The Sharazad Project: Week 45

Trigger warnings: incest, abduction, sex with dubious consent

Last week, Sharkan died. That was unexpected! Dhat al-Dawahi killed him in revenge for her son’s death and fled the Muslim camp, her disguise as an ascetic now useless. This week the Revenge Hat has been passed on to Dau’ al-Makan so he plans to demolish Constantinople, even if the siege takes the rest of his life. Riders from each division of the army are given letters and a share of treasure to be taken home for the families left behind. Who I’d much rather be spending time with, frankly, has Sharkan’s baby girl taken her first steps yet? Has Dau’ al-Makan’s wife given birth? How is Nuzhat al-Zaman readjusting to life in her old home, has she had any contact with her daughter in Damascus? I don’t KNOW, because we are stuck in a war saga now. Dau’ al-Makan does write to his sister, telling her of his intentions and asking her to look after the home front. He’s only really interested in his child if it’s a boy.

However, while his army camps right outside the walls of Constantinople, no one comes out to face him.

After killing Sharkan, Dhat al-Dawahi was pulled to safety within the city and went before Afridun, where she brought the whole court to tears in sympathy with her grief. He kisses her hands at the news of her revenge. He’s determined to hold the siege; she’s determined to destroy Sharkan’s army utterly. She starts by writing a long, gloating letter confessing to all her tricks, starting with ‘Umar’s death and concluding with Sharkan’s. “If you want to be safe now, leave at once,” she writes, “but if you want to bring destruction on yourselves, stay here.” She mourns for her son for three days, then on the fourth day has her letter shot by arrow at the Muslim camp. Dau’ al-Makan weeps and rages when he finds out who the ‘ascetic’ really was, coming up with all kinds of gender specific and horribly explicit threats against her. Dandan offers an ‘I told you so’. When Dau’ al-Makan also stops eating, the vizier bucks him up with some poetry about fate and Dau’ al-Makan admits to homesickness. Everybody cries a bit.

Soon word returns from Baghdad: in his absence Dau’ al-Makan’s wife has given birth to a son and Nuzhat al-Zaman has named him Kana-ma-Kana, which means ‘What was, was’. The furnace man (remember him?) is happy but confused. Feeling emotional, Dau’ al-Makan has tents arranged around his brother’s grave so that a selection of soldiers can pray for him while the young king and a few close friends recite tearful poetry. Afterwards, Dau’ al-Makan holds a war council. I have no idea what’s decided because no one cares. Instead Dau’ al-Makan asks for Dandan to tell him stories as a distraction from the whole war thing that’s going on (there is another way! GO HOME AND LET THIS STOP). All his commanders gather together over a meal to hear about ‘the lover and his beloved’.

SEGUE.

In night 107, we go behind the mountains of Isfahan to the Green City, which is ruled by the king Sulaiman Shah. He’s very virtuous and famous, apparently, but is for some reason unmarried and without an heir. Getting tired of the bachelor life, he asks his vizier for advice. “Buy a slave girl,” the vizier suggests. Sulaiman Shah says that’s all very well but he can’t be sure of such a woman’s bloodline. UGH UGH UGH. Of course Dandan likes this story.

Anyway, Sulaiman Shah wants a princess. The vizier can help him there. King Zahr Shah, lord of the White Land, has a beautiful daughter. “Seen from the front she fascinates,” the vizier leers, “and seen from behind she kills.” The king sends him as an envoy to win over the girl’s father and ask for her hand. A caravan of gifts sets off and is politely welcomed upon its arrival. Inside the king’s magnificent palace, the vizier opens night 108 with flirtatious, flattering poetry about how awesome Zahr Shah really is. It makes a good impression. Upon making his proposal, the vizier gets unbridled enthusiasm. A marriage contract is arranged on the spot, everyone celebrates for two months solid and the bride sets off in a haze of pomp and glory.

Night 109 sees the full procession arrive in the Green City. Banners are strung up to welcome the princess, all the women of the city are ordered out to greet her, the messenger who announced her approach is given a robe of honour. By nightfall the princess is alighting at the palace with her handmaidens. She and the king enter the bridal chamber, they have sex, before long they have a baby boy – upon receiving the news of which the king once again showers his messenger in appreciation and gold – and the little prince is named Taj al-Muluk Kharan. He grows up well-loved and highly educated.

In night 110, he becomes the kingdom’s pin-up boy. Poems are written about a mole on his cheek. Despite his father’s concerns for his safety, he insists on going hunting all the time with his friends. During one such trip, he encounters a merchant caravan and stops to inspect their goods. While there, he sees another ridiculously attractive young man weeping for lost love. He keeps reciting poetry and fainting. Bemused, the prince goes over to enquire about his situation, offering financial help. At the prince’s command, the merchant reluctantly unrolls his goods. A scrap of fabric embroidered with gazelles falls out and he’s ordered to show it; when he resists, growing tearful again, Taj al-Muluk demands an explanation. The young man begins his story.

DOUBLE SEGUE.

