Nights 386 to 436: Ménages a trois

386—387 Mus’ab ibn al-Zubair and A’isha ibn Talha • 387 Abu’l-Aswad and his slave girl • 387 Harun al-Rashid and the two slave girls • 387 Harun al-Rashid and the three slave girls • 387—388 The miller and his wife • 388 The fool and the knave • 388—389 Abu Yusuf and the Lady Zubaida • 389 The caliph al-Hakim and the merchant • 389—390 Anushirwan and the peasant girl • 390—391 The water carrier and the goldsmith’s wife • 391 Chrosroe, Shirin and the fisherman • 391—392 Yahya ibn Khalid the Barmecide and the poor man • 392 Muhammad al-Amin and Ja’far ibn Musa al-Hadi • 392—393 The sons of Yahya ibn Khalid and Sa’id ibn Salim al-Bahili • 393—394 The trick played by a wife on her husband • 394 The pious Jewish woman and the two evil old men • 394—395 Ja’far the Barmecide and the old Bedouin • 395—397 The caliph ‘Umar ibn al-Khattab and the young Bedouin • 397—398 The caliph al-Ma’mun and the Pyramids • 398—399 The thief and the merchant • 399—401 Masrur and Ibn al-Qaribi • 401—402 The pious prince • 402—403 The schoolmaster who fell in love through what he heard • 403 The foolish schoolmaster • 403—404 The schoolmaster who could neither read nor write • 404 The king and the virtuous wife • 404—405 ‘Abd al-Rahman al-Maghribi and the rukh • 405—407 ‘Adi ibn Zaid and Princess Hind • 407 Di’bil al-Khuza’i, the lady and Muslim ibn al-Walid • 407—409 Ishaq al-Mausili, the singer and the merchant • 409—410 The two unfortunate lovers • 410—411 The lovers of Tayy • 411—412 The mad lover • 412—414 The abbot who converted to Islam • 414—418 Abu ‘Isa and Qurrat al-Ain • 418—419 Al-Amin and his uncle, Ibrahim al-Mahdi • 419 The caliph al-Mutawakkil and al-Fath ibn Khaqan • 419—423 The dispute about the merits of men and women • 423—424 Abu Suwaid and the white-haired woman • 424 Ali ibn Muhammad and the slave girl, Mu’nis • 424 The two women and their lovers • 424—434 ‘Ali, the Cairene merchant 255434—436 The pilgrim and the old woman

The bombardment of micro-tales continues, which feels like a high-risk strategy for Shahrazad. Sure, the stream of anecdotes and jokes has its own addictive quality (‘just one more’ says the reader to himself) but at the end of every story is the peril, the frisson, the worry, that Shahriyar will jump on that moment to say: enough.

As before, the mini-stories do tend to be grouped thematically, and I’d be lying if I said that the crude brace of tales about an erect penis were not the most memorable in this batch. “If someone brings uncultivated ground to life, it belongs to him and his descendants” says the Kufan slave girl, citing The Prophet. But the Medinan slave girl is not to be outdone. She grabs the sprouting member with both hands, and recites her own aphorism attributed to Mohammed: “Game belongs to the hunter and not the beater.” This is blasphemous, seditious, and funny.

In the very next tale, Shahrazad tells exactly the same joke, but with an addendum. An Iraqi girl joins the trio and grabs the spoils, saying “until you settle your dispute, this belongs to me.” It occurs to me that this is a rare example of separate stories in The Arabian Nights directly referencing each other.

One thing that strikes me about many of the tales in this section is that they are not really about what they think they are about. Or to put it in a more subjective manner: the tales do not think they are about what I think they’re about! So often throughout this sequence, the prima facie meaning of the tale (sometimes explicitly spelt out by Shahrazad at the end) feels pretty irrelevant or at least secondary concern to the modern reader.

