719—738 Ardashir and Hayat al-Nufus • 738—756 Julnar of the sea and her son, Badr Basim • 756—778 King Muhammad ibn Saba’ik and Hasan the merchant • 758—778 The story of Saif al-Muluk and Badi al-Jamal
There is a strange theme common to the stories in this section. Each of the three main protagonists we meet—Ardashir, Badr Basim and Saif al-Maluk—all manage to fall in love with someone without having met her. In the first two stories, the princes fall in love with a princess on the basis of reputation alone; in the final story, it takes only an embroidered representation of the woman to capture the man’s heart.
All three princes profess overwhelming love for the princesses they desire, but let us make no mistake—they see these women as trophies to which they are entitled. The women are a means to satisfy male lusts and ambitions, and none of them is loved as the person they are.
Shahrazad knows better than this. Over the course of The Arabian Nights, we’ve been treated to many stories where love is allowed to flourish through courtship, and a few where some form of gallantry or heroism at the root of the relationship. We have also had a generous ration of Love At First Sight.
Lightning Bolt love stories I can handle. Some, like Romeo & Juliet, are even done well, and I’ve enjoyed many of the stories in The Arabian Nights that follow that formula. But Love Before Sight just seems wrong. These tales are not recounting or heightening some actual human experience, but instead a justification for stalking. They excuse forced marriages, and the use of marital unions to forge political ones.
This matters, because in all three stories the entire narrative is in service to this so-called love. And since that feels creepy and false, then the rest of each story is undermined. When the reader has little belief in or respect for the motivations of the main characters, it makes it all the harder to care about the tribulations that they undergo on the way to their goal. The wonderful, exotic moments in all three tales—mer-folk, jewels, jinni—are all for naught.
The first of the three stories centres around Prince Ardashir, and there is something amusing in the way it begins. His father the king sends a marriage proposal on his behalf, requesting the hand of princess Hayat al-Nufus. When her father refuses the match, the king prepares for war. However, Ardashir persuades him otherwise:
When Ardashir came to hear of this, he rose from his bed and went to his father. After kissing the ground before him, he said: ‘Great king, do not put yourself to any trouble over this…’
That comment feels subversive and transformational. Not only does it signal that we are not about to read a story about conquest, but it also signals the ascendance of a more empathetic and pragmatic generation. Although Ardashir’s obsession with Hayat is ridiculous, his diplomatic approach to foreign policy is completely believable.
Ardashir instead makes his way to Iraq and the kingdom of King ‘Abd al-Qadir, in the hope of wooing Hayat directly. At this point, it becomes apparent that the story is exactly the same as that of Taj al-Majuk and Princess Danya (Nights 107 to 137). Ardashir sets himself up as a merchant in the city and uses an old nurse as a courier in an exchange of letters between him and the princess. Hayat, like Dunya before her, threatens her suitor with death if he persists with the correspondence, but he keeps writing anyway.
Of all the things to be annoyed about in this story, I surprise myself by being completely unbothered by the fact that Shahrazad is repeating herself. First of all: anything to prolong her execution, right? But more pertinently, this kind of remix is inherent to The Arabian Nights as a body of stories. The tales presented here have been appropriated and improved upon by generations of authors (this is the focus of Robert Irwin’s introduction to Volume III of the Penguin Classics edition) and throughout this reading, I’ve noted recurring themes as they appear.
The close similarity between the stories of Taj al-Majuk and Ardashir is excusable because of the manner of their eventual divergence. The Ardashir story has a better dénouement, that is far more poetic than the Taj version.
In both stories, the climactic scene takes place in a private, walled garden. The princess is supposed to have total privacy, but her lover/stalker sneaks in, and reveals himself to her. In the earlier iteration of the story, this is all that happens: Taj is sufficiently handsome that Dunya swoons, and reciprocates the love.
The Ardashir story has an additional element, however. This time, Hayat’s antipathy towards men is due to a dream she once had, concerning a female dove, betrayed by her mate. Since then, Hayat has distrusted all men and has refused to get married.
Ardashir and his vizier concoct a clever scheme to overcome this prejudice. They order a mural to be painted onto the wall, depicting Hayat’s dream, and adding to it. The male dove is shown as having been snatched by a falcon, so it wasn’t a betrayal after all.
It’s a satisfying moment of lateral thinking from the vizier, which also raises questions about the influence of dreams over our actions. I thought of the way Sophie and the Giant leverage the power of dreams in Roald Dahl’s The BFG, or the premise of Christopher Nolan’s Inception. More broadly, the episode carries a nice moral about the power of art: maybe it can thaw hearts, when attempts at rationalisation have failed?
