Eliot Weinberger

abu al-anbas’

abu al-aassan ali ibn al-husain ibn ali ibn abd allah al-mas’udi, the tenth century historian from Baghdad, City of Peace, tells this story of a man named Abu al-Anbas, who lived during the reign of Mutawakkil, who abolished free thought and philosophical disputes, reestablished the orthodoxy, severely enforced traditional religious values, gave little to the poor, built two palaces worth a hundred million dirhams, and devoted himself to board games, banquets, and each of his four thousand concubines:

Abu al-Anbas had a favorite donkey who suddenly died. One night the donkey appeared to him in a dream, and Abu spoke to him:

“Oh my donkey, didn’t I always give you the coolest and freshest water? Wasn’t I always sifting the barley I gave you? Why did you suddenly die?”

The donkey replied: “My master, I’m sorry. One day you stopped at the apothecary and the most beautiful donkey-girl passed by. I saw her; my heart was stricken, and I loved her with such a violent passion that in the end I succumbed to despair.”

“Did you write a poem about her?”

“I did indeed. It goes:

My heart was stricken by a donkey-girl
As I waited for my master
By the door of the apothecary.
She enslaved me with her coy demeanor
And her two soft cheeks
The color of shanqarani.
I died for her, for if I had lived
My passion would have only grown worse.”

“Your poem is moving,” said Abu al-Anbas, “but what does shanqarani mean?”

“Oh, that’s an old word. You only hear it these days in donkey  poetry.”