The vital illusion: the war of Basous and why we tell tales

February 21, 2004 12:00 AM

The pre-Islamic era in Arab history is called jahiliyya; the word stems from Jahl, which means ignorance and aggression. Roaming the Arabian Peninsula for water, grazing land and trade, Arab tribes were deprived of all the fruits of settlement and stability.

Among such fruits, of course, was the state: a nontribal bond among people that develops due to their sharing the same territory, and a set of laws by which they abide. The only moral code that governed the Arab tribes was what Ibn Khaldoun called “Assabiyya” the bond of kinship or tribal solidarity. Though usually summarized in the phrase: “my brother and I against my cousin and my cousin and I against the foreigner,” Assabiyya should not be mistaken for some primitive social code; in fact, it involves a sophisticated system of overlapping loyalties and a large set of regulations for almost each and every human interaction in war and peace.

While laws, ethics, traditions and ideas in general are in essence responses to human needs, once they come to being they start having a life of their own, independent of the material necessities that created them. Laws and traditions are then sanctified and glorified; instead of being means to a better life, they become ends in and by themselves. Contrary to what many social scientists think, this journey of ideas from earth to heaven is not an illusion misguiding humanity, rather, it is a beautiful act necessary to make life livable.

For example, a social scientist would explain a 40-year war between the Algerian tribes of Taghlib and Bakr as a fight for grazing lands. But, if a tribesman from Bakr or Taghlib told the story, we get the epic of Harb al-Basous: the War of Basous ­ which revolves around various manifestations of Assabiyya.

It starts with the king of Yemen invading northern Arabia because he heard of the beauty of a girl named Jaleela from the Bakr tribe. As a king, he attempts to take her as a concubine. While the tribe is no match for the king’s regular army, Kulaib, Jaleela’s cousin and lover from the tribe of Taghlib, suggests that the king allow Jaleela to take her dowry with her. Jaleela’s dowry was so huge that it had to be packed in 70 large boxes. Of course, instead of the dowry, each box contains one of Kulaib’s men, as well as Kulaib himself. Once the caravan is in the middle of the desert, Kulaib saves his beloved, and the king escapes. Upon his triumphant return, Kulaib gets married to Jaleela and is elected king of the two tribes. He grows so powerful that, in a desert where oases are almost nonexistent, if his dog barked in an oasis, it would become his property, and no Arab would be allowed to graze there without permission. One night, Kulaib, full of his manifest power, askes his wife Jaleela: “Whom do you think is the greatest man ever?” Here, Jaleela makes the tragic mistake for which she and her tribe will pay in blood; instead of telling her husband the he was the greatest man in her eyes, she told him that her brother, Jassas, was the one. Jassas, the second principle character in the epic, is described as an unethical, bad tempered brute. Jassas’s Aunt, Bassous, was grazing her camels in Kulaib’s oases, assuming that she belonged to the Kulaib’s extended family and therefore was allowed to graze. When Kulaib saw one of the woman’s camels in his oasis, he ordered his slave to kill it. Enraged at Kulaib’s act, Basous incites Jassas to take revenge, and he does, by assassinated Kulaib the King of Bakr and Taghlib. Once Kulaib is killed, his brother, the great poet Muhalhal, also known as Al-Zir Salem, declares war on Jassas’ tribe, and the war lasts 40 years.

Every political turn in the war is highly poeticized. One of the most beautiful texts of pre-Islamic Arabic poetry is the poem by Jaleela, returning home after her brother had killed her husband, she finds her daughter Al-Yamama, dressed in black, refusing to let her in to mourn for her husband and holding her guilty for his assassination.

Another dramatic scene, is when the elders of the tribe of Bakr, relatives of Jassas the assassin, seek to have a peace deal with Muhalhal, Kulaib’s brother. Muhalhal, tells, them: “I will only make peace if Yamama the daughter of Kulaib made peace!” so the elders go to Yamama, and her answer is: “I will only make peace when I see my father riding his horse back again!”

The war almost ends by the death of Muhalhal, who, after taking his revenge by devastating the tribe of Bakr, is captured, and kept thirsty for seven days before he dies. Yet the war is not really over until Jassas is killed. Toward the end of the epic we know that Jaleela was pregnant when her husband was killed and the war started; she kept her son with her, on the side of the tribe of Bakr. To pacify him even more, she got him married to Jassas’ daughter and never told him that he was Kulaib’s son. The boy grew up without knowing who his father was.

Yet, one day, he hears a man reciting Muhalhal’s poetry, where the story is told, and he becomes aware of his origin. That night, his breath is said to have been so hot as to burn his wife’s chest. His wife, Jassas’ daughter, realizes that her husband finally discovered his origin, and she informs her father to take his precautions. To end the war, Jassas asks Kulaib’s son to declaredly make peace with the tribe of Bakr. Kulaib’s son agrees on the condition that Jassas should take him back to live among his own tribesmen from Taghlib. Jassas agrees, “one more thing” says Kulaib’s son “I cannot return to my people with no arms like slave, I should be all dressed up, with a sword, a spear and a horse”. Jassas gives him the sward, the spear and the horse and takes him to where the tents of the tribe of Taghlib are. After Jassas, makes a long speech about the necessity of peace, Kulaib’s son, says short sentence “ no man would let his killer live!” and, naturally, cuts off Jassas’ head to even the scales.

The facts of the social scientist would be, as mentioned above, that due to the scarcity of resources, the two tribes fought. But humans cannot deal with a reality so cruel that they have to kill their own relatives and brothers for water to drink and grass to feed the sheep. This dramatization of the whole event, the stories woven around it, the poetry that emanates from it, and the rhythm of the epic, make people feel that there is some sense in it all, some scheme, some worth in living the life they have to live.

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(The Daily Star :: Lebanon News ::