45—145 King ‘Umar ibn al-Nu’man and his family • 142—143 The story of the hashish addict
The story of the religious war resumes with what can only be described as fan service for the Muslim audience of The Arabian Nights. Shahrazad does not hold back in her scathing depiction of the Christians. Rituals involving the patriarchs’ excrement are described, leaving us in no doubt as to who are the ‘goodies’ and who are the ‘baddies’ in the conflict.
This is disappointing. We have already been introduced to both Emperor Afridun and Hardub, the King of Rum, and both seem like rational men. We have seen them set aside vendettas. Their anger at King ‘Umar ibn al-Nu’man, who so mistreated Abriza, is entirely justified. So the belated attempted to paint these men as disgusting barbarians falls flat for me. As the champions prepared, I realised that I was on #TeamByzantine. Not, I assume, the position that the original audience would have taken, and one that casts the rest of this saga in a light that I doubt the authors intended.
While I fully expected the Muslims to eventually prevail, I certainly hoped for a spirited fight from the Christians and some setbacks for our protagonists. The initial battle itself was not what I had hoped for in that regard… but my goodness, it is very well rendered by the narration and by Michael Lyons’ translation. One can almost see the steam rising off Luqa as he enters the field of battle (Night 90):
To be near him was harder to bear than to pry from a beloved. He was the blackness of night, the foul breath of the lion and the daring of the leopard, and he was marked with the sign of the infidels.
This is genuinely foreboding, and the tension is met with this dramatic entrance:
Before he had finished speaking, there was a sound on the plain that all could hear. Galloping horses parted the ranks… Base men shrank in fear; heads turned and there was Sharkan.
This is prose that rises to the sense of occasion and serves the story.
The pace quickens too. Each Night in this ‘Act’ of the story has a smaller word count than previous stories, and it is more usual for a single scene to be depicted, often ending on a cliffhanger that insists you read more. I am not an Arabic scholar, and I have not performed a forensic literary analysis of the Calcutta II text… but I strongly suspect that this saga of ‘Umar ibn al-Numan was written by a different author than the earlier stories we have read.
While the first clash of armies is well described, the Christians are routed. Sharkan kills Luqa and then a couple of clever military manœuvres fool the Christians into overreach, allowing the Muslims to corner them.
The later pitched battles have a similar outcome — The Muslims seem to be unbeatable on the open field. And how could it be otherwise? The protagonists repeatedly invoke the name of the God of Islam as they prepare to do battle, and the narration itself asserts that they enjoy the favour and protection of Allah as they fight. It would be theologically intolerable for the Muslim armies to be defeated, and I doubt that either Shahrazad or the real-life storytellers of The Arabian Nights could comfortably narrate a story where that happened.
If we know that Sharkan and Dau’ al-Malkan are invincible in open warfare, then the drama desperately needs some other kind of threat. A theologically acceptable setback.
Re-enter Dhat al-Dawahi.
When we first met the old woman on Night 47 she was a figure of fun (wrestling Abriza, “she farted twice”). But by now we know her as a master schemer who succeeded in assassinating the caliph himself.
As the saga progresses, she becomes a formidable and devious adversary of the Muslim high command, “a disaster and an affliction,” the super-villain we need. Posing as the ‘aesetic’ she visits confusion upon Sharkan and Dau’ al-Malkan, and the story becomes much more exciting.
The advantage oscillates between the belligerents. First, Dhat succeeds in causing the capture of both Sharkan and Dau’ al-Malkan… but they escape. Then she causes the Muslim armies to move position, leaving them vulnerable to Christian attack… only for eleventh-hour reinforcements to ride in and save the Muslim army from defeat.
Finally, following the death of her son King Hardub, Dhat al-Dawahi’s plans finally pay off. Alone with a sleeping Sharkan, she cuts his throat. While Sharkan enjoyed God’s favour on the battlefield, the divine shield apparently does not extend to protection against duplicity and subterfuge in a tent.
