Nights 946 to 963: Caliphs, Incognito

946—952 Harun al-Rashid and Abu’l-Hasan of Oman • 952—959 Ibrahim and Jamila • 959—963 Abu’l-Hasan al-Khurasani


Two of the three stories in this sequence start with a caliph venturing incognito into the streets of his city. This is a common trope in The Arabian Nights, but not one to which I have devoted many words to so far. It’s not unheard of in reality: There’s a marvellous story about a young Charles I (when he was just a prince) taking a road-trip through Europe; and the Princesses Elizabeth and Margaret famously ventured onto the streets of London during the V.E. Day celebrations in 1945. I do not doubt there are examples from elsewhere in the world, too.

Princess Jasmine, incognito
Princess Jasmine, incognito

In The Arabian Nights, such antics fall into one of two categories. The first, such as in stories such as ‘Nur al-Din Ali and Anis al-Jalis’ (Night 34), ‘Ala’ al-Din Abu’l-Shamat’ (Night 249) and ‘Khalifa the fisherman’ (Night 831) the caliph is a participant in the story. His disguised encounter with the titular characters drives the narrative, often providing some kind of rescue at a low moment. In this respect, the caliphs (well actually, caliph singular, because the three examples mentioned above all feature Harun al-Rashid) are a little like modern superheroes, almost all of whom have a secret identity that allows them to observe the hoi polloi in their ‘normal’ state, and of course to seek out people in potential peril.

We might take the superhero analogy further. The sheer wealth of the caliphs acts like a kind of superpower. For any given problem the main character experiences, His Majesty can throw enough money, mamluks and fine gowns (with gold brocades) at the problem, to make it go away. Either that, or they can interfere in the judicial system with impunity, quashing sentences of death on a whim.

The other kind of reason for an incognito caliph is to provide a framing-story-within-a-framing-story! In the tale of ‘The Porter and the Three Ladies’ back on Night 9, and here in the tales of ‘Abu’l-Hasan of Oman’ and ‘Abu’l-Hasan al-Khurasani’ the disguise is Shahrazad’s preferred literary shortcut to introduce a new storyteller. Just as we imagine our heroine sat in front of her recumbent king, so we imagine other kings sat in front of fine food and drink, listening to their host and raconteur in the twilight.

Illustration by Rene Bull
Illustration by Rene Bull

The first such storyteller is Abu’l-Hasan of Oman, whose face has a pale and unhealthy pallor. Caliph Harun al-Rashid asks him how he came to be that way, and thus we get the story.

Abu’l Hasan lives in Oman, but decides to travel to Baghdad. So he liquidates his assets and makes the journey. Upon arrival, he spots a curious-looking man

wearing fine clothes, who diffused a pleasant scent of perfume. His beard was combed so as to be split over his chest like silver branches, and he was surrounded by four slave girls and five pages. … ‘This is Tahir ibn al-‘Ala’,’ I was told: ‘He keeps girls and whoever goes to his house gets food and drink, as well as the sight of lovely women.

In other words: the town pimp. Abu’l Hasan settles in for an extended stay at the brothel, paying in advance for a month’s worth of nights with one girl, then a second month of nights with another. He eventually spots “a lovely girl, whose beauty, grace and symmetrical form were such as to bewilder everyone who looked at her.” She turns out to be the daughter of the brothel-keeper but is available for rent nonetheless.

Abu’l Hasan squanders his money spending time with this girl, who predictably falls in love with him. She ends up embezzling from her father so that Abu’l Hasan can keep on paying for additional nights. I suppose that’s a clever trick but it’s all deeply unedifying… and worse, it’s not much of an adventure. Eventually, the father discovers the deception and Abu’l Hasan is banished. With the help of a generous merchant, he begins to build another business from scratch.

This has all the makings of a run-of-the-mill, third-tier Arabian Nights tale. What makes it unique, however, is the fake-out that Shahrazad pulls towards the end of the narrative. Throughout the story, the reader is drawn to assume that Abu’l Hasan’s pale complexion is as a result of love and separation (on so many occasions in this storytelling universe, we have seen what damage lovesickness can wreak on a protagonist’s health). But then we find out that the two lovers were reunited, and the girl is introduced to the caliph. She is not the reason for Abu’l Hasan’s pallor at all.

Instead, we discover that the colour has drained from his face because he lost a lot of money! Having come into possession of a rare amulet, he sold it to a traveller for a fraction of its true value. “This, then, is the cause of the pallor of my face.’

At the conclusion of the story, caliph Harun al-Rashid is happy to swoop in and save the day by giving Abu’l Hasan the money he should have made in profit on the amulet. It’s an unexpected outcome for an undeserving character, but the subverted formula keeps the reader on their toes.

