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Wednesday, May 2, 2018

How Abu Hasan from Yemen reached Calicut

Calicut was the favourite destination of Yemeni merchants even after the Europeans arrived. Traders from Hadramaut came in large numbers, attracted by the favourable climate for trade and the warm welcome accorded to them by the Zamorin. Barbosa has recorded in some detail the approach of the Zamorin to overseas traders: “the king gave each one (Moorish merchant) a Nair to guard and serve him, a Chetty scribe for his accountant and to take care of his property and a broker for his trade”. These Hadrami traders were followed by preachers who also settled down in Calicut. 

Abu Hasan was from Kaukaban in interior Yemen, not far away from Tarim. The story of how he reached Calicut is one of the 1001 stories of the Arabian Nights. We follow the 1885 edition of ‘The Book of the Thousand Nights and a Night’, by Richard F Burton (Shammar Edition).

This collection of (mostly bawdy) tales contains the story of ‘How Abu Hasan Brake Wind’. The hero, Abu Hasan belonged to the Fazli tribe in the city of Kaukaban in Yemen. He had left the Badawi life and had settled down in the town. He had become quite prosperous through trade. His wife had died young and his friends persuaded him to marry again. As was the practice, he approached the old women of his locality who procure matches. His marriage was solemnised with a beautiful young girl. It was the night of the wedding-banquet.

It is best now to borrow from the extravagant description of the scene which only Burton can conjure up: The whole house was thrown open to feasting: there were rices of five several colours, and sherbets of as many more; and kids stuffed with walnuts and almonds and pistachios and a camel-colt roasted whole. So they ate and drank and made mirth and merriment; and the bride was displayed in her seven dresses and one more, to the women, who could not take their eyes off her. At last, the bridegroom was summoned to the chamber where she sat enthroned; and he rose slowly and with dignity from his divan; but in so doing, for that he was over full of meat and drink, lo and behold! he let fly a fart, great and terrible.Thereupon each guest turned to his neighbour and talked aloud and made as though he had heard nothing, fearing for his life. But a consuming fire was lit in Abu Hasan’s heart; so he pretended a call of nature; and , in lieu of seeking the bride-chamber, he went down to the house-court and saddled his mare and rode off, weeping bitterly through the shadow of the night.

Burton thought it appropriate here to explain the ‘fearing for his life’ in the above description. Why should anyone who heard the loud report pretend as though he had heard nothing? Burton finds it ‘curious and ethnologically valuable’. For, according to him, the Badawi who eructates as a civility, has a mortal hatred of crepitus ventris; and were a by-stander to laugh at its accidental occurrence, he would at once be cut down as a “pundonor”. 

Getting back to Abu Hasan: In time he reached Lahej where he found a ship ready to sail for India; so he shipped on board and made Calicut of Malabar. Here he met with many Arabs, especially Hazramis, who recommended him to the King; and this King (who was a Kafir) trusted him and advanced him to the captainship of his body-guard. He remained ten years in all solace and delight of life; at the end of which he was seized with home-sickness;….

Fixing the date of the Arabian Nights is problematic. Scholars observe that the origins of this wondrous collection could be traced to Indian and later Persian collections. During the 900 odd years that the stories of Arabian Nights have grown, a large number of additions and interpolations got included. 

It is now accepted that the Abu Hasan story was one such interpolation successfully carried out by Burton who had a keen eye for the scurrilous and the putrid, particularly in Oriental norms and mores. Robert Irwin’s The Arabian Nights - A Companion (Tauris, 2010) is categorical : “As far as I can tell, there is no Arab original for the story of ‘How Abu Hasan Brake Wind’ ( which appears in volume five). It is a European story, which Burton naughtily smuggled into his translation of the Nights.” 

Jim Dawson, the author of ‘Who Cut the Cheese? - A Cultural History of the Fart (Ten Speed Press, 1999) similarly observes: “Some scholars even claim that “How Abu Hasan Brake Wind’ didn’t exist in the original Arabic book, but rather was fabricated by Richard Burton himself”. 

While doing so, Burton appeared to have included his local knowledge. For instance, he had visited Calicut in 1848 and had heard the stories about the Zamorin’s cosmopolitan governance and the Hadrami presence. 

The Hadrami Sufi migration to Calicut ( they followed the trading community) is quite recent. The Jifri  family of Thirurangadi were the first documented migration and this was around the 1740s, hardly 100 years before Burton himself visited Calicut. (Please see our blog post The most interesting twist in Burton’s story is the reference to Calicut - in other versions of the story, Abu Hasan was stated to have boarded the ship to the Indies.

In our preoccupation with Burton, we seem to have forgotten the climax of the story. A home-sick Hasan returns home after ten long years spent in Calicut. On landing in  Makalla of Hazramaut, Abu Hasan dons the rags of a religious man and proceeds to his native place of Kaukaban. He was obviously not recognised by the villagers, but yet he kept listening to chance conversations to make sure that every one had forgotten about his disgrace ten years ago. Let Burton complete the story: Allah grant that my case be not remembered by them! He listened carefully for seven nights and seven days, till it so chanced that, as he was sitting at the door of a hut, he heard the voice of a young girl saying,”O my mother, tell me the day when I was born; for such an one of my companions is about to take an omen for me”. And the mother answered, “thou was born, O my daughter, on the very night when Abu Hasan farted’.! Mortified, Abu Hasan, returns to India forever.


  1. Yeah - The real point in the story is the ease with which they moved between two distant lands,and how he settled in famously in Calicut. I recall this story, that was what I used when I started the Beypore article. As I said then - Scholars maintain that this Abu Hasan story was concocted by Sir Richard Burton who surreptitiously inserted it into his translation and does not actually figure in the original Arabian nights. Some others mention that it was actually removed from normal Arabic versions as it was not right for children. Whatever be the case, it is indeed an interesting story and apparently originates (it is either from ‘The story of a Quadi who bare a babe’ or the Muntafiq tribe’s ‘story of the Prince of Kermanshah and his misfortune’) from another collection of Arabian tribal fables.

  2. Thanks Maddy. Somehow we missed your Beypore post. You have been very charitable to Burton. We are pretty certain that he fabricated most (if not all) of the story. Other versions speak of Abu Hasan reaching Indies and none mentions Calicut. He has certainly imported his personal knowledge. Zamorin could not have posted a Yemeni as his bodyguard, considering the fierce loyalty required for such a position. At best, he could have become a Shah bunder ( as there were several Shah bunders one for each group of traders). Anyhow, as you rightly observe, the story highlights the ease with which the Hadramis and other traders could get in and out of Calicut. Calicut was indeed a free port, then!

  3. Interesting. Was Burton making fun of ethnographers deriving a finding out of a story that he himself fabricated, or is there any other evidences for the so called difference between farting and eructating in relation with Badawis?

  4. Annes: Anything is possible with Burton, according to many of his biographers!


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