19—24 Harun 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.
This patronage also offers some explanation for why royalty (whether king, caliph or sultan) is always portrayed as just and rational, even when they are clearly being whimsical or downright mendacious. Thus the caliph in ‘The Story of the Three Apples’ (Night 19) is portrayed as a neutral arbitrator, even as he exonerates three men involved in what is essentially an honour killing. When the caliph of Egypt kidnaps his son-in-law, threatens summary execution, and then tricks him into believing that the last decade of his life has been a dream (‘The story of Nur al-Din,’ Nights 19 to 24), these mind games are presented as wisdom rather than messed-up control-freakery. There is a real sense of royal infallibility that has built up through the stories so far. And why not? Shahrazad has to flatter her king, and one imagines that the rulers of the cities and territories where these stories were first gathered would also have to be appeased.
I am enjoying the recurring trope that often appears at the end of one story and the beginning of the next, where Shahrazad or one of her sub-narrators hints that the next story is better than the last. ‘Do not wonder at this tale for it is not more astonishing than the story of the vizier Nur al-Din ‘Ali, the Egyptian, and Sham al-Din Muhammad, his brother’ says Ja’far the vizier in the ‘The Story of the Fisherman’s Chest’ (Night 20). The stories sometimes become a form of one-upmanship, a medieval rap battle. The trope is hilariously subverted in ‘The Hunchback’ however—the king complains about the stories told by the Christian, the Inspector and the Jewish doctor, each being worse that the last:
Is this not more remarkable than the story of the hunchback, O king of the age?’
The king replied: ‘I must very certainly hang you all.’
So far it seems that The Arabian Nights is not particularly interested in how people fall in love. It happens pretty much instantly. ‘When I heard her voice, love for her took hold of my heart’ says the Man With One Arm (Night 25). Or this, on Night 27:
… and when she uncovered her face, I saw that she was as radiant as the moon. The glance that I threw her was followed by a thousand sighs, and love for her became fixed in my heart.
Well, I suppose that’s fine: instant love is a trait shared with Western færie stories like Cinderella. We have not yet encountered a slow-burning love story in the Beauty and the Beast mould. I guess the closest we’ve come is ‘The Story of the Second Dervish’ back on Night 12, who happens upon “a girl like a splendid pearl” who has been forced to marry an ifrit. Their love grows as he tries to alleviate her captivity.
So rather than romance, The Arabian Nights (so far) concerns itself with what people will do after love strikes. We read about the compromising predicaments people fall into, and the rash decisions they make, once they have succumbed to love. They might risk a clandestine liaison that results in someone losing an arm or an eye; spend all their money on lavish hospitality for the object of their desire (Night 26); or humiliate themselves in front of the maids (Night 32).
The ‘happily ever after’ conclusions are scarce. In one case (The Christian’s Story, Night 26), a seemingly happy marriage is cut short by the abrupt illness and death of the narrator’s wife. This happens because the phenomenon of love is not the point of the story, but a means to an end. The woman is not a properly drawn character, but a shortcut for the man to acquire substantial capital… and then lose an arm. Such women, therefore, play a similar role to the improbable girlfriends of modern cinema, who have no interiority of their own, and are instead a device to advance the protagonist’s narrative. The merchant’s wife is a Manic Pixie Dream Dowry.
And so often, those dowries go to waste. The stories in this section catalogue the many ways in which one may build up honour and fortune, and then lose it in an instant. Not everyone marries into money – Some of the characters run a business (there are plenty of instructions on arbitrage, money lending and other types of profit) while others inherit from a successful father. But however the fortune is acquired, so often the story is about how it is lost.
The row of six stories, told by the barber about his brothers, are particularly cruel in this regard. Each has the bad luck to meet and be abused by a charlatan. For all the jinni ex machina that we have encountered so far in The Arabian Nights, none care to show up and deliver these sorry men from poverty, misery and mutilation. Magic has taken a sudden leave of absence.
Shahrazad offers us the tiniest sliver of light at the end of this long sequence when the barber is offered robes and ‘a regular salary.’ But even the happy ending here is coloured by existential dread:
He was appointed court barber and taken as a companion by the king. They all continued to lead the most pleasant and delightful of lives until they met death, the destroyer of delights and the partner of companions.
What a downer!
I think the story that begins on Night 28 is the darkest farce. A man who has unwisely engaged in a ménage a trois wakes up to find one of them dead in the bed next to him with her throat cut. He spends a lot of time, money and mental energy seeking to conceal the murder, but his past eventually catches up with him. He is exonerated, but not before he has lost an arm. It is a tale full of irony and jealously, where the actions of others become a force of nature that the protagonist cannot beat back. It is sort of story that one might see in a Cohen brothers movie, if the Cohen brothers made films in Homs, Damascus or Aleppo.
- Speaking of film-making, the barber’s story that begins on Night 30 would make a brilliant short film. It has just two antagonistic characters and one main setting (the barber’s shop). A customer makes several attempted to hurry along, and then get rid of, the talkative barber. The customer ultimately misses his date, but the fact that this probably saves his life is an amusing twist.
- Last time, I noted that The Arabian Nights confounds expectations one might have of an antique text, by being funny. It also confound expectations by being rather risqué. It has plenty of examples of men ‘playing’ with women and spending the night, and also this passage from the story of Hasan and Sitt al-Husn (Night 22):
… he took off his turban and set it on a chair, leaving him wearing only a ﬁne shirt embroidered with gold. At that, Sitt al-Husn went up to him and drew him to her as he drew her to him. He embraced her and placed her legs around his waist. He then set the charge, ﬁred the cannon and demolished the fortress. He found his bride an unbored pearl and a mare that no one else had ridden, so he took her maidenhead and enjoyed her youth. Then he withdrew from her and after a restorative pause, he returned ﬁfteen times, as a result of which she conceived.
When he had finished, he put his hand beneath her head and she did the same to him, after which they embraced and fell asleep in each other’s arms.
- Buried within a poetic description of beauty (Night 24) is an incongruous line, which reads “the tongue has wittiness.” Burton translates this line as “a winning tongue.” Either way it is interesting that the conception of beauty being presented here includes what one says, alongside clear skins and a good nose.
Coming soon: Nights 34 to 44