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June 19, 2005: Barmecide Banquets - and other imaginary items from Baghdad

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Book Wrangler

June 20, 2005

By Bob Patterson


In rummaging through some old books, recently acquired at a local thrift store, this columnist found an item about a concept about an imaginary banquet; it's called a Barmecide feast.


There are two different versions online concerning the origin of the phrase.  In one a beggar is invited into a prince's castle and is served a meal of imaginary food and drink.  The poor fellow goes along with the premise and pretends to be enjoying the meal.  He acts as if he has become intoxicated and then punches the host in the face.   In the other, the guy goes along with the ruse and acts out total enjoyment of the various dishes that are served by waiters who are using expensive plates to add realism to the pretending.  When the host asks the fellow if he would like some wine, the Muslim declines saying that is forbidden.  The Prince praises the starving guest and says he has been looking for such a principled man for many years.  A genuine sumptuous meal is then served.


The term "Barmecide feast" means any pretended generosity or reward, but that phrase has fallen out of use.  (Where is William Safire when we really need him?)  The story appeared in the Arabian Nights and the fictional incident allegedly took place in Baghdad. 


It's interesting that there are two versions.  In the one, the folks who get "punk'd" turn on the perpetrator and inflict punishment for the ruse.  In the other they get rewarded for "playing along" with the imaginary concepts.  See what happens when imaginations run wild regarding things in Baghdad?  The more things change, the more they remain the same.  Obviously the stronger lesson is "you've got to go along to get along."  Go ahead, be lavish in your praise of "the emperor's new clothes."


As best, as we could recall, it seems that we had stumbled across that literary tidbit in a book titled Present Tense: An American Editor's Odyssey by Norman Cousins.  We began to frantically thumb through that volume looking for the reference to the Barmecide feast.  Unfortunately we couldn't find it. 


What we did find was an essay titled "Are We Men or Murderers?" - dated February 17, 1955.  In it, Cousins advises his readers: "Without benefit of national debate or a vote of the Congress or even an explanation to the American people, the United States reversed itself on the principle of world law under which we had earlier declared that not nations, but individuals make war and are therefore to be held accountable for war."  (page 219)


Cousins maintained that the Nuremberg trials were base on principles we later did not endorse.  He asks: "Is there anything more inappropriate than to be guilty of a double standard in the eyes of history, seeking immunity from the very legality that we solemnly impose upon others?"  (Ibid. page 221)


Why aren't the talking heads on TV finding these examples of past commentary such as this one?  Are they too lazy to do the minimum, or just not doing any work at all?


Earlier in the weekend, we had picked up The Nightmare Years 1930-1940 by William L. Shirer.  In it, the journalist starts out by recounting a visit in 1930 to Kabul, where he scored a scoop for the Chicago Tribune when, as a young reporter, he witnessed the coronation of Nadir Khan as king of Afghanistan.  He then traveled back to Vienna, with a stop in Baghdad.  The book recounts Shirer's early career as he covers Hitler's rise to power in Germany.


The first chapter, with its background information about Afghanistan, makes good reading.  Back then, the country was run by fanatical Muslims who made parts of their religion part of the country's laws, such as outlawing alcohol and dictating what women must wear in public.  Shirer used a very clever maneuver to get past the British in the Khyber Pass, who didn't want any journalists to go to Kabul.  (The crown prince asserted that the American newsman was part of his official party and immune from the rule.)  This 75-year-old adventure reads as if it were "ripped from today's headlines."


Does the reading public care about the information about the present day world that can be found in the literature that's been available for some time?  For those who want to know a bit more than they will learn watching the cable news networks, there are some books available that might help.


This November, Don't Know Much About Mythology, by Kenneth C. Davis will be published. 


Complete Idiot's Guide to Classical Mythology by Kevin Osborn, Ph.D., Dana L. Burgess ($18.95 paperback Alpha)


Mythology for Dummies by Christopher W. Blackwell,  and Amy Hackney Blackwell, ($19.99 paperback For Dummies)


The Golden Bough by James George Frazer ($21 paperback Touchstone) - This is a classic study of mythology.


The Hero with a Thousand Faces by Joseph Campbell ($16.95  paperback Bollingen)


The Masks of God: Occidental Mythology by Joseph Campbell  ($18 paperback Penguin Books)


Tales from a Thousand and One Nights by A. S. Byatt (Introduction), Richard Burton (Translator)  ($13.95 paperback Modern Library Classics) 


The book's first sentence sounds relevant to today's audience: "Verily the works and words of those gone before us have become instances and examples to men of our modern day, that folk may view what admonishing chances befell other folk and may therefrom take warning; and that they may peruse the annals of antique peoples and all that hath betided them, and be thereby ruled and restrained: - Praise, therefore, be to Him who hath made the histories of the Past an admonition unto the Present!" 


As they used to say in the Sixties: "Heavy, man!"


We found nothing on Amazon about the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam but we did find that there are several versions available online.





The Horror Writers of America will be in the LA area next weekend to hand out the Bram Stoker Awards. 


At the other end of the writing spectrum, we'll pass some information about the Romance Writers of America along for one of our regular readers (AKA the reliable dozen) about where you can contact them and learn about their Golden Heart contest for unpublished writers.


The whole Pop catalogue (part of the Berkeley Pop Culture Project) also recommended that folks interested in that genre write to Harlequin for their guidelines as a way to learn about the parameters for that type of book.  That information is available online.


In The Nightmare Years, Shirer wrote: "A totalitarian regime, I was learning quickly, knew how to guard its secrets."  (page 146)


The disk jockey is in a impish mood and wants to end this week's column by playing Ludwing Rüth's recording of "Man kann  beim Tango sich so schöne Dingo sagen" (from the German Tango Bands 1925 - 1939 CD.)  We'll glide on out of here for this week and be back next with more book news.  Until then, have a very regimented week.



Copyright © 2005 – Robert Patterson


Copyright © 2003, 2004, 2005, 2006 - Alan M. Pavlik
The inclusion of any text from others is quotation
for the purpose of illustration and commentary,
as permitted by the fair use doctrine of U.S. copyright law. 
See the Details page for the relevant citation.

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