Being among the powerless in a society that not only worships it, but also retains it in the hands of a few, makes for a difficult life to say the least. Regardless of the time in history that one may occupy, there are corrupt and powerful people that will abuse their position for their own personal gain at the expense of those without the power to retaliate. In order to subvert the self-indulgent machinations of those that would abuse their power, the powerless are forced to be creative in the means by which they contravene these abuses and get justice, if at all. The story of Husn Banu, one of many of the writings associated with Hatim Al Tai of Yemen, gives us an example of a young woman that managed to do just that.
First, we need context. Hatim Al Tai is a much celebrated figure in the folklore of the Middle East. Historically a real person, there are many stories about him and his exploits that reach into the realm of myth. Given that the embellishment of one’s deeds is common in the poetry of the Middle Ages, Hatim Al Tai’s were no different. It was said that he was prophesized to be a great ruler over seven of the great kingdoms of Arabia (this is relevant to the story later). He was a noted poet, said to be an associate of the prophet Muhammad, and an engaging storyteller. He is also known for his acts of generosity, never eating alone, and always ensuring that he shared his wealth with the poor and powerless. This brings us to the story of Husn Banu.
Husn Banu was the daughter of a wealthy merchant by the name of Burzakh. His wife long dead, Burzakh raised Husn Banu as a single father. Burzakh was a well-respected merchant in the kingdom of Korasan, and a friend to the king, Kurdan Shah. When Husn Banu was 12, Burzakh died unexpectedly and left her his entire fortune. Being an orphaned and immensely wealthy 12 year old girl in the ancient Middle East was not exactly safe or ideal. Marriage proposals from men that sought her family’s wealth came pouring in. With no wali (male protector) to oversee her affairs, she found herself in a rather vulnerable state. However, due to her late father’s friendship with the king, Husn Banu was, for a time at least, protected from opportunistic suitors.
To honour King Kurdan Shah, Husn Banu invited Azrak, the king’s chief dervish and spiritual advisor to stay the night in her mansion. He came treading on bricks of gold laid before him by his 40 acolytes and servants. He blessed her home and ate her food. He also watched riches in her home. Husn Banu’s home was filled with platters of gold and silver, great ornaments decorated with precious stones, and many fine silk tapestries. That night, the dervish and his followers killed some of Husn Banu’s servants and made off with all that they could carry; leaving her home nearly completely bereft of is riches. Husn Banu sought justice at the foot of the throne, but her accusations of thievery offended the king, and he sentenced her to be stoned for her perceived falsehoods. The royal vizier stayed the king’s hand, advising him that killing an orphan would lose him favour among his people. Instead of killing her, he stripped her of all of her remaining wealth and property, and exiled her to live in the desert.
One would assume that exile in the desert would be the end of the story, but it was not. Several days into her voyage across the sea of shifting sands, Husn Banu and her nurse rested under the shade of a tree. They had no water, not animals to carry them, and they had run out of food. Death was imminent. In her hunger and thirst, Husn Banu was granted the vision of a man (who suspiciously looked like Hatim al Tai). This man told her that the wealth of the seven realms once ruled by Hatim is buried beneath her, waiting for her to find it. She heeded the vision and dug beneath the tree. Lo and behold, there rested many times the wealth that her father left her, with chests full of gold, cups full of rubies, and pearls the size of duck eggs. To add to their good fortune, a young man that her father had taken in many years ago as a foster son was passing with his caravan. He gave them food, water, and another chance at life.
At that moment, Husn Banu came up with a plan. To keep the summary short, she used the wealth to hire workers from the capitol city to build a mansion for her, her nurse, and her foster brother, who stayed with his family to help her. All who worked for her were paid generously, and soon word spread and a small settlement began to grow around her construction site. After three years of constant development, the settlement grew from a village into a town with the promise of becoming a great city. Before she could found a city, she needed the permission of the king. Due to her banishment, she could not go as herself. Instead, she took on the guise of a man and went to see the king. Kurdan Shah was so delighted by the presence and generosity of Husn Banu’s false identity that he granted her every wish, and he adopted her as a member of his household. Now it was time for her to prepare her trap and get her revenge.
