The Sharazad Project: Week 26

Trigger warning: references to extreme racism, cannibalism, mutilation, indecent treatment of children

Last week we began a new story, opening with the death of a wealthy merchant. He leaves behind his handsome son Ghanim ibn Ayyub and Ghanim’s equally attractive sister Fitna. Night thirty nine explains that wealth in more detail. An impressive stockpile of expensive goods were destined for sale in Baghdad when the merchant died so Ghanim takes them there himself. The business goes exceedingly well. He has been staying in Baghdad for a year when he attends a funeral procession, not because he knows the dead man but because he was one of the local merchants and the market has pretty much shut down while his friends see him buried.

In the graveyard, Quran reciters speak prayers over the grave while guests are seated around to watch. A meal is brought; night falls. Ghanim grows increasingly uncomfortable, worrying about his reputation for wealth and the chance of thieves breaking in while he’s away from home. Late in the night he gets up, pretending he’s slipping off to the toilet when actually he’s got no plans to come back.

Unfortunately, the main gate is shut, leaving him stuck among the graves while jackals and wild dogs howl rather too close at hand. Retreating to a walled burial plot, he tries and fails to sleep the rest of the night away. When he admits defeat and gets up, he notices a light near the gate. That looks ominous. He closes the gate to the burial plot, climbing a nearby palm tree to watch from above as the light draws nearer. Three slaves come past, one holding a lantern and an axe, the others carrying a chest. They notice the closed gate and two accuse each other of forgetting to leave it open. The third works out that someone might be taking shelter there, perhaps hiding in the palm tree. The slaves are black and there’s an extremely offensive reference to cannibalism here.

The slaves are thieves, the chest containing their booty, and the third one, Bukhait, suggests they go into the burial plot in case a rival gang of robbers comes by. It would seem the graveyard is a crime hotspot. Once inside, they all sit down. “It’s now midnight and we have no energy left for opening up the tomb and burying the chest,” one of them remarks. “Meanwhile, let each of us tell the story of why he was castrated and what happened to him from beginning to end. This will help pass the night.” The first to speak is Bukhait. Segue, I guess.

Be warned – this next segment is awful on many levels. I’m going to sum it up as fast as I can, but if you want to skip (I WANT TO SKIP) I’m bolding the beginning of the next segue. Though I can’t guarantee it will be much better.

Okay, so Bukhait’s story starts with his abduction by a slave dealer, at which time he is a five year old child. This part of his life gets one sentence. He’s bought by a sergeant as a playmate for his daughter, two years Bukhait’s junior. They grow up as good friends. When he is twelve and she is ten, they engage in some confused sexual experimentation and it goes too far. The whole thing happens in a really improbable way and is described in extremely explicit terms. Frightened, Bukhait runs away; the girl’s mother finds her and helps her clean up. They tell no one what’s happened.

For two months Bukhait goes into hiding. He’s persuaded to come home by friends in the household but the girl is quickly married off to a young barber. During the bridal preparations, Bukhait is caught and castrated. The order comes from the girl’s mother, who has gone to enormous trouble to hide her daughter’s compromised virginity from everyone, from the girl’s father to her new husband. It’s all sickening. Bukhait is made the girl’s eunuch, remaining her friend and, it’s strongly hinted, her lover. He stays until she dies. Actually, everyone dies, her husband and parents too, another weird thing given no explanation whatsoever.

The next slave’s name is Kafur. His story starts when he’s eight years old, already a slave, tricking the slave traders into fighting with each other. His master gets sick of his trouble-making and sells him off to a merchant.

At the beginning of the new year the local merchants hold a series of banquets and when it’s the turn of this particular merchant, he sets up the event in a garden outside the city. Kafir is brought along to be a messenger; he’s sent during the meal to fetch something from home. Kafir, little hell-raiser that he is, makes the journey but on the way bursts into such loud tears that he gathers an anxious crowd. He claims that the merchant and his companions have been crushed by a collapsing wall. The merchant’s wife goes into a frenzy of grief, smashing up the house. When it’s a landscape of splinters, she orders Kafur to lead her and her children to the site of the tragedy. They attract a massive entourage of curious spectators. Kafir runs on ahead into the garden where the merchants are quite alive and tells his master that the house collapsed on his wife and children, killing them all. The merchant flies into a wild grief the mirror of his wife’s – his friends echo his cries in sympathy. Then they emerge from the garden, and collide with Grief Brigade No.1. It is a perfect storm of confusion. The family fly into each other’s arms with pure relief.

Once the first shock has passed, they exchange stories and realise Kafir played them all. The merchant is livid. Kafir, however, is not afraid at all. He points out that the merchant bought him fully aware of his faults and what’s more, he considers the events of today only half a lie so he’ll tell the other half when the year is nearly up. In desperation, the merchant tries to free him. “Even if you free me, I can’t free you until the year is up and I have told my other half lie,” Kafir replies. “When I have completed it, you can take me to the market and sell me for what you bought me, defect and all. You are not to free me, as I have no craft by which I could earn my living. This point is found in shari’a law and is mentioned by lawyers in their discussion on the emancipation of slaves.”

This kid is kind of brilliant in a frankly quite frightening way.

The confused crowd share in the merchant’s outrage. It’s even worse when the merchant gets home and sees the wreckage Kafir caused there. “He says that this is half a lie,” he wails. “If it were a full one, he would have destroyed a whole city or even two.” At this point I want Kafir to be an ifrit in disguise or an immortal spirit of discord, but instead the merchant drags him off to the authorities and has the boy beaten half to death. While Kafir is still unconscious, the merchant has him castrated. He then sells his slave as a eunuch, and Kafir has gone from household to household ever since, wreaking as much havoc as he can. At the time of his arrival in the graveyard, he’s feeling a little depressed about his life choices.

His friends don’t believe a word of it. Fair enough. The third slave, Sawab, dismisses both stories as dull compared to his – he slept with his mistress and her son, apparently – but doesn’t elaborate because dawn is drawing near and they’ve still got that chest of stolen goods to conceal. They dig a space between the graves and cover the chest in earth.

Once they’ve gone and the sun has risen, Ghanim climbs down and scoops away the earth so he can peek inside the chest. It’s not stolen goods at all – it’s a girl, beautiful and richly dressed, still alive but drugged into a deep sleep. Ghanim lifts her out. The fresh air rouses her; as she wakes, she calls out several names and of course gets no reply. She is bewildered to find herself amongst the graves. Ghanim tells her the whole story, or as much as he knows. He wants to hear her side too, of course, but she is in no sharing mood. She orders him to put her back in the chest and find someone to carry it safely to his house. Once she’s there, she promises to tell him all.

You might think Ghanim is quite the hero at this point, but he’s mostly motivated by a strong attraction to the girl and, having assumed she’s a slave, has already worked out her financial worth, so the only person I give a damn about by this point is the girl herself. Next Tuesday we’ll find out what happened to her, and what she intends to do next.

Disney Reflections No.6: A Judgement of Tigers

This is Disney Reflections, a series of monthly posts in which I compare Disney animated fairy tales to the original stories.

Made in 1992, this movie has several notable distinctions: being the first Disney fairy tale to both draw on a non-European story and take place in a non-European setting, for one thing. It also features the first Disney prince and princess of colour – admittedly with the wrong accents and slightly Anglicised features, but it’s a start – and is the first Disney fairy tale to centre around a male character.

The fairy tale: Well, this is awkward. I deliberately did not review ‘Aladdin’ for the Fairy Tale Tuesday project because I knew it would be part of the Sharazad Project, only I have not yet reached that part. This post is going to be ENORMOUS.

The telling I’m using today comes from Ruth Manning-Sanders’ A Book of Wizards and begins in ‘an eastern country’, which is about as non-specific as it can be. Aladdin is the son of an impoverished tailor but totally disinterested in the trade or, in fact, anything resembling work. The stress of his footloose behaviour takes its toll on the family; Aladdin’s father falls ill and dies and his mother is left to scrape by as best she can alone.

One day a wizard passes in the street, sees Aladdin skylarking and decides he’ll do for a very special job. The wizard inquires with a nearby butcher to find out the boy’s name and life story, learning enough to come up with a plan. Aladdin is astonished when a stranger comes over and embraces him; when the wizard announces he’s Aladdin’s long-lost uncle, come home to share his financial good fortune with his ‘brother’, it seems like a miracle. The wizard offers help to his widowed ‘sister-in-law’, agrees to set Aladdin up as a shopkeeper and generally acts the part of a godsend.

