Nights 624 to 680: Class and Crusades

624—680 ‘Ajib and Gharib

This story intrigues from the get-go. The first character to be introduced is ‘Ajib, who benefits from the ‘standard’ upbringing afforded to heroes of the The Arabian Nights. The checklist: First, be the son of a king. Then enjoy a long period of feminine nurture, followed by intense and sustained one-to-one tuition from the best scholars of the age. Finally, embark on a programme of combat training until you become an accomplished warrior. ‘Ajib hits all these marks and is set up as yet another cookie-cutter prince, who will undoubtedly find his very own princess with a face-like-the-moon. But then…

The biggest twist in this particular tale comes not near its end, but right at the start. Despite his privilege and the lofty expectations of both his father and the reader, ‘Ajib breaks bad.

Before his twentieth year he had surpassed all his contemporaries in every skill, and with his mastery of all the techniques of warfare he became a refractory devil, headstrong and tyrannical.

Earlier in my recaps, I stated with confidence that “The Arabian Nights is a collection that establishes tropes, not one that subverts them.” The character of ‘Ajib demonstrates that this is simply not true, as the apparent golden boy becomes a patricidal menace and the antagonist of the story.

After the fake-out is revealed, we are introduced to the true hero of the piece. Gharib is the half-brother of ‘Ajib, but born out of wedlock to a concubine and thus of much lower social standing. When ‘Ajib kills their father and seizes the throne, he sends Gharib and his mother away, ordering his servants to murder them. However, the hired-help get cold feet, and they usher Gharib and his mother into the forest. There they are discovered by a Bedouin tribe, who take the fugitives under their wing. Gharib grows up under the protection of king Mirdas, with whom Gharib’s mother has another baby, Sahim.

Just as ‘Ajib’s heroic trajectory beers wildly off course, Gharib’s story also slips off the pre-ordained path. A more conventional plot would be for Gharib find easy favour with a princess, and ‘marry up’ (in this case, to Mirdas’s daughter Mahdiya). But once again the usual story is subverted. Instead of showing enthusiasm for such a marriage, as other kings in The Arabian Nights would do, king Mirdas tries to stop it from happening.

His attitude is emblematic of the theme of class prejudice that runs through this story. The choices made, because of the (irrational) aversion to having Gharib in the family, are what ignite the wars. And I fancy that this animosity begins to affect Gharib’s character too, warping his choices and motivations.

Twice in this saga, Gharib encounters beautiful women whom he wishes to marry. On both occasions, the girl’s father seeks to undermine the suitor-protagonist, by setting an apparently impossible military task as a condition for the marriage.

The first of these is Mirdas’s request that Gharib defeat the giant man-eater Sa’dan and his five sons. The expectation is that Gharib will simply be eaten, and Mirdas will be free of the social awkwardness that Gharib’s proposal has created. But of course, Gharib overcomes the odds and the expectations, and not only gets the better of Sa’dan in combat, but succeeds in converting him to Islam. From then on Sa’dan the ghul becomes a powerful ally in future wars (of which there are many).

Illustration by Albert Letchford
The History of Gharib and his Brother Ajib — They hastened to skin the Infidel and roasted him and brought him to the Ghul, who ate his flesh and crunched his bones.

A little later, Gharib frees a Persian princess from Sa’dan’s dungeons and returns her safely to her father, king Sabur. He visits this king and asks to marry her too. Her father is indebted to Gharib after the rescue, yet he also baulks at the prospect of this hero as his son-in-law.

‘My son,’ Sabur replied, ‘I want neither money or treasures from you, and the only bride price I shall accept is the head of al-Jamraqan, the king of al-Dasht and ruler of al-Ahwaz.’ Gharib replied: ‘I shall go to fetch my men and then I shall march against this enemy and ravage his lands.’ ‘May you receive a good reward,’ said Sabur, after which the people dispersed, high and low alike, while Sabur thought that if Gharib set out against al-Jamraqan he would never come back again.

