338—340 Harun al-Rashid, the slave girl and Abu Nuwas • 340—341 The man who stole the dog’s gold bowl • 341—342 The wali and the clever thief in Alexandria • 342—344 Al-Malik and his three walis • 344—345 The money-changer and the thief • 345—346 The wali of Qus and the trickster • 346—347 Ibrahim ibn al-Mahdi and the merchant • 347—348 The woman who gave alms to a poor man • 348—349 The pious Israelite • 349—351 Abu’l-Hassan al-Ziyadi and the man from Khurasan • 351 The poor man and his friends • 351—352 The rich man who lost and then regained his money • 352—353 The caliph al-Mutawakkil and the slave girl Mahbuba • 353—355 Wardan the butcher, the woman and the bear • 355—357 The princess and the ape • 357—371 The ebony horse • 371—381 Uns al-Wujud and al-Ward fi’l-Akmam • 381—383 Abu Nuwas and the three boys • 383 Abd Allah ibn Ma’mar al-Taimi, the Basran and the slave girl • 383—384 The ‘Udhri lovers • 384 The vizier of Yemen and his younger brother • 384—385 The lovers in the school • 385 Al-Mutalammis and his wife Umaima • 385—386 Harun al-Rashid and the Lady Zubaida in the pool • 386 Harun al-Rashid and the three poets
The Arabian Nights is often described as a ‘sea of stories’ and as the frequency of shorter tales increases in this section, that certainly feels apt. Thankfully, they do seem to share certain themes, which keeps the reader afloat.
The first such common thread is The Hustle: stories of con-men and marks. There is a clever thief who manages to steal the same bag of money twice. There are two notaries who manage to foil a qadi intent on exposing their debauchery. And there are a couple of stories of men who fall for the classic con-man trick: persuaded to pay for something valuable at a bargain price, only to find out later that what they have bought was not silver but tin.
There is also a story about Ibrahim ibn al-Mahdi, who historians say was an Abbasid prince, but who I say is a blagger. In order to meet a woman with whom he has fallen in love (having only seen her wrists), he tricks his way into her father’s household by walking in behind two other visitors. They think that he is a friend of the man of the house; while the host, in turn, thinks that the interloper is a friend of his guests.
On Nights 348 to 352, The Arabian Nights moves on to a batch of stories about generosity repaid. In one tale we hear of an Israelite who gives away half of his stuff to a beggar, who turns out to be one of God’s angels. In another story, we are told about a man from Khurasan who deposits some money with a trader before going on a pilgrimage. When he returns early to find that the trader has misused the money, he is remarkably sanguine about the loss and insists on forgiving the debt.
We are also presented with a story that starts in a rather gruesome manner but ends up being quite up-lifting. A woman defies a decree from the king, that no-one is to give alms to the poor. As a result, she is condemned to have her hands chopped off. Later, she marries that same king (it does not seem as though she has any choice in the matter), and is then abandoned in the desert when his other wives start a whispering campaign against her.
One thing I’ve noticed throughout the book is the number of instances where a caliph showers generosity on a protagonist (often accompanied by appointment to high office, despite scant evidence of the recipient’s competence to do the role). There are also cases where some lower official or merchant shows similar material kindness. Spreading one’s wealth is an important moral habit, but it is a particularly easy one for the wealthy caliphs to fulfil. What is a ten thousand dinar debt to Harun al-Rashid? What is a ceremonial robe or two?
But the characters at the centre of the stories mentioned above give generously in spite of their own well-being. When the Israelite and the Khurasanian give away heavy sums of money, it puts them into a very difficult financial position. And for the woman who has her hands cut off, doing the right thing is catastrophic. This is a far more demanding moral system than ‘repay your friends’ or ‘reward good work’ or whatever code is kept by the caliphs. It is, instead, the high sacrifice demanded by religions, and it is unsurprising that the woman’s reward for her selflessness is supernatural. I thought the revelation at the end of her story, that the two angels she meets are her two missing hands, was beautiful and poetic.
The theme switches up again on Night 353 through to Night 356, in a most unpalatable manner. We are presented with two very similar stories about women copulating with animals. In both cases, a market tradesman follows a woman home, discovers her shameful secret, and wreaks righteous vengeance on both the human and beast on behalf of nature and social mores. Both versions are gratuitous and deeply misogynist, and the dénouement to the story at the end of Night 356, where worms are excised from the woman’s vagina, is vile and irredeemable:
The old woman explained that the black worm had been produced when she had slept with the black slave and the yellow when she had lain with the ape.
After this undeniable low point, it is a relief that the two longer stories in this section are both intriguing in their own way. The Arabian Nights can switch from regression to relevance on a dime — a trick that is at once exasperating and compelling.
The first story is ‘The Ebony Horse,’ a tale about the disruptive effect of new technologies on an established order. The titular horse is a gift from a sorcerer to an unnamed king “of great power and dignity,” and is a prescient conjecture for how flying machines work. Although the Calcutta II text was assembled well before the Wright brothers, it is contemporaneous with the Montgolfier brothers, and the Ebony Horse works just like a hot air balloon—There is a knob on one side of the horse to make it rise, and another to make it fall. I wonder if the proto-aviation techniques that existed in the eighteenth century could have affected the transcription of this story?
Either way, what is noteworthy about the Ebony Horse is that it is explicitly described as a form of technology… although of course, everyone who encounters the horse assumes that it is the product of sorcery rather than engineering. I am reminded of Arthur C. Clarke’s adage that ‘any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.’ Even the person who makes the horse is referred to as a ‘sorcerer’, which is a shame when he could have been given a more idiosyncratic name like ‘horsewright’.
