Nights 863 to 894: Miriam Takes Charge

863—894 Nur al-Din and Miriam the sash-maker

This story begins with a description of a fabulous walled garden and with it, a fascinating inversion of The Arabian Nights usual metaphors. All over the text, the beauty found in nature is Shahrazad’s favoured comparison when she needs to describe the beauty of individuals. So a hero’s physique might be described as being like a ban tree, or like a gazelle. On many occasions, a woman’s breasts are compared to luscious fruits.

But in the description of the garden, which begins on Night 864, Shahrazad flips those metaphors one hundred and eighty degrees, and the fruits, flowers and roses are described with reference to beautiful people and their body parts, rather than the other way around.

Two pomegranates with thin outer skins,
Like virgin’s breasts when they stand prominent

An apple of two colours, looking like
The cheeks of a lover and beloved combined

The almond-apricot is like a lover
Losing his wits when the beloved comes.
It is like him in his lovelorn state,
Pale on the outside, with a broken heart.

I prefer figs to every other fruit
Hanging when ripe on a luxuriant branch,
Like an ascetic who, when clouds drop rain,
Sheds his own tears for fear of God on high.

I don’t remember such similes being used elsewhere in the collection. As well as inversions of the established pattern, they are also subversions of the form, a nod and a wink through the centuries to those of us who have been paying attention.

It strikes me that this flipping could be a useful literary technique in a writer’s toolbox. A face can be like a moon; but the Moon can be like a face. Harsh words from a lover can feel like a sword thrust; but could an actual stabbing might also be described in terms of a brutal lovers’ argument? Such flipping might not always work, but I’ll bet there are plenty of scenes and stories where rotating a cliché makes for an intriguing description of something.

Throughout this story, the emotion that drives the narrative is embarrassment. Each significant plot point, at least in the first half of the story, is caused by Nur al-Din’s chronic inability to stand firm against peer pressure.

First, the garden prelude ends with Nur’s friends pressurising him into drinking wine. As a teetotaller, the alcohol goes straight to his head, and he staggers back to his parents’ house in a drunken stupor. There, he gets into an unwise altercation with his father, which leads to blows. Nur manages to blind his father in one eye, and so the next morning he banishes himself from Cairo to Alexandria.

While seeking to establish himself in the new city, Nur al-Din witnesses a slave auction—another of those curious transactions where the woman put up for sale has a veto over who actually buys her. She insults all the high bidders, but eventually spots Nur minding his own business nearby. She tells him she is offended that he hasn’t put in a bid, and in order to save face he pledges all the (borrowed) capital he has at his disposal. Nur al-Din might be the only literary (or indeed, historical) figure to ever accidentally buy a slave.

He also loses the same purchase due to excessive politeness. Miriam the slave is being stalked by a Frankish one-eyed vizier-turned-bounty-hunter, and she explicitly warns Nur of this fact. And yet when Nur encounters the Frank, he feels unable to turn down an offer of hospitality, which in turn leads to him drunkenly selling Miriam for ten thousand dinars.

By the end of this ‘Act’ of the story, Nur al-Din’s haplessness established beyond all doubt. If there is to be a happy ending for these characters, then someone else needs to take on the role of proactive protagonist.

Thankfully, Miriam is able to wear that mantle. On two occasions, Nur finds himself captured by her father and in urgent need of a rescue. On both occasions, Miriam is able to concoct a get-away and has no compunction in killing anyone who would foil her plans. She slaughters passing thieves, innocent ship’s hands, and eventually three of her own brothers, in her bid for freedom.

In the last two recaps, I have noted how significant scenes and plot points in the later stories appear to have been copied-and-pasted from earlier tales. The story of Miriam the sash maker unashamedly does this thrice over.

  • First, when she appears as a slave for auction, it is revealed she has an improbable veto over who buys her. She is able to rudely reject all the old men who bid for her. This scene also appeared in the story of Zumurrud back on Night 310.
  • Second, the ostensible hero Nur al-Din finds himself stranded in a Christian country, and is saved from beheading at the last moment only because the local church needs a caretaker. This tracks the story of Ala’ al-Din Abu’l-Shamat on Night 268, and (along with the surname ‘al-Din’) Nur adopts many of the traits of the earlier character too — in particular, the unusual admission that he is a Lover Not A Fighter, and cannot hold his own in hand-to-hand combat.
  • Finally, there is a strong similarity between Miriam’s duels with each of her brothers, and the warrior princess Abriza’s battlefield prowess in the saga of King ‘Umar ibn al-Nu’man (Night 50).

