Nights 566 to 606: Memento Mori

566—578 The City of Brass • 578—606 The wiles of women: the king and his seven viziers • 578—579 The story of the king and the wife of his vizier • 579 The story of the merchant and his parrot • 579 The story of the fuller and his son • 580 The story of the chaste wife • 580—581 The story of the mean man and the bread • 581 The story of the woman and her two lovers • 581—582 The story of the prince and the ghula • 582 The story of the honey • 582 The story of the wife who made her husband sieve dirt • 582—583 The story of the enchanted spring • 584 The story of the vizier’s son and the wife of the bath keeper • 584—585 The story of the wife who cheated her husband • 586—587 The story of the goldsmith and the Kashmiri singing girl • 587—590 The story of the man who never laughed again • 591—592 The story of the prince and the merchant’s wife • 592 The story of the page who pretended to understand the speech of birds • 593—596 The story of the woman and her five would-be lovers • 596 The story of the three wishes • 596—597 The story of the stolen necklace • 597 The story of the two doves • 597—598 The story of Prince Bahram and Princess al-Datma • 598—602 The story of the old woman and the merchant’s son • 602 The story of the ‘ifrit’s beloved • 603—604 The story of the merchant and the blind old man • 605 The story of the lewd man and the three-year-old child • 605—606 The story of the stolen purse and the five-year-old child

More than once in these weekly recaps, I’ve noted that the inescapability of death is a recurring theme in The Arabian Nights. Shahrazad ends most of her stories not with ‘happily ever after’ but a reminder that everyone is visited by Death, the Destroyer of Delights. A few weeks ago I noted a poem among the stories that seems to prefigure Shelley’s ‘Ozymandias.’ And way back on Night 13 I underlined this stanza:

No-one holds the caliphate forever;
If you do not agree, where is the first caliph?
So plant the shoots of virtuous deeds,
And when you are deposed, no-one will depose them.

Beginning on Night 566, the story of ‘The City of Brass’ gives full expression to this sentiment. A quest party, led by the emir Musa ibn Nusair and the wise old shaikh ‘Abd al-Samad, are sent on a mission by their caliph to discover a cache of bottled jinn. On their travels, a jinni trapped in a column of marble (more about him in a moment) directs them to the titular city.

City of Brass
They came to the chief market-place … and found all its shops open … and they beheld the merchants sitting on the shop-boards dead.

The descriptions of the city’s architecture are among the most lavish and detailed in The Arabian Nights:

Musa entered the palace, where he saw a large chamber with four large rooms, lofty and wide, each facing the other, multi-coloured and adorned with gold and silver. In the centre was a large marble fountain covered with a canopy of brocade, while the rooms had alcoves, in each of which was an ornamental fountain with a marble basin and a stream of water coming from below them, the four streams flowing together into a large pool of variegated marble.

But among the finery lies… death.

In the palace halls were ivory benches overlaid with glistening gold and silks on which lay men whose flesh had dried on their bones.

The City of Brass is devoid of life. The Queen lies embalmed in a chamber full of jewels, while the ordinary citizens appear to have laid down and died in their homes or at their work posts.

The descriptions of the city streets are reminiscent of the ‘abandoned space station’ trope of science fiction. A popular set-up for episodes of Doctor Who and Star Trek, and for films in the Alien film franchise, the heroes have to work out where everyone went, or why everyone died. In those stories, there is usually some kind of recorded message which hints at a nasty disease or monster, but in ‘The City of Brass’ this function is performed by the many engravings, testifying to the hubris of kings and the folly of human grandeur:

Where are the builders of these lofty towers,
With their chambers that have no match?
They gathered armies, fearing to be abased
By God’s decree, but still they were brought low
Where are the Chosroes with their strong fortresses?
They left the lands and it is as though they had never been.

There is a strong implication that the people of the city have died of starvation, but it is never made clear exactly why they all stopped eating and chose to die where they stood. Perhaps they all read the engravings put there by their monarch, and starved themselves in despair? The messages do convey a philosophical perspective that could induce widespread, fatal ennui. Even reading the words myself prompted the nodding thought that life is fleeting and pointless, a feeling I had to slap out of myself as soon as I recognised it. Perhaps the ancient people of the City of Brass were not psychologically inoculated to such a potent meme?

At several points in this reading of The Arabian Nights, I have noted with amusement the exaggerated, exponentially large armies and domestic staff operated by the famous kings. ‘The City of Brass’ has those moments too, but with a somber, nihilistic twist. Here, the opulence only serve to underline the central point made by the despairing author: numbers and riches don’t matter, we’re all dead in the long-run.

‘The City of Brass’ also contains an account of a war between a splinter group of jinn and the forces of King Solomon. The ‘ifrit imprisoned in the stone column was the leader of the dissident forces, and he describes his rebellion against Solomon’s God-given dominion over all of earth’s creatures.

This is one of those stories where the modern reader’s sympathies fall out of sync with those of the original audience. Although the story of the war is told from the ifrit’s point of view, he narrates with regret and contrition. The account is therefore sympathetic to King Solomon’s position, and his decision to imprison the disobedient jinn in sealed bottles is presented as understandable and rational.

