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"ONLY GOD KNOWS THE TRUTH"
 HARUN AL-RASHID'S sudden attack upon the Barmecides was incomprehensible to his contemporaries. The unexpected and
absolute disgrace of this illustrious family mystified every one. It was vain to try to figure out
reasons for the catastrophe. Indeed it is still a moot question, having kept historians occupied off
and on ever since the time of the early Arabian chroniclers who began arguing about it before a
century had gone by. The meteoric catastrophe was such a resounding coup d'etat, so striking a
reversal of fortunes, that it challenged every one's attention.
There are no lack of motives assigned for it. It is rather a question of finding the right one among
them all. One is swamped with suggested reasons for Harun's anger. The scorpions of calumny, as Ibn
Khaldun said, have insinuated that the chief causes were the excessive power in the hands of the
Barmecides, the insolence of their wealth and pomp, which had become annoying to the Caliph's
self-love, and his fear of seeing
 them favor a movement for Persian nationalism or a return to the religion of Zoroaster just when
Arabian orthodoxy was planning a reaction against its heretical and rationalist doctrines. For
centuries historians have been enumerating all these motives without knowing which to choose.
Sometimes they regard all of them as valid, which is not illogical and quite as likely to be
correct. Others have decided not to search for useless complications and assert that the cause of
the downfall of the Barmecides as the sudden emancipation of a king who was tired of having his
authority in the hands of over-powerful ministers and who relieved himself of them at one stroke
after the expeditious manner of his race, country and epoch.
This does not explain, however, why Jafar, who held little political power and was Harun's closest
friend, was the only Barmecide to be slain. Why the amiable and beloved companion, rather than the
head of the family, Yahia, that powerful vizier, or at least, Fadl, whom Harun did not like and who
could be dangerous politically?
This is the crux of the question, and here imaginations run riot. The Arabian historians, led by the
serious Tabari, thought they had found a solution in the story of Abbasa. That romance
 offers an alluring field. An entire page would be required to list the volumes inspired by the
forbidden love between Jafar and Abbasa! A sham marriage had been consummated between these two (as
mentioned in an earlier chapter) because Harun al-Rashid could not see his friend and his sister,
the two beings whom he loved most in the world, separated by Mussulman conventions; and Jafar had
given his word to observe the conditions of this ceremony of convenience. La Harpe says: "Barmecide
[speaking of Jafar] had not yet seen his destined wife [Abbasa]. When he met her his heart recoiled
against the agreement he had made. He found it unjust and cruel, and love and nature became more
sacred to him than his promise. Unfortunately, he could not hide the result of an intrigue all the
more delightful, perhaps, because it was secret and forbidden!" The result referred to was, as one
may guess, a beautiful little child, one, two, or three, according to the liberality of the
But not all historians find the amorous demands of Jafar's nature sufficient basis for such a
piquant story. They prefer to interest themselves in Abbasa's nature; a scene making her out another
Potiphar's wife pursuing her Joseph. Then again comedy would be turned into
vaude-  ville: an amorous lady persecutes a young man, too scrupulous of his word; she peppers him with
provocations and poetry. She coerces the mother of the unfeeling male, overwhelming her with
presents in return for which the bribed parent coaxes her son to behave more gallantly. Prayers
being of no avail, the two conspirators are reduced to stratagem. The mother announces to her son
that she has just bought him a delicious slave and, one evening when he comes home quite drunk,
unable to tell a bladder from a lantern, she presents the new concubine. It turns out to be his
wife, veiled, who slips into his bed, neither seen or recognized, but nine months later . . .
Zubaida, jealous of her sister-in-law and Jafar, may have been the one to discover the pot of roses
and warn Harun. She would have unearthed that secret refuge at Medina and the living evidence of
disloyalty to the Caliph. On that pilgrimage of 802, Harun may have convinced himself of his
friend's treachery, the offense committed against his rank and race. Dark thoughts would race
furiously through his brain and so—the pilgrimage completed—Jafar was murdered, and the
whole family carried down to disgrace with him. The picture, however, is not yet vigorous enough.
