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. Continue reading “Nights 386 to 436: Ménages a trois”

Jorge Luis Borges and the Arabian Nights

Borges in his study

351—352 The rich man who lost and then regained his money

From an earlier recap, where I tried to stick a pin in a certain structural style shared by many of the stories in The Arabian Nights:

Almost all of them include some kind of surprise: A twist in the tale, a moment of irony, or some clever thinking … [an] out-of-the-box moment

I might also have quoted Adam Roberts, who, in comparing the structure of science fiction to that of a joke, writes that

The structure of a joke is a knight’s move: it leads you along a particular narrative trajectory only to finish with a conjurer’s flourish of the unexpected.

Before reading The Arabian Nights I would also have used the word ‘Borgesian.’ The short stories of the Argentine writer Jorge Luis Borges (1899-1986) often exhibit precisely the quirky quality I am trying to describe. But of course these tales I am reading pre-date Borges by hundreds of years, so it is certainly more accurate to say that one can perceive the blueprints for his stories in The Arabian Nights. Continue reading “Jorge Luis Borges and the Arabian Nights”

Nights 338 to 386: Hustles, Horses and Homosexuals

The Ebony Horse by HJ Ford

338—340 Harun al-Rashid, the slave girl and Abu Nuwas • 340—341 The man who stole the dog’s gold bowl • 341—342 The wali and the clever thief in Alexandria • 342—344 Al-Malik and his three walis • 344—345 The money-changer and the thief • 345—346 The wali of Qus and the trickster • 346—347 Ibrahim ibn al-Mahdi and the merchant • 347—348 The woman who gave alms to a poor man • 348—349 The pious Israelite • 349—351 Abu’l-Hassan al-Ziyadi and the man from Khurasan • 351 The poor man and his friends • 351—352 The rich man who lost and then regained his money • 352—353 The caliph al-Mutawakkil and the slave girl Mahbuba • 353—355 Wardan the butcher, the woman and the bear • 355—357 The princess and the ape • 357—371 The ebony horse • 371—381 Uns al-Wujud and al-Ward fi’l-Akmam • 381—383 Abu Nuwas and the three boys • 383 Abd Allah ibn Ma’mar al-Taimi, the Basran and the slave girl • 383—384 The ‘Udhri lovers • 384 The vizier of Yemen and his younger brother • 384—385 The lovers in the school • 385 Al-Mutalammis and his wife Umaima • 385—386 Harun al-Rashid and the Lady Zubaida in the pool • 386 Harun al-Rashid and the three poets

The Arabian Nights is often described as a ‘sea of stories’ and as the frequency of shorter tales increases in this section, that certainly feels apt. Thankfully, they do seem to share certain themes, which keeps the reader afloat.

The first such common thread is The Hustle: stories of con-men and marks. There is a clever thief who manages to steal the same bag of money twice. There are two notaries who manage to foil a qadi intent on exposing their debauchery. And there are a couple of stories of men who fall for the classic con-man trick: persuaded to pay for something valuable at a bargain price, only to find out later that what they have bought was not silver but tin. Continue reading “Nights 338 to 386: Hustles, Horses and Homosexuals”

Sunday Images: Frank Brangwyn

This week: Sir Frank Brangwyn (1867 – 1956), an Anglo-Welsh artist.

Nights 294 to 338: Rise and Fall

Kill Barsum

294—296 Ali the Persian • 296—297 Harun al-Rashid, the slave girl and Abu Yusuf • 297—299 Khalid ibn Abd Allah al-Qushairi and the lover who confessed to theft • 299 The generosity of Ja far the Barmecide to the bean seller • 299—305 Abu Muhammad the sluggard • 305—306 The generosity of Yahya ibn Khalid to Mansur • 306—307 The generosity of Yahya to the forger • 307—308 The caliph al-Ma’mun and the scholar • 308—327 ‘Ali Shar and Zumurrud • 327—334 Harun al-Rashid and Ali ibn Mansur • 328—334 The story of Jubair ibn ‘Umair al-Shaibani and Budur • 334—338 The story of al-Ma’mun, the Yemeni and the six slave girls

The peril of reading The Arabian Nights in three volumes is that there is a chance to drop the context between books. The reading I set for myself in the past two of weeks was made up of the Ali Baba ‘orphan story’, the long tale of ‘Ali’ al-Din, and a few shorter stories. In my previous post, I called out those brief pieces as being very different from the rest of the collection. But a quick look at the contents of Volume II reveals that these shorter tales are actually the rule and not the exception. The tales of Hatim of Tayy and the rest that appear at the end of Volume I should really be recapped along with the night-sized stories of Harun al-Rashid and his courtiers that appear in this sequence.

When recapping Nights 249 to 294, I wrote about the idea of destiny in The Arabian Nights. Then, I was talking about the literary destiny of the characters. But when the people in a story are historical figures like al-Rashid, then their actual destiny becomes significant and casts a shadow over the reading of the story. Continue reading “Nights 294 to 338: Rise and Fall”

Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves

The story of ‘Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves’ does not appear in the Calcutta II text. However, since it is one of the more famous tales from The Arabian Nights as popularised by Antoine Gallard, Penguin Classics have seen fit to include it too, at the end of Volume I.

Since there is no extant Arabic text for the story, the version presented here is a rendering of Gallard’s French tale, translated by Ursula Lyons (a distinguished academic who happens to be married to Malcolm Lyons). Continue reading “Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves”

Sunday Images: Rene Bull

Illustration by Rene Bull

Despite the French-sounding first name, René Bull (1872-1942) was Irish. He illustrated a 1912 edition of The Arabian Nights, published by Constable.