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”
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”
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.
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”
Errol Le Cain (1941 – 1989) was a British illustrator who was awarded the Kate Greenaway Medal for Hiawatha’s Childhood in 1984. These images from Aladdin and the Wonderful Lamp, retold by Andrew Lang (Faber, 1981) are perhaps my favourites of the illustrations I have found so far. They capture the ideas of infinity and symmetry that are imbued within the tales and their structure.
687—688 Ishaq al-Mausili and his visitor • 695—696 Ishaq al-Mausili and the devil
The stories of Delilah the Wily and her daughter took up the entirety of my mental bandwidth in yesterday’s recap. However, two of the other stories in this week’s sequence shared an important trait that should be acknowledged: an appearance by The Devil.
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.’
In the epic of ‘Ajib and Gharib, there is no scene more bizarre than the sudden and complete collapse of a city-state, after Gharib steals its idol on Night 674. It bears quoting in its full glory, which is why I did not excerpt it in the recap yesterday. Continue reading “What’s with the owls?”
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…
Kay Rasmus Nielsen (1886 – 1957) was a Danish illustrator. A couple of years ago a book of newly discovered illustrations for The Arabian Nights was published by Taschen. There’s an interesting interview with the editor of the book on the NPR website.