The other difference between the two stories is the character of the princess. Dunya is headstrong… but Hayat is out of control. Her angry demeanour is captured perfectly on Night 723:
When the princess had finished reading it, she threw it away, jumped to her feet and, wearing golden slippers studded with pearls and gems, she walked to her father’s palace with a vein standing out so angrily between her eyes that no one dared question her.
Later in the story (Night 734) we hear about her past behaviour:
… and he turned to a eunuch whose molar teeth the princess had pulled out for some reason.
Hayat threatens her nurse with execution too. She is actually a psycho bunny-boiler, and Ardashir’s commitment to love her before spending any time with her is thus rendered all the more ridiculous. It is clear she is not a very nice person, and very different to Ardashir the pacifist.
There’s a telling line, spoken by the nurse to Hayat, on Night 724:
Honour, my lady, is like milk which is spoilt by the smallest bit of dust…
Honour is the central reason why, once Ardashir and Hayat have met, they cannot immediately begin their life together. She worries about the gossips who will ask how she met Ardashir, and whether he is a suitable match. This prompts some confusion and subterfuge as they try to persuade king ‘Abd al-Qadir to agree to the marriage. As with the Taj al-Majuk version, or the love story of Al-Ward and Uns al-Wujud (Night 371), the antagonist is not a person, but a social constraint.
Indeed, when there are actual villains, The Arabian Nights has an unfortunate tendency to make them a little too easy to vanquish. That’s not a hard rule—we cannot forget formidable baddies like Dhat al-Dawi, Gharib’s brother Ajib, or Judar’s awful siblings. But quite often, Shahrazad will set up some adversary, only for her hero to prevail with relative ease.
So it is with the second of the three stories in this sequence, concerning the exploits of Badr Basim. The path to Jauhara, his Princess Whom He Has Never Met, is blocked by her father Samandal, a “savage tyrant with little intelligence” who, incredibly, refuses to consent to the marriage proposal put to him by Badr’s relatives. King Samandal is built up as a serious obstacle to a happy ending, but his forces capitulate to Badr’s family at the earliest opportunity.
Similarly, in a later scene when Badr finds himself captive of a salacious witch, he almost immediately foils her plot to keep him prisoner. It is as if Shahrazad is keen to avoid putting her protagonists into any real peril, and is instead just delivering a kind of ‘fan service’ to Shariyar by allowing the princes to prevail with relative ease. This is a shame, because the magical feud between the witch, and her adversary, the greengrocer, would have benefitted from a longer treatment, in which the outcome was less certain.
The story of Badr Basim plays to the audience in other ways, too. On Night 748, Shahrazad introduces a particularly egregious coincidence in the plot as having been “predestined throughout all eternity.” A few paragraphs later she indulges in some more post-modern storytelling (can you ‘break the fourth wall’ in a book?) by specifically calling out that Badr “was astonished at this remarkable coincidence.”
We have discussed before whether preposterous coincidences are a good thing in literature, but I enjoyed the cosmic scale of the predestination here. I wonder how it would have played in an era that assumed that there was indeed a firm, divine hand on Time’s tiller, guiding our fate? Today, God’s influence is far less certain, and we recognise the role that chance plays in our existence. We are all winners in an evolutionary lottery, seven billion manifestations of wildly improbable luck, predestined ‘throughout all eternity’ to be here, now. I adore the way Shahrazad drops these quick yet profound remarks into her narrative, and the swirling philosophical thoughts they provoke.
The ‘coincidence’ in question is the meeting, on a desert island, between Badr Basim and Princess Jauhara. It is the most surprising part of the tale, but ultimately leads to one if the most regrettable episodes in the entire collection.
So what happens? Well, Jauhara takes refuge from the political turmoil by fleeing to an island and hiding up a tree. But then Badr, “in fear for his own life” escapes to the same island. He sees Jauhara and pledges his love to her. But she upends etiquette, entitlement and expectations… by not falling in love with him! His face like a moon is not enough to win her over.
Mindful of the threat that this entitled creep poses to her well-being, Jauhara initially humours him, and then casts a spell that turns Badr into a bird—The Arabian Nights equivalent of a bottle of mace spray. All this is a refreshing subversion of the established formula, yet entirely in keeping with the story as it is set up.
Regrettably, Jauhara’s rebellion is short-lived. Badr escapes from the bird-spell, and is distracted by the aforementioned witch. Eventually, however, he finds his way back to his family, who by this time have coerced king Samandal into consenting to the marriage. Jauhara has no choice but to enter into the union, but she damns it with her ambivalence.
‘Daughter, know that I have married you to this great king, the mighty lion, King Badr Basim … he is the only suitable husband for you and you are the only suitable wife for him.’ ‘I cannot disobey you, father,’ she said, ‘so do what you want.’
