Nights 536 to 566: Sindbad’s Descent

536—566 Sindbad the sailor • 538—542 The first journey of Sindbad • 542—546 The second journey of Sindbad • 546—555 The third journey of Sindbad • 550—556 The fourth journey of Sindbad • 556—559 The fifth journey of Sindbad • 559—562 The sixth journey of Sindbad • 563—566 The seventh journey of Sindbad

Sindbad is one of a triumvirate of characters whose name is already common currency in popular Western culture. But like the story of Ali Baba in Volume I and (I suspect) Aladdin in Volume III, what we think we know about this guy is very different to the actual story. Indeed, as I began to read this cycle I realised that I knew barely anything about Sindbad the Sailor, except for the alliteration. I haven’t seen any of the films.

He stands apart from the other heroes we have encountered so far in The Arabian Nights in many ways. He is neither a prince nor the heir of a wealthy father, but a self-made man. And his adventures do not start by accident, but because of his proactive desire to go travelling. As he says on Night 550:

It was while my life was at its most pleasant that I felt a pernicious urge to travel to foreign parts, to associate with different races and to trade and make a profit.

Not a journey embarked upon for the glory of God, but instead borne of a modern cosmopolitan desire to for cultural and commercial exchange. I don’t remember any other significant protagonists of The Arabian Nights taking on this precise economic role. There is an episode in the story of ‘Ala’ al-Din where the hero joins the Cairo to Baghdad trade caravan (Night 253) but that is not really his forte… and the other merchants we’ve met are based in a particular city.

But international sea trade is very much Sindbad’s calling. He’s great at what he does and the ‘pernicious urge’ (Burton writes it as “the old bad man within me”) sends him back to the ocean on seven occasions, despite a resolution at the end of each voyage that it will be his last. One wonders whether it is only the exotic locations that call him, or the adrenaline that accompanies a perilous voyage.

Because eighth-century sea travel is dangerous. Sindbad goes to sea seven times, and on fully six of those he is shipwrecked (the exception is the second voyage, where he falls asleep during an island stop-over and the ship weighs anchor without him). Sure, it’s not as if he is capsized the moment he sets sail—there are plenty of stop-overs and uneventful voyages as he plies the trade routes—but, sooner or later, poor Sindbad finds himself in the water, clinging to a piece of wood, while all around him drown.

In this manner he is washed up on a succession of islands, where he invariably encounters something fantastical and life-threatening. Each time he escapes to a friendly port, from where he can hitch a ride back to Basra and then Baghdad. Each voyage in the cycle hews closely to this pattern.

And so, like the Indian Ocean during a storm, Sindbad’s life becomes a series of peaks and troughs. Naked starvation as a castaway, followed by the opulence of homecoming. Our hero is addicted to the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, and actively courts the sea of troubles.

It is only during the seventh voyage that he reaches what addicts call ‘rock bottom.’ On Night 563 he is able to make a pledge to himself, and of course to God, that he will quit his seafaring:

I started to blame myself for what I had done and for abandoning a life of ease in order to court difficulty. I told myself ‘Sindbad, you have not turned away from your folly. Time after time you face these hardships and difficulties but you still go  to sea, and if you say that you have given this up then you lie. So you have to endure whatever fortune you meet, as you deserve whatever happens to you … ‘

When it comes to his own misfortune, Sindbad does not subscribe to the fatalistic attitude of other heroes of The Arabian Nights. In these moments (for there are many long dark nights of the soul, adrift on a raft or a piece of timber) he is of the view that his life is directed by his own choices. What is amusing is that, conversely, he attributes each deliverance to God, and discounts his own resourcefulness in effecting the escape from whatever it is that is menacing him.

That is incredibly unfair, because he has many talents. He is clearly a stronger swimmer than anyone else on any of his ships, which is why he survives when the rest of the crews do not. On several occasions, he lashes together a raft that can withstand whitewater rapids. It is he who devises and then executes a plan to kill the man-eating giant on the third voyage, Night 547. And he survives alone in a cave for months after being thrown down there on Night 554.

So I’d say his mentality is one hundred and eighty degrees reversed from what it should be. It is not that he gets himself into scrapes that Almighty God The Exalted and The Omnipotent, in His Wisdom, resolves; it’s that he survives despite God, who really doesn’t want Sindbad to be a sailor at all. What else but divine intervention explains the fact that he is shipwrecked every time he sets sail?

And from a literary point of view, that’s how it should be. Emma Coates’ point about coincidences, which I mentioned in an earlier recap about Nur al-Din, is also true about Acts of God. As a storytelling device, it’s a fine way to get a character into a scrape, but not to get them out of it. Each of Sindbad’s seven tales sticks to that rule and avoids deus ex machina. Perhaps this is one reason why, since the time of Antoine Galland, this nested story has been one of the most popular of Les Mille et Une Nuits and subsequent translations in the West.

