At the End of the Night: Concluding the Sharazad Project

If things had gone to schedule, I wouldn’t be writing this post for another four or five years. The Sharazad Project was intended to encompass the entire Thousand and One Nights, after all – a time during which the legendary Queen Sharazad managed to talk herself out of execution, give birth to three children and convince her husband to stop his murder lottery, all while reeling out story after story at night – but as it is, I have stopped at the end of night one hundred and forty five.

I’ve always wanted to know more about the Thousand and One Nights. Blogging my reading seemed a good way to share what I discovered, as I did with Fairy Tale Tuesdays. The most obvious difference between the two projects is structural – while the largely European fairy tales I reviewed were usually self-contained, the Sharazad stories are spun out sagas, often interrupted by segues as characters within the narrative tell each other stories that may or may not relate to the larger plot. As such they tend to have bigger casts, allowing many secondary arcs. Separate story cycles sometimes feature the same characters, for instance the long-suffering vizier Ja’far.

Another significant difference is narrative style. Fairy tales tend to be fairly simple in terms of plot. There’s not much extraneous detail and what there is varies from one telling to another. They frequently contain recurring sequences, such as three brothers each setting out on the same quest or three sisters tested with the same task. It’s a lyrical repetition, almost like the chorus of a song and for the same purpose: ease of remembrance and retelling.

The Sharazad stories – coming from regions across Asia and the Middle East – contain a lot of detail. They are interspersed with ornate poetry, for which I’m certain I missed the cultural context. Characters offer quotes and anecdotes to prove a point. When someone is described as beautiful, you’ll hear precisely why. There is explicit sex and violence, sometimes much too closely associated, but also mundane minutiae about a merchant’s wares, a shopping trip, a wardrobe choice. It’s rather like comparing a formal garden to a labyrinth. They have some of the same elements (e.g. battles to be fought, monsters to be overcome, disaster-prone royalty to rescue) yet are aiming for completely different effects.

As with many European fairy tales, the Sharazad stories have a strong religious element, but the consequences of moral misdemeanors are less clear-cut. While revenge is a common motivator for the heroes and heroines, characters guilty of terrible actions often get away with their crimes – and sometimes they are the ‘heroes’.

Most of the protagonists are male and often behave with a strong sense of entitlement.
While frustrating, this was hardly surprising given the time period these stories likely date from and the social positions of the men involved – wealthy merchants, courtiers and royalty being the most common male leads.

What’s interesting to me is where they diverge from the modern Western expectations of masculinity. As much description is given to the physical beauty of male characters as is given to the women. Men frequently cry and faint without receiving narrative censure. They openly express their emotions, sometimes with extensive poetry, and develop intense friendships with other men. Of the two canonically gay characters I encountered, the woman’s sexual inclinations were referenced as a source of censure while the man’s were treated more ambiguously (as a minor character his personality and desires were not explored at any length) but neither character suffered as a result of their sexuality or dealt with homophobia from in-narrative characters.

Unfortunately, racism is rampant in these stories. Nearly all black characters are slaves, and most of the black men are characterised as villainous. There’s much milder but noticeable anti-Bedouin sentiment as well. Jewish and Christian characters are granted a little more complexity, but the ways in which those characters are treated can still be uncomfortable.

One of my key interests in fairy tales is finding interesting female characters and I found some truly amazing ones here. Sitt al-Husn, for instance, the sorceress who defeated an ifrit in a duel. Princess Abriza, champion wrestler and warrior princess. Dhat al-Dawahi, her formidable grandmother, the battle strategist and consummate politician who ordered around no less than four kings. Nuzhat al-Zaman, who kept getting kicked in the teeth by the narrative but who never stopped being brilliant and brave. There are secret sorceresses, resourceful old ladies, murderous beauties never to be crossed. If I’d read further, I am sure I’d have encountered many more.

I couldn’t read more. Gratuitous violence against women – in particular, sexual violence – is deeply woven into these stories. Of the characters I have just named, only one survives to her happy ending and she has to suffer like hell to get there. While there are plenty of women have personal agency (and wasn’t I delighted to see them), too many are enslaved and unable to give any kind of consent, or are married to men who abuse them. It got to the point where I was bracing myself at the introduction of a new female character, waiting to see what misery she would have to undergo. When Princess Abriza was raped and murdered, I knew this was not a headspace I wanted to experience any more.

I apologise to anyone reading along who wanted me to see the Thousand and One Nights through to the end and I wish you all the best if you want to keep going. I’m glad I began this project, and I’m sure there are fantastic stories ahead that I never gave a chance. But I’m also really glad to stop.

