170—249 The story of King Shahriman and his son, Qamar al-Zaman • 237—246 The story of Ni’ma ibn al-Rabi’ and Nu’m
Now here’s a story we can all care about: the patriarchy is under threat. Poor Shahriman has no son! What can he possibly do?
It turns out that the easiest and most effective fertility treatment is simply to perform the ritual ablution and two rak’as (prayers) before making love to one’s wife, and she is guaranteed to conceive. Why didn’t he try that before?
The child, fair as a full moon, is Qamar al-Zaman, who is brought up in “cosseted luxury.” The king, delighted to have an heir, cannot bear to be away from his offspring, and he ensures that they are never parted, by night or by day.
Having waited so long for a son, one might forgive the king his rather over-zealous parenting style. But it does, unfortunately, reap its own reward when Qamar comes of age, and refuses to marry.
Why the antagonism towards women? It turns out that during his years of education, the youth has radicalised by antiquity’s answer to the InCel community: Angry poets.
Disobey women, for that is true obedience to God;
The young man led by women will not prosper.
They will stop him from perfecting his virtues,
Even were he to spend a thousand years in study.
Coddled in his castle, Qamar has had no direct experience of women and the benefits they might bring, especially to someone of his rank. He nevertheless decides that Men Going Their Own Way is for him, and he refuses his father’s entreaties to marry, even when (on the advice of his father’s vizier) he is placed in solitary confinement in a haunted tower.
Qamar al-Zaman’s attitude would be insufferable, were it not for the fact that, in this story, there is a yin to his yang. The whiny self-sacrifice and steadfast refusal to marry takes on a different cast when exhibited by Badur.
She is a princess of the Chinese islands, the daughter of King al-Ghayur (not the most Chinese name, but we shall gloss over that). Despite the fact that he builds seven whole palaces for her, she refuses to be married off. “I have no wish for a man to rule over me,” she says, an attitude that stands in stark contrast to every female character we have encountered since Abriza.
It is pretty obvious by Night 179 where the story is going. Both Qamar al-Zaman and Princess Badur have their patrons in the realm of the jinni, who contrive to place them side-by-side just long enough for each to behold the other’s sleeping form and fall into mutual love. It would have been entertaining if their two ideologies had met and clashed in a fiery chauvinist vs feminist meet-cute, that eventually lead to love (or, alternatively, epic continental war) but again, that’s just not The Arabian Nights way.
It’s pleasing to meet some more jinni. By my reckoning, they have been absent from the stories since a jinniya and an ‘ifrit carried Hasan from Basra to Cairo, back on Night 22. Interestingly, in that story the reason for the transportation was to compare the beauty of two young people (Hasan and Sitt al-Husn) and so settle an argument, which is exactly what happens to Qamar and Badur on Night 180.
Neither sets of jinni have much regard for human concerns. They see people as curiosities, whose own wants and desires have no moral claim. When the jinniya Maimuna and the ‘ifrit Dahnash argue over which of ‘their’ two youths is more beautiful, it is as if they are arguing over a pair of poodles at a dog show. For the sake of a wager, they perform careless interventions that have seismic implications for the humans they toy with. Yes, Qamar and Badur do fall in love, but that causes years of pain and inconvenience that the jinni simply don’t care about. When the competition to see who has found the most beautiful human is judged a score-draw, they simply return Badur to her Chinese Islands and flutter off to do something else.
The comings and goings of human beings might be of great concern to us, but the jinni community is not so anthropocentric. This is very different to the depictions of jinni in popular Western culture (Aladdins of pantomime and Disney, mainly) where they are very much subservient to human affairs.
Just before the princess is returned to her own faraway chambers, the two destined lovers each take a ring from the other, which triggers a romantic adventure story. Heartache and illness (not unlike the decline of ‘Ali ibn Bakkar), then a shipwreck, followed by a camel ride across deserts. Finally, Qamar al-Zaman confidently pursues a high-risk courtship strategy. He must persuade Badur that he is her long lost love, or else lose his head. Of course, he succeeds and their marriage concludes the first Act of this saga.
The relationship of Qamar al-Zaman and Princess Badur is one tinged with narcissism. At more than one point in the story, the similarity between the two lovers is remarked upon, and they see themselves in the face of their beloved. “But, handsome as you are, I too am beautiful” says Badur on Night 185. They are fit, but my gosh, don’t they know it. This makes them a little less likeable than, say, Taj al-Muluk and Princess Dayna, who are equally radiant and headstrong, but less self-satisfied.