In neither case does the king in question come right out and say that they just don’t want the son of a concubine to marry their daughter. Instead they concoct schemes of conquest, so they do not have to say anything to his face. These cowardly rejections drive the rest of the story, setting off a domino rally of battles. Some defeated kings join Gharib in his campaign, swelling the army. While others (including, eventually, ‘Ajib himself) flee to neighbouring kingdoms where they raise new armies. The war is never truly over and Gharib and his allies are forced to keep fighting in order to survive.

I say ‘forced’ but it really doesn’t take much provocation for Gharib to raise his standard. Initially, he wages war at the request of the kings he wishes to impress. But after a while, when he has taken a throne or two, the conquest takes on a life of its own. By conquering one city after another, and by converting successive rulers and warriors to Islam, it is as if Gharib has something to prove. They do not think I am good enough he seems to be saying. Perhaps one more conquered city-state will change their minds?

Illustration by Rene Bull
Illustration by Rene Bull

But minds will not be changed. The prejudices remain and are laid bare in later scenes. The taunts thrown at Gharib by his evil half-brother are laden with classist distain.“Arab dog,” says ‘Ajib on Night 662, “vilest of all those who knock in tent pegs, do you dare to vie with kings?” This, after Gharib has subdued most of Arabia.

The Indian prince Ra’d Shah has a similar attitude. “Wood carrier, vilest of the Arabs, have you become so mighty that you capture kings and champions? Dismount, allow your hands to be tied, kiss my foot and set free my champions.” No-one can countenance the rise of this upstart.

At some point though, after the fifth or sixth iteration of essentially the same battle scene, one begins to think that Gharib has lost touch with whatever point he was trying to prove, or whatever dowry sub-quest he was trying to complete. Sure, he might send trusted generals off to open up a new battlefront, but sooner or later he arrives on the field to rally the troops and play a proactive part in the slaughter. He becomes a fiery bundle of perpetual war.

He even forgets the women for whom he started the fighting. When Sabur’s daughter Fakir Taj appears on the scene, Mahdiya is forgotten… and when Kaukab al-Sabah, daughter of the vanquished Blue King is spotted, Gharib forgets Fakir Taj too. But no matter: once he has married Kaukab al-Sabah in the land of the jinn (it’s unclear whether she is a jinnya or human) she never returns to the story. Gharib heads back to the land of humans, where he resumes his crusade.

And ‘crusade’ is the perfect word here. Because as well as being a war of revenge, and a war against the snobs, Gharib’s decades-long campaign is also a religious war. Early in the story, Gharib himself adopts Islam and then, once any given enemy is vanquished, he gives them the chance to convert too. Those that see that Gharib’s religion is correct asks what they must say “in order to join the ranks for the faithful.” Gharib tells them that they must say “there is no god but the God of Abraham, the friend of God,” and Shazam! They are bona fide Muslims in their heart.

Well, I affirm that I absolutely loathe these parts of the story. It’s not that, as a non-Muslim, I struggle to ‘identify’ with this aspect, or anything like that. It is rather that the insta-conversion of each warrior, along with thousands of their loyal soldiers, seems wholly insincere. Reciting a special formula should be the sacred and sombre culmination of a personal spiritual journey, not something that is presented as an Islam-or-Death choice in the immediate aftermath of an exhausting pitched battle.

In my view, such ultimatums trivialise and insult the religion. Gharib ends up running a kind of religious Ponzi scheme, where the warriors he has converted in previous battles pledge their loyalty and their soldiers to him. Granted, converting your former opponents wholeheartedly to the cause is a clever way to build an army from nothing. But there are no mutineers or discontent soldiers in the ranks of the converted, which doesn’t really ring true. Co-opting so many soldiers should be rather more of a challenge than it appears here, even with strict feudal hierarchies in place.

Oh, and then there’s this on Night 643:

… he offered the thirty thousand whom he had captured in the first battle conversion to Islam and the chance of the company. Twenty thousand accepted, and the ten thousand who refused were put to death.

That’s a blatant war crime by modern standards and would have been an unconscionable atrocity in any era. Yet it is presented here as obviously the normal thing to do. By the end of the story Gharib has become a tyrannical, fundamentalist zealot.