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The Sharazad Project: Week 48

Trigger warning: references to incest, rape and torture

In this last post of the Sharazad Project we return to night 141, in which King Sasan realises that usurping his nephew’s throne was not the best plan ever and the vizier Dandan reminds everyone he’s the real political force in Baghdad. Seriously, no one gave a damn about Prince Kana-ma-Kana except his mother, aunt and cousin until he left town, now there’s a massive army trying to put him in charge of the kingdom and he’s not even there to claim it. Fortunately Kana-ma-Kana hears what’s happening from passing merchants and hurries home on his gorgeous new horse Qatul. It’s the equivalent of zipping home in a hot new sports car. The horse  gets a name. Not even Sasan got a name for most of his time in this story!

Kana-ma-Kana gets a monarch’s welcome on his return. He greets his mother – does not apologise for disappearing into the middle of nowhere, I note – and goes to reassure his uncle, even offering Qatul as a gift. Sasan accepts it only to gift it right back, recognising its worth. (He remembers it from the Constantinople campaign seventeen years ago but can I just point out the horse probably wouldn’t be up to much by now if that were true? Unless it is a magic horse. Let’s go with that explanation.)

Sasan then showers his nephew in money and honour in the hope of averting a civil war. In his new chambers in the palace, Kana-ma-Kana asks his mother for word of the beautiful Qudiya-fa-Kana. His mother admits the princess still loves him but tells him to give up on the love since it will only bring trouble. He retorts by saying he’ll have to go avenge himself on Dhat al-Dawahi for the grief she brought on his family and sulks off to find a more amenable go-between in the shape of an elderly woman called Sa’dana. The old lady is efficient. She returns with a message that Qudiya-fa-Kana will meet her beloved cousin at midnight.

Turns out the whole ‘lovers don’t sleep or eat or exist in any comfort at all’ idea is more widespread than the murderous ladies from Dandan’s story in Week 45 because when Qudiya-fa-Kana comes in to find her cousin asleep she wakes him and reproaches him for not waiting on tenterhooks. He neatly replies he was hoping to dream of her. She squeezes an apology out of him anyway and they sit down to talk about how awful it’s been to be apart. At dawn they separate. Unfortunately, some of the princess’s attendants find out where she went and tell the king. Sasan savagely overreacts, about to cut off the poor girl’s head before Nuzhat al-Zaman intervenes. She warns him his actions will be despised; that Kana-ma-Kana is Qudiya-fa-Kana’s friend from childhood, and oh, remember that CIVIL WAR? Dandan is still out there with his army, agitating for Kana-ma-Kana to take the throne. Killing either of the young lovers would be one hell of a tipping point.

Nuzhat al-Zaman deserved so much more than Sasan. How come she couldn’t take the throne? She has a better right to it than anyone.

Anyway, what he gets out of their chat is: cannot kill nephew, must RUIN NEPHEW UTTERLY. And maybe he has a point because Kana-ma-Kana’s next life choice is to become a highwayman, thereby building up a suitable fortune for winning Qudiya-fa-Kana’s hand. His mum points out this is a dangerous occupation. As usual, Kana-ma-Kana doesn’t listen.

After a tearful farewell from Qudiya-fa-Kana, he sets out, unexpectedly encountering his old not-really-a-friend Sabbah on the way. The companions fall in together. Coming to a rich valley where animals are grazing and children are playing, Kana-ma-Kana proves he’s a truly horrible person by suggesting they ransack the place. Sabbah reminds him they are two people and this valley is clearly well-defended. Kana-ma-Kana is all ‘whatever!’ and rides down alone.

He starts driving the camels away from their pastures. The local guards, all slaves, come riding out to stop him, shouting warnings. These animals belong to the Circassian clan, Rumi people (aka subjects of the land of Rum) who have become self-governing and incidentally, they want that horse back. Yes, it turns out these are the people who stole Qatul, only to have him stolen in turn. Kana-ma-Kana fights viciously and orders the terrified slaves – those who are still alive – to drive the animals away. Sabbah comes down now he sees the battle is won. Then he rides straight back up, because the free fighters are coming back, led by Kahardash.

We get a little snippet into this warrior’s life. Around these parts is a very beautiful girl called Fatin who will not marry a man who cannot defeat her in battle, and has everyone in awe of her abilities. Afraid he’ll lose, Kahardash won’t fight her, though his friends assure him she’d probably throw the fight for love of him. (Don’t do it, Fatin.) Upon seeing Kana-ma-Kana’s equally gorgeous face, he mixes up the two. “Damn you, Fatin,” he says, “have you come to show me how brave you are?” He asks ‘her’ to marry him. Insulted at being taken for a girl, Kana-ma-Kana shouts a challenge and Kahardash realises his mistake. He sends one of his men to charge the prince. Kana-ma-Kana kills him with a powerful blow; the same fate meets every rider to go against him until in a fury they abandon the usual rules of honour and attack him all at once.

