The man who translated The Book on Falconry from Pashto to English

Filled with admiration for the 17th century poet, a fellow Pakistani embarked on the huge task of translating into English Khushal Khan Khattak’s guide to falconry in Pashto verse.
Sami Ur Rahman, above, translated The Book on Falconry by Khushal Khan Khattak, left. Courtesy Sami Ur Rahman; Muhammad Tahir Kanay
Sami Ur Rahman, above, translated The Book on Falconry by Khushal Khan Khattak, left. Courtesy Sami Ur Rahman; Muhammad Tahir Kanay

When Sami Ur Rahman began to translate The Book on Falconry, he did not know a saker from a sparrowhawk.

Yet such was his admiration for its author, the 17th century warrior poet Khushal Khan Khattak that he translated his treatise from Pashto into English before he had laid eyes on a living falcon.

The manuscript is part owners’ manual, part ode and written entirely in rhyming couplets. Khushal, a scholar, jurist, physician, esteemed military commander and prolific writer often credited as being the founder of Pashtun nationalism, states, in the introduction, that the work is the pinnacle of his writing.

It is the first time the work has been translated directly from Pashto to English in the rhyming verse of the original. Mr Ur Rahman, a columnist from the same Hindu-Kush town founded by Khushal’s great grandfather, had long wanted to translate Khushal’s works into English.

“You know, he’s my co-villager. I mean I grew up in the same small town, Akora Khattak,” said Mr Ur Rahman in a phone interview from Pakistan. “It was really the genius of Khushal which inspired me to translate his work. Khushal was the greatest poet of the Pashto language. His work is kind of key to understanding the soul and spirit of his nation.”

Khushal wrote an estimated 40,000 couplets in his lifetime. Topics ranged from medicine to metaphysics, from the condemnation of Pashtun tribal divisions to praise for the rosebud lips of maids of the Adem Khel clan, who taste “sweeter than sherbet”.

Mr Ur Rahman chose to begin with The Book of Falconry, which best combined his own love of science and literature. When not translating, he unwinds by reading about quantum mechanics, Islamic metaphysics, the poetry of Rumi, a 13th century Sufi writer, and Tennyson, the British poet laureate of Queen Victoria’s reign. “My only passions are to read and then to write,” said Mr Ur Rahman.

Mr Ur Rahman can now discuss the plumage and speed of falcons at length, with a detailed deliverance that rivals any falconer.

“The first and foremost difficulty with translation was because it was a technical manual and I’m not a falconer,” said Mr Ur Rahman. “It was the first very basic problem which I faced.

“The second thing is, in all my life I haven’t seen a single falcon. So you can imagine the kind of difficulty that I faced translating this technical work on falconry and there are so many types of species he has written about in the book, at least 15 or 16 species.

“Among the falcons there’s a gyrfalcon, the shaheen, the saker and then there are different types of hawks and there are a lot of game birds which I didn’t know about.”

Having never seen a living falcon, he turned to falconers for advice. But Mr Ur Rahman, above all, is a man of letters. He consulted modern science books, technical manuals and scoured Lt Col DC Phillot’s 1908 English translation of the 19th century Baz Nama Yi Nasiri by the Persian King Timur Mirza and two books by the Afghan falconer S.M. Omran, Falconry in the Land of the Sun and Musings of an Afghan Falconer.

“I had to buy from the foreign markets because in Pakistan there’s a shortage of falconry literature, you cannot find a single book.”

The Book on Falconry begins in the Swat valley, northern Pakistan in 1674. The 62-year-old chieftain is raising forces against his former allies, the Mughals.

Before he begins discussion on moulting birds or how to net a falcon, Khushal dives into the politics of the time to explain how he came to be in the Swat valley, roaming the mountains alone “like an ibex”.

“It’s been four, five years since the start of the strife,” narrates Khushal. “As the Moguls are bleeding by the Pashtuns’ knife.”

Khushal was favoured by Shah Jahan, the Mughal emperor who built the Taj Mahal, but when the emperor’s orthodox son Aurangzeb seized power, he was jailed in the dungeons of Ranthambore Fort, Rajasthan, India. Khushal then spent four and a half years under house arrest in Delhi.

Upon his release, he cultivated alliances with Pashtun tribes to rebel against Aurangzeb.

Khushal went to the Swat valley with two purposes. His first task was to rouse Yousafzai, another Pashtun tribe, into an alliance. His second was to explore the variety of falcons, pheasants and partridges of the valley. “Small or great, there are still new tidings in store,” writes Khushal. “The love of falcons brought me to the Swat Valley floor.”

Though politically unsuccessful, Khushal wrote his book in six days.

Mr Ur Rahman’s translation took six months. When he began, he thought the art of falconry had long disappeared from his region of Pakistan.

“The art of falconry, I thought, was almost dead in our area,” he said. “Then suddenly I got to know that no, I’m wrong ... There are thousands of people who practise, even today. It gave me a boost.”

The book includes 47 sections on species, rearing and treatment. There are chapters devoted to retrieving lost birds, the colours of the shaheen’s feathers and management of the newly netted. Medical advice details nematodes and asthma, lice, cataracts, and cough and short breath, moulting and gastric trouble.

“It’s the shaheen that he likes most,” says Mr Ur Rahman, and quotes his hero. “What he says is, ‘He who once in action witnesses shaheens / Other birds of prey to him seem more like hens’.”

The shaheen is self-possessed, distinguished and unconcerned by small prey. Khushal advises youth to cultivate its habits, admonishing aimless behaviour like that of the crow or vulture that live off prey killed by others.

Falconers still refer to Khushal’s work.

“In Peshawar, everybody knows Khushal Khan Khattak, he’s like a famous guy,” said Patrick Paillat, the head researcher for the Middle East Falconry Archive. “It is important for these people. I know of Khushal Khattak before because I’m looking all the time for manuscripts or books, but in fact there is very little literature in Pashtun because they are nomadic people.”

Native Pashto speakers often refer to modern translations of the original work, said Mr Ur Rahman.

“There is one difficulty with this particular book,” he said. “It’s written in a way which is literary. There is a lot of difference between the Pashto Khushal spoke and the Pashto we speak.”

There are believed to be two original Pashto manuscripts, one found in Peshawar and a second longer manuscript discovered in Kabul, Afghanistan. The latter, which is in wide circulation as part of Khushal’s collective works, is the one translated by Mr Ur Rahman.

He chose to translate in rhyming couplets like the original rather than free verse. “Just to retain the beauty of the original,” he said. “You know, when it’s a free translation, it’s not really poetry it’s prose work and prose work is somehow prosaic. The essence of poetry is that it has some rhyme and some beauty of its own, the imagery, the metaphors.”

The is the first of his translations he has wanted to be published. “It’s only humble. It’s only a kind of dedication. It’s only a humble endeavour.

“I only tried to show this genius [Khushal] and my sole purpose is for falconers in the Arab world, or India, or Pakistan, or Europe or North America or Latin America.”

There is only one other English translation direct from Pashto that Mr Ur Rahman knows of, by a local Pashtun scholar. It does not detail the different species.

To honour his region’s art, he commissioned a local miniature artist, Kausar Iqbal, to illustrate 15 paintings for the book.

He hopes to publish in the Middle East. “For the sole reason that the Middle East is the only region in the world where falconry is still a living art – so that would be kind of a gift from my region through the Middle East.”

Published: May 28, 2014 04:00 AM


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