Skipping ahead to the final story in this sequence, we see it begins like the first—with a caliph tip-toeing incognito along the streets of his city. The monarch on this occasion is al-Mu‘tadid bi’llah (an Abbasid caliph who ruled from 892 to 902 C.E.) rather than Harun al-Rashid, but the pattern of the opening is similar to the earlier stories. The caliph and his bodyguard are offered hospitality by a local homeowner, and a vizier reveals their identities once they are ensconced.

There is a mystery to be solved on this occasion: why does Abu’l-Hasan al-Khurasani, their host, have furnishings branded with the name of a previous caliph, al-Mutawakkil? Has he stolen them? The current caliph Al-Mu‘tadid bi’llah demands answers. Thankfully, this Abu’l-Hasan has a good explanation.

His tale bears a great resemblance to the tale of ‘Ali ibn Bakkar (Nights 153 to 169), only this time the tragedy of the earlier tale is replayed as farce. As with the earlier story, our protagonist falls in love with one of the caliph’s favourite slave girls. But Abu’l-Hasan is far more resourceful and proactive than the wet and melancholy ‘Ali. Rather than deploy a long-suffering wing-man into the palace with a My Friend Fancies Your Friend message, Abu’l-Hasan ventures into the palace himself. He dons a number of disguises, including impersonating the caliph himself, before dressing as a woman in order to gain entry to the chamber of his beloved, Shajarat al-Durr. The caliph eventually discovers the wheeze and generously agrees to let Shjarat leave his service to marry Abu’l-Hasan. As a present, he gives them a load of personally branded furniture. When his grandson hears the story, he “called for an inkstand and wrote out an order freeing our properties from tax for twenty years.” Thus are those who can tell a good story rewarded by the Abbasid caliphs.

Another established formula is put to work in ‘The Tale of Ibrahim and Jamila.’ This time it’s the pattern of The Prince Who Falls In Love With Someone He Has Never Met. I’ve already scoffed at this notion when I recapped the stories of Ardashir, Badr Basim and Saif al-Maluk (see my recap for Nights 719 to 778). The women are “trophies,” I said, and “a means satisfy male lusts and ambitions.” That critique is true of this story too, but there are some distinguishing features. The first is that Ibrahim falls in love with a picture, rather than a mere reputation. And second, he addresses his infatuation with pragmatism. He does not embarrass himself with fainting, chest-beating, wailing or gnashing of teeth; but instead decides to confirm whether the woman in the picture is real or not. If she is a fiction, he resolves to move on with his life. Ibrahim seems tethered to reality and propriety in a way his trope-predecessors were not.

He makes his way to Baghdad, following clues to the house of Abu’l-Qasim al-Sandalani, the man who painted the picture, who reveals that the woman is indeed real. Abu’l-Qasim tells Ibrahim that he too is infatuated with the woman. They make a creepy bargain that, should Ibrahim get the girl, then Abu’l-Qasim will be able to “look upon her” from time to time. Again, the idea that women are prizes to be displayed runs strong.

For the third time, Shahrazad deploys the story pattern of the ‘hard-to-get princess’ who has disavowed men. Like Princess Dunya (Night 129) and Hayat al-Nufus (Night 719), Jamila is a dangerous misandrist whose murderous reputation has spread throughout the city. Initially, no-one wants to help Ibrahim get close to her… but they soon change their minds when he offers them large sums of money. His tactic is to consistently overpay for small services (for example, a repaired pocket, or a boat trip) and so gain a reputation as a generous man. Do his accomplices help him because of his money or because they consider him to be a good man? Shahrazad is frustratingly ambiguous on this point, but on my reading her morality is suspect. The story builds in such a way as to imply that rich and beautiful people who overpay for stuff are inherently virtuous. The hunchback tailor, his ferryman brother (also a hunchback) , and the doorkeeper in Jamilia’s palace are all blinded by money and beauty. Ibrahim does have some anxious moments as he hides in the garden, but it’s mostly too easy for him to get what he wants.

This episode of the story ends in a similar manner to its previous iterations. Ibrahim risks his life by revealing himself to Jamilia, and she accepts him as her lover. This time, however, there is an amusing symmetry to the courtship. Whereas Hayat had sworn off men because of a bad dream with doves, Jamilia had refused proposals because she had heard about Ibrahim’s beauty, and fallen in love with the idea of him! All along, this was a story of star-crossed destiny, veiled as one of ambition and pro-activity.

The tale of Ibrahim and Jamilia does not end with their meeting. The story has a third act, in which the narrative takes a mysterious turn. When they return to Basra, Jamilia is kidnapped by Abu’l-Qasim who was not, after all, the passive voyeur he had claimed to be. On Night 958 Ibrahim finds himself in a bathhouse, where he stumbles over a dead woman in the darkness. He is promptly arrested for her murder and sentenced to death.

