Nights 680 to 719: Delilah Pulls It Off

680—681 ‘Utba and Rayya • 681—682 Hind, daughter of al-Nu’man, and al-Hajjaj • 683—684 Khuzaima ibn Bishr and ‘Ikrima ibn al-Fayyad • 684—685 Yunus al-Katib and Walid ibn Sahl • 685—686 Harun al-Rashid and the young Bedouin girl • 686—687 Al-Asma’i and the three Basran girls • 687—688 Ishaq al-Mausili and his visitor • 688—691 The “Udhri lovers • 691—693 The Bedouin and his faithful wife • 693—695 Harun al-Rashid and the story of the woman of Basra • 695—696 Ishaq al-Mausili and the devil • 696—697 The Medinese lovers • 697—698 Al-Malik al-Nasir and his vizier • 698—708 Dalila the wily • 708—719 The adventures of ‘Ali al-Zaibaq

Another group of shorter stories to conclude Volume II of The Arabian Nights, and they are linked by a strain of protofeminism. At several points in these tales, someone points out that their daughter is not a chattel and will decide for herself whether she marries the handsome hero.

For example, in the story of ‘Utba and Rayya’ on Night 681, there is this:

‘We ask you to give your noble daughter in marriage to ‘Utba ibn al-Hubab ibn al-Mundhir, a well-born man of high repute.’ He replied: ‘My brothers, my daughter, for whose hand you ask, it’s her own mistress, but I shall go in and tell her.’

Continue reading “Nights 680 to 719: Delilah Pulls It Off”

Nights 624 to 680: Class and Crusades

Ajib and Gharib

624—680 ‘Ajib and Gharib

This story intrigues from the get-go. The first character to be introduced is ‘Ajib, who benefits from the ‘standard’ upbringing afforded to heroes of the The Arabian Nights. The checklist: First, be the son of a king. Then enjoy a long period of feminine nurture, followed by intense and sustained one-to-one tuition from the best scholars of the age. Finally, embark on a programme of combat training until you become an accomplished warrior. ‘Ajib hits all these marks and is set up as yet another cookie-cutter prince, who will undoubtedly find his very own princess with a face-like-the-moon. But then…

Continue reading “Nights 624 to 680: Class and Crusades”

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”