After a while he takes Aladdin into the country, allegedly for a little uncle-nephew bonding trip, but eventually they get to the point of it all. In a valley close to the city, the wizard performs a piece of simple fire magic to reveal a trapdoor. Freaked out, Aladdin tries to run. He’s hauled back. “Obey me, and your fortune is made,” the wizard declares, “but I will have nothing to do with cowards!” Okay, you go down the scary hole in the ground then.

Aladdin doesn’t say that. Promised that fabulous riches lie below, he descends into an underground palace, armed only with a ring that he’s told will protect him from harm. He passes through a subterranean orchard where gems grow instead of fruit, into a terrace, where an ordinary lamp sits in a niche. That’s all the wizard wants. Aladdin fills his pockets with the jewels, not knowing they’re valuable but thinking his mother will like the pretty colours, and climbs back up to the trapdoor. As he reaches for the wizard’s hand to be pulled out, his ‘uncle’ demands to be given the lamp first. Aladdin can’t get at it given his position, but the wizard goes quite wild at his refusal and scrabbles at Aladdin’s hand in an attempt to retrieve the ring. The frightened boy’s grip is too tight for him to succeed. Instead, the wizard seals him down in the vault and flies off to brood in Africa.

Abandoned, Aladdin beats his fists on immoveable rock and searches desperately for another way out, to no avail. He sobs hopelessly in the dark. What he doesn’t know is that the lamp is a magical artefact of extraordinary power, but that this power could only be the wizard’s if it was passed willingly into his hands. He also doesn’t know that the ring is magic too – he pulls it off, intending to throw it away in a gesture of disgust, but the touch causes a sudden flash of light and a genie arises from the ground, asking his will. Aladdin begs to be freed from the cavern. The genie duly deposits him in the valley and Aladdin runs all the way home.

Once he’s told his mother of his dreadful adventure, he gives her the lamp to sell, since they don’t have an evil benefactor to buy them things any more. Aladdin’s mother starts cleaning the lamp to make it more presentable and a second genie appears from nowhere, ready for her commands. Utterly freaked out, she wants him to go away, but Aladdin has a little more experience and asks for the genie to fetch them a meal. They get a veritable feast on silver tableware that Aladdin later sells for more food. With his two magic slaves, Aladdin is sure all their problems are over. His mother just wants him to get a decent job, but that’s sure as hell not happening.

For a few years all goes well. Aladdin grows up a bit, starts taking an interest in trade and realises how much those stones he collected are worth. While he’s walking around the city considering his options a herald strides through the street demanding everyone close their windows so that the sultan’s daughter can pass unseen to the bath house. Aladdin, who’s still not a great person, hides behind the bath house door so that as she takes off her veils, he can see her beautiful face. So beautiful, in fact, that Aladdin falls for her on the spot and goes home to plot their marriage.

His mother thinks it is a pipe dream. Aladdin thinks he has magic slaves for precisely this sort of thing and sets them to work right away. He fills a dish with the jewels from the cavern and sends his mother to the palace with them the next morning. The sultan is thrilled with the present but his vizier was hoping to get the princess married off to his own son and tells his boss he can give a better offer. Aladdin’s proposal is put off for three months while the sultan waits to see if that’s true. He honestly doesn’t care who gets his daughter as long as they make him really rich in the process.

The vizier’s a bit desperate. He sells off all the land he’s got in order to match Aladdin’s offer and the sultan accepts his gold, though in secret so he needn’t give the jewels back. Neither understand yet quite what they’re up against. The force of gossip, for one thing; word spreads and on the day of the wedding Aladdin’s mother brings home the news. Straight after the wedding feast, Aladdin has the Slave of the Lamp bring the couple to his house. The groom is thrown outside, leaving the terrified princess alone. Aladdin promises to ‘guard’ her, which means standing in the doorway all night with a sword. A+ wooing, Aladdin, would you like to set fire to the bed too?

In the morning he has the slave take the couple back, and the princess tells her mother everything, but of course is not believed. When the same events take place the next night, however, the vizier’s son asks for a divorce and the sultan grants it.

Aladdin sends his mother back to the palace to repeat his proposal.

The sultan sees an opportunity and demands his daughter’s new suitor prove his worth – financial worth, that is, the bridal gift being a procession of slaves loaded down with forty trays of fine jewels. The Slave of the Lamp provides a suitably glittering assembly and the sultan is so pleased he accepts Aladdin’s proposal on the spot. Aladdin gets the genie to work right away on preparing fabulous outfits for himself and his mother, plus another procession of slaves to accompany him and carry his conjured wealth. Crowds turn out to watch him go past, cheering under a rain of gold coins. Not satisfied with this display, Aladdin asks for a piece of land and has the genie construct a glorious castle within twenty four hours. Only then does Aladdin ask the princess herself for her hand, and marry her.

The first few years of their marriage are as happy as limitless luxury can make them. The wizard, however, has not forgotten the lamp. Upon hearing that Aladdin escaped his tomb, accessed the lamp’s power and married into royalty, he decides it’s time to make a move. He returns to the city, setting himself up with a tray of shiny copper lamps and walks about offering “New lamps for old!”. Aladdin himself is absent on a hunting trip. The princess hears the mockery of the crowd outside her palace and is amused, sending out a slave with an old lamp to exchange for new. It is, of course, the magic lamp she gives. How could she know?

That night, the wizard summons the Slave of the Lamp. He orders that the palace and everyone inside be taken to Africa, and his will is duly done.

The sultan may not be a great dad, but he reacts with suitable outrage when his daughter and her entire house disappear overnight. Capitalising on that rage, the resentful vizier suggests Aladdin’s execution. He’s seized on his way back from the hunt and is about to be killed, without even knowing what’s happened – but all that largesse pays off and a mob descends on the palace to rescue him. The sultan is forced to pardon him and finally explain what’s wrong. “You have done away with my daughter!” he shouts. “Is it not just that I should have your head?” Aladdin asks for forty days grace to find his wife and sets off. It takes him four days of misery to remember he has another genie.

His first demand is obviously for the Slave of the Ring to bring back both palace and wife, but that’s against the Genie Code so he settles for second-best and has himself transported to where the palace currently stands, right under his wife’s window. A slave recognises him and tells the princess. She sneaks him in through a side door for a joyful reunion. By now the princess knows of the lamp’s power, the wizard carries it about constantly, but Aladdin is riding high and determined to get it back. He heads into a nearby city, swaps clothes with a random passerby and buys poison. He brings this back to the princess, then hides in a cupboard.

She dresses up in her loveliest clothes and invites the wizard to eat with her, to all appearance a woman making the best of her new situation. When she asks to taste the wine of his country, the wizard is only too delighted to oblige her. While he’s absent fetching it, the princess pours the poison into her cup and her own wine over the top of that. She suggests they exchange cups as a gesture of goodwill. The wizard downs the poisoned wine and falls dead.

Aladdin springs forth from the cupboard to take back his lamp and return everyone home. The sultan is overjoyed to have his daughter safe, asks Aladdin’s forgiveness and declares ten days holiday for the whole city. And they all live happily ever after, except the hundred or so slaves Aladdin conjured up, and the captive genies who have to obey his every whim, and the vizier, who is presumably broke.

Happy endings are entirely a matter of perspective.

The film: The story is set somewhere in the Middle East, and we know that because the intro is a musical number too full of clichés to be as catchy as it is. Having been reviewing Sharazad’s stories for six months now, I’m amused to note that the first character we meet is a merchant. It’s always a merchant. He’s speaking directly to the camera, it’s very fourth wall, and as it pans away in apparent disinterest he brings out his ace: a mysterious lamp. He begins to tell the story…


It begins one night when two men meet up in the desert: a vizier and a thief. The thief has acquired one half of a golden scarab and is reluctant to hand it over without concrete payment, but the vizier’s parrot swiftly filches it and when the two halves are joined together the beetle turns abruptly animate, flying away. Where it lands, a sand dune transforms into a vast feline maw. Is it weird that I kind of want to pet the big sand monster? Yes, probably weird.

This is the entrance to the Cave of Wonders, which the vizier has spent many years seeking, and with one purpose in mind. He desires only ‘the lamp’. Once it is in Ja’far’s hands, the thief may claim everything else. That sort of offer really should be ringing warning bells, as should the giant pissed-off pussycat who rumbles out that one person alone may enter safely: the diamond in the rough. But the thief goes in anyway. Apparently he’s no diamond, because no sooner does he set foot in the cavernous mouth than it clamps shut and he’s buried alive. Ew.

