an advantageous relationship for both men. On more than one occasion, the king asks cAntar to carry out difficult missions. For instance, he sends him to help his adopted son, H>>is>n, who wants to marry Naci\ma, but is prevented from doing so by a knight who also wants to marry the young woman. This knight threatens to annihilate her tribe if he does not get his way. cAntar kills the knight and the two lovers are united (Si\rat cAntar 1:226). On other and frequent occasions, cAntar saves or frees King Zuhayr’s wives. This happens when the king is absent from the tribe, and an enemy tribe attacks, kidnapping the cAbs women. Bit by bit, the hero becomes a protector of Zuhayr’s interests. Later, we will see that he makes himself indispensable to the tribal leader.
There are times in this generally happy king-hero relationship, however, when all is not perfect. If Zuhayr must choose between cAntar’s and the tribe’s interests, he distances himself from the hero and may refuse to oppose cAntar’s enemies within the tribe. Sometimes he sides with ar-Rabi\c,one of the tribe’s more powerful members, chief of the Banu\ Ziya\d clan; the king doesn’t want to offend him, for fear of causing dissension within the tribe.13 Zuhayr’s fatherly attitude toward cAntar is thus tempered by political considerations arising from his responsibilities as king. Naturally, cAntar’s enemies are encouraged when they see that Zuhayr’s support is not unfailing. But the king withdraws his support of cAntar only when circumstances force him to do so. If he must exile cAntar from the tribe to maintain peace, he does so, but he never overtly attacks the hero or undermines the hero’s interests. For example, Zuhayr sides with his son Qays when the latter has a dispute with cAntar but he does not attack cAntar as Qays does.
On the whole Zuhayr is just, honest, and diplomatic, but also pragmatic. He is a great help to cAntar, especially at the outset of the story. He is present at the turning points of the hero’s struggle, supporting and encouraging him in his projects. And partly thanks to Zuhayr, these projects bear fruit: cAntar is indeed recognised by Shadda\d as his son, he does become a knight of the cAbs tribe, he is accepted by the majority of the tribe’s nobles as a courageous and valiant knight, and all of this happens during Zuhayr’s reign. Had the king opposed the hero’s ambitions, it would probably have been impossible for him to achieve his goals.
The relationship of the two men remains in essence unchanged from the time cAntar begins to defend the tribe until Zuhayr dies in battle, nobly defending his tribe’s interests. Once the hero becomes a free man and reaches a respected level of society, cAntar is less dependant on the king’s good graces but Zuhayr’s sentiments for him are constant and he remains a benevolent patron. They remain separated in the tribal hierarchy, but with cAntar’s ascendance, their relationship is more evenly balanced than it had been early in the Si\ra. Since the hero no longer occupies his original weak social position, he does not depend on the king to save his life under ordinary circumstances but if the need arises, the king takes the initiative to do so. For example, when King Zuhayr learns that the hero has been tricked into mounting a suicidal expedition to capture the noblewoman al-Jayda\’, he leads his army to help cAntar.
Whereas at the beginning of the Si\ra cAntar could not show his gratitude to Zuhayr through actions, once he is able to do so, his appreciation and fidelity become apparent. An illustration of the high esteem in which cAntar holds King Zuhayr is his offer to give the king his sword, az>-Z>a\mi’, as soon as he acquires it. As we have discussed elsewhere14, the sword is one of two essential acquisitions for the hero of a Si\ra, and the fact that cAntar would consider parting with his is an indication of his deep respect for Zuhayr (Si\rat cAntar 1:249). As cAntar leaves his inferior social status behind, he is more and more often able to provide services to the king, and each time Zuhayr has need of his courage and strength, cAntar responds with enthusiasm. And as the narrator describes how cAntar helps Zuhayr, he continues to build cAntar’s moral portrait: the hero twice freed Zuhayr’s son Sha\s from his captors and certain death, even though Sha\s was one of his fierce enemies. Later, cAntar delivered the king himself from the hands of his enemies, becoming literally Zuhayr’s savior.
