Thursday, January 11, 2018

Fan Mail: Prohibition in “The Souk” by Bobby Derie

Then in the early spring of 1403 there came to him, in an inner court of his pleasure-palace at Brusa, where he lolled guzzling the forbidden wine and watching the antics of naked dancing girls, certain of his emirs, bringing a tall Frank whose grim scarred visage was darkened by the suns of far deserts.
—Robert E. Howard, “Lord of Samarcand” in Oriental Stories (Spring 1932)

Farnsworth Wright
In 1930, Weird Tales editor Farnsworth Wright struck out with a new pulp: Oriental Stories, tales of historical adventure and Orientalist fancy, set in an “Exotic East” of the imagination—of the sort popularized by the likes of Harold Lamb and Sax Rohmer, shades of Yellow Peril and the Crusades. This was a risky venture in many respects, due to the state of the Popular Fiction Company’s finances and the Great Depression, and the decision was made for Weird Tales and Oriental Stories to shift to quarterly publication for a period—to the dismay of many Weird Tales regulars. (For more on which, see Scott Connor’s “Weird Tales and the Great Depression” in The Robert E. Howard Reader). Wright had considerable talent to draw on, including Weird Tales regulars and enthusiasts of the Orient like Otis Adelbert Kline and E. Hoffmann Price.

Robert E. Howard landed a novelette in the first issue, “The Voice of El-Lil” (Nov 1930), and followed it with others: “The Blood of Belshazzar” (Autumn 1931), “Red Blades of Black Cathay” (with Tevis Clyde Smith, Feb-Mar 1931), “Hawks of Outremer” (Apr-May-Jun 1931), and “The Sowers of the Thunder” (Winter 1932). The latter was a story of Baibars the Panther, written at Wright’s own request, inspired by the editor’s reading of Harold Lamb’s The Crusades: The Flame of Islam (1931). Wright followed up the purchase of “The Sowers of Thunder” by “hinting Tamerlane as a fit subject for an Oriental Story story.” (CL2.196, 222) Howard obliged by writing “Lord of Samarcand” which appeared in the Spring 1932 issue.

Oriental Stories was, despite the different subject matter, virtually a clone of Weird Tales in most particulars: Margaret Brundage handled most of the covers, and Joseph Doolin handled much of the interior art, and the layout was basically identical to the weird pulp. Where Weird Tales had “The Eyrie” for its letters page, however, Oriental Stories had “The Souk”—a forum of sorts of readers, who wrote in with their praise and complaints of stories in different issues. “Lord of Samarcand” occasioned one such comment:

