778—831 Hasan of Basra, the goldsmith
Almost every tale in The Arabian Nights indulges in an enthusiastic description of magnificence – usually the living quarters of a great king, or perhaps the beauty of a young woman. Throughout these recaps, I have sometimes lightly mocked such passages: after the umpteenth encounter with a princess with a ‘face like the moon,’ one becomes inured to that description. One comes to believe that such people are, perhaps, not as unique as each discrete story would have us believe; that full-moon-faced men and women are in fact two-a-dirham in 9th century Baghdad.
Perhaps a greater sin on my part is to take such passages for granted. When every story speaks of jewel-encrusted thrones inlaid with ivory, or living apartments with a dozen ante-chambers, then any given example of flamboyance tends not to be the sort thing I bother to note here. Too often, these recaps end up logging diversions from the established norms—the unique and the surprising. Meanwhile, The Arabian Nights signature literary moments get overlooked.
Well, let’s remedy that right now by reproducing a couple of long passages from Night 787 that linger on some beautiful things. First, a forbidden room:
So he took the key and opened the door. Insıde there was nothing to be seen in the way of treasure, but at the upper end of the room was a flight of stairs, vaulted over with Yemeni onyx. He climbed the stairs, wondering why he had been told not to do this, and they took him to the palace roof. From there he looked down on fields and orchards, filled with trees and flowers and swarming with wild beasts and birds, which were singing to the glory of Almighty God, the One, the Omnipotent. As he looked at the pleasure gardens, he saw a surging sea with crashing waves, and when he continued to look around, he caught sight of a pavilion raised on four columns. Within it he saw a room set with precious stones of all types – sapphires, emeralds, hyacinth gems and other jewels – and in its walls gold bricks alternated with bricks of silver, with others comprising sapphires and green emeralds. In the together middle there was a pool filled with water and covered with a trellis of sandalwood and aloes wood, with a lattice whose bars were of red gold and green emerald, set with jewels of all kinds, including pearls the size of pigeon’s eggs. Beside this pool was a bench of aloes wood studded with pearls and other gems and fronted with tracery of red gold. In it were gemstones and precious metals of various types set opposite one another, and around it birds were hymning the glory of the Almighty in their varied and beautiful songs. Neither Chosroe nor Caesar had ever possessed a place like this, and Hasan was amazed by the sight of it. He sat down to look around, marvelling at the beauty of its construction, the splendour of its various jewels and the excellence of its craftsmanship. He also admired the fields and the birds, as they praised the One Omnipotent God.
And within the room, a woman:
He sat there studying the beauty of their leader, who was the loveliest thing God had created in her age, and who surpassed all mankind in her grace. Her mouth was like the ring of Solomon, her hair was blacker than the night of rejection for a wretched lover, her forehead was like the new moon on the festival of Ramadan, her eyes were like those ofa gazelle and her shining nose was curved. Her cheeks were like red anemones, her lips were like coral and her teeth were pearls set in a necklace of gold, while her neck was a silver ingot placed above what was like the branch of a ban tree. In her belly were folds and nooks, causing the passionate lover to cry out to God, and her navel could contain an ounce of the most fragrant musk. She had plump thighs like marble columns or cushions filled with ostrich feathers, and between them was something roofed and pillared that looked like a large hill or a hare with flattened ears. In the beauty of her form she surpassed the branches of the ban tree or the shoots of the bamboo, and she was as the poet described:
She is a girl the moisture of whose mouth is honey,
With a glance more piercing than a sharp Indian sword;
In her movements she shames the ban tree’s branch,
And when she smiles, the lightning flashes from her teeth
I compared her cheeks to roses that bloom in line,
But she turned away and said: ‘He has no shame
Who likens me to a rose, my breasts to pomegranates.
Have pomegranates a bough that can bear my breasts?
I swear by my beauty, my eyes and my heart’s blood,
By the paradise of my union and the hell of my aversion,
If he says this again, I shall forbid to him
The sweetness of my union and burn him with the fire of my rejection.
They say that gardens are adorned with lines of roses,
But these are not the roses of my cheeks, nor is their branch my figure.
If he can find my equal in a garden, What does he look for when he comes to me?
This is a bingo card of the best and most popular metaphors in The Arabian Nights: Face like a full moon; body like a ban tree; pomegranate breasts; sweet-tasting saliva; and cheeks like roses. But I just love the way the final lines call into question all these comparisons, as the imagined voice of the woman declares their inadequacy, and berates the poet-lover for daring to deploy such metaphors in celebration of her beauty.