Nights 680 to 719: Delilah Pulls It Off

680—681 ‘Utba and Rayya • 681—682 Hind, daughter of al-Nu’man, and al-Hajjaj • 683—684 Khuzaima ibn Bishr and ‘Ikrima ibn al-Fayyad • 684—685 Yunus al-Katib and Walid ibn Sahl • 685—686 Harun al-Rashid and the young Bedouin girl • 686—687 Al-Asma’i and the three Basran girls • 687—688 Ishaq al-Mausili and his visitor • 688—691 The “Udhri lovers • 691—693 The Bedouin and his faithful wife • 693—695 Harun al-Rashid and the story of the woman of Basra • 695—696 Ishaq al-Mausili and the devil • 696—697 The Medinese lovers • 697—698 Al-Malik al-Nasir and his vizier • 698—708 Dalila the wily • 708—719 The adventures of ‘Ali al-Zaibaq

Another group of shorter stories to conclude Volume II of The Arabian Nights, and they are linked by a strain of protofeminism. At several points in these tales, someone points out that their daughter is not a chattel and will decide for herself whether she marries the handsome hero.

For example, in the story of ‘Utba and Rayya’ on Night 681, there is this:

‘We ask you to give your noble daughter in marriage to ‘Utba ibn al-Hubab ibn al-Mundhir, a well-born man of high repute.’ He replied: ‘My brothers, my daughter, for whose hand you ask, it’s her own mistress, but I shall go in and tell her.’

Or on Night 693 in ‘The Bedouin and his faithful wife’ when the caliph Mu’awiya has to decide whether to grant a man’s petition to remarry the woman he has been tricked into divorcing:

You admit that you divorced her, and Marwan makes the same admission. I shall leave the choice to her.

Yes, I know: the simple assertion that women can make choices for themselves should not be noteworthy, and the collection has plenty of other women with agency. But I don’t remember the idea of chattels (Chattelage? Chattelism? Chattelship?) being so vigorously denied elsewhere in The Arabian Nights. In fact the closest approximation is probably the framing story itself—Shahrazad’s father the vizier cannot prevent her choice to be Shahriyar’s bride-for-the-night:

Father, marry me to this man. Either I shall live or else I shall be a ransom for the children of the Muslims and save them from him.’ ‘By God,’ he exclaimed, ‘you are not to risk your life!’ She insisted that it be done…

More, though: These phrases, and the short tales in which they appear, seem to prepare us for one of the most overtly feminist stories so far encountered in The Arabian Nights, as well as one of the most well-drawn and entertaining characters: Delilah the Wily.

Graffiti in Baghdad
Protest graffiti with a feminist edge, Baghdad

We have heard the name before, all the way back on Night 123. The psychotic lover of Aziz, who enchanted him through a strange sign language, and who eventually castrated him in a fit of jealousy, was called ‘The Daughter of Delilah the Wily.’ That story never explained who Delilah actually was, but her reputation seemed well established—when her name was mentioned, none of the other characters had to ask ‘who?’

Now we know why. Delilah is a talented con-woman who perpetrates grand schemes and heists. She single-mindlessly pursues what she believes she deserves and is unafraid of risking everything in order to get it. By the end of her story, she has become notorious for her exploits and yet is also a prominent public official, put on the caliph’s payroll as the official keeper of the carrier pigeons.

The character of Delilah the Wily is prefigured in three batches of shorter tales that appear earlier in the collection. The first is the group of ‘hustle’ tales that begin on Night 338. Stories of audacious cons and heists, where the trickster always seems to get away with the plot and their ‘marks’ are left chastened at their own gullibility.

The second set of stories that surely inform this one are the tales of cunning that the seven viziers and the concubine begin telling on Night 578. In my Penguin Classics volumes, these stories are collectively labelled as ‘the wiles of women’ (though half are about the wiles of men) and are all about exploitation of credulity and trust.

Finally, the character of ‘wily old woman’ is an archetype we have met before. Dhat Al-Dawi, who caused the spectacular downfall of Sharkan, is the most formidable example, but there have been others. Two spring to mind: the nurse who acts as Taj al-Maluk’s intermediary with Princess Dunya on Night 133, and the ‘elderly duenna,’ who tricked Nu’ma into slavery on Night 237. Delilah embodies these antecedents and is developed into a marvellous, irascible mischief-maker whom the reader cannot help but applaud.

The admiration comes despite the slightly cruel victimisation of her innocent targets. She has swashbuckling aplomb that is too amusing not to like, and we readers find ourselves excusing the sociopathic behaviour, and rooting for the criminal. We too have been tricked.

Delilah’s schemes are quite ingenious. She picks on several people simultaneously, and fools them into thinking that each of the others is something they are not, which in turn prompts them to entrust her with things that she steals: keys to their shop, money, jewels and, finally, an actual baby.

