Nights 294 to 338: Rise and Fall

294—296 Ali the Persian • 296—297 Harun al-Rashid, the slave girl and Abu Yusuf • 297—299 Khalid ibn Abd Allah al-Qushairi and the lover who confessed to theft • 299 The generosity of Ja far the Barmecide to the bean seller • 299—305 Abu Muhammad the sluggard • 305—306 The generosity of Yahya ibn Khalid to Mansur • 306—307 The generosity of Yahya to the forger • 307—308 The caliph al-Ma’mun and the scholar • 308—327 ‘Ali Shar and Zumurrud • 327—334 Harun al-Rashid and Ali ibn Mansur • 328—334 The story of Jubair ibn ‘Umair al-Shaibani and Budur • 334—338 The story of al-Ma’mun, the Yemeni and the six slave girls

The peril of reading The Arabian Nights in three volumes is that there is a chance to drop the context between books. The reading I set for myself in the past two of weeks was made up of the Ali Baba ‘orphan story’, the long tale of ‘Ali’ al-Din, and a few shorter stories. In my previous post, I called out those brief pieces as being very different from the rest of the collection. But a quick look at the contents of Volume II reveals that these shorter tales are actually the rule and not the exception. The tales of Hatim of Tayy and the rest that appear at the end of Volume I should really be recapped along with the night-sized stories of Harun al-Rashid and his courtiers that appear in this sequence.

When recapping Nights 249 to 294, I wrote about the idea of destiny in The Arabian Nights. Then, I was talking about the literary destiny of the characters. But when the people in a story are historical figures like al-Rashid, then their actual destiny becomes significant and casts a shadow over the reading of the story.

Nowhere is this more true than in the tale starting on Night 305, which Shahrazad says begins in the days “before Harun al-Rashid grew jealous of the Barmicides” and prefigures the purge his vizier Jaf’ar and others from the Persian sect. An earlier story also alludes to Jaf’ar’s crucifixion. This overt reminder lends a dark quality to the stories where Jaf’ar or Yahya, another advisor, are otherwise in good standing. I’m reminded of Hilary Mantel’s Booker Prize-winning novels Wolf Hall and Bring Up The Bodies (I haven’t read The Mirror and The Light yet) which are infused with the sombre knowledge that Thomas Cromwell is destined for the executioner’s block.

Harun al-Rashid by Khalil Gibran
Harun al-Rashid by Khalil Gibran

Caliph Harun al-Rashid himself plays a curious role in this crop of stories. Several begin with the caliph summoning one of his friends to entertain him, and they ask whether he would like to be told “something seen with my own eyes… or something I have heard?” They then proceed to narrate a story to him. He becomes, in a way, a second-tier Shahriyar, the impetus for others to tell a story.

But just as we know Jaf’ar is destined to be purged, we know al-Rashid will take ill and die prematurely in a manner that is not particularly heroic. In the stories, therefore, he is never in peril, and while his whims or his power might influence others, he himself is above the dramatic fray: wise, generous and right. Its true that his reign was one in which the culture and science of the Islamic world surpassed that of Europe, so perhaps the hagiography is deserved… but it does not make for great storytelling. I think I’m done with al-Rashid for now, and would rather read about someone with humbler means.

Such as… a bean seller. His story is an interesting little diversion about symbolism: how a simple trinket can represent a debt of friendship and generosity, and thus accrue a meaning and a worth a thousand times beyond its market value. It is also a story about how some obligations and some friendships can transcend death: we support you, at great risk to ourselves, so that we may honour one who is gone. In this way, a relationship that was lost might be vicariously continued.

The tale is very short, contained within Night 299, and is told in the same sparse style as the rest of the stories. But I found it unexpectedly moving, because I suspect that many of us feel such connections to people who have now left us.

