Out on the windswept high plateau in northern Najd, the land turns lush with grass and flowers when spring rains come; there is relief from even the harshest of earth's settings. God is generous.
On a ridge above the plain there is a place where, years ago, passing caravans would slow, their riders picking up with relish a new topic of conversation to carry them the many weary miles beyond. Today even the taxi driver on the new highway to Hayil eases up on the accelerator, waves vaguely toward the ridge and says, "See that dip in the hills over there? They say Hatim al-Tay is buried there."
"Oh?" says the rider politely, glad to break the monotony. "Who's he?"
The driver cranes his head around, looks incredulously at his fare. "You haven't heard of Hatim?!" His eyes back on the road, he settles with obvious satisfaction behind the wheel. "He's one of the most famous of all Arabs. There are many stories about him. They say, for example. . ." and one by one the stories are brought out, carefully measured to fill the hours and miles.
We all have our folk heroes, some of them, like Paul Bunyan, pure fiction, others, like Davy Crockett, once real but painted larger than life for later generations. Fiction or not, their popularity says something about the people who keep the folk tales alive. And for the Arabs there will always be Hatim, a man who gave and gave and gave again, a man who could not give too much of himself and his possessions to any living thing in need. With an Arab the key to manliness and honor is hospitality; Hatim is hospitality epitomized for all time.
Historians, typically a cautious lot and wary of myth and legend, can't say much about the life of Hatim. Like the epic giants of Homer's Troy he lived in an age when history was recited as poetry around the after-dinner campfire. His home certainly was central Arabia, his time the end of the Days of Ignorance, the label Muslims use for the historical period preceding the Prophethood of Muhammad. This puts him on the scene about A.D. 590, living during the youth of the Prophet.
According to the earliest sources, Hatim lost his father when young and was raised by his grandfather. The raising wasn't easy. His habit of toddling over and giving away whatever happened to be in his hands to friends and strangers alike was a source of pride and even boasting for his family at first; but as the years passed and the habit remained, the indulgent smiles grew fixed and the boasting fell away. Enough was enough.
The last straw came one day, the story goes, when Hatim was out on the plain watching over his grandfather's small but select herd of camels. A group of riders appeared over the hill, heading north for Iraq. Amongst them were Nabigha al-Dhubyani, Ubaid ibn al-Abras, and Bishr ibn Abi Khazim, three famous poets off to trade their verse for gold at the court of the King of Hirah.
It was Hatim's great moment. He proudly demanded they dismount and make camp for the night, a demand they were more than happy to accept. Then, before the bemused gaze of the guests, he set about preparing a lavish feast fit for the would-be poets laureate, its main course consisting of the choicest camels of his grandfather's herd.
That was the end of the family's sponsorship. The next day Hatim began his wanderings, and along with him the stories as well, stories of hospitality grown more formidable with every telling. How far he traveled in real life no one knows, perhaps in fact no farther than the boundaries of the Arabian Peninsula. But even while he lived his fame passed beyond these limits.
Out in the East, for example, the tales of Hatim reached their most fantastic form in the hands of Indian and Indonesian Muslims, a fair exchange for the Sanskrit fables Kalila and Dimna (Aramco World, July-August, 1972). There, by the 17th century, a full-length adventure novel was being avidly read and recited, based on the man from Najd. The Indian tales of Hatim still make fascinating reading for today's curious reader.
The theme of the adventures is prosaic enough, the standard Seven Tasks set for a hero, prince to win the hand of a maiden. But the twist is decidedly Hatim's. For the hero is not Hatim, but rather a stranger—the prince whom Hatim meets wandering disconsolate on the desert. It is for this prince that Hatim undertakes the Seven Tasks, and all the gold and silver won by performing them he distributes to the poor and needy. The prince in the end, of course, is wed to the princess while Hatim, like the legendary western cowboy, rides off alone into the desert, his only satisfaction the knowledge that he has acted generously.
The setting of the Seven Tasks is a Technicolor fairyland. Caught in a magic mountain, he escapes on a cockleshell bark across a billowing foamy lake surrounded by precipices over which pour torrents of crimson fire. Throughout his trials, as in earlier, simpler versions, Hatim gives freely to animals as well as humans; each and every one, he says, is a creation of the Almighty God. But here in the Indian version he draws the line finally ... at dragons. The first he meets swallows him alive. Thanks to a talisman given him by a bear, Hatim proves indigestible and the dragon, irritated by the mouthful tramping about in his belly, vomits him forth and, growling, stomps away. The rest of the dragons that Hatim encounters he slays without hesitation.
The stories of Hatim traveled west as well. They dropped, for example, into one of the great classics of European literature, the Decameron of Boccacio. There, in the story "Mitridanes and Natan," a great king is described as excessively proud of his reputation for generosity. He grows more and more jealous of a young man called Natan, who is said among the people to be the most generous man alive. Mitridanes in fury commands the execution of Natan. The youth, learning that Mitridanes wants his life, offers it freely as the supreme act of generosity; whereupon Mitridanes backs down, conceding Natan to be the more generous man. As the perceptive French scholar Georges Thouvenin has noted, the story is a nearly exact parallel to one of the most popular of the tales told about Hatim.
How the 14th-century Florentine humanist picked up the Hatim theme is a mystery. It must be relevant that northern Italy was doing brisk business with Syria in Boccacio's day, and that Boccacio himself belonged to a respectable merchant family.
Whatever the source, however, Hatim, barely disguised as the knightly Natan, fit Boccacio's literary needs and those of the Renaissance public exactly. It was Arabic poetry, after all, which helped begin the mode of romantic chivalry in the West centuries earlier; Boccacio, noted for his role in translating that mode into the fresh and lyric humanism of a new Europe, no more than completed the circle in choosing the Arab Hatim as the hero of the story.
Thus, far to the east and well to the west Hatim's stories were kept alive, while generation after generation, century after century, they were told again in the central lands of Islam. Late in the 15th century the Persian man of letters Kashifi wrote a Tales of Hatim, then used the stories to exemplify the textbook on ethics he wrote for the Timurid ruler of Persia. This textbook, a great popular success in Persia, in turn was translated into Turkish a generation later; the translation was dedicated to Sultan Suleiman the Magnificent, and from the court in Istanbul the stories spread throughout the Ottoman Empire, enshrining in legend the very real spirit of hospitality and generosity that has always been a hallmark of Arab culture.
Jon Mandaville is Associate Professor of History and Middle East Studies in Portland State University.