The young man is the son of a great merchant; he grew up with an orphaned cousin to whom he was pledged for marriage at an early age. Their names are ‘Aziz and ‘Aziza. While their father was arranging the wedding, they were already in bed together. On the night everything was to be formalised, ‘Aziz went first to the baths and then to visit a friend. Growing overheated on the way, he paused to wipe his face with his kerchief. At this moment the embroidered cloth dropped from above and he looked up into the face of its owner. Night 113 opens with rapture about her beauty; when ‘Aziz opens the cloth, he finds a flirtatious note. She elaborates with some mysterious gestures. So obsessed is ‘Aziz with this new love that he forgets he’s supposed to be getting married.

The wedding feast is all eaten when he gets home and ‘Aziza is in tears. She tells him that his father is so fed up he didn’t show that he’s put the marriage off for a year. ‘Aziz tells her everything that happened. “If someone says: ‘Love starts with choice,’ tell them:/ ‘That is a lie; it all comes from necessity,'” she recites bitterly, but she agrees to help him win over his crush. She interprets the girl’s gestures to mean he should come back after two days and he puts his head on ‘Aziza’s lap to be consoled at the wait.

In night 114, she dresses him up for his date and sends him off with a pep talk. It doesn’t do much good; when he sees Gazelle Girl he promptly faints away. Coming to, he sees her make more inexplicable gestures and goes home to get them interpreted by his cousin. “Why should I harshly be abused for loving you?” she is reciting to herself. “I wish my heart might be as hard as yours.” Overhearing her, ‘Aziz starts crying. It falls to his cousin to wipe his cheeks and ask patiently how his date went. Honestly, this woman is a saint. She tells him he’s been asked to come back in five days time and wait for a message in a dyer’s shop just down the street. During the ensuing wait, ‘Aziz won’t eat or sleep and ‘Aziza tells him love stories to keep up his morale.

The second date doesn’t happen at all. The girl never shows. When he gets home, ‘Aziz sees his cousin leaning on the wall waiting. “Why did you not spend the night with your beloved,” she asks, with mild snark, “and get what you want from her?” ‘Aziz responds by kicking her in the chest, so hard she falls and cracks open her head. I can’t believe how ABYSMALLY women get treated in these stories.

In night 115, ‘Aziza silently gets up to treat her injury then smiles sweetly, apologising for any insult. WHAT. THE. HELL. She tells ‘Aziz to be more patient and go back to his girl tomorrow. It works; the girl goes through more mysterious gestures and ‘Aziz goes home to his injured, emotionally distraught cousin for more assistance. According to her, he must wait until sunset, enter the garden behind the lane and wait beneath a lighted lamp there. Honestly, she should be a cryptographer, she’s a genius. You deserve SO MUCH BETTER than ‘Aziz, honey, he’s no loss.

Proving my point, he wails that she’s been no help at all because he hasn’t hooked up with the beautiful Gazelle Girl yet. She laughs at that and tells him to be more patient. He follows her advice anyway, goes through the garden to a beautiful room where flowers and fruit are arranged, and as night 116 begins, he sits to wait. When three hours have passed, he starts to eat. After that, he falls asleep. When he wakes the sun is baking down and there’s salt and charcoal scattered over him. Confused, he goes home.

‘Aziza is still bemoaning her own lost love; she’s sharper than usual when asked for her take on the situation. She tells him that his eating and sleeping offended Gazelle Girl, the salt and charcoal expressing her disdain upon arriving and not finding him avidly awake. ‘Aziz wails. In night 117, his cousin says she could handle this whole courting business much better if he just let her take over completely. As it is, she instructs him to return to the same place, taking care not to eat or sleep, and wait for the girl again. He doesn’t listen. Once more he eats, once more he sleeps, and wakes to find expressions of Gazelle Girl’s scorn left behind. In preparation for a third attempt, ‘Aziza has him eat earlier in the day and sends him off for another vigil.

Night 118 repeats the same event. This time he wakes with a knife and an iron coin on his stomach; ‘Aziza tells him if he goes back and sleeps again, Gazelle Girl will cut his throat. Charming. Making her cousin agree to obey her, ‘Aziza convinces him to sleep all day long so that when night comes he’s fully rested. Then she has him eat his fill. She also tells him that after he’s had sex – assuming he doesn’t get murdered first – he’s to recite the lines ‘Lovers, by God, tell me:/ What is the desperate one of you to do?’

He goes. And he waits. The night is three quarters over when he starts getting hungry again, eats and sleep looms. Fortunately he notices an approaching light and perks up as Gazelle Girl arrives with a procession of slave girls. She’s satisfied at his wakefulness, convinced he’s still desperate for her. Sending the girls away, she kisses ‘Aziz passionately and they have sex. It’s okay to sleep after that, apparently.

In the morning, as night 119 begins, ‘Aziz gets up to leave. Gazelle Girl gives him a length of embroidery, apparently the work of her sister Nur al-Huda, and agrees that he should come to her every night in this garden. He is so blissed he forgets to recite ‘Aziza’s lines. His cousin is very alarmed when he comes home, looking at the cloth with suspicion. She pleads with him to remember the lines next time. For once, he does as she asks. Gazelle Girl responds tearfully with the lines, “He must conceal his love and hide his secret,/ Showing patience and humility in all that he does.”