In this way Delilah leverages her way into new situations and accumulates wealth for herself. Her idea is that proving her audaciousness will also prove her worthy of service to the caliph, and he will grant her a standing equivalent to the two powerful men who control the security forces of Baghdad.

The most hilarious scene is when she is apprehended and hauled to the wali’s chambers. The men she has conned are right behind her, ready to make complaints and see justice done. But the wali is not at home, and Delilah manages to convince his wife that the men accompanying her are mamluks for sale.

After more high-jinx of this nature, Delilah amasses the money she has promised herself she would acquire, proves her point and gets her audience with the caliph. Perhaps thankful that she has exposed the city’s current policing arrangements as inadequate, he pays-off those she has wronged. He then grants her the position of postmaster, which she had coveted since the start of the story. Delilah ‘wins’ at the expense of the bumptious armed chiefs of the left flank and right flank, and she retires to rear her carrier pigeons.

I am hesitant to talk too deeply about feminism when I am not particularly well-versed in the theory, but this feels like an an unusually feminist text within The Arabian Nights. To wit: Delilah and her daughter Zainab are very much in control of their own fate, and are the unchallenged heroes of their own story. There is no male to offer deliverance, or even to really motivate their actions. Marriage is not a goal of either woman and they make no sacrifice to that end. No-one is a sex worker. There have been plenty of stories in the collection that feature some of these elements, but I can’t remember others that feature all of them. The story of ‘Delilah the Wily’ passes the Bechdel-Wallace Test in an anthology where most of the other tales do not.

More, though: Delilah’s schemes succeed because she recognises the prejudices and expectations of the society in which she lives, and leverages those expectations against her targets. The idea of a female super-villain is unthinkable to those she encounters, and so she avoids suspicion for far longer than one might expect. She subverts the culture in which she is embedded, which feels magnificent even as we recoil at some of her more outrageous actions.

Our eponymous heroine, and her daughter Zainab, actually appear in two separate stories that Shahrazad tells back-to-back. The direct sequel to ‘Delilah the Wily’ takes place soon after the first story concludes, and picks up the lives of many of the same characters. Not only Delilah and Zainab, but her foils, Ahmad al-Danaf and Hasan Shuman.

There have been many recurring characters in The Arabian Nights, in particular caliph Harun al-Rashid and his vizier Jaf’ar. But all those tales feel quite self-contained and do not reference each other. By contrast, ‘The Adventures of ‘Ali al-Zainaq’ read as part of the same literary universe as the previous story and also, I now realise, that of ‘Ala’ al-Din Abu’-Shamat. That tale also features Ahmad al-Danaf who is just as dodgy in this tale as he was when we first met him, on Night 260.

This time, the central character is ‘Ali al-Zainaq, a notorious thief and protegé of al-Danaf. Full of ennui in Cairo, ‘Ali hears that his erstwhile chief is now responsible for policing throughout the city of Baghdad. So he travels back to his former stomping grounds, where he encounters Zainab. She seduces and then robs him, which of course is an aphrodisiac to a trickster like ‘Ali. Further adventures ensue as he tries to impress Zainab with escalating feats of thievery. Here, again, we find an assertion of a woman’s self-ownership (Night 714):

‘He wants you to marry him to your daughter, Zainab.’ ‘I’ve no power over her except through her own good will,’ Delilah replied …

These linked tales are made by the many humanising touches. It not just that Delilah and Zainab are feisty women, but that all the central characters are complex and ambiguous. Some are corrupt, others are incredulous, and no-one is either totally pure or totally wicked. This adds a layer of intrigue and suspense to both stories. During the battle of wits with the fishmonger and gang-leader Zuraiq (a sort of Baghdadi William Cutting) I genuinely had no idea whether he or ‘Ali would prevail. Likewise in Delilah’s story, I was never sure whether Shahrazad would really give her character a happy ending, or just have her thrown in a dungeon.

This is what happens when characters frequent the underworld. Delilah and ‘Ali’s place is alongside Fagin and the Artful Dodger, Tony Soprano and Walter White, who can entertain in spite of the terrible things they do. The great storytelling virtue of anti-heroes is that resolution of their stories can go ‘either way.’

Illustration by Errol Le Cain
Illustration by Errol Le Cain

But the most interesting and instructive thing about ‘The Adventures of ‘Ali al-Zainaq’ is how it fails – by abandoning the tight intrigue of a small set of characters, and introducing someone from an entirely different genre of storytelling. As part of his dowry hunt, ‘Ali must acquire the robe of Qamar, the daughter of a sorcerer named ‘Adhra The Jew. He lives in an invisible magic castle, and before this episode of the story ends, ‘Ali has been turned into first a donkey and then a dog, in which form he is sold to a merchant. Thankfully merchant’s daughter knows a little magic herself, and is able to undo the spell.

