Found in Translation by Aamer Hussein

As a boy in Karachi I was taken regularly, in the company of my sisters, to see films that starred Jerry Lewis, Bob Hope, Doris Day and Debbie Reyn­olds. I was, however, a fan of at least three kinds of films my sisters consid­ered unwatchable: Westerns starring Charlton Heston; historical and biblical costume dramas starring Charlton Heston (these they would make an exception for, if they also starred Sophia Loren); and sword-and-sandal epics from Cinecitta, Rome, which Heston would have considered too lowly to star in. For the last category, my mother found me a suitable companion who was not only a distinguished classical musician but also, as it emerged, an inveterate reader of Urdu fiction. As he sat through these violent films with me, he seemed to become increasingly aware that with my ‘angrezi (English) medium’ education, I only had one side of the pic­ture. That was the Ivanhoe version purveyed by Europe since the Crusades. Or if I wallowed in Christian epics such as Ben Hur and Quo Vadis, he knew the Muslim equivalents would never be made available on film, as Pakistan did not allow portrayals of holy personages. So he undertook my retraining by summarising for me the stories of Abdul Halim Sharar, who at the turn of the century and the height of the Raj, had set out to tell the story from the other side. Sharar presented the Moors and Saracens as heroes and the company of all the Lionhearted Richards and their loyal Ivanhoes as das­tardly crusading villains.

When he thought I was ready to graduate to reading Urdu novels, he lent me a book by another redoubtable historical novelist, Nasim Hijazi, who has followed in Sharar’s footsteps. Born in 1914, Hijazi was still writ­ing then, and very prolific. The novel was Qaisar o Kasra (Caesars and Chos­roes); its axis was Arabia and the Persian and the Byzantine East; it did for early Muslim history exactly what Ben Hur and Quo Vadis did for the Chris­tian era. He achieved his goal as I had never read anything with such immersion since my time with Gone With the Wind, a season or so before. The difference was that while the American South had little to do with me, Medina wasn’t too distant from my native country. Hijazi’s imaginative landscape with its deserts, palms and dunes, reminded me of my surround­ings and was close to the heart and mind of the eleven-year-old I was. I remember the name of the hero, Aasim, and the heroines (one Byzantine) Faustina and Samira. I got through the very long book in about a month; that, too, with my very basic Urdu reading skills. But one of the results of this mammoth undertaking was that I acquired a certain facility with the Urdu script. In spite of intervals and distances this literacy was never entirely to desert me, and I always spoke the language with some ease.

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