Do pious Muhammadans drink? Some of our readers have found fault with Robert E. Howard’s story, Lord of Samarcand, because Howard depicts Timur as indulging in wine to celebrate the defeat of the Turkish sultan, Bayazid. A letter from Francis X. Bell, of Chicago, says: “I like Robert E. Howard’s historical tales very much, and find them fascinating. But he is wrong—dead wrong—in representing Tamerlane and other Moslem lords as drunkards. Baibars the Panther may indeed have drunk to excess, as he was heretical anyway. But Timur (Tamerlane) was an orthodox Moslem, and consequently never drank at all. Mr. Howard should know, if he has studied the history of Islam, that drinking alcoholic liquors is expressly forbidden by the Koran; and certainly neither Timur nor any other important Moslem touched liquor at all. Omar Khayyam was of course a heretic, and his poetry is disapproved by pious Moslems everywhere, who deplore his drunkenness.”
            Mr. Bell is absolute correct when he says that drinking alcoholic liquor is forbidden by the Koran. But Tamerlane did drink to excess, and many other Muhammadan sultans did likewise. Mr. Howard was faithful to historical facts in his delineation of the lord of Samarcand and his bibulous propensities. In the year 1403 the king of Spain sent an embassy to the court of Tamerlane, and one of the ambassadors, named Clavijo, wrote at length of what he saw there. His observations upon the gluttony of the Tatar lords leave no doubt at all that they not only drank heavily, but that drunkenness was expected of them.
            Clavijo writes: “In this garden Timur now ordered another feast to be prepared, in which we ambassadors were forthwith bidden, together with a great concourse of other guests: and here by order of his Highness wine was to be served abundantly and all should drink, since indeed it was to be partaken of by Timur himself on the present occasion. As we were now informed, none would dare ever to drink wine either publicly or in private unless by the especial order and license of Timur.
            “It is the custom with the Tatars to drink their wine before eating, and they are wont to partake of it then so copiously and quaffing it at such frequent intervals that the men soon get very drunk. No feast, we were told, is considered a real festival unless the guests have drunk themselves sot. The attendants who serve them with drink kneel before the guests, and as soon as one cup of wine has been emptied another is presented. The whole of the service is to keep on giving cup after cup of wine to the guests: when one server is weary another taking his place and what he has to see to is to fill and give. And you are not to think that one server can serve many guests, for he can at most serve two for keeping them duly supplied. To any who should not thus drink freely, he would be told that it must be held a despite he thus offers to his HIghness Timur who is honoring him by his invitation. And the custom yet further is for the cups all to be presented brim full, and none may be returned except empty of all the wine. If any should remain, the cup is not received back, but must be taken again and the wine drunk to the dregs. They drink the cupful in one or maybe in two drafts, saying in the latter case it is to the good health of his Highness. But he by whom the wine is freely quaffed will say, ‘By the head of his HIghness,’ and then the whole must be swallowed at a draft with not a drop to be left in the bottom of the up. The man who drinks very freely and can swallow the most wine is by them called Bahadur, which is a title and means one who is a valiant drinker. Further, he who refuses to drink must be made to drink, and this whether he will or no.
            “On the day of which we are now speaking, Timur had sent to us one of his lords in waiting, who brought us as a gift from his HIghness a great jar of wine, and the message was that he would have us drink some of this before coming to him, in order that when we should attend his presence we might be right merry. Hence thus we went to him, and he ordered us to be seated, and thereupon beginning to drink we sat so for a long space of time. … Both the garden and palace were very fine, and Timur appeared to be in excellent humor, drinking much wine and making all those of his guests present to do the same.”
            A noteworthy example of drunkenness by a Muhammadan emperor is that of Baber, the first of the Mogul conquerors of India, and a lineal descendant of Tamerlane. Baber kept himself drunk with wine, hashish and poetry, until after he proclaimed the jihad, or holy war, against the Hindoos. He then gave up his wine-drinking, but continued to keep drunk on hashish and poetry.
            Another interesting glutton in drinking and eating was Mahmud Bigarsha, who ruled over Gujarat for more than fifty years. He ate forty pounds of food every day; and when he went to bed at night he had a heaping plateful of rice on each side of him, so that if he awoke in the night he could eat the rice without turning over. He used to say that it was fortunate for him he was born to be a king, for otherwise whoever could have fed him? Yet he was a pious Moslem.
            The more puritanical sects of Muhammadans, however, would not drink of touching liquor. One of the saints of Islam, in discussing drinking, outdid the most ardent ot our American prohibitionists in his hatred of alcohol. “If one drop of wine fell into a well,” he once said, “I would have the well filled up. And if fifty years thereafter some grass should grow in that spot, and some sheep should graze on that grass, I would have all the sheep killed and their carcasses destroyed as defiled.”
—Farnsworth Wright, Oriental Stories (Summer 1932)

Oriental Stories
v2 #1, Winter 1932
Francis X. Bell never appears again the pages of Oriental Stories; and the accuracy of his point, as far as the prohibition of alcohol in Islam is a matter for religious scholars—his comment and Wright’s response was also, perhaps a bit more in keeping with pulps like Adventure, as Robert Weinberg once described it:

The letter column, knon was “The Camp Fire” was perhaps the best letter column published in any magazine, ever. Usually, authors of stories in the issues wrote long essays where they detailed the historical background of their work. Letters from readers over facts in previous stories. (SW 517)

