Nights 606 to 624: Judar and his Brothers

606—624 Judar and his brothers

The tale of ‘Judar and His Brothers’ is a magical mystery tour around North Africa in which monsters and jinn circle themes of power and betrayal. Like many others in the collection, this is a story of several acts, each of a different genre.

It begins with a contested will. Before he dies, Judar’s father divides up his estate four ways, splitting the wealth between his three sons, and a portion for himself and his wife to live off. By doing this in advance of his death, he hopes to stave off any dispute between his sons over their inheritance.

Judar’s father clearly knows that his two other sons have a greedy streak. When he eventually does die, the brothers launch a legal action to get at Judar’s portion of the estate. They waste the time of the qadis and walis and notaries to the extent that, when the case is over, everyone’s assets have been exhausted in legal fees, like an Egyptian Jarndyce v. Jarndyce. Continue reading “Nights 606 to 624: Judar and his Brothers”

Nights 566 to 606: Memento Mori

566—578 The City of Brass • 578—606 The wiles of women: the king and his seven viziers • 578—579 The story of the king and the wife of his vizier • 579 The story of the merchant and his parrot • 579 The story of the fuller and his son • 580 The story of the chaste wife • 580—581 The story of the mean man and the bread • 581 The story of the woman and her two lovers • 581—582 The story of the prince and the ghula • 582 The story of the honey • 582 The story of the wife who made her husband sieve dirt • 582—583 The story of the enchanted spring • 584 The story of the vizier’s son and the wife of the bath keeper • 584—585 The story of the wife who cheated her husband • 586—587 The story of the goldsmith and the Kashmiri singing girl • 587—590 The story of the man who never laughed again • 591—592 The story of the prince and the merchant’s wife • 592 The story of the page who pretended to understand the speech of birds • 593—596 The story of the woman and her five would-be lovers • 596 The story of the three wishes • 596—597 The story of the stolen necklace • 597 The story of the two doves • 597—598 The story of Prince Bahram and Princess al-Datma • 598—602 The story of the old woman and the merchant’s son • 602 The story of the ‘ifrit’s beloved • 603—604 The story of the merchant and the blind old man • 605 The story of the lewd man and the three-year-old child • 605—606 The story of the stolen purse and the five-year-old child

More than once in these weekly recaps, I’ve noted that the inescapability of death is a recurring theme in The Arabian Nights. Shahrazad ends most of her stories not with ‘happily ever after’ but a reminder that everyone is visited by Death, the Destroyer of Delights. A few weeks ago I noted a poem among the stories that seems to prefigure Shelley’s ‘Ozymandias.’ And way back on Night 13 I underlined this stanza:

No-one holds the caliphate forever;
If you do not agree, where is the first caliph?
So plant the shoots of virtuous deeds,
And when you are deposed, no-one will depose them.

Continue reading “Nights 566 to 606: Memento Mori”

Nights 536 to 566: Sindbad’s Descent

Illustration by Brian Wildsmith

536—566 Sindbad the sailor • 538—542 The first journey of Sindbad • 542—546 The second journey of Sindbad • 546—555 The third journey of Sindbad • 550—556 The fourth journey of Sindbad • 556—559 The fifth journey of Sindbad • 559—562 The sixth journey of Sindbad • 563—566 The seventh journey of Sindbad

Sindbad is one of a triumvirate of characters whose name is already common currency in popular Western culture. But like the story of Ali Baba in Volume I and (I suspect) Aladdin in Volume III, what we think we know about this guy is very different to the actual story. Indeed, as I began to read this cycle I realised that I knew barely anything about Sindbad the Sailor, except for the alliteration. I haven’t seen any of the films.

He stands apart from the other heroes we have encountered so far in The Arabian Nights in many ways. He is neither a prince nor the heir of a wealthy father, but a self-made man. And his adventures do not start by accident, but because of his proactive desire to go travelling. As he says on Night 550:

It was while my life was at its most pleasant that I felt a pernicious urge to travel to foreign parts, to associate with different races and to trade and make a profit.

