The Sharazad Project: Week 7

Trigger warning: references to extreme violence towards women

Welcome back to the house of whips and lies, where most of the guests are currently tied up awaiting execution, and the two who have been pardoned refuse to go. Having given their own stories, they now want to hear everybody’s else’s, and are obliged when the second of the three dervishes begins his tale.

Like his companion, he too is royal – a king’s son whose life has been dedicated to scholarship and whose many academic successes have attracted the interest of the king of India. Gifts and compliments are sent along with an invitation to this king’s court. The dervish’s father sets him up with a small fleet and he arrives on shore amid an impressive procession that is immediately beset by well-armed highwaymen. “We are envoys on our way to the great king of India, so do not harm us,” the dervish’s people protest. “We don’t live in his country,” the highwaymen retort, “and are no subjects of his.” They start killing servants and the procession scatters in terror. Though wounded, the dervish flees as well. The highwaymen are too busy exulting over their plunder to bother with pursuit.

The dervish is now lost and broke in unfamiliar country. With no better plan in mind, he picks a direction and walks. At length he comes to a fortified city where the roses are in bloom, the birds are singing and no one is actively trying to kill him. Not because they don’t want to – the first person he meets is a tailor, to whom he pours out his unhappy circumstances, and who advises him not to do that with anyone else. The king of this city is, by unlucky coincidence, engaged in a blood feud with the dervish’s father and has no reason to do him anything but harm.

The tailor, however, is very friendly. He lets the dervish sleep in his shop for a few days while he finds his feet, then asks if he has any skills that could earn a living. The dervish rattles off a list of academic accomplishments, only to be told they are all useless – no one in this city cares about science or literature (seriously, tailor? You asked everybody, did you?) so the dervish is told to become a woodcutter instead.

It’s something of a comedown, but the dervish needs the work and, using the tools the kindly tailor has supplied, manages to support himself. After a year living this way, he’s digging away at a tree stump when his axe strikes metal and he realises he’s found a trapdoor. Underneath is a flight of steps, which he descends without hesitation. Beyond the stairs is a door, and beyond the door a magnificent chamber in which resides a dazzlingly beautiful girl. They stare at each other, startled. He’s thinking some rather lewd poetry; she’s wondering if he’s human or not. He assures her he is and explains the mess of his life to her. She’s duly sympathetic, but her own story is even more traumatic. She is a princess from the Ebony Islands and on her wedding night was snatched away by the ifrit Jirjis. She has been locked up in this palace ever since, well provided for materially but a captive just the same. He comes every ten days, sleeps with her, then goes away again. If she needs anything, he’s told her to lay her hand on the inside of a dome – this part is not explained, maybe she means the ceiling? Some other facet of architecture?

Anyway, this is the fourth day of the cycle, so it is safe for the dervish to stay if he wants. He’s very quick to agree. She bathes with him, brings food and drink, and he sleeps for a while. When he wakes, she’s massaging his feet. This is her slightly odd intro to saying being locked up underground is lonely and depressing and maybe they should have sex. The dervish is one hundred percent on board with the idea. They spend the night and half the next day in bed, with a lot of wine. When the dervish gets up, he can’t even walk straight, but he’s trying to be gallant. In an arrogant sort of way. “Get up, my beauty,” he commands, “and I will bring you out from under the earth and free you from this ifrit.” Except she doesn’t want rescuing. She wants a sizzling affair, and given her time is her own nine days out of ten, she doesn’t see why there should be a problem. The dervish is so focused on being her hero he barely hears her. He spots the dome she uses to summon the ifrit and I think it can’t be part of the ceiling, because he gives it a savage kick.

Night thirteen begins by showing us why this was a really awful idea. The room goes dark and shakes around them while thunder and lightning batter their senses. The ifrit has come. “By God, you have brought harm on me,” the girl cries, “but save yourself and escape by the way that you came.” The dervish is so eager to run away he forgets to take his shoes or axe. At the foot of the steps he glances back and sees the ifrit emerging from a rift in the ground. The girl tries to convince him she just got drunk and tripped over the dome (is it a table? Ornamental?), but he spots the abandoned shoes. Going into a jealous rage, he rips off her clothes and starts beating her, trying to torture out a confession. If the dervish wants to be a hero, THIS IS THE TIME. But he is not a hero. He abandons her to her fate and slinks home to the tailor.

