|The vital illusion: the
war of Basous and why we tell tales
Stories and epics offer value to the
life people live
The pre-Islamic era in Arab history is called jahiliyya;
the word stems from Jahl, which means ignorance and aggression. Roaming the Arabian
Peninsula for water, grazing land and trade, Arab tribes were deprived of all the fruits
of settlement and stability.
Among such fruits, of course, was the state: a nontribal bond among people that develops
due to their sharing the same territory, and a set of laws by which they abide. The only
moral code that governed the Arab tribes was what Ibn Khaldoun called
Assabiyya the bond of kinship or tribal solidarity. Though usually summarized
in the phrase: my brother and I against my cousin and my cousin and I against the
foreigner, Assabiyya should not be mistaken for some primitive social code; in fact,
it involves a sophisticated system of overlapping loyalties and a large set of regulations
for almost each and every human interaction in war and peace.
While laws, ethics, traditions and ideas in general are in essence responses to human
needs, once they come to being they start having a life of their own, independent of the
material necessities that created them. Laws and traditions are then sanctified and
glorified; instead of being means to a better life, they become ends in and by themselves.
Contrary to what many social scientists think, this journey of ideas from earth to heaven
is not an illusion misguiding humanity, rather, it is a beautiful act necessary to make
For example, a social scientist would explain a 40-year war between the Algerian tribes of
Taghlib and Bakr as a fight for grazing lands. But, if a tribesman from Bakr or Taghlib
told the story, we get the epic of Harb al-Basous: the War of Basous which revolves
around various manifestations of Assabiyya.
It starts with the king of Yemen invading northern Arabia because he heard of the beauty
of a girl named Jaleela from the Bakr tribe. As a king, he attempts to take her as a
concubine. While the tribe is no match for the kings regular army, Kulaib,
Jaleelas cousin and lover from the tribe of Taghlib, suggests that the king allow
Jaleela to take her dowry with her. Jaleelas dowry was so huge that it had to be
packed in 70 large boxes. Of course, instead of the dowry, each box contains one of
Kulaibs men, as well as Kulaib himself. Once the caravan is in the middle of the
desert, Kulaib saves his beloved, and the king escapes. Upon his triumphant return, Kulaib
gets married to Jaleela and is elected king of the two tribes. He grows so powerful that,
in a desert where oases are almost nonexistent, if his dog barked in an oasis, it would
become his property, and no Arab would be allowed to graze there without permission. One
night, Kulaib, full of his manifest power, askes his wife Jaleela: Whom do you think
is the greatest man ever? Here, Jaleela makes the tragic mistake for which she and
her tribe will pay in blood; instead of telling her husband the he was the greatest man in
her eyes, she told him that her brother, Jassas, was the one. Jassas, the second principle
character in the epic, is described as an unethical, bad tempered brute. Jassass
Aunt, Bassous, was grazing her camels in Kulaibs oases, assuming that she belonged
to the Kulaibs extended family and therefore was allowed to graze. When Kulaib saw
one of the womans camels in his oasis, he ordered his slave to kill it. Enraged at
Kulaibs act, Basous incites Jassas to take revenge, and he does, by assassinated
Kulaib the King of Bakr and Taghlib. Once Kulaib is killed, his brother, the great poet
Muhalhal, also known as Al-Zir Salem, declares war on Jassas tribe, and the war
lasts 40 years.
Every political turn in the war is highly poeticized. One of the most beautiful texts of
pre-Islamic Arabic poetry is the poem by Jaleela, returning home after her brother had
killed her husband, she finds her daughter Al-Yamama, dressed in black, refusing to let
her in to mourn for her husband and holding her guilty for his assassination.
Another dramatic scene, is when the elders of the tribe of Bakr, relatives of Jassas the
assassin, seek to have a peace deal with Muhalhal, Kulaibs brother. Muhalhal, tells,
them: I will only make peace if Yamama the daughter of Kulaib made peace! so
the elders go to Yamama, and her answer is: I will only make peace when I see my
father riding his horse back again!
The war almost ends by the death of Muhalhal, who, after taking his revenge by devastating
the tribe of Bakr, is captured, and kept thirsty for seven days before he dies. Yet the
war is not really over until Jassas is killed. Toward the end of the epic we know that
Jaleela was pregnant when her husband was killed and the war started; she kept her son
with her, on the side of the tribe of Bakr. To pacify him even more, she got him married
to Jassas daughter and never told him that he was Kulaibs son. The boy grew up
without knowing who his father was.
Yet, one day, he hears a man reciting Muhalhals poetry, where the story is told, and
he becomes aware of his origin. That night, his breath is said to have been so hot as to
burn his wifes chest. His wife, Jassas daughter, realizes that her husband
finally discovered his origin, and she informs her father to take his precautions. To end
the war, Jassas asks Kulaibs son to declaredly make peace with the tribe of Bakr.
Kulaibs son agrees on the condition that Jassas should take him back to live among
his own tribesmen from Taghlib. Jassas agrees, one more thing says
Kulaibs son I cannot return to my people with no arms like slave, I should be
all dressed up, with a sword, a spear and a horse. Jassas gives him the sward, the
spear and the horse and takes him to where the tents of the tribe of Taghlib are. After
Jassas, makes a long speech about the necessity of peace, Kulaibs son, says short
sentence no man would let his killer live! and, naturally, cuts off
Jassas head to even the scales.
The facts of the social scientist would be, as mentioned above, that due to the scarcity
of resources, the two tribes fought. But humans cannot deal with a reality so cruel that
they have to kill their own relatives and brothers for water to drink and grass to feed
the sheep. This dramatization of the whole event, the stories woven around it, the poetry
that emanates from it, and the rhythm of the epic, make people feel that there is some
sense in it all, some scheme, some worth in living the life they have to live.
Tamim al-Barghouti is a Palestinian poet.
He writes a regular feature for The Daily Star