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

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.

Chastened by this, Shams al-Din seeks out a sperm thickening potion (the recipe, which includes opium, is set out in the text for those who wish to replicate it) and, after eating it with some chicken, manages to impregnate his wife.

Shahrazad is often eager to recount the exceptional or unexpected circumstances in which her protagonists are conceived and reared. As with the birth of Qamar al-Zaman, our hero ‘Ala’ al-Din is akin to the biblical Issac—born to parents who were otherwise childless, and with a hint that the pregnancy was as a result of divine intervention. These are people who are marked by fate from the outset; who act out their lives under the eye of God. The characters in these stories do not shape the course of their own lives, but instead ride a trajectory that has already been determined. In the ‘Ala’ al-Din story in particular, prophecy and coincidence are a heavy presence in the narrative.

The characters also seem to believe in destiny over free will, and this shapes their attitudes to the perils they confront along the way. In this story as in others, the heroes are sanguine in the face of death, adopting an almost fanatical adherence to the principle of que sera sera and putting one’s faith in the Creator and Knower of All Things. In one of the shorter stories that follow the tale of ‘Ala’ al-Din, we encounter a little boy who refuses to pay proper deference to the king, trusting that he is not destined to be killed as a result. In the tale told on Night 275, failed coup-leader Ibrahim ibn al-Mahdi takes a similar attitude when brought before his brother the caliph.

Likewise, ‘Ala’ al-Din is happy to ride off into the desert even though there are raiders about; he meets his deliverance from a dowry debt (through the intervention of caliph Harun al-Rashid) with easy acceptance rather than incredulous gratitude; he resigns himself to his hanging when framed for the theft of the caliph’s belongings; and he seems blasé when he is (twice) rescued from execution at the last moment.

Destiny is not the same thing as invincibility, but it comes close. The Arabian Nights is not so formulaic that every protagonist survives for no other reason that the story is about them. The warrior Sharkan died in the middle of what I thought of as ‘his’ epic, and last week the lovers ‘Ali ibn Bakkar and Shams Al-Nahar both keeled over at the moment when a more conventional færie tale would have allowed them to elope.

Nevertheless ‘Ala’ al-Din’s story presents him with the gift enjoyed by Arnold Schwarzenegger in Last Action Hero – the protagonist’s shield of indestructibility. Though he is, by his own admission, no fighter (“I am as weak as a tent peg fixed in bran,” he says), ‘Ala’ survives a Bedouin raiding party attack on his caravan, and the aforementioned death sentences. He persists long after a less fictional person would have succumbed to fate and bad luck.

Hooray for ’Ala’ al-Din, I guess. But these twin principles of blessedness and hapless indomitability have a dark corollary: If you are not part of the designated elite, your life is worthless.

I think in particular of the rescue of ‘Ala’ from the gallows by his adopted father Ahmad al-Danaf, “captain of the right wing of the guard”. This is achieved by bribing the guards to hang “someone who deserves to die… who closely resembled ‘Ala’ al-Din”. A rafidi who has no name of his own or indeed any dialogue, is chosen. It is enough that he is not the hero.

During the escape, on Night 266, Ahmad and ‘Ala’ al-Din flee Baghdad on horseback. They meet two Jewish tax collectors, who Hasan casually murders in order to steal their money and make good their escape. The expediency of the act is never questioned.

Later (during another escape, on Night 270) ‘Ala’ al-Din cuts the throat of Princess Husn’s father, a Christian, whom he has bound to a chair.

Shi’ites, Jews, Christians. These people are all (to borrow from another Schwarzenegger movie) ‘expendables’. Their lives are already forfeit and without purpose, and the hero suffers no moral crisis or narrative payback for having killed them.

Yes, yes I know: These people are characters in stories, so of course they are not responsible for their actions! But it’s a long-held principle of storytelling that the audience suspends their disbelief in this regard, and the best stories are those where we think it could have turned out differently. Crucially, I think most of the other stories in The Arabian Nights veil the inherent pre-destiny rather better than this story of ‘Ala’ al-Din.1

Illustration by Albert Letchford
‘Ala al-Din Abu al-Shamat — She drugged a cup with Bhang, and he drank it off and fell upon his back. … Ala al-Din went to the King, and finding him lying drugged and helpless, pinioned him fast and manacled and fettered him with chains. … Then he wrote a scroll.’ Illustration by Albert Letchford

As well as the existentialism, this sequence of The Arabian Nights also presents an insight into how the administration of law might have operated during the time of the Abbasid Caliphs. The story of ‘Ala’ al-Din explains how his marriage-of-convenience contract to Zubaida is drawn up, and details the petitioning of the qadi (judge) when they fall in love and so renege on the contractual obligation to divorce.

Then, on Night 264, when arch-thief Ahmad Qamaqim manages to frame ‘Ala’ al-Din for theft, the investigative team get a written warrant from the king to perform a search of his house. When stolen goods are found under the floor, the story unfolds like a police procedural.

The qadi and the notaries inspected the place and after finding everything there, they drew up a document to say that the goods had been found in the house of ‘Ala’ al-Din, and affixed their seals to it.

Probable cause. Eye-witnesses. Chain of custody. Law & Order: Baghdad Acquisitive Crime Unit.

