Post-classical history

§ Thief-Stories: The Bandit al-Zamarrakal Belittles his Wounds

One year, the lord of Antioch (may God curse him) marched against us at the head of his cavalry, infantry and baggage. So we rode out to meet them, thinking they would fight us. But they came and set up camp in the place where they were used to do so, and settled down in their tents. So we went back to our side of the river. Then, later, we rode out thinking they would fight us, but they did not ride out from their camp.

Now, my cousin Layth al-Dawla Yahya happened to have a crop of grain that had been harvested not far from where the Franks were, so he assembled some pack-animals intending to go over to the crop and carry it off. Numbering twenty fully equipped horsemen, we went out with him and positioned ourselves between him and the Franks until he loaded up the crop and left. Then, with a man born to our household,22 named Husam al-Dawla Musafir (may God have mercy upon him), I turned off towards a vineyard where we could see some shapes along the bank of the river. When we approached these shapes that we had seen, just as the sun was setting, we saw that they were an old man wearing a woman’s get-up23 and another man who was with him. So Husam al-Dawla (may God have mercy upon him), who was a great fellow and loved a bit of fun, asked him, ‘Tell me, old man, what are you doing here?’

‘I am waiting for nightfall,’ the old man confided, ‘and then I will ask God the Exalted to supply me with the horses of those infidels.’24

‘And I suppose, old man,’ Husam al-Dawla continued, ‘that you will just chew through the horses’ tethers with your teeth to get them?’

No,’ he said, ‘with this knife.’ And he drew out from inside his clothing a knife fastened by a string and shining like a tongue of flame. He wasn’t wearing any trousers,25 either. So we left him there and withdrew.

The next morning I woke early and rode out to wait for whatever the Franks were going to do, when who should I see but that old man [44] sitting on a rock in my way, with coagulated blood all over his leg and foot.

‘May your safety bring you health!’ I said. ‘What have you done?’

He said, ‘I took a horse, a shield and a spear from them, but one of their infantrymen caught up with me while I was on my way out, in the middle of their troops. He jabbed at me and the quntariya-spear went into my thigh. But I still made off with the horse, shield and spear.’ And he made light of his wound as if it had happened to someone else. That man, who was called al-Zamarrakal, was one devil of a brigand.

§§ Mu’in al-Din’s Tale concerning al-Zamarrakal

The amir Mu’in al-Din26 (may God have mercy upon him) told me another story about al-Zamarrakal. He said:

Once, during the time I was posted to Homs, I made a raid on Shayzar. At the end of the day, I returned and encamped at a village in the hinterland of Hama; at the time I was an enemy of Hama’s lord.27 A detachment of my men came to me, bringing with them an old man. He had aroused their suspicions and so they captured him and brought him before me. I said, ‘So, old man, who are you then?’ ‘My lord,’ he protested, ‘I am just a poor old palsied beggar (at this he held out his hand, which was indeed palsied). The soldiers took two goats from me, so I went along behind them hoping they would grant them to me for pity’s sake.’28I said to some soldiers in my bodyguard,29 ‘Keep him in custody until tomorrow.’ So they sat him down between them while they sat on the sleeves of the camel-hair garment he was wearing. But during the night, why, he took advantage of their carelessness and slipped out of the garment and, leaving it under them, flew the coop. They caught on to his trail, but he outpaced them and got away.

‘Prior to this,’ Mu’in al-Din continued, ‘I had sent some of my companions out on business. They now came back to me, and among them was a guardsman named Sawman, who used to live at Shayzar. So I told him the story of the old man and he cried, “What a pity I missed him! If I had got my hands on him, I would have drunk his blood. That was al-Zamarrakal!” So I said, “Well, what is there between you two?” Sawman began:

One day, the Frankish army encamped against Shayzar, so I went out and circled around them, hoping maybe to steal a horse from them. When darkness fell, I walked up to the horses’ picket-line, right in front of me, when who should I find but this fellow sitting right there. So he asked me, [45] ‘Where are you headed?’ And I said, ‘I’m going to grab a horse from this picket-line.’ And he said, ‘Right, like I’ve been here since suppertime keeping an eye on the place just so you can steal the horses!’ ‘Don’t talk nonsense,’ I said. ‘And you, don’t kid yourself!’ he retorted. ‘By God, I am not about to let you take anything!’ But I ignored his threat and made for the picket-line, so he stood up and started shouting at the top of his lungs, ‘O poor me! What a disappointment! And after all my hard work and vigilance!’ And he kept at it until the Franks came out at me. As for him, he took off. The Franks chased after me until I threw myself in the river, and I really didn’t think I would escape from them. If I had just got my hands on that one, I would have drunk his blood. He is a great brigand, and if he was following along after the soldiers, then he was only doing it to steal something.

People who knew that al-Zamarrakal used to say of him, ‘That guy would steal a loaf of bread from his own house.’

§§ A Prized Horse is Stolen and then Given Away

Here’s an amazing example concerning stealing. There used to be a man in my service named ‘Ali ibn al-Dudawayhi, a native of Mudhkin.30 One day, the Franks (may God curse them) encamped against Kafartab,31 which at the time was controlled by al-Yaghisiyani32 (may God have mercy upon him). This ‘Ali ibn al-Dudawayhi went out and circled around the Franks and, taking one of their horses, mounted it and rode it out of their camp at a gallop. But he heard a noise behind him and thought that some of the enemy had ridden out to get him. So he redoubled his galloping but the noise kept on behind him – even after two farsakhs33 at full gallop it still followed. Finally, he turned around to see what was following him in the dark, and what should he find but a female mule that used to keep that horse company – it had broken its tether and was following along. So ‘Ali stopped in order to fasten his kerchief around the mule’s neck and took it with him. He was with me the next morning in Hama with the horse and the mule. That was one of the noblest horses, exceedingly handsome and fast.

[46] Now, one day I was with the atabeg while he was besieging Rafaniya.34 He had summoned yours truly and asked, ‘So what’s the deal with that horse you’ve got ferreted away?’ He had been told the story of the horse, you see.

‘By God, my lord, I don’t have a horse hidden away,’ I protested. ‘No, all my horses are with the army.’

‘And that Frankish horse?’ he asked.

‘At the ready,’ I replied.

‘Send someone to bring it here,’ he demanded.

So I sent someone to bring the horse and then told the servant, ‘Now go take it back to my stables.’

At this the atabeg interjected, ‘Leave it here with me for a while.’

The next morning, he raced the horse and won, and returned it to my stables. But then he again called for it to be brought from town,35 raced it and won. At that, I just sent it off to his stables.

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