153—169 Ali ibn Bakkar and Shams al-Nahar
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.
The tale of ‘Ali and Shams al-Nahar is a straight reversion to the ‘Monarchical’ style I mentioned earlier—no interludes from Shahrazad or her king; no jinni or anything fantastical. This time it is the caliph Harun al-Rashid around whom the story swirls. Although he appears fleetingly, every other character in the piece is in complete awe of his power, to the extent that it affects them physically. As the two lovers and their various enablers comprehend the forbidden nature of the affair, the thought of what the caliph might do to them if they are discovered takes hold. This leads to tremblings, panic attacks and a self-imposed exile. Never mind the excessive number of slave girls and eunuchs that the caliph maintains in his entourage, his raw power is evident in the visceral effect he has on the protagonists. His presence is in the air they breathe, and it suffocates them.
The story itself has an odd structure. The Romeo of the piece is ‘Ali ibn Bakkar, a Persian nobleman. He falls madly in love with Shams al-Nihar, who is the caliph’s prized concubine. (We have seen this kind of peril before, in the tale of Ghanim ibn Ayyub and Qut al-Qulub on Night 39).
‘Madly in love’ is an apt cliché for this story. Once ‘Ali discovers that his passion is reciprocated, he spends the rest of the story in states of delirium. He takes to his bed, and leaves the practical business of managing the courtship, along with much of the risk-taking, to his friends. He frequently faints when he hears any reminder of Shams al-Nihar. After a while, his behaviour becomes quite pathetic.
One desperately wishes that he would simply take charge of his own fate. He could, perhaps, elope with Shams, and the story could become a chase thriller or even a Bonnie & Clyde, Thelma & Louise-style tragedy. Or he could, instead, decide that he prefers to keep his beloved safe and choose a life of asceticism. Perhaps he could roam the lands, solving crimes or match-making other lovers. That, too, would be an interesting story to read.
Instead, he remains in a lovelorn limbo that causes massive inconvenience to his friends, and it is their role in the story that I find most confusing.
‘Ali’s first wing-man is Abu’l Hasan who is a merchant of good standing in Baghdad. But halfway through the story, following an infiltration of the palace and a narrow escape from the caliph, Abu’l Hasan realises that his continued involvement is likely to put him in mortal peril. So he packs up his stuff and moves to Basra. We never hear from him again.
His role in the story is taken up by another character, who is (strangely) never given a name. He is just ‘the jeweller’ and he acts as the go-between for ‘Ali and Shams al-Nahar. His liaison in this endeavour is a slave girl (also unnamed) who passes messages from her mistress to the jeweller, who delivers them to ‘Ali, and vice-versa.
At one point, I thought that the slave girl and the jeweller might, through their joint enterprise and shared exasperation for the two hopeless lovers, fall in love with each other! That would have a been a fine twist in the tale: the two attendants getting it on while the feckless principles dither.
Of course, this does not happen. The Arabian Nights is a collection that establishes tropes, not one that subverts them. This is a story about hyphenated high-borns, not nameless servants, and when the two protagonists die, the story expires with them. It has been all sighs and fainting, signifying nothing.
So what is this episode actually saying? Not every story needs a deep moral or a meaning, of course. Some are content to be nothing more than an exciting adventure. But this love story is not one of those. Neither lover in the equation makes any kind of decision and as such both are under-developed characters. All we are left with is a salutary tale pour encourager les autres: don’t touch the caliph’s women. I can’t imagine that was particularly interesting, even to the original medieval live audience.
What this story does communicate effectively is the physical toil that love can take on the body. That ‘Ali and Shams ultimately die of lovesickness is not a plot turn I particularly care for—I guess I just don’t like such heightened melodrama—but I cannot deny that throughout the story the descriptions of love are quite… exhausting. “My bones are worn away,” says ‘Ali (Night 153). “Time has struck me with the arrow of a glance” sings a slave girl (Night 155).
We also have this disturbing image from Night 156:
I swear life has no sweetness now that you have gone.
Would that I knew how you are after leaving me.
If it is my absence that has made you weep,
It is right that my tears should now be of blood.
And later (Night 157) this brazen combat metaphor:
You who carry a real sword, beware
The shattering blow of her eyelids when she looks,
And, spearsmen, guard against her thrust
If she attacks you with her figure’s lance.
Such passages, laid down over the dozen or so Nights of this story, build for the reader a sense of the destructive, mind-robbing love suffered by the two characters—one that batters their bodies along with their emotions.
I wonder, too, whether the escalating mental pain might also be conveyed through in the timbre of the original Arabic? Perhaps, through the patterns of that language, the story conveys an escalating mood? If so, that layer of meaning is lost in translation.