The tale with the starkest different between what is of interest to Shahrazad and what is of interest to me is the tale of ‘Caliph ‘Umar ibn al-Khattab and the young Bedouin’ which begins on Night 395. We are told about the conduct of Abu Dharr, who agrees to stand surety for an accused prisoner. So far as Shahrazad is concerned, this is a story about magnanimity and equanimity between men. Which is fine, but rather underwhelming: a virtuous man does a virtuous thing.

What’s far more interesting, to my mind, is the description of the legal process in question—a sophisticated but also extremely high stakes bail system. If the young man does not return, then Abu Dharr receives the punishment for the crime in place of the absconding criminal! The caliph in the story also sets out the moral distinction between murder and manslaughter (though the translation does not use those words), an important point of law.

Rewinding a few nights, Shahrazad has more to say about the fair administration of justice. On Night 394, the prophet Daniel (the same man who famously entered the Lion’s Den?) appears as a twelve-year-old boy to settle the dispute of the ‘Pious Jewish Woman’ who is accused of adultery. He interviews the two accusers separately, and they cannot keep their story straight. This is an important principle of the detective’s method, cited here as a novel approach to legal problem-solving.

It’s noteworthy and important that the woman is clearly considered ‘lesser’ than the two men who seek to smear her. The text implies this is as much to do with her age and her gender as it is to do with her religion. Either way, as the more marginalised figure in the dispute, she nevertheless benefits from the principles of dispassionate, methodical justice. The procedures may seem rudimentary and ad hoc, but they are following the same moral principles as our own systems. There’s no-nonsense about ‘trial by ordeal’ or anything like that, and social standing is not part of the equation.

In previous recaps, including last week, I mentioned the quirky irony of some stories in The Arabian Nights (and its influence on writers like J. L. Borges). There is a wry, three paragraph tale on Night 398 that is the perfect exemplar of this characteristic. Caliph al-Ma’mun resolves to plunder the treasures buried within the tombs of the pyramids at Giza. So he embarks on the huge logistical project that entails. At the end of the project, he finds that the meagre haul of treasure he has uncovered is worth exactly the same amount as what he spent on the enterprise!

This story acts as an introduction to an interesting explanation of how the pyramids were built, and an inventory of what was contained in the treasure chambers. Night 398 also offers a few stanzas of poetry about the pyramids—inevitably, a meditation on Time:

Where is the builder of the Pyramids?
What were his people, his age and his fate!
Monuments outlast their builders of a time,
Then ruin overtakes them and they fall.

This calls to mind the Romantic notion of ‘ruin value’ (which the Nazi architect Albert Speer referred to a Ruinenwerttheorie) and of course Percy Bysshe Shelley’s wonderful sonnet ‘Ozymandias.’ That poem is itself a story-within-a-story (it begins “I met a traveller from an antique land / Who said”) so one wonders if Shelley had read any version of The Arabian Nights. His wife Mary Shelley certainly did: she alludes to The Arabian Nights in the text of Frankenstein, and then mentions the stories explicitly in a later commentary on her book.


After our Egyptian history and engineering lesson, the next mini-theme to appear concerns school-teachers… about whom the narrators have a very low opinion. Shahrazad distances herself from these stories by beginning with the words AN EMINENT MAN SAID:

I said to myself that this [excellence] was something remarkable in a teacher, as men of intelligence agree that schoolteachers are stupid.

That is from Night 402, and introduces a surprising series of jokes about the stupidity of teachers. The prejudices of The Arabian Nights (against women, ‘black slaves’, Jews and Christians) are unwelcome, but to be expected from a medieval text. But the book consistently praises erudition and wisdom, so a rejection of teachers is a surprise. It is as if an iconoclastic adolescent has snuck into the typesetting room, and defaced the Calcutta II manuscript with anti-intellectual slogans. It is a themed section for eleven-year-old boys, The Arabian Nights take on the Beano, Jennings Goes To School, or Just William.

Though I would rather the innocence of those schoolboys than the disconcerting story of Adi and Hind that begins on Night 406. Hind is described as being eleven years old and ‘one of the most beautiful women of her age.’ The translation is ambiguous when quoted here, but in the context it means she was beautiful in her historical era, not that she was beautiful for an eleven-year-old.