And all die, leaving Kahardash quite unwilling to have a go himself. He offers Kana-ma-Kana all the animals he wants and the prince lightly mocks him, since it’s no gift at all. Enraged, Kahardash charges him. He holds out better than the others, but is eventually speared through. Upon seeing this Sabbah comes back down to praise Kana-ma-Kana’s skills and chop off the dead warrior’s head. He wants a share in the spoils. The prince agrees he’ll have it if he helps guard them on the way to Baghdad. The local merchants (who have all suffered at Kahardash’s hands) are delighted to see the severed head raised on a spear and Kana-ma-Kana distributes goods like a king, thereby winning the affections of everyone else. Except King Sasan, obviously.

According to Sasan, many of his troops were closely associated with Kahardash (law and order really take top priority in this kingdom, huh) and now with Dandan stirring up trouble, Sasan’s position is at risk. His loyal officers offer to kill Kana-ma-Kana on the spot. Sasan binds them to a covenant that they will do this, thereby ridding Dandan of a prince to put on the throne – though personally I don’t think that would stop him for a minute. Their opportunity comes when the prince and Sabbah go on a hunting trip. Sabbah doesn’t want to be there. Kana-ma-Kana is laughing at his complaint when a group of horsemen come riding at them in a cloud of dust. One of Sasan’s emirs, Jami’, has brought twenty riders, all with the same instructions: to kill Kana-ma-Kana.

It doesn’t work. Kana-ma-Kana kills the lot of them. When Sasan rides out himself and finds all his men dead, he returns to Baghdad only to be seized and tied up by the rebelling populace. Kana-ma-Kana and Sabbah take a slower route, stopping for lunch with a random young man. The prince won’t touch the food, brooding over his lost throne. “I have good news for you,” the unnamed young man says cheerfully. “…Sasan is being held prisoner, and I think that he will soon be dead.” In a nearby domed building, Sasan has become entertainment for the angry populace, who are beating him to death.

Kana-ma-Kana calmly accepts the food. I really don’t like him.

When night falls and his host is asleep, the prince goes into the domed building and brings up the murder attempt with Sasan, who swears he never tried to kill him. Deciding to accept that at face-value, Kana-ma-Kana has a sudden change of heart and helps his uncle get out Baghdad. They ride through the night – not easy for the injured man, surely – until they reach an orchard where they stop to rest and talk. What they discuss isn’t very clear, but peace is apparently made and they return to Baghdad in a friendly enough state. Qudiya-fa-Kana comes out to greet them. What with the overwhelming wave of popularity that Kana-ma-Kana is surfing, Nuzhat al-Zaman sees no reason why the lovers shouldn’t marry. She disapproves of her husband’s plan, which is to kill Kana-ma-Kana ONCE AND FOR ALL.

It’s a rubbish plan that already failed once but he yells a death threat at his wife for disagreeing with it and she calms him down by promising to come up with a viable way to kill this unkillable prince. Well, actually, she’ll task her servant Bakun to do it. This old lady was nurse to both cousins and a favourite with Kana-ma-Kana, so if anyone can get close enough to murder him, it should be her.

Taking a sharp dagger, Bakun goes to meet Kana-ma-Kana. He’s in a highly distracted state, waiting to meet with Qudiya-fa-Kana, so she offers to soothe him with stories about love. So, segue.

A man loved a woman and spent all his money on her until he had none left, then while he was wandering around miserable, pierced his toe on a nail. Bandaging it, he walked on in pain. He stopped at a bath house and washed to the point of exhaustion, proving he has no sense of moderation in anything at all. The story continues into night 143, when he took some hashish and hallucinated a massage. Various slaves attended him in the dream, calling him master and eventually leading him to a luxurious hall where he sits on a dais with a girl in his lap. At this point in the dream he was abruptly woken, with an erection and a circle of very amused onlookers.

It’s a pretty pointless story. Kana-ma-Kana likes it, however, and asks for more. Obliging him with a stream of silly tales, Bakun waits until her target falls asleep then raises the dagger to strike. Suddenly the prince’s mother comes in. Bakun backs off fast. It isn’t luck that she was interrupted – Qudiya-fa-Kana overheard her mother and stepfather plotting and sent her aunt to the rescue. Upon hearing that his former nurse was about to kill him, Kana-ma-Kana decides it isn’t safe in the city any more and promptly departs to join Dandan with his rebel army. An ‘interchange’ occurs between Nuzhat al-Zaman and her husband that prompts the queen to leave Baghdad too, bringing more of Sasan’s officers with her to join Kana-ma-Kana’s cause. Qudiya-fa-Kana is later mentioned as being part of this group, so it’s quite an exodus.

