Nights 249 to 294: The Protagonist’s Shield of Indestructibility

Street Market, Tangiers, by Frank Brangwyn

249—270 ‘Ala’ al-Din Abu’l-Shamat • 270—271 Hatim of Tayy • 271—272 Ma’n ibn Za’ida • 272—273 The city of Labtit 888 • 273 Hisham ibn ‘Abd al-Malik and the young Bedouin • 273—276 Ibrahim ibn al-Mahdi • 276—279 Abd Allah ibn Abi Qilaba and Iram, City of the Columns • 279—282 Ishaq ibn al-Mausili • 282—285 The slaughterhouse cleaner and the lady • 285—294 Harun al-Rashid and ‘the second caliph’

This week The Arabian Nights presents us with another long adventure—the tale of ‘Ala’ al-Din Abu’-Shamat—followed by some shorter tales.

‘Ala’s story begins in Cairo. His father, Shams al-Din, is the ‘syndic’ (representative) of the market traders, and is dissatisfied with his lack of children. While his colleagues sit at their stalls with their sons, he is alone. Shams complains about this to his wife in deeply sexist terms (“… you are barren, and marriage to you is like chiselling rock”) and one expects this to be used as an excuse to add a new wife to his household.

But in a refreshing avoidance of the usual submissive representation of wives in The Arabian Nights, Shams al-Din’s other half calls him out on this nonsense. “Your sperm is watery” she retorts. Continue reading “Nights 249 to 294: The Protagonist’s Shield of Indestructibility”

Nights 170 to 249: Men Going Their Own Way

Qamar al-Zaman chases the bird - HJ Ford

170—249 The story of King Shahriman and his son, Qamar al-Zaman • 237—246 The story of Ni’ma ibn al-Rabi’ and Nu’m

Now here’s a story we can all care about: the patriarchy is under threat. Poor Shahriman has no son! What can he possibly do?

It turns out that the easiest and most effective fertility treatment is simply to perform the ritual ablution and two rak’as (prayers) before making love to one’s wife, and she is guaranteed to conceive. Why didn’t he try that before?

The child, fair as a full moon, is Qamar al-Zaman, who is brought up in “cosseted luxury.” The king, delighted to have an heir, cannot bear to be away from his offspring, and he ensures that they are never parted, by night or by day.

Having waited so long for a son, one might forgive the king his rather over-zealous parenting style. But it does, unfortunately, reap its own reward when Qamar comes of age, and refuses to marry.

Continue reading “Nights 170 to 249: Men Going Their Own Way”

Sunday Images: Virginia Frances Sterret

Virginia Frances Sterret

This week: Virginia Frances Sterret (1900–1931).

Her achievement was beauty, a delicate, fantastic beauty, created with brush and pencil. Almost unschooled in art, her life spent in prosaic places of the West and Middle West, she made pictures of haunting loveliness, suggesting Oriental lands she never saw and magical realms no one ever knew except in the dreams of childhood … Perhaps it was the hardships of her own life that gave the young artist’s work its fanciful quality. In the imaginative scenes she set down on paper she must have escaped from the harsh actualities of existence.

A Mental Note Note About The Hero’s Journey

Illustration by Rene Bull
Illustration by Rene Bull

In my recap of the story of Nur al-Din, I used the phrase ‘Belly-of-The-Whale’ to refer to a moment of imprisonment and separation suffered by the protagonist. It is a term that comes from the biblical story of Jonah, and is one of the stages of the ‘Hero’s Journey’ story structure that Joseph Campbell describes in his book The Hero With A Thousand Faces.

I’ve just listened to a wonderful episode of Eric Molinsky’s podcast Imaginary Worlds which considers ‘The Hero’s Journey’ and it’s impact on contemporary film and theatre. Has the formula outstayed it’s welcome?

While listening to the episode, I made a mental note to remind myself not to judge the tales I’m reading in The Arabian Nights against the Hero’s Journey formula. As Molinsky and his interviewees point out during the podcast episode, other story structures can be just as successful. I don’t think I’ve fallen into that trap so far, but there is no harm in being mindful. Indeed, part of the point of this project is to learning about the art and possibilities of storytelling, and spotting where one of Shahrazad’s tales fits Campbell’s pattern and where they diverge is a fun and useful exercise.

Night 153 to 169: The Lovesickness of ‘Ali Ibn Bakkar and Shams Al-Nahar

153—169 Ali ibn Bakkar and Shams al-Nahar

Design by William Harvey
‘The Story of Alee the son of Bekkar, and Shems en-Nahr’ – Illustration by William Harvey

Abu’l-Hasan said: ‘I have never seen or heard of a lover like you’

I had initially planned to recap this story along with the animal fables. But it is entirely divergent from the preceding tales, and I felt it would have made no sense to discuss them all together. However, the index of Nights presented at the back of the book (remember, I’m reading the Lyons’ translation, published by Penguin Classics) tells me that the next story is an eighty-night epic! So it’s best for me to consider these two lovers separately, before I make an assault on the story of King Shahriman.