Speaking of ‘worth’it bears repeating that money is a prominent feature throughout The Arabian Nights. As previously discussed, many of the stories have a character receiving some kind of windfall, usually through inheritance or the favour of the caliph. But for the first time that I can remember, the book directly addresses the way money distorts society. On Night 303, during the story of Abu Muhammad ‘the sluggard’ there is this wonderful aphoristic verse:

If a rich man says something wrong, the people say:
“You May be right, and what you say is not impossible,”
But if a poor man speaks the truth, they say:
“You are a liar; what you say is wrong.”
Money invests a man with dignity and beauty in all lands.
Money is the tongue of those who seek eloquence,
And the weapon of whoever wants to fight.’

Having moaned about the paucity of jinni in The Arabian Nights so far, it is a pleasure to meet a malevolent example in ‘the sluggard’ story. The marid of the jinn manages to trick Abu Muhammad into destroying a talisman, which had prevented the marid from kidnapping the sharif’s daughter. Later, Abu Muhammad encounters dozens of jinni who have taken the form of snakes, and then manages to win the obedience of an entire squadron of ‘ifrits by means of a carved eagle statue he finds on a pillar. He is entirely un-menaced during this project, which makes one wonder: if grabbing an ‘ifrit talisman is so easy, why isn’t everyone doing it?

The conclusion to the story is rather ridiculous. Abu Muhammad has told the caliph a tale about how he has essentially befriended one tribe of jinn, and enslaved another set with sorcery. Its nothing short of world-changing. And yet Harun al-Rashid responds with essentially a pat on the head, bestowing ‘princely gifts and appropriate benefits’. Perhaps he hears this kind of thing all day long?

Abu Muhammed the Slaggard - Illustration by Albert Letchford
“So I mounted on his back, and he flew up with me into the firmament. … But as we flew, behold! one clad in green rainment, with streaming tresses and radiant face, holding in his hand a javelin whence flew sparks of fire, accosted me.” – Illustration by Albert Letchford

Another major story in this batch is that of Zumurrud, a beautiful slave girl who becomes a king. Spread over nineteen Nights, the tale has two major Acts.

It begins when the man of the story, a slightly pathetic yet good-looking boy named ‘Ali Shar, witnesses a slave auction in the market. Zumurrud is up for sale but, because of her unrivalled beauty, her current owner declares that she has a veto on who can buy her. This is a curious type of slavery, which, instead of perhaps mitigating the awful nature of enslavement, instead manages to introduce an ageist dimension into an already bad situation! Presented to the high bidders, Zumurrud turns her nose up at them, reciting a series of insulting poems about the disadvantages of old age (Night 310). I suppose this could have been played for laughs when performed by the confabulatores nocturni—’imagine being so old and ugly that you are rejected by a sex slave!’ Hmm.

As we reach Night 314, the story makes a classic Arabian Nights heel-turn and switches abruptly from a love story into something darker. Zumurrud is kidnapped by the Christian merchant Barsum, on the orders of Rashid al-Din, one of the high bidders she had previously spurned. This does actually provide some narrative rationale for the earlier ageism, since it delivers the precise motivation for Rashid to perpetrate the crime. Once she is imprisoned in his town-house, he orders that she be beaten every day. It’s a disturbing passage.

Soon after, ‘Ali Shar plots a rescue, but due to a mishap, he falls asleep and instead a thief named Jawan the Kurd rescues/steals Zumurrud. As he whisks her off to his robbers’ encampment, he promises that ‘tonight we shall all bang away at your womb from evening till morning’, a phrase that I read with a jolt.

These threats of gang rape, like the torture in Rashid al-Din’s house, are shocking but not, I think, gratuitous. The ordeal provides a strong motivation for Zumurrud to get her unequivocal revenge in the second Act of the story. The nearest pop-cultural reference I can think of is the Kill Bill duology—in both cases, a brutalised woman retains her sense of self and picks-off those who have done her wrong, one by one.

How does this happen? With no ‘Ali Shar around to bungle a further rescue, Zumurrud takes matters into her own hands. She escapes the robbers and, in doing so, inadvertently wanders into a city state at just the right moment. In a ritualised celebration of randomness and fate, following the death of the king, the first person to arrive at the gates is automatically enthroned as his replacement.