But instead of marching on Baghdad they turn towards Rum and are captured by its king Rumzan, who presumably replaced Hardub. I wonder if he’s Abriza’s son? It’s about time we found out what happened to the boy. Anyway, Rumzan is quite respectful to his prisoners, because he’s recently had an odd dream and wants Dandan to interpret it. In the dream, he found himself in a deep pit from which he could not escape. Finding a girdle of gold beside him, he picked it up and it became two. When he put them on they became one again. Dandan informs him that this means he has some young male relative who is the best in the family. I’d love to know how he reached that conclusion.

Having got what he wanted, the king now plans to execute all of his prisoners. His nurse, however, interrupts and tells him that would be killing family. Because she is MARJANA, the faithful handmaiden, and Rumzan IS Abriza’s boy. In the lands of Rum Abriza is a legend for her beauty and courage (too right) but the full story of his parentage is only now being revealed to the king. Except not really because Marjana leaves out the part where dead king ‘Umar raped Abriza. In this version he ‘lay’ with her. UGH.

Hearing the story, Nuzhat al-Zaman immediately claims Rumzan as her brother. It appears she’s the only one who speaks Frankish, which is the language Marjana is using. What’s more, she actually remembers Marjana, despite having been very young at the time. Bewildered and upset, Rumzan calls her up for questioning. She convinces him of their blood ties. Overwhelmed by family feels, the estranged siblings embrace and Rumzan frees them all. In further evidence, Marjana takes the white jewel Abriza gave her son and matches it to the other two, worn respectively by Nuzhat al-Zaman and Kana-ma-Kana. To understand why that’s relevant you have to go back quite a way – it’s messy, rather unpleasant history by this point – but it cues more hugs.

Word of the royal family’s imprisonment had spread and al-Ziblkan arrives with the intention of rescuing them, only to be met by Qudiya-fa-Kana, who explains the whole bizarre reunion. She leads him back to meet with Rumzan. After some catching up, al-Ziblkan returns to Damascus with his troops. And it must have been one hell of a catch up because somehow they’ve convinced Rumzan he should join their vengeance quest against his great-grandmother Dhat al-Dawahi. How did they even do that?

Okay, it’s obvious how they did that. Reaching Baghdad, Kana-ma-Kana offers Rumzan the throne, since Sasan is basically just a paper figure in the palace now with no real authority. When Rumzan politely declines, Dandan advises he co-rule with Kana-ma-Kana, each ruling every other day. Despite this being the WORST IDEA EVER, they agree. Night 144 begins with a massive party, in which Kana-ma-Kana and Qudiya-fa-Kana finally get together.

Reunions are happening all over the place. A dust cloud heralds the approach of an army; ahead of it comes a merchant who once bought a slave girl in Damascus and sold her to the then sultan Sharkan. That girl was Nuzhat al-Zaman. He was the instigator of unintentional incest and Qudiya-fa-Kana’s conception, as it happens, but right now he’s the one in trouble – his caravan was attacked by a large party of riders who killed his men and stole his wares. The kings promise to see justice done. Tracking the raiders to a forested valley, they see that some have already left with their shares of the spoils. Those who remain are swiftly captured. There is definitely anti-Bedouin sentiment in this story, incidentally, given the way these raiders are described.

Back in Baghdad, the kings interrogate their prisoners. The three leaders are identified and held while the others are allowed to go free. After agreeing to replace any of the merchant’s missing goods, the kings are handed a pair of rather old letters. One was written by Sharkan, the other by Nuzhat al-Zaman. Kana-ma-Kana takes the second letter to his aunt and tells her the merchant’s story. Very kindly, she sends him money and fresh merchandise. They meet, the merchant delighted to see her well.

He sets off again on his travels and the kings return their interrogation of the robber leaders. One calmly admits to abducting children and young women to sell as slaves. And WHAT IS THIS, he’s that bloody creep who kidnapped Nuzhat al-Zaman to sell her into slavery! He recounts how he tricked her, beat her and sold her to a merchant…who sold her on to the ruler of Damascus…

Nuzhat al-Zaman hears the story and her wrath is glorious. She snatches up a sword to kill him on the spot but he promises great stories and Kana-ma-Kana, who has crappy priorities, stays his aunt’s hand in order to hear them. Kidnapper Guy tells how he was once led deep into the desert by an ostrich, to a place haunted by jinni and ghuls. Trapped in the scorching heat, they came unexpectedly on a stretch of grassland where a tent was tethered. A young man and a girl were outside of it. Kidnapper Guy fancied the girl so approached fairly politely to make inquiries. He introduced himself as Hammad ibn al-Farazi, a famous rider. The young man did not introduce himself or the girl immediately, just ordered her to fetch food and water. Tripping over her own hair, the girl did so. After the meal, the young man began by saying the girl was his sister. “I want you to marry her to me of your own free will,” Hammad promptly told him, not waiting for trifles like names, “for otherwise I will kill you and take her by force.”

