Sunday Images: William Harvey

Aziz - Illustration by William Harvey

William Harvey (1796 – 1866) was a Newcastle-born illustrator and engraver. Each of these illustrations carries a different signature — Harvey did the original drawings, while other artists created each actaul engraving.


Nights 536 to 566: Sindbad’s Descent

Illustration by Brian Wildsmith

536—566 Sindbad the sailor • 538—542 The first journey of Sindbad • 542—546 The second journey of Sindbad • 546—555 The third journey of Sindbad • 550—556 The fourth journey of Sindbad • 556—559 The fifth journey of Sindbad • 559—562 The sixth journey of Sindbad • 563—566 The seventh journey of Sindbad

Sindbad is one of a triumvirate of characters whose name is already common currency in popular Western culture. But like the story of Ali Baba in Volume I and (I suspect) Aladdin in Volume III, what we think we know about this guy is very different to the actual story. Indeed, as I began to read this cycle I realised that I knew barely anything about Sindbad the Sailor, except for the alliteration. I haven’t seen any of the films.

He stands apart from the other heroes we have encountered so far in The Arabian Nights in many ways. He is neither a prince nor the heir of a wealthy father, but a self-made man. And his adventures do not start by accident, but because of his proactive desire to go travelling. As he says on Night 550:

It was while my life was at its most pleasant that I felt a pernicious urge to travel to foreign parts, to associate with different races and to trade and make a profit.

Continue reading “Nights 536 to 566: Sindbad’s Descent”

To Infinity and Beyond!

Buzz Lightyear

Last week I noted how much I enjoyed the way the tale of Buluqiya tries to describe the almost-infinite, and to invoke a sense of the overwhelming scale of God’s power.

In a lecture, Jorge Luis Borges (discussed previously in relation to these tales) made a marvellous point about the title A Thousand and One Nights, which itself alludes to the eternal:

I want to pause over the title. It is one of the most beautiful in the world … I think it lies in the fact that for us, the word thousand is almost synonymous with infinite. To say a thousand nights is to say infinite nights, countless nights, endless nights. To say a thousand and one nights is to add one to infinity. Let us recall a curious English expression: instead of saying forever, they sometimes say forever and a day. A day has been added to forever. It is reminiscent of a line from Heine, written to a woman: “I will love you eternally and even after.”

— Jorge Luis Borges, Seven Nights (Faber and Faber, 1986), translated by Eliot Weinberger from Seite Noches (Fondo de Cultura Economica, 1980)

Continue reading “To Infinity and Beyond!”

Nights 499 to 531: Shamsa Takes Flight

499—531 The story of Janshah

Near the end of Buluqiya’s story, he meets a hermit sulking in a cave, who begins a narration of his own. Thus we are presented with the tale of Janshah. This is another narrative that, like the Karim framing story, bears many of the hallmarks of a classic The Arabian Nights tale, while still presenting us with a novel storyline. This time, the innovation is a human/jinn romantic adventure, which has yet to appear in the collection.

Janshah is a fêted prince, who one day goes a-hunting with his father and their mamluks. Janshah rides after “a strangely coloured gazelle” that leads him to the seashore. Down on the beach, he spots an island he wishes to visit, and so they commandeer a fishing vessel to take them there. Of course, they are blown off course by a gale, which serves to separate our wealthy protagonist from the comforts of his father’s kingdom.

From there, Janshah encounters many strange lands and inconveniences. This includes a nation of apes who insist that he stay and be their king; and a valley of giant ants. He becomes embroiled with a dastardly con-man who tricks him into stealing treasure from a giant bird of prey, and eventually winds up in a great castle as the guest of Shaikh Nasr, king of the birds. Continue reading “Nights 499 to 531: Shamsa Takes Flight”

Nights 482 to 536: Talking Snakes

482—536 Hasib Karim al-Din and the snake queen • 486—533 The story of Buluqiya

After so many short tales of piety, the story of Hasib Karim Al-Din feels like a ‘proper’ Arabian Nights tale. It’s full of the best tropes that the book has to offer: a long-yearned-for child; a mysterious trap-door with a huge ring in its centre; abandoned palaces made of diamond… and armies of jinn.

