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.

The woman in question is the slave girl Tawaddud. Brought before the caliph by her Squandered-His-Cash master, she demonstrates a precocious aptitude for all branches of human study, including theology, medicine, and astronomical science. She is also a chess grandmaster and can solve any riddle. Much of her knowledge could be learnt by rote, so if she is not a genius then she is at least a savant.

Her story follows a simple pattern. She is pitted against the caliph’s best men in various fields of study, and they test her knowledge. With each, she demonstrates flawless mastery of the topic, forcing the men to concede that she knows more than they do. Once she has stumped them, she wins their robe as a prize. Then another expert is brought forward to be schooled in the same way

The feminist in each of us naturally cheers Tawaddud as she sticks it to the pompous mansplainers. But the actual story here is very light. The tale is spread over ten nights, and most of it is simply a download of information. In some cases the knowledge she relays is charmingly anachronistic (for example, the sections on astrology and alchemy) but in others she is spot-on. Her recitation of Islamic history is presumably correct and a brilliant primer on the central tenets of the religion. And her description of the intricacies of the human body, numbering the bones in the vertebrae and the toes, is sound. Tawaddud’s tale is an incredibly useful resource for historians.

Answer questions correctly; Turn-the-tables; Win the robe; Repeat. It occurs to me that while there is barely any actual story here, the simple structure somehow makes it feel like the narrative is more substantial. It’s not a story… but it is story-like. A lexical illusion.

To my mind, that’s not enough. I am sure that there will be some readers who enjoy the fact that Tawaddud rhetorically destroys the Men of Learning, and hail her as a feminist icon. But she is all just wish fulfilment, a one-note-character who is simply amazing in every way. A superhero of sorts, who appears somehow bland when pitted against woefully inadequate adversaries.

In the superhero spirit, I’d love to read her origin story. How is it that a slave girl has learnt so much? Once all the scholars of the caliph’s court had been sent packing, Harun al-Rashid could have asked her this very question, and we could have heard a sub-story. Perhaps she is the product of some unethical pedagogical experiment in hot-housing? Was she a highborn woman, sold into slavery? Maybe she was shipwrecked with a crate full of books. Did she have an encounter with a jinni, a sorcerer or a radioactive librarian? We are never told, and so we are are left with an unexplained mystery. Tawaddud hits us like a whirlwind and leaves us as confused as the haughty philosophers she humiliates.

Within the universe of Shahrazad, however, the story makes total sense, because it elevates a woman to the value of men. This is exactly what Shahriyar needs to hear if he is ever going to put a permanent stop to the nightly executions.

Indeed, at the end of this narrative, Shahrazad gives a little homily, asking the king Shahriyar to “admire the eloquence of the girl,” &cetera. She also asks “where is such generosity to be found now?” A not-so-subtle hint that her king should be rather more generous and just!

All the other stories are a transparent attempt to get king Shahriyar (as well as the reader) to think a little deeper about his behaviour, and what he should do in order to win favour in the next life. Immediately after the tale of Tawaddud, three stories in a row depict proud kings, who care more for earthy goods than spiritual purity. They only repent when confronted by Death himself, by which time it is too late. Make no mistake, Shahrazad is working hard to sway the king.

There are also stories of outright miracles delivered to pious people, including: a man who prays hard enough that his shackles fall off; a man who finds himself immune to fire; a woman on a boat whose baby is washed overboard, but nevertheless survives; a family of Israelites who are shipwrecked, parted, and then reunited years later; and a man who has the dubious benefit of a cloud that follows him around, similar to Olav the Snowman at the end of Disney’s Frozen. All of these things come about through deep and rigorous prayer.

We also get some sermons on the virtues of poverty. In the tale of ‘The Pilgrim and the Old Woman’ which begins on Night 434, the titular woman makes a strong case that penury with liberty is preferable to living in comfort under a dictator.

Later, on Night 465, none other than Alexander the Great meets a group of people who subsist on grass. Their ‘king’ is brought forward, and Alexander, impressed with the wisdom of this man, offers him a vizierate. But the king declines:

‘Why is that?’ asked Alexander. ‘Because all mankind are your enemies, thanks to the wealth and the kingdom that you have been given,’ replied the king, ‘whereas for me they are all true friends because I am content with my poverty. have no kingdom; there is nothing that I want or seek in the world. I have no ambition here and set store by nothing except contentment.

How we take these stories rather depends on what level we consider them. They make total sense if we are listening along with Shahriyar. All these tales about spiritual purity and the futility of acquiring power are just the sort of tale that will mellow the king and temper his urges.

But if we imagine ourselves out on the streets of Baghdad, or Cairo, or Damascus, then I am not so sure. The constant refrain, that piety and poverty are virtues above all others, seems like just the sort of propaganda that an elite ruling class would ensure was broadcast, to keep the poor from revolting.

Stray observations

  • Three makes a trope: Slave girls who are far, far superior to their masters: Marjana, Zamurrud and now Tawaddud. I wonder if there will be more?
  • This is silly, but I’ve just been to Wales, and so I was reading the name ‘Tawaddud’ as if it was a Welsh name, where the ‘dd’ represents a fricative sound that usually represented in English with the ‘th’ digraph: Ta-wa-th-uth.
  • On Night 455, when Tawaddud is in full flow:

    When the first day of a year falls on a Sunday, it belongs to the sun, and this, although God knows better, indicates injustice on the part of kings, sultans and rulers, an unhealthy year and a lack of rain.

    The phrase ‘God knows better’ appears throughout The Arabian Nights. Burton translates these same phrases as ‘Allah is All-Knowing’ or ‘Allah is omniscient’ and I’ve been reading it to mean simply that. But in the interrogation of Tawaddud she seems to use it in a subtler way. As she asserts something about the natural world, her use of the phrase (as Lyons translates it) injects a note of doubt into her assertions of what is true and what is false. It’s an expression of religious humility, an acknowledgement that other forces may be at work. Or alternatively, it could be a disclaimer for when her assertions turn out to be incorrect! Perhaps Tawaddud is deploying that phrase to cover her bullshit.

  • Weirdly, once Tawaddud is introduced, Richard Burton translates every reference to her as simply ‘the damsel’ which is oddly respectful in some sense, given she is a slave. But it is also gratuitously disrespectful—why not just use her name as Malcolm Lyons does? I had a look at the original Arabic and her actual name does not seem to reappear after the initial introduction. So Burton is probably being more ‘faithful’ to the text, but Lyons gives us an arguably ‘better’ interpretation. See my previous digression about translating problematic literature.
  • On Night 477 we encounter a princess who has a mysterious ailment. Her father the king invites doctors to attempt a cure, but those who fail are put to death (this also happens in the story of Princess Badur and Qamar al-Zaman back on Night 193). Look, I can see why a king might need to disincentivise chancers and quacks, but this practice of killing doctors who cannot cure your daughter’s lovesickness is… a bit much.
  • Shockingly, no-one in any of these stories had a face like a moon or the figure of a ban tree.

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