The young man called him treacherous and challenged him to a fight. Hammad went back to his companions to discuss the arrangement and they decided that whoever killed the stranger would get the girl, BECAUSE THEY ARE ALL AWFUL. Brother and sister parted with tears, each assuring the other that their life was worth more. “If I die,” the young man told her, “do not allow anyone to possess you.” I am on his side. He kissed her farewell and proceeded to fight. There is a little weird aside in which he asked for his challenger’s names, implying that he’d be okay with them marrying his sister if they had the same name as himself. Which is just weird. But they didn’t. And he killed all those who fought him. Hammad didn’t get a chance to run away; the young man hauled him out of the saddle and made him a slave. The girl came up to congratulate her brother on his victory and led Hammad by his collar, like a dog.

Then the young man got drunk and everything got awful. His name was Hammad, you see, so Kidnapper Hammad could marry the girl after all. He swore never to betray his new master, but at the first opportunity that’s precisely what he did, cutting off his head while he slept. The girl turned on him in a rage and ran herself through with a sword rather than going with him. Shedding a crocodile tear or two, Hammad then ransacked the tent for valuables and left without burying either corpse.

Hearing this story, Nuzhat al-Zaman gets EVEN ANGRIER. In night 145, she cuts open his throat. When asked why she was in such a hurry to kill him, she replies, “Praise be to God, Who has permitted me to live until I could avenge myself with my own hand.” Then she has the body thrown to the dogs. Moral of the story: do not mess with Queen Nuzhat al-Zaman, you will lose.

And we are not even done. The next robber leader is Ghadban, who tried to rape Abriza and then murdered her. The confession is barely out of his mouth before Rumzan has severed his head, echoing Nuzhat al-Zaman’s vengeful cry. The last man is also known to them; he was the camel driver who dumped Dau’ al-Makan in a rubbish heap when he was a sick young man, and he only survived because the furnace man (now ruler of Damascus) took pity on him. Kana-ma-Kana takes vengeance on his father’s behalf, beheading him too. With the heat of retribution hot in his blood, Rumzan writes a deceptive letter to his great-grandmother, telling her he has conquered her enemy’s lands – well, not entirely untrue, that – and asks her to come to him with Queen Sophia (Nuzhat al-Zaman’s mum), Afridun (Sophia’s father) and any other Christian leaders she has to hand.

What happens next is hideous – Rumzan and his allies capture the entire party, Dhat al-Dawahi is publically humiliated and then crucified, and everyone else is so terrified of meeting the same fate they convert to Islam. The royal family have everything written down for posterity and live on as happily as anyone that homicidal can.

At which we return to Sharazad and her own homicidal husband Shahriyar. “I want you to tell me a story about birds,” he informs her. Sharazad’s sister remarks, “In all this time, it is only tonight that I have seen the king looking happy, and I hope that your affair with him will turn out well.” Then Shahriyar sleeps.

On that relatively optimistic note, I conclude the project. I will post a proper wrap-up tomorrow, talking about the experience as a whole, but right now as I’m writing this all I can say is I am tired. If you’ve just waded through this incredibly long post, you probably are too. Thank you for reading.

The Sharazad Project: Week 47

Trigger warning: references to incest

Last week was a welcome break from Dau’ al-Makan’s holy war, with the vizier Dandan telling a story about a variety of weird people falling in lust and very occasionally, love. That’s now over and we are back to the fighting. Four years of it. After so long a siege even Dau’ al-Makan is getting tired. Dandan advises that they go home, revitalise and come back for another go later on. What with his son Kana-ma-Kana and niece Qudiya-fa-Kana both growing up without him, Dau’ al-Makan agrees. To everyone’s delight – INCLUDING MINE – they finally abandon Constantinople and head for Baghdad. I thought I was going to have to recap another slaughter. Someone gave up! They actually gave up! It’s a miracle!

Kana-ma-Kana is now seven years old and has never met his father. Upon his return to Baghdad, Dau’ al-Makan sees him first then calls on his old friend the furnace man, to whom nothing has ever been explained. He doesn’t even recognise Dau’ al-Makan at first, and when he does, can’t imagine how he became king. Pressed to ask for some favour, the furnace man asks at first to be put in charge of the other furnace men in Jerusalem. This inspires much amusement. Upon discovering he can ask for something rather fancier, he goes for the vacated post of sultan of Damascus. He’s even given a name for the first time – al-Ziblkan al-Malk al-Muhjahid. The citizens welcome him, the officials greet him and he prepares to send Qudiya-fa-Kana to her family in Baghdad.

