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”

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”

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”

Nights 719 to 778: Blind Love

Julnar March Chagall
Julnar the Sea-Born and her Son King Badr Basim of Persia. By Marc Chagall (1948)

719—738 Ardashir and Hayat al-Nufus • 738—756 Julnar of the sea and her son, Badr Basim • 756—778 King Muhammad ibn Saba’ik and Hasan the merchant • 758—778 The story of Saif al-Muluk and Badi al-Jamal

There is a strange theme common to the stories in this section. Each of the three main protagonists we meet—Ardashir, Badr Basim and Saif al-Maluk—all manage to fall in love with someone without having met her. In the first two stories, the princes fall in love with a princess on the basis of reputation alone; in the final story, it takes only an embroidered representation of the woman to capture the man’s heart.

All three princes profess overwhelming love for the princesses they desire, but let us make no mistake—they see these women as trophies to which they are entitled. The women are a means to satisfy male lusts and ambitions, and none of them is loved as the person they are. Continue reading “Nights 719 to 778: Blind Love”

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”