In my last post, I noted that this epic story is highly reminiscent of Game of Thrones. Sharkan’s abrupt and brutal death (like those of Abriza and ‘Umar ibn al-Nu’man) is yet another similarity and achieves similar storytelling aims. It thins out the cast of characters, and puts the Muslim cause in greater peril as the story develops. Most importantly, it provides motivation for the surviving family to avenge the murder.
Nevertheless, to be decapitated in one’s bed is an ignominious end for such a heroic character. Sharkan tried to behave decently to the women in his orbit, such as Abriza and Nuzhat al-Zaman. And he remained entirely loyal to Dau’ al-Malkan, despite his younger half-brother acquiring the throne ahead of him. Like Abriza, he could have been so much more. I hope they are reunited in whatever heaven awaits fictional characters.
Following Sharkan’s death, the story takes an interesting turn. The murder seems to deflate Dau’ al-Malkan, who retreats to his quarters and asks his vizier to distract him with stories.
Dandan obliges with the long tale-within-a-tale of Prince Taj al-Maluk and his friend Aziz. This is a story so many bonkers twists that I think it needs its own commentary, which I will post later this week.
But what I will mention is that Dandan’s story is about two kings who nearly go to war, but who think better of it in the end. And this seems to have an effect. Dau’ al-Malkan loses interest in the crusade and retreats to Baghdad. From then on, he declines—both in health, and as a heroic character.
It is a sad parabola. Having first toured the Levant in poverty, and then been restored to power through a combination of luck and good poetry, Dau’ al-Malkan’s world becomes a long war of attrition, a quest for revenge against his father’s poisoner. When he pursues this alongside his half-brother Sharkan, the project is righteous and worthwhile. Less so after Sharkan’s decapitation.
The final major section of the story concerns the next generation of the dynasty, and begins with an almost matter-of-fact palace coup! Dau’ al-Malkan leaves instructions that his son Kana-ma-Kana will succeed him, but the chamberlain seizes power from the young prince. This is a welcome departure from The Arabian Nights default. For the most part, this universe of stories is one where the business of ruling comes easy to the kings, caliphs and feudal lords. We never seem to hear about their problems raising taxes, and they always seem to have an abundance of slaves, camels and fine silk available to give as gifts to anyone who has done them the slightest favour. Men who are entirely inexperienced in governance are elevated to sultanates and seem to perform okay (indeed, this is precisely what happens to the furnace man who takes the grand name al-Ziblkan al-Malik al-Mujahid when he is appointed sultan of Damascus).
So to read of a power struggle, and that the chamberlain Sasan makes a balls-up of his short reign, is rather refreshing. And of course, all this gives Kana-ma-Kana something to strive for.
The young prince proves himself worthy as a fighter and killer (let us be honest, that appears to be the main quality that the people look for in a king), and he escapes several assassination attempts. In a great piece of narrative symmetry, Night 143 places him in exactly the same position as his uncle Sharkan on Night 104—that is, on the point of having his throat cut in his bed by a duplicitous crone. Much like modern TV shows (Game of Thrones again, or Jed Mercurio’s British dramas Line of Duty and Bodyguard) this story has spent nearly 100 nights making clear to the audience that no character, however skilled and however important, is safe from being casually murdered while they sleep. Nuzhat al-Zaman saves her son at the last minute, but that was not the inevitable outcome.
Nor was it inevitable that Abriza’s son would return to the story. Ever since he was delivered to King Hardub by the maid on Night 52 I had been hoping that the story would turn its attention to him. I was delighted when, as the new King of Rum, he finally appeared on Night 143, although it’s disappointing that he is presented so late in the narrative. We spent many Nights on the odyssey of Dau al-Malkan and Nuzhat al-Zaman; and quite a while in the desert as the lovesick Kana-ma-Kana ‘finds himself.’ So why not allow us to spend a little time in Rum with King Rumzan? It would have made the climactic crossing-of-paths of the two scions far more satisfying.