The emphasis on the religious dynamic between Gharib’s Muslims and the opposing fire-worshippers is also, in my view, a sacrilege against the art of good storytelling. Just as with the battles between Sharkan’s army and the infidel Byzantine army that begins on Night 90, it is theologically impossible for the Muslims to be defeated. This drains the excitement out of the narrative, and what we are left with is a kind of military procedural.

Modern fantasy stories benefit from a different approach. In popular epics like Lord of the Rings or Game of Thrones, we very often see the heroic forces squaring off against a superior evil force and come close to defeat. The reversal of fortune, when it comes, is down to an external intervention; usually the culmination of some other sub-plot. So for example, at the moment when the city of Minas Tirith is about to be overcome by the forces from Mordor, The One Ring is destroyed all the way over at Mount Doom, and that gives Gondor forces an edge. Or: At the moment when Jon Snow’s army is surrounded by Ramsey Bolton’s men, the Knights of the Vale show up with Sansa Stark to tip the balance of the Battle of the Bastards. While we can reasonably expect the goodies to prevail in such stories, the outcome is never pre-ordained. By contrast, the Muslims never look like losing, because Allah has his thumb on the scales.

To be fair to this tale, a more sophisticated ‘eleventh hour’ triumph does sort of happen during one of the battles. On Night 659, Gharib has been off with the jinn while his allies defend their bases. At the moment of peril, he returns with some weapons-grade marids who rout the enemy. Here we can see the embryo of modern adventure thrillers, and I suppose that counts for something.

Despite my view that the story of ‘Ajib and Gharib fails on the macro-level of storytelling, it still has plenty of fine passages.

Streams of blood poured out; clearly marked patterns appeared on the ground and men’s hair turned white on the fury and the heat of battle.

The battle scenes themselves are usually well drawn, and full of detail that put the reader onto the field.

Both sides armed, with their good swords along from their shoulders and their brown lances tucked against their thighs. They mounted their short-haired horses, which struck sparks from their hooves, and drew up in ranks like a flooding sea…

The ‘flooding sea’ comparison is used extensively throughout the fight scenes, and evokes perfectly the arrival of an army so big it is almost a force of nature. It’s such a reliable metaphor, in fact, that Shahrazad uses it over and over again to describe subsequent military clashes. It is in these passages that the medieval stories of The Arabian Nights seem closest to modern literature. Likening an angry crowd of soldiers to an angry sea would not be out of place in a book written in the twenty-first century.

Nor, for that matter, would it be out of place in the 8th Century BC! Comparing an oncoming army to an incoming tide is something that also appears in The Iliad (and is the subject of a marvellous analysis in The New Yorker of differing styles of translation, written by Daniel Mendelsohn). Has Shahrazad been borrowing clichés from Homer?

Either way, the comparison is developed further in the descriptions of subsequent battles. By Night 663 the collisions are seismic:

The two armies then charged each other like the meeting of twin seas or two mountains clashing, while the dust rose up in the sky.

Shahrazad may have a way with metaphor, but she seems less skilled at bringing an epic to a satisfying conclusion. The dénouement to this military saga is not quite as abrupt as that of the tale of King ‘Umar ibn al-Nu’man (which I moaned about during the recap for Nights 90 to 145), but I still feel rather cheated out of a cathartic, protracted comeuppance for ‘Ajib.

Everything is tee’ed up for a climactic duel. ‘Ajib is defeated on the battlefield more than once, and usually abandons his allies in their fight when he realises that the tide of the battle (see what I did there?) has turned against him. Eventually, he is captured and, as with the other defeated kings and generals, Gharib offers his brother the chance to convert to Islam (Night 666). ‘Ajib refuses, and the story moves swiftly on to his demise.

Sahim fetched iron hooks, which were attached to the tendons of ‘Ajib’s heels, and he was hung up on the gate before being shot full of arrows on Gharib’s orders until he had become like a hedgehog.