Illustration by Albert Letchford
Ala al-Din Abu al-Shamat — ‘And repairing to the Caliph’s sitting-saloon planted his scaling ladder and cast his grapnel on to the side of the terrace-roof; then, raising the trap-door, let himself down into the saloon, where he found the eunuchs asleep.’ Illustration by Albert Letchford

The story of ‘Ala’ al-Din also includes another brilliant metaphorical description of love-making, which it is worth quoting in full:

She then clasped him to her bosom and he clasped her to his breast. They embraced each other and she took him and lay back, undoing her drawers. The tool that his father had bequeathed him moved and he called out: ‘Help me, Shaikh Zacharias, father of veins.’ He put his hands on her hips and, setting the Vein of sweetness to the Gate of the Cleft, he pushed until it reached the Lattice Gate and passed through the Gate of Victories. After that, he entered the Monday market, the Tuesday market, the Wednesday market and the Thursday market. He found that the carpet filled the room and he moved the tuber round against its covering until the two met.

I’m sure that reproducing this paragraph (Night 256 if you want to look it up) must make me seem like sniggering school-boy, but I think it is a really interesting passage. One can certainly imagine it being performed by the original storytellers, with each step on the journey through the metaphorical ‘city’ provoking laughter from the audience.

But to the modern reader, the comparison works in reverse. We know very well that it’s a woman’s body being described, which in turn gives us some clue as to what the city, deployed here as a risqué metaphor, might have been like.

Design by William Harvey
Design by William Harvey

Immediately beyond the long story of ‘Ala’ al-Din are several shorter stories, which I confess I prefer. Almost all of them include some kind of surprise: A twist in the tale, a moment of irony, or some clever thinking, such as this out-of-the-box moment on Night 275:

If we kill him, we can find others like you who have killed others like him, but if you forgive him, then we cannot find anyone like you who has forgiven anyone like him. 

I don’t think we have seen this style (or is it structure?) since the early Nights, which were full of shorter tales. Back then, we had the self-fulfilling prophecy in the story told by the Third Dervish, on Night 15; the ‘Story of The Three Apples,’ which has three ‘twists’ that profoundly alter the direction of the narrative; and the mystery of the palace with forty rooms, one of which was forbidden. The Hunchback story was also full of surprises, played in that case as a farce.

In this batch we have the aforementioned stories of the Bedouin boy, and then Ibrahim ibn al-Mahdi, who both manage to talk a caliph into sparing their lives, arguing that to show restraint and mercy is actually a counter-intuitive demonstration of power. There is also the amusing story of the Slaughterhouse Cleaner and the adulteress, who sleeps with the most disgusting man she can find as an act of revenge against her philandering husband.

My favourite story in this sequence is actually the shortest, that of Hatim of Tayy, a generous man whose ghost haunts the dreams of travellers, demanding real-world camel sacrifices. Hatim also appears in his own son’s dreams, instructing the boy to reimburse the traveller’s camel with one from his own herd. The entire story is only a page long, but the elegant symmetry of the two dreams makes for a satisfying piece of flash fiction.

I welcome the return of this mode of storytelling. These are tales that stay in one’s mind after the page has turned, and I think that the unexpected conclusions bestow a quality that is both mysterious and magical. If I had one central preconception about The Arabian Nights when I began reading, it was that stories of this kind were numerous among the thousand and one chapters. It’s a delight to encounter them, and to let their playfulness sink in. One hopes that king Shahriyar is similarly entertained…

Stray observations

    • Last week I noted the ‘crossover’ of the evil slave Ghadban from a previous story… but these tales have crossovers galore. Caliph Harun al-Rashid, of course, and his vizier Ja’far, feature in several separate tales. But also the concubine Qut al-Qulub on Night 260, who we already know is destined to be poisoned, kidnapped, put in a box, and then rescued by Ghanim ibn Ayyub (Night 41). Our foreknowledge of what will happen to a secondary character also adds to the sense of looming destiny in these stories, as well as that sprawling, everything-is-connected feel of films like Pulp Fiction, where different characters adopt the rôle of protagonist.
    • There is no Night 261 in the Calcutta II text and the Malcolm Lyons translation sticks to that erroneous numbering. But I note that Richard Burton’s translation corrects the mistake, and so from this point on there is a numbering discrepancy between the texts. Henceforth, if I add a reference to a particular night, I will be referring to the Calcutta II/Lyons numbering.
    • Caliph Harun al-Rashid has ceremonial red robe he puts on to indicate he is angry. I wish we all had coats that indicate our current mood.
    • Euphemism Watch: “One night it happened that Habzam Bazaza had a polluting dream. His mother was pleased when she heard of this and she told his father, adding: ‘I want us to find him a wife, as he is now ready for marriage.’” (Night 263). Burton: “on a certain night he had a dream which caused nocturnal pollution”
    • The Arabian Nights has a penchant for conveying how great someone is through the sheer number of people in their entourage. But on Night 278 we get this:

      He ruled over a hundred thousand kings, each of whom, in their turn, controlled a hundred thousand stewards, each of whom had a hundred thousand men. He brought them all together.

      (My emphasis). That’s a quadrillion men. Probably enough to build a glorious city made entirely of gold, but unfortunately too many to sustain human civilisation in ancient Yemen. Perhaps it’s an allegory for an ant colony or something?

    1. To labour the point, the reverse is also true. History is almost always told through the biographies of influential people, and the narrative aspect to those histories casts a shadow of pre-destiny over the story. As a result, all manner of expedient but morally questionable (or downright despicable) choices by historical figures are excused.

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