To summarise, the relationship of the hero cAntar to King Zuhayr is that of a younger, socially inferior man to an older more powerful patron. It is not a relationship of conflict; on the contrary, Zuhayr tries to help the hero. Zuhayr helps mould the hero’s character and cAntar remains subservient to the king, respectful and grateful for his patronage. The static and happy king-hero relationship in this first part of the story is due to the relative social positions of the two men, but also to Zuhayr’s character. Zuhayr does not have a personality prone to conflict and is generous in his admiration of cAntar’s courage and behaviour. The narrator tells his initial stories about Zuhayr to develop his character in our minds and then he does not tamper with the resulting image. The details he adds about Zuhayr’s character once cAntar enters the scene show him as a just king; a sympathetic ruler; a kind, good, and wise man. As cAntar shares many of these positive characteristics, the king-hero relationship in the first part of the Si\ra is stable and mutually satisfactory. However, Zuhayr figures as a character in only a short part of the Si\ra, and the king-hero relationship will change dramatically when Zuhayr’s son Qays takes power, when the relationship becomes a much more volatile one resonating with conflict, one which will act much more forcibly as a motor driving the narrative of the Si\ra.
Before turning our attention to the evolution of the king-hero relationship in the Si\rat cAntar as shown by cAntar and Qays’ interactions, it is interesting to note that the role of cAntar as hero-champion vis-à-vis Zuhayr differs in at least one important way from the role of champion as depicted in the Persian Sha\hna\meh. Although cAntar, like the early champions in the Sha\hna\meh, obeys King Zuhayr without question, he is far too inferior socially to his king to become a counsellor. It is true that he has a great deal of courage and physical strength for which Zuhayr admires him, but it would not occur to the king to seek his advice. In Si\rat cAntar the role of counsellor remains the privileged domain of knights of noble birth. However, like the champions in the Sha\hna\meh, cAntar will become indispensable as time passes. This is not because Zuhayr is weak but simply thanks to the hero’s outstanding personal qualities as a fighter and as a man.
The king-hero relationship during the reign of King Qays Ibn Zuhayr
Zuhayr’s death marks a turning point in the king-hero relationship, for as soon as his son Qays takes the throne, the relationship becomes colored by conflict and confrontational incidents will increase in frequency as the story progresses. Even before he became king, Qays attacked cAntar in battle, despite a reluctance on the hero’s part to fight the prince (Si\rat cAntar, 2:232). The narrator thus lays the foundation for the future relationship between the two men. The roots of the conflict are of two types, personal and political. On the personal level, Qays does not share his father’s great affection and esteem for cAntar. He is an ambivalent friend at best to the hero. We rarely find him making comments equivalent to Zuhayr’s declaration of fatherly feelings toward the hero cited earlier, and on the few occasions he does so, the circumstances make us doubt his sincerity. Furthermore, the two men are close in age which may make it more difficult for Qays to be generous in his opinion of the hero than it had been for his father who could always regard cAntar from the superior vantage point of a long reign. This is not the case with Qays and cAntar: cAntar has already surmounted many obstacles to become a free man and an admired knight and poet before Qays acquires the power of the throne. In addition, unlike Zuhayr who never had to prove himself a better knight than cAntar, Qays feels the pressure of showing that he is at least as talented for war as the hero, particularly because Qays is ever aware of cAntar’s lowly origins and scorns them as is shown by comments about cAntar such as:
wa ah>tamilu ad>-d>ayma min aswadin La’i\min bila\ nasabiin yud_karu
(Si\rat cAntar, 4:640) 15
Finally, Qays is married to the daughter of ar-Rabi\c, cAntar’s worst enemy. This family relationship sets the stage for a predisposition on Qays’ part to take ar-Rabi\c’s side against cAntar and this does indeed happen once Qays is king.
