Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves

The story of ‘Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves’ does not appear in the Calcutta II text. However, since it is one of the more famous tales from The Arabian Nights as popularised by Antoine Gallard, Penguin Classics have seen fit to include it too, at the end of Volume I.

Since there is no extant Arabic text for the story, the version presented here is a rendering of Gallard’s French tale, translated by Ursula Lyons (a distinguished academic who happens to be married to Malcolm Lyons). Continue reading “Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves”

Nights 249 to 294: The Protagonist’s Shield of Indestructibility

Street Market, Tangiers, by Frank Brangwyn

249—270 ‘Ala’ al-Din Abu’l-Shamat • 270—271 Hatim of Tayy • 271—272 Ma’n ibn Za’ida • 272—273 The city of Labtit 888 • 273 Hisham ibn ‘Abd al-Malik and the young Bedouin • 273—276 Ibrahim ibn al-Mahdi • 276—279 Abd Allah ibn Abi Qilaba and Iram, City of the Columns • 279—282 Ishaq ibn al-Mausili • 282—285 The slaughterhouse cleaner and the lady • 285—294 Harun al-Rashid and ‘the second caliph’

This week The Arabian Nights presents us with another long adventure—the tale of ‘Ala’ al-Din Abu’-Shamat—followed by some shorter tales.

‘Ala’s story begins in Cairo. His father, Shams al-Din, is the ‘syndic’ (representative) of the market traders, and is dissatisfied with his lack of children. While his colleagues sit at their stalls with their sons, he is alone. Shams complains about this to his wife in deeply sexist terms (“… you are barren, and marriage to you is like chiselling rock”) and one expects this to be used as an excuse to add a new wife to his household.

But in a refreshing avoidance of the usual submissive representation of wives in The Arabian Nights, Shams al-Din’s other half calls him out on this nonsense. “Your sperm is watery” she retorts. Continue reading “Nights 249 to 294: The Protagonist’s Shield of Indestructibility”

Nights 170 to 249: Men Going Their Own Way

Qamar al-Zaman chases the bird - HJ Ford

170—249 The story of King Shahriman and his son, Qamar al-Zaman • 237—246 The story of Ni’ma ibn al-Rabi’ and Nu’m

Now here’s a story we can all care about: the patriarchy is under threat. Poor Shahriman has no son! What can he possibly do?

It turns out that the easiest and most effective fertility treatment is simply to perform the ritual ablution and two rak’as (prayers) before making love to one’s wife, and she is guaranteed to conceive. Why didn’t he try that before?

The child, fair as a full moon, is Qamar al-Zaman, who is brought up in “cosseted luxury.” The king, delighted to have an heir, cannot bear to be away from his offspring, and he ensures that they are never parted, by night or by day.

Having waited so long for a son, one might forgive the king his rather over-zealous parenting style. But it does, unfortunately, reap its own reward when Qamar comes of age, and refuses to marry.

Continue reading “Nights 170 to 249: Men Going Their Own Way”

Night 153 to 169: The Lovesickness of ‘Ali Ibn Bakkar and Shams Al-Nahar

153—169 Ali ibn Bakkar and Shams al-Nahar

Design by William Harvey
‘The Story of Alee the son of Bekkar, and Shems en-Nahr’ – Illustration by William Harvey

Abu’l-Hasan said: ‘I have never seen or heard of a lover like you’

I had initially planned to recap this story along with the animal fables. But it is entirely divergent from the preceding tales, and I felt it would have made no sense to discuss them all together. However, the index of Nights presented at the back of the book (remember, I’m reading the Lyons’ translation, published by Penguin Classics) tells me that the next story is an eighty-night epic! So it’s best for me to consider these two lovers separately, before I make an assault on the story of King Shahriman.

Continue reading “Night 153 to 169: The Lovesickness of ‘Ali Ibn Bakkar and Shams Al-Nahar”

Night 146 to 152: Allegories Abound

146—147 The peahen, the duck and the gazelle • 147—148 The pious shepherd • 148 The water fowl and the tortoise • 148—150 The wolf and the fox • 149 The story of the hawk and the partridge • 150 The story of the man and the snake • 150 The weasel and the mouse • 150 The crow and the cat • 150—152 The fox and the crow • 150—151 The story of the flea and the mouse • 151—152 The story of the falcon and the birds of prey • 152 The story of the sparrow and the eagle • 152 The hedgehog and the doves • 152 The story of the merchant and the two thieves • 152 The thief with the monkey • 152 The story of the foolish weaver • 152 The sparrow and the peacock

Abul Hasan Ghaffari
Abul Hasan Ghaffari

Last week I noted how some small differences in the style and structure of the storytelling hinted at a different author to that of the earlier stories. Those stylistic changes were subtle… but the writer who takes over Shahrazad’s story at Night 146 announces themselves with a literary klaxon.

If it feels as though we are reading a different book at this point, that is because we almost certainly are: The Arabian Nights is well established as a composite text, just like the Hebrew Bible. And just as the biblical Jahwist author hands the baton (pen? stylus? quill?) over to the Deuteronomist author, so here, I would say that a ‘Monarchical author’—who writes stories centred around caliphs, and where magic is all but absent—gives way to an ‘Allegorical author’, who presents us with a series of stories about animals. Apparently, these are some of the earliest in origin, and derive from Sanskrit texts.

Continue reading “Night 146 to 152: Allegories Abound”

Night 107 to 137: The Blind Dates of Taj al-Majuk and Aziz

107—137 The story of Taj al-Muluk Kharan and Princess Dunya • 112—128 The story of ‘Aziz and ‘Aziza

The tale of Taj al-Majuk and his friend Aziz is embedded within the saga of King ‘Umar ibn al-Nu’man. It is a long story in itself but one so different in both scope and tone from its ‘parent’ story I thought I would comment on it separately in this, an additional post for the week.

