45—145 King ‘Umar ibn al-Nu’man and his family
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.
This is not an idle comparison. There are rivals and pretenders to the throne, manipulated by courtiers. Scions of nobility are forced into poverty, one of whom is forced to make a cross country trip in the company of a more streetwise commoner. There are improbable fighting champions. There are continental wars ignited by kings acting on lust and pride. And there is a narratively delicious revenge poisoning.
Oh yes, and there is also incest — although the unfortunate case of Sharkan and Nuzhat al-Zaman the intercourse is rather less intentional than the famously shameless coupling of Jamie and Cersei Lannister.
And then there is the female warrior Abriza, surely the most confident and powerful female character we have met so far in the Arabian Nights. We when we first meet her, Shahrazad trots out another (now clichéd) ‘face like a moon’ description, but she quickly turns out to be very different from the passive princesses and slave girls we have encountered so far. Her first act is to defeat ten other young women in bouts of naked wrestling, which surely prickles the reader’s interest as much as it does Sharkan, who watches from across the stream. She then takes on two more opponents: first her (also naked) grandmother, who “looked like a spotted snake or a hairless ‘ifrit” (Night 47), and then Sharkan himself, who blames his perpetual loss on her beauty.
Abriza does not take any bullshit from anyone. She orders Sharkan about and makes demands on his honour. And when her father’s emissary Masura arrives with soldiers to arrest Sharkan, Abriza tells him in no uncertain terms where he can stick his spears. One feels confident that she could have taken on all the men in Masura’s platoon herself. When she allows Sharkan to defeat them on her behalf, it feels like she is throwing him a bone, a platitude to his pride after wounding it during the wrestle.
Sharkan charged at them with a heart harder than stone and crushed them as though on a threshing floor, robbing them of their wits and their lives. (Night 50)
Abriza’s worth as a fighter and a leader is proven beyond all doubt in what I think is my favourite scene in this sequence, which occurs on Night 50. Sharkan and his soldiers encounter a Frankish army whom they engage in a frustrating war of attrition. Sharkan eventually challenges the Frankish leader to a duel, which continues for an exhausting three nights. At the end of each day the tension ratchets as Sharkan considers new ways to defeat his opponent, and the reader begins to wonder whether our ostensible hero will prevail.
The fact that the Frankish champion is actually Abriza in disguise is heavily telegraphed throughout Night 50:
… his face was like the full moon when it rises; in his hand was an Indian sword… his own face was hairless
This is exactly the sort of revelation that we might encounter in modern storytelling, whether literature, television or film. A few weeks ago, when I recapped Nights 1 to 18, I wondered whether such twists would present themselves. So I am ashamed to confess that I myself failed to make the connection, until the big reveal near the end of Night 50! I think I became so caught up in the narrative of how Sharkan might win the battle, I overlooked the clues that, in re-reading, are embarrassingly repetitive and obvious. That’s the sign of good storytelling.
I cannot decide whether Abriza’s death on Night 52 is also good storytelling. Having burnt bridges with her own family, she has little choice but to return with Sharkan to Baghdad, where she becomes a guest of his father King ‘Umar ibn al-Nu’man. Unfortunately, the king becomes obsessed with her beauty. On the advice of Dandan his vizier, he drugs her and then rapes her while she is unconscious.
Although The Arabian Nights does not use the word ‘rape’, the act is presented as unambiguously wicked (“tempted by the devil” in the Lyons translation; “seduced by Satan” in Burton’s version). The unpleasant aftermath is described too: Abriza’s maidservant Marjana is called to clean the “blood flowing over her thighs” and we also read of Abriza’s distress and withdrawal when she realises what has happened. The episode is depressing… but at least the book makes a moral judgment against it, which it has not always done in other instances of violence against women.
Abriza’s death at the hands of Ghadban is doubly disappointing. First, that it happens at all: I had hoped after she realised what King ‘Umar ibn al-Nu’man had done, she would have an opportunity to seek revenge.
Second, it’s a shame that The Arabian Nights falls back to stereotypes, presenting a ‘black slave’ as, by nature, a sexual monster. After the fun we had with Bukhait and Kufar in the previous run of stories, it was not unreasonable to have expected something better, especially opposite a character as developed as Abriza.
It now occurs to me that an early an unexpected death of a major character is yet another way in which this story prefigures Game of Thrones. Those deaths usually perpetuate the wars and provide motivation for the other characters… which is exactly what happens here.
Abriza is at least avenged in spectacular fashion by her grandmother Dhat al-Dawahi. One cannot help but relish the description of her protracted manipulation of ‘Umar ibn al-Nu’man and her poisoning of him on the thirtieth day of his fast, and one feels that Shahrazad and the actual authors of The Arabian Nights enjoy it too. For once, an evil king has received his just deserts. This is progress of a kind—I just wish it did not have to come at the expense of such a bold character.
