606—624 Judar and his brothers
The tale of ‘Judar and His Brothers’ is a magical mystery tour around North Africa in which monsters and jinn circle themes of power and betrayal. Like many others in the collection, this is a story of several acts, each of a different genre.
It begins with a contested will. Before he dies, Judar’s father divides up his estate four ways, splitting the wealth between his three sons, and a portion for himself and his wife to live off. By doing this in advance of his death, he hopes to stave off any dispute between his sons over their inheritance.
Judar’s father clearly knows that his two other sons have a greedy streak. When he eventually does die, the brothers launch a legal action to get at Judar’s portion of the estate. They waste the time of the qadis and walis and notaries to the extent that, when the case is over, everyone’s assets have been exhausted in legal fees, like an Egyptian Jarndyce v. Jarndyce.
Judar’s brothers repeatedly let him down over the course of the story. Several times he hauls them out of poverty and brings them back into the fold, and every time their jealousy at his decency and assumed ‘head of the family’ status causes them to turn against him. They steal from him, attempt to kill him, and at one point sell him into slavery. The Genesis story of Joseph, who is also sold as a slave by his brothers, is referenced in this tale… but Salim and Saliim never truly repent or reconcile with Judar, as the eleven sons of Jacob do with Joseph.
Previously in The Arabian Nights we have encountered more than one thicker-than-water relationship between siblings, such as the long saga centred around Sharkan, Nuzhat al-Zaman and Dau’al-Malkan. There, the filial love is a motivating character trait, the one thing that can be relied upon with utter certainty, despite calamities elsewhere. There is therefore something deeply disconcerting about a brotherly betrayal, and the unredeemable lack of character exhibited by Judar’s brothers is both exasperating and anger-inducing. To not only bite the hand that feeds, but to reject a brother’s forgiveness and attack him again, is to violate a most sacred bond. That Salim and Saliim also disrespect their mother and insult the memory of their father only underscores that they are a very particular kind of evil. I think they may be worse than the man-eating giant encountered by Sindbad, who only acts according to his nature; and worse than Ali Baba’s Forty Thieves, who at least have an honour code.
After the court case (but before all the other nastiness) the story turns into a mystery. Judar encounters a couple of suicidal Maghribis who dive into a lake and drown, leaving instructions that he can sell their donkeys to a Jewish merchant in the city. These bizarre happenings eventually resolve themselves when a third Maghribi jumps into the lake but resurfaces. He reveals that Judar is fated to be the only person who is able to negotiate an enchanted cavern, and together they set off on a quest to find it and recover the magical treasures within.
The Maghribi (whose name is ‘Abd al-Samad) has clearly done his research, and is able to explain to Judar precisely what challenges await him in the cavern. On seven occasions he will be presented with something ostensibly life threatening. Each threat may be vanquished only by doing the counter-intuitive action—Judar must lay down his defences and invite an attack. The secret is that none of the monsters is real, they are all just tricks of the mind.
The challenge, then, is to overcome fear itself, a popular test for heroes all over popular culture, from the Indiana Jones trilogy, to Stephen King’s It and Madeleine L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time. Fear is arguably the perpetual adversary in Buffy the Vampire Slayer, though it is made explicit in the wonderful Season 4 episode ‘Fear Itself.’ I think also of the famous scene in The Empire Strikes Back, where Luke Skywalker levels up in his Jedi training by confronting an apparition of himself as Darth Vader.
The final hurdle that Judar must overcome is a vision of his mother. She doesn’t attack him, but instead he must demand that she strip naked (at which point she, too, will turn to dust). Whereas Judar is able to hold his nerve against the spectres of rabid lions and angry dæmons, he baulks at the idea of forcing his mother to strip. He fails the challenge, is beaten to within an inch of his life by monsters, and then has to wait a whole year before he can re-take the test.
It’s telling that seeing one’s mother in a state of undress is considered the worst possible ordeal that a man can face. I suppose it would be an embarrassment for anyone in any culture, but Judar’s extraordinarily visceral reaction is something else entirely. It speaks to a deeper unease with women’s bodies.
