Trigger warning: references to rape and incest
Over the past month or so of Sharazad Project posts, I have made no secret of my loathing for King ‘Umar ibn al-Nu’man, tyrant and rapist and all-round awful person. Well, last week he got poisoned – presumably a belated revenge from Princess Abriza’s grandmother, who recently infiltrated the king’s palace. And while his death was much-deserved, it’s kicked off what is likely to be a very ugly power struggle in the region, because his elder son Sharkan is unaware in Damascus, younger son Dau’ al-Makan has recently reappeared outside Baghdad after a disastrous pilgrimage and daughter Nuzhat al-Zaman (Dau’ al-Makan’s twin, ex-wife to Sharkan, mother of Sharkan’s daughter) has a very ambitious new husband intending to capitalise on the political turmoil. Who is incidentally Sharkan’s chief chamberlain.
In night seventy seven, the chamberlain advises the dead king’s vizier Dandan not to bother with a trip to Damascus, because a perfectly suitable heir is right here, so is his sister and this is probably God’s will. He offers a summarised version of their adventures. Delighted to hear the twins are alive, Dandan consults with the officers of state and they all agree that Dau’ al-Makan shall have the throne. The chamberlain, already reaping the rewards of his new position, presides over a council meeting with all the old king’s advisors and supporters, after which all the troops kiss the ground before him and ride away.
“I think that I should go on ahead to prepare a suitable place for the king,” the chamberlain suggests to Dandan, “letting him know of your arrival and telling him that you have chosen him as your ruler over the head of his brother Sharkan.” Dandan and the other officers of state all bestow the chamberlain with gifts, asking him to speak on their behalf to the young king. “What a lucky journey this has been!” he congratulates himself on his way back to camp. Asking permission to enter the presence of his wife, he gives the twins news of their father’s death and announces Dau’ al-Makan’s ascension to the throne.
King ‘Umar might have been a rubbish person, but he was not a bad father to his younger children and they are hit hard by his loss. They want to know what killed him. The chamberlain tells them to ask Dandan, and gets back to the important point: seizing power. “They have unanimously chosen you as king,” he informs Dau’ al-Makan. “If you do not accept, they will appoint someone else and your life will not be safe from him. Either he will kill you, or things will go wrong between you, and the kingdom will slip from the hands of you both.”
He’s right. He’s also incredibly insensitive.
“I accept,” Dau’ al-Makan says, “as I cannot free myself of this office.” He wonders aloud what he should do about Sharkan, and the chamberlain basically tells him: brace yourself. A grand pavilion is set up on high ground, where the young king can hold council. A feast is prepared, and in time a dust cloud rises, heralding the arrival of Dandan and the army.
As night seventy eight begins, so does the pomp and ceremony. Dau’ al-Makan is seated in regal robes (where did the chamberlain procure those? Who knows, he’s resourceful) and the chamberlain stands before him, the pair of them ringed by guards. Dignitaries enter the pavilion in groups of ten, congratulating Dau’ al-Makan on his well-timed return and swearing oaths that they will serve him faithfully; he responds with the promise of many favours. When all the greetings are finally concluded, only Dandan remains. He kisses the ground at the young king’s feet, who rises to greet him fondly.
Dandan is an awful person too but good luck getting anyone to acknowledge that, let alone the narrative.
Dau’ al-Makan orders that food and drink be laid out for the soldiers and commands them remain in his camp for another ten days while he consults with Dandan. His first order for the vizier is to find out what killed King ‘Umar. That evening Dau’ al-Makan goes to Nuzhat al-Zaman and sends for Dandan to tell them both the details of their father’s last days. Dandan backtracks to the twins’ disappearance. The king was furious and frightened, searching for months with no luck. A full year after they left, an elderly woman came to the palace with five beautiful and brilliantly educated slave girls. She brought them before the king to show off their intelligence.
In night seventy nine, the first girl begins. “You have to know, O king, that every man of culture must avoid officiousness, adorn himself with virtues, perform his religious duties and avoid mortal sin. He must keep to this pattern of behaviour, believing that to abandon it would destroy him. The foundation of culture is nobility of character…Those who occupy the highest rank are most in need of sound planning, and so kings require this more than common people, who may plunge without restraint into affairs, with no thought for the consequences.” This is not unlike what Nuzhat al-Zaman told Sharkan, but when you consider these slave girls were trained by Abriza’s grandmother for the sole purpose of revenge upon her rapist – well, it’s all rather pointed. Not that ‘Umar would notice.
The first girl continues, advising the king to face his enemies with reason and logic and to choose his friends based on their honesty. She continues, “It has also been said that whoever has a sense of his own honour despises his lusts; whoever magnifies small misfortunes will be afflicted by God with great ones; whoever obeys his own desires fails to perform his duties; and whoever follows the slanderer loses a friend. If a man thinks well of you, see to it that his opinion is justified; whoever takes enmity too far, commits a sin; and whoever does not guard against injustice is not safe from the sword.”
The girl goes on to talk about the necessity for impartiality in a good judge, how all people are innocent until proven guilty, and how no judge should decide a case on an empty stomach or while in pain. Judges cannot be too self-important or they can’t be relied upon to hunt for truth.
She makes some really excellent points. Concluding her speech, she withdraws and the second girl comes forward. We will hear from her next week, and find out if the king can stop ogling their breasts for ten minutes to listen to what they’re actually saying. I very much doubt he will.