She is eight and has never met her uncle. For the love of her dead father, Dau’ al-Makan showers her in gifts. She lives with Kana-ma-Kana, the two of them growing up well-educated and brave. Apparently. Qudiya-fa-Kana is the careful one, while Kana-ma-Kana is the reckless one. They both like riding out into the country to practice swordplay. That is not a euphemism.

While the kids grow up, Dau al’Makan is planning his second holy war. Because the last one worked out so well. He plans to appoint his young son as king, an idea Dandan gently points out is really bad. For one thing, Kana-ma-Kana is a child. For another, handing over power to someone else, even his own son, pretty guarantees that Dau’ al-Makan won’t ever get it back. Dau al’Makan explains that he means to place Kana-ma-Kana under the care of his brother-in-law, the royal chamberlain. Recognising that his king is resolute, Dandan gives up.

The handover is duly made and the young cousins are betrothed at the same time. Nuzhat al-Zaman, Dau’ al-Makan’s twin, promises to take care of both. It turns out that Dau’ al-Makan is actually sick, a disease that has plagued him for four years. Commissioning his son with destroying Dhat al-Dawahi if he possibly can, Dau’ al-Makan takes to his bed while the chamberlain runs the country.

Kana-ma-Kana and Qudiya-fa-Kana are definitely preparing for war. They spend all day together practicing their skills with a lance and bow. Confident of his son’s future greatness, Dau’ al-Makan passes away.

People get over it pretty fast. He wasn’t in Baghdad much anyway. The royal chamberlain rules; Kana-ma-Kana is pushed aside, unable to take the throne, and falls into poverty. His mother goes to plead her case with Nuzhat al-Zaman, who is shocked to learn of their financial distress – she assures them of a welcome in her home, a sentiment seconded by her husband.

In night 138, we see Kana-ma-Kana and Qudiya-fa-Kana at the age of fifteen: beautiful, accomplished and very awkward. Well, Kana-ma-Kana is anyway. Trying to make his express his crush, he succeeds in offending Qudiya-fa-Kana, who goes to complain about his bad poetry to her mother. Despite the rejection, word spreads of Kana-ma-Kana’s love. In night 139 the chamberlain – now known as al-Malik Sasan – hears of it and decides it’s no longer appropriate for Kana-ma-Kana to visit his cousin. Nuzhat al-Zaman reluctantly passes the message on.

Kana-ma-Kana is upset. His mother is not sympathetic, telling him he should have just kept his mouth shut. All things they have now depend on the new king’s kindness; there appears to be no chance that Kana-ma-Kana will ever take the throne. After some dramatic sad poetry, he insists he and his mother go and be beggars rather than live on his aunt’s charity. Most beggars can’t acquire their meals from the palace, but it still really sucks for his mother. She is stopped on one trip to the palace when Qudiya-fa-Kana asks after Kana-ma-Kana. The princess is shocked to hear of her cousin’s misery; she loves him too, just knows he doesn’t think things through and brings down trouble on himself as a result. She gives Kana-ma-Kana’s mother a reassuring couplet to take back to her son. It sort of helps but also sort of doesn’t because they still can’t meet.

By the time Kana-ma-Kana turns seventeen, he is sick to death of waiting around. He leaves Baghdad barefoot with only a stale loaf of bread for provisions. He doesn’t even offer his mother the courtesy of telling her he’s leaving – she waits for him, and when he doesn’t return, grieves loudly. “My darling son, you have brought down sorrows on me, although I had enough of these before you left home.” Tell it, lady. Her distress draws attention and people start muttering about how Dau’ al-Makan was actually a pretty good king, something like this wouldn’t have happened in his day.

In night 140, King Sasan hears the story from his leading emirs, who remind him Kana-ma-Kana is of royal blood. Sasan is so angry he has them all hanged. Amazingly, this does not have a positive effect on his reputation. Getting over his homicidal snit, Sasan remembers that Dau’ al-Makan was a good friend to him and decides to look for the missing prince. He sends someone called Tarkash to look with a hundred riders but after ten days searching there is no sign of the boy.

So what has befallen Kana-ma-Kana? He had no idea where he was going so just wandered the desert feeling sorry for himself, living off what he could forage, until he came at length to a beautiful green plain. Having fallen asleep on the grass, Kana-ma-Kana wakes in the middle of the night to a man’s voice reciting love poetry remarkably akin to his own. He gets up to look for the reciter, sure they’ll be good friends. When he can’t find the man, he calls out an invitation and is mistaken for a jinni. After much crying and reciting of poetry the sun rises and the two men see each other.

