Nights 34 to 44: Shahrazad’s Emerging Voice

34—38 Nur al-Din Ali and Anis al-Jalis • 38—45 Ghanim ibn Ayyub, the slave of love • 39 The story of the eunuch Bukhait • 39—40 The story of the eunuch Kafur

Is it me, or are the two stories in this set of nights a little more sophisticated and mature than those that came prior?

The first is the story of Nur Al-Din, which is at once a drama of power and influence and yet also a morality tale about how kindness and generosity will be rewarded.

There are two rival viziers in a sultan’s court. Al-Fadl is kind and just, while al-Mu’in is a more malevolent operator. The former is set the task of procuring a beautiful slave girl for the sultan, a task that he performs with diligence and efficiency. Unfortunately, the project is entirely derailed by his son Nur Al-Din, a lothario who seduces and then subsequently falls in love with the girl, Anis al-Jalis (in yet another Love At First Sight, Face Like The Moon situation).

This is not just a social faux pas. Bedding the sultan’s concubine is theft and embezzlement, which gives al-Mu’in the leverage he needs to cause mischief. When al-Fadl dies, al-Mu’in manages to politically skewer Nur al-Din, who flees with his lover.

This is one of those moments where the storytelling of The Arabian Nights confounds and surprises modern expectations. I would have expected Nur al-Din to stay, perhaps to outwit the enemy, perhaps to suffer a period of Belly-Of-The-Whale imprisonment, or perhaps to allow Anis al-Jalis to solve the problem on his behalf.

That happens eventually, but not before the bankrupt pair abandon the city and adopt a life of vagrancy in Baghdad. There, they go on an all-night bender with the caretaker of a municipal garden, where they attract the attention of the caliph in his palace across the river. The caliph disguises himself as a fisherman, in order to meet and take the measure of the two lovers.

This part of the story is a great example of the rich, sensual and (to Western readers like me) exotic settings that The Arabian Nights are famous for. There are lavish descriptions of Ibrahim’s municipal gardens, and the caliph’s fried fish made my mouth water.

But I can’t decide whether I approve (from a story-telling point of view) of the caliph’s intervention or not. On the one hand, the rehabilitation of Nur al-Din and his elevation to the sultanate seems a little too lucky for my liking. One of the storytelling rules set out by Pixar storyboard artist Emma Coates has always stuck with me:

Coincidences to get characters into trouble are great; coincidences to get them out of it are cheating.

The arrival of the caliph seems a little like that to me.

On the other hand, even though we are only some three dozen nights into The Arabian Nights, it is already abundantly clear that divine, regal and djinn interventions are the lifeblood of this collection. Moaning about this sort of storytelling trope is to completely miss the point. Beings of immense political or magical power turn up frequently, but they almost always have their own reasons for intervening. It’s true that Nur al-Din is lucky to meet the caliph, but his good fortune after that moment is not a morally blind lottery win. The caliph, disguised as a fisherman, is impressed by Nur al-Din’s kind nature, and rewards him accordingly. Later, we see just how deep that kindness runs, when he attempts to spare the life of al-Mu’in.

Kindness is certainly at the core of the subsequent story of Ghanim ibn Ayyub. He rescues a kidnapped woman named Qut al-Qulub and falls in love with her. But he refuses to give in to their mutual desire to consummate the relationship, because she is a prized beauty in the caliph’s harem. Despite his restraint, Ghanim is nevertheless accused of having stolen the woman. He too experiences rapid descent into poverty, before Qut al-Qulub locates not only him, but his mother and sister too.

The tale of Ghanim presents an important storytelling development for The Arabian Nights. It includes what I think might be the first occurrence of stories-within-the-story that are narrated by ‘black slaves’. These people have so far been cast as mysterious Others who always pose some kind of sexual or physical threat, but Nights 39 and 40 begin to provide a corrective to that stereotyping. 

First, Bukhait ‘who had carried the lantern’ tells the story of how he fell in love with his master’s daughter, and she him. Eventually, she is married off to someone else, Bukhait is castrated, and he becomes her devoted eunuch.

Then the second slave Kafur narrates a hilarious story in which he confesses to being a proud mischief-maker. He deliberately tells lies that (literally) bring his master’s household to the ground. I really enjoyed Kafur’s perspective on his predicament, which is actually quite radical and subversive. If you are going to treat me as property, he seems to be saying, then you accept me in the condition you found me and I cannot be held responsible for my actions.

The more I think about the stories of Nur al-Din and Ghanim, the more I’m fascinated by how they can be at once deeply problematic, but also quite progressive. Let me try to explain what I mean.

First, it is clear that on one level these stories are horribly sexist. They are presented as prima face love stories, but the women in the relationships are both originally sex slaves of other men. Worse, it’s not as if the protagonists in the two stories, the ostensible moral heroes, think that this was a particularly bad situation for their paramours to have been in. At one point (Night 37) Nur al-Din actually gives Anis al-Jalis to the caliph as a gift! The Arabian Nights presents this as an act of self-sacrifice, and not (as it would be in the twenty-first century) the beginnings of an royal sex-abuse ring.

Likewise, Ghanim rescues Qut al-Qulub from the chest in which she has been buried, but does not also consider that to be a good moment to also liberate her from the ownership of the caliph. Instead, he simply accepts that the prior claim of ownership is morally binding upon him. The Arabian Nights presents his adherence to a dubious slave-owners’ etiquette as a virtue, rather than an abrogation.

I confess I don’t know enough about the culture of the time and place in which these stories were written to comment on whether what is depicted was ‘normal’ or ‘typical’ behaviour (I suppose that is something to investigate as I read more stories, and indeed part of the point of reading The Arabian Nights is to learn about that culture). But my assumption is that these regressive attitudes and relationships are unavoidable, just as we encounter misogyny and racism in European færie stories, certain Shakespearean drama, and The Bible. When we encounter such prejudice, it’s right for us to ask what that says about the author as well as what it says about the characters. This mental habit is particularly important with narratives that we are otherwise enjoying.

However, in the case of these stories, there is also a positive reading we must consider. In the stories of Nur al-Din and Ghanim, I do perceive progressive elements. The ‘black slaves’ are humanised, the idea of slavery is critiqued, and we hear about the preferences and choices of concubines. My theory: that is Shahrazad’s voice emerging. Let us not forget the purpose of these stories. She is trying to avoid execution and to avert the massacre of dozens more women by a paranoid caliph.

Why is he paranoid? Because he has been cuckolded by a ‘black slave’. In these stories, Shahrazad is introducing to her king the idea that concubines may not be duplicitous, and that the ‘black slaves’ may not be such a threat. Slowly, she is humanising those people that the king irrationally fears.

Stray observations

  • Bukhait says: “I had just finished puberty and my penis stood up like a large key.” That’s a bold, bold simile. Richard Burton translates this same passage as “Now I had just reached the age of puberty; so my prickle stood at point, as it were a huge key.” I had never heard the slang ‘prickle’ before either.
  • I also don’t believe Bukhait’s protestations that “before I knew what was happening, my penis had pierced her dress…” You knew, Bukhait. You knew all too well.
  • I just want to re-emphasise the cleverness of Kufar’s response to his master, in which he conceives himself as similar to a second-hand washing machine.

    ‘By God’ I told him, you can’t do anything to me because you bought me, fault and all. This was the condition and there are witness to testify that you bought me in spite of my fault.

    He sounds like an unsympathetic eBay seller, dismissing complaints from a dissatisfied buyer.