This confusion of romantic love and self-love is developed in the second section of the story. The newlyweds set off on a journey to see King Shahriman, who, after Qamar al-Zaman absconded on his quest for Badur, is still labouring under the misapprehension that his son had been mauled to death by a goat (the fact that Qamar had not thought to send a messenger back to his father before then is further evidence of his self-centeredness). Along the way, the two lovers are separated when Qamar chases a bird that is perhaps magic, perhaps a mirage, and Badur has to seek refuge in the kingdom of the Ebony Islands, ruled by King Armanus.
“If I go out and tell the servants that my husband is lost, they will lust after me and so I must think of some scheme”, says Badur. Is she rating her own beauty? Or sensibly protecting herself while surrounded by men? Either way, she dresses as a man in order to greet King Armanus, and quickly wins his favour as a vizier and advisor. Eventually the king marries off his daughter Hayat al-Nufus to Badur-in-disguise, and cedes the kingdom to her.
This is the first time in The Arabian Nights that we are presented with a woman ruler. There have been independently wealthy heads of household (think of the Porter’s Story, back on Night 9), and there were strong protagonists like Abriza or Nuzhat al-Zaman in the epic of ‘Umar ibn al-Nu’man. But Badur is the first to actually take charge of a kingdom, and she does it well: “They loved her and prayed that her reign might continue, believing that she was a man” (Night 210). No credit to the emirs and dignitaries of the story, who have been fooled by her disguise. But at least Badur is portrayed to us (and to Shahrazad’s king Shahriyar) as both confident and capable.
The disguise is not the first encounter with cross-dressing in The Arabian Nights (who can forget Dhat al-Dawahi’s havoc-wreaking turn as the ‘aesetic’) but I think this example has a deeper meaning. By wearing his clothes, Badur is in many ways taking on the form of her absent husband. The distinction between them is blurred.
Jumping ahead for a moment: This conflation of lovers into a single entity has a strong echo in the story-within-a-story presented a little later in this narrative. Ni’ma dresses as a servant girl in order to infiltrate the caliph’s palace, in search of his stolen lover Nu’ma. “By God, you are more beautiful than the girl” says the old woman on Night 243. Men can be better women than women; and women can be better men than men.
Badur’s Pope Joan episode also prompts a series of explicitly homosexual poetry. When Qamar eventually turns up at her court, she decides to seduce him… or rather, pressure him into sexual relations. Her husband expresses unease at what he believes to be adulterous homosexual advances, but reasons he has to surrender to the power of this ‘king’.
The recitations at this point are exclusively about the lustful, physical expression of homosexuality, rather than the possibility of same-sex love. This series of poems has none of the depth of feeling that we see in the poetry about heterosexuality.
Instead, they are bawdy and rude, and one can imagine this scene being performed to amused audiences: A back-and-forth between Qamar in a panic, and Badur teasing him, escalating the sexual proposition, with the audience fully ‘in’ on the joke. I am reminded of cross-dressing comedy scenes in Shakespeare—for example, Twelfth Night, where Olivia falls for Viola, thinking she is a man.
So if one is seeking crumbs of liberalism and tolerance for same-sex relationships, that is not to be found here. Yes, there are stanzas that, when shorn of the wider context, work fine as a homosexual platitude (“When market fruits are set out, as you see, some may choose figs and others sycamores”) but ultimately, this is a scene that makes a joke of homosexuality.
Badur eventually reveals herself to Qamar and—because this seems to be the natural way of things—she steps aside so that he may become king in her place. This is not the go-to story for gender equality either.
To wrap up the second Act, Qamar al-Zaman does a very odd thing: he agrees to take Hayat al-Nufus as a second wife. What of “my heart, torn to pieces by its love,” Qamar? What of “May I be stripped of your approval if I betrayed your love”?
Not only that, but Badur acquiesces to the marriage! All these choices are way out of character, given the abstinence and devotion that both Qamar and Badur previously displayed.
For a moment, I did wonder that the additional marriages were prompted by some Shakespearean sensibility on the part of Shahrazad, a compulsive insistence that every character needs to be married off by the end of the story. Hayat is going spare, polygamy is legal, and the two princesses had that moment (“the two played with each other, exchanging embraces and kisses”) on Night 211… So, why not!?