If we consider each story in The Arabian Nights as part of a contiguous Shahrazad narrative, then these repetitions might be a cause for concern. After two and a half years at the narrative coalface, she is exhausting her ideas and testing Shahriyar’s patience. This is a worrying development – why falter now, when you are so close to the end? But of course, within the story, Shahrazad is unaware of the significance of a thousand and one. So far as she is concerned, she is still in the foothills of forever, and she needs to find a way to keep up the relentless pace. A perpetual remix of different story elements is actually a clever way to do that.

We readers are not bound by Shahrazad’s temporal constraints. For us, Volume III of The Arabian Nights is slowly revealing the modular, Lego-like construction of the entire text. Various story tropes can be mixed into different configurations. So Miriam does not plagiarise Zumurrud. Rather, they are variations on a theme. It’s interesting to compare the small differences between the two stories, as a way of working out why one is more satisfactory than the other.

What is interesting and preferable about this tale is that it provides a proper back story for the heroine. The Arabian Nights is full of Strong Female Characters (add Dhat al-Dawahi, Delilah the Wily, Marjana and Tawaddud to the warrior women mentioned above). But they nearly always come to the story like a Greek goddess, fully formed and ready to interact with the hero. This is in stark contrast to the male characters we meet—Very often a tale will begin with a long prelude about their childhood and even their conception.

Miriam, however, is a woman with a history. She was previously a princess, educated in ‘the arts of both men and women’ (i.e. combat training and fine embroidery). Shipwrecked while on a pilgrimage, she is trafficked into slavery and becomes the property of an old Persian merchant. When he falls ill, she cares for him, and it is in reward for this act of kindness that he agrees to sell her on, to a man of her choosing.

So the ‘sassy slave with a veto’ character, therefore, makes a lot more sense in this tale than it did on Night 310, because it is explained by, and entirely in keeping with, Miriam’s back-story.

Miriam’s noble origins also make for a far better resolution to the tale. When she is reunited with Nur al-Din at the end of the story, there is no suggestion that she will return to the status quo ante. This is a welcome contrast to Zumurrud who, despite having ruled a city-state, chose to return to embroidery and enslavement with her useless master, Ali Shar (surely the most infuriating ending to a story in all of The Arabian Nights).

Instead, Miriam’s slavery is a temporary matter. She uses her own wiles and her own physical skill with the sword to liberate herself, and she drags the wobbly Nur al-Din along for the ride. It is she who, at the conclusion of the story, persuades the caliph Harun al-Rashid to give her religious asylum, and she who engineers her own marriage.

Hooray for Miriam! But also: hooray for well-rounded storytelling.

Stray Observations

  • Here are some lines of poetry I enjoyed:

    His eyes unsheathe their swords and call
    To all love’s rebels: ‘God is great.’
    Night 863

    Her cheeks would make roses blush for shame,
    Her figure makes fruit ripen on the branch
    Night 870

  • “God has decreed our parting,” says Nur al-Din Night 878. Well, yes, God knows all things, foresees all things… But to invoke divine fate right after you’ve got so pissed that you sold your girlfriend back into slavery looks like you’re trying to avoid culpability, mate.
  • There is something interesting about the premise of the poem on Night 867. The poet says he intends to kiss the one he loves in the hope of deliberately offending her. He hopes that she will complain about him on the Last Day, and theirs “would be then the first trial of two lovers.” They would be forced to spend more time together, and he can look upon her face for longer. The early lines of this poem imply that their love is socially forbidden and that she would collude in this scheme. But it can also be read as an entitled, creepy violation of personal space. Either way, it is the convoluted thought process which distracts me here. It’s another surprising, counter-intuitive twist (alienate your lover in order to spend more time with them) that Borges would have enjoyed and copied.
  • Amid all the self regarding love poetry, Night 871 contains three poems about impotence:

    I have an evil penis, ill-behaved,
    Maltreating the one who shows it most respect.
    For when I sleep, it stands, and it sleeps when I stand;
    God, do not pity those who pity it.

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