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.

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