That said, the story goes beyond the formulaic and becomes its own thing. It introduces several new kinds of character into The Arabian Nights universe, which takes this story to places we have not been before, both geographical and conceptual. Continue reading “Nights 482 to 536: Talking Snakes”

What does The Arabian Nights have to say about contemporary politics?

Trump supporters

434—436 The pilgrim and the old woman

Last week, I briefly mentioned the tale of ‘The Pilgrim and the Old Woman’ (Night 434) and her preference for liberty over a tyrannical ruler:

What is your country like?’ she asked. ‘We have spacious and roomy houses,’ he told her … ‘I have heard of all that,’ the old woman said, but tell me, are you subject to a sultan who rules you unjustly and if any one of you is guilty of some fault, the sultan seizes his wealth and ruins him, while if he wants he can drive you from you house and uproot you?’ ‘That may well be,’ the man replied, and the old woman said: ‘Then by God, that delicious food, that pleasant lifestyle and those pleasures, when combined with injustice and oppression, are deadly poison, while our food, eaten with safety, is a theriac.’[1]

I had to look up the word ‘theriac’ – it means an antidote to venom. So in summary, the woman is saying that one should free oneself from tyrannical laws… even if it causes a huge drop in the standard of living. Continue reading “What does The Arabian Nights have to say about contemporary politics?”

Nights 436 to 482: Slaves Schooling the Scholars

436—462 The slave girl Tawaddud • 462 The angel of death, the rich king and the pious man • 462—463 The angel of death and the rich king • 463—464 The angel of death and the king of the Israelites • 464 Alexander the Great and the poor king • 464—465 King Anushirwan the Just • 465—466 The Jewish judge and his virtuous wife • 466—467 The shipwrecked woman • 467—468 The pious black slave • 468 The pious Israelite and his wife • 470—471 Al-Hajjaj and the pious man • 471—473 The smith who could put his hand in the fire • 473—474 The pious man and his cloud • 474—477 The Muslim hero and the Christian girl • 477—478 The Christian princess and the Muslim • 478—479 The prophet and the justice of God • 479 The Nile ferryman • 479—481 The pious Israelite who recovered his wife and children • 481—482 Abu’l-Hasan al-Darraj and Abu Ja’far, the leper

Does any book do simile as confidently as The Arabian Nights? This introduction to the most important character we meet this week is candescent:

Her skin was clear and her breath scented, as though she had been formed of fire and fashioned of glass.

Of the same woman, there is also this description, which could be a story in its own right:

Her waist was more slender than the body of an emaciated lover worn away by concealing his love.

Continue reading “Nights 436 to 482: Slaves Schooling the Scholars”

Nights 424 to 434: Ali the Cairene Merchant

Ali the Cairene Merchant and the jinn

424—434 Ali, the Cairene merchant

Another additional post for the week, to give longer stories the attention they deserve, and to keep the weekly recaps to a more or less equal length.

This week I have been recapping the sequence of Nights 386-436. The final and longest story in these nights is ‘Ali the Cairene Merchant,’ and it begins in a familiar way: with the squandering of an inherited fortune. Ali’s father impresses upon his son the importance of moderation and prudence. But when his father dies, Ali falls in with an irresponsible crowd, and they burn through the money.

His behaviour is similar to what we now recognise as depression and drug addiction. Once he is low on funds, he reasons that he doesn’t need furniture and so he sells it off. Then he sells off his house and lives in a single room. Eventually, he is turfed out of that dwelling and exists on the street. All this, with a wife and child in tow. Continue reading “Nights 424 to 434: Ali the Cairene Merchant”