Continue reading “Night 153 to 169: The Lovesickness of ‘Ali Ibn Bakkar and Shams Al-Nahar”

Night 146 to 152: Allegories Abound

146—147 The peahen, the duck and the gazelle • 147—148 The pious shepherd • 148 The water fowl and the tortoise • 148—150 The wolf and the fox • 149 The story of the hawk and the partridge • 150 The story of the man and the snake • 150 The weasel and the mouse • 150 The crow and the cat • 150—152 The fox and the crow • 150—151 The story of the flea and the mouse • 151—152 The story of the falcon and the birds of prey • 152 The story of the sparrow and the eagle • 152 The hedgehog and the doves • 152 The story of the merchant and the two thieves • 152 The thief with the monkey • 152 The story of the foolish weaver • 152 The sparrow and the peacock

Abul Hasan Ghaffari
Abul Hasan Ghaffari

Last week I noted how some small differences in the style and structure of the storytelling hinted at a different author to that of the earlier stories. Those stylistic changes were subtle… but the writer who takes over Shahrazad’s story at Night 146 announces themselves with a literary klaxon.

If it feels as though we are reading a different book at this point, that is because we almost certainly are: The Arabian Nights is well established as a composite text, just like the Hebrew Bible. And just as the biblical Jahwist author hands the baton (pen? stylus? quill?) over to the Deuteronomist author, so here, I would say that a ‘Monarchical author’—who writes stories centred around caliphs, and where magic is all but absent—gives way to an ‘Allegorical author’, who presents us with a series of stories about animals. Apparently, these are some of the earliest in origin, and derive from Sanskrit texts.

Continue reading “Night 146 to 152: Allegories Abound”

Sunday Images: Louis Rhead

Illustration by Louis Rhead

Another gallery of public domain images. This time: Louis Rhead (1857 – 1926).


Night 107 to 137: The Blind Dates of Taj al-Majuk and Aziz

107—137 The story of Taj al-Muluk Kharan and Princess Dunya • 112—128 The story of ‘Aziz and ‘Aziza

The tale of Taj al-Majuk and his friend Aziz is embedded within the saga of King ‘Umar ibn al-Nu’man. It is a long story in itself but one so different in both scope and tone from its ‘parent’ story I thought I would comment on it separately in this, an additional post for the week.

Let’s get the marriage of Taj al-Majuk’s parents out of the way first, because that is a story entirely without redemption. The king hears of a beautiful princess in a distant kingdom, and despatches his vizier to propose marriage. The girl’s father agrees immediately, so the king gets the girl. Women as chattels with a side order of yawn. Or perhaps the literary equivalent of Hello magazine: easy loving, easy living and entirely fake.

Things get better when Taj al-Majuk grows up and sets out on adventures of his own, and particularly when he meets Aziz, whose story is both intellectually compelling and utterly bonkers. Continue reading “Night 107 to 137: The Blind Dates of Taj al-Majuk and Aziz”

Translating problematic attitudes

Illustration from the Bulaq text (Volume 1)

Dhat al-Dawahi is described on Night 93 as a ‘passionate lesbian.’ I know this is a modern translation, but I think that phrase in this context is an anachronism—it no longer carries the negative connotations that would have originally accrued, and which the original authors would have intended. What is now an entirely neutral sentence seems slightly out of place when set alongside negative phrases of treachery and foul breath.

Burton translates the passage as “for she was given to tribadism,” which he footnotes with a long, disparaging aside about homosexual women. 

Don’t get me wrong—I’m not complaining about Malcolm Lyons’ translation here. Nor am I saying it is right that the word ‘lesbian’ should be imbued with negativity. Of course not.

I just make the note because it highlights an interesting translation conundrum: does one choose the obvious translation; or something that may be more circuitous, that nevertheless is closer to the tone and attitude of the original? What does the translator owe the author in terms of fidelity to meaning? And what are they to do when textual accuracy and tonal accuracy are not the same? 

Should the translator preserve the artist’s prejudices? Or should they act as a sort of advocate for the author, translating passages in such a way that brings the new audience on-side?

Continue reading “Translating problematic attitudes”

Nights 90 to 145: The Wrath of Dhat al-Dawahi

45—145 King ‘Umar ibn al-Nu’man and his family • 142—143 The story of the hashish addict

The story of the religious war resumes with what can only be described as fan service for the Muslim audience of The Arabian Nights. Shahrazad does not hold back in her scathing depiction of the Christians. Rituals involving the patriarchs’ excrement are described, leaving us in no doubt as to who are the ‘goodies’ and who are the ‘baddies’ in the conflict.

This is disappointing. We have already been introduced to both Emperor Afridun and Hardub, the King of Rum, and both seem like rational men. We have seen them set aside vendettas. Their anger at King ‘Umar ibn al-Nu’man, who so mistreated Abriza, is entirely justified. So the belated attempted to paint these men as disgusting barbarians falls flat for me. As the champions prepared, I realised that I was on #TeamByzantine. Not, I assume, the position that the original audience would have taken, and one that casts the rest of this saga in a light that I doubt the authors intended.

Continue reading “Nights 90 to 145: The Wrath of Dhat al-Dawahi”