The parrot, dropping his innocent avian accomplice act, throws a violent tantrum. “I’m so ticked off I’m moulting!” he shrieks, collecting the pieces of scarab. Jafar is more circumspect. He’s a politician, after all. “I must find this diamond in the rough,” he muses.

The unfortunate dead thief is not the only one making a dishonest living on the streets of Agrabah. We next meet a young man called Aladdin, who is on the run with a loaf of stolen bread and a pet monkey named Abu while a gang of thuggish guards pound hot on his heels. His escape through the marketplace involves acrobatics, cross-dressing and ruining the day of several innocent street performers. He uses a rug as a parachute, landing safely in an alley, but his heart is several times bigger than he can afford and the sight of a pair of hungry children inspires him to give up his hard-won breakfast. A few minutes later, he has to rescue them again when they run in front of a visiting prince’s horse. They have no survival instinct.

Neither, it would seem, does Aladdin, who mouths off to the rich mean guy on a horse and is kicked in the mud for his pains, dismissed as a ‘worthless street rat’. He trudges sadly home, brooding over the names that have been hurled at him through the day. From his rooftop, he looks at the palace, dreaming about what it must be like to live there. brilliant, actually, not if you are the princess Jasmine. Her latest suitor, Mr ‘I Can Run Down Small Children If I Want To’, storms out of the place with a large hole ripped out of his trousers, courtesy of Jasmine’s pet tiger Raja. They snicker together like conspirators while the sultan frets. There is a inconveniently specific law insisting she be married to a prince before her next birthday and she only has three days left. The sultan could presumably change this law any time he wanted, but he’s getting on and would like to see her settled. Jasmine has other ideas. She wants to leave the palace walls, meet people, make friends. Furiously she pulls open the dovecote, freeing its prisoners.

Giving up on the conversation, the sultan goes to play with his model city. Jafar looms up at his elbow, requesting the use of a ‘mystic blue diamond’. When the sultan hesitates, Jafar just hypnotises him with his serpent-headed cane. He and his parrot Iago can barely hide their hatred.

That night, Jasmine escapes the palace walls with loyal Raja’s assistance. This is a bad decision because it makes the tiger look sad. Stop upsetting your tiger, Jasmine!

Another day, another theft in Agrabah. Abu acts as a decoy while Aladdin steals breakfast and this time they actually get to eat. Jasmine is wandering around the marketplace, wide-eyed, but she’s clueless about how the economy works and when she sees a hungry child she just grabs a piece of fruit off the nearest stall without realising she has to pay for it. The stall’s owner doesn’t take that well. Aladdin leaps in like the overenthusiastic puppy he is and convinces the angry man that Jasmine is his mentally unstable sister. Jasmine plays along beautifully.

Meanwhile, Jafar is conjuring up a fake storm in a huge glass orb, the blue diamond being involved as some sort of power source, and discovers his ‘diamond in the rough’ is Aladdin. Who is trying to have a romantic moment with Jasmine, showing off his roof-leaping skills en route to his hideout in an abandoned building. They both talk about how trapped they feel without realising the other one is having a different conversation but just as they’re beginning to connect, Jafar sends in the guards. “Do you trust me?” Aladdin demands urgently just before he jumps off the rooftop. Jasmine follows. It is all no use, however, and they are caught.

“Unhand him, by order of the princess,” Jasmine snaps. She goes straight to Jafar, demanding her new friend be freed. Jafar says that Aladdin has already been executed. Jasmine runs into the garden to cry her heart out and Raja puts a comforting paw on her back and if that doesn’t give you overwhelming feels, I don’t understand you.

Aladdin is not dead. He’s chained in a dungeon, actually, moaning over his romantic mistakes. Abu comes to rescue him, though he’s pretty snippy about it, doing Jasmine impersonations while he picks locks. This a seriously talented monkey. They are not, however, alone: an elderly prisoner totters from the shadows, full of stories about a magical cave full of extraordinary treasures. “You’ve heard of the golden rule, haven’t you?” he wheezes. “Whoever has the gold makes the rules.” If Aladdin comes along as the brawn in this enterprise, he’ll be richly rewarded.

The ‘prisoner’ reveals a secret tunnel and before long they reach the Cave of Wonders. The giant sand tiger accepts Aladdin but warns him to touch nothing except the lamp. That’s no easy ask. Within lie vast chambers heaped with gold and jewels. Aladdin is curious but cautious; Abu finds it harder. And once again, they aren’t alone. A sentient flying carpet flutters along behind them, pranking Abu repeatedly until finally Aladdin notices it too. He is charmed and asks for directions to the lamp. The carpet eagerly obliges.

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Within a pool lies a rock stair, and at the top of the stair, in a dramatic ray of light, lies the lamp – but while Aladdin’s back is turned, Abu gives way to temptation and lays paws on a huge jewel. The cavern disintegrates around them, the ground swallowed by molten gold. It is only with the carpet’s help that they reach the cavern’s entrance. Aladdin gropes for the old man’s hand. Forced to hand over the lamp first, he is betrayed; Jafar (because of course it is Jafar) raises a dagger but Abu bites his wrist and instead they fall.

Abu did more than save Aladdin. He stole the lamp back. He has skills.

Aladdin comes to trapped in a dark cavern. With nothing better to do, he studies the lamp, rubbing at the grimy metal for a better look. It bursts with sudden light. Blue smoke wells out, resolving into an enormous genie. He’s gone a little stir-crazy from too long in the lamp. He puts on an extravagant song and dance show to display his awesome for Aladdin but it comes down to this: he can grant three wishes. Only three wishes, and he has a few caveats. He won’t kill people outright, make them fall in love or bring them back from the dead. Everything else is fair game.

He may be fantastically powerful, but he’s dealing with a team of con artists. Aladdin loudly doubts the genie’s abilities, suggesting that he could not even get them free of this cavern, and the genie, pride stung, whisks them all off to the nearest oasis.

Back at the palace, Jasmine has taken her story to the sultan, who chews out Jafar. Not because he’s particularly opposed to young thieves being executed without trial, but because it’s upset his little girl. Once Jafar has issued a deeply insincere apology, the sultan happily insists the two of them kiss and make up. He cannot read a situation accurately to save his life.

“When I am queen,” Jasmine tells Jafar on her way out, “I will have the power to get rid of you.” Iago mimics her rudely, but is unsettled by the truth of that statement. He suggests Jafar marry Jasmine instead, thereby taking a sideways route to the throne. They plot together with much maniacal laughter.

In the oasis, the genie is triumphant – until he realises he’s been had. He has a great sense of humour about it though, and acknowledges that Aladdin is entitled to the full three wishes. Aladdin can’t decide where to start and asks what the genie would choose. The answer is obvious: his freedom. He’s trapped in service to the lamp until someone wishes him free. Eagerly, Aladdin promises to do just that with his third wish and while the genie is very doubtful, he wants to believe it too.

They get down to business. Aladdin’s instinctive wish is to be with Jasmine, so he asks the genie to make him a prince. A la fairy godmother, the genie obliges with a fabulous outfit, and even turns Abu into an elephant. Abu doesn’t appreciate this.

Jafar wastes no time in his wicked plotting, running to the sultan with a law he’s just invented and written down to make it look official, insisting that if the princess does not marry within the allotted time she must wed the royal vizier. It’s no stupider than the original, I suppose. The sultan is not convinced so Jafar starts hypnotising him, but a blare of trumpets interrupts the moment and the sultan hurries to see what’s happening. A colourful procession is sweeping through the streets of Agrabah, swordsmen and dancers and a veritable menagerie, all preceded by a bright blue spin doctor who takes on different shapes to spread outrageously flattering stories of his master, ‘Prince Ali’. Jasmine, looking on from her balcony, thinks it’s overkill, but Aladdin is hot and wealthy and the city is happy to welcome him.

His entourage bursts into the palace. Jafar is of course very unhappy to see him and tries to point out the gaping flaws in his backstory, but the sultan just wants to play with the magic carpet. Aladdin is incautiously optimistic about his chances within the princess’s hearing. “I am not a prize to be won!” Jasmine shouts, storming back to her chambers. That night, Aladdin paces back and forth in the garden, trying to think of a way to charm her while the genie and magic carpet play chess and Abu sadly contemplates all the bananas he can’t eat. The genie advises Aladdin to be himself, but that’s exactly who Aladdin doesn’t want to be. The ‘street rat’ jibes are still a sore point.