It is rare for the age of a protagonist to be mentioned in The Arabian Nights. This routine omission allows the modern reader to entirely avoid the mental discord that comes from reading about a child engaging in adult acts.

We know that in the past, ideas of when adulthood began were related mainly to puberty, rather than to a particular fixed age. We humans have yet to fully rid ourselves of this notion, even in the twenty-first century, and so it would surely have been a common belief at the time The Arabian Nights was written. The original authors of the text probably had much younger characters in their mind’s eye, compared to those that we imagine when we read the stories today

But if no age is mentioned then, of course, the reader’s imagination must win out. These are stories after all, and we are entitled to mentally add any missing information about a character in any way we please, including imagining young lovers as being in their twenties, or older.

But in the case of Hind and Adi, her age is mentioned explicitly, and we find ourselves in the uncomfortable position of reading a love story about someone who is undeniably still a minor. The warped and wrong belief that it is okay to marry off tweens and teenaged daughters is laid bare, just as it is for modern audiences of Romeo & Juliet (“My child is yet a stranger in the world / She hath not seen the change of fourteen years” says Capulet in Act 1). There is nothing in the narration or in Malcolm Lyons’ translation that allows us to escape this awkward aspect of the narrative.

The love story of Adi and Hind is actually a love triangle, with the third party being the servant girl Maria, who is in love with Adi. She confesses that love to him, and he agrees to sleep with her on the condition that she brokers a union between him and Hind. That scene is only a few lines long, a throwaway paragraph, but it’s desperately sad that Maria would agree to ‘lay with him’ under these circumstances. It also settles our opinion of Adi as a thoughtless and selfish user. Maria should have gone straight to Hind and told her what he had done.

Alternatively, I would have liked to have seen the ménage a trois driven to its conclusion, with the two women (one of high station, but woefully naive; the other a wily servant) manoeuvring to win the guy. This could have been comedic, or dark, or both. How could Maria foil the formalities of courtship?

And how might she deal with her unrequited love? It is the perfect subject matter for one of The Arabian Nights signature poems, which is conspicuous by its absence.

As it is, we get none of that. Maria doesn’t act to stop the marriage but works diligently to bring to two lovers together. Like a true diplomat, she stage-manages the marriage negotiation between Adi and Hind’s father, king al-Nu’man, securing a pre-agreement for the marriage. This ensures that no-one loses face by asking for something that will not be given.

But without a genuine antagonist in the story, it rather splutters out. The goal of the narrative is to get Adi and Hind together, and once it is clear that will happen, the tale has nothing more to say. The most memorable part of the story becomes the utterly bonkers conclusion:

… ‘Adi stayed with Hind for three years and they enjoyed the pleasantest and happiest of lives until al-Nu’man killed ‘Adi in a fit of anger. Hind mourned deeply for him and then built herself a convent outside al-Hira where she became a nun, weeping for him and lamenting until she died.

Killed in a fit of anger!? That’s no way to treat your son-in-law. But I confess I am coming to secretly enjoy the way The Arabian Nights throws in momentous, final paragraph plot points like this, and the premature end to the marriage does at least save the modern reader from the disturbing implications of an eleven-year-old bride.

If Adi is a player, a cad, a ‘dog’, then he establishes a theme that is continued on Night 407, which begins with a woman responding favourably to a catcall on the street.

I was sitting by the gate of al-Karla when the loveliest girl with the best figure I have ever seen went past, swaying as she walked and captivating all those who watched her doing so … I went up to her reciting this line: “Tears pour from my eyes and sleep is shut away from my eyelids.”

I would like to see today’s Pick Up Artists try that approach instead of their relentless ‘negging.’ The line certainly works for our sub-narrator Di’bil al-Khuza’i Said, who is rewarded for his unsolicited approach with stanzas in return, including this unambiguous proposition:

If you wish for my love, know that love between us is a loan.

