Harun Al-Rashid: Caliph of Bagdad - Gabriel Audisio

Love Feasts

Harun al-Rashid had excellent reasons, however, for not deserting every evening his palace at Rakka or the Palace of Eternity at Bagdad. The entertainments which he gave at both eclipsed the feasts of Petronius.

After piously observing the evening prayer, his guests arrived in their most handsome equipages. The festivities always began with a banquet, and heaven knows that the courtiers loved good food. Harun himself was indiscreet enough at table to require an occasional bloodletting. In the halls of the palace, lighted by tall torches and golden candlesticks, on floors of alabaster from Mosul, decorated rugs more beautiful than those of the Sassanids, beds of ebony and cushions of ostrich feathers were scattered about for the comfort of these nonchalant princes. It was pleasanter to be seated than to stand, and more comfortable to lie down than to sit.

At nightfall, the various heroes of war and sport and numbers of other courtiers gathered round the divan of the Caliph. Those were stimulating assemblies of clever minds where diplomats, generals, doctors, poets, magistrates, musicians, scholars and jesters were drawn together through love of pleasure, culture, or adulation for the sovereign. The men were dressed in fine silk robes of bright colors, red, green and yellow, the accepted fashion for festal occasions and a welcome relief from the somber black livery of the Abbassids, token of eternal mourning for the first ancestor of the dynasty.

The Barmecides attended, wreathed in basil and flowers. Many well-known poets were also to be found there: Abu-Nuwas, son of a laundress, always ready to forget his religion before an amphora of good wine bought from a Jew or a Christian; Abul-Atahiya, the Intriguer, who was a potter by trade, and Ibn al-Ahnaf a very distinguished lord who excelled at the madrigal and whose company Harun always enjoyed either on pilgrimages or during wars. We have proof of his accomplishments in those delicate poems put to music by Musuli, poems which brought about a reconciliation between the Caliph and his beautiful concubine Marida. Among others were Marwan, so sordidly avaricious that he would scarcely have been admitted to court had he not been a most brilliant panegyrist of the dynasty; and Muslim, Victim of Beautiful Women, as Harun had named him, a delightful Bohemian who always slept under the stars—seldom alone.

There were also Abu-Yusuf, Grand Cadi of Bagdad; Al-Asmai, that versatile raconteur whose tales and bons mots they never wearied of hearing; Hussayn the Jester, who could tear apart a man's dignity for you; and a number of talented musicians like Barsuma the flute-player; Zalzal, proficient on the lute; the amiable Maskine of Medina who, though roughshod in the matter of rhythm, had a rare skill at improvisation; and Hakam al-Wadi, to whom one day in an excess of wild extravagance Harun gave a draft of three hundred thousand dirhems on the province of Damascus—through love of his art.

There were others, too, but the most illustrious was Ibrahim al-Musul, known as Musuli, a half-brother and great favorite of Harun's, whose death was to cause universal mourning in the Moslem world and whose fame as a singer has lasted throughout the ages.

The composers were the most important members of that cultured circle. "The art of music," as Masudi said a century later in his Meadows of Gold, "has its place among the most noble accomplishments. Music is nourishment, recreation and diversion to the soul, which is exalted and plunged into a sweet drunkenness by its cadences and harmonious chords."

Harun encouraged his musicians in various ways. Sometimes he would call for a certain air and have it executed in turn by each one of the more skilful. He who succeeded in satisfying the monarch by the excellence of his technique and songs received high praise and many royal presents. The Caliph would invite him to draw forward his cushion, a favor which was as highly esteemed in Bagdad as the stool which gave hysterics to the duchesses at Versailles! Such attentions naturally excited jealousies among the musicians and through their partisans plunged Bagdad into several famous disputes. Various groups had their innovators and classicists, their ancients and moderns, like our own partisans of Gluck and Puccini. Society was strongly divided and took sides, sometimes to the point of bloodshed. The Arab genius for algebra made musicians resort to the most abstruse and ridiculous subtleties: grace notes, lighter than a hair, invited the play of Arab scimitars.

It is a far cry, fortunately, for the uninitiated listener, from theory to practice. Aware of this, Harun al-Rashid's musicians gave charming concerts. They organized orchestras of harps, guitars, lutes, citharas and timbals which blended harmoniously with the voices of harem singers. The entrance of a newcomer was nearly always a signal to requisition his services as entertainer and incidentally to have sport at his expense.

On one occasion it was Ibrahim that every one maliciously urged to tell the story of a handsome young genius who had gotten into his house and out again in a rapid and extraordinary way. Ibrahim told the story quite innocently and said in conclusion that he could not understand why the handsome stranger had ever come in the first place. Stifled laughter shook his hearers at the composer's remark, and the spiteful whispered behind their hands, "Why does he not ask his women? They should know better than he!"