Even so, he can’t escape what he’s done. By the time he reaches the shop, a ‘Persian’ has already tracked him down via the other local woodcutters, apparently to return his axe; only of course it is the djinn. Through everything he has inflicted on his prisoner, she wouldn’t give her lover’s name – did she even know it, poor thing? – but he’s found his prey anyway. Snatching up the dervish, he flies away. They plunge directly through the earth into the underground palace, where the girl is staked out, bleeding from her brutal inquisition. The dervish starts crying. “Whore, is this your lover?” the ifrit demands, and despite her injuries the girl insists she’s never seen him before. The attempt misfires badly, because the ifrit only releases her to force a sword into her hand. To prove she cares nothing about the dervish, she is told to cut off his head.

The two of them have a semi-telepathic conversation involving eyebrows. The dervish recognises that the girl’s tempted to use the blade, but instead she throws it aside. “How can I cut off the head of someone whom I do not know and who has done me no harm?” she demands. “My religion does not allow this.” The ifrit spins around on the dervish and gives him the sword. If he proves his indifference to the girl by beheading her, he shall go free. The dervish immediately advances; the girl looks disbelieving. Remembering she JUST SAVED HIS LIFE, the dervish throws down the sword and just blurts misogynistic drivel. “Oh powerful ifrit, great hero, if a woman, defective as she is in understanding and in religious faith, thinks that it is not lawful to cut off my head, how can it be lawful for me to cut off hers when I have not seen her before?”

It’s all to no use. The ifrit seizes up the sword himself and hacks off first the girl’s hands, then her feet, then her head. He then has the FUCKING GALL to call her an ‘unfaithful wife’, because kidnapping a twelve-year-old girl and forcing her to be your sex slave is exactly the kind of action that inspires loyalty! NOT. EVER.

I need a minute to scream my rage.

Okay, so next he turns on the dervish. Due to his ghastly double standards, he’s willing to simply change the dervish into another form – a dog, a donkey or an ape. The dervish grovels and wails about how wronged he is and tells the ifrit he should forgive him ‘as the envied forgive the envier’. Cue a story segue. I have never been less interested.

In this sub-story, two men live side by side. One envies the other so much he starts getting sick, while his neighbour only grows more prosperous – a cycle that ends with the envied man moving away. He buys some land in another city, builds a mosque and shows his golden touch applies to all endeavours when worshippers start flocking to his door. The envious man learns of his success and goes to the mosque too, like a creepy person. He asks for a private audience so he can lead the object of his envy to a well and push him in.

The murder attempt only fails because a community of jinn to live down there and notice what’s happening in time to catch the falling man. One of them knows about the bad blood between the former neighbours, and also knows that the king plans to visit the mosque the next day – his daughter, the princess, has been possessed by an evil spirit and he wants advice. The only way to drive it out is to take seven white hairs from the black cat that live in the mosque and treat the girl with their fumes, presumably as they burn.

The man memorises all of this. He rises from the well at dawn, astounding everyone who sees him, and proceeds to cure the princess in about ten seconds flat. The king gets terribly excited and asks his state officials what reward the healer deserves; they suggest marriage, so before you know it the man is a prince. His luck being what it is, he next become vizier, and when the king dies he takes the throne. One day while he’s out with his friends from court, he sees the man who tried to kill him and has him brought over. Is it revenge? Nope, he hands over a load of gold and twenty camels, then has him quietly escorted over the border.

The ifrit considers the dervish’s story. Then he goes right ahead and turns him into an ape.

Dumped on a mountain in the middle of nowhere, the dervish starts travelling again. Eventually he ends up by the sea and jumps aboard a ship. The crew freak out and want to kill him but he sobs all over the captain’s boots and gets turned into a monkey butler instead. At their next destination, a decree has been issued that everybody must write a single line on a sheet of paper, as the king is looking for a new royal calligrapher. The dervish writes out poetry in six different scripts and when the paper is returned to the king, his is the only script that will do. The king orders that he be brought to the palace with much pomp and ceremony; then his attendants start grinning and the truth comes out. The king loves the idea of a monkey calligrapher, especially one who writes down poetry about literally everything he does. He can even beat the king at chess.

The king calls for his daughter so he can show off his new pet, but the moment she lays eyes on the ape she not only realises he’s human, she knows exactly who he is and where he’s been, even describing the manner of his lover’s death. This unusual perception is just the beginning of her skills – she has a whole cache of spells at her command that her father knew nothing about. He’s fine with that. He asks for her to restore the dervish to his true form so he can be made vizier.

Does it work? Do we care? Next week, the second dervish’s tale concludes, and more importantly we spend some time with the secret sorceress.

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One thought on “The Sharazad Project: Week 7

  1. Pingback: Read-Along: The Sharazad Project (Part 5) | Alex Hurst

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