After a year of waiting, ‘Abd al-Samad is able to once again cast the spell to drain the river and reveal the hidden entrance to the secret cavern. This time Judar swallows his sensibilities, threatens his mother-dæmon, and passes the test. ‘Abd al-Samad is appropriately grateful, and gives him some jewels and two magical saddle-bags that produce whatever food it’s owner wishes for. Judar returns home in triumph… where the gifts are the inspiration for his brothers to betray him into slavery.
While working on the ship to which he has been bound, Judar travels to Suez and then onto Mecca where he once again meets ‘Abd al-Samad. This time, the magician gives our hero an enchanted ring, served by the powerful jinni Ra’d. Judar is almost instantaneously transported home to his family, and deploys the jinni to have his brothers released from the king’s dungeons. As almost an afterthought, Judar also orders Ra’d to empty the king’s coffers (well, we would all do that wouldn’t we?) The jinni then builds a palace for Judar and his family up on a hill above the city, including palatial wings for the errant brothers.
What follows is a short study in power. The king discovers that someone else is strong enough to liberate prisoners dungeons, and steal treasure from his treasury. He quickly realises that his grand title means nothing if he no longer commands a monopoly on the use of force, nor controls the flow of money around the city. King’s and caliphs like to claim that they reign by divine right, but the reality is the far more earth-bound consideration of who can keep control.
There is a humorous segment where an insolent jinni guarding Judar’s palace disperses the army sent to restore order, after which the king and his viziers come to the sensible conclusion that they must pursue an urgent policy of détente. The king engineers a situation where Judar falls in love with and then marries his daughter, which secures the king’s position despite the fact Judar is the more powerful man.
There are moments in this latter part of the story where Judar’s character seems to change. Once he has the ring and control over Ra’d, he does slip into a slightly more arrogant attitude than wouldn’t have been right for the character when he was at his poorest. He refuses to visit the king and instead insists that the king visit him. When the king does visit, he shows no humility or deference. Judar does not become a tyrant, but it’s clear that power afforded by the ring is beginning to erode the decency of the one who wears it (now where have we read that concept before?!)
That said, I don’t think this is a ‘power corrupts’ story at all. The villains of the piece, Judar’s brothers, are as unpleasant and as greedy when they are poor as when they are rich. And both ‘Abd al-Samad and Judar retain their generosity even when in possession of powerful magical artefacts. This story subscribes to the opposite conception of human nature—that some people have an inherent goodness, while others are just wrong ‘uns.
With Judar married, the story appears to be winding down. It then takes a spectacular heel-turn, delivering an unexpected twist. Now we are two thirds of the way through this epic series of stories, I should have been on my guard for something crazy to happen… but it still came as a shock.
When Judar ascends to the throne after his father-in-law dies, his two brothers plan an assassination… and they succeed!
… he was offered food in which poison had been put. When he ate it, his flesh decomposed, and Salim got up to remove the ring from his finger. It would not come off and so Salim took his knife and cut away the finger.
Naturally, the two surviving brothers turn on each other. Once he is in possession of the magical ring, Salim orders Ra’d to kill Saliim, and then assumes the throne himself. He then marries Judar’s widow, the previous king’s daughter, which is a clever manœuvre to establish some kind of regal legitimacy.
The queen is wise to the dastardly ways of her new husband, however. Although barely a character in the earlier scenes of this story, she comes into her own in the final paragraphs, where she refuses to consent to Salim’s wickedness. Instead, she takes matters into her own hands and poisons her new hubby. This delivers, if not a happy ending, then at least a form of justice for Judar.
With all the pretenders and heirs-apparent now dead, the remaining sultans institute a new and progressive system of government, where the people are given a vote on who the next king should be. Democracy in medieval Egypt!
All this draws the story to a positive conclusion, a happy post-Judar chapter for the city, before as Shahrazad moves relentlessly onto something else.
- A magical cave of wonders, into which only a random, designated person can walk; and a magic ring served by a jinn. These are elements from the Aladdin story (and yes, I know that’s not part of the Calcutta II text).