Continue reading “Nights 536 to 566: Sindbad’s Descent”

Nights 499 to 531: Shamsa Takes Flight

499—531 The story of Janshah

Near the end of Buluqiya’s story, he meets a hermit sulking in a cave, who begins a narration of his own. Thus we are presented with the tale of Janshah. This is another narrative that, like the Karim framing story, bears many of the hallmarks of a classic The Arabian Nights tale, while still presenting us with a novel storyline. This time, the innovation is a human/jinn romantic adventure, which has yet to appear in the collection.

Janshah is a fêted prince, who one day goes a-hunting with his father and their mamluks. Janshah rides after “a strangely coloured gazelle” that leads him to the seashore. Down on the beach, he spots an island he wishes to visit, and so they commandeer a fishing vessel to take them there. Of course, they are blown off course by a gale, which serves to separate our wealthy protagonist from the comforts of his father’s kingdom.

From there, Janshah encounters many strange lands and inconveniences. This includes a nation of apes who insist that he stay and be their king; and a valley of giant ants. He becomes embroiled with a dastardly con-man who tricks him into stealing treasure from a giant bird of prey, and eventually winds up in a great castle as the guest of Shaikh Nasr, king of the birds. Continue reading “Nights 499 to 531: Shamsa Takes Flight”

Nights 482 to 536: Talking Snakes

482—536 Hasib Karim al-Din and the snake queen • 486—533 The story of Buluqiya

After so many short tales of piety, the story of Hasib Karim Al-Din feels like a ‘proper’ Arabian Nights tale. It’s full of the best tropes that the book has to offer: a long-yearned-for child; a mysterious trap-door with a huge ring in its centre; abandoned palaces made of diamond… and armies of jinn.

That said, the story goes beyond the formulaic and becomes its own thing. It introduces several new kinds of character into The Arabian Nights universe, which takes this story to places we have not been before, both geographical and conceptual. Continue reading “Nights 482 to 536: Talking Snakes”

Nights 436 to 482: Slaves Schooling the Scholars

436—462 The slave girl Tawaddud • 462 The angel of death, the rich king and the pious man • 462—463 The angel of death and the rich king • 463—464 The angel of death and the king of the Israelites • 464 Alexander the Great and the poor king • 464—465 King Anushirwan the Just • 465—466 The Jewish judge and his virtuous wife • 466—467 The shipwrecked woman • 467—468 The pious black slave • 468 The pious Israelite and his wife • 470—471 Al-Hajjaj and the pious man • 471—473 The smith who could put his hand in the fire • 473—474 The pious man and his cloud • 474—477 The Muslim hero and the Christian girl • 477—478 The Christian princess and the Muslim • 478—479 The prophet and the justice of God • 479 The Nile ferryman • 479—481 The pious Israelite who recovered his wife and children • 481—482 Abu’l-Hasan al-Darraj and Abu Ja’far, the leper

Does any book do simile as confidently as The Arabian Nights? This introduction to the most important character we meet this week is candescent:

Her skin was clear and her breath scented, as though she had been formed of fire and fashioned of glass.

Of the same woman, there is also this description, which could be a story in its own right:

Her waist was more slender than the body of an emaciated lover worn away by concealing his love.

Continue reading “Nights 436 to 482: Slaves Schooling the Scholars”

Nights 424 to 434: Ali the Cairene Merchant

Ali the Cairene Merchant and the jinn

424—434 Ali, the Cairene merchant

Another additional post for the week, to give longer stories the attention they deserve, and to keep the weekly recaps to a more or less equal length.

This week I have been recapping the sequence of Nights 386-436. The final and longest story in these nights is ‘Ali the Cairene Merchant,’ and it begins in a familiar way: with the squandering of an inherited fortune. Ali’s father impresses upon his son the importance of moderation and prudence. But when his father dies, Ali falls in with an irresponsible crowd, and they burn through the money.

