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How to be a Rogue: a medieval guide

Do you want to spin tales and trick men out their money? Do you want to impersonate all kinds of people and characters? Do you want your deceptions to get you past guards and judges? If you want to learn to be a Rogue, then you can find no better teacher than Abū Zayd al-Sarūjī.

This Abū Zayd is actually a literary character – he is the con-man who appears throughout the pages of Maqamat al-Hariri, created by Al-Hariri of Basra (1054-1122). His collection of fifty stories has Abū Zayd showing up at parties, or in front of a judge, where this trickster displays his skills and leaves his victims a little poorer. The Maqamat al-Hariri became an instant hit when it was published, and is still regarded as one of the great gems of Arabic literature.

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The new translation of Maqamat al-Hariri, by Michael Cooperson, entitled Impostures, offers the reader a new way of looking at this text and how artful the wordplay of the original text is. In story 49, we have Abū Zayd supposedly on his deathbed, and his son comes to him to give fatherly advice.

Abū Zayd begins by explaining that there are usually four ways to make a livelihood – agriculture, manufacture, commerce and government – but he finds faults with all of these. Instead, he advises his son to become a con-man, and succeed him into entering what he calls the ‘Parliament of Rogues.’ He then explains what it is to be like a rogue:

Let storms rage, and men run riot: unmoved, the Rogue looks upon tumult. His assembly is full of gaiety and spirits, his meals appear promptly and his conversation sparkles. Whenever he stops, he finds something worth picking up; and it cannot insinuate himself without earning some profit or other. He belongs to no nation and fears no king. He and his bretheren are like ‘the fowls of the air, for they sow not, neither do they reap,’ yet home they fly with bellies full.

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The son is enthusiastic to follow in his father’s footsteps, but he asks to know more – to find out what skills you need to be a rogue. Abū Zayd replies:

My dear son, you must be active, diligent, alert, indefatigable, and above all things, forward. You must race like the cincidèle, scramble like the locust, spring like the wolf, and run up by moonlight like a fox. Do not trust fortune; but rather let striving supply the want of luck, and labour overcome the enmity of circumstance. Wriggle yourself into every hole; dive into the ‘dark, unbottomed, infinite abyss’; ‘graze the verdant mead’; and plunge your bucket into every cistern. Take no denial: repulsed twice or thrice, persist and you will prevail at last.

Abū Zayd continues on, offering various bits of advice. Here are some of them:

Push yourself forward, even if a lion stands before you; for fortune favours the intrepid, and daring lends ardour to the tongue. My boldness alone are riches won and rank attained. Timidity, on the other hand, begets only failure.

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Perfect your elocution, and use it to attain your ends; for it is the ears that must be flattered and seduced, and this can only be done by eloquence.

Refine your powers of observation and discernment, for poor judgment leads to error, an error to disappointment, while a moderate share of penetration will be amply rewarded.

Indulge weakness in others, but not yourself.

If you resolve to go abroad, you will find good company as needful as your stick and baggage. As a vulgar expression is, ‘A heaven without friends is no heaven at all,’ and the Franks say, very prettily, ‘Better alone than in poor company.’

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There is more advice from Abū Zayd, but I think it wise that would-be-rogues should not know all the lessons so quickly. It would be best that you get a copy of Michael Cooperson’s Impostures, which is published by New York University Press as part of its Library of Arabic Literature. You can also buy it on Amazon.com | Amazon.ca | Amazon.co.uk

Top Image: Al-Harith helps Abu Zayd to retrieve his stolen camel. Illustration for the 27th maqamat, from a manuscript in the Bodleian Library, Oxford

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