Nights 1 to 18: Keep Talking

1—3 • The merchant and the jinni • 1—2 The story of the first old man • 2 The story of the second old man • 2—3 The story of the third old man • 3—9 The fisherman and the ‘ifrit • 4—5 The story of King Yunan and Duban the sage • 5 The story of King Sindbad and the falcon • 5 The story of the treacherous vizier • 7—8 The story of the semi-petrified prince • 9—19 The porter and the three ladies • 11—12 The story of the first dervish • 12—14 The story of the second dervish • 13 The story of the envious and the envied • 14—16 The story of the third dervish • 17—18 The story of the lady of the house • 18 The story of the doorkeeper


“A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step”

— Lao Tzu, Tao Te Ching (Ch. 64)

The prospect of reading The Arabian Nights is a daunting one. It will be an epic journey of sorts, even if it is one taken from the comfort of one’s home rather than a trudge across the dunes or a hike up a mountain.

But just as every journey begins with a single step, our assault on this three-volume mountain of literature must begin with the first page and the first Night.

Nights 1 to 18 comprise three sets of stories: ‘The Merchant and the Jinni’, ‘The Fisherman and the Ifrit’, and ‘The Porter and the Three Ladies’. Each is slightly longer than the last, and each is more ‘nested’ as Shahrazad presents more stories within stories. But I’d say that these tales do a good job of setting expectations for the Nights to come. Themes are established and, even in these early literary foothills, we see tropes recurring in different stories.

The fisherman and the Ifrit
“At the appearance of this huge monster the fisherman wished to run away’ – Illustration by Louis Rhead

Chief amongst these is, hilariously, the telling of a story to defer death. Literally the first story that Shahrazad tells the king, is that of a merchant who delays his death, at the hands of the jinni, by reciting a poem. Later in this same tale, three old men prolong the execution further through their own stories, and in subsequent narratives, the fisherman and the dervishes all escape peril in the same way.

What are we to make of this? Is the king so beguiled by Shahrazad that he fails to make the connection between her characters’ predicaments and her own? Or is he wise her tactics, but allowing her to continue anyway?

I confess I had expected these stories to be earnest and filled with a sense of grandeur. In places, particularly the poetic sections and in descriptions of the opulent palaces, this is certainly true. But at other times, the telling is quite funny. We know these stories were originally narrated and some sections read like a stand-up comedian’s set. “… but there is no point in going over it again” says Shahrazad, after narrating a convoluted story-within-a-story on the first Night. This is a dark joke considering she has every reason to prolong the telling.

At other points in the text there arise amusing repetitions and ‘call-backs’ which is a technique straight out of stand-up. The repeated, absurd refrain “and my wife, now this gazelle” is something that would not be out of place in an Eddie Izzard routine. A gazelle? A gazelle!

My wife, who is now this gazelle
“My wife, who is now this gazelle” Illustration by Victoria Frances Sterret

Another thing I noticed early in the reading of these stories is how much my expectations are set by what I am used to watching or reading in modern popular culture. In places, the stories of The Arabian Nights jump between genres in a manner that does not happen in modern literature or TV (for example, the ‘Story of the Doorkeeper’ abruptly and brutally switches from a love story to one of betrayal and jinn). At other times, I found I had strong expectations for what would happen next, based purely on the kinds of mystery and suspense stories that make up the bulk of my cultural intake.

In some cases, this change of structure is a delight, because it makes the stories so unexpected. But I admit I was disappointed at the end of ‘The Porter and the Ladies’ cycle of stories, that the disguised king had no relation to the malevolent caliphs featured in the three dervish sub-stories. It would have been marvellous if it was revealed that they were all one and the same, and the courtyard became a scene of recrimination or reconciliation. But I recognise that this expectation was set not by the narrative itself but by the dozens of films I have watched, where a good guy turns out to be a bad guy. Its too early to tell whether this sort of over-arching twist, which makes one revisit the entire plot, is the sort of thing that features elsewhere in The Arabian Nights or not.

There is plenty to say about the relationships between men and women in this first crop of stories. People seem to fall in love and get married with surprising ease, and women are mistreated throughout in a way that might work within the value system of magical stories but is highly ‘problematic’ by twenty-first-century standards. I suspect that we shall see more such mistreatment in the stories to come, so I will defer discussion of that until a later entry.

So too with ideas of trust and justice which feature heavily in Nights 1 through 18, and which I suspect will be primary motivators for characters we have yet to meet.

As a writer of science fiction and fantasy, the story I enjoyed the most was that of the third dervish (which is nested within the story of ‘The Porter and the Three Ladies’). The narrator stumbles into a cavern, where a prince is hiding from his prophesied killer. When told that the name of the future perpetrator is Ajib ibn Khadib, which is the narrator’s own name, he resolves to foil the prophecy by looking after the prince. But while doing so, he accidentally trips while holding a melon knife and stabs his protectee. The prediction has come true after all.

This is a story of a self-fulfilling prophecy. It is directly comparable to the Greek stories of Oedipus (fated to kill his father Liaus) and Theseus (who accidentally kills his grandfather) and has echoes in Macbeth. It is also highly reminiscent of ‘The Appointment in Samarra’ a tale by W. Somerset Maugham that I always thought was inspired by The Arabian Nights but is apparently part of the Babylonian Talmud. Of course, self-fulfilling prophecies are a popular trope in science fiction: Twelve Monkeys is a particularly ‘pure’ example, where steps taken to avoid The Bad Thing actually cause it to happen. These stories fascinate us all because they feature a clash of predetermined fate and free will. I wrote one myself once.

Stray observations

  • Sometimes Shahrazad says “I have heard, oh fortunate king” and sometimes she calls him “auspicious.” I wonder if there is a pattern?
  • More funny sections: “I was only joking” says the ifrit, as he retracts a threat of murder. That conversation, between a powerful spirit and a fisherman who has nothing but his wits, reads like a Monty Python scene. Likewise with the Jinni wife (Night 2) who wants to protect her husband by killing his duplicitous brothers. He thanks her as he declines the offer, in a way that recalls the politeness of The Doctor in Doctor Who or Arthur Dent in The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy, when faced with an angry superpower. The humour lies in the contrast between the raw power of the magic, and the facade of courtesy.
  • Night 16 has these lines of poetry:

    I say: he is the sun, and the sun sets
    I say: he is the moon, and the moon sets.

    Comparing a lover to the sun or the moon seems to be The Arabian Nights favourite poetic metaphor. But this variation, which acknowledges the impermanence of the celestial bodies and therefore the mortality of love, I thought was sad, beautiful and true.

  • “Young man, you have added another care to my cares!” says the king to the half-petrified prince (Night 7). Normally the inelegance of doubling up on the word ‘care’ would be a mark against the text, but it somehow works here as I am sure it does in the original Arabic. Richard Burton translates this as “O youth, thou heapest sorrow upon my sorrow!” which also works.

Next: Nights 19 to 33

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