Trigger warning: references to incest
Last week we left Nuzhat al-Zaman in the unpleasant position of having just found out she married her brother, upon which he promptly married her off to someone else. Now we’re going to find out what happened to her other brother, last seen leaving Damascus with his friend the furnace man, heading for Baghdad on the heels of a gift procession from the governor of Damascus to King ‘Umar.
Why is Sharkan sending his dad gifts? Well, while he’s still reeling from the revelation about Nuzhat al-Zaman, he gets another letter from the king. ‘Umar wants for the taxes to be sent to Baghdad and Sharkan’s new wife with them, so he can meet her for himself. Is this because he admires highly educated women or cares about his son’s happiness? No. This is King ‘Umar we are talking about and he is a creep of the highest order. An old woman has arrived at his court with five exceptionally educated girls. “I loved them as soon as I saw them,” ‘Umar gushes, “and I wanted to have them in my palace and under my control, since no other king has anyone to match them.” I HATE THIS MAN SO MUCH. The old woman will not sell the girls for anything less than a tribute from Damascus, so ‘Umar wants it sent pronto, and Sharkan’s intellectual wife with it so she can debate with the new arrivals. “If she gets the better of them,” ‘Umar assures his son, “I shall send her back to you, together with the tribute of Baghdad.” Rather strongly implying that if she loses, she’s not coming back.
Night seventy puts Sharkan in a quandary, because he might not have recognised his sister on sight – not surprising as he’s twenty years her senior and hardly ever saw her – but it’s too much to hope the king won’t know her either. Sharkan sends for Nuzhat al-Zaman to help decide how best to answer their father’s letter. Longing to go home, she suggests she go to Baghdad with Sharkan’s chamberlain (her new husband) and offer up the PG-rated version of events they cooked up between them. Sharkan agrees.
So when the gift procession leaves Damascus, both royal twins go with it. In night seventy one, they take the long journey to Baghdad and Dau’ al-Makan gets terribly emotional as he nears home. One night while they are camped – as it so happens, very close to the chamberlain’s tent – the young prince recites tragic poetry at the moon and faints away. Nuzhat al-Zaman, equally troubled by the proximity to Baghdad, overhears him. Part of the poem refers to ‘Time’s Delight’, which is what her name means. Sending for her chief eunuch, she asks for the reciter to be brought before her.
Which brings us to night seventy two, and the eunuch explaining that he has no idea who is reciting poetry since everybody is meant to be asleep. “If you find someone awake,” Nuzhat al-Zaman reasons, “it must be the man who recited the poem.” That would be true if Dau’ al-Makan had not passed out – as it is, when the eunuch goes looking, the only person he finds awake is the furnace man, who is terrified of him. He assumes that the grand lady the eunuch represents was angered by the recitation and immediately insists it wasn’t him. “The reciter was a passing wanderer, who roused and disturbed me,” he says, which isn’t such a lie really, when you think about it.
Dau’ al-Makan comes to some time later and opens his mouth to vent with more verse. The furnace man hastily quiets him, explaining that a big scary guard has been going around looking for the reciter. “Who can stop me reciting poetry?” sobs Dau’ al-Makan. “I shall do it whatever happens to me, for I am near my own land and I don’t care about anyone.” “You want to get yourself killed,” the furnace man hisses. When Dau’ al-Makan sticks to his guns, the furnace man finally loses his temper. He points out that he’s been looking after the prince for a year and a half, it is the middle of the night, everyone is exhausted and no one wants to hear poetry please and thank you.
“I shall not change my mind,” Dau’ al-Makan, Poet of the Night, declares. Loquacity appears to be a family trait. He reels off more lines about love and loss and falls down in another faint. Nuzhat al-Zaman hears him and is so agitated that she threatens the unfortunate eunuch with a beating if he doesn’t get hold of the reciter. That’s the stick; as the carrot, she gives the eunuch a purse of money to pass on when he finds the man in question. He’s to bring this person back to her if possible, and if not, find out as much as he can.
In night seventy three, the eunuch returns to the furnace man and demands to be shown the reciter, saying that he’s afraid of his mistress’s temper if he goes back empty-handed. This does nothing to ease the furnace man’s fears. He insists the guilty party is a stranger, a wanderer who will surely be accosted by the guards, and he winds up his guilty spiel by kissing the eunuch on the head. It’s not very convincing. The eunuch goes off but conceals himself nearby to watch what happens next. Therefore, he sees Dau’ al-Makan being woken and warned again.
“I’m not going to worry about this,” the prince responds sulkily. “I don’t care about anyone, for my own country is near at hand.” “You may not fear anyone,” the furnace man snaps, “but I fear for you and for myself, and I asks you, for God’s sake, don’t recite any more poetry until you are home. I didn’t think you were like this. Don’t you realize that this lady, the chamberlain’s wife, wants to reprimand you for disturbing her, as she may be sick or wakeful because of the fatigue of the journey and the distance that she has travelled?”
That’s actually very courteous and thoughtful. Good on you, furnace man. I wish this story had given you an actual name.
Being a spoilt, traumatised teenage prince, Dau’ al-Makan pays him no heed at all. This time the eunuch catches him in the act of reciting and pounces. The furnace man takes off, hiding nearby to see what becomes of his reckless friend. Find out next Tuesday what happens to them both, and what stupid thing this family try after that.