Back to night twenty, when Ja’far is bargaining for his slave’s life with the story of the vizier Nur al-Din ‘Ali and his brother Shams al-Din Muhammad. Are the two cases connected in any way? Probably not, since Ja’far begins by saying ‘in the old days’. The old days in Egypt, to be specific, when a philanthropic sultan ruled with the support of his highly competent vizier. This vizier has two sons, ‘unequalled in comeliness and beauty’, but the younger, Nur al-Din ‘Ali is so stunning that people come from all over the place to check him out. Yes, seriously. When their father dies, the sultan appoints the young men as joint viziers. It’s a lovely gesture. Not necessarily wise.
The brothers are very happy with the arrangement, though, and it’s convenient that when the sultan goes travelling one vizier can go with him while the other remains behind. The elder brother has been doing some serious thinking and pulls Nur al-Din aside before he leaves. “Brother, it is my intention that you and I should marry on the same night,” he begins. “Do what you want,” his younger brother agrees, but Shams al-Din is by no means done. Not only does he want them to marry at the same time, he wants them to get their wives pregnant at the same time, for both women to give birth on the same day, for one to produce a girl and the other a boy and for the hypothetical cousins to get married. Clearly he’s given this some thought.
Instead of pointing out life is rarely that simple, Nur al-Din gets into the plan and asks what dowry would be appropriate for Shams al-Din’s daughter. “I shall take from your son,” Shams al-Din announces, “three thousand dinars, three orchards and three estates. On no other terms will the marriage contract be valid.” Nur al-Din is insulted by the steep price, given they are brothers and all. “You should give your daughter to my son without asking for any dowry at all,” he retorts, adding the revolting sexist aside, “You know the male is better than the female.” Like a good not-actually-a-dad, Shams al-Din is infuriated on his non-existant daughter’s behalf. He says he only lets Nur al-Din share the vizierate out of pity, to give him something to do, and now he’s so furious he’s breaking off the marriage. Of those kids they don’t have.
I find the escalation of this argument completely believable.
The next day Shams al-Din sets off with the sultan for the pyramids at Giza, and Nur al-Din makes preparations for a journey of his own. “Lions that do not leave their lair will find no prey,” he broods. “Arrows not shot from bows can strike no target.” Basically he’s done being co-vizier with his high-handed brother and is striking out on his own. He rides off into the desert, and after days of travel he ends up at Basra. Here his rich possessions catch the eye of the local vizier, an elderly and astute individual who makes some inquiries and arranges an introduction. Apparently he’s also a good listener because the young vizier soon tells him the whole story and announces his plan to overcome his brother’s insult by visiting every city in every land in the world.
Look, he fought with his brother over a hypothetical wedding of hypothetical children, born to hypothetical wives. Let’s not expect him to be reasonable about anything.
The elderly vizier gently points out this is a terrible plan, so why not stay in Basra and be adopted instead? He has a beautiful daughter, in need of a beautiful husband, and as he’s getting on in years he’s happy to step down so his prospective son-in-law can take his place as vizier of Basra. In order to make the sultan accept the switch, the elderly vizier calls all his friends together and tells them Nur al-Din is his nephew. Everyone takes a look at Nur al-Din and ‘admired what they saw’ so much they don’t pick any holes in the story. The young vizier is sent off to spruce up at the baths and returns even handsomer than before, to meet his bride.
Night twenty one takes us back to Egypt, where Shams al-Din has just discovered his brother’s escapade. All the servants can tell him is that Nur al-Din set off for a few days’ me time and never came back. Feeling guilty about their argument, Shams al-Din goes to the sultan to explain and sets a network of agents across the country searching for information. This is the sort of thing I imagined viziers would do and I am pleased. For all his efforts, however, he can find no trace of his brother.
Shortly afterwards he too marries, and because DESTINY, his wedding takes place on the exact same day that Nur al-Din gets married in Basra. Their wives fall pregnant at the same time. Shams al-Din is given a beautiful daughter; Nur al-Din gets a beautiful son. Given how badly they mismanaged their children’s lives before the kids were even born, this feels like the beginning of a new familial disaster.
The boy is named Badr al-Din Hasan. With his father newly appointed as vizier, and winning favour from all sides, little Hasan grows up in luxury, granted an excellent education and the adoring stares of strangers whenever he goes outside. Yes, seriously! ‘They sat in the street waiting for him to come back so that they could have the pleasure of looking at his comely and well-shaped form’. It’s creepy.
Even the sultan is besotted and insists on the boy always being at court. When Nur al-Din falls ill, he tries to give instructions to his fifteen-year-old son but homesickness overtakes him and instead he has Hasan write a letter to Shams al-Din explaining his life since he left Egypt. “If anything happens to you,” he tells his son, “go to Egypt, ask for your uncle and tell him that I have died in a foreign land, longing for him.”
So something disastrous is going to happen. Good to know.
Hasan conceals the letter in his turban and listens to his father’s last advice. Firstly: ‘do not be on intimate terms with anyone, for in this way you will be safe from the evil they may do you’. The second: ‘injure no man’. The third is to keep quiet about other people’s faults, the fourth to avoid wine, the fifth to be financially responsible. Four of these suggestions are sound advice. The first, I predict to be a life ruiner, up there with ‘don’t open this very specific door’.
Nur al-Din dies with his son at his side. Hasan goes into deep mourning for two months, during which time he won’t leave the house, and the sultan – being mildly inconvenienced by the loss of his favourite court ornament – loses patience with this whole grief business. He punishes the slight by appointing a chamberlain as his new vizier and handing over all Nur al-Din’s land and possessions as a package with the job. The vizier’s first instruction is to go arrest Hasan.
