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.