His behaviour is similar to what we now recognise as depression and drug addiction. Once he is low on funds, he reasons that he doesn’t need furniture and so he sells it off. Then he sells off his house and lives in a single room. Eventually, he is turfed out of that dwelling and exists on the street. All this, with a wife and child in tow. Continue reading “Nights 424 to 434: Ali the Cairene Merchant”

Nights 386 to 436: Ménages a trois

386—387 Mus’ab ibn al-Zubair and A’isha ibn Talha • 387 Abu’l-Aswad and his slave girl • 387 Harun al-Rashid and the two slave girls • 387 Harun al-Rashid and the three slave girls • 387—388 The miller and his wife • 388 The fool and the knave • 388—389 Abu Yusuf and the Lady Zubaida • 389 The caliph al-Hakim and the merchant • 389—390 Anushirwan and the peasant girl • 390—391 The water carrier and the goldsmith’s wife • 391 Chrosroe, Shirin and the fisherman • 391—392 Yahya ibn Khalid the Barmecide and the poor man • 392 Muhammad al-Amin and Ja’far ibn Musa al-Hadi • 392—393 The sons of Yahya ibn Khalid and Sa’id ibn Salim al-Bahili • 393—394 The trick played by a wife on her husband • 394 The pious Jewish woman and the two evil old men • 394—395 Ja’far the Barmecide and the old Bedouin • 395—397 The caliph ‘Umar ibn al-Khattab and the young Bedouin • 397—398 The caliph al-Ma’mun and the Pyramids • 398—399 The thief and the merchant • 399—401 Masrur and Ibn al-Qaribi • 401—402 The pious prince • 402—403 The schoolmaster who fell in love through what he heard • 403 The foolish schoolmaster • 403—404 The schoolmaster who could neither read nor write • 404 The king and the virtuous wife • 404—405 ‘Abd al-Rahman al-Maghribi and the rukh • 405—407 ‘Adi ibn Zaid and Princess Hind • 407 Di’bil al-Khuza’i, the lady and Muslim ibn al-Walid • 407—409 Ishaq al-Mausili, the singer and the merchant • 409—410 The two unfortunate lovers • 410—411 The lovers of Tayy • 411—412 The mad lover • 412—414 The abbot who converted to Islam • 414—418 Abu ‘Isa and Qurrat al-Ain • 418—419 Al-Amin and his uncle, Ibrahim al-Mahdi • 419 The caliph al-Mutawakkil and al-Fath ibn Khaqan • 419—423 The dispute about the merits of men and women • 423—424 Abu Suwaid and the white-haired woman • 424 Ali ibn Muhammad and the slave girl, Mu’nis • 424 The two women and their lovers • 424—434 ‘Ali, the Cairene merchant 255434—436 The pilgrim and the old woman

The bombardment of micro-tales continues, which feels like a high-risk strategy for Shahrazad. Sure, the stream of anecdotes and jokes has its own addictive quality (‘just one more’ says the reader to himself) but at the end of every story is the peril, the frisson, the worry, that Shahriyar will jump on that moment to say: enough.

As before, the mini-stories do tend to be grouped thematically, and I’d be lying if I said that the crude brace of tales about an erect penis were not the most memorable in this batch. “If someone brings uncultivated ground to life, it belongs to him and his descendants” says the Kufan slave girl, citing The Prophet. But the Medinan slave girl is not to be outdone. She grabs the sprouting member with both hands, and recites her own aphorism attributed to Mohammed: “Game belongs to the hunter and not the beater.” This is blasphemous, seditious, and funny.

In the very next tale, Shahrazad tells exactly the same joke, but with an addendum. An Iraqi girl joins the trio and grabs the spoils, saying “until you settle your dispute, this belongs to me.” It occurs to me that this is a rare example of separate stories in The Arabian Nights directly referencing each other.