Fortunately, some people at court remain loyal to the old vizier and one ally comes to warn Hasan, who has not even the time to fetch money or transport. Using a fold of his robe to hide his face, he flees the city on foot. The first place he goes is the grave of his father. While he sits there, lost and sad, a Jewish money-changer approaches him and oh dear, I’m suddenly very anxious. Are we about to add anti-Semitism to the racism and sexism? But no, Ishaq the money-changer is there because several of Nur al-Din’s trading ships have returned to port and word has not yet spread of his son’s displacement. Ishaq wants to buy a cargo and has brought cash. Hasan is now supplied with a thousand dinars, but the encounter has driven home his father’s loss all over again and he cries himself to sleep on Nur al-Din’s tomb.
As it happens, this graveyard is a favourite haunt of religiously minded jinn. One particular jinniya (a female jinn) sees Hasan’s lovely face shining in the moonlight and is very much taken with the aesthetic appeal of him. He’s still in her mind when she meets a passing ifrit in the sky above the graveyard, and she suggests they go ogle together. The ifrit is duly impressed, but he doesn’t consider Hasan’s beauty to be matchless. He’s just come from Cairo, where the daughter of Shams al-Din has grown up into a stunning beauty. The sultan himself wanted to marry her (which, if he’s the same sultan, is incredibly inappropriate) but Shams al-Din has vowed that she shall marry no one but his brother’s son. So by now he’s heard Nur al-Din married and had a child, but has presumably never contacted him and doesn’t know about his nephew’s straits. This is such a soap opera.
The sultan, it will astonish you, has not taken the rejection well. Out of pure spite, he’s forced the girl to marry the ugliest servant he can find and has ordered the marriage be consummated tonight. It’s awful for both of them – the girl, who has a husband she doesn’t want and has been forbidden from seeing her father, is crying among her friends and the groom, currently corralled at the baths, is a figure of fun to the other men. The ifrit declares the unhappy bride to be even lovelier than Hasan, and so alike in looks they might be siblings or cousins.
Night twenty two commences with the jinniya angrily refuting the possibility anyone could be better looking than her find. Is this how the elemental forces spend their time, hanging out in graveyards and debating the relative hotness of random humans? To settle the debate once and for all, the jinniya suggests they compare the two and the ifrit carries Hasan to Cairo. The poor boy wakes in a panic, reacting pretty much as anyone would when they realise they’ve been abducted in their sleep. The ifrit, reacting pretty much as a creepy kidnapper would, hits him and makes him put on a fancy robe. “Know that I have brought you here and am going to do you a favour for God’s sake,” he then explains. “Take this candle and go to the baths, where you are to mix with the people and walk along with them until you reach the bridal hall.” Once inside, he is to dig into a pocket of apparently endless gold coins and give them to whoever approaches him.
Bewilderedly, Hasan does as he’s told. He soon wins the approval of all the singing girls by filling their instruments with gold coins and when they reach Shams al-Din’s house, the girls insist Hasan come in too or there’ll be no music. The sultan’s chamberlains cave in fast. I am unreasonably delighted by this bargaining.
Inside the bridal hall, all the women, married and otherwise, start crushing wildly on the handsome stranger. They are far gone enough to let down their face veils, which is so obvious a symptom I’m assuming their husbands are not there to see. The unlucky groom looks terrible in comparison to Hasan and gets roundly cursed by all the women present.
Suddenly, the music redoubles and the bride enters. Gorgeously attired and bejewelled, the last word in stunning, she walks right past her husband to stand in front of Hasan and all the ladies ship them like mad. The singing girls are into it too, since Hasan is still showering them in gold. Everyone crowds round the golden couple, leaving the poor groom alone, which is totally unfair and incredibly sad. He didn’t ask for this.
Hasan feels bad about it for a moment, not to mention confused, but doubts depart him as he looks on the bride’s beauty. Can I just point out here that we still don’t know her name? He doesn’t either, and doesn’t care, because for some reason her maids are taking off her clothes and she’s reciting seductive poetry like this is an unusually literate striptease. Redressed in blue, she is ‘a summer moon set in a winter night’; over and over she is stripped and dressed afresh, deliberately showing off for Hasan while completely ignoring the groom. That’s fair enough, she never wanted to marry him and Hasan is, as the story has taken some pains to make clear, extremely attractive. Clad in the seventh and final dress, she makes her feelings known by saying aloud, “Oh God, make this my husband and free me from this hunchbacked groom.” That is unkind.
The guests depart after that, leaving only the bride, her intended husband the husband she’s picked for herself. It’s awkward. The groom tries to take charge of the situation by very politely asking Hasan to leave. Hasan, in turn, tries to do precisely that, but the ifrit stops him at the door. Shippers in this story are truly intense. “When the hunchback goes out to the latrine, enter at once,” the ifrit orders, “and sit down in the alcove. When the bride comes, tell her: ‘I am your husband and the sultan only played this trick on you for fear you might be hurt by the evil eye.'” He then adds, “As fas as we are concerned, this is a matter of honour.” What. Is. Even. Going. On.
As predicted, the groom slips out to the toilet and the ifrit ambushes him in the form of a mouse. Who then turns into a cat. Who then turns into a dog. The groom is terrified, but the ifrit is not even close to done. He becomes a donkey, then a buffalo, booming insults at his victim and threatening to kill him for daring to try and marry Shams al-Din’s daughter. “By God,” the groom wails, “none of this is my fault. They forced me to marry the girl and I didn’t know that she had a buffalo for a lover.”
How is this story real?
The ifrit tells him to stay until sunrise then go away and never come back, on pain of death. The groom does not need to be told twice. Humiliated several times over, he deserves to get out and find a better place.
Wow, this episode turned out unexpectedly huge. Return next week to find out how the sultan takes the switch-up, and also why I am WILDLY HAPPY about the bride’s name.