Trigger warning: racist language
Welcome back to night twenty three and a spontaneous family bonding trip! The Egyptian vizier Shams al-Din, his daughter Sitt al-Husn and his grandson ‘Ajib are going to hunt down Sitt al-Husn’s long-lost husband Hasan, who was abducted by supernatural entities, unwittingly married off to his cousin, re-abducted, abandoned and eventually adopted by an ex-con who runs a cookshop. For anything of that or what follows to make sense, I strongly recommend you read the previous segments of the story, starting with Week 12. I’m actually feeling very hopeful about this part because I was sure Shams al-Din would rush off on his own and instead Sitt al-Husn is getting the chance to take action for herself.
Because DESTINY, they end up in Damascus – or maybe that’s just a logical stopover on an undisclosed route, I don’t know. Accompanied by a heavily armed eunuch, ‘Ajib goes off to explore the city. The people of Damascus prove just as creepy with him as they were with his dad, staring at the adolescent child and actually following him around. Destiny intervenes again, thank goodness, with the eunuch choosing to stop at Hasan’s workplace.
His boss having died some time ago and left him the shop, Hasan has taken over and grown a beard, probably in self-defence against the ogling crowds outside. When he sees his son, he’s taken by the boy’s familiar looks and offers him a dish of sugared pomegranate seeds in such an unbelievably inappropriate way that the correct response is to RUN AWAY. I mean: ‘My master, who has taken possession of my heart and for whom I yearn, would you enter my shop?’ Hell no.
Only this is destiny, you see, and ‘Ajib feels the psychical connection too. “It is as though this cook is a man who has parted from his son,” he suggest blithely to his attendant. The eunuch takes my side, only with more classism and the pointed hefting of his club in Hasan’s direction. Hasan starts crying, ‘Ajib declares his filial love. “You are never going in there,” the eunuch says flatly. Hasan turns on him with some spectacularly racist ‘flattery’ (‘you who are like a chestnut, dark but with a white heart’ UGH UGH UGH). He continues with poetry about how well educated and reliable the eunuch must be, to occupy such a position of trust, and it works. They enter the shop.
Between eating sweetmeats, ‘Ajib explains that he is searching for his lost father. It’s all so sad he starts crying, and Hasan cries for his own lost parents, and the eunuch cries because he’s in this scene. They all keep eating sweets. When his visitors eventually depart, Hasan feels such a sense of connection that he locks up the shop and follows them. He’s spotted and pretends he’s on an urgent errand that just happens to take him in the same direction. The eunuch is unconvinced. “This is what I was afraid of,” he tells ‘Ajib – once you give a mysterious confectioner an inch…’Ajib is embarrassed and angry. Once they reach his family’s tents, he looks back and misinterprets Hasan’s longing stare; furious, he flings a stone, knocking Hasan unconscious.
The text openly acknowledges how sketchy this whole thing looks and when Hasan wakes up he blames himself for acting that way, saying: “I wronged the boy by shutting up my shop and following him, making him think that I was a pervert.” Given how often folk tales brush off hideously creepy behaviour towards children, this is a good surprise.
We only find out now that Hasan’s mother is still alive in Basra – most likely in an appallingly precarious position, having lost her husband and son in rapid succession and under such unfortunate circumstances. Shams al-Din, unaware of the encounter in the cookshop, moves his family on to make enquiries elsewhere. Though they pass through many cities, there is no word until they reach Basra. A meeting with the sultan garners some answers, though they are not all true. He describes Nur al-Din as a beloved friend and valued vizier who died fifteen years ago, shortly after which his son went missing. Notice how there’s no mention of arrest warrants or seized property? Directed to the house of Hasan’s mother, Shams al-Din kisses the threshold and looks around eagerly for traces of his brother.
The widow has taken her son’s loss very hard. Having built a memorial to Hasan inside the house, she barely ever leaves it. She’s crying over it when Shams al-Din comes in, introducing himself and giving her the first word she’s had of her boy in fifteen years. He then brings in ‘Ajib. The newly informed grandmother is so overjoyed that when Shams al-Din suggests she join the family quest, she starts packing straight away. Shams al-Din, who is still a representative of Egypt even when he’s not on the sultan’s business, accepts gifts on his master’s behalf from the sultan of Basra and travels back to Damascus.
Once again ‘Ajib goes out with his servant, who finally gets a name! He is Layiq. ‘Ajib has been feeling bad about hurting Hasan and wants to check on him; the mystical connection is powerful as ever. Even though Hasan came away from the last encounter with a new scar, he is over the moon to see ‘Ajib again and recites some truly inappropriate love poetry, and even though he couldn’t sound more like a creeper, ‘Ajib agrees to stay for more pomegranate sweets on the condition Hasan doesn’t follow him afterwards. So Hasan just stares at him the whole time he eats instead. “Didn’t I tell you that you are an unwelcome lover,” ‘Ajib snaps, “so stop staring at my face.”
Someone call a genealogist, this is painful.
Hasan keeps feeding both his guests until they can’t take another bite and honours the agreement by not following when they depart. Arriving back at the tents, ‘Ajib goes to see his grandmother. She offers him more sweets and he tries them out of politeness; then politeness goes out the window as he rudely compares her work to that of Hasan. She is, understandably, shocked by his lack of manners and looks to Layiq for an explanation.