In a period where English translations of the Qur’an and its commentaries were not widely available, many legends of Islamic prohibition and its circumvention circulated. Wright took the opportunity to intervene, quoting at length from Roy Gonzalez de Clavijo’s Embassy to Tamerlane, 1403-1406 (1928, trans. Guy le Strange from Historia del gan Tamorlan (1582). (MF1.357n4); the anecdote regarding “one of the saints of Islam” is a variation of a widely-quoted legend:

One Koran commentator declares that if a drop of wine shall fall into a spring, and if, when the spring long afterward dried up, and was filled in with earth, a tree should there be planted, even after the lapse of years it would still be sinful to touch its fruit. (The Muslim World Jul 1912, 304)

Prohibition was still in effect in the United States in 1932, but Farnsworth Wright was not as dry as E. Hoffmann Price could attest (BOD 23), and the use of alcohol was not remarkable in stories in Weird Tales—or Oriental Stories: of the five stories Robert E. Howard had published in the magazine before “Lord of Samarcand,” all included references to consuming alcohol—though not always by Muslims. Wright’s purpose can only be guessed at—to forestall future comments on that line, to more closely emulate Adventure’s “The Camp Fire” (and attract some of its readers), or perhaps to drum up a little controversy to encourage sales, perhaps—but he ended the entry in “The Souk” with an interesting note:

The most popular story in the spring issue, as shown by your votes and letters, was Lord of Samarcand, Robert E. Howard’s tale of Tamerlane.
—Farnsworth Wright, Oriental Stories (Summer 1932)

While it is never explicitly said what method Wright used to judge popularity in Oriental Stories, the system used in Weird Tales, Sam Moskowitz in “The Most Popular Stories in Weird Tales 1924 to 1940” reveals that Wright:

[...] incorporated a procedure which had been utilized by Adventure Magazine previously of keeping a record of the popularity of individual stories and later publishing the titles of the favorites. His method of accomplishing the scoring was to keep a running count of all those stories favorably commented upon in letters to him. This meant that anywhere from one to a dozen story votes could be counted from a single letter. Each vote carried the same weight, whether a reader thought the story was the best, second best or third best in an issue, providing it was liked. Negative votes were also counted, though they were not deducted from those that were positive. (S&F 69)

Robert E. Howard had sent a copy of the Spring 1932 Oriental Stories to H. P. Lovecraft, who responded with praise to “Lord of Samarcand,” and spurred a brief discussion of the history behind the tale. (MF1.285, cf.291) When the Summer ‘32 issue rolled in, Howard’s initial reaction to this unexpected response to his story was a brief note in letter to H. P. Lovecraft:

That reminds me—that business about Turanian drunkenness—that some of the readers took exception to my making Tamerlane a drinking man. I expected to be attacked on other scores—on Bayazid’s suicide, which of course never took place—about my version of Timour’s death—more particular I expected to be denounced because of the weapon my character used in that slaying. There were firearms in the world then, and had been for some time, but they were of the matchlock order. I doubt if there were any flint-lock weapons in Asia in 1405. But the readers pounced on to the point I least expected—the matter of Muhammadan drunkards. They maintained that according to the Koran, Moslems never drank. Wright admitted in the Souk that the Koran forbade liquor, but went on to quote a long extract from Clivijo’s memoirs to prove that Timour and his Tatars drank to excess.
—Robert E. Howard to H. P. Lovecraft, 9 Aug 1932 (MF1.344, CL2.399-400)

This was pretty far outside of Lovecraft’s metier, but he managed a brief response in his answering letter:

As for Moslem drunkenness—instances were numerous and occasionally notable. The sanguinary A. Hakam, Emir of Cordova around 800 A.D., was a notorious drinker—his habits provoking his orthodox Moslem ministers to the point of disaffection and disloyalty.
—H. P. Lovecraft to Robert E. Howard, 16 Aug 1932 (MF1.367)

