45—145 King ‘Umar ibn al-Nu’man and his family • 142—143 The story of the hashish addict
The story of the religious war resumes with what can only be described as fan service for the Muslim audience of The Arabian Nights. Shahrazad does not hold back in her scathing depiction of the Christians. Rituals involving the patriarchs’ excrement are described, leaving us in no doubt as to who are the ‘goodies’ and who are the ‘baddies’ in the conflict.
This is disappointing. We have already been introduced to both Emperor Afridun and Hardub, the King of Rum, and both seem like rational men. We have seen them set aside vendettas. Their anger at King ‘Umar ibn al-Nu’man, who so mistreated Abriza, is entirely justified. So the belated attempted to paint these men as disgusting barbarians falls flat for me. As the champions prepared, I realised that I was on #TeamByzantine. Not, I assume, the position that the original audience would have taken, and one that casts the rest of this saga in a light that I doubt the authors intended.
Digressions are baked into the structure of The Arabian Nights. The book trusts its readers, as Shahrazad trusts King Shahriyar, to follow the narrative, despite stories-within-stories or extended theological lectures delivered by one of the characters.
That said, during my most recent recap, I didn’t want to derail the discussion with a diversion into free speech theory. As such, I did not include this quote from Night 79. It is part of a speech spoken by one of Dhat al-Dawahi’s erudite slave girls, to King ‘Umar ibn al-Nu’man, which is in turn (keep up!) retold to Dau’ al-Malkan by the vizier Dandan:
Know that your enemy is an opponent with whom you can argue, whom you can convince with proofs and against whom you can guard yourself, while between you and your friend the only judge who can adjudicate is good character. Test your friend before choosing him. If he is one of those who lives for the next world, let him follow faithfully the externals of the law, while knowing its secret meaning, as far as this is possible. If he is an adherent of this world, he should be liberal and truthful, and neither ignorant nor wicked. His own parents should ﬂee from the ignorant man, while the liar cannot be a friend, as the word “friend” derives from “truth”. This comes from the depth of the heart, so how can it apply to one Whose tongue speaks falsehood?
With the story of King ‘Umar ibn al-Nu’man and his family, The Arabian Nights shifts into a longer storytelling mode. Over the past 45 nights, we’ve been treated to more than a dozen stories; and now we have a saga that in itself stretches over 100 nights, one-tenth of the entire collection. This change of pace and ambition allows for some deeper storytelling. Scenes of conflict or seduction that might have been simply asserted in earlier stories are here given space which immerses the reader (at least, this reader) into the world of the Nights. It’s a tale that marries battles between vast kingdoms, with the stories of personal intrigue: love, jealousy, pride and revenge.
The saga of ‘Umar ibn al-Nu’man is Game of Thrones, basically.
One issue with these images, and probably the others that I will post in the coming weeks, is that of ‘Orientalism’ — the distortion of Eastern cultures in their depiction by Western artists.
I suppose that these pictures could contribute to that problem. But the issue is complicated in the case of The Arabian Nights, which is itself an amalgam of many disparate cultures. The stories within are not a depiction of any real tradition (even those which feature historical people like caliph Harun al-Rashid). I leave it up to the individual to make up their own mind.
34—38 Nur al-Din Ali and Anis al-Jalis • 38—45 Ghanim ibn Ayyub, the slave of love • 39 The story of the eunuch Bukhait • 39—40 The story of the eunuch Kafur
Is it me, or are the two stories in this set of nights a little more sophisticated and mature than those that came prior?
The first is the story of Nur Al-Din, which is at once a drama of power and influence and yet also a morality tale about how kindness and generosity will be rewarded.
There are two rival viziers in a sultan’s court. Al-Fadl is kind and just, while al-Mu’in is a more malevolent operator. The former is set the task of procuring a beautiful slave girl for the sultan, a task that he performs with diligence and efficiency. Unfortunately, the project is entirely derailed by his son Nur Al-Din, a lothario who seduces and then subsequently falls in love with the girl, Anis al-Jalis (in yet another Love At First Sight, Face Like The Moon situation).
