The Giving of Gifts

738—756 Julnar of the sea and her son, Badr Basim • 758—778 The story of Saif al-Muluk and Badi al-Jamal

It’s rare to encounter any kind of caliph, king or nobleman in The Arabian Nights without a scene in which they give an excessive gift. Whether its a caseload of dinars or a fine robe, the kingly characters share their wealth liberally with those who please them.

There’s a particularly extravagant example on Night 761:

The eunuch hurried off joyfully and found the king alone, with his hand to his cheek, brooding over the matter. He went up to him, kissed the ground in front of him and told him that his wife was pregnant. On hearing this, the king leapt to his feet, and such was his delight that he kissed the hand and head of the eunuch and stripped off his own robes to present them to him. He then told everyone present: ‘”Let whoever loves me make a present to this man, and what they then gave the eunuch in the way of money, jewels of all sorts, horses and mules, as well as orchards, was more than could be counted.

This is opposite of ‘kill the messenger’ and equally unfair and irrational. It serves to demonstrate the power and wealth of the king in question, both to his subjects and to the reader. If such frivolous generosity were to happen in reality I bet the courtiers and the wider populous would start a revolt.

This sort of disproportionate remuneration is a regular occurrence throughout The Arabian Nights, but in the three stories just recapped there are more complex gift-giving customs.

Illustration by Charles Folkard
Illustration by Charles Folkard

On Night 750, when Badr Basim is still suffering from an acute case of Turned Into A Bird, he is captured by a hunter, who engages in a risky game of etiquette with a king and his eunuch:

The hunter then took the bird to the palace and the king, struck by its beauty and the redness of its beak and legs, sent a eunuch to buy it from him. The eunuch asked if he was prepared to sell and the man said: ‘No, but I shall give it to the king as a present from me.’ The eunuch took the bird and went to tell the king what the man had said, and the king accepted it, giving the hunter ten dinars.

So the hunter ultimately profits from the sale, despite having offered the Badr bird as a gift. It is a moment of absolute deference to a powerful king. The hunter surrenders his ownership but seems to trust that he will be reimbursed nonetheless. The outcome is the same as a regular transaction, but conducting it as an exchange of gifts exempts it from the formal rules governing commerce, and the rights and protections that come with a normal transaction. And I assume that neither the hunter nor the king pays any sales tax!

Another gift-giving custom appears twice in the tale of Saif al-Muluk, and it entails an even more perilous reliance on trust. On Night 760, the vizier Faris has visited king Solomon in the hope of receiving some fertility advice. Naturally, he comes bearing crate loads of expensive gifts.

Solomon then told him: ‘You have brought such-and-such with you in the way of gifts and presents.’ Faris agreed, and Solomon said: ‘I accept all of them from you, but then I make them over to you.’

The due deference is shown, but the giver receives their gifts back immediately, which surely helps their financial solvency. Night 771 has an even more extreme version of the same custom.

The king treated Saif with honour and said: ‘Saif al-Muluk, you have done me and my daughter this great service which I am not able to repay, as this can only be done by the Lord of creation. But I want you to take my place on the throne and to rule over the lands of India, for I give you my kingdom, my throne, my treasuries and my servants. All this is a gift from me to you.’ Saif got up, kissed the ground before the king, thanked him and said: ‘I accept all that you have given me, but I then return it as a gift to you from me. I do not want a kingdom or power, king of the age; all that I want is for Almighty God to bring me to my goal.

So gifting here is not only about gratitude and esteem, but about power as well. Saif expresses humility and a desire only to find his true love. But in reality he is only able to boomerang the gift of a kingdom back at ‘Saif al-Maluk because he is already fabulously powerful and wealthy.

Leave a Reply