As it is, the final Nights of this story are a frantic tying-up of loose ends. With apologies for continually comparing this saga to a TV show, it is as if some medieval Baghdadi media executive decided to cancel the funding, and demanded that the storyteller brings everything to a final conclusion. Perhaps Shahrazad sees king Shahriyar’s attention ebbing?
Whatever the reason, the final few Nights throw Kana-ma-Kana and Rumzan together in what is certainly the laziest narrative teleport in the volume so far:
They sat discussing tactics and agreed to make a revenge attack on the king of Rum. They set of on their expedition, but fell into the hands of Rumzan, king of Rum, after what would take too long to describe, as will be seen in due course.
Everyone instantly makes friends, which means there is zero drama for Shahrazad to narrate. And so she doesn’t. Instead, the narrative reintroduces literally every malevolent character in the story. We dwell for a moment on the exploits of Hanman the Bedouin, who sold Nuzhat al-Zaman into slavery. He tells the worst ‘Listen To This And Spare My Life’ story in The Arabian Nights, which elicits no sympathy whatsoever from his erstwhile victim. She stabs him to death herself. Ghadban, the slave who killed Abriza, is killed without being given a chance to tell his story. And then the camel driver, who threw Dau’ al-Malkan onto a pile of refuse back on Night 53 and who I had entirely forgotten about, returns to the page just long enough to be slaughtered too.
In a final cursory scene, Dhat al-Dawahi is tricked into visiting her grandson, and “crucified on the gate of Baghdad” without so much as a final soliloquy.
This is all desperately disappointing. Not one but three boss-level characters are disposed of in a couple of pages, and a story that we have stayed with for so long, and which showed so much promise, is ultimately squandered. I admit to feeling quite angry and disappointed.
One thing that is clear is how the internal morals of this story differ from our own. I mentioned above that I found myself on #TeamByzantine, an allegiance derived entirely from the fact that King ‘Umar ibn al-Nu’man drugged and raped Abriza. Although (as I noted last time) the story describes this as satanic, there is no subsequent condemnation of this act. It is undoubtedly the central, tragic decision at the core of the entire saga, and yet it simply does not feature in the moral equation the way Ghadban’s murder of Abriza certainly does. So I think this epic stumbles not just by modern standards, but on its own terms.
As the story drew to a close, I was as close to fuming as it is possible to be whilst slumped on a couch reading a book.
But then, a bombshell. Just as all the characters have been avenged or killed in the cathartic, bloodthirsty ‘series finale’ of Night 145, we are suddenly presented with a new scene from the framing story! Dunyazad suggests that “only tonight have I seen the king looking happy”. And King Shahriyar himself asks “I want you to tell me a story about birds.”
- From Night 92, this brilliant stanza:
“Long hair is of no use except when it streams out
On both sides of the head in the day of battle
Belonging to a young hero with a straight lance
That drinks the blood of the moustachioed enemy.”
- Out in the desert on Night 140:
When Kana-ma-Kana heard this, he said to himself: ‘This is a man whose story is like mine, for I, too, have been travelling for twenty days without seeing or hearing anyone”I thought for a moment Kana-ma-Kana was about to meet an Arabian Tyler Durden. But it’s just Sabbah, possibly the rudest devotee we have met so far.
- The Arabian Nights is entirely without compassion for the Bedouin. Both the words of the heroes and the narration itself are uniformly disparaging in a way that degrades those stories. Even the black slaves are not so comprehensively maligned.
- Bakun’s story of the Hashish eater on Night 143 is short but poignant:
he was hungry but in his dream he had tasted happiness
- Also on Night 143: The two kings decide to rule on alternate days! I bet that arrangement lasted exactly forty-eight hours.
- I enjoyed the way Kana-ma-Kana gets embroiled in a literal ‘poetry battle’ on Night 144. His duelling partner threatens him in verse; he recites a poem back at them; and then they go at each other with spears. A curious blend of civility and barbarism.