Another time it was a poet whose quickness of wit was put to the test.

"Welcome, Poet!" said Harun, as Ibn es-Sammak entered. "Look at this dove eating near me, and describe her quickly in a few words." The poet answered without hesitation. She seems to be looking through two rubies, she seems to peck at the grain with two pearls, she seems to walk on two carnelians.

Every one applauded but Harun. "That may be," he observed to the rhymester, "but another poet has said that a dove's two feet resemble the amaranth flower and that the claws are branches of coral. That is not bad either. What do you think?" And the Caliph casually fingered his necklace of precious stones.

Not all got off so lightly as Ibn es-Sammak. The court chuckled for many a day over a trick played on the celebrated poet Abu-Nuwas. Arriving late as is the habit of poets, he found the evening in full swing. To punish the tardy guest, Harun al-Rashid prepared an agreeable little game of forfeits quite typical of the times. The forfeit was a gentle beating, a mere nothing, twelve little blows . . .

"You are very late, Abu-Nuwas. Your engagement was here. Come, take your place in the game. Sit there on that cushion and do as we do. . ."

The Caliph began to cluck like a hen, then suddenly drew a handsome egg from his cushion.

Each of the guests in turn followed his example. A royal poultry yard! Abu-Nuwas was not amused. He broke into a cold sweat. Twelve blows of a wand! What to do?

"Your turn," Abul-Atahiya cried to him. "Keep quiet, vendor of jars!"

"Your turn," Marwan called out.

"Silence, eater of sheep's heads!"

"You are next," Harun was speaking.

Gleeful encouragement was coming to him from all directions. Suddenly the poet rose to his feet before all these hens and waving his arms up and down like wings began to crow like a rooster! In the hilarity aroused by his ingenuity there was, nevertheless, no little ridicule. To the ear, the rooster is not very far removed from the ass.

In spite of all these pranks, the gathering would become bored at times; but Ibrahim's arrival never failed to raise their flagging spirits. Though usually in his cups, he was invariably ready to add his talents to theirs.

A curious character, this Ibrahim of Mosul, son of Mandi, and half-brother of Harun. The Caliph loved the swarthy youth, whom they called the Dragon because of his complexion, and found his company delightful. Both gentle and cruel, sensitive and cynical, at times more greedy than Ahab, then again generous to the point of folly, infatuated with himself, despotic, a bon vivant and heavy drinker, fantastic in the extreme, Ibrahim had, nevertheless, what amounted to sheer genius for music. When he sang the poems of Abu-Nuwas with that exquisite voice of his, Harun went into ecstasies.

As for Jafar, he became distraught when Ibrahim, picking up a lute and tuning it, began on an air of Ibn Ayesha, or improvised one of his own to this poem of Darimi:

To describe her beauty

is to compare her to the pure gold

of Egypt's ancient coinage,

to the pearl in its case of mother-of-pearl

which is the despair of the fisherman.

Jafar, unable to contain himself, purred, hand on heart, "O Moon of delight, what grace, what talent!" He was not so different from some of the aesthetes of today. His long Asiatic robes fairly undulated with emotion:

He forgets that it is a grave sin

to wear these trailing garments,

he forgets that punishment

pursues him in the folds of his robe . . .

Nevertheless, great as was Harun's love of music, he did not altogether deem it a proper pastime for red-blooded Mussulmans. The Arabian musician, even though widely acclaimed, was not free from that same disapproval which surrounded the flute-players of antiquity. As if musicians smelled of brimstone. Is it not with strains of music that the sirens, loreleis, jinn, have shipwrecked sailors, violated virgins, and drawn souls down to hell? So much for old wives' tales.

Ibrahim was so well aware of this feeling that he attributed his own musical talent to a pact with Iblis, the sequel, no doubt, to as diabolical a dream as Tartini's. One day, seriously ill, he did not scruple to repent openly of his guilt and vowed to consign his works to the divine flames. He consoled himself by reflecting in secret that many people knew them already by heart. Almost as subtle, but less the true artist than Lully who, at the point of death, burned his manuscripts—after he had safely stored away several excellent copies.

Harun was jealous regarding the dignity of his family. Born king of kings, the breath of his kin was not for common mortals. In principle, therefore, he reserved his brother's singing for the circle of his intimates, his sisters and Jafar. The same restriction was put upon his own son Abu Isa, another distinguished vocalist, and one of his sisters, Uleyah. The latter sang so well, accompanying herself on a twelve-stringed guitar, that one day, inspired by the rhythm and beauty of the air she was playing, Harun could not help dancing as he listened to her, like David before the Ark.

