Nights 831 to 863: Dark Games

831—845 Khalifa the fisherman • 845—863 Masrur and Zain al-Mawasif

It’s funny how a long run on One Type Of Thing puts you in the mood for something else. When Shahrazad has presented us with a long chain of very short stories, I’ve yearned for a longer narrative; and when we have been given a more substantial tale, I have found myself wanting something shorter.

The two stories in this sequence hit the sweet spot. At 14 and 18 Nights respectively, they’re enough to establish a character or two and a particular mood, but not so long as to outstay their welcome. And after a run of earnest ‘love’ stories, full of heroes who take themselves very seriously, the comedy of Khalifa the fisherman is a very welcome change of tone.

The humour is slapstick and farce. Khalifa is forgetful and incredibly rude to powerful people. He continually mistakes caliph Harun al-Rashid for a ‘flute player’ and causes an embarrassing hullabaloo in the palace courtyard, when he attempts to collect a debt from the chief eunuch. There’s a scene where he accidentally casts a bag of gold into the Tigris while fishing, and another where he mounts a donkey the wrong way round. Khalifa is The Arabian Nights bumptious fool, an forerunner of Malvolio or the Marx Brothers. I think the perfect actor to bring Khalifa to the screen would be the fast-talking Bollywood comedian Johnny Lever, who has made a career playing characters who combine unwarranted self-confidence with ineptitude.

The story has a classist tinge. Khalifa is out fishing when he encounters the caliph on a hunt, and al-Rashid humours our protagonist. He plays the knowing straight man to Khalifa’s loudmouth, and the idea that the caliph might deign to spend any time learning a trade or doing some hard work is treated as a big joke. Later, the nobles play with the fisherman: they delay the payments owed to him (for fun, it seems), and on more than one occasion they fail to explain what they are up to, a discourtesy that keeps him a state of confusion.

The story has some dark moments too. At the point when he encounters Khalifa, Harun al-Rashid is going through a nihilist phase, having mislaid his favourite concubine, Qut al-Qulub. When confronted by Khalifa in the palace, he has the vizier Ja’far write up a set of chits with various rewards and punishments. At the one extreme is the entire caliphate; at the other, a death sentence. In between are various sums of money and assorted strokes of the whip. In an incredibly cruel parlour game, al-Rashid asks Khalifa to pick a prize from Ja’far’s assorted tickets. Khalifa gets a hundred lashes, then a single dinar, and then… nothing.

The game show theme continues when Khalifa finds himself at a Deal or No Deal auction, bidding on a box with unknown contents. He takes the single dinar from the caliph, and combines it with a hundred dinar debt settled by the chief eunch. A hundred and one dinars is just enough to buy a mystery chest from the marketplace, which he hauls back to his residence in the poor quarter.

Inside the chest is the drugged body of Qut al-Qulub, trapped there by the jealous queen Zubaida. This rescue is what finally prompts proper generosity from the caliph, and the lowly fisherman is elevated to permanent riches. It is only here, in the closing paragraphs of the story, that Khalifa’s narrative aligns with Shahrazad’s other heroes. And this time the success feels deserved.

So Khalifah rose forthright, and casting his net into the Tigris drew up a great cat-fish the bigness of a lamb. … He carried it to the ape.

The woman-in-a-chest scenario is one we’ve read about before, during the tale of Ghanim back on Night 39. In fact, it is the same woman in the chest! It’s curious that there should be two stories that feature Qut al-Qulub suffering the same ordeal. Unlike some other repeating tropes we have encountered recently (the courtship in the walled garden; or the jinniya with the feathered costume) an attempted murder by locking someone in a box is a very precise and sadistic storyline. I wonder if there is some historical basis to the episode—a feud between Harun al-Rashid’s wife and his concubine that ended with just such an incarceration?

The second story is a reversion to romance, but with a twist. Masrur and Zain al-Mawasif are adulterers. He is a wealthy merchant, and she is the wife of another businessman. Having just experienced an odd dream, Masrur is searching for an interpreter when he happens upon Zain’s house. She invites him in and the illicit courtship begins from there.

The seduction happens over a game of chess. Zain lays down a wager – ten dinars if she wins. But if she loses, then Masrur can have her. Naturally he takes the bet, but he is being hustled. He keeps losing games of chess at ten dinars a pop, until Zain insists that the stakes must be raised if he wants to keep on playing. Soon he is losing at a rate of one hundred dinars per game, until finally the wagers escalate and he loses his entire fortune and estate.

This is one of those stories where I rather wish they had left it there. The game of chess mirrors the game of love – or rather, the game of seduction. The two players pit their wits against each other, a dance around the potential for a coupling. Looking on, we, the audience, are never sure whether the lovers are sincere: Is she hustling him? Is he interested in anything more than a one-night stand? Both players are uncertain too, and must edge closer to union, risking more of themselves. Do they have faith that their trust will be reciprocated?

There is a striking modern parallel in The Thomas Crown Affair (1968). That movie also has a sweaty chess scene, as the two protagonists edge closer to one another. Over the course of the film they test the strength and sincerity of their love. Like many films of that era, that story ends on a low beat. Crown (Steve McQueen) and Vicki Anderson (Faye Dunaway) betray each other at the last moment.