Weirdly, the failure to appreciate the mechanical nature of the horse seems to extend to prior readers of the story. None of the illustrations of the horse that I’ve found online seem to show that it is a machine.
In the world of The Arabian Nights, however, the Ebony Horse does offer powers akin to magic. It allows travel that is almost teleportation, a power previously the preserve of the jinni. When the prince takes the horse on a joyride to an unknown city “in the middle of a green and flourishing countryside,” he finds it enables him to overcome vast armies and allows unhampered entry to fortified palaces (he just lands the horse on the roof).
Everyone who encounters the Ebony Horse is in no doubt of its power. How curious, then, that the tale finishes with the king ordering that the horse be destroyed! This wraps up the story in a strong conservative message: technology is something to be feared, and the settled geopolitical order must not be disrupted. I suppose this makes laudable sense if one thinks of the Ebony Horse as primarily a military device. But when one considers its potential as a means of transport and communication, its destruction is a tragedy.
These pros, cons and contradictions make the Ebony Horse a brilliant, complex metaphor for the technological advances that have shaped the modern world: the internal combustion engine, nuclear fission, the Internet… or, for that matter, actual aeroplanes.
The story that follows ‘The Ebony Horse’ is a love quest. Al-Ward fi’l-Akmam, the vizier’s daughter, notices a Uns al-Wujud on the polo field, and they fall for each other at first sight (natch). Over an exchange of letters, they pledge themselves to one another. But when her Dad the vizier gets wind that his daughter is planning to elope with someone, he packs her off to a castle on the mysteriously named Mountain of the Mother Who Lost Her Child. Uns al-Wujud sets off after her.
Al-Ward is one of those characters, like Abriza or Marjana, who would be far more suited to another era. She sounds awesome:
Ibrahim had a daughter of remarkable beauty, unrivalled in the perfection of her loveliness, outstandingly cultured and of great intelligence. She had a fondness for wine and drinking parties, as well as a liking for handsome faces, elegant poetry and witty stories… because of her mastery of literature, she was a favourite drinking companion of the king.
Moreover, when imprisoned in the castle, she does not wait to be rescued like the classical færietale princesses. Instead, she fashions a ladder from sheets and abseils down the castle walls.
A feature that this story shares with pretty much every other in The Arabian Nights is the love poetry. Usually, a poem will just serve to convey the depth of feeling that one person has for another. In this story, however, the poems do extra work: they act as a klaxon to other characters. At every obstacle, our protagonists meet a person who has experienced a similar all-consuming love. And when those characters hear that Al-Ward and Uns al-Wujud are also in love, they choose to help out, in solidarity and sympathy.
Indeed, there is no actual antagonist in the story. The predicament is caused by the nebulous concept of ‘social stigma’ that prompts the ill-advised deportation. From then on, the characters are opposed only by the landscape. It is a journey, a dual odyssey, two fated lovers on an inevitable trajectory. The luck and co-incidences feel necessary and earned.
Two of the final stories in this crop deal with homosexuality. We have met gay characters before, but their sexual preferences have always been depicted as a flaw; or worse, as a signal of their inherent wickedness. We have also read sequences where homosexual sex is treated as a joke.
There are shades of both these sensibilities in the story on Night 381. We follow the libertine Abu Nuwas as he prepares a feast, and then ventures onto the streets to find a fitting companion to help him consume it. He catches sight of “three handsome beardless boys” whose “pliant bodies roused hopes.” He invites them back to his place for a party with promises of mutton, fowls, wine and fornication, and there are a couple of lines of poetry that suggest they will be remunerated:
I passed by two beardless boys and said:
‘I love you.’ They replied:
‘Are you a rich man?’ ‘Yes,’ I said, ‘and generous.’
The two boys then said: ‘Done.’
The signal in this story is certainly that homosexuality = debauchery and immorality, but that does not translate into poor consequences for those involved. During the party, none other than the caliph Harun al-Rashid pays a visit. Abu Nuwas speaks to him in a rather insolent manner, and it is only through his wit that he escapes with his head still attached to his neck. But what’s interesting is that it is the threat of execution comes because Abu Nuwas has been sarcastic. The Commander of the Faithful does not seem to care that Abu Nuwas has been fornicating with not one but three young men.
The subsequent story treats same-sex love with a little more reverence. Al-Sahib Badr al-Din, the vizier of Yemen, employs an old shaikh to tutor his younger, handsome brother. The old teacher falls in love with his young pupil and persuades him to sneak out of the house for a night-time visit. Badr al-Din notices his brother’s absence and becomes aware of the illicit affair, but after hearing the old shaikh recite love poetry, he decides to “leave them alone in perfect happiness.”
This is the first time in The Arabian Nights that such a relationship is presented without ridicule or judgement, but simply another love story. Yet again, this book adds another genre, another attitude to its pages… though I will say that in both stories the ambiguity of the translation provides cover for what could be highly problematic relationships between older and younger men. The reader has to make an interpretation for themselves. Personally, the emphasis on physical perfection in these two stories reminds me of Aschenbach and Tadzio in Thomas Mann’s Death In Venice, a story about yearning for lost youth.
- There’s a short story in this section about a man who has a dream that his fortune is to be found in Cairo, so he travels there. It’s one that was retold by Jorge Luis Borges and then reinterpreted by Paulo Cohelo in The Alchemist. There are many other ‘Borgesian’ moments in The Arabian Nights which I have been meaning to note for a while, so I will write a separate post about that.