To my mind, however, Solomon’s actions appear unimaginably cruel and vindictive act of a conquering tyrant. There is scant suggestion that the ‘ifrit or his followers were particularly evil, or that they were hoping to vanquish Solomon and his kingdom. Instead, they were simply seeking self-determination and freedom. Solomon crushes the uprising, and devises his cruel and unusual punishment for the rebels, but the story fails to pass a negative judgment upon him for doing so. How can it, when it is firmly established that Solomon is God’s representative on earth, and the uncompromising suppression of dissent has been done in His name?

After ‘The City of Brass’ the second long story in this sequence is ‘The King and His Seven Viziers,’ a lengthy exploration of the wiles of men and women. It begins with a failed seduction—One of the king’s favourite concubines tries it on with his son… who is having none of it. Aware that she is in mortal trouble for this transgression, the woman seeks to turn the situation to her advantage by accusing the prince of trying to seduce her. The angry king therefore orders his son’s execution.

We’ve seen this kind of duplicity before: when the two wives of Qamar al-Zaman tried and failed to seduce their respective step-sons, back on Night 219, I noted just how unhelpful such stories are for human culture… and that it is a desperately counter-productive storytelling mode for Shahrazad to slip into.

That said, the nature of this particular story means that half of the sub-stories narrated within this frame are those that cast women in a good light, and men as the seducers or deceivers. So maybe from the point of view of Shahrazad and Shahriyar it evens itself out. Over seven days, the seven viziers tell stories in an attempt to prevent the execution of the prince, only for the embattled woman to narrate a rejoinder to each, resetting the king’s resolve. Thus she hopes to save her own skin before the prince emerges from a self-imposed vow of silence, an implicates her. The effect is a sort of storytelling tennis, but with lives at stake.

The best and funniest sub-stories here are those in the farce style, where a quick-witted adulterer juggles various husbands and lovers in and out of bedrooms and cupboards. On Night 581, a woman is surprised by her lover while she is two-timing him with a pageboy. She hides the boy in a chest and begins to entertain her lover. Then her husband arrives home too, but she concocts and ingenuous story whereby all of the men remain ignorant of the fact that their relationship with her is not exclusive.

These sorts of stories exist in the English folk tradition too. ‘The Cunning Cobbler’ gets into a similar embarrassing situation in the bedroom of someone else’s wife.

I also very much enjoyed the short ‘Story of the Honey’ that starts a war between two villages. A drop of honey causes files to gather, which in turn causes birds to congregate to eat the flies. A shopkeeper’s cat pounces on the birds, but then a hunter’s dog kills the cat. The shopkeeper therefore kills the dog, and so the hunter takes revenge by killing the shopkeeper. This kicks off the wider conflict between the two villages. Small actions can have large and catastrophic consequences. I’m reminded of the poem ‘A Horseshoe Nail’ in which a lost horseshoe leads to the loss of the horse, the rider, the army, the battle and the war, “all for the want of a horseshoe nail,” which I have always thought is a useful analogy for the way our political rights are eroded, and the way that unthinkable political events can not only happen, but come to be seen as inevitable.

It can escape no reader’s notice that the way in which the seven viziers and the concubine tell their tales is similar to the way in which Shahrazad herself is narrating to save her life (last week I made the same observation in relation to the Sindbad cycle too). The fractal-like nature of The Arabian Nights is taken to an extreme on Night 602, where were hear a story of a promiscuous woman who collects a ring from each of her many lovers. Sound familiar? That’s because it’s part of the framing story that precedes the first night! Shahrazad, through the character of the seventh vizier, is telling Shahriyar his own story. For a moment I thought that she would also introduce a character similar to herself, and we would disappear into another thousand and one nights within The Thousand And One Nights. Regrettably, she does not step outside the bounds of the tale of the woman with the rings, but it’s still a marvellous self-referential scene and perhaps the most dizzying moment in The Arabian Nights so far.

Stray observations

  • In a throwaway scene near the end of ‘The City of Brass,’ Musa and his entourage are served a feast by a tribe wearing ‘leather loincloths’:

    Musa presented the king with a great many splendid gifts, while for his part he gave Musa some extraordinary sea creatures that looked like humans, telling him that the guest provision for the three days of his stay would consist of their flesh …

    Later, the mermaids—for that is what they are—are placed in wooden troughs of water, “but the heat was too much for them and they died.” WTAF?! Boiling live lobsters is considered by many people to be unnecessary cruelty, and doing the same to mermaids is desperately fucked up.

  • Amid the boisterous and farcical tales of philandering husbands and wives, a story on Night 579 about a woman whose adultery is revealed by a parrot:

    He immediately went to his wife and cut her throat, swearing to himself that as long he lived he would never marry again.

    Sometimes, the dark misogyny that bubbles through most of these stories bursts out in a jolting moment like this one.

  • Buried in the tales told by the concubine (Night 597) is the story of al-Datma, a princess who challenges potential suitors to a duel and then, when she beats them, carves an insult into their foreheads, which is pretty badass.
  • I had intended to recap the following story, ‘Judar and his Brothers’ within this post, but it is quite long and complex. So I shall post that as an additional recap.

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