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

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.

This was the precise argument for Brexit. Although I do not see the European Union as a tyrant, I have always thought that this argument for Brexit is more honest and coherent than those that concern themselves with immigration, or with the idea that Brexit would be simply better for the United Kingdom’s finances.

Immediately after this exchange, the Old Woman begins to discuss leadership, authority and respect:

In the old days rulers required only the minimum of prestige, in that when their subjects saw them, they automatically feared them, whereas nowadays rulers want all-embracing authority and total respect, as the present generation is not like its predecessors. This is the age of the ugly and puffed-up, who are characterized by stupidity and cruelty, full of hatred and hostility. If, which God forbid, they have a weak ruler, or one with no sound policy or dignity, then that is bound to lead to the destruction of his country. The proverb has it that a hundred years of injustice on the part of the sultan is better than one year’s worth of injustice inflicted by the people on each other. When the people are unjust, God sets over them an unjust and tyrannical ruler.

I think it is impossible for anyone who reads this in the year 2020 to keep President Donald J. Trump out of their mind. ‘Puffed-up’ and ‘cruel’ seem to be his defining characteristics.

But note that The Old Woman (or Shahrazad, or The Arabian Nights, depending on your mood) places the blame for bad rulers onto the population. I find this idea compelling, and I’ve heard it before. Back in 2009, I saw the Mexican investigative journalist Lydia Cacho interviewed at the London Book Fair. Speaking of the way organised crime has blighted her own country, she said that ‘a corrupt political system is only sustained by a corrupt and complicit culture.’

I’ve often thought of that statement. It is so challenging because I think it might be at once true but also unfair on the people to which it refers.

It’s true because rulers can only rule with the consent of the governed. There are always more people than there are rulers. A sustained popular revolt can always overturn a dictator (even one with an army) and an arrogant president can always be voted out at the ballot. This also extends to the power held beyond governments. For example, the combined will of a population could insist on better behaviour from corporations (with regards to tax or pollution or whatever) and could resist the cancerous effects of organised crime on communities. Why don’t they work together to get rid of bad politicians, corporations and criminals?

Of course, it is not as simple as that, which is why the statement, however true, is also unfair. Even small groups find it difficult to co-ordinate themselves to take power away from someone who probably shouldn’t have it. And then there is always a significant proportion (in some cases, a majority) of the population who support the dictator.

And in the case of Donald Trump, he was voted into power with a minority of the vote. More people supported the other candidate! Nevertheless, I think a lot of people who read the Old Woman’s monologue would agree that it applies to the United States of the twenty-first century. It’s a common view that the USA somehow ‘deserves’ Trump as a punishment for the flaws of its society.

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