One thing that strikes me about many of the tales in this section is that they are not really about what they think they are about. Or to put it in a more subjective manner: the tales do not think they are about what I think they’re about! So often throughout this sequence, the prima facie meaning of the tale (sometimes explicitly spelt out by Shahrazad at the end) feels pretty irrelevant or at least secondary concern to the modern reader. Continue reading “Nights 386 to 436: Ménages a trois”

Nights 338 to 386: Hustles, Horses and Homosexuals

The Ebony Horse by HJ Ford

338—340 Harun al-Rashid, the slave girl and Abu Nuwas • 340—341 The man who stole the dog’s gold bowl • 341—342 The wali and the clever thief in Alexandria • 342—344 Al-Malik and his three walis • 344—345 The money-changer and the thief • 345—346 The wali of Qus and the trickster • 346—347 Ibrahim ibn al-Mahdi and the merchant • 347—348 The woman who gave alms to a poor man • 348—349 The pious Israelite • 349—351 Abu’l-Hassan al-Ziyadi and the man from Khurasan • 351 The poor man and his friends • 351—352 The rich man who lost and then regained his money • 352—353 The caliph al-Mutawakkil and the slave girl Mahbuba • 353—355 Wardan the butcher, the woman and the bear • 355—357 The princess and the ape • 357—371 The ebony horse • 371—381 Uns al-Wujud and al-Ward fi’l-Akmam • 381—383 Abu Nuwas and the three boys • 383 Abd Allah ibn Ma’mar al-Taimi, the Basran and the slave girl • 383—384 The ‘Udhri lovers • 384 The vizier of Yemen and his younger brother • 384—385 The lovers in the school • 385 Al-Mutalammis and his wife Umaima • 385—386 Harun al-Rashid and the Lady Zubaida in the pool • 386 Harun al-Rashid and the three poets

The Arabian Nights is often described as a ‘sea of stories’ and as the frequency of shorter tales increases in this section, that certainly feels apt. Thankfully, they do seem to share certain themes, which keeps the reader afloat.

The first such common thread is The Hustle: stories of con-men and marks. There is a clever thief who manages to steal the same bag of money twice. There are two notaries who manage to foil a qadi intent on exposing their debauchery. And there are a couple of stories of men who fall for the classic con-man trick: persuaded to pay for something valuable at a bargain price, only to find out later that what they have bought was not silver but tin. Continue reading “Nights 338 to 386: Hustles, Horses and Homosexuals”

Nights 294 to 338: Rise and Fall

Kill Barsum

294—296 Ali the Persian • 296—297 Harun al-Rashid, the slave girl and Abu Yusuf • 297—299 Khalid ibn Abd Allah al-Qushairi and the lover who confessed to theft • 299 The generosity of Ja far the Barmecide to the bean seller • 299—305 Abu Muhammad the sluggard • 305—306 The generosity of Yahya ibn Khalid to Mansur • 306—307 The generosity of Yahya to the forger • 307—308 The caliph al-Ma’mun and the scholar • 308—327 ‘Ali Shar and Zumurrud • 327—334 Harun al-Rashid and Ali ibn Mansur • 328—334 The story of Jubair ibn ‘Umair al-Shaibani and Budur • 334—338 The story of al-Ma’mun, the Yemeni and the six slave girls

The peril of reading The Arabian Nights in three volumes is that there is a chance to drop the context between books. The reading I set for myself in the past two of weeks was made up of the Ali Baba ‘orphan story’, the long tale of ‘Ali’ al-Din, and a few shorter stories. In my previous post, I called out those brief pieces as being very different from the rest of the collection. But a quick look at the contents of Volume II reveals that these shorter tales are actually the rule and not the exception. The tales of Hatim of Tayy and the rest that appear at the end of Volume I should really be recapped along with the night-sized stories of Harun al-Rashid and his courtiers that appear in this sequence.

When recapping Nights 249 to 294, I wrote about the idea of destiny in The Arabian Nights. Then, I was talking about the literary destiny of the characters. But when the people in a story are historical figures like al-Rashid, then their actual destiny becomes significant and casts a shadow over the reading of the story. Continue reading “Nights 294 to 338: Rise and Fall”