One wonders how such a tradition arose in the first place—surely the dynamics of monarchical rule lend themselves to dynasties, not a bizarre form of jury service—and also how the integrity of the process can be maintained against inevitable foreign hacking!

Nevertheless, Zumurrud takes up the challenge, and makes an excellent fist of being king. Like Princess Badur, who also dressed as a man and found a path to a throne, she is just and wise and becomes loved by her subjects. She rules with a compassion that I think the story codes as female, and which would surely be welcome in real-world contemporary politics.

She issued orders and prohibitions, winning deep respect from the people because of her generosity and virtue. She abolished market taxes, freed prisoners and removed injustices…

Zumurrud pursues nakedly populist policies. Crucially, this includes a monthly banquet for the entire city. The feast is free to attend… but also compulsory! This rather sets the residents on edge, and Zumurrud’s revenge is framed from their anxious point of view.

During the feast, Barsum shows up. Zumurrud recognises him, so she calls him over, fakes some divination powers in order to expose his identity, and then has him summarily executed and flayed. It is a brutal comeuppance for the thief, and a reminder that, when it comes to revenge, women can be just as bloodthirsty and unforgiving as men. I’m reminded of Nuzhat al-Zaman, going out of her way to esure that it is she who gets to execute her kidnapper on Night 145.

Kill Barsum
Kill Barsum

This execution begins a cycle of repetition. Each month, successive villains from our heroine’s past—Jawan, and then Rashid al-Din—arrive at the feast, and she denounces each of them in turn. Meanwhile the nervous residents of the city try to work out why she is picking on those particular people. It is the sweet rice, they reason—a wholly understandable yet incorrect epistemological ‘false lemma.’ Finally, ‘Ali Shar arrives at the feast, and the townsfolk, who by now are commenting on the action like a Greek theatrical chorus, fully expect that he too will incur the king’s wrath. But of course this time around, the outcome is different and Zumurrud showers favour on her former master.

It might seem obvious to observe that this repetitive story structure, with the cycle being broken the third or fourth time around, is a staple of of the færie tale genre (think of ‘The Three Little Pigs’, ‘Goldilocks’, ‘Jack and the Beanstalk’, or The Gruffalo). In this case, it’s a delight to first see the baddies so confounded, and doubly so when the reader understands (for me, after the second time around) that the reunion between Zumurrud and ‘Ali Shar is going to fit neatly into that same structure. This is quintessential storytelling, a tried-and-tested formula for creating memorable færie tales.

Of course, deploying such formulæ often means reinforcing social stereotypes and gender roles, and The Arabian Nights does this with enthusiasm. As noted above, the comparison between Zumurrud and Princess Badur is inescapable, and that extends to the utterly infuriating longing for the former, absent lover.

Because he’s so… fucking… useless. Over the course of their relationship, ‘Ali does absolutely nothing for Zumurrud: He provides no food or shelter—their only income was from her embroidery! He fails to protect her from covetous Christians, all because he is worried about seeming rude. Then he completely botches her rescue, which actually puts her in even greater peril.

And yet, because he has a nice face, she is ready to not only resume the relationship, but give up on governing her city state, a vocation at which she has excelled.

A woman is elevated from sweatshop slavery to a position of absolute power… and she chooses to return. I mean #FFS. It is sometimes hard to believe that, for centuries, peoples of the world have had to put up with such patriarchal guard-rails. It would be laughable if such notions of a ‘woman’s place’ were not still so infused into our cultures. Thank goodness that modern artists, especially the genre filmmakers and novelists, are making stories that do away with this sort of nonsense in favour of better, more egalitarian and frankly more believable stories. I enjoyed our time with Zamurrud, but her story would have been a helluva lot better if someone had simply sliced out Nights 326 and 327 from Calcutta II, and ended with the flaying of Rashid. Or failing that, a conclusion right after the scene where she seduces ‘Ali in her own palace, on her own terms.