When the company was more numerous, the Caliph would allow Ibrahim to sing only when concealed behind the royal curtain. No one was fooled, however, as Ibrahim's technique was unmistakable. But who could have dreamed that this gay companion would become the Tyrtaeus of Bagdad and stiffen the flagging courage of warriors with his heroic lays; that, shortly after the death of Harun, this minstrel would be the guiding spirit of a great political upheaval and actually ascend the throne of the caliphs, if only for an hour? A graceful note in the gamut of the imperial scale, but how discordant to rigid conceptions of its dignity!

Arabs, the caliphate is doomed!

Look for the Apostle of the Prophet

among lutes and oboes!

The satirical poets placed music and wine in somewhat the same category. Fermented drinks were prohibited, but no one paid any attention to the law. Wine was king, people drank incessantly, heads reeled from the fumes of famous brews from Bahr Nitas to Bahr Fares, from the red wine of Shiraz to white wine of Kirmith.

Harun was not often the last to drain his cup. A venerable historian, Ibn Khaldun, was at great pains to prove that the Orthodox was as sober as he was pious and that he drank only the unfermented wine of the date and hippocras, which was not a sin according to the book. This hippocras, a thick, smoky concoction, was strong enough to make the face peel. As for date-wine, the Lion of Allah, himself, holy uncle of the Prophet, used to beat his nephew's camels with the flat of his sabre after imbibing too many bumpers of his harmless tonic.

Hippocras? Stuff for milksops! Wine for men, was the view of Harun—wine, daughter of the grape, the blood of lions, the magic that made thousands of birds sing in one's head. Wine was worthy of a toast.

A live draught with a piquant flavor

a golden draught that foams a bowl .. .

a draught that reaches the marrow of one's bones .. .

like the silent creeping of ants.

Could wine have been good for the tribesmen in Muhammad's train and bad for the lords of Bagdad? Long live wine, was their sentiment. The followers of Muhammad were not afraid to drain bumpers to his health; they reconciled alcohol with sacred things. The time was coming when Omar Ibn Alfarai would write a mystic poem called: "In Praise of Wine," wherein he treated it as the symbol of the love of God.

Harlin al-Rashid's virtue clearly wavered at these love feasts. It is easy to believe that once well started he would follow his pleasure to the limit until moralists of all times, Arabian chroniclers and German scholars, have called him a debauchee. Unfriendly tongues even accuse him of having attempted to ease his conscience by deliberately corrupting the serious-minded and the very priests, by forcing paragons of abstinence and piety to drink with him at the point of a sabre. They were easily forced. As the poet says:

They came together to drink

after the evening prayer ..

until the sinking of Scorpio.

Ibrahim, waving his bowl, his "little pool," as he called it, always drained to the lees, remarking wittily as it was replenished:

I empty one cup for my pleasure;

now another for penance!

Inspired with emulation, Maskine would intone an air of Muharik:

To how many thirsty companions

have I not quaffed

this brew of Babel,

delight of the earth-bound!

To which Ibrahim would drink again . . . in approval, if the singing was as good as the wine.

Cups were passed about, borne by beautiful youths, straight and slender as swords of India. These the courtiers admired unreservedly. What were the foolish females of the harem compared with these handsome boys? They, too, wore earrings, and their robes were drawn back at the waist to disclose the lines of their hips. They glided about with amphoras and varicolored crystal flasks, filling glasses with wine and pomegranate juice, the sirup of apples and sherbets of violet snow. They were sought out, caressed, fondled. When they tried to escape, they were cajoled; if they opposed blandishment with mockery, the guests laid hold of them or blocked their passage with a sprig of basil, a jasmin wreath. Their provocative treble was a delight to these jaded ears, softer than the guitars which accompanied the half-nude women singers. Their breath had the scent of honey. They offered the allurement of the forbidden.

As Lot cried out:

I pray you my brothers, do not so wickedly,

O people given up to all excesses.

But the princely voluptuaries seemed to take no heed of the future. Perhaps they hoped that on Judgment Day some small virtue of theirs would be taken into account, even if it weighed no more than a mustard seed. They seemed unable to resist the charm of these youths whose white faces shone like stars, infernos to the heart, paradise to the eyes. This exotic taste of the elite of Bagdad was quite typical of the times.

Ganymede might claim that eroticism of this color has flourished in a similar way at every brilliant epoch of civilization—under Pericles, during the Renaissance, at the court of Louis XIV, among the Chinese and the Mussulmans of the East and West. One sees how far this craze could go in the love songs, delirious hyperboles, sobs, supplications, which the poet Ibrahim ibn-Sahl wrote in the thirteenth century for a certain Musa who was turning the heads of all the Sevillians. But the imperturbable Ibn Khaldun, solicitous of royal reputations, would reply to Ganymede: "An infamous calumny against the ulemas or sacred college." A defense comparable to the white-washing of every coterie of intellectuals.