He floats up to Jasmine’s balcony on the magic carpet. She considers that an invasion and so does her tiger, who stalks him to the edge. During Aladdin’s nervous blathering, however, Jasmine sees something familiar. She exchanges a suspicious look with Raja. Realising he’s stuffed everything up, Aladdin apologises for bothering her and jumps off the balcony. Jasmine is temporarily shaken, until he floats back into sight on his carpet and tentatively offers her a ride. “Do you trust me?” he asks, and she’s suddenly sure. She climbs aboard the carpet and they swoop off into the night sky, across the city, into the clouds – past the pyramids and on to China, where they land on a rooftop to watch romantic fireworks. Jasmine makes a casual reference to Abu and when Aladdin unthinkingly replies, demands an explanation. She wants the truth.

Aladdin lies again, saying he’s as restless with palace life as she is and pretended to be a commoner – making him a commoner to be a prince pretending to be a commoner. He flies her home and gets to kiss her goodnight. Things are looking good! So of course the next thing he knows, he’s getting kidnapped by Jafar’s thugs, tied up and thrown in the sea.

As he hits the seabed, the lamp tumbles out of his turban and falls against his hands, summoning the genie. He can’t help Aladdin unless it’s an official wish (what happened that first time, then?) but bends the rules a little and takes the unconscious lolling of Aladdin’s head for an order. They return to the palace, where Jafar has hypnotised the sultan into letting him marry Jasmine. She is outraged and incredulous. Aladdin breaks Jafar’s staff and in so doing, his spell, but Jafar gets a glimpse of the lamp and changes plans abruptly. He vanishes in a puff of smoke. The sultan flails with fury at the near-miss, only to be rapidly derailed at the sight of Jasmine and Aladdin falling into each other’s arms. He sets about planning the wedding straight away, promising to hand over power to the couple once they are married.

Aladdin panics. Everything he has is the direct result of a wish; he dares not free the genie as he promised. Betrayed, the genie retreats to the lamp. Aladdin wrestles with his conscience and decides he has to tell Jasmine the truth before it’s too late, but unluckily for him, it’s already too late. The sultan announces Jasmine’s engagement to the people. While Aladdin waves awkwardly from a balcony, Iago sneaks into his rooms and takes the lamp.

Jafar’s first wish is to become sultan. The genie is deeply unhappy about the switch in command but is incapable of resistance. Jafar’s next wish is to be the greatest sorcerer in the world, so that he can make his erstwhile employers kneel before him. He also reveals Aladdin’s true identity and exiles him to the ends of the earth.

No idea where that is, but there’s a hella lot of snow. Aladdin wraps the meager protection of his jacket around Abu, trudging stubbornly uphill. He’s not quite without allies – finding the magic carpet in the snow, he frees it and they rush back to Agrabah.

The new regime is making itself felt. Iago has strung up the sultan like a puppet and is stuffing him with crackers in vengeance for a lifetime of ‘pretty Polly’ jokes, while Jasmine has been shoved into a skimpy harem outfit accessorised with manacles. Jafar makes his third wish, ordering her to fall desperately in love with him. As the genie tries to explain he really doesn’t do that kind of thing, Jasmine catches sight of Aladdin and quickly pretends to be under the spell. It’s disgusting. Everyone thinks so except Jafar.

Aladdin comes within a finger’s length of stealing back the lamp. Unfortunately, Jafar spots his reflection and flashes around his sorcery in retaliation, trapping Jasmine in a giant hourglass. The ironic Sharazad aesthetic really doesn’t suit her. As for Aladdin, Jafar toys with him, transforming himself into a giant cobra and squeezing his rival slowly in his coils. That gives Aladdin time to think. He taunts Jafar, reminding him that whatever powers he may have all stem from the genie. No sorcerer can ever match that.

Jafar makes his final wish: to become a genie himself.

While he’s revelling in his newfound cosmic powers, Aladdin dashes to free Jasmine from her prison. It looks like he’s made a terrible blunder, but Jafar never bothered chatting with the genie and so never learned of one big drawback – there are limitations. Namely, shackles and a lamp. Iago gets sucked in there with him until someone’s stupid enough to set them free. The genie hurls Jafar’s lamp into the Cave of Wonders to make sure that’s a long time in coming. that everyone’s safe, Aladdin apologises to Jasmine for his deception. Being a big adorable softie, the genie is willing to give up his chance at freedom and make Aladdin a prince again, but instead Aladdin wishes him free. The bonds on his wrists break. The lamp falls, hollow. Beside himself with excitement, the genie tells Aladdin to wish for the Nile just so he can say NO. Amidst all the celebration, the sultan gets a grip and figures out he can change his own damn laws, allowing Jasmine to marry whoever she wants – that, unequivocally, being Aladdin. Everybody has feels. The genie pulls them all into a group hug then plunges off towards…Disneyland, if his Goofy cap is any indication. Aladdin and Jasmine, meanwhile, go forth on their magic carpet to find more fireworks. It’s a whole new world, after all.

Spot the Difference: There is an actual Ja’far in the Thousand and One Nights but I adore him and would whole-heartedly support any bid he made for power. Also, he doesn’t have a parrot minion. As for Aladdin, well, he may have a more felonious lifestyle in the Disney film but he’s far and away a better person. You really see how much the accusations of ‘street rat’ hurt him, and how desperately he tries to prove his worth to everyone he meets. Though that compulsion leads him into a spiral of lies, his heart is in the right place. Even when he betrays the genie, it takes him about five minutes to try and make amends. Jasmine is a somewhat stereotypical ‘feisty princess’ surrounded by laws that make no sense, but I like her poise and choice in pets. She gets a raw deal compared to the other Disney princesses, that’s for sure. She’s the love interest in this movie, not the lead, playing the prince’s role in many ways but without the same illusion of control. Even while imprisoned, Prince Philip never had to fake attraction to his captor; even while enchanted, Prince Eric got to keep all his clothes on.

Loss of free will is, of course, a big theme in Aladdin. The genie is literally the slave of the lamp and that’s acknowledged in the film in a way it couldn’t be with the original story, coming as the latter does from a time when slavery was a social norm. There’s no magic ring, the flying carpet seems to have taken that narrative space – there’s actually a delightful friendship between the carpet and the genie, who seem to have known each other for millennia, and both make the deliberate choice to side with Aladdin. Yes, the genie’s free will is limited, but his role in Aladdin’s life is much more akin to a spin doctor/ life coach than a servant. He’s an all-singing, all-dancing anachronistic force of nature with a solid moral code to prevent the worst excesses of his masters, and the story is not over until he’s free. In this version, Aladdin earns his happy ending. And the genie does too.

Even the tigers approve.

The Sharazad Project: Week 25

We’re currently partway through night thirty seven and the caliph is trying to trick his way into Sheikh Ibrahim’s party so he can hear Anis al-Jalis sing some more. His stupid plan goes off without a hitch – he knocks at the door, disguised as a fisherman, and offers a basket of fish he did not catch himself. He is greeted enthusiastically by the distinctly sozzled trio, but they want the fish fried and send him off to get it done. He, in turn, goes to Ja’far, who kindly offers to do the cooking. “By the graves of my fathers and forefathers,” the caliph swears, “no one else is going to fry these fish. I shall do it with my own hand.”

He’s surprisingly competent. Taking the cooked fish back to Ibrahim’s house, he watches as they are eaten. Nur al-Din thanks and pays him. Considering how disastrous his finances are, that’s quite generous, but he apologises for not giving more and bemoans his current situation. The caliph says that what he’d really like is to hear Anis al-Jalis sing and Nur al-Din asks her for another number. She’s amazing. The caliph is so dizzy in his praise that Nur al-Din casually hands her over. UGH.

Anis al-Jalis is shocked at her summary dismissal. She’s been through a lot with him, after all. She sings an accusatory song about love and grief and the caliph, though he is very taken with her, manages to scrounge up a bit of guilt. He asks Nur al-Din about the enemy Anis al-Jalis referred to in her song and the whole messy story comes out. In verse. Just because. Sympathetic to Nur al-Din’s plight, the caliph offers to write to the sultan involved and convince him to let the grievance go. Nur al-Din is skeptical – the caliph has forgotten he’s masquerading as a fisherman and has to quickly pretend they went to school together, the most ridiculous lie, but Nur al-Din believes him.

