We return to night twenty two and the improbable adventures of Hasan, who got kidnapped by matchmaking spirits and gatecrashed his cousin’s wedding, only he doesn’t know she’s his cousin yet and also the ifrit has scared off her original groom. At this point, after we’ve had several pages of lavish description devoted to her body, we finally find out the bride’s name. She is SITT AL-HUSN.
Not the same Sitt al-Husn who defeated a different ifrit in sorcerous combat, but nevertheless, just the name implies good things.
Her plan – made without the nudging of an ifrit or jinniya, I might add – was to insist on an open marriage. That is, be married to the unfortunate groom selected by the vengeful sultan, but sleep with Hasan instead. Her elderly attendant is obviously on board with that, because when she spots Hasan in an alcove of the bridal chamber, her response is, “You well-made man, rise up and take what God has entrusted to you.” I am not making this up.
A few minutes later, Sitt al-Husn finds the man of her choice waiting in her bridal chamber and the other one nowhere to be seen. Life is good! Hasan announces he’s her real husband and the groom was hired as part of a terrible joke. Which means they can skip to sex, a development they greet with equal enthusiasm. There’s a lengthy paragraph detailing their undressing, followed by some truly awful euphemisms for Sitt al-Husn’s virginity, but the upshot is a night of frenzied passion. Eventually they fall asleep in each other’s arms. A poetical interlude follows: ‘You who blame the lovers for their love/ Have you the power to cure the sick at heart?’
I have a terrible suspicion that the ifrit and jinniya were watching, because afterwards they snatch Hasan, half-naked, out of the bed to take him home. It would seem God disapproves of this meddling because on the journey back an angel throws a shooting star and incinerates the ifrit on the spot. The jinniya is so panicked she dumps Hasan outside the gates of Damascus before flying for her life. In the morning, a crowd gathers to stare at the indecently underdressed stranger lying asleep on the ground. “How lucky was the one with whom this fellow spent the night,” they mutter to each other, assuming he got drunk, got lucky and got locked outside the city gates. The wind billows up his shirt, exposing everything underneath, and everyone ogles shamelessly. SERIOUSLY, THEY DO. The wind is probably the ifrit’s ghost or something.
Hasan wakes up to another episode of My Life is Bizarre and asks, with what dignity he can muster, what is going on. No one can answer that. Asked where he was last night, he says Cairo. “You’ve been eating hashish,” someone says. “You’re clearly mad,” someone else adds. When he insists upon his story the crowd collectively agrees upon option B and follow curiously as Hasan stalks away into the city, looking for clothes. At random he enters the cookshop of a reformed thief. The man is notorious locally for his violent temper and despite his reformation, people are still scared; the crowd melts away the moment Hasan sets foot inside the shop. I have to quote the next section because I have trouble believing I’m reading it.
‘The cook, looking at Hasan’s grace and beauty, felt affection for him enter his heart. “Where have you come from, young man?” he said. “Tell me your story, for you have become dearer to me than my life.”‘
SERIOUSLY, HE DOES.
Hasan explains the entire mess and the cook, being besotted, believes every word. He advises Hasan keep it a secret – a bit late, admittedly, but the crowd only got a few details before they decided he was mentally unstable so imagine how they’d handle the bit where he was abducted by an ifrit. The cook adopts Hasan on the spot, gives him some clothes and makes him cashier in the shop.
So that’s his morning after settled, what about Sitt al-Husn’s? She wakes alone and is waiting, puzzled, for him to return when her father arrives. He’s so humiliated by the enforced marriage that he plans to kill his daughter if she let the servant touch her, thereby bumping himself up the Worst Father Ever shortlist. When Sitt al-Husn comes dancing out of her chamber, glowing from a fantastic wedding night, he tries to slut shame her and she just smiles, assuming he knows about the joke Hasan explained…which was not actually a joke, just something the ifrit made up and left Sitt al-Husn to deal with. She says she’s pregnant, though how she could know so fast is a mystery, and her father calls her a harlot before going off to look for the original groom. He finds the poor man still holed up in the latrine. The groom mistakes him for the ifrit. When he realises he’s talking to the man who would have been his father-in-law, he bewails his misfortune in being betrothed to a lover of ifrits.
Nighty twenty three opens with more details of the groom’s hellish night being revealed to the increasingly baffled vizier. Once freed from the latrine, he runs off to tell the sultan and Shams al-Din goes back to his daughter. She patiently goes through her story again, showing her husband’s clothes still strewn about. Shams al-Din goes thoughtful when he feels the turban’s fine fabric; unravelling it, he finds a purse of money and a contract of sale bearing his dead brother’s name. It’s all too much – he faints away on the floor.
When he reawakens, it is with great excitement, because destiny. He tells Sitt al-Husn her husband’s real identity, and claims the thousand dinars in the purse as her dowry. Next, he finds Nur al-Din’s letter. It makes such an amazing story that when the sultan is told, he forgets all about his wrath and has everything written down.
Days pass. Hasan does not return; his things are locked up in his uncle’s room, along with a map of the house, for reasons that are not as yet clear. In time Sitt al-Husn gives birth to a beautiful baby boy, who is named ‘Ajib and grows at a truly spectacular rate. At the end of a month he’s the size of a one-year-old. At the age of seven he’s sent to school, and is something of a bully with the other children; after a few years of this, their monitor eventually retaliates by telling the children to encircle him and demand he gives both his parents’ names, or be pronounced a bastard. ‘Ajib blithely declares his father to be Shams al-Din. The children, much better informed of court gossip, laugh and tell him the real story, or as much as they know of it. “You won’t be able to compare yourself with the other boys in this school,” they say, “unless you find out who your father is, for otherwise they will take you for a bastard.”
‘Ajib goes straight to his mother but is crying too hard to speak. When he finally gets the question out, she tries the same lie he’s believed for so long. ‘Ajib is wrought up enough to threaten suicide if he doesn’t get the truth. Sitt al-Husn answers with poetry, as you…do? “They stirred up longing in my heart and left./ Those whom I love have now gone far away,” she sighs. “They left and with them my patience has gone./ After this loss, patience is hard to find.” She cries. ‘Ajib cries. Sham al-Din comes in, hears the story and he starts crying too. Unlike the other two, though, he has the power to change things and makes use of it now. By sobbing strategically in front of the sultan, he gets permission not only to go hunting for Hasan but to have written instructions sent all over the land, giving him the authority to drag his nephew away from wherever he happens to be.
Next Tuesday – what’s happening in Damascus? Is anyone safe from Hasan’s lethal charm, particularly Hasan himself? The al-Din soap opera continues!