Nights 778 to 831: Hasan of Basra

778—831 Hasan of Basra, the goldsmith

The tale of ‘Hasan of Basra, the goldsmith’ is about loss and longing for absent loved ones. Over the course of 54 nights (counting the pages, it is the third-longest stand-alone story in the collection), three characters express different aspects of that anguish.

There is the titular Hasan, the embodiment of romantic love; his mother, who obviously expresses maternal love; and then an unnamed jinni princess, who adopts Hasan as a brother and therefore experiences filial love. When Hasan’s choices and circumstances take him away from these women, their passion for him seems no less strong, and no less valuable, than the upset he suffers when enduring a forced separation from his wife. Moreover, it is expressed no less eloquently. At the heart of this story are the many poems which punctuate the narrative, each expressing the pain of loss.

But I am getting ahead of myself. Before we can discuss the interesting and worthy parts of this tale, we must acknowledge and address the horrible, anachronistic ‘love story’ which powers most of the narrative.

The relationship in question is a close variation on the Janshah and Shamsa romance that began on Night 508. Hasan goes on a few adventures and endures several ordeals at the hands of a wicked alchemist, but he eventually finds himself safely ensconced in a castle, the guest of seven jinniya princesses. As they prepare to leave to attend some kind of wedding, they forbid him from visiting a particular room in the palace.

Full of boredom and loneliness, Hasan disobeys their command and enters the prohibited zone. There he witnesses the arrival of a flock of birds, who are also jinniya. They shed their feathered costumes and bathe in the pools, with Hasan spying on them like a Peeping Tom. Just like Janshah in the earlier story, Hasan falls in love with one of the bathing girls, Mana al-Sana, and steals her magical feathered costume in order to prevent her from leaving.

In the Janshah story, I described this manœuvre as ‘obnoxious.’ Shamsa the princess expressed dismay at the trick, but once she and Janshah had actually met, there was indeed a mutual attraction. Unfortunately, that spark is missing when the scenario is repeated with Hasan and Mana al-Sana. We get no expression of desire from this princess, and no evidence of any enthusiasm on her part for the subsequent marriage.

Instead, Shahrazad describes a deeply worrying confinement. “I have only taken you in order to serve you,” says Hasan on Night 790, kidding himself that keeping the princess away from her family is anything other than base selfishness. A few nights later, we get a depressing glimpse of how she feels about her situation:

She then broke into tears, cursing her fate and lamenting her misfortunes and her exile.

Nor do things improve. Back in Baghdad, Hasan shuts Mana al-Sana away (for her ‘protection’ against lustful eyes, naturally). So deep is her unhappiness, that she concocts an escape as soon as she is able. Appallingly, this first opportunity only arises three years and two pregnancies after the marriage.

The most ridiculous aspect to the relationship, which is emblematic of its dysfunction, is that it takes Hasan many years to even learn his wife’s name. “My wife’s name I do not know,” he says on Night 809, when relating his story to one of the shaikhs he meets on his journey to the islands of Waq. Granted, the tale implies that the reason he doesn’t know her name is not because of indifference on his part. Rather, it is because she has deliberately withheld the information from him. But this hardly makes the situation better—if his wife feels compelled to make such a fundamental gesture of defiance, what sort of marriage is this?

It’s a forced marriage, is what it is. Which rather sours the reader’s perception of the entire story. It’s difficult to really root for Hasan on his subsequent odyssey into jinn-country, given that the entire point of the quest is to rescue, or reclaim, the bride he stole.

Is there anything redeemable here? Well, for Hasan, there is a sliver of mitigation. On Night 824, having survived a perilous journey to his wife’s home islands, he does at least apologise. He acknowledges that it is for her to chose where she lives, and not him:

… the fault was mine because I went off and left you with someone who didn’t know your rank and value. Know, then, heart’s darling and light of my eyes, that the Glorious God has given me the power to free you. So would you like me to take you to the lands of your father, to let you fulfil your destiny there, or will you come to my country as soon as you have been set free?

To be sure, this is a flawed apology! That mention of ‘rank and value’ reinforces the chattelism inherent in the relationship. And note that Hasan doesn’t actually apologise for ensnaring Mana al-Sana in the first place, only for leaving her alone with his mother. But given the context of the era in which this story is set and when it was first told, at least he shows some remorse and acknowledges that he is the cause of everyone’s unhappiness.

The old woman set Hasan a couch of alabaster … by the river-side, and he sat down thereon, having first bound his face with a chinkerchief, that discovered naught of him but his eyes. … So the whole army mustered before her and putting off their clothes went down into the stream.

