Thursday, November 5, 2009

Injustice, Caravans, and Marriage

In the chapters we read this week we have continued to follow Hasan as he grows up amidst the grievous news of the Christian inquisitors back home, who torture, convert, and expel the Muslims from Granada. Powerless as a young boy, he is then forced to stand by as his half-sister Miriam, like so many young women, is maneuvered into an arranged marriage with a corrupt man double her age for the sake of her father's business ideals. Thanks to the sly work of Hasan and his friend, Zarwali, her betrothed, is exposed for the crimes responsible for his wealth, but his outrage brings the leprosy officials to the family's door and Miriam becomes hostage in the lepers' quarter.

While Hasan's uncle, Kali, must be gradual with his request of the prince to obtain her release, he takes Hasan with him on the caravan to Timbuktu, a hub of trade across the Sahara from Fez. Along the way, Hasan's wanderlust is appeased by curious villages and tribes with foreign customs. Though an illness that his uncle contracts gives Hasan the opportunity to develop diplomatic skills, which reward him with the gift of the slave girl Hiba with whom he falls in love, it eventually leads to Khali's death before their return to Fez, leaving him in charge of the caravan and a message for the prince. The responsibility of freeing Miriam is consequently left to him as well.

Aware of his uncle's wish for him to marry his cousin, Khali's youngest and most unattractive daughter Fatima, Hasan determines to do so despite his desire for Hiba, finding himself, regretfully, in the same position as his father. The awkwardness of consummating the marriage with his nervous and trembling cousin and pressure of fulfilling cultural rituals with the proof of the act made for a long and uncomfortable evening for Hasan, who nonetheless accepts it in honor of his uncle.

With a daughter on the way, Hasan recognizes the need to make more money and takes up a career in the mercantile business with the advice of the Genoese, finding himself the satisfaction of travel and fortune only to face again turmoil originating from Zarwali's vengeful resentment.

There were several things that I found interesting while reading, one of which was the Hasan's description of the caravan. What he seems to really appreciate about it is the sense of close community that results when people spend all of their days together, facing hardships and even death. In his words, "[I]t is a village." Something else that struck me was a conversation that Hasan had with the master of a house in a mountain village rich with goods and intelligence. Hasan couldn't understand because they were so isolated except for the highway. The master's response is very critical of cities. He says, "If you live in a city, you agree to set aside all dignity, all self-respect in exchange for the protection of a sultan, who makes you pay dearly for it even when he is no longer capable of assuring it. When you live far from the cities, but in the plains or on the hills, you escape the sultan...however, you are at the mercy of marauding nomadic tribes..." The highway, he explains, provides knowledge and riches, and "if you have no exchanges with other regions, you end up by living like an animal, ignorant, impoverished and frightened." (156)

Our study of world systems and the prosperity of those that come in contact with other cultures seems to reinforce this last claim. What about the others? He makes a good point, and yet one would think that some leader would emerge even in a village and claim rights of rule. His village seemed to be the exception rather than a rule. He raves against taxes, and yet, are they not necessary for the maintenance of common goods for communities? How did the village manage without them?

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