We hear nothing more from ‘Ajib. No grudging acknowledgement of his defeat, or last-minute contrition. We certainly see no sense of mercy from Gharib. He is all revenge.

Following the execution, the story surprises us again, by… continuing. We are introduced to an entirely new roster of bad guys, lead by Siran the Sorcerer, who is intent on smiting Gharib’s rise and the spread of Islam. They are far more powerful and competent than ‘Ajib ever was. Rather than attacking Gharib directly on the battlefield, Siran uses marids and magic to drug him and kidnap him. They are even strategic enough to try to fake an accident, so Gharib’s allies among the jinn will not exact retribution.

So begins Gharib’s long absence from his people. Having been thrown into the water, he is rescued by a ship and, hilariously, begins immediately berating them for worshipping false idols. He may be an accomplished warmonger but he is completely useless at ‘soft power.’

As a consequence of this tin-eared haranguing the sailors clap him in irons and throw him into the hold. When the ship arrives at its homeport, he is sentenced to an auto da fé in front of their idol.

At this point, we are introduced to a curious and I think unique storytelling mode. The focus of the action shifts away from Gharib in the idol room, and when his captors return, he has vanished. Night 673 becomes, momentarily, a mystery. How was the idol destroyed? Where has the prisoner gone?

There are only couple of paragraphs of recriminations about all this, during which a vizier loses his head, before Shahrazad says “there is a strange explanation for the disappearance of Gharib and the idol” (clue: it involves marids). It is a short passage in a long epic, but it is structurally very different to the rest of this story. Moreover, I don’t remember such a doubling back of the narrative occurring anywhere else in the collection. It is a classic modern storytelling trick, the opposite of in media res. Here it is unsophisticated, a sort of proto-whodunnit. But it nevertheless adds to the intrigue of the scene and certainly makes the episode better.

Stray observations

  • Plenty of LOLs at this passage on Night 640:

    He said: ‘Damn you, where is my prisoner?’ They replied: ‘when you rode out we went with you, as you hadn’t told us to guard him.’

    The story becomes, suddenly and briefly, a comedy.

  • The gore! Night 641:

    How many heads were severed and throats cut; how many hands and spines were slashed through; how many knees and sinews were crushed; and how many men, old and young alike, were slaughtered!

  • The jinn prince dies on Night 650 like this: “As soon as he said this, he gave up the ghost.” This feels like a very modern turn of phrase from Malcolm Lyons. Richard Burton says “Hardly had he made an end of these words, when his soul departed”
  • The line “shot full of arrows until he looked like a hedgehog” is… weird. As well as the description of ‘Ajib’s death on Night 666, the same fate befalls al-Jaland on Night 649. Burton translates the passage as “and Gharib bade them shoot him; so they riddled him with arrows, till he was like unto a porcupine.” This and the ‘soul departed’ line above are rare examples where I prefer Burton’s flowery choice to the Lyons version.
  • Al-Mahiq, the sword with a name!

    ‘This was the sword of Jalpeth, Noah’s son, which he used to fight against both men and jinn. It was forged by Jardum the wise, who inscribed on the back Great Names of God, and were it to strike a mountain, the mountain would be destroyed.’

    This is a tradition that crosses time and culture. There are hundreds of named swords in fantasy and historical fiction. King Arthur has Excalibur; The Lord of the Rings has Andúril and Sting; A Song of Ice and Fire has Longclaw, Oathkeeper, Needle and more; and Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon has Green Destiny. In all cases, a particular sword is crucial to the protagonists’ success.

    Jedi lightsabers are nameless but we might include them too—they carry symbolic and psychological power as well as being useful thing to have in a fight.

  • Gharib stumbles upon a city on Night 675:

    The name of the queen was Jan Shah. She was 500 years old and every man who came into the city was brought before her, after which she would take him and lie with him, killing him when he had finished her business. In this way she had slaughtered great numbers of men.

    It will have escaped no-one’s notice that this is mirror of Shahriyar’s atrocities. I wonder what he thinks of this storytelling nugget that Shahrazad drops into her narration?

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