The reciter is a ragged young Bedouin man called Sabbah ibn Rammah ibn Hammam who thinks Kana-ma-Kana won’t make a good friend so much as a good servant. When Kana-ma-Kana gently prods him for an explanation for his vocal woe, he says that he’s in love with his cousin Najma but as a penniless member of his clan, Najma’s father sees him as an unworthy suitor. In order to win her Sabbah must return with a massive dowry of horses, camels and slaves. His only hope of amassing so much wealth is to stalk the merchants of Baghdad and rob them.

Obviously Kana-ma-Kana disapproves of this plan. He tells Sabbah of his own hopeless love for a king’s daughter and Sabbah snorts at the very idea, since all he sees is a young man even more ragged than himself. Kana-ma-Kana indignantly defends his lineage. Sabbah rejoices, because now he has a fantastic hostage. The prince’s protests that his family won’t pay a coin for him and really friendship is better than abduction fall on deaf ears. Seeing that Sabbah is determined to take him for ransom, Kana-ma-Kana neatly goads him into throwing aside his weapons for a wrestling contest to prove his worth. Sabbah laughs. He’ll regret that. There are a lot of things Kana-ma-Kana can’t do, but fighting is in his bones.

Before long, he has an unshakeable grip on his opponent and is preparing to throw him into the river. Sabbah appeals to him for clemency, which he gets, then retrieves his weapons and contemplates a second attack, this time fully armed. From the way this scene is written, I think some anti-Bedouin sentiment has gone into constructing his character. Certainly he’s being painted as fairly treacherous. Kana-ma-Kana sees his resentment and offers another bout – Sabbah armed with the sword, Kana-ma-Kana with just the shield. Deflecting each blow until his opponent tires, the prince seizes his first opportunity to overpower and bind Sabbah and drag him back to the river.

Once again Sabbah convinces him to change his mind. They agree to become friends instead. After lunch and a chat, Sabbah heads for Baghdad and Kana-ma-Kana stays on the green plain. He is praying for a chance at a better life when up rides a badly wounded horseman who promises to end his poverty if he will only give him some water. Kana-ma-Kana obliges and asks after the source of the injury. The rider admits he is a horse thief of some renown. His name is Ghassan and the beautiful horse he rides is Qatul, a treasure of Emperor Afridun. While he was  awaiting his chance to steal the horse, Ghassan saw Dhat al-Dawahi ride out with it and ten slaves to head for Baghdad, where she meant to make peace with King Sasan. The slaves were very competent and Ghassan was beginning to give up on his theft when a gang of much nastier robbers led by the warrior Kahardash swept up.

In night 141 the warrior tied up everyone and took the horse, but Dhat al-Dawahi soon talked Kahardash into freeing her and all the slaves, and Ghassan took his opportunity to steal the incomparable horse. It’s an amazing mount in battle, as was proven when the robbers pursued, but Ghassan had precious little time to enjoy his success – badly wounded in the escape, he’s now on the point of death. Kana-ma-Kana introduces himself and Ghassan offers the horse in exchange for help returning him to his own land. Kana-ma-Kana assures him he needs no reward for such a service, but it’s too late anyway. Ghassan dies. The prince buries him on the plain and goes to admire the horse. “No one is lucky enough to have a stallion like this,” he observes and adds, perhaps a little smugly, “not even King Sasan.”

King Sasan is not having much luck at all right now, as it happens. Dandan has rustled up a rebellion with half the royal army on his side, swearing they’ll have no king but Kana-ma-Kana. The vizier goes one further, swearing he won’t sheath his sword until Dau’ al-Makan’s boy is on the throne. For an elderly man, he’s got a lot of tenacity. Talking up reinforcements as he goes, he marches on Baghdad.

I would like to state for the record that I never did trust the chamberlain – not in the general  ‘these people are jerks’ way I’ve felt about most of the characters in this story but a specific ‘he’s hella ambitious and probably a usurper’ kind of a way, so. Ha. I’m getting what satisfaction I can at this point.

As it turns out, this will be the penultimate post of the Sharazad Project! Join me next Tuesday as I conclude the saga of two wildly dysfunctional royal families.

The Sharazad Project: Week 46

Trigger warning: contains torture and mutilation

Last week was a segue within a segue within a segue – the vizier Dandan was telling a story about a prince, who was hearing a story about a merchant – the merchant being ‘Aziz, chronically incapable of keeping it in his pants, now married to his kidnapper and father of her son but visiting his ex-girlfriend Gazelle Girl on his one day out of the house. He hasn’t even gone to check in with his mother. After a year’s unexplained absence.