Leaving aside the question of whether Hasan himself is a redeemable character, I do think there is more to say about the story itself, despite the misogynistic central relationship. The passion Hasan feels, while not forgivable by modern standards, is at least believable within the confines of the narrative… in a way that the previous three love romances (Ardashir, Badr Basim and Saif al-Muluk) were not. Hasan’s longing for his missing family is laid on thick, and, as is so often the case in The Arabian Nights, the depth of the character’s feelings are expressed through poetry. At times it feels as if this whole story is just an excuse to publish an anthology on the theme of estrangement, like an Arabian precursor to #LossLit Magazine. There are many stanzas, spoken by Hasan, his mother, and adoptive sister, which compare the separation to death, or torture. And plenty of others describing rivers of tears. Some of these poems I found to be so-so, but there are some beautiful nuggets of verse buried within the text. My favourite is this couplet on Night 794:

I ask the passing wind about you,
For no one else but you comes to mind

I was also taken with the final line of this verse from Night 798:

Your phantom never leaves me for a minute
It holds the place of honour in my heart
Only the hope of union lets me live
I only sleep to see you in my dreams

I also enjoyed this verse from Night 797, which compares love to drinking hard liquor:

As far as I can, I conceal my love,
But fires of passion quenched.
It may be that for some this fire is mixed,
But as for me, I drink love neat.

The story is bookended by the influence of two sorcerers. One is an enemy who gets Hasan into trouble at the start of the adventure. The other is an ally whose influence allows Hasan to prevail at the end of the story.

The first is Bahram the alchemist, “A son of ignoble parents, dog, son of a devil / A bastard, child of sin, infidel.” A proper, unsalvageable baddie, Bahram is in the habit of kidnapping young men, and claims to have killed “Nine hundred and Ninety-Nine” just like Hasan. Each year, he forces his newly acquired slave to harvest a particular type of wood, essential to his alchemy, from a vulture’s nest on top of a mountain. To this end, he lures Hasan away from his mother, and spirits him across an ocean.

Hasan actually escapes his fetters while on the boat, and overpowers the magician. Bahram professes to have changed his ways, and both Hasan and the audience are minded to believe him. Such conversions from bad to good, especially when accompanied by a promise to convert to Islam, are common occurrences in The Arabian Nights, and there was every chance that Bahram could have become Hasan’s faithful servant.

Instead, the professed change of heart is all a big lie. Once on dry land, Bahram overpowers Hasan for a second time and proceeds to drag him up the mountain.

Hasan throws down the magical wood, and then manages (with, it is implied, a little divine intervention) to escape certain starvation by throwing himself off a cliff and swimming to safety.

The relationship between Hasan and Bahram therefore presents an opportunity for an epic, cyclical conflict, similar to the ‘Ajib and Gharib story. Dozens of nights could be spent with the two foiling the other’s plans and taking each other prisoner, like Peter Pan and Captain Hook, or Spy vs Spy. There is even potential for a deeper dilemma over whether Bahram can ever be trusted, similar to the dialogue between the Fox and the Wolf that we read about on Night 148.

With such rich potential on offer, it is quite disappointing when Hasan kills Bahram the very next time they meet! But this is typical of The Arabian Nights, which consistently presents antagonists who are overhyped but then underperform. It’s as if Shahrazad has some kind of attention deficit or narrative impatience. The evil guys must be vanquished quickly as a way of establishing the hero’s prowess. It’s a bad habit.

#NotAllSorcerers. Before discussing the benevolent second sorcerer, it is worth also mentioning the other major adversary in the story: Hasan’s sister-in-law, Queen Nur al-Huda. She imprisons Hasan and tortures Mana al-Sana, her own sister. Near the climax of the story, she sets an entire army of jinn upon them as they flee. However, her antagonism for Hasan is not the same that of Bahram. His malevolence stems from psychopathic greed, whereas Queen Nur al-Huda is motivated to sadism by righteous anger. She believes that her sister has transgressed some kind of tradition or sense of propriety by marrying Hasan, and seeks to punish her on that basis. Once again, social expectations and blind adherence to tradition are the real enemies here. They provide an excuse for the worst aspects of humanity (and jinn-kind) to emerge.

Stringent social mores do not bring out the cruelty in everyone, however. Some fight against the old ways and stay on the side of kindness.

In particular, Shawahi. Now the leader of an army of women soldiers, she was also nursemaid to both Queen Nur al-Huda and Mana al-Sana, and thus has a strong personal interest in seeing the sisters reconciled.