Abriza’s life and death is not the only plot in this long story. Following her death, we turn to the exploits of the twins Nuzhat al-Zaman and Dau’al-Malkan. This passage, which begins with an ill-advised pilgrimage, feels like a reversion to the storytelling mode we experienced on earlier nights. In particular, the twins’ descent into penury seems to echo the litany of woes that the barber described on Nights 31 to 33, or the delirious poverty experienced by Ghanim ibn Ayyub on Night 42. Yet again, there is no magic or djinn to deliver the protagonists away from their plight, but their virtues do bring them a sort of luck. Dau’al-Malkan finds a protector in a kind furnaceman, while Nuzhat al-Zaman’s high-born education means that she is… an extremely valuable commodity. This in turn means she finds her way to her half-brother Sharkan’s palace in Damascus.
Nuzhat’s arrival on Night 60 begins an interesting digression from the story into the realm of political philosophy. Asked to demonstrate her learning, Nuzhat begins to recite all manner of aphorisms and wisdom that might be useful to kings. This mind dump of political and theological morality is repeated later in the story. The five slave girls brought before King ‘Umar ibn al-Nu’man and his vizier Dubai are similarly well-read, and don’t mind showing it.
Much of Nuzhat’s advice is admirable, even in the modern context. She is in favour of philosopher kings, and Rule of Law backed by force. She praises the ‘king who protects the sacred’. ‘Humility is the best type of reputation’ she says, and ‘good deeds are the best merchandise.’ Would that we all lived by such creeds.
Then again, she also drops this doozy:
‘Ali – May God enoble his face – said: ‘Beware the evils done by women and be on your guard against them; do not consult them on any matter, but do not be stinging of your favours to them lest they be tempted to plot against you.’
Not that Nuzhat would know this, but it’s an odd thing to say to Sharkan. Having been defeated by, and enjoyed the protection of Abriza, he knows better than to have any truck with such sexism.
Since the story of King ‘Umar ibn al-Nu’man and his family is so long, this is the first time I have written a recap while I am still unsure about how the story ends. I picked the end of Night 89 as the cut-off purely because that is the middle night of the story, but it turns out to be a perfect pause point. The Christian and Muslim armies stand opposite each other, and we are on the brink of an epic war. Although I assume that the Muslim armies will prevail, I do hope we get to see the campaign waged from both sides, and with some sympathy given to the Christian characters.
There are many other open storylines still to conclude: what has become of Abriza’s son, “a boy as beautiful as the moon”? What will become of Nuzhat al-Zaman’s daughter? Will Sharkan make a bid for the throne? There are factions within the kingdom who supported his claim. Will Dandan the vizier cause any more trouble? Will Dhat al-Dawahi reach the endgame and what role will she play? I’m looking forward to finding out.
- There are some beautiful poetic moments in this stretch of text. This from Night 79, for example:
Take care not to wrong hearts;
When they have shied off, they will not return,
For then they are like shattered glass
Which cannot be repaired.
- Or this from Night 80:
“What virtue is there in my eyes,” asked Thabit, “if they cannot weep?”
- I like it how the book takes care to distinguish between Dromedary and Bactrian camels (see Night 70). Every time a camel appears I think of the (erroneous) assertion by Jorge Luis Borges that the lack of camels in the Qu’ran proves that it is authentically Arabic.
I believe if there were any doubt as to the authenticity of the Koran, this lack of camels would suffice to prove that it is Arab. It was written by Mohammed, and Mohammed, as an Arab, had no reason to know that camels were particularly Arab; they were, for him, a part of reality, and he had no reason to single them out, while the first thing a forger, a tourist, or an Arab nationalist would do is bring on the camels, whole caravans of camels on every page;
Of course we know The Arabian Nights is ‘forged’, but perhaps the presence of camels suggests that it knows its audience reaches beyond Arabia?
- Dropped into Nuzhat’s al-Zaman’s recollection of historical wisdom is this considerate nugget of advice for conscientious husbands:
‘And if you want to lie with her?’
‘I talk her into a good mood and then I kiss her until she experiences pleasure.’
- I do admire Dau’al-Malkan when he insists on reciting poetry, even when he has been told it is likely to get him punished (Night 72). A Poet’s Tourette’s, if you will. Sometimes, one simply must exercise one’s right to freedom of expression, and damn the consequences.
- “She [Dhat al-Dawahi] had been approached by the emperor before he had moved out, and asked what tactics to use, for she, as he pointed out, was responsible for the crisis” (Night 88). I laughed at this passage. The simple phrase ‘as he pointed out’ contains the Emperor’s exasperation at having been drawn into a continental war by someone who is otherwise quite brilliant.