Of course, within the logic of The Arabian Nights framing story, Zumurrud’s submissiveness is essential. Shahrazad needs to convince Shahriyar that women are no threat to him, and Zumurrud’s confident self-sufficiency at the top of government is probably not the best way to achieve that. But still…

Ali Shar and Zumurrud - Illustration by Albert Letchford
“They sat down and she took place on her chair of state, watching them. … Then they fell to eating.” Illustration by Albert Letchford

Following Zumurrud, the Story of Budur and Jubair is a little different to the love stories we have encountered so far. When we meet them, our two lovers are in a quarrel and Jubair is entirely refusing to communicate. He won’t respond to letters and when our sub-narrator ‘Ali ibn Mansur takes his leave of them, Budur is in a state of deep pining for him.

But by the time ‘Ali returns for a visit a year later, the situation has been reversed. Fed up with the cold shoulder, Budur has moved on… which is precisely what ignites Jabir’s passion for her once more. The spurner becomes the spurned in a satisfying, ironic symmetry. All this is accompanied, on Night 332, by verses that deal with end of love, an outlier in the all the poetry that fills the pages of The Arabian Nights:

I have come to hate those who pass by with news of you,
Turning against them and thinking of this as something foul.
My whole body is free of your memory;
Let the slanderer know this, and all who wish to know.

Now You’re Just Somebody That I Used To Know.

The final story in this sequence combines symmetry with the repetitive structure we saw in the Zumurud story, in an astonishing war of words. A wealthy Yemeni man has six erudite slave girls, each of different and opposing physical appearance: white and black, fat and thin, ‘yellow’ (one assumes this means East Asian) and ‘dark’. For his amusement, he pits them in a debate against each other, saying

Each then is to praise herself and find fault with her opposite…

The debates are nothing less than a Comedy Roast Battle and follow the same shocking pattern of self-praise and deep offence. The women each make pertinent points about why their particular features are desirable and then throw insults based on skin colour or body shape that modern comedians would baulk at. Nevertheless, there is a certain poetry to the insults and some great metaphors are deployed.

As for you, thin girl, your legs are those of a sparrow or the poker of an oven. You are the wood on which men are crucified; you are rancid meat, and there is nothing in you to delight the heart. The poet has said of you:

I take refuge with God from having to make love
When it is like rubbing the palm fibres.
Every part of her body has a horn that butts me
When I sleep, and so my body weakens.

It’s at once terrible and brilliant, and totally unexpected. The Arabian Nights continues to shock and to surprise.

Stray observations

  • In a short story on Night 297, Khalid the emir of Basra says: “Where there is doubt, do not exact the penalty.” An important principle of justice succinctly expressed.
  • Yahya ibn Khalid observes on Night 306:

    Hasten to do whatever good deed occurs to you
    For generosity is not always possible
    How many a man has held back from a generous action
    He could have done, and then had been restrained by poverty

    This is analogous to the political advice that appears earlier in the book, about pursuing just policies while one has the chance. I think such wisdom appeals to me when I see it, because so much of the disappointment we feel for ostensibly progressive leaders is their reticence to act when they have the chance. Triangulation pleases no-one.

  • It’s not only in the story of Abu Muhammad ‘the sluggard’, where the distortions of wealth are noted. At the very beginning of the tale of ‘Ali Shar and Zumurrud there are more such verses:

    When I am short of funds, no friend will stay with me;
    If I am wealthy, all men are my friends.
    How many an enemy befriends me thanks to wealth;
    When money vanishes, how many friends are turned to foes?

  • I’m very taken with this from Night 308:

    Beware of an evil companion. He is like the smith: his smoke will harm you even if his fire does not scorch you.

    It seems like a looking glass version of that old heuristic ‘there’s no smoke without fire.’ The old adage accuses others, and is clear that it is the fire that is the harmful thing; whereas this one accuses the listener, and warns that it is smoke—the consequences of a negative act—which corrupts.

  • I thought this was a brilliant and startling description of Jawan’s rough complexion on Night 317:

    … she felt his face and discovered a beard like a bath brush, as though a pig had swallowed feathers whose down had sprouted through it

  • Sexual metaphor watch:

    … he pounced on her, like a lion on a sheep, and plunged his rod into her scabbard. He kept on playing the roles of gatekeeper at her door and imam at her prayer niche…

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