Let’s get the marriage of Taj al-Majuk’s parents out of the way first, because that is a story entirely without redemption. The king hears of a beautiful princess in a distant kingdom, and despatches his vizier to propose marriage. The girl’s father agrees immediately, so the king gets the girl. Women as chattels with a side order of yawn. Or perhaps the literary equivalent of Hello magazine: easy loving, easy living and entirely fake.

Things get better when Taj al-Majuk grows up and sets out on adventures of his own, and particularly when he meets Aziz, whose story is both intellectually compelling and utterly bonkers. Continue reading “Night 107 to 137: The Blind Dates of Taj al-Majuk and Aziz”

Nights 90 to 145: The Wrath of Dhat al-Dawahi

45—145 King ‘Umar ibn al-Nu’man and his family • 142—143 The story of the hashish addict

The story of the religious war resumes with what can only be described as fan service for the Muslim audience of The Arabian Nights. Shahrazad does not hold back in her scathing depiction of the Christians. Rituals involving the patriarchs’ excrement are described, leaving us in no doubt as to who are the ‘goodies’ and who are the ‘baddies’ in the conflict.

This is disappointing. We have already been introduced to both Emperor Afridun and Hardub, the King of Rum, and both seem like rational men. We have seen them set aside vendettas. Their anger at King ‘Umar ibn al-Nu’man, who so mistreated Abriza, is entirely justified. So the belated attempted to paint these men as disgusting barbarians falls flat for me. As the champions prepared, I realised that I was on #TeamByzantine. Not, I assume, the position that the original audience would have taken, and one that casts the rest of this saga in a light that I doubt the authors intended.

Continue reading “Nights 90 to 145: The Wrath of Dhat al-Dawahi”

The Arabian Nights and Free Speech

I have never held a dispute with anyone except for the purpose of revealing the truth and I don't care whether God reveals it by my tongue or by that of my opponent.

Digressions are baked into the structure of The Arabian Nights. The book trusts its readers, as Shahrazad trusts King Shahriyar, to follow the narrative, despite stories-within-stories or extended theological lectures delivered by one of the characters.

That said, during my most recent recap, I didn’t want to derail the discussion with a diversion into free speech theory. As such, I did not include this quote from Night 79. It is part of a speech spoken by one of Dhat al-Dawahi’s erudite slave girls, to King ‘Umar ibn al-Nu’man, which is in turn (keep up!) retold to Dau’ al-Malkan by the vizier Dandan:

Know that your enemy is an opponent with whom you can argue, whom you can convince with proofs and against whom you can guard yourself, while between you and your friend the only judge who can adjudicate is good character. Test your friend before choosing him. If he is one of those who lives for the next world, let him follow faithfully the externals of the law, while knowing its secret meaning, as far as this is possible. If he is an adherent of this world, he should be liberal and truthful, and neither ignorant nor wicked. His own parents should flee from the ignorant man, while the liar cannot be a friend, as the word “friend” derives from “truth”. This comes from the depth of the heart, so how can it apply to one Whose tongue speaks falsehood?

(In Arabic the word for ‘friend’ is sadiq and the word for ‘truth’ is sidq.) Continue reading “The Arabian Nights and Free Speech”

Nights 45 to 89: The Arabian nights does Game of Thrones

The death of the king

45—145 King ‘Umar ibn al-Nu’man and his family

With the story of King ‘Umar ibn al-Nu’man and his family, The Arabian Nights shifts into a longer storytelling mode. Over the past 45 nights, we’ve been treated to more than a dozen stories; and now we have a saga that in itself stretches over 100 nights, one-tenth of the entire collection. This change of pace and ambition allows for some deeper storytelling. Scenes of conflict or seduction that might have been simply asserted in earlier stories are here given space which immerses the reader (at least, this reader) into the world of the Nights. It’s a tale that marries battles between vast kingdoms, with the stories of personal intrigue: love, jealousy, pride and revenge.

The saga of ‘Umar ibn al-Nu’man is Game of Thrones, basically.

Continue reading “Nights 45 to 89: The Arabian nights does Game of Thrones”

Nights 34 to 44: Shahrazad’s Emerging Voice

Illustration by Albert Letchford

34—38 Nur al-Din Ali and Anis al-Jalis • 38—45 Ghanim ibn Ayyub, the slave of love • 39 The story of the eunuch Bukhait • 39—40 The story of the eunuch Kafur

Is it me, or are the two stories in this set of nights a little more sophisticated and mature than those that came prior?

The first is the story of Nur Al-Din, which is at once a drama of power and influence and yet also a morality tale about how kindness and generosity will be rewarded.

There are two rival viziers in a sultan’s court. Al-Fadl is kind and just, while al-Mu’in is a more malevolent operator. The former is set the task of procuring a beautiful slave girl for the sultan, a task that he performs with diligence and efficiency. Unfortunately, the project is entirely derailed by his son Nur Al-Din, a lothario who seduces and then subsequently falls in love with the girl, Anis al-Jalis (in yet another Love At First Sight, Face Like The Moon situation).

This is not just a social faux pas. Bedding the sultan’s concubine is theft and embezzlement, which gives al-Mu’in the leverage he needs to cause mischief. When al-Fadl dies, al-Mu’in manages to politically skewer Nur al-Din, who flees with his lover. Continue reading “Nights 34 to 44: Shahrazad’s Emerging Voice”