It turns out, you see, that the caliph is actually the sultan’s boss. In his letter he orders that the sultan give up his position and hand over power to Nur al-Din – who, without even reading the letter, gladly trots off to deliver it. Ibrahim launches a drunken accusation at the caliph on Anis al-Jalis’s behalf – less from kindness, I think, than the desire to keep her around for himself. The caliph’s guard Masrur emerges from hiding to beat him up. Ja’far has already sent for fresh robes; a boy comes running in to deliver them, the sultan sheds his disguise and Ibrahim realises what a big mistake he’s made, dropping to the ground to plead for his life. The caliph lets it go. He has Anis al-Jalis taken to the palace with rooms and servants of her own, and promises that she’ll rejoin Nur al-Din once he’s sultan of Basra.

That won’t be quite as simple as he thinks. Nur al-Din delivers the message all right and the sultan respects its authority, but his vizier al-Mu’in snatches the letter, rips it up and chews the pieces. He declares that Nur al-Din must have stolen a paper with the caliph’s signature and forged the rest; if he was truly meant to take over the sultanate, would he not have some of the caliph’s officials here to support him? That’s actually a really good point. The vizier suggests he send Nur al-Din back to Baghdad for more documentation. If he comes back with proof, the transfer can take place – if not, al-Mu’in can invent a suitably bloodcurdling punishment. The sultan agrees to this plan.

Only of course al-Mu’in has no intention of sending his enemy back to Baghdad, he takes him home and has his servants beat the young man unconscious. Nur al-Din is then fettered and imprisoned, with his gaoler ordered to torture him savagely. Fortunately the gaoler is a better person than that. He gives Nur al-Din a decent bed, takes off his fetters and ignores al-Mu’in’s instructions entirely.

Forty one days later, a gift arrives from the caliph, clearly intended for the new sultan. Al-Mu’in advises his master just kill his rival and the sultan, conveniently forgetting that Nur al-Din was supposed be returned to Baghdad and clearly has not, orders that he be executed. As a side dish of sadism, al-Mu’in arranges for the beheading to be a public spectacle. This proclamation doesn’t inspire the sentiments he hopes for – Nur al-Din’s father was a popular man in the city and its people mourn his impending death with the same intensity. Called upon to produce his prisoner, the gaoler quickly swaps Nur al-Din’s clean clothes for filthy ones so it looks like he’s been mistreated.

“Today I shall have you executed in spite of all the people of Basra,” al-Mu’in gloats, “without any thought for the consequences. Let Time do what it wants.” Even his servants hate him, they ask Nur al-Din for permission to switch sides but he’s gone all fatalistic and won’t let them. He’s paraded around the city for everyone to see, then brought beneath a window of the sultan’s palace for the execution itself. The executioner is on his side too; compelled to perform the act, he gets Nur al-Din a drink of water first. Spitefully, al-Mu’in smashes the jug. While he’s screaming at the executioner, and the crowd is screaming at him, another tumult further away catches the sultan’s attention. Much to his vizier’s disgust, he postpones the beheading until he can identify what’s happening.

A cloud of dust! A rider coming to the rescue! IT’S JA’FAR.

The caliph, typically, had forgotten all about Nur al-Din until a tearful Anis al-Jalis reminded him with her sorrowful poetry. The caliph sent Ja’far to find out what’s up, with a few death threats to speed him on his way. Hence his timely arrival.

The sultan and al-Mu’in are arrested, while Nur al-Din is released and given his promised position. They all return to Baghdad to see the caliph – who handles the situation with his usual grace, giving Nur al-Din a sword and telling him to kill his enemy. Al-Mu’in calmly states, “I acted according to my nature, so do you act according to yours.” “He has got round me by these words,” Nur al-Din cries, throwing aside the blade, so the caliph just has his guard behead the vizier instead. Problem solved!

Nur al-Din gives up the sultanate and gets his girlfriend back, though he really, really doesn’t deserve her. Both are piled up with gifts, sent to live in a palace and assured allowances, with Nur al-Din staying at court as one of the caliph’s favoured friends.

“This story,” Sharazad continues, “is no more remarkable than that of the merchant and his sons.” Join me next Tuesday when we start a new story cycle about the beautiful, wealthy young merchant Ghanim ibn Ayyub. Sadly, it probably won’t involve Ja’far. But you never know.

Review – A Thousand Pieces of You

A Thousand Pieces of You (Firebird No.1) – Claudia Gray

HarperTeen, 2014

The token artist in a family of scientific geniuses, Marguerite is used to letting her parents’ wilder theories wash over her head. That, however, was before her father’s car was sabotaged to crash into a river and his protégé Paul disappeared with a prototype of the Firebird: a revolutionary device that allows the wearer to travel between dimensions. Marguerite is desperate for answers, and revenge. When her father’s other student Theo finds a way for them both to follow Paul between worlds, nothing can hold her back. But the further she travels from home, the more the ties that bind her to both men – and even her own family – shift and change. Across an infinite number of realities, can you really ever know someone?

Gray has an intriguing premise and while she didn’t explore all the avenues I’d have liked – this is primarily a YA romance/ thriller, pretty light on the science fiction side – there is a clever examination of the highly dubious ethics that come along with the Firebird’s invention and the emotional complications were well handled. I wasn’t particularly engaged by Paul or Theo, but Marguerite’s journey kept me interested and the plot moved at a good place. This is the first in the Firebird series, which continues with Ten Thousand Skies Above You.

Review – Goddess

Goddess – Kelly Gardiner

Fourth Estate, 2014

Julie d’Aubigny is born in the shadow of greatness. Growing up in Versailles, her father the chevalier gives her the only upbringing he knows: training her to fight and shoot and ride, unintentionally ensuring that she will never live by the boundaries other women unquestioningly obey. As she grows older, Julie fixes her sights beyond the Sun King’s palace to a life in the opera. Her determination will lead her across France, into duels and love affairs, glory and heartbreak. Paris won’t know what’s hit it.

The fact that Julie d’Aubigny actually lived and the events of this book are based on her actual life is a fact that I now treasure. A more or less openly bisexual and possibly genderqueer 17th century hell-raiser with a wicked sword-arm and a goddess’s voice, she is the definition of an action heroine – not always kind, not always likeable, but fiercely independent, incredibly talented and deeply, fascinatingly flawed. The structure Gardiner chose is quite episodic and some sections could have used fleshing out; I’d have loved more detail about Julie’s experiences and the glittering, vicious world she inhabited. The story is well woven, however, making the extraordinary events consistent and believable. Someone needs to write Julie into an episode of Doctor Who, she’d make an amazing companion.

The Sharazad Project: Week 24

Night thirty six kicks off with wanton destruction of private property. The sultan’s men, having failed to capture Nur al-Din or his slave/ girlfriend/ financial advisor Anis al-Jalis, settle for smashing up his house. The vindictive vizier al-Mu’in is honoured for his loyalty and reassured of the sultan’s support; a sizeable bounty is placed on Nur al-Din’s head.

As for the runaways, they have sailed to Baghdad, where their captain sees them off with the poetic enthusiasm of a paid tour guide. The new arrivals wander aimlessly into a beautiful garden. It belongs to the caliph, his palace being situated within it, but some parts are open to the public. Elderly Shaikh Ibrahim is in charge of the place. It’s a thankless task – the garden is a popular hook-up for exhibitionist couples, so when he comes across Nur al-Din and Anis al-Jalis asleep on a bench his first instinct is to kick them out with some violence. An unexpected streak of reasonableness stops his hand; he decides to find out who they are before he takes extreme measures. He sits down and starts rubbing Nur al-Din’s foot, because that’s not creepy!

Nur al-Din quickly wakes up and pulls his feet away. His attempt at an introduction is rather tearful and he’s kindly encouraged to go forth into the garden. Ibrahim says, at this point, that the garden belongs to him which leaves me very confused. Does the garden belong to Ibrahim and the palace to the caliph? Is there a complicated co-ownership? Anyway, he appears to be within his rights to allow strangers to wander about admiring the fruit and flowers. At length he invites them into a hall where they are given a square meal. Nur al-Din, eternally difficult, asks for wine. “I take refuge with God from wine,” Ibrahim replies. “For thirteen years I have not drunk it.” He says all those involved in the making and drinking of wine are cursed.

Nur al-Din comes up with a plan by which Ibrahim can indirectly acquire the wine – ordering someone else to purchase it and load it onto a donkey – thereby hoping to circumvent the curse. I thought it was a philosophical stance but apparently the curse is quite literal. Ibrahim decides to try the plan. “We are now your responsibility,” Nur al-Din tells him, “and, as you must agree to what we ask, bring us what we need.” That seems to be his way of saying, where are the glasses.

