Sunday Images: Gustaf Tenggren

Gustaf Tenggren (1896- 1970) was a Swedish-American illustrator who was chief illustrator for the Walt Disney Company in the 1930s. These illustrations are from his Golden Tales from the Arabian Nights.

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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”

What does The Arabian Nights have to say about contemporary politics?

Trump supporters

434—436 The pilgrim and the old woman

Last week, I briefly mentioned the tale of ‘The Pilgrim and the Old Woman’ (Night 434) and her preference for liberty over a tyrannical ruler:

What is your country like?’ she asked. ‘We have spacious and roomy houses,’ he told her … ‘I have heard of all that,’ the old woman said, but tell me, are you subject to a sultan who rules you unjustly and if any one of you is guilty of some fault, the sultan seizes his wealth and ruins him, while if he wants he can drive you from you house and uproot you?’ ‘That may well be,’ the man replied, and the old woman said: ‘Then by God, that delicious food, that pleasant lifestyle and those pleasures, when combined with injustice and oppression, are deadly poison, while our food, eaten with safety, is a theriac.’[1]

I had to look up the word ‘theriac’ – it means an antidote to venom. So in summary, the woman is saying that one should free oneself from tyrannical laws… even if it causes a huge drop in the standard of living. Continue reading “What does The Arabian Nights have to say about contemporary politics?”

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”

Jorge Luis Borges and the Arabian Nights

Borges in his study

351—352 The rich man who lost and then regained his money

From an earlier recap, where I tried to stick a pin in a certain structural style shared by many of the stories in The Arabian Nights:

Almost all of them include some kind of surprise: A twist in the tale, a moment of irony, or some clever thinking … [an] out-of-the-box moment

I might also have quoted Adam Roberts, who, in comparing the structure of science fiction to that of a joke, writes that

The structure of a joke is a knight’s move: it leads you along a particular narrative trajectory only to finish with a conjurer’s flourish of the unexpected.

Before reading The Arabian Nights I would also have used the word ‘Borgesian.’ The short stories of the Argentine writer Jorge Luis Borges (1899-1986) often exhibit precisely the quirky quality I am trying to describe. But of course these tales I am reading pre-date Borges by hundreds of years, so it is certainly more accurate to say that one can perceive the blueprints for his stories in The Arabian Nights. Continue reading “Jorge Luis Borges and the Arabian Nights”

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”