As for the political origins of the tension between Qays and cAntar, both are very powerful men, each in his own way. The king is hierarchically powerful in the tribe, while cAntar’s power is two-fold, both physical and moral. He embodies many of the qualities admired by his peers: he is generous, a strong knight, a gifted poet, and a compassionate man. In each category, his qualities outshine those of King Qays. Because he is so highly respected in his clan, the Banu\ Qura\d, cAntar is in essence its chief, on a par with ar-Rabi\c, chief of the Banu\ Ziya\d and with Qays himself in his role as head of the third clan in the cAbs tribe. However, both Qays’ and ar-Rabi\c ‘s power comes primarily from the social class into which they were born, whereas cAntar’s power comes from his own achievements, his physical strength and the qualities that make him stand out among his peers. The height to which cAntar has risen not only irritates Qays on a personal level but prevents him from having total control over the Banu\ Qura\d. If cAntar were not in the way, Qays would be chieftain of two of the three cAbs clans.
The other political source of conflict between the two men stems from the network of alliances and allegiances that cAntar and Qays set up around themselves; Qays’ allies are often cAntar’s enemies. For example, Qays frequently allies himself with ar-Rabi\c and he also makes alliances with D_u\ al-Khima\r, both of whom are fierce enemies of cAntar. Both cAntar and Qays have alliances within other clans of the tribe; notice for example that the close alliance between Qays and ar-Rabi\c crosses clan lines as does the alliance of cAntar and the Prince Ma\lik (of Qays’ clan). A similar cross-clan alliance exists between ar-Rabi\c and Ma\lik, cAbla’s father, who belongs to the Banu\ Qura\d. This network of relationships adds richness to the story, creating subplots which feature one or another of these various characters. But it also provides fertile soil for conflict development between the king and the hero. Qays’ diplomacy leads him to change alliances at will, and this gives him added importance in the Si\ra. As he can be definitively classed neither as friend nor foe, there is a constant air of tension about him, an imminent surprise always brewing. Sometimes Qays forms alliances not only with the hero but also with the hero’s enemies against a stronger common enemy. For example, in the war against Banu\ Faza\ra, he fights side by side with both cAntar and ar-Rabi\c (Si\rat cAntar, 3:294). Regardless of the various alliances, cAntar remains the narrator’s central concern just as he was during Zuhayr’s lifetime, and once again during Qays’ reign the role of the hero supersedes that of the king.
The first open conflict between King Qays and cAntar arises immediately after Zuhayr’s death. As soon as Qays takes power, he assembles his men to avenge his father’s death (Si\rat cAntar, 2:630). Although cAntar is one of the strongest knights available to him, ar-Rabi\c influences the king to ask for help instead from one of cAntar’s enemies, al-H>a\rit_ Ibn Z>a\lim, who is not even a member of the cAbs tribe. In addition, Qays refuses the hero’s help when cAntar offers to accompany the punitive expedition. However, the king soon learns that it is not easy to win the battle without cAntar. He is on the point of losing when he sends an envoy to seek out the hero (Si\rat cAntar, 3:673). This pattern is typical; the relationship between Qays and cAntar is always determined by what is in Qays’ interest. He chooses cAntar as an ally when he needs a strong right arm, but he allies himself with cAntar’s enemies when that is useful to him, and to flatter his father-in-law he listens to ar-Rabi\c whose advice is always contrary to the hero’s best interests. His attitude toward cAntar also changes to reflect the internal politics of the tribe. But despite the king’s fickleness, cAntar doesn’t hesitate when he is called on to help Qays. He is dedicated to helping his king and his tribe. The relationship between the two men follows a cyclic pattern of conflict development and resolution:
1. cAntar and Qays are on good terms
2. Conflict arises, most often initiated by Qays
3. Conflict resolved
4. Good terms re-established and the sequence is repeated