Ibrahim holds to his no alcohol rule, so it’s only Nur al-Din and Anis al-Jalis who drink the wine. They drink a lot. Watching the attractive pair get steadily more sloshed, Ibrahim decides to make the most of the moment. “Why am I sitting so far away?” he reasons. “Why don’t I sit with them, and when else am I going to find myself in the company of two shining moons like these?” Nur al-Din attempt to press a glass of wine on him; when Ibrahim refuses, Nur al-Din downs it himself and passes out. Anis al-Jalis is unimpressed. “He always does this to me,” she confides. “He drinks for a time and then falls asleep, leaving me on my own with no one to share my glass with me, and no one for whom I can sing as he drinks.” Ibrahim is sympathetic. So sympathetic he accepts a glass of wine from her…and a second, and a third. Oh dear.

As night thirty seven begins, Nur al-Din is waking up. He gives a mild protest at seeing Ibrahim drinking for Anis al-Jalis when he wouldn’t before, but quickly drops the question in favour of drinking some more. Ibrahim has abandoned his teetotaller convictions completely. Anis al-Jalis asks for permission to light a candle; she lights eighty. Nur al-Din goes similarly overboard with the lamps. Light spills from every window.

This draws both the caliph’s eye and his ire. “Unless the city had been taken from me, the Palace of Statues would not be lit by lamps and candles,” he tells his vizier. It’s JA’FAR. I don’t know if it’s the same one as last time or not, but he gets the same kind of verbal abuse. He’s also a really decent person who doesn’t want Ibrahim to get in trouble, so he concocts an elaborate lie on the spur of the moment, telling the caliph that Ibrahim asked for permission to throw a party in honour of his sons’ circumcisions, and Ja’far forgot to pass on the request. The caliph is spiky about it. Ja’far is apologetic. Then he’s panicky, because the caliph now wants to go join the party, and Ja’far can hardly stop him. The caliph’s eunuch, Masrur, comes along and they all disguise themselves as merchants.

Definitely the same caliph.

Upon finding the garden gate open, the caliph becomes suspicious. He decides to climb a tree so he can look through a window and assess the situation. What he sees is a terribly pretty, terribly intoxicated couple carousing with Ibrahim. Shinning down the tree, the furious caliph sends Ja’far up in his place to see the debauchery for himself. The caliph is torn between pious outrage and curiosity about the young couple. He insists on going back up the tree for another look.

Ibrahim is asking for music. He brings Anis al-Jalis a lute that the caliph recognises as belonging to his ‘boon companion’ Abu Ishaq. Is that an antiquated term for boyfriend? Because he is very upset to see it there. “By God,” he snarls, “if this girl sings badly, I will crucify you all, and if she sings well, I will only crucify you.” “May God make her sing badly!” declares Ja’far. “So that, if you crucify us all, we can keep each other company.” The caliph laughs. I really hate that man.

Anis al-Jalis inspects her instrument. Satisfied with its quality, she strikes her first notes and begins to sing to Ibrahim, a flowery ode of frighteningly abject gratitude that doesn’t suit her at all and sounds a lot like a con. The caliph is very impressed. Upon Ja’far’s tentative enquiry, he admits he doesn’t want to crucify anyone any more. He wants Ja’far to think of a way of getting them inside without Ibrahim realising who they are.

They go walking by the river while Ja’far ponders the question and encounter a fisherman there. It is against the caliph’s express orders that fishermen should work within earshot of his palace but this one noticed the open gate and decided to take the risk. It’s a nasty shock when the caliph himself appears at his elbow. Even worse when the caliph knows his name. (How does he know that? I’m guessing Ja’far told him.) The terrified fisherman Karim babbles out his hard luck story as fast as he can and the caliph allows him to cast the net again. It comes back full of fish. The caliph then strips off his fancy silk robes and demands the fisherman hand over his grubby rags. He interrupts Karim’s gushing gratitude with a disgusted exclamation, flicking lice off his new outfit. “They may annoy you just now, master,” Karim soothes, “but after a week you won’t notice them…if you want to learn how to fish so as to be master of a useful trade, this smock will suit you.”

Luckily the caliph finds his cheek amusing. He gets away alive.

Ja’far, adorably, mistakes his master for the fisherman and urgently advises him to flee. The caliph is delighted with his charade. If his own vizier doesn’t recognise him, Ibrahim surely won’t either! He tells Ja’far to stay put while he goes off to crash the party. Next Tuesday we’ll find out whether this ridiculous plan actually works.

Review – The Sleeper and the Spindle

The Sleeper and the Spindle – Neil Gaiman (illustrated by Chris Riddell)

Bloomsbury, 2014

On one side of the mountains, a young queen prepares for her wedding. On the other side, a curse spreads unchecked. People fall into a sleep from which they cannot be woken – beasts slump where they stand and birds fall from the sky. Many years ago, so the story is told, a princess pricked her finger on a bewitched spindle and the spell has been upon her lands ever since. Should a hero be brave enough to wake her, it might be enough to wake them all. And the queen has already defeated a witch’s sleep once. Why not again?

If there’s one kind of fairy tale retelling I love best, it’s where different fairy tales are woven into the same world and the characters get to meet each other, because I am just that much of a fangirl. Neil Gaiman’s melding of ‘Snow White’ and ‘Sleeping Beauty’ was a short story originally published in the anthology Rags & Bones: New Twists on Timeless Tales but with the gorgeous illustrations by Chris Riddell it’s more like a very short graphic novel than a picture book. It’s the kind of strange, unsettling loveliness Gaiman does well, just a bit open-ended for my taste.

The Sharazad Project: Week 23

Last week I thought we’d come to the end of a particularly frustrating story cycle, but not quite –  sorry everybody, the barber is back. When night thirty four begins it’s with the king of China (still not clear if this is China the country or China somewhere else, since the name seems more applied to the city all this weirdness is taking place in than a wider region) ordering the barber be brought before him. He’s also planning his fool’s funeral and burial.

The barber is an elderly man, and if all his stories are true, has been through a lot in his life, but he’s still undaunted by authority. He asks openly for the king to tell him the story of the dead fool – somehow this proves he’s not inquisitive? One great privilege about ruling places is that you have people to take care of the irritating bits in life, so the king orders someone else to explain it all. Interested, the barber asks to be shown the corpse. He then topples over laughing.

Confused, the king asks what’s so funny. The barber tells him that the fool is still alive. Applying ointment to the maybe-not-dead-man’s neck, he takes a pair of forceps and eases the chunk of fishbone from the fool’s throat. In the most unlikely twist of all – someone hit him with a hammer! He’s been throttled and thrown about and generally maltreated for over 24 hours! – the fool jumps to his feet, quite alive. The king and his court laugh like this is all a show for their entertainment (which, depressingly, the king probably thinks it is) and the story is written down for posterity. Everyone involved is given a robe of honour. The tailor makes his peace with the fool, who has been mollified with quite a lot of money. For his part in the saga, the barber is kept on at court and given a regular salary. They all live happily ever after.

That story is officially OVER. Fingers crossed this next one contains a bit less murder and mutilation.

It is the story of ‘the viziers and Anis al-Jalis’. A sultan has two advisors – al-Fadl ibn Khaquan and al-Mu’in ibn Sawa, considered by the general populace to be (respectively) Good Vizier and Bad Vizier. The story begins one day when the sultan sends for al-Fadl, ordering him to find the most beautiful slave girl possible and bring her to him. I won’t be able to say this every time I want to, but just for the record: UGH.

Issued the necessary funds, al-Fadl goes to the market every day but can’t see anyone to match his master’s expectations, until one day one of his brokers has a Eureka moment and assures him the girl of the sultan’s dreams has been found. There follows some really explicit descriptions of her beauty (including the taste of her saliva, I kid you NOT) and some not entirely offensive poetry (‘If someone tries to steal a glance at her/ The devils in her eyes burn him with meteors’) but not, of course, a name. Not only is she stunning, she’s highly intelligent, a student of the arts and sciences and a musician to boot. The vizier concludes the purchase on the spot. The girl’s erstwhile ‘owner’ advises al-Fadl let her rest for a while before taking her to the sultan, to allow her recovery time from a recent journey, so she is assigned rooms in al-Fadl’s house.

