Trigger warnings: references to incest
Night fifty nine begins with a cunning plan courtesy of Princess Nuzhat al-Zaman, who has fallen into the hands of narrative misogyny and a social-climbing merchant. She has written to her father and entrusted the letter to her new ‘owner’, without him realising who she really is. Because the merchant thinks she’s backing up his ambitions with a personal recommendation to her old employer, he indulges her with a candle-lit meal and some very expensive clothes. When she walks with him on the street, people stop and stare. This happens a lot in Damascus.
Entering the palace of the Sultan Sharkan, the merchant presents Nuzhat al-Zaman as a gift, unaware that she is Sharkan’s little sister. Sharkan doesn’t know it either because he has a resentful, possessive temperament and saw his younger siblings as obstacles to power, which meant he didn’t really see them at all. He’s only ruling Damascus because he didn’t trust himself not to kill his rivals if he stuck around at home.
Sharkan is pleased enough with his gift to remunerate the merchant for Nuzhat al-Zaman’s purchase, and then some. He’ll never have to pay taxes again. As for Nuzhat al-Zaman, Sharkan frees her on the spot and simultaneously declares his intention to marry her. So he hasn’t actually freed her at all.
HOW DOES THIS STORY KEEP GETTING WORSE. HOW?
In night sixty, Sharkan decides to test the merchant’s claims, retreating behind a curtain to listen while Nuzhat al-Zaman is quizzed. First, however, the ladies of the court gather to congratulate Nuzhat al-Zaman on her engagement, and to assess her looks. They all fall for her charm. She takes charge like she was born to it (well, she WAS) and her new friends cannot stop complimenting her. “By God,” the ladies exclaim, “do not deprive us of your goodness and of the sight of your beauty.” She calmly accepts their devotion. From behind his curtain, Sharkan calls out a challenge, asking for proof of her education.
“O king,” she responds, “my first topic deals with administration and the conduct of kings, of how those charged with the supervision of religious law should act, and with what is acceptable in the way of qualities that they should possess.” She then proceeds to school everybody, talking about the responsibilities of government, the need for all people to take their just share from the world and how a king ruled by his personal desires is destined to ruin. Someone get rid of her father and put this gorgeous political mind on the throne, okay?
To further demonstrate her education, she refers to King Ardashir of Persia, who divided his government into four – well, we’d call them departments – Officialdom, Building, Abundance and Justice. Nuzhat al-Zaman continues with several brief anecdotes on the same theme, labouring the need for moderation, so as not to provoke either complacency or mutiny in one’s underlings. “There is a saying that no possession is better than intelligence,” she says, “and that intelligence is best found in resolute administration. There is no resolution to match piety: the best way to approach God is through a good character; culture provides the best balancing scales…good deeds are the best merchandise.” She goes on to point out even highwaymen need to act fairly with one another or they would get nowhere.
She talks for AGES. I’m summarising. Her audience are very impressed by her learning and eloquence, and ask for her opinions on etiquette. She responds with a segue about someone called Mu’awiya, who has a friend, and this friend has a great opinion on the people of Iraq. All of them? Apparently. Mu’awiya’s wife overhears the conversation and asks him to invite some Iraqis over to hear their wisdom. Someone called al-Ahnaf Abu Bakr ibn Qais is brought in for a chat. When asked what advice he has for his host, Abu Bakr replies, “Trim your moustache, cut your nails, pluck the hair from your armpits, shave your groin and use your toothpick constantly.” Well, that was blunt.
In night sixty two, he asks what advice Abu Bakr has for himself. Despite a great deal of prodding, Abu Bakr gives only one response: he acts with humility at all times, in all company. Mu’awiya wants to know if he behaves this way with his wife too. Abu Bakr doesn’t want to talk about his marriage, but is pressed for an answer. “I treat her good-naturedly and with obvious intimacy,” he says, and adds that he’s happy to spend money on things she wants. Mu’awiya has no sense of boundaries and demands to know the details of his guest’s sex life. Abu Bakr’s response boils down to, “…we have fun?” There’s a very welcome focus on his wife’s consent and pleasure. Mu’awiya admits that sounds like a good way to live, and Abu Bakr finishes up the round of wisdom-giving by advising his host to treat all his subjects justly.
Nuzhat al-Zaman appears to be enjoying herself. Which is fortunate, because she’s nowhere near done yet.