107—137 The story of Taj al-Muluk Kharan and Princess Dunya • 112—128 The story of ‘Aziz and ‘Aziza
The tale of Taj al-Majuk and his friend Aziz is embedded within the saga of King ‘Umar ibn al-Nu’man. It is a long story in itself but one so different in both scope and tone from its ‘parent’ story I thought I would comment on it separately in this, an additional post for the week.
Let’s get the marriage of Taj al-Majuk’s parents out of the way first, because that is a story entirely without redemption. The king hears of a beautiful princess in a distant kingdom, and despatches his vizier to propose marriage. The girl’s father agrees immediately, so the king gets the girl. Women as chattels with a side order of yawn. Or perhaps the literary equivalent of Hello magazine: easy loving, easy living and entirely fake.
Things get better when Taj al-Majuk grows up and sets out on adventures of his own, and particularly when he meets Aziz, whose story is both intellectually compelling and utterly bonkers.
The tale of Aziz and his cousin Aziza is one that explores ideas of signs, signals and meaning. Walking through the souq, young Aziz spots a beautiful woman sitting at a window. She performs a set of elaborate hand gestures but says nothing. Bemused, Aziz mentions this to his cousin Aziza (who is in love with him) and asks him to translate. This she does, telling him that the mysterious signs are a special kind of courtship—the woman is making advances. In the days that follow, Aziza continues to offer her interpretation as the signs left by the mystery woman become more elaborate.
For a while, it is uncertain whether Aziza actually knows the secret code, or whether she is just making stuff up because she thinks it will make Aziz happy.
These passages prompt thoughts about how much of our lives depend on a shared knowledge of signs and gestures, and how quickly things can go awry when we misinterpret something (I once wrote a short story about one such meeting, where eye contact does not mean what the narrator assumes). This is the stuff of mystery and suspense novels: a clue could mean one thing, but it could equally mean another, and there is no way to know which interpretation is correct without more information. This is not just a problem for chance encounters at a window or on a train. Entire belief systems and conspiracy theories can be constructed around the (mis)interpretation of single pieces of information, and numerologists can use an assumption for what the code might be to extract divine wisdom from ancient texts.
I do not deny I was hoping that Aziz’s silent courtship would turn out to be a folly; that he had misinterpreted all the signs and his paramour, when she finally spoke, would have clarified that the entire interaction was a Tale Told By An Idiot. But The Arabian Nights has not, so far, played those kinds of tricks on its characters and it turns out Aziza does know the secret code.
Bizarrely, it also turns out that the mystery woman is a serial killer, who makes love to men before killing them. Aziz’s life is only spared because he is able to blurt out a safe word that Aziza teaches him to say, right before she dies of suspected heart-break.
Having been told by the mystery woman (we later come to know her as the ‘Daughter of Delilah the Wily’) that she had planned to kill him, one would have expected Aziz to put as much distance between them as possible. Not so! Seduced by her charms (and, it seems, the fact that she ‘puts out’ for him) he stays in contact with her, assuming he has her protection. He is right in that assumption… right up until the moment when he encounters another psychopath, living right across the street.
Poor Aziz! He is walloped over the head by an old woman, forced to marry her daughter, and then imprisoned in their house for an entire year, where he can only eat and perform conjugal services. And on the anniversary of his incarceration, he escapes back to the Daughter of Delilah the Wily, who pins him down and castrates him.
As Aziz’s narration concluded on Night 128, I initially felt cheated out of an ‘answer’ to the mystery of precisely what the poetical messages recited by Aziza and the ‘Daughter of Delilah the Wily’ actually meant, and what the evident commonality between the two women had been. But on further reflection, I think it is right that the tale is left ambiguous. When coupled with the violent tendencies of the women Aziz meets, the gaps in the backstory allow one’s imagination to conjure bizarre potential explanations. I think of comedies like Mr and Mrs Smith or Keeping Up With the Joneses, where suburban couples turn out to be highly trained assassins; or the clandestine world of Eyes Wise Shut where drug-fuelled orgies could be taking place next door. The way Aziza talks strongly implies that hundreds of local women have been inducted into the secret society, and anyone, at any time, could turn and cut your throat, if only you utter the wrong code word. It is foreboding and terrifying. I’m amazed Aziz wants to return to his home city after he escapes on Night 127.
It is only when Aziz crosses paths with Taj al-Majuk that the latter’s story grinds into motion. The two team up to visit the Islands of Camphor, where (in a parallel to his father’s courtship) dwells the person with whom Taj has fallen in love despite never having met her. He becomes besotted with Princess Dunya purely on the basis of her creative needlework which does, I suppose, make a change from falling in love with someone because they have a radiant face.
Initially, the character of Dunya is a breath of fresh air. She is not interested in marriage and actually threatens to kill herself and any suitors presented to her (though presumably not in that order). Nor does she immediately fall in love with someone because of what they write. When Taj al-Majuk sends letters to her, she threatens him with death too.
Alas, when they actually meet in person, she falls in love with him at first sight. It would have been a far better story if she had been wooed entirely through the persistence and disobedience of the letters he sends her.
It’s difficult to discern what motivates the old nurse, who acts as a messenger between Taj al-Maluk and Dunya. Is it the prince’s fine features, or something more material? The nurse is ultimately sincere, but there is an amusing passage near the end of the courtship where she is very comfortable taking gifts from both lovers as she delivers messages between them. There is a modern rom-com farce in this story to be uncovered, if only someone would chip away at the increasingly exasperating love-at-first-sight tropes.
I very much enjoyed this poem from Night 133, one of the letters Taj al-Maluk writes to Danya. It has a wonderful self-referential quality:
I have written you a letter, you who are my wish,
Telling of how I suffer from the pain of separation.
Its ﬁrst line tells of the ﬁre within my heart,
Its second of my passion and my longing.
The third tells how my life and patience waste away;
The fourth says: ‘All the passion still remains.’
The ﬁfth asks: ‘When shall my eyes rest on you?’
And the sixth: ‘On what day shall we meet?’
It was the promise of such curiosities of form that drew me to The Arabian Nights in the first place.
- “Symmetrically formed, with kohl-dark eyes, long hair, a slender waist and heavy buttocks. See from in front she fascinates, and seen from behind she kills.” Isn’t there a Nicki Minaj song about this?
- I think for the first time in The Arabian Nights, we have a mention of male homosexuality, discussed in the character of the superintendent (Night 131).
He was “passionately fond of murderous glances and who preferred to love of boys to that of girl’s, inclining to the sour rather than the sweet.
- I was worried that this would lead to a deeply homophobic portrayal of a villain, but in fact it leads nowhere.
- The wisest person in the story, who introduces the King Sulaiman Shah to his wife, and then secures the marriage of Taj al-Muluk to Dayna, is the vizier. And who is telling this sub-story to Dau’ al-Malkan? Why, none other than Dandan… his vizier. Talk about transparent.
- “If someone says: ‘Love starts with choice,’ tell them: That is a lie; it all comes from necessity.’” (Night 113) I don’t suppose this aphorism was referring to homosexuality, but it fits.
- There is plenty of sex in these stories, with The Arabian Nights trademark humorous euphemisms for the act of copulation. The best? Night 118: “And joined the girl’s earring to her anklet.”
- Again with the alternative to happily ever after:
… and they continued to lead the most delightful and pleasant of lives until they were visited by the destroyer of delights.
- The parent story also ends the same way.
Next week: Nights 146 to 152.