Night twenty four begins with Layiq defending himself. Not all these nights have particularly gripping cliffhangers but this particular saga is such a mess I can understand why Sharazad’s listeners would be addicted anyway. Accused of spoiling his charge, Layiq fudges facts, pretending they just passed the cookshop in question and did not go in. ‘Ajib won’t let it lie, though, insisting they ate themselves sick on all things sugary. The matter is taken to Shams al-Din. He tests Layiq’s story by commanding him to eat; of course, the slave can’t force the food down and Shams al-Din has him beaten. To make it stop, Layiq tells the whole story. Still stinging at the criticism to her cooking, Hasan’s mother insists the question be settled: Shams al-Din must taste both cook’s sweets and decide which is better.
When Layiq comes to him, Hasan laughs. “By God, this is a dish that nobody can cook properly except for my mother and me,” he remarks, “and she is now in a distant land.” The same realisation hits his mother the moment she tastes his work. Being a true member of the family, she passes out from the shock. As she comes to, it is with frantic certainty. “It has to have been my son, Hasan,” she declares. “No one else can cook it except him, for I taught him the recipe.” I’m finding this whole sub-plot adorable, incidentally.
It gets a whole lot less adorable the second Shams al-Din gets involved. Instead of, I don’t know, popping in for a chat or something normal, he sends twenty armed men to DEMOLISH THE SHOP and tie up Hasan. As justification, Shams al-Din shows the governor of Damascus his letters of permission from the sultan. Hasan is dragged to his uncle’s tent and left there to wonder what the hell was so wrong with his sweets. He’s sure he’s about to be beheaded. Shams al-Din, when they finally meet, does nothing to assuage those fears or in any way explain himself. He has Hasan locked up in a box all the way back to Cairo, allowed out only for one meal a day.
In Cairo things get WORSE. Shams al-Din orders a wooden cross be built and when Hasan asks apprehensively what it’s for, Shams al-Din says, “I will garrotte you on it and then nail you to it, before parading you around the whole city…Because of your ill omened cooking of the pomegranate seeds, for you cooked them without enough pepper.” It seems a tad personal for that. Shams al-Din demands to know what Hasan is thinking. “About superficial minds like yours,” Hasan retorts, “for if you had any intelligence you would not treat me like this.”
Only, this is all part of a plan? A really weird plan. The night before his execution, while Hasan is sleeping in the box, Shams al-Din has it moved to his house and tells his daughter to arrange everything as it was on her wedding night. Here’s where that furniture plan Shams al-Din made so long ago comes in useful. If useful is an appropriate word for these circumstances. Even Hasan’s clothes are artfully scattered about, like they were that night. Sitt al-Husn is told to behave as if her husband has just taken a while in the latrine and insist he comes back to bed. Hasan is then removed, still sleeping, from the wooden box and stripped down to his shirt.
He wakes to find himself in a wedding chamber identical to the one he left behind almost fifteen years ago. Walking through it in bewilderment, he comes to the bed. Sitt al-Husn is playing along with her father’s deception, so it’s hard to know what she feels about this whole situation. As far as she knows, Hasan abandoned her after a single night of wild passion, leaving her to raise their fractious son alone. She welcomes Hasan to bed as if it is still that same night. Weakened and suggestible after his recent experiences, he’s almost convinced that the last decade and half have been a dream, even when he touches his forehead and finds the scar ‘Ajib’s stone left there. He tells Sitt al-Husn all about his treatment at Shams al-Din’s hands, and even as she coaxes him to sleep, he mutters uneasily.
The next morning Shams al-Din comes in and Hasan knows at once it was all real, also he’s in company with a sadist. Shams al-Din brushes all that off. “I only did all this to make sure it was you who slept with my daughter that night,” he says calmly. “For I had never seen you before and could not identify you.” What the hell? HASAN’S MOTHER WAS RIGHT THERE.
Shams al-Din pulls Hasan into an embrace and explains about his quarrel with Nur al-Din. They both cry. ‘Ajib is sent for, and Hasan’s mother too, so three generations of separation can be resolved. Life stories are exchanged, there are a lot of tears, and it’s two days before Shams al-Din goes to the sultan with a summary of recent events. Hasan is sent for and fortunately retains a glib tongue for touchy royalty. Testing Hasan’s knowledge of poetry by asking for verses describing a mole (the facial kind, not the rodent) the sultan is very impressed by the ensuing examples. “How many meanings does the word khal, or ‘mole’, have in Arabic?” is his next question. “Fifty eight,” Hasan replies, “although some say fifty.” There are more questions, including a story about a praying fox that I wish had opened into a proper segue, because why did that fox mimic the praying man?
Anyway, the sultan is entirely satisfied with Hasan and gives him an honoured place at court. Returning home, Hasan tells Sitt al-Husn about the appointment and she is delighted, encouraging his idea to write the sultan some complimentary poetry. The end result is so outrageously flirtatious that the sultan makes him an official bestie right away. The elevation comes with a hefty pay rise. With his skills as a diplomat and his family reunited around him, Hasan lives happily in Cairo until the end of his days.
Remember how the al-Din saga started? There was a murder trial in Baghdad, several appalling miscarriages of justice, and storytelling instead of evidence. Return next week as it concludes and a new tale begins.