She asked for the king’s permission to stay overnight in the house of Burzakh, as well as the honour of hosting a dinner for the chief dervish. The king agreed. Husn Banu ordered her staff to lay out the gold, silver, and precious stones in plain sight to stimulate the avarice of her kleptomaniacal guest. That night, she set a trap, and like clockwork, they dervish and his followers snuck into the mansion and tried to make off with all that they could carry. This time, however, Husn Banu laid a trap and with a large contingent of armed men, she captured the dervish and his followers. The next day she brought them before the king, who promptly demanded that they all be publicly stripped and beheaded.
Just before the sentences were carried out, Husn Banu revealed her true identity to the king and told him, as respectfully as possible, that he had erred in punishing her. The king looked on her and pondered for a moment. He then embraced her as his daughter, declaring that she is still a member of his household and under his protection. From then on, the king took on the role of Husn Banu’s father, putting her formerly under his protection. Her wealth and prosperity continued to grow, and her generosity grew with it.
This story focuses on the use and abuse of power. As with many of the stories associated with Hatim Al Tai, the use of power for the betterment of others plays a major part. Husn Banu being a pubescent girl in a time when women were often treated as little more than currency for alliances, and orphans were not always given the best of treatment, was a prime target for Azrak. If he stole everything she owned there was nothing that she could do to see him punished. She was an orphan girl, and he was the king’s chief spiritual advisor whose feet only walked upon bricks of gold. At first, that position saved him, and instead of him, it was Husn Banu that was punished. Husn never forgot that. It was not until Husn Banu came into her own power, independent of the whims of others, that she was able to find justice. She had to not only stand up for her rights, but also maneuvers those that would oppose her in such a way as to make her position unassailable.
In a modern context, we look to leaders that have tremendous power over our lives. They could be the politicians that make or break our backs with taxes, corrupt police officers that abuse the powerless and in turn make themselves the victims, or even leaders of social justice movements that used their position to hold hostage the reputations of others. Combating their corruption can seem daunting, or even impossible. These people are represented by Azrak the dervish. Their positions of authority make them seem untouchable as they walk through our lives on their own bricks of gold. On the surface they appear to be paragons of righteousness, but when the night falls and no one is watching, they rob everyone around them blind.
The king represents the bodies that we are supposed to go to when there is a breach of trust from the powerful. This could be the courts, public opinion, or even a rights and advocacy board. When a powerless person approaches these bodies for justice, without the resources, proof, or even the social standing to be seen for more than the prejudices of those bodies, justice is often out of reach. We see this relationship repeated in the multiplicity of cases of abuse raised against powerful, wealthy, or simply well-connected people that seem to slip by. In turn, it is usually the powerless person that sees the rod of punishment. This can come in the form of chastisement from the state, a ruined reputation, or retribution from the powerful party. Sometimes that punishment is living with the injury caused by the offending party, knowing that it will never be recompensed.
Husn Banu is who we could be if we made the decision to fight smart. When her initial cries for justice went unheeded and she was cast into the desert, she never gave up. The riches she acquired represent the skills and experience she has gained as a result of her punishment. It should not be lost on the reader that the people that helped her in the desert were all people that would have been considered powerless in her time. Her foster brother, her hand maid, and the working class all came together and helped her create something new in a place that would have brought her death had she accepted her fate. Her returning to the capitol city in disguise and laying a trap for the dervish are all examples for us to follow. First she came into her own power, represented by the treasure. Next, she sought the help of others. When she returned to the city, instead of demanding justice, she sought to put herself in a position as powerful and respected as the dervish. When she acquired the power she sought, Husn Banu allowed his corruption to incriminate him in the eyes of the monarch. When she finally got her justice, she revealed her true objectives, and by then she was too close to power to be denied.
The story tells us that the imbalance of power is only a barrier at the front door. There is always a window. If we hold true to our principles and seek to strengthen ourselves through independence, augmented by cooperating with others, we will be strong enough to return to the king’s court on our own terms. If we want justice, we must strengthen our favourable position in the eyes of the real power brokers. From this place we may then seek justice for ourselves. From this position of favour with hands that have the power to punish our enemies, we can allow for our former abusers to show their true colours, and then lay them bare for all to see. In order to fight power, we must acquire it, first for ourselves, and then in the eyes of others. The story of Husn Banu tells us that in order to fight the powerful; we must first find it in the desert of our woe. When we do find it, it will become a treasure greater than anything we have ever lost.
Image Credit: http://www.reorientmag.com/2016/09/wine-in-iran/
Read the story here: https://archive.org/stream/adventuresofhati00hati/adventuresofhati00hati_djvu.txt
Learn more about Hatim Al Tai: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hatim_al-Tai