The Magic Carpet
v3 #4, October 1933
A longer response from Howard was sent to Farnsworth Wright, who was busily re-organizing Oriental Stories as The Magic Carpet Magazine, a change of title and focus inspired by the 1,001 Nights that opened it up to more fantastic fiction (and, probably, hoped to draw in more readers). Besides the change in name, the format of the pulp remained the same, right down to the name of the letter-column, and Wright published Howard’s letter in “The Souk”:

The controversy in the Souk over the bibulous habits of Moslem potentates in Robert E. Howard’s historical tales is clarified by a letter from Mr. Howard himself. ‘Thanks very much for the remarks and quotations in the Souk by which you corroborate the matter of Timour’s wine-bibbing,” writes Mr. Howard. “I welcome and appreciate criticisms in the spirit of Mr. Bell’s though, as you point out, he chances to be mistaken in the matter of Timour and others. But criticisms of this nature promote discussions helpful and instructive to all. In regard to Moslem drinking, I understand that the Seventeenth Century Tatars of Crimea, before imbibing, spilled a drop of wine from the vessel and drank the remainder, declaring that since the Prophet forbade tasting a drop of wine, they thus obeyed the command. They spilled the drop and drank the rest. Many modern Moslems maintain that they disobey no holy law by drinking brandy and whisky, since the Prophet said nothing about these beverages—proving that Christians are not the only people on earth to wriggle out of laws by technicalities.”
—Robert E. Howard, The Magic Carpet Magazine (Jan 1933) cf. CL2.487

Howard’s assertion on the “drop of wine” was another oft-repeated legend. Alphonse Daudet wrote:

"One drop of wine is accursed," says Mohammed in the Koran, but there are compromises even with the Law. As each glass was poured him, the aga, before drinking, took one drop upon his finger, shook it off gravely, and, that accursed drop once disposed of, he drank the rest without compunction of conscience.
—”The Caravansary” in Monday Tales (1873, trans. Marian McIntyre 1900)

Harold Lamb repeated a similar version:

Of a truth, a single drop of wine is forbidden all believers, yet—behold, thou—I pour out the drop, and empty the cup myself. The law sayeth not, concerning cups.
—”The Shield” in Adventure (8 Aug 1926)

Howard may not have read Daudet, but he certainly read Lamb in the pages of Adventure, and Patrice Louinet found a list among Howard’s papers where the Texan had gone through Lamb’s stories and recording the foreign terms Lamb used as they appeared—the first story was “The Shield.” (SW 518)

The episode, which measured out leisurely over months at the speed of mail and publication, is characteristic of how letter-columns in the pulp magazines brought together readers, writers, and editors, helping to forge the sense of community which would be the lasting hallmark of the pulp era.

A somewhat ironic postscript to this episode appeared in the June 1935 issue of Weird Tales, where Farnsworth Wright felt the need to append a letter in “The Eyrie” with:

Writers of historical fiction often take liberties with historical facts; just as Robert E. Howard took liberties with the facts about Tamerlane’s death in one of his greatest stories, Lord of Samarcand (published in ORIENTAL STORIES). But Mr. Howard, in spite of a version of Tamerlane’s death which ran counter to the known facts, was true to the historical picture.—The Editor


BOD    Book of the Dead Friends of Yesteryear: Fictioneers & Others
CL       The Collected Letters of Robert E. Howard (3 vols. + Index & Addenda)
MF       A Means to Freedom: The Letters of H. P. Lovecraft and Robert E. Howard (2 vols.)
S&F     Sword & Fantasy #13

SW      Sword Woman and Other Historical Adventures


greyirish said...

As a sort of post-script, Robert E. Howard did revisit the subject once:

None of the Moslems objected at the presence of the forbidden liquid among them. Indeed, they eyed it wistfully, and at his invitation, laid aside their coffee cups and drank heartily at his expense.

“Good Muhammadans, yeah!” he snorted. “When the Prophet forbade wine he didn’t mention brandy; so they stuff their guts with it.”
- “Desert Blood” (Spicy Adventure Stories Jun 1936)

Mike and Rita said...

Great article Bobby, enjoyed it immensely.