Hasan, who had put down his own weapons, looked at her and discovered her to be a grey-haired old lady with blue eyes and a large nose. She was a calamity, the ugliest of all creatures, with a pockmarked face, eyebrows that had lost their hair, broken teeth, wrinkled cheeks, grey hair, mucus running from her nose and a slobbering mouth. She fitted the poet’s description:

In the corners of her face are nine calamities,
Any one of which gives its own view of hell.
In its ugliness this is a hideous face
With the appearance of a snuffling pig.

This description is intriguing because it is one of the few examples in The Arabian Nights where a character who turns out to be internally good is described as being outwardly ugly. Elsewhere in the book, the correlation between moral goodness and physical beauty is so strong as to be a law of nature. For Shawahi to appear so awful, therefore, entirely wrong-foots the reader. We are immediately on our guard: early on in their acquaintance, Hasan has to place his trust in her. Will she betray him?

For a long time, it is not only the reader wondering that. Shawahi herself is unsure too. Of the many female characters that surround Hasan, she is the certainly most developed and coherent (his mother is a one-note bundle of anxiety, and both his wife and his jinniya ‘sister’ are inexplicably loyal). Throughout Hasan’s time on the islands of Waq, Shawahi wrestles with her obligations to him. In the end, she risks her own standing as commander-in-chief of the army, and indeed her own safety, in order to do what she believes is right:

You can cease to worry,’ she said, ‘for I shall join you in risking my own life until you reach your goal or I die.’
Night 808

Nursemaid, warrior and sorcerer: what a great character! Personally I would have rather than it was Shawahi, not Hasan, who was the protagonist of this story. If only she had taken her army of Amazonian warriors, marched on Baghdad, and liberated Mana al-Sana from the appalling marriage to Hasan! Now that would have been an A+ storyline, instead of the middling tale we are actually presented with.

Shawahi’s magic powers are only revealed towards the end of the story. Rather than perform game-changing magic herself, she steers Hasan into the desert, where he fulfils a long-established prophecy by stealing two potent magic weapons from a pair of brothers.

Amid the torture and hardship that characterise most of Hasan’s journey, this scene (Night 822) is a welcome comic relief. The brothers have inherited two items from their father: a jinn-summoning brass rod; and a cap of invisibility. Like Tweedledum and Tweedledee, they are arguing over who should take ownership of the artefacts. They ask Hasan to adjudicate:

‘I shall throw a stone and whoever gets in it first and takes it before the other can have the rod, and the one who comes in second, and fails to take it, will get the cap.’ The boys agreed to accept this, and Hasan picked up a stone and threw it as hard as he could…

When they scamper after the stone, Hasan scarpers with both the rod and the cap! The scene has something of a fable-like quality. The brothers are so caught up in their own selfishness that they do not notice the shared enemy right in front of them.

Once Hasan has secured these enchanted tools, his victory is all but assured. Nevertheless, the final escape from the castle is quite tense.

He picked up his eldest son while Manar al-Sana carried the younger one, and they left, sheltered by God, but when they had got outside the main part of the palace and had reached the door used to separate it from the queen’s quarters, they found it locked. … He and his wife both despaired of life and, one hand against another, Hasan called on God, the Dispeller of grief, and exclaimed: ‘I took everything into account and worked out its to striking consequences except for this! When day breaks, they will seize us and there is nothing that we can do about it.’

All is well in the end—Shawahi appears riding a magical Greek pot and opens the door for them. But I did worry that the family might meet an unexpected, grizzly conclusion. After all, Shahrazad has pulled the rug out from under us before.

Their Queen and her chief officers and the grandees of her realm were captive ta’en. … The Seven Kings … set thereby a throne of ivory.

Stray Observations

  • Night 797:

    As he turned, he caught a glimpse of their leader in her nakedness, and between her thighs, he could see a large rounded dome with four pillars, like a bowl of silver or crystal.

    I’m completely flummoxed by this metaphor. I don’t really understand how it matches up with regular female anatomy. Four pillars?

  • There are some brilliant, archetypal passages beginning on Night 786, describing opulent palaces and captivating women. It occurs to me that such descriptions are so common in The Arabian Nights that I never think to remark upon them, even though they are what gives the collection its distinctive aura and aesthetic. I will quote those passages at length in a separate post.
  • Night 816:

    Wide as it is, the world was too narrow for him.

    Interesting formulation, ‘narrow’ rather than simply small. Burton translates this as “the world, for all its wideness, was straitened upon him.”

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