The real reason is more expedient but also more extraordinary. The marriage has nothing to do with tying up loose ends of the second section, but with teeing up the motivational premise of the final Act—an incestuous double-love-triangle.
Princess Badur has a son, al-Amjad; Hayat al-Nufus has a son, al-As’ad. Both are good looking boys, as one would expect from such luminescent parents. However, when they come of age, Hayat falls in love with al-Amjad, while Badur is similarly enamoured with al-As’ad. The women each confess their feelings to their respective step-sons in letters, and both are angrily rejected. Fearful that their proposed infidelity will be exposed, the women conspire against their sons, falsely accusing each of them of rape. Qamar al-Zaman orders his sons to be executed, but the young men escape their executioner and go on the run.
This extraordinary turn in the narrative is a set of compounded improbabilities. It is a story that properly belongs on PornHub.
Even by the standards of magical færie tales, it is entirely unbelievable—why would Hayat or Badur consent to a plan that killed their own sons? Moreover, the behaviour of the women is completely at odds with their characters, which have been established over many previous Nights. I mentioned Shakespeare above, and it is as if this scene is missing a Puck-like jinni with a magic potion, which would explain the complete character reversal. Either that, or a Hera-like curse that could cause this madness.
These events exist for one reason only, which is to set up the premise of the final Act, the travels of al-Amjad and al-As’ad. Some motivating factor is required for them to leave the comfort of their father’s palace and set off, unsupported, into the wilderness. And so for this, the consistency of the only two female characters in the story is sacrificed.
Worse, it validates the misogynistic idea that Qamar al-Zaman held at the start of the story, that women are inherently untrustworthy. It perpetuates the idea that false rape claims are a common occurrence, one which (as the hideous Brett Kavanaugh hearings of September 2018 demonstrated) still has common currency in the present day. Human culture does not need, and has never needed, this nonsense.
And another thing: the conspiracy makes no sense within the framing story either. Why would Shahrazad tell a story of the queens’ mendacity and sexual incontinence? Her goal is to remind Shahriyar of the humanity of women, not reinforce the prejudices that have led to his femicide. This story comes right after the king has begun to express regret from his past actions, and so it threatens to set back the progress Shahrazad has made so far. It’s infuriating.
If the reader can set aside the queens’ joint heel-turn, then they might notice that this part of the saga is a very close approximation of the story we in Europe know as Snow White. I don’t know enough about folklore classification, but I wonder if some index lists the motif lackey ordered to kill heir to the throne, and return with proof. Lackey gets cold feet, sends scion away, kills animal instead. In the Snow White version its a hunter and a stag heart. Here, it is (bizarrely) a treasurer and the blood of a lion.
One of The Arabian Nights more common tropes, that of accidental separation, occurs at several points in this saga. The highborn fall into poverty and are forced to undertake a journey. In doing so they overcome adversity, make friends and learn kindness. Qamar al-Zaman, for example, is separated from Badur during their honeymoon, when he chases that bird that is possibly a mirage. He is at his most likeable when he is staying in an orchard with the gardener, “working for a quarter share of the prophets.”
Later, al-Amjad and al-As’ad are forced apart when the former is taken ill and the latter is kidnapped by the Sheikhs of Fire. This is highly reminiscent of the separation of Dau’ al-Malkan and Nuzhat al-Zaman back on Night 54, and with similar outcomes. Like Dau’ al-Malkan, al-Amjad benefits from the kindness of strangers and so climbs the social ladder. And although al-As’ad is sold into slavery, he achieves some respite when purchased by a benevolent monarch. This was Nuzhat’s exact trajectory too.
Unlike Nazhat, or indeed his brother, al-Amjad’s does not seem to grow during his time of penury. His episode with Bahadur, the kings equerry, is an example of seeking to have one’s cake and eat it. Al-Amjad hooks up with a beautiful woman of “symmetrical figure” whom he meets at the beach. Despite reciting lines of love at each other, for some reason he is turned off by her indication that she is willing to marry him. He tries to lose her in the city (Night 231):
I have heard, O fortunate king, that al-Ahmad grasped the point of her allusion, and realised that she wanted to accompany him wherever he was going. He felt obliged to find a place for her, but he was ashamed to take her to his master, the tailor. He walked in ahead and she followed him, and he kept going from lane to lane and place to place until she got tired.