He goes home expecting praise from ‘Aziza but finds her in the care of his mother, who roundly tells him off for leaving her so miserable. Upon hearing Gazelle Girl’s response, ‘Aziza sobs out four lines about how hard it is to hide love and tells ‘Aziz to recite them on his next meeting. Gazelle Girl replies: “If he finds no patience to conceal his secret,/ Nothing will serve him better than to die.” ‘Aziz, being a selfish idiot, cheerfully trots back and forth while his cousin wastes away. When he gives her sorrowful response to Gazelle Girl, his lover leaps up in horror, declaring that whoever spoke those lines must be dead. On hearing the full story, she grows furious with ‘Aziz. “It is you who have killed her – may God kill you in the same way! By God, had you told me that you had a cousin, I would never have allowed you near me.” ‘Aziz protests that ‘Aziza has been helping him all along; Gazelle Girl tells him to get the hell out. Good for her.

He goes home to find his cousin dead and his mother blaming him for it. In night 120, they hold her funeral and ‘Aziz’s mother demands to know what he did to break the dead girl’s heart, because ‘Aziza would never tell. In fact, as she lay dying ‘Aziza gave one last set of lines to be repeated – “Loyalty is good; treachery is bad” – and left something for him, but her aunt is too angry to reveal it and ‘Aziz is a heartless bastard who doesn’t take any of the women in his life seriously. He goes right back to the garden only a few days after ‘Aziza’s death. Gazelle Girl immediately wants to know about his cousin. On hearing that she really did die, she weeps with much more genuine grief than ‘Aziz. She’s grateful to ‘Aziza for her help in their courtship and wishes she’d known of her sooner. ‘Aziz tells her that before her death, ‘Aziza forgave him, and repeats those lines.

Turns out Gazelle Girl was planning to hurt him tonight but in deference to ‘Aziza’s wishes, she won’t now. The next section of her speech is so fury-making I don’t know quite how to express how bad it is – Gazelle Girl tells ‘Aziz he knows not the deceit of womenkind and should steer well clear of them now his guide (that being ‘Aziza) is dead, because some wicked lady will probably destroy him sooner or later. I mean, they might, but only because he’s such a callous human being he’s bound to make enemies wherever he goes. I don’t blame Gazelle Girl, actually I like her, I am furious with the narrative for letting her down. Why do these stories hate women so much?

In night 121 Gazelle Girl asks to be taken to ‘Aziza’s tomb. En route she distributes alms in the dead girl’s name and when they reach the grave, she chisels a verse about tragic lovers into the headstone. Honestly, this feels more like their love story than anything to do with ‘Aziz. Gazelle Girl keeps up the affair but often speaks of ‘Aziza, while ‘Aziz cruises along aimlessly. One night, about a year after he met Gazelle Girl, he gets drunk and goes wandering off to meet his girlfriend, only to take a wrong turn and end up in the Naqib’s Lane. He sees an old lady walking along with a letter over which she is weeping. In night 122, we find out it’s from her son, who now lives far away and until recently was assumed dead. The old lady is so delighted to hear the letter that she invites ‘Aziz back to her house so he can read it to her daughter too. To maintain propriety he’ll stand behind a curtain while the daughter of the house listens on the other side.

Only propriety doesn’t have a chance because when the girl is called downstairs she appears with her dress tucked up high, having been pulled from some task, showing off fabulous legs. She wears jewellery in every place it is possible to wear jewellery and ‘Aziz stares like he’s dazzled. Or just like he’s a habitual cheater. He leans in through the doorway to start reading and is promptly shoved inside the hall by the old lady, who locks the door behind them.

In night 123, the girl pounces on ‘Aziz and hauls him upstairs to a large, beautifully furnished chamber where she proceeds to explain his options: death or life. If he wants to live he’ll marry her. She knows all about his affair and accuses Gazelle Girl of all sorts of homicidal iniquity. ‘Aziz is compelled to share the story of his dead cousin and once again ‘Aziza’s plight wrings tears out of an otherwise very scary lady. If not for her respect for ‘Aziza, Abduction Girl assures him, Gazelle Girl would certainly have murdered him by now. As it is, Abduction Girl has fancied him herself for a while now and tells him he’ll be very well looked after if he becomes her boy toy – all the money and nice food he wants. All she asks in return is very regular sex.

She’s incredibly prepared. They have four notaries in the house to draw up a marriage contract on the spot. In night 124 they get straight onto the sex, in one of the most explicit scenes so far. She really, really loves sex and ‘Aziz is hardly complaining. Until morning, that is, when he tries to leave and she laughs at the idea. The house only opens up once a year; until the next time he’s stuck. He doesn’t much care. A life of lazy debauchery suits him just fine. After a year of that, he has a baby son with her but she still doesn’t trust him to come back so before he goes out for that one day of open doors, he is made to swear he’ll return. What does he do with his day out? Go straight back to Gazelle Girl’s garden.

What does anyone SEE in him? Find out his next terrible decision next Tuesday.

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