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.

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