Trigger warning: incest
Nuzhat al-Zaman is the daughter of a rapist tyrant, has been recently enslaved and even more recently freed – only not really because she’s just been married off to the governor of Damascus, who just happens to be her estranged older brother Sharkan. This family could single handedly fuel a talk show for years. And let me tell you, if there’s one thing Nuzhat al-Zaman is an expert at, it would be talking.
Admittedly I don’t understand half of what she’s saying, it’s all disjointed anecdotes about various caliphs whose state of continued existence is in some doubt, but if Sharkan is drowning in her meaningful lectures he deserves every word he’s getting.
She’s currently expounding on the virtues of the caliph ‘Umar ibn ‘Abd al-‘Aziz, who apparently once wrote to the Meccan pilgrims to let them know he sanctioned no wrongs they may have suffered en-route. He gave permission for the pilgrims to disobey any governor who acted against them. “I do not want to be spared a painful death,” he said, “as this is the last thing for which the believer is rewarded.”
We’ll leave him with that thought while we return to ‘Umar ibn al-Khattab, another very religious and socially conscious monarch. The anecdote is narrated by an unknown ‘reliable informant’ who sees the caliph place twelve dirhams in the royal treasury and put none aside for his children or household. Reliable Informant chides him for bad parenting. ‘Umar says that if his kids are deserving, God will look after them. He calls his twelve sons before him and regards them tearfully. “Your father has two choices,” he tells them, ” – either that you should be rich and he should enter hellfire, or that you should be poor and he should enter Paradise. He would prefer this latter than that you should be rich. Rise, then; may God protect you, for it is to Him that I have entrusted the matter.”
Reliable Informant is indeed reliable. Outsourcing one’s familial responsibilities to a higher power is a jerk move.
Someone called Khalid ibn Safwan is hanging out with ‘Umar’s son Yusuf. They go to see ‘Abd al-Malik’s son Hisham and the caliph is there too? Which caliph, I have no idea, maybe Yusuf has inherited or ‘Umar is still in charge, but whoever it is wants to know what Khalid ibn Safwan has to say. Khalid replies with an anecdote about an earlier king who courted praise from his friends and was rebuked for his pride in the transient glory. The caliph is deeply struck by the scolding and chucks aside the crown to become a ‘wandering ascetic’. Hisham is really moved by the story. He takes up the ascetic life too, though not the wandering, and his servants come to tell off Khalid for ruining their master’s pleasure in life.
Nuzhat al-Zaman breaks off there, so it’s not clear what side she takes in the argument. “How many good counsels are there in this topic,” she says. “I cannot produce all that is to be found here in one session…” When night sixty seven begins, she offers to continue her impromptu lecture tour over a series of days. “O king,” the officials agree, “this girl is the wonder of the age, unique in her time. Never at any time throughout our lives have we heard the like of this.”
Sharkan is officially married to Nuzhat al-Zaman, as I understand it, but only the first stage of formalities has been attended to and the actual wedding is yet to take place. A feast is ordered and the ladies of the court remain to attend their new mistress. Singers are summoned to perform. As evening draws in, an avenue of candles are lit from the citadel gates to those of the palace. Sharkan bathes then returns with the great men of Damascus for the unveiling of the bride.
Their wedding night is creepy not just due to the slavery thing, which makes any possibility of consent very dubious, but because they really don’t know they’re related. When Nuzhat al-Zaman immediately falls pregnant Sharkan is delighted and writes to tell his father. He wants to send her to Baghdad to meet his siblings. COULD THIS BE MORE AWKWARD. Sharkan is particularly delighted with his bride’s intelligence, and is clearly very proud of his marriage.
The response arrives a month later. He learns that his father has lost both the younger royals, who snuck off on a secret pilgrimage and never came home. The king is now in mourning. He orders Sharkan to find the prince and princess but couldn’t have sent his worries to a less sympathetic ear, because Sharkan is an ambitious warlord who hates competition. He takes the story to his new wife, yet somehow they still don’t work out each other’s true identities. In time she gives birth to a baby girl. When Sharkan comes to see his child, he sees a familiar jewel hanging around the little princess’s neck. It is one of three that were gifted to Sharkan’s family by his ex-girlfriend Abriza, who I still miss from this story so much.
“Slave girl,” Sharkan demands, “where did you get this jewel?” “I am your lady and the mistress of all who are in your palace,” Nuzhat al-Zaman retorts, because she’s fabulous like that. “Aren’t you ashamed to address me as ‘slave girl’ when I am a queen and the daughter of a king? Concealment is now at an end and it can be revealed that I am Nuzhat al-Zaman, the daughter of King ‘Umar ibn al-Nu’man.”
Understandably, Sharkan faints.
As night sixty nine gets underway, he makes the much less understandable decision to keep his own parentage a secret, insisting that she share her story in full. This she does, unwittingly confirming Sharkan’s fears. “How could I have married my sister?” he broods to himself. “By God, I shall have to marry her off to one of my chamberlains, and if word of the affair gets out, I shall claim that I divorced her before consummating the marriage and married her to my principal chamberlain.” A bit late for that, Sharkan, she just gave birth to your baby. This is such a soap opera.
He finally tells Nuzhat al-Zaman that he is also the king’s son. She flies into a hysterical panic and Sharkan explains his plan, comforting her as best he can, which is not tremendously well. He names their daughter Qudiya-fa-Kana’, which means ‘It was decreed and it happened’. SUBTLE. REALLY SUBTLE. Nuzhat al-Zaman is duly handed over to the chief chamberlain, to bring up her baby in his household.
While all this melodrama has befallen the princess, what’s become of the prince? Next week we catch up with Dau’ al-Makan, who came to Damascus without realising that half his family were already there, and is now about to leave.
Somehow, I do not think the baby is going to stay a secret for long.