Too cowardly to just come out and say what he is thinking, al-Ahmad instead lies to the girl about his social status, and so becomes embroiled in a comedy of manners. They break into Bahadur’s house, who gamely assists al-Amjad by pretending to be his slave. This is a jolly farce, right up until the point where the story abruptly switches genres mid-flow, a trick we have seen The Arabian Nights perform before. Suddenly, the girl (never herself named) decides that the ‘slave’ has disrespected them and must be beheaded. Al-Amjad, conscious of the fact that the intended victim is actually a generous equerry, cannot let that happen. But instead of confessing his social faux pas he… beheads the girl instead.
Bahadur helps him dispose of the body, but is then arrested and sentenced to death. At this point, Al-Anjan does confess to having been the cause of the girl’s death, and instead of being summarily convicted of murder, his sins are forgiven by an understanding king. The girl becomes the latest item of collateral damage caused by the emotions of al-Majad and his family, joining the woman that Badur killed when she was sure Qamar had been in her bed-chamber; joining the pile of doctors and astrologers who failed to cure Badur of her lovesickness; and joining the eunuchs who brought the ill-judged letters of love from the queens to their step-sons. The Arabian Nights excuses all of these casual murders because they are committed by royals. It detracts and distracts.
Once this unedifying episode is over, the saga ties up all its loose ends in just a couple of pages, just like the previous long story. This time, the task is achieved by means of a comedic scene in which four separate armies all converge on the same spot, ready to conquer whoever they find there. Each army is led by one of the monarchs we have met over the course of the epic: Mariana, al-Ghayur, Armanus and finally Shahriman, and so we have a grand reunion. It’s an amusing scene, the sort of ridiculousness that might befall the protagonists in a Mel Brooks movie.
Having itemised the plot points and noted both the narrative flaws and dubious moral notes in this long story, I think I find it frustrating precisely because of the regular genre-switching. The rules that the story sets for itself—whether it’s the motivations of the characters, how they feel about one another, or simply what kind of story it is—are frequently reset, and this jars.
I know that this is probably because they were originally separate stories that were subsequently strung together. But that does not make for a good saga, and we should not excuse the authors of Calcutta II in this regard. They know how to construct a narrative. In the long story that centred around Dau’ al-Malkan, the choices made by characters at the start had very real implications down the generations. Those consequences are absent from this tale.
Ultimately, the story of Qamar al-Zaman and his family would have been far more immersive if each of the major acts had been its own story, with its own internal coherence. This, too, is something that The Arabian Nights has already proven it can do very well with its ‘nesting’ of stories, so its a shame and a surprise that the established structural approach is not utilised here.
- An inspired, if slightly disconcerting, metaphor from Night 172:
The shining sun is inferior
And the crescent moon a clipping of his fingernail.
- Night 176:
A man dies through a slip of his tongue,
And not through a slip of his foot.
A slip of the tongue costs him his head,
While the other can be cured at leisure.
This is spoken by someone in a very particular predicament but it seems ‘free speechy’ to me. Relevant in an age of Twitter storms, offence-giving and taking. It’s the opposite of the ‘sticks and stones may break my bones’ rhyme.
- “Her saliva is sweeter than wine and its taste would quench the torture of hellfire,” (Night 178). I like this comparison between wine and saliva. It’s a recurring metaphor in The Arabian Nights.
- “She’s nothing but a urine scraper” (Night 179). Sick burn.
- It was pleasing to meet some genuine malevolent antagonists, in the form of the Fire Sheikhs, on Night 227. But although they menace al-As’ad, they never become as formidable an adversary as Dhat al-Dawahi. I would have liked to have seen more of them, with escalating stakes.
- Who should appear in the chamber of the fire sheikhs to torture al-As’ad?
And out came a tall black slave, with a fearsome form, a grim face and a flat nose.
(Night 227). It’s Ghadban, the notorious slave from the earlier saga. Crossover villainy! I think the only other character that has been mentioned in more than one story is caliph Harun al-Rashid, who is an established historical figure.
- On Night 236, the daughter of Bahram hears this: “If anyone has with him a handsome young man of such-and-such description” … Such-and-such? Burton translates ‘whose favour is thus and thus’. Either way: Come on Shahrazad, you’re flagging!