Often, ar-Rabi\c influences Qays against cAntar, and more rarely, it is cAntar himself who initiates the conflict. When there is a situation of conflict between Qays and the hero, cAntar usually leaves the tribe for a time before the conflict is resolved. In such a case, the hero is isolated from the tribal structure, travelling with his own small group of faithful followers. These sequences in the Si\ra give cAntar the occasion to truly shine heroically, as opposed to being a heroic champion for his king, since he does not have to share the glory of his victories or conquests outside the tribal structure with his king. He is free to make new alliances, often with leaders of strong foreign powers; he is called upon to be heroic in the service of the great and the grand of his day, and in general behaves just like a king himself. He becomes the absolute center of his little clan of followers. However, when he returns to the tribal context, and the conflict of the moment with Qays is resolved, he once again assumes his role of champion in service of his king. He resumes his role of saviour of the tribe, defending it from enemies and leading successful battles for it. For example, in the third volume of the Si\ra (Si\rat cAntar 3:561-4:16) Qays asks cAntar to leave the tribe after a dispute. cAntar does so, and during his absence makes alliances with fierce knights such as cA\mir Ibn at>-T>ufayl and cAmru Ibn Wud al-cA\miri\, as well as with tribes such as the Banu\ cA\mir. But when Qays needs cAntar’s help in a war he starts, the hero willingly and immediately returns to fight at his side.
In Si\rat cAntar, when cAntar is outside the limits of his tribe, the story-line is animated by the adventures and conquests in which he is involved. When he is within the tribe, the prime motor of the narration is found in the conflict between him and Qays. When everyone is on good terms, nothing much is going on within the tribe unless there is an attack from the exterior. Only when conflict arises is there movement because conflict creates activity and events in the tribe. People talk and argue, get angry, make threats, leave the tribe, plot against one another, make alliances, prepare for battles and so forth. Conflicts allows the narrator to introduce both new characters and new stories about the hero and other characters. Indeed, conflict is the motor of much of the narration because in a world of total peace, little would happen in cAntar’s story which is a story of battles, preparation for battles, results of battles, alliances against common enemies, kidnappings, intrigues, assassinations and surprise attacks.
Sometimes the conflict within the tribe is an extension of the more global context of conflict in the Si\ra. An example of this is when Qays attacks the Banu\ Qura\d, cAntar’s clan, encouraged in this adventure by one of cAntar’s enemies, H>ud_ayfa, chief of Banu\ Faza\ra. During the attack, Qays captures cAbla, a serious insult to cAntar (Si\rat cAntar, 4:273). Here we have the king attacking his champion where he is the most vulnerable, through his beloved. Qays knew that cAntar was absent when he organised his attack, and perhaps this was the narrator’s technique to avoid the open confrontation which would resolve their conflict—and probably terminate the Si\ra. Tribal honor and his own qualities forbid cAntar to kill Qays in such a confrontation, and the narrator cannot permit the hero to be killed by his own king.16 Had they met in a battle that did not terminate with the death of one or the other, the narrator is then faced with another thorny problem, that of how to end the battle. If one is wounded, the shame of such an act on the “victor’s” part would be great enough to unravel the story. The narrator’s only logical choice here is to avoid the battle between the two men, which is what he does. But what is the significance of Qays’ capturing cAbla? cAntar had saved the king’s wives on numerous occasions during Zuhayr’s life, and now we find his son capturing cAntar’s wife. This epitomises the difference between the hero’s relationships with the two kings. Zuhayr had always been a friend to cAntar but Qays in this instance is acting just like one of cAntar’s sworn enemies. His action is comparable to those of cAntar’s rivals who captured cAbla before her marriage hoping to keep her as a wife, or to Kisra\’s attempted rape of cAbla. From a narrative point of view, it forces cAntar to reappear to save cAbla from Qays.
