Nights 424 to 434: Ali the Cairene Merchant

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.

At this nadir, Ali does at least recognise that his behaviour is harming his family, and he resolves to remove himself from the bad habits that Cairene society appears to have imposed upon him. He flees the city and ends up in Damascus where he is lucky enough to meet a kind, rich merchant who offers shelter. One of the possible accommodations available is a mansion haunted by jinn, and all the previous occupants of that house have died in mysterious circumstances. Despite protests from his benefactor, Ali chooses to spend the night there.

This bold decision is the crux of the story and the turning point for Ali’s character. It’s not that he disbelieves the tales of death associated with the house. Quite the opposite: he fully expects the supernatural forces to attack him. He is resolved to commit suicide by jinni:

This is what I have been looking for. I shall spend the night here and by morning I shall be dead, having found relief from my present ills.

It turns out that the jinni has been waiting for Ali in particular, to hand over some gold that has been held in escrow. Instead of killing him like the other guests, the jinni bestows on Ali untold wealth, which establishes our hero and his family in the town.

 Illustration to The Story of Alee of Cairo from the Arabian Nights. Design by William Harvey
Illustration to The Story of Alee of Cairo from the Arabian Nights. Design by William Harvey

It’s unclear to me why Ali’s death-wish should be the choice that offers such rewards. Is there some kind of honour in ending it all when you have supremely failed yourself, your family and the memory of your father? Can we find admiration in the fact that Ali does at least have some insight into the extent of his failure? This seems to be what the story is asserting… because there is little else in Ali’s character to root for. He has been fated to be lucky all along, which is not all that endearing.

It is yet again disappointing not to see more jinn action. If a jinni is haunting the house, why not pit it against Ali in a battle of wits or of riddles? Why not make the wealth thrown at him conditional on some sort of diabolical returned favour? Why not make Ali prove that he deserves their support? As we have seen in previous tales, they are not usually so pliant.

The last four nights of this story become a lengthy epilogue. We hear how Ali’s son is appointed heir to the sultanate, suffering no adversity and overcoming no further obstacles along the way. Chalk up another mark for the ‘whimsical appointments to kingship’ trope, but we hear a great deal about the other emirs floating about the court. Don’t tell me that none of them would have made a bid to topple Ali’s son from his position of favour.

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