Night 930 to 946: The Disruptors

930—940 Abu Qir and Abu Sir • 940—946 ‘Abd Allah of the land and ‘Abd Allah of the sea


I had planned to recap four stories, all the way to Night 963, and I have actually read that far. But I wrote a fair amount on the first two stories, so I will post a recap of the second two (the tale of Ibrahim and Jamila; and the tale of Abu’l-Hasan al-Khurasani) later in the week.

We’re getting close to the end now. Back in Volumes I and II, and even in the early part of Volume III (before the long tale of Hasan of Basra) the nights seemed endless. A permanent fixture in my world. Now we’re on Night nine-hundred-and-something, the world becomes uncertain again. The book is contained, finite, mortal, and it is coming to a close.

Anyone who loves books or box-sets knows this feeling. ‘Bereavement’ is too strong a word, but it’s on that emotional spectrum. Re-reads and re-watches can never recreate the experience of the new. Prepare for the inevitable withdrawal, as “I am reading” becomes “I have read.” The last page of this book will be particularly jarring, because the book has dominated my reading, and my conversational repertoire, for months now. What will I talk about?

Anyway…

In ‘The Tale of Abu Qir and Abu Sir’ we have the diary of a toxic friendship. The former protagonist is a lazy and dishonest dyer; the latter is a hardworking and honest barber. Abu Qir consistently scams his clients and hides out in Abu Sir’s shop when they come looking for him. Poor Abu Sir invariably has to compensate them out of his own pocket.

It’s a mystery why these two men are friends. I guess it’s one of those relationships that are formed due to proximity, rather than a mutual benefit— these two see each other every day. A lopsided friendship that has come about by default, because it’s easier to be acquainted than not. Abu Sir gets no value or affirmation out of the relationship, and he sticks around only because the ‘sunk costs’ of time and money spent maintaining the friendship are deemed too great to sacrifice.

Unfortunately, a change of scene does not change the dynamic. They decide to take a trip to a new city, but Abu Qir just continues with his sponging and his deceptions. It is only when Abu Sir is taken ill (and therefore, no longer in a position to be exploited) that Abu Qir actually gets off his backside and begins to work.

When he does so, it turns out that he is actually a talented disruptor. The dyers of the city are only able to dye cloth blue, and do not have the know-how to create any other colours! Abu Qir charms the king, smashes the dyers guild, offers the citizens cloth in other colours… and quickly establishes dominance in his profession. He is the Uber and the AirBnB of The Arabian Nights.

When Abu Sir recovers, he realises that he has been totally abandoned by his so-called friend. He sets about making a life for himself alone and realises that he too possesses unique knowledge. He establishes a chain of public baths, a business idea that wins him the king’s favour and reunification with Abu Qir.

The dyer cannot stand to see the barber-turned-bath-owner achieve success. He plots his friend’s downfall and persuades the king to order that Abu Sir be executed.

But Abu Sir’s good character is enough to save him. He had previously shown kindness to the captain of the guard, who returns the favour by arranging for his escape. Abu Sir then shows remarkable honesty, by returning a lost, magic ring to the king. This is enough to convince the king that Abu Sir is innocent, and Abu Qir finally gets his comeuppance.

After the dubious morality in the tale of Wird Khan, it’s good to have a story where virtue is properly rewarded and malevolence is properly punished. This story is peppered with little character moments that seed Abu Sir’s success and Abu Qir’s demise. The crucial moment of generosity shown to the captain is suitably signalled, so the rescue towards the end of the story is earned and plausible. There’s a bit of magic thrown into the mix too: it is one of Shahrazad’s better stories.

So the Captain set the sack in the boat and paddled till he came unto the palace, where he saw the King seated at the lattice.

While the Abu Qir story was about what happens when a disruptor comes onto the scene to break up monopolies, the subsequent story of Abd Allah raise a different economic question: what happens when too much of a valuable commodity is injected into an economy?