This tees up a potentially exciting narrative. Awaiting execution, Ibrahim is at his lowest moment. The reader can see that he must escape, rescue Jamilia and then clear his name (possibly by explaining the mystery of the murdered girl in the bathhouse). It has all the makings of a classic action thriller.

Not one of those things happens. Instead, a set of more important people enter the story and solve all of Ibrahim’s problems on his behalf.

First, his father’s chamberlin arrives and stops the execution. Ibrahim is released on the flimsy grounds that he doesn’t look like a murderer and has a powerful character witness. The murder victim is completely forgotten, as if dead women in the public bathhouses are a regular occurrence in Basra.

Meanwhile, the caliph’s chief executioner Masrur rescues Jamila, and delivers her back to Ibrahim.

Another disappointing resolution. Why couldn’t Ibrahim do the rescuing? Is it so ingrained in the mind of Shahrazad (and her creators) that highborns do not perform menial tasks? What happened to Ibrahim’s proactive attitude that won him the girl in the first place? It is interesting that his narrative was not iterated in that direction.

Or am I, perhaps, falling into a trap set for me by established expectations of what a successful story should look like? Every action flick has a single character around whom every plot point revolves, but that is not how things work in reality. A story where a hostage situation is resolved by a government specialist is far more true to life than one where the lover of the kidnappee performs the rescue themselves.

In reality, complex events never have a single protagonist, and the course of our lives is profoundly affected by the decisions of others. So why shouldn’t Ibrahim expect Masrur, the caliph’s muscle and agent of state power, to do the heavy lifting?

That said, prioritising verisimilitude at the expense of drama is a rather odd tack for Shahrazad, of all people, to take.

Stray Observations

  • Even caliphs need a good spa break sometimes (Night 946):

    Wise men have said that to look at a mirror, to enter the baths and to listen to singing banishes cares and troubles”

  • A good reminder of the value of novelty Night 947):

    “It is said that cares can be dispelled by one of three things: to see what one has never seen before; to hear what one has never heard before; or to go to a place where one has never been before.”

  • Sometimes everyone in a story is overcome with excessive emotion that I find strangely endearing:

    When she had finished playing, she wept bitterly and everyone in the house wept so loudly that they almost died. (Night 948)

  • The beautiful women in these stories can be very cruel. During the month that Abu’l-Hasan of Oman spends with Tahir’s (unnamed) daughter, we hear that “one day she gave a painful beating to a maid” (Night 950). Rightly, the maid retaliates by exposing Abu’l Hasan’s subterfuge.
  • Also on Night 950, this wisdom:

    “Poverty is exile in one’s native land, While wealth will make a stranger feel at home.”

  • Sexual metaphor watch (Night 950):

    Love played with her emotions, and she said
    In the dark night of shadows:
    ‘Will someone keep me company tonight,
    And pleasure me as a true lover should?”
    She clapped her hand between her thighs and sighed,
    A sigh of sorrow, mixed with grief and tears.
    ‘A tooth-pick shows the beauty of the mouth;
    The male is a tooth-pick for the female part.
    Muslims, cannot your organs stand erect
    And is there no one to help my distress?”
    Beneath its coverings my tool stood up
    Calling to her: ‘He comes to you; he comes!’
    As I unloosed her drawers, she said in fright:
    ‘Who are you?’ I replied: ‘An answer to your call.
    I thrust with what was sturdy as her arm,
    Gently, but deep enough to hurt her hips.
    We made love thrice before I rose. She said:
    ‘That’s how it’s done,’ and I said: ‘Yes, it is.’

    Sir Richard Burton’s archaic version of this poem is in strict rhyming metre. His version of the ‘toothpick’ lines are these:

    As the toothstick beautifies teeth e’en so • Must prickle to coynte as a toothstick be,
    O Moslems, is never a stand to your tools • To assist a woman’s necessity?

  • The pimp Tahir ibn al-‘Ala’ and the creepy voyeur Abu’l-Qasim al-Sandalani both live on Saffron Street, apparently one of the most prestigious addresses in Abbasid Baghdad. According to D. S. Richards in The Annals of the Saljuq Turks (2014), it was burned down by the inhabitants of the Basra Gate Quarter in 1058 C.E.
  • The word ‘haughty’ seems to appear quite frequently in this crop of stories. It’s a marvellous, solid word but one that’s subtly gendered female. I looked up Burton’s translation of a passage about Jamilia on Night 955 — he uses the word ‘masterful’ which is gendered male and carries rather different connotations.
  • A familiar phrase on Night 955: “they are all as dust beneath your feet…” That idiom also appears a couple of times in the Old Testament (Nahum 1:3 and Malachi 4:3). An example of cross-pollination in ancient texts? Or maybe it’s just Malcolm Lyons allowing himself to be influenced by William Tynedale.
  • I enjoyed this on Night 957, despite not really understanding what it means:

    In my love for you my ear outstripped my eye.

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