Also staying in the house is the vizier’s son, Nur al-Din, who is a terrible womaniser. Al-Fadl warns the girl about him – “take care not to let him see your face or hear your voice” but doesn’t warn his son off her, because he’s useless. The girl is offered every comfort while in residence and treated with kindness by al-Fadl’s wife, who is the first one to use the girl’s name. She is the Anis al-Jalis of the title. Because the vizier’s wife is a sensible person, she does what she can to give Anis al-Jalis protection from her son by having two of her own slaves stand watch at the door to Anis al-Jalis’s rooms.

The forces of human contrariness are against them, however – Nur al-Din stops to ask the  guards where he can find his mother and Anis al-Jalis, overhearing him, is curious enough to go to the door. It’s love at first sight, or lust anyway. Nur al-Din scares off the girls and advances into the room, asking Anis al-Jalis if she’s a slave his father bought for him. (Allow me to repeat: UGH. Ugh forever.) He’s a bit drunk, by the way. She says yes. They have mildly athletic sex, to the horror of the rather useless chaperones. Nur al-Din, entirely the jerk he’s painted, flees the scene afterwards.

When his mother hears the wailing of her maids, she comes sweeping out of the baths to find out what’s going on. The maids tell her everything; Anis al-Jalis is a bit cagier, but the vizier’s wife can work it out for herself. She’s terrified that al-Fadl will be angry enough to kill their son. She cushions the news, when she tells him, with the assurance she can replace the slave’s purchase price with her own money. Al-Fadl is more afraid he’ll be killed himself, courtesy of his scheming rival, Bad Vizier.

Night thirty five expands on his fears. They are very detailed and probably very accurate. If his enemy hears that al-Fadl found the sultan’s dream girl but let his son have her instead (the girl’s free will does not enter this equation), he’ll tell the sultan, who will launch a surprise raid and carry off Anis al-Jalis, who will eventually confirm what happened. The sultan will feel wronged; he will not be shy about sharing his hurt feelings.

“There is no need to tell anyone about this,” al-Fadl’s wife reassures him. Certainly Nur al-Din doesn’t plan on telling anyone; he’s hiding out in his mother’s apartments by night and lurking in the orchard by day, like a little kid pretending to run away from home. He keeps it up for a whole month, until his sensible mother intervenes and insists on a reconciliation. She also says that since he and Anis al-Jalis seem to like each other, why not let them be together? It is criminal this woman doesn’t have a name yet, she’s marvellous.

Because al-Fadl is NOT marvellous, he intercepts his son sneaking indoors that night and tries to cut his throat. Fortunately, his wife swoops in to stop him. “Am I of so little value to you?” panics Nur al-Din, whose disappearing act looks a lot more reasonable now. “My son,” al-Fadl retorts, “how was it that the loss of my wealth and my life was unimportant to you?” This is a self-absorption competition, apparently. Nur al-Din pleads with poetry and al-Fadl decides not to kill him after all. He even shows a streak of unexpected decency by explaining that he doesn’t want Nur al-Din to be with Anis al-Jalis until he’s sure his son will treat her well. “I enjoin you not to take another wife or a concubine,” the vizier says sternly, “and not to sell her.” Nur al-Din promises.

A year passes. The sultan forgets he wanted a slave girl at all. Al-Mu’in hears the story but given his rival’s popularity, he decides not to exploit it yet.

Al-Fadl falls sick and calls for Nur al-Din. “I have no instruction to give you, my son,” he tells him, “except to fear God, to think about the consequences of your actions, and to do what I told you about the slave girl, Anis al-Jalis.” That is actually really sound advice. Something tells me Nur al-Din probably won’t follow it.

The vizier’s house falls into deep mourning upon his death and as the news spreads, it casts a pall over the whole city. After a grand funeral, Nur al-Din sinks into his grief and is only roused from it when a friend of his father’s comes over to remind him that he is his father’s legacy and maybe now is the time to start moving on. Nur al-Din takes that to mean ‘throw lots of raucous, expensive parties, scaring my financial advisors’. He refuses to listen to reason, splashing around money like it is inexhaustible.

It take him one year to burn through his entire inheritance. Now the stream of gifts has run out, his companions slip away and he’s left to face Anis al-Jalis’s sarcastic poetry. At first I misread ‘pointed’ as ‘pouted’ and really, that’s what he’s doing. He tells her his friends will come to his aid; she basically goes ‘nope’ and is proven correct when he goes to each one and is turned from every door. On Anis al-Jalis’s instruction, he gradually sells the furniture. It’s not enough. With steely pragmatism, she tells him to sell her too. He does at least try to protest, but his circumstances are dire enough to agree.

During the ensuing auction (seriously, UGH), al-Mu’in happens to pass by and see Nur al-Din. He guesses what must be happening and takes evil glee in calling aside the auctioneer so that he can buy Anis al-Jalis himself for half the expected price. Everyone else is too afraid of his malice to advance the bidding any further. It’s even worse for Nur al-Din than it seems, as the unhappy auctioneer explains; the vizier is an expert at not paying debts.

The auctioneer advises that Nur al-Din pretend he only brought the girl to the market as part of a stupid oath – to scare her for disobedience or something. Al-Mu’in is furious at being foiled but does not dare fully express his rage before witnesses. Whereas, bolstered by the silent support of his fellow merchants, Nur al-Din lunges at his opponent and drags him off his horse. He beats him wildly. The vizier’s guards attempt to intervene but the bystanders warn them off, reminding them how messy politics can be and who knows which will end up being the winning side? Once he feels his pride salvaged, Nur al-Din takes Anis al-Jalis home – al-Mu’in, in turn, goes before the sultan in his bruised and bloodied state to demand recompense. It is the perfect opportunity to remind the sultan he once wanted a slave girl, and that the girl his former favourite chose went to another man. Having seen her at the market, al-Mu’in claims he wanted to buy her for his beloved master, only to be abused by Nur al-Din.

The sultan is livid. He orders his soldiers go to destroy Nur al-Din’s house and drag both him and Anis al-Jalis to the palace. Unknown to him, however, a chamberlain with divided sympathies races to warn the young man. He gives all the money he has on him to finance a getaway. Nur al-Din and Anis al-Jalis flee the city, heading to the river, where a ship is about the sail for Baghdad.

Will they escape the sultan’s wrath? Will Nur al-Din finally start listening to all the good advice people give him? Find out next Tuesday when we begin night thirty six.

Review – Lost Lake

Lost Lake – Sarah Addison Allen

Center Point Large Print, 2014

In the sleepy backwater of Suley, change has arrived and is not welcome. Unable to keep her beloved cabin resort open any longer, Eby Pim has finally agreed to sell the land at Lost Lake, but it’s not going to be easy. A trio of loyal guests descend for one final summer, confronting loose ends that have been left to trail for far too long. Meanwhile, Eby’s recently widowed great-niece Kate plunges into an impulsive road trip with her daughter Devin and returns to the last place she truly felt herself: Lost Lake, where she once made a friend and believed in the impossible. But is believing really enough to change an ending?

This is the latest of Sarah Addison Allen’s magic realism books set in the American south, where strange things just happen and explanations are thin on the ground. As with all her other books, it is sweet, sleepy and charming with a streak of quiet darkness. I wasn’t satisfied with where Wes’s story went, but most of the other characters were the kind of messed up loveable that Addison Allen does very well. Her other books include Garden Spells and The Girl Who Chased the Moon.

The Sharazad Project: Week 22

Trigger warning: references to ableism and extreme violence

Night thirty two is currently in progress and I’m having no fun because the barber is still talking, there’s ableism all over the place and people keep doing pointlessly mean things. Having told us about the misfortunes of three of his brothers, the barber now starts on Bro 4.

He’s a butcher when the segue starts, quite successful and content with his life. One day an old man comes into the shop and pays for his meat in shining white coins. He becomes a regular customer, and Bro 4 builds up quite a collection of the strange silver. Opening up the cache at last, he’s horrified to find all that money is now nothing but scraps of paper. His cries of rage soon gather a crowd. Feeling solidly in the right, he seizes the old man when he arrives for his usual order and confronts him with the counterfeit.

“Which would you prefer,” the elderly trickster asks, “to leave me alone or to be publicly shamed by me?” This remark only infuriates Bro 4 more, but the old man continues, accusing him of selling human flesh. The dead ram hanging outside his shop transforms into a man. The crowd descends upon him and amidst the violence, the vicious old man knocks out his eye. Dragged before the governor (is it the same governor dealing with all these cases? Is he daydreaming about early retirement yet?), Bro 4 is brutally beaten and stripped of all his assets. If not for that money, he’d probably have been executed. As it is, he takes off to start a new life in a different city.