This is not just a social faux pas. Bedding the sultan’s concubine is theft and embezzlement, which gives al-Mu’in the leverage he needs to cause mischief. When al-Fadl dies, al-Mu’in manages to politically skewer Nur al-Din, who flees with his lover. Continue reading “Nights 34 to 44: Shahrazad’s Emerging Voice”
19—24Harun al-Rashid and the fisherman’s chest • 19—24 The story of the young man and the three apples • 20—24 The story of Nur al-Din and Shams al-Din • 24—34 The hunchback • 25—26 The Christian’s story • 27—28 The inspector’s story • 28—29 The Jewish doctor’s story • 29—34 The tailor’s story • 31—34 The story of the barber • 31 The story of the barber’s first brother • 31—32 The story of the barber’s second brother • 32 The story of the barber’s third brother • 32 The story of the barber’s fourth brother • 32—33 The story of the barber’s fifth brother • 33 The story of the barber’s sixth brother
As Shahrazad finds her rhythm with a set of slightly longer stories, The Arabian Nights establishes a sort of internal logic. It is a world built around and for kings, and the stories exist because of them. Most of the tales so far have ended with the king to whom it was told ordering that it be written down. It is an endorsement and an approval, and it offers an explanation for why Shahrazad has heard it and can recite it.
1—3 • The merchant and the jinni • 1—2 The story of the first old man • 2 The story of the second old man • 2—3 The story of the third old man • 3—9 The fisherman and the ‘ifrit • 4—5 The story of King Yunan and Duban the sage • 5 The story of King Sindbad and the falcon • 5 The story of the treacherous vizier • 7—8 The story of the semi-petrified prince • 9—19 The porter and the three ladies • 11—12 The story of the first dervish • 12—14 The story of the second dervish • 13 The story of the envious and the envied • 14—16 The story of the third dervish • 17—18 The story of the lady of the house • 18 The story of the doorkeeper
“A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step”
— Lao Tzu, Tao Te Ching (Ch. 64)
The prospect of reading The Arabian Nights is a daunting one. It will be an epic journey of sorts, even if it is one taken from the comfort of one’s home rather than a trudge across the dunes or a hike up a mountain.
But just as every journey begins with a single step, our assault on this three-volume mountain of literature must begin with the first page and the first Night.
Nights 1 to 18 comprise three sets of stories: ‘The Merchant and the Jinni’, ‘The Fisherman and the Ifrit’, and ‘The Porter and the Three Ladies’. Each is slightly longer than the last, and each is more ‘nested’ as Shahrazad presents more stories within stories. But I’d say that these tales do a good job of setting expectations for the Nights to come. Themes are established and, even in these early literary foothills, we see tropes recurring in different stories.
The one thing that I (and, one suspects, most new readers) know about The Arabian Nights is the basic premise: that Shahrazad finds herself in the king’s presence, telling stories to save her life. We open with a framing narrative that explains why this should be so: the king has been cuckolded by a slave and therefore killed his queen. Fearful of a repeat, he resolves to ‘deflower’ a different girl every night and kill her in the morning.
Throughout this project, I will refer to the book I am reading as The Arabian Nights. Yes, I know that is only one of its possible names. It might also be called The Arabian Nights Entertainments, The Thousand and One Nights, or The Book of A Thousand Nights and a Night.
In any case, the book’s ‘real’ name is ‘Alf layla wa-layla.
أَلْف لَيْلَة وَلَيْلَة
I also know that to describe the stories as ‘Arabian’ is a something of a misnomer when the collection apparently includes stories set in China, India, the Levant, North Africa, Persia, and Turkey, and therefore features plenty characters who do not speak Arabic.
However, set against all this is the fact that the version I will be reading – the three-volume Penguin Classics edition published in 2010 – is a translation from Arabic, and is formally published as The Arabian Nights: Tales of 1,001 Nights. I’d rather not keep typing all that, so for simplicity’s sake, I will just refer to it as The Arabian Nights in my recaps, for now at least. If anyone feels strongly that I should not do that, then please let me know.
Why do any of us read anything? I have been meaning to read the Arabian Nights, or The Thousand and One Nights, for many years. Whenever I tell anyone that I have an interest in non-linear fiction, they usually mention the nested, story-within-a-story structure for which the tales are famous. In response, I have always said that I would get around to reading the collection “at some point.”
During such conversations, I also tend to mention that one of my favourite authors, Jorge Luis Borges, was obsessed with The Thousand and One Nights. That fact alone is enough reason for me to read the stories, if only to understand Borges’ work and sensibilities a little better. So it has been on my ‘to read’ list for a while. Continue reading “A short introduction before we get started”