This is not a love story, it’s an imposition. Score one for the patriarchy.
If sexism flourishes in these stories, then at least racism seems to be in retreat. Previously, I’ve noted the few instances where The Arabian Nights tells a story of cross-species romance, and two of the stories here add to the tally. Julnar is ‘of the sea’ and a member of a royal family that lives beneath the waves. What are they? Mer-people? Or Aqua-jinn?
Either way, the ease with which the people of both land and water accept the union of king Shahriman and Julnar in the early part of the tale is pleasing to read—one might have expected that at least someone in Shahriman’s court would sound a note of xenophobic caution, but no-one pipes up.
That’s not the case in the following story when Prince Saif al-Muluk seeks to marry Princess Badi al-Jamal, who is a jinnya. On Night 775, when they are introduced, Badi expresses a commonly held jinn prejudice against humans:
Prince, I am afraid that were I to give myself wholly to you, I would not find in you any love or affection, for there is little good in humankind and a great deal of treachery.
This is just one of several sweeping statements against Saif and his species. A little later, when Saif is captured by a rogue faction, there is much debate among the jinn as to whether it is worth harming their fellows for the sake of a human. It reads as a not-particularly-subtle allegory against real-world xenophobia, against the absurdity of judging someone on their race.
Thankfully, Badi is persuaded of Saif’s goodness and gives him a character reference in front of her father and grandmother. And she would know—how can a man who falls in love with an embroidery be anything other than solid marriage material?
Aside from the bizarre Boy-Meets-Textile coupling, this final tale portrays another deep relationship: a bromance.
Prince Saif has a childhood friend, Sa’id. They were not only born on the same day but conceived on the same day too! These lads become almost-brothers, and when they grow up, Sa’id becomes a confidante and then vizier to the prince. The fact that one of them is royalty and the other is not is never forgotten, but Sa’id nevertheless treats his highborn friend with loving firmness, rather than the fawning deference that sidekicks in The Arabian Nights usually exhibit to anointed princelings. The best line is when Sa’id almost slaps Saif our of his lovesickness:
“But for God’s sake stop this weeping”
Would that we all had a Sa’id in our lives, to shake us out of our funk.
The presence of this wingman seems to keep Saif grounded. It even inspires a less deferential, no-nonsense attitude in other members of Saif’s retinue. “What is the use of that, your majesty? … You have brought this on yourself,” say the mamluks on Night 764, when the prince, having reached a particularly low point in his quest, considers throwing himself into the sea.
Despite all the fantastical happenings and the progressive attitude to race relations, it should be clear that I found these stories to be a thematic and structural disappointment. My final frustration is with how Shahrazad handles the short tale of ‘Hasan the Merchant,’ which frames the story of Saif al-Muluk and Badi al-Jamal.
This is neither a love story or an adventure, but a quest of sorts. The king employs Hasan, a collector of stories, to find him a most extraordinary narrative. Hasan wagers his career on finding it within the year and does so with only a few days to spare. The story in question is Saif’s, which we are then told in its entirety.
What we do not get is any return to Hasan’s story, once the tale of Saif, Sa’id and Badi al-Jamal is finished. One would have thought that a story about stories would be something that The Arabian Nights would revel in. I had hoped for a return to Hasan’s world, and a conclusion in praise of erudition and the value of human imagination. What is it about Hasan’s skills and sensibilities that make him a master storyteller? How does the king change after hearing Saif’s story? We’re left hanging.
- For the avoidance of doubt, when I moaned, above, about Love Before Sight stories, I do not mean stories where two people might strike up a relationship entirely through correspondence. In the Age of the Internet, there are plenty of real-life examples of love happening like that. Instead, I’m talking about ‘relationships’ where one person has only heard about that person second-hand, and where that second person is entirely unaware that the other exists.
- Night 721:
If you want to be obeyed, don’t ask for the impossible.
- Night 745:
He was roasting on the coals of passion.
- Night 741:
“By God,” she replied, “I am enjoying all possible comfort, happiness and dignity and everything I wish for is mine.”
My goodness, that’s boring! Thankfully Shahrazad realises it too, and proceeds to put the characters in deep peril.
- Night 757:
“If you want it, said the storyteller, I shall let you have it for eight hundred dinars, but on five conditions.”
This made me laugh: that’s a lot of conditions.
- Night 759:
“Vizier Faris, the sun is a star…”
Now this is interesting. This is a fact that was by no means settled in the medieval Arab world. Heliocentrism was certainly A Thing, however, and of course we cannot be sure precisely when the sources for the Calcutta II text were actually written, so maybe this is a later insert.