Knowing that cAntar would soon appear to save cAbla, Qays had sent for reinforcements from an-Nucma\n. However, when cAntar arrives, furious at the humiliation of cAbla’s kidnapping, the reinforcements have not yet appeared and Qays’ plan to defeat cAntar in battle is foiled. Since it is obvious to the king that he could not win the upcoming battle without an-Nucma\n’s men to help, he decides to trick cAntar into making peace. He sends the women out first followed by his unarmed knights, knowing cAntar well enough to feel sure he would not lead an attack against such undefended people. The trick works, and when the two groups are close enough to speak, Qays has someone explain to the hero that they had taken cAbla to get cAntar to come and live with their tribe. cAntar takes this at face value, and recovers cAbla, but just then the requested reinforcements arrive, and Qays sees his chance to carry out his original plan. He organises the new arrivals into a massive attack against cAntar and his group of followers. During the ensuing battle, the narrator introduces new elements in the form of a more pressing enemy attack elsewhere and both an-Nucma\n’s and Qays’ men abandon the struggle with cAntar. In this sequence we see that Qays does not consider himself strong enough alone to defeat cAntar in direct battle but that this does not affect his desire to see cAntar defeated. He is acting even more like an enemy than earlier. The question is, why? As we saw above, the pattern of conflict evolution between the king and the hero is cyclic. In this episode, we are at the bottom of one of the cycles, where things could hardly be worse between the two men. The main reason is political. Qays is the brother-in-law of the very powerful King an-Nucma\n of Irak17, and has been recruited by the latter to help resolve a political crisis. The Iraqi king has learned—from ar-Rabi\c, cAntar’s worst enemy and Qays’ father-in-law—that cAntar intends to depose him and place one of his own men on the throne. The information is false but has the results ar-Rabi\chad anticipated, of arousing an-Nucma\n’s wrath against cAntar. The threat against an-Nucma\n fuels Qays’ own insecurities vis-à-vis cAntar: if the Iraqi king fears cAntar may take his throne, Qays, being closer and less powerful, has even more reason to worry.
This conflict is resolved when Qays loses the war he had left the battle with cAntar to fight. He needs cAntar’s help, and goes so far as to compose poetry asking for it:
“Fa aghit_na\ ya Aba\ al-Fawa\ris wa s>fah> cAn d_unu\bin mad>at lana\ sa\lifa\tun
Of course the hero offers his military skills to Qays because he cannot resist such an appeal even if the audience or reader suspects that it is flattery of the highest order. The two men are once again reconciled. cAntar will return to the tribe, his period of isolated glory temporarily finished.
Another example of conflict between Qays and cAntar arising due to outside influence is when King al-Aswad19 asks Qays to capture and deliver the hero to him; Qays does not hesitate to do so.20 Clearly, his loyalties are based on political obedience rather than friendship or tribal ties. Because al-Aswad is a very powerful figure in the region, Qays bows to his wishes even though cAntar has been such a faithful subject. He invites cAntar to a banquet with every intention of taking him prisoner. But cAntar has been alerted to the plot and escapes. In a characteristic reaction to the situation, he leaves the tribe. But this time, he is isolated not only from his own tribe (due to his conflict with Qays) but also isolated from all the tribes of the region (due to his conflict with al-Aswad). Had Qays supported cAntar, war may very well have broken out between the cAbs tribe and the more powerful Iraqi armies, so we could excuse Qays on the basis of having chosen the lesser of two evils. However, a man of his cleverness should have been able to find a solution which would protect cAntar while satisfying al-Aswad. He could have told the more powerful king that he didn’t know cAntar’s whereabouts, for instance, or he could have warned cAntar of his danger. Instead, he seems only too eager to comply with the treacherous request. The resolution of this conflict develops in two stages. First, Qays needs cAntar’s help and when the hero returns to help him, there is a warming of the relationship, but that provokes an attack on Qays by al-Aswad. Only when cAntar is called upon to help the more powerful Persian King Kisra\ does the latter oblige al-Aswad to set aside his differences with the hero. This then allows Qays to return to truly friendly relations with cAntar. (Si\rat cAntar, 7: 200-366).