The most surprising aspect of the stories is Sindbad’s moral descent in the middle of the cycle. In order to survive, our hero is forced to do some deeply unpleasant things to other people.

The first occurrence is certainly out of necessity. On the third voyage, Sindbad and some compadres get stuck on a desert island with a giant, who roasts and eats one of them every evening. Sindbad takes the initiative, and stabs their tormentor in the eyes, blinding him. So far, so forgivable—an aggressive moment that we would all categorise as self-defence.

Image by HJ Ford

I don’t think the same could be said of Sindbad’s survival techniques on the subsequent voyage. Living a life of comfort in a coastal city (including getting married), he discovers too late the custom that when someone dies, their spouse is buried alive with them. So when Sindbad’s wife passes away, her body is lowered into a cave which acts as a sort of mausoleum… and he is thrown down there too.

Determined to survive, Sindbad eats the limited food that the funeral party has sent down with him as a pious offering. When this has run out, he waits there until other unfortunate spouses are lowered into the cave with their deceased partner. Sindbad clobbers each of these people to death with a handy tibia and steals their offerings too.

It’s tempting to call this unforgivable, but isn’t this a situation that goes beyond good and evil? None of us knows what we would do in such a situation, surrounded by rotting corpses. The precise horror of Sindbad’s predicament is that survival requires an abandonment of moral principle. It demands that he perpetrate violence or surrender to starvation. Alone in the catacombs, Sindbad finds himself between a rock and a hard place, both literally and metaphorically. He chooses the pragmatic option.

That choice (or rather, the same choice made repeatedly, because he bludgeons several people) stays with Sindbad on subsequent voyages. The ‘kill or be killed’ mentality, which first arose with the man-eating giant and then developed in the cave, becomes seared into his character. On his fifth voyage, he is once again marooned on an island and becomes victim to a parasitical old man (later identified as ‘The Old Man of the Sea’) who climbs onto Sindbad’s back and refuses to dismount. The man uses his legs to almost strangle Sindbad and “to strike me more violently than if he had whipped me.” After many days of enduring this enslavement, Sindbad manages to get the old man drunk and throw him off:

I could scarcely believe that I had managed to free myself and escape from my miserable state, but then I began to fear that, when he recovered from his drunkenness, he might do me some harm and so I picked up a large rock, went up to him as he slept and struck him a blow on the head that left him a lifeless mass of mixed flesh and blood, may God show him no mercy.

The callous and expedient side of Sindbad’s character is here to stay. If I was Sindbad the Porter, listening to the stories from comfort of a Baghdad mansion, this episode would make me wonder whether the friendship was all it’s cracked up to be, or whether I too would be ditched or throttled by the genial merchant seaman, if the relationship turned sour. And that’s to say nothing of what Shahriyar might think as Shahrazad recounts these tales! ‘Kill or be killed’ and ‘better safe than sorry’ are not the principles that I would want to remind him of at this point.

I enjoyed the fact that the Sindbad cycle follows the same structure as the framing narrative, but with very different power dynamics and motivations at play. On both story levels, an audience assembles every evening to hear the narrator tell them more. But whereas Shahrazad must narrate or die, Sindbad is a raconteur who can afford to pay the listeners to be there. And while Shahrazad’s narrates to a king, Sindbad’s central audience member is a lowly porter with the same name. Sindbad is Shahrazad through the Looking Glass.

Although Sindbad the Porter receives dinner and gifts whenever he visits his namesake, one cannot but wonder if the Sailor’s boastful stories inspire a modicum of jealousy. Encountering someone with the same name as you is a strange experience. I don’t mind admitting that it is especially disconcerting to find a name-alikey who appears to making a better fist of things than you. It is not unlike the aphorism attributed to Gore Vidal: “Whenever a friend succeeds, a little something in me dies.” So although the text of The Arabian Nights says that the Porter is “filled with wonder” or whatever, I find it hard to believe that he is not secretly willing Sindbad the Sailor to shut up about his riches and travels. No-one likes a brag.

Stray observations

  • Sindbad is not actually a sailor though! He is a merchant who books passage on a ship, or who hires a vessel and crew to take him where he wants to go. He doesn’t actually do any sailing himself.
  • One thing I did know about Sindbad cycle is that it is similar to The Odyssey. In particular the encounter with a man-eating giant on the third voyage. This is an obvious remix of Odysseus’s encounter with the cyclops Polyphemus, right down to the stake-in-the-eye defeat.
  • Sindbad has a visceral way with words. He often describes the effect of his adventures and his emotions on the body. For example, on Night 553 he says that he was “so concerned and distressed for myself that my gall bladder almost split…” and on Night 564 he says that “weariness, hunger and thirst had reduced me to no more than a sick chicken.”
Sindbad - Illustration by Rene Bull
Sindbad – Illustration by Rene Bull

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