Other writers carry it on, and accentuate its values
 in touching it up. Avid for bloodshed, they show us Harun presiding at the death of his sister:
slaves burying her alive in her room, the executioners then executed, the vault triple-locked, and
the key thrown into the depths of the Tigris. Even this is not enough. The guilty child or children
must be massacred. Harun orders them to be roasted on a bright little fire, the innocents meanwhile
clinging to his trousers, caressing his beard, calling him "grandfather," begging for mercy. But the
Caliph, helpless before these clear evidences of his dishonor, is forced to persist in their
destruction, sometimes holding them close, his face bathed in tears, sometimes dry-eyed and striking
them. Fire rather than shame! Their ashes are scattered to the winds. After comedy and vaudeville,
this morbid Spanish drama!
However romantic these tales may be (and the presumption is that their authors did nothing but
embroider an old folklore theme), however scholarly historians may object to them, one would not
altogether discredit them if they had been brought down to more reasonable proportions. Ibn Khaldun
did not believe them, but his reasons are not very conclusive. They sum up somewhat like this:
"Abbasa to have committed such a
 fault? To have misbehaved thus? Impossible for one so distinguished!"
The various tales have at least this advantage, that they locate the drama where it belongs, between
Harun and Jafar. It is a crime of passion as well as a political drama. The coup d'etat was really
only a by-product. Harun had wanted, perhaps for a long time, to rid himself of the Barmecides, but
he could probably never have done it without a strong motivating impulse such as his rage towards
Jafar. Weary and envious though he might be of their prestige and power, it did not really concern
him deeply until he made up his mind to do away with Jafar in whose hands lay the fate of all the
Barmecides. Jafar, once sentenced, unwittingly sentenced them all. No one really knows why. The
Caliph may have been the victim of a special type of jealousy that would explain both the strength
of the sentimental bonds that united him to his victim, and the regrets that he expressed later.
Then the tragedy dissolves itself into a kind of pathological crisis in a man who, becoming
increasingly alarmed and suspicious, suddenly gets angry and massacres the object of his love.
Masudi prudently sums it up: "As to the inner causes, they remain unknown. Various
explana-  tions have been given, but only God knows the truth!" The Koran says: "The Wise, the All-knowing is
God." Who are we to dispute its wisdom?
The repercussion of the tragedy at the time was tremendous. The Barmecides had enjoyed a boundless
authority, they were thought impregnable in their high position, they had acquired great sympathy on
account of their generosity, and their epoch was considered to be at its apogee. Then, between one
day and the next, everything crumbled. Those who had loved, admired, served the Barmecides, went
away, sorrowing, repeating the poet's words: "The earth was your wife, now she is your widow." Harun
had wished to efface this family from the earth and the minds of men, but everywhere people were
vowing to perpetuate its memory until the Judgment Day. The sovereign had now to contend with those
who were establishing the Barmecide cult. He had forbidden the name to be spoken in public or to be
celebrated in poems. The police scattered the people who gathered around the ruined dwellings of the
Barmecides, and arrested those who evoked them aloud. Footmen insulted and chased from the court a
poet who was celebrating them, and the Caliph had him sent away to die in misery, no
 one knew where. Harun had a noble killed, before his eyes, who dared to praise Jafar.
But all this vengeance was in vain. Every one spoke of the martyrs. Panegyrists sprang up over
night. Poets seized on a topic that offered so admirable a theme; the splendor and misery of man,
his grandeur and decadence. Pointing to the Barmecides, they advised men to guard themselves against
the pitfalls of fortune and, when it seemed to smile on them, to consider that pitiable corpse which
hung on the gibbets of Bagdad. So have the misfortunes of the Bhrmecides come down to us. The
Thousand and One Nights weaves them into its mystic tissue and when their period is mentioned, one
pictures, as Zamakhshari did, "all that was perfect in the highest degree of abundance and
Harun had succeeded in destroying only their race. Their memory was safe. The few that were left
women, children, and old men—finished their days in beggary and want. Jafar's mother, who had
once been surrounded by hundreds of slaves, held out her hand for a sheepskin which was henceforth
to be her cloak and bed. Yahia and Fadl died in prison after years of tortures inflicted by those
who were vainly trying to wrest from them the secret of their supposed treasures.
 A few survived for a time and carried on a famous name that was soon only a name.
A dead race, but a fine legend and a glorious name, which may be found even now in a perfume,
compounded—somewhat like their fate—of sugar, hollyhocks and aromatics.