Abd Allah is a fisherman who, after a run of bad luck with his catch, eventually wins the fishing jackpot – he lands a merman! By happy coincidence, this creature is also called Abd Allah, and they form a profitable alliance: every day, Abd Allah the merman provides Abd Allah the fisherman with a bucket of jewels in exchange for some fruit.

The fisherman pays off his debts and starts spreading the cash around liberally. Of course, he draws the attention of the local king (also called Abd Allah), who prudently ensures that Abd Allah The (now incredibly rich) Fisherman is elevated to a suitable position of power in the city-state, lest his wealth starts to undermine the established balance of powers. This is a shrewd tactic, similar to the manoeuvre of the king in the story of ‘Judar and His Brothers’ who was faced with a protagonist backed by the unassailable power of a jinni.

But really, is it enough? A person who brings a bucket of jewels to market every day will quickly warp the local economy in a profound way. As the supply of precious stones becomes a glut, their price will surely plummet, and anyone who uses gemstones as currency or as favours will see their purchasing power eroded.

Yes yes, I know that to worry about such matters is to miss the point of the story. When Shahrazad says that such-and-such is elevated to the rank of vizier or that so-and-so received a crate of jewels, all she’s doing is signalling ‘fortune’ and the quantities don’t really matter. I know there is no use in applying economic insights to a story that is intended as escapism. But for once, I’d love to see Shahrazad to properly drill down into the social science implications of the chaos visited upon a city-state by whatever supernatural or fantastical force is at the centre of the story.

I ask this because, in other contexts, Shahrazad is perfectly capable of rationalising her stories. The last act of the story of the Abd Allahs is an extended tour through the undersea realm and an exercise in deep (under)world-building.

It begins with the merman inviting the fisherman to visit his home beneath the waves. At this point, Shahrazad could have just invented some sort of magic that would allow the human Abd Allah to breath under-water. Instead, we get a lengthy explanation of a weird kind of fish paste that Abd Allah must cover himself with, in order to survive. The merman takes his time explaining how the paste is poisonous to sharks. A lot of thought has gone into the description of this alien tech.

Similarly with the merpeople’s society, which is described in detail. Again, it would have been easy for Shahrazad to describe a set of opulent palaces, but instead, she constructs an entirely new kind of society, including apt turns of phrase (like ‘tail-less’ to describe humans) and cultural practices that are very different to those up on dry land. We learn that Mer society is actually quite brutal in places: in an aside, which is wholly unnecessary to the main plot, we learn that adulteresses, in particular, are treated very harshly.

The construction of this fantastical culture is rounded off with a theological idea, taken to its extreme. The soul is a ‘deposit from God,’ say the merpeople. This is not in itself particularly unusual (“Indeed we belong to Allah, and indeed to Him we will return” says the Qur’an at 2:156) but the merpeople take that sentiment as an article of faith, rather than a platitude. A soul returned is a cause for celebration rather than mourning. There is no need to revere or respect a dead body, which is just a discarded husk. In a wry twist at the end of the story, when the merfolk discover that humans grieve for their dead, they are offended. Abd Allah the fisherman is ostracised, and never sees Abd Allah the merman again.

出生入死
Life is going forth, death is returning home.
Lao Tzu, Tao Te Ching (Ch. 50)

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Stray observations

  • Night 931: “He became proverbial for his conduct”
  • OK, so this is interesting: On Night 941, as the fisherman laments his bad luck and debts, we are met with this evocative phrase: “I melt with shame in front of the baker.” But Richard Burton translates this as “I burn with shame before the baker” (My emphasis). The strength of Abd Allah’s embarrassment is conveyed equally well by ’melt’ and ‘burn’… but those words are opposites. I’ve had a look at the original Calcutta II text and the relevant passage, but as a non-Arabic speaker, it’s difficult to pick out which words are most salient.

    الشبكة وارتاح من هذه العيشة • فقالت له لاي شي قال لها ان رزقي انقطع من المهر فالى متى هذا العالم والله اني دبت حياء من الخبا رفانا ما بقيت اروح الى البحر حتى لا اجوز على فرنه فانه ليس لي طريق الا على فرنه •

    The relevant phrase being this one:

    اني دبت حياء من الخبا

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