But widespread as was this taste of the noble Bagdadians, it did not mean that women were entirely excluded from those pleasant evenings at court. Women had their place in dance and song, as entertainers at the drinking-bouts. The harems were full of this type. They were trained there from a tender age as in modern academies or subsidized theatres, and were sometimes recruited from the Darrabat, the House of Musicians, near the mill of Abul Kwazim. Some of them were famous for their talent, and more than one has left her name on the pages of history like the courtesans of Greece.

The women came accompanied by eunuchs. They wore red tunics, with tiaras on their foreheads, and carried fans to refresh the lords. From their shoulders hung scarves embroidered with verses, which could be read through their hanging locks of hair interwoven with hyachinths and jewels. The bizarre color with which their eyes were painted to the inside of the eyelids made them appear very alluring and languorous in the torchlight. As they moved about, one could see through their transparent robes the undulating outlines of their lovely forms, supple but plump, according to the fashion of the day. The Mussulman admired a full bosom, eyes of a gazelle and a mouth like the seal of Solomon.

Harun had no aversion to these peris. One can be quite sure of that, for his wife Zubaida was terribly jealous of them, especially the lovely Dananir. This beauty belonged to the prime minister. When Yahia brought her to the palace, every heart hung on her lips. When she appeared, men of letters, artists, poets, the Caliph himself, murmured the verses of the Mullakwat of Tarifa:

The singer is dressed in a saffron robe .

her tunic discloses fruits most delectable

she begins her song in a slow and tender tone,

not squandering the treasures of her voice.

Little by little she draws on the riches of these . . .

varying them ever in a manner so moving

that one believes one hears the plaints of a mother

who laments the loss of her children. . . .

Under the direction of skilled teachers, beautiful girls went through the measures of court ballets. Naphtha flames rising from small sockets sunk in the floor illumined them from head to foot. Amber bodies and silken draperies glowed green and gold in this weird bright light and threw the spectators into ecstasies of delight. The scarf dance and the dance of the sabres were followed by sham battles, the eternal mime of offer and demand, love which refuses and love which yields. There were novelties. For example, the lovely houris would suddenly appear, galloping on mock mounts to which their robes were harnessed in various amusing ways, much as we see them today in the front row of the chorus.

Strange the recreations needed to offset the tedium of excessive power. According to the admirable Beckford, who wrote a fanciful life of Vathek, grandson of Harun, the latter used to soar away on the wings of the roc, into the midst of jinn and their enchantments. He would come back to earth soon, however, for in order to laugh heartily one must have serious things to amuse one. Harun's guests never hesitated to relate in front of him anecdotes which aimed at holy personages, to make jokes and puns with verses from the Koran. It was considered not a blasphemous, but an amusing pastime!

The music was interrupted sometimes to allow a prisoner to be put on the rack and tortured before these befuddled revelers. Once it was a monk of the desert whom they tormented with all sorts of temptations of the flesh.

Anything for a change. The Caliph handed over commissions and positions of authority even for clever ideas, for an epigram. When the virtuous and dignified Ishmael let himself be coerced into singing a ditty in a ridiculously cracked voice, nothing more was needed for Harun's delight. He attached the banner of Egypt to a lance, handed it to the singer, and a new provincial governor was created.

On occasion the Caliph would order that a belated passer-by be brought in from the street. The terrified actions of the poor wretch never failed to amuse the assemblage. Then again the interlude would be an execution. Masrur would bring a sabre and a leather cushion for the condemned, and one more head would fall under the sinister blade. At such times, drunkenness was a relief.

Until the sinking of Scorpio . . .

As the dawn broke little by little, a pensive voice, accompanied by a few melancholy arpeggios, would be heard singing:

O my friends, empty a few more cups with me before we separate!

Cup-bearer, pour me more of this pure and limpid wine!

Already the dawning day

is violating the shadows and tearing to shreds the, night . . .

Satiety was eating into their hearts; wan faces were haggard and sad; the wine was turning bitter. Maudlin, they were ready for verses on man's misery and life's brevity. The feast was not yet finished, though, and citharas, flutes and oboes struck up again: "Sing once more, Abul-Atahiya! Sing, and give this royal night a new lease of life." Then The poet would chant to timbals and lutes:

O Caliph! live long to the bent of your caprices

in the cool shadow of your lofty palaces.

"More, more!" they would chorus.

From morning until evening may everything about you

press forward eagerly to satisfy your desires

"More, more!"

But the poet's voice was dying out. The timbals beat time dully, and the exhausted guests, overcome by drunkenness, nausea and vertigo, became silent. Then once more the voice of Abul-Atahiya would be heard:

At the hour when the death-rattle shall

come to shake your throat,

alas, you will realize that your pleasures

were only chimeras and vanities!

Then Harun al-Rashid would burst into sobs.

"Leave off," he would cry, "leave off! You have shown us our blindness."

Day at last. Man-made music ceased and that of the priests of God began to be heard. The Muezzzins were calling the Faithful together for the morning prayer.