Not so with this antecedent in The Arabian Nights. The two characters’ love is very real, but this is only discovered for certain after Masrur loses everything. Only once he has proven that the depth of his desire is boundless (or at least, somewhere beyond his bankruptcy) does Zain rescue him from ruin, and give herself to him. This was by no means certain, and until that final moment, it was always possible for the tale to have taken a different trajectory. A story with an alternate ending would have fit nicely into the ‘wiles of women’ sequence that begins on Night 578 – a foolish man, taken for every penny by a clever woman. But that is not so. With a huge gesture, Zain returns all of Masrur’s wealth to him, and the liaison is consummated.

To my mind, that is the core of the story. But, this being The Arabian Nights, there’s no need to conclude things straight away. Shahrazad’s need to string things out remains as strong as ever. So the next act introduces us to Zain’s husband, and another battle of wits – their attempt to carry on the affair behind his back, and his subsequent attempt to keep the two lovers apart.

The husband prevails in this contest. He is wise to Masrur’s ruse to befriend him, in order to get close to Zain. He eventually packs his wife off to another town in the hope of breaking the relationship.

We follow Zain on her travels and tribulations in faraway cities. Her beauty is such that four qadis in the first city fall in love with her. And when she escapes from them and seeks refuge in a monastery, the abbot and all the monks lust after her too. In response to their overtures on Night 861, she recites:

You want me, but do not be led astray by hope,
And give up your pursuit of me, O man.
You should not covet what you will not get;
For what is joined to hopes like these is fear.

This speaks to the current discussions in our culture about how men behave towards women: how exhausting it can be for women to exist in public, and to suffer entitled men pushing their unwanted attempts at romance onto you.

The ‘fear’ that Zain speaks of is her own—a response to the abbot’s attempts to woo her. He is oblivious to the effect of his advances. He is the hero of his own story, if not ours. In his head, his perpetual propositions (first via his underling monks, and then in person) are entirely justified means to an end. But for Zain, it’s uncomfortable and threatening, and the place of sanctuary becomes another kind of prison. Of course, the abbot gets the message in the next scene, when Zain runs away during the night. But it shouldn’t have come to that. Why can’t men behave better?!

We end the story of Masrur and Zain al-Mawasif with what I have now come to think of as a ‘classic’ Arabian Nights twist. Back at home, the two lovers are reunited, but the problem of the jealous husband still persists. Zain fakes her own death, by having her slave girl Hubub perform burial rituals over an empty grave. Zain’s husband begins mourning over the burial site, but then:

When he had finished reciting these lines, he went on weeping and wailing until he fell down unconscious. As soon as that happened, Hubub dragged him off and put him into the grave. He was still alive but in a bemused state, and so she filled up the grave and went back to bring the news to her mistress. Zain was overjoyed…

Yes, that’s right: the heroine of the story arranges to have her husband brutally murdered.

Now personally, I would describe this as a heel-turn. Throughout, the two main characters and their servant Hubub have all be motivated by love and friendship. Their only motivation is reunification. Killing off the husband is an egregious departure from their established characters.

But I fear that Shahrazad doesn’t see it like that. The world of The Arabian Nights operates a strange morality, a sort of ‘divine right of the protagonist’ where anything they do to further their aims is, by definition, the morally correct course of action.

Coupled with this is the fact that the husband is Jewish. As in the tale of ‘Ali al-Zaibaq and the magician ‘Adhra, Jewishness is often a shorthand for a bad character… or at least, expandability. To modern readers, it’s nakedly anti-semitic. But it clearly does not trouble Shahrazad or those who give her a voice. And one doubts that her earlier translators, Antoine Galland and Richard Burton, would have lost any sleep over this racism either.

Stray observations

  • “By the Torah and the Ten Commandments, while I was asleep last night I saw myself in a dream standing before the Virgin, who was telling me she had sent me a fine gift…” This is spoken by a Jewish character, Abu’l-Sa’adat, and it’s bizarre. The invocation of the Torah and Ten Commandments sounds a lot like a lazy, stereotypical cliché, written by someone who knows very little about the Jewish faith. And why would a Jew be dreaming about the Virgin, venerated in Catholicism?! This may be my ignorance of religious history showing, but that looks like a whopping anachronism to me.
  • On Night 841, someone says to Ja’far “and may the Almighty preserve you as a bulwark for the ‘Abbasid state and maintain and protect it root and branch.” A rather cruel addition by Shahrazad, since we know that the Abbsid state declined, and Ja’far was crucified. Or perhaps it’s a sly political message, pointing out that the massacre of the Barmecides was a strategic mistake in the history of the Abbasid caliphs.
  • Since Zain is so beautiful, she leaves many spurned lovers in her wake. As such, the story features copious lamentations for lost love, which all use a similar, limited set of metaphors. It’s almost as if Shahrazad is iterating the poetry around a particular theme, until she hits on the most elegant expression. I liked this (Night 848):

    Her figure stole my heart away, and she would be
    Human, if her heart were not of stone

  • And this (Night 862):

    If I can see you in a dream, it may be then
    That my cheeks can recover from this flood

  • Sexual metaphor watch, Night 851:

    There are two large lips that part as a mule,
    Like a red eye, and a bulge like a camel’s lip.
    When you approach it, intending to do the deed,
    You find a warm encounter, full of lusty strength.
    It leaves all brave opponents with no more urge to fight,
    And at times you have to meet it with a beard to play for time.

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