I think this episode of the story derails itself four times (if that is metaphorically possible).

The first failure is to slip into some pretty grim anti-semitism: Qamar kills her father ‘Adhra because he will not convert to Islam. The story celebrates this act.

Secondly, ‘Ali ends up marrying: Qamar; the merchant’s daughter; her slave; and finally Zainab. In fulfilling his dowry quest in order to marry his beloved, ‘Ali acquires three extra wives. That’s just ridiculous and regressive, and it undermines Zainab’s character. The woman we came to know in earlier scenes would never have accepted the additional fiancées, and would have instead told ‘Ali where to stick his cloak.

As well as the regressive themes, the story also has structural problems. My third complaint is how the set-up of the story is abandoned. In every previous challenge, ‘Ali prevails due to his own cunning. He thinks up some scam or scheme to beat his adversaries. So it is deeply unsatisfying for the peril of story to be overcome whilst ‘Ali is a dog, all because a supporting character decided (for her own reasons) to commit patricide.

My final complaint is that magic is a part of this story at all. In the earlier sections of the tale, ‘Ali uses ingenious disguises and physical contraptions to get close to whatever it is he is trying to steal.

He killed a lamb and drained its blood, after which he removed and cleaned at intestine, tying up its rump and filling it with blood … As ‘Ali sat down, he leaned against the intestine, which broke open, spilling the blood out between his legs. ‘Oh my side, oh my back,’ he groaned, and the donkey man turned and saw the stream of blood. ‘What’s wrong with you, my lady?’ He asked, and ‘Ali, in his character as a woman, said: ‘I’ve miscarried.’

There is something corporeal about ‘Ali’s story as established. It is set in a world of tangibles. So incredibly, a magic, invisible castle actually deflates the narrative.

I would have totally enjoyed a story about an evil magician, who eliminates enemies by turning them into animals. And I would have even embraced the same ending: Such a powerful villain would probably have to be undone by a change of heart from someone on the inside—a family betrayal. But there is no need for any of that in the dirty, corrupt, human version of Baghdad inhabited by ‘Ali, Ahmad al-Danaf and Delilah. It should have been a sub-story, told by ‘Ali at a moment of mid-heist peril, to distract his victims and buy some time.

Stray observations

  • There is an interesting poem ‘game’ on Night 686. A woman is challenged on her authorship of some lines of verse, and asked by the caliph to ‘keep the sense but change the rhyme at the end.’ She does this several times over. This is one of those times where I would dearly love be able to read the verses in the original Arabic.
  • On Night 681 the ill-fated boy in the love story has a brilliantly long name, detailing his ancestry.

He told me to sit down, and when I had he said: ‘I am ‘Itba ibn al-Hubab ibn al-Mundhir ibn al-Jammuh al-Ansari.

I also have my grandfather’s name in my name, but it feels less grand somehow.

  • An intriguing simile on Night 701:

… a man like a taro knife, splitting both males and females alike …

I think a taro knife is a Japanese cleaver.

  • In the Burton translation, the Delilah story is titled ‘The Rogueries of Dalilah the Crafty and Her Daughter Zaynab the Coney-catcher’ which is very cool.
  • With Delilah’s pardon by the caliph, I am reminded of the true-life story of Colonel Thomas Blood, who mounted an attempt to steal the Crown Jewels from the Tower of London in 1671. When he was arrested he refused to answer to anyone but the king. Charles II, amused by the swashbuckling, pardoned him and granted him lands in Ireland. Delilah is similarly rewarded for committing multiple felonies with aplomb.
Colonel Thomas Blood
Colonel Thomas Blood
  • A tenuous connection, but Delilah’s wanderings through the narrow streets of the city made me think of Paul Auster’s novella City of Glass (1985). Delilah’s victims follow her through the busy streets of Baghdad, confused about her identity and, eventually, their own. This is a feint echo of the way Daniel Quinn, the protagonist of Auster’s story, is drawn into the mystery of the reclusive Peter Stillman and his apparently abusive father, but ends up mad and naked in someone else’s house…. just like poor Hasan, the young merchant.
  • There is a scene on Night 712 where ‘Ali is hiding in a well, and members of the household think it has been possessed by an ifrit. ‘Go and fetch four Quran scholars to recite the Quran at it …’ That turn of phrase, to recite religious verse ‘at’ something, amuses me.
  • Night 714 provides a sobering counter to the feminist aspects I noted above:

Zeinab was delighted, as the fact that ‘Ali had not raped her had made her love him

That shit is fucked up and bullshit.

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