It is difficult to judge Qays’ true feelings about cAntar. In the poem cited above, he seems to be sentimental and contrite, yet a short time before he acted reprehensibly toward the hero. Qays is pragmatic enough to realise cAntar’s importance to the tribe (“Ya\...h>ima\na\”) but seems to have no true sentimental attachment to him. cAntar fights for various causes sponsored by Qays; in exchange, the latter may use the influence of his position in cAntar’s favour, as he does when he asks cAbla’s father to allow his daughter to marry the hero. Even after the very first time that cAntar came to his aid, Qays admitted that he was a strong knight who could be valuable to the tribe. At this point, he defended cAntar against Banu\ Ziya\d, the hero’s worst enemies, insulting cAmma\ra lord of Banu\ Ziya\d and provoking this branch of the tribe into temporarily leaving the cAbs.
On whole, it seems that once Qays is in power, cAntar has come of age in the Si\ra and is on his own—without the fatherly Zuhayr to protect him—to defend himself from his king as well as from his “true” enemies. This makes king and hero seem much closer in power and importance than would have been possible under Zuhayr when, no matter how affectionate the king became, we were always aware of the discrepancy in status.
Under Qays, we are particularly conscious of the near-equality of king and hero when it is cAntar rather than Qays who provokes the conflict. An example of this is the incident when one of Qays’ slaves, fallen into disfavour, was destined for execution. The slave asked for the hero’s protection and received it, causing a direct conflict with Qays (Si\rat cAntar, 4:636).21cAntar’s willingness to protect the slave when nobody else would highlights the aptness of his epithet “protector of the weak”. The results of the conflict are the same as if it had been initiated by Qays and cAntar leaves the tribe temporarily. However, cAntar did not seek this disagreement with his king but was propelled into his attitude of conflict by circumstances, in this case the endangered slave’s request for help. The rare instances in which cAntar initiates a conflict with Qays are of this nature, when the situation leaves him no other honourable choice. We sense that cAntar places honor before service to his king, and is not trapped in a web of blind obedience. Should we not then expect revenge on the hero’s part for Qays’ malicious acts described above? We remark that the incidents are all personal attacks against the hero, who subsequently forgives his king and continues to serve him loyally. It is doubtful, given cAntar’s understanding of honor and its obligations, that he would be so forgiving on behalf of another victim. In other words, if Qays were to level such treachery against another person or group, we would expect to find cAntar on the side of justice, openly resisting him.
This observation brings us back to our earlier consideration of the champions in the Persian Sha\hna\meh. That work poses a dilemma as to the correct reaction on the hero’s part when serving an evil king. In Si\rat cAntar, we can compare cAntar’s attitude to the Sha\hna\meh’s Za\l who serves such a king but insists on his right to judge independently. However, this is only because Qays does not push cAntar too far. If the hero had felt obliged to, he might very well have reacted like later champions in the Sha\hna\meh who rebelled against their kings.22 Knowing cAntar as well as he did, Qays chose to act in such a way that the hero would never become completely alienated from the tribe but would remain in reserve as it were, even during periods of conflict when cAntar was physically absent from the tribe. The hero’s great importance to the king becomes clear after cAntar’s death when the cAbs are attacked by enemies and totally annihilated. Once cAntar disappears, all the cAbs’ enemies seek revenge for their past defeats. Thus the loss of the tribe’s savior is a mortal blow to the cAbs. Although Qays escapes, he loses his throne and is humiliated. He is forced to take refuge in a church after killing the priest, and hide shamefully for ten years. He never rejoins the cAbs tribe. It is nearly impossible to imagine cAntar taking flight under similar circumstances, but it is also doubtful that such circumstances would have arisen if cAntar were alive. As we have already noted, the importance of the hero in Si\rat cAntar supersedes that of the king. When King Zuhayr died, he was followed in natural succession by King Qays. When cAntar dies, the tribe is destroyed.