His new career as a shoemaker is going all right when the king happens to ride past, takes an inexplicable dislike to him and has his servants beat Bro 4 half to death. When Bro 4 asks one of the king’s men why the hell this is happening to him, the man just laughs and says the king has a thing against one-eyed people. YES. REALLY. If Bro 4 had been missing his right eye, he’d have been killed.

Bro 4 does not want to live in a city ruled by such a terrible person, so he packs up and moves. The sound of hooves traumatises him now. Though a long time has passed since the encounter with the king, when he hears horses approaching on the street he flees and pushes through the nearest open door. Because his life is awful, he’s immediately seized by two men who believe him to be a thief. Even when he tells his story, they won’t believe it and drag him before the authorities. The governor here doesn’t believe him either. The scars on his back are apparently evidence enough of his criminal tendencies; he’s given another beating and banished from the city. Hearing of his brother’s misfortunes, the barber goes to collect him and takes him home.

This feels like a creepy children’s game. And then there were four…

The fifth brother is not the brightest spark – having spent his inheritance on fancy glassware, he sits down to daydream about how rich he’ll be once it is sold. When he has this fortune, he plans to marry Shams al-Din’s daughter (the same one who’s into badly negotiated BDSM and publicly humiliating people, presumably, though he probably doesn’t know that). Bro 5 is so engaged in his fantasies that before you know it, he’s worked out the dowry he’s prepared to offer, how he’ll kidnap the girl if her father refuses (no sympathy for this brother, let all the bad things happen to him), what slaves he’ll have in his household, how he’ll display his wealth and pride. He plans to ignore his bride on the wedding night to show how above it all he is.

As night thirty three gets underway, we learn more about why no woman in her right mind would want to marry him. Not until his mother urges him to address his bride does he intend to approach; even then, he’ll make the girl bring him wine first, and kick her if she talks to him. To demonstrate, he lashes out with his foot. I couldn’t be more satisfied when he shatters his entire collection of glass and his dreams of wealth at the same time.

“All this is the result of my pride,” Bro 5 wails, and flops around pathetically. If I had my way, this would be the end of his story, but at this point a beautiful woman rides up and takes pity on him, sending her servant over with a full purse to replace his goods. He goes home an undeservedly happy man. He’s not been there long when an old lady knocks at the door, asking to wash before prayer. They pray together and afterwards he gives her a couple of coins. She takes offence. “Take back your money, as I don’t need it,” she snaps, “or else give it back to the lady who gave it to you. If you want to meet her, I can arrange that for you, as she is my mistress.”

Bro 5 jumps at that offer. Led to a richly furnished mansion, he’s left in a chamber to wait. When the beautiful woman arrives, she’s described as ‘play[ing] with him for a time’, which I hope does not mean sex. She stops after a while and tells him to wait; while he sits alone, a sword-wielding slave comes in and just starts beating him up. Not satisfied with having half-killed the man, he then pours salt on the wounds and has the old woman drag him down to the cellar. WHICH IS FULL OF CORPSES.

For two days Bro 5 lies there, too badly injured to move, but the salting actually helps stem the bleeding and at last he manages to drag himself through a trapdoor into the house. He hides in the entrance hall until morning, sees the terrifying old lady leaving and follows her.

Turns out she’s a serial killer. Or at least the procurer for one. Once he’s recovered from his injuries, Bro 5 sets up a sting. Filling a purse with broken glass and concealing a sword under his clothes, he disguises himself and puts himself in the old lady’s path. Portraying himself as a clueless foreigner, he asks for the loan of scales to measure his money. She takes him to the house of the murder cellar, where the door is answered by the beautiful woman. He’s led to the same room as before. This time, when the slave comes charging in, Bro 5 whips out his sword and beheads him. A servant girl scurries up with salt – he beheads her as well. Then he finds the old woman, tells her who he is and cuts her down.

That only leaves the honey-trap woman. She falls into a weeping mess on the floor, offering him her hard-luck story. She was once in the service of a merchant; she became friends with the old woman and was invited by her to a wedding feast, but instead was kidnapped by the slave and for three years has been forced to participate in the old woman’s dreadful activities. The house is full of dead men’s gold – anyone’s for the claiming now. The woman suggests Bro 5 go gather some muscle to carry it all, but when he gets back to the house she’s gone and most of the money is too. He takes what’s left, including the household goods.

What a bad idea that is! He wakes up to a group of soldiers banging on his door. Dragged off down the street, he calls to a friend to help him, but the soldiers ignore an attempt at bribery and won’t even say what their charge is accused of. I think we can guess. Once at the governor’s house, Bro 5 is questioned about the murder house – cannily, he won’t answer without a guarantee of immunity, but once the story’s told, the governor claims all the valuables for himself and orders that Bro 5 leave the city or be hanged. In one last stroke of appalling luck, he’s set upon en route by thieves, who take his clothes and cut off his ears. That leaves his brother the barber to clothe and house him, like the others.

Take heart, there’s only one left to go!

Bro 6 is poor and a bit desperate. Passing an ostentatiously rich house, he approaches and asks for alms. The doorkeepers tell him to head inside, where he will ‘get what he wants from the owner’. That sounds worryingly vague, but he does as he’s told. Bro 6 finds himself in a magnificent garden. Unsure of where to go, he wanders a bit and is stopped by a seemingly kindly man who declares, “Are you to be hungry in a town in which I live? I cannot bear the thought of it.”

Sounds good, yes? Well, no, not really, because when he yells for a servant to come with washing water, no one arrives – and yet he goes through the motions of washing like there’s water under his hands. The same goes for the ‘meal’. He sits, he chews, but there’s nothing there. At a loss, Bro 6 feels he has to play along. Through several torturous courses he’s ordered to ‘eat up!’, feeling more and more furious with his host. At last the pretence of eating is over and the man starts pretending they have wine instead. Bro 6 fake-swallows until he’s fake-intoxicated and launches himself at the man, slapping at him wildly. “You have been generous to your servant,” he cries. “You have taken him into your house, given him food to eat and old wine to drink, but he has become drunk and attacked you like a hooligan.”

The man starts laughing. He has, he admits, been pranking people for years, but this is the first time someone’s got the better of him. He’s so happy to have a partner in crime that he orders some real food and they eat together, then get genuinely drunk. It’s such a successful night that Bro 6 stays with him. For the next twenty years.

When the man dies, however, the sultan snaps up all his goods and Bro 6’s too, leaving him a penniless as he was before. He leaves the city and is captured by a group of Bedouin. They torture him in the hope of extracting a ransom, cutting off his lips when he can’t give it. In a bizarre twist, his torturer’s wife comes on to him. Seeing them in a compromising position, the torturer then cuts off Bro 6’s penis too. And throws him off a mountain! Somehow at the end of it all he’s still alive, and some passing travellers take care of him until they can pass him over into the barber’s care.

“Here I have come before you, Commander of the Faithful,” the barber concludes, “fearing to leave before telling you my story…since in my shadow stand six brothers, whom I have to support.” The caliph laughs uproariously. “You have told the truth, silent man,” he exclaims, “when you said you are a man of few words…but now leave this city and settle somewhere else.” He officially banishes the barber, who cannot return until the caliph’s death. By the time he gets back, all his brothers are dead too. If he was telling the truth, it’s dreadfully sad.

Somehow he ended up at a party with a criminally negligent tailor and the young man whose love affair he ruined. To understand how those two come into this, you may need to backtrack to Week 19, because we’ve delved so deep into segues since then that I have at times been slowly losing the will to live. That’s why today’s segment is so ridiculously long, because we’re going to get this OVER WITH.

Everyone at the party is sick to death of the barber by now and have him thrown in prison. After they quite calmly finish eating, the tailor goes home. His wife is bored and angry; if he doesn’t entertain her now she threatens to leave him, so they spend the rest of the day having fun in the city. As they are returning home that evening, they encounter the king’s fool and invite him home to dinner.

There, he choked to death. They didn’t mean for that to happen, but it’s the tailor’s wife’s fault it did. The tailor then explains to the king how the body was passed from one panicky murder suspect to another until finally the whole thing unravelled and they ended up telling stories before the king in the hope he might pardon them.

At last the king is impressed. He liked the story of the young man and the barber, goodness knows why – so much so he orders everybody be pardoned, that the fool finally receive burial, and for the barber be released from prison so he can…tell some more…stories…