Nights 946 to 963: Caliphs, Incognito

946—952 Harun al-Rashid and Abu’l-Hasan of Oman • 952—959 Ibrahim and Jamila • 959—963 Abu’l-Hasan al-Khurasani

Two of the three stories in this sequence start with a caliph venturing incognito into the streets of his city. This is a common trope in The Arabian Nights, but not one to which I have devoted many words to so far. It’s not unheard of in reality: There’s a marvellous story about a young Charles I (when he was just a prince) taking a road-trip through Europe; and the Princesses Elizabeth and Margaret famously ventured onto the streets of London during the V.E. Day celebrations in 1945. I do not doubt there are examples from elsewhere in the world, too. Continue reading “Nights 946 to 963: Caliphs, Incognito”

Night 930 to 946: The Disruptors

930—940 Abu Qir and Abu Sir • 940—946 ‘Abd Allah of the land and ‘Abd Allah of the sea

I had planned to recap four stories, all the way to Night 963, and I have actually read that far. But I wrote a fair amount on the first two stories, so I will post a recap of the second two (the tale of Ibrahim and Jamila; and the tale of Abu’l-Hasan al-Khurasani) later in the week.

We’re getting close to the end now. Back in Volumes I and II, and even in the early part of Volume III (before the long tale of Hasan of Basra) the nights seemed endless. A permanent fixture in my world. Now we’re on Night nine-hundred-and-something, the world becomes uncertain again. The book is contained, finite, mortal, and it is coming to a close.

Anyone who loves books or box-sets knows this feeling. ‘Bereavement’ is too strong a word, but it’s on that emotional spectrum. Re-reads and re-watches can never recreate the experience of the new. Prepare for the inevitable withdrawal, as “I am reading” becomes “I have read.” The last page of this book will be particularly jarring, because the book has dominated my reading, and my conversational repertoire, for months now. What will I talk about? Continue reading “Night 930 to 946: The Disruptors”

The Arabian Nights and The Work of Julia Donaldson

Charlie Cook's Favourite Book


Shrinas’s son does this through a fairly simple trick, convincing the foreign king’s messenger that Wird Khan’s power is far greater than in reality – a classic military tactic. The modern literary parallel that springs immediately to my mind is the Mouse in The Gruffalo…

Throughout my reading of The Arabian Nights, I have often thought of the work of the British children’s author Julia Donaldson. Her books all seem to have “some element of surprise, shock, astonishment,” that ‘Borgesian quirkiness,’ that also imbues most of Shahrazad’s tales. Such a sensibility is not unique to Julia Donaldson, of course… but it is a trait that seems particularly strong in her œuvre. Indeed, the commonality even extends to many of the extremely short phonics books that she has written for children learning to read. Continue reading “The Arabian Nights and The Work of Julia Donaldson”

894 to 930: The Divine Right of Kings To Shirk Responsibility


896—899 The young man of Baghdad and his slave girl 899—930 King Jali ad and his son, Wird Khan • 900—901 The story of the cat and the mouse • 902 The story of the ascetic and his butter jar • 903 The story of the fish and the crab • 903 The story of the crow and the snake • 904 The story of the wild ass and the jackal • 905 The story of the unrighteous king and the pilgrim prince • 906 The story of the crows • 907 The story of the snake charmer • 907 The story of the spider and the wind • 909—910 The story of the two kings • 910 The story of the blind man and the cripple • 918 The story of the foolish fisherman • 919 The story of the boy and the thieves • 919 The story of the merchant and his wife • 920 The story of the merchant and the thieves • 921 The story of the jackals and the wolf • 921—922 The story of the shepherd and the thief • 924 The story of the partridge and the tortoises

Many weeks ago, when discussing The Arabian Nights foray into fables that begin on Night 145, I mentioned the widely accepted theory that the text has many authors. I suggested that there might be a ‘Monarchical author’ who wrote about kings (“where magic is all but absent”) and an ‘Allegorical author’ who produces the short morality tales about animals.

If that is the case, then the story of ‘King Jali ad and his son, Wird Khan’ is a collaborative effort, a tale produced by a supergroup of different writers. The narrative begins as a conventional tale about a king longing for a son, but it is one interspersed with shorter fables. Continue reading “894 to 930: The Divine Right of Kings To Shirk Responsibility”

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. Continue reading “Nights 863 to 894: Miriam Takes Charge”

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. Continue reading “Nights 831 to 863: Dark Games”

Magnificence, Opulence, Succulence

778—831 Hasan of Basra, the goldsmith

Almost every tale in The Arabian Nights indulges in an enthusiastic description of magnificence – usually the living quarters of a great king, or perhaps the beauty of a young woman. Throughout these recaps, I have sometimes lightly mocked such passages: after the umpteenth encounter with a princess with a ‘face like the moon,’ one becomes inured to that description. One comes to believe that such people are, perhaps, not as unique as each discrete story would have us believe; that full-moon-faced men and women are in fact two-a-dirham in 9th century Baghdad.

Perhaps a greater sin on my part is to take such passages for granted. When every story speaks of jewel-encrusted thrones inlaid with ivory, or living apartments with a dozen ante-chambers, then any given example of flamboyance tends not to be the sort thing I bother to note here. Too often, these recaps end up logging diversions from the established norms—the unique and the surprising. Meanwhile, The Arabian Nights signature literary moments get overlooked. Continue reading “Magnificence, Opulence, Succulence”

Nights 778 to 831: Hasan of Basra

778—831 Hasan of Basra, the goldsmith

The tale of ‘Hasan of Basra, the goldsmith’ is about loss and longing for absent loved ones. Over the course of 54 nights (counting the pages, it is the third-longest stand-alone story in the collection), three characters express different aspects of that anguish.

There is the titular Hasan, the embodiment of romantic love; his mother, who obviously expresses maternal love; and then an unnamed jinni princess, who adopts Hasan as a brother and therefore experiences filial love. When Hasan’s choices and circumstances take him away from these women, their passion for him seems no less strong, and no less valuable, than the upset he suffers when enduring a forced separation from his wife. Moreover, it is expressed no less eloquently. At the heart of this story are the many poems which punctuate the narrative, each expressing the pain of loss. Continue reading “Nights 778 to 831: Hasan of Basra”

The Giving of Gifts

738—756 Julnar of the sea and her son, Badr Basim • 758—778 The story of Saif al-Muluk and Badi al-Jamal

It’s rare to encounter any kind of caliph, king or nobleman in The Arabian Nights without a scene in which they give an excessive gift. Whether its a caseload of dinars or a fine robe, the kingly characters share their wealth liberally with those who please them.

There’s a particularly extravagant example on Night 761:

The eunuch hurried off joyfully and found the king alone, with his hand to his cheek, brooding over the matter. He went up to him, kissed the ground in front of him and told him that his wife was pregnant. On hearing this, the king leapt to his feet, and such was his delight that he kissed the hand and head of the eunuch and stripped off his own robes to present them to him. He then told everyone present: ‘”Let whoever loves me make a present to this man, and what they then gave the eunuch in the way of money, jewels of all sorts, horses and mules, as well as orchards, was more than could be counted.

Continue reading “The Giving of Gifts”