The affair is temporary indeed. Di’bil commandeers his friend’s apartment in order to take advantage of this ‘loaned love,’ but when he goes out on an errand, his mate beds the girl instead! The story ends with Di’bil furious at his erstwhile wing-man.

Di’bil’s failed attempt at street courtship and casual sex reminds me of an observation made by a friend of mine a few weeks ago, just as I was embarking upon this project and so less familiar with the structures and tropes of The Arabian Nights. Their point was that in these tales, the idea of ‘love’ at first sight really just means that one character fancies another.

It’s not that when Malcolm Lyons (or Richard Burton for that matter) translates ‘love,’ Shahrazad and the original authors actually mean ‘lust’—I am not an Arabophone, but the most cursory search online confirms that separate Arabic words exist for both concepts.

Instead, in The Arabian Nights, the word ‘love’ appears to encompass a wider range of possibilities, including some short-term and superficial definitions that we do not usually accept in modern English.

So in one story, ‘love’ can mean a casual fling. But in another, love is so intense that it can kill, and not just once. This part of the book presents us with a set of tales where love is debilitating and deadly, a continuation of the theme introduced to us in the story of Ali Ibn Bakkar and Shams Al-Nahar.

The best of these is ‘The Tale of the Unfortunate Lovers,’ which begins on Night 409. A young man suffers unrequited love for a singing girl. After hearing her give a performance, he realises he will never be united with her… so he lies down on a pillow and dies there and then.

Unfortunately, he is himself the object of another young woman’s desire, and when she hears that he has passed away, she too lies down and dies. And in a final ironic and tragic twist, it turns out that the singing girl was in love with this young woman. When the funeral processions for the first two deceased take to the streets, they are joined by a third. This is a sadder, simpler but infinitely more elegant love triangle than the story of Hind.

Stray observations

  • The longest story in this sequence is ‘Ali, the Cairene Merchant.’ I’ll post some additional words about that particular story next time.
  • I have never promised that this project would recap every individual tale in The Arabian Nights, but with the tales in this volume coming thick and fast, I feel the gloss more acutely than I did during Volume I. What can I say? I can only discuss what hooks my interest, and I don’t see much point in analysing the tales where yet another eminent old man falls in love with a slave girl who has a face like a full moon and is accomplished on the lute. Such tales are often nothing more than hagiographic padding in favour of various caliphs, which (as I said last week) I would rather we were spared. But in lieu of recapping the boring tales, I suppose it is worth noting the fact that some tales are rather boring and forgettable. The diversity of the collection lies not only in the variety of genres but in the quality of the storytelling too!
  • A few weeks ago I noted that the Bedouin appear to be uniformly maligned in The Arabian Nights. I’m pleased to say that I can now withdraw that observation: the young Bedouin accused of manslaughter exhibits chivalrous qualities and is praised by the caliph himself.
  • On Night 408, Ishaq al-Mausili has a very high opinion of his own musical ability… but I enjoyed this description of the supreme power of his own performance.

    I took it and played a strange and difficult air, to kill living with delight and raise the dead

  • An evocative image from Night 410, on the catastrophic effects of love:

    When I looked more closely, I saw a young man debilitated by illness and looking like worn-out water skin.

  • We may as well note that the ‘Tale of the Unfortunate Lovers’ features more matter-of-fact homosexuality. The singing girl’s love for the narrator’s daughter is deep and real enough to induce a fatal heartbreak.
  • Speaking of homosexuality, there is also an interesting story in this batch which features a debate between a female sage and an unashamed man, on matters of sexual morality. During the conversation, he manages to defend same-sex love in the most sexist way possible: since sex with a woman is good, and since men are superior to women, it follows that sex with a man must be better… Hmmm.
  • Weirdly, my own novella The Good Shabti consciously draws from Frankenstein and unconsciously from ‘Ozymandias’ and this passage in The Arabian Nights. My story concerns the revivification of a mummified pharaoh and includes a discussion of how the great pyramids at Giza can testify to the greatness of not one man, but a dynasty of kings.

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