Gazelle Girl gives every appearance of having missed him, her pallour and mournful look sparking a tiny bit of shame in ‘Aziz, which is frankly a miracle. Her high expectations for lovers also apply to herself, denying her sleep and peace of mind (or at least she denies having had them). ‘Aziz tells her what happened to him and Gazelle Girl seethes. Thwarted by Abduction Girl, she calls on ‘Aziza’s memory again. “She died because of the treatment to which you subjected her, and it is she who protected you from me,” she reminds ‘Aziz. “I thought you loved me and I let you go on your way, although I could have seen to it that you didn’t leave unscathed, or I could have kept you as a prisoner or killed you.” Wow. That’s very…honest? And terrifying. In a bad way. She bursts into angry tears and ‘Aziz realises maybe this visit was a bad idea.

Gazelle Girl summons her slave girls, who quickly pin ‘Aziz to the ground. Then she takes out a knife and starts sharpening it, telling ‘Aziz that a quick death is the least he deserves for the way he has treated her, and ‘Aziza before her. In night 126, she commences the punishment with a severe beating – inflicted by her slave girls while she watches – but just as she leans forward to conclude matters with her knife, ‘Aziz remembers his cousin’s final speech and cries out, “My lady, don’t you know that loyalty is good and treachery is evil?”

Murder is apparently A-OK with Gazelle Girl but crossing the words of Saint ‘Aziza simply cannot be done. She agrees to let her captive live. “But I cannot let you go like this,” she says. “I must leave a mark on you in order to hurt that shameless whore who has kept you away from me.” Ordering her lackeys to tie ‘Aziz up, she cuts off his penis, cauterises the wound and literally kicks him out. The injured man staggers home to his wife, who discovers his condition and likewise has no further use for him. It’s a whirlwind of awful.

Abandoned, ‘Aziz goes home. His mother is overjoyed to see him alive but has to explain that in his time away, his father died. Sobbing desperately, ‘Aziz passes out. As his mother tends him, he tells her everything that has befallen him since that meeting under Gazelle Girl’s window and grieves the loss of his kind-hearted cousin. Grateful just to have her son back, if not quite in one piece then at least with his throat intact, and seeing he genuinely misses his cousin, ‘Aziz’s mother fetches out what ‘Aziza left for him on her deathbed. It is Gazelle Girl’s kerchief with new embroidery from ‘Aziza, spelling out verses on the tragedy of unrequited love. Within the folds there is also a note, absolving him of blame in her death but asking that he keep the kerchief as a reminder of ‘Aziza’s help and to under no circumstances to hook up with its maker. The woman who embroidered the cloth is not Gazelle Girl’s sister at all, as it turns out, she’s the daughter of a king and sends out a sample of her work every year to the world at large.

According to the note, ‘Aziz should avoid her if he can. In fact, ‘Aziza felt he should avoid women altogether. He sinks into a state of tearful contemplation for a year, at the end of which time his mother advises he go travelling with other merchants and maybe start recovering from the bizarre and traumatising events that led him back home.

On the way, he passed the Islands of Camphor and the Crystal Castle. Why is this location significant? ‘Aziza told him that’s where the embroidering princess lives, that’s why. The ruler of the seven islands is Shahriman and his daughter is Dunya. Just the proximity was enough to reduce ‘Aziz to floods of tears.

Thus concludes his tale. What his listener, Prince Taj al-Muluk, got out of all that was: wow, Princess Dunya sounds hot.

In night 129, he convinces himself he’s in love with her. “By God, nothing like this adventure of yours has happened to anyone before,” he tells ‘Aziz, “but you have to live out your own fate…Tell me how you came to see the girl who embroidered this gazelle.” ‘Aziz bribed a gardener into letting him spy on the princess during her regular walk in the orchard, allowing him to see she was indeed exceptionally beautiful. Knowing he didn’t have a chance with her was what really induced ‘Aziz’s misery. The man needs so much counseling.

Anyway, Taj al-Muluk has no such qualms about his worth. He takes the merchant home and tells his father he is totally in love with Princess Dunya. His father points out the distance between kingdoms is a fairly significant obstacle and suggests he looks elsewhere. Like picking one of his mother’s slave girls, because they can’t actually say no. UGH. “I must have her,” Taj al-Muluk insists stubbornly, “or else I shall wander off into the wastes and wildernesses and kill myself because of her.”

Familiar with his son’s drama, the king sees there’s no talking him out of this sudden infatuation and agrees to send an envoy. If that fails, he assures his darling little prince that they’ll just conquer the islands and get the girl anyway. The vizier is sent off with ‘Aziz as a guide and appropriate gifts for Dunya’s father. Shahriman is rather less easy to impress than Taj al-Muluk’s grandfather. He makes the envoy wait three days before meeting with them. Princess Dunya, you see, has said before that she doesn’t want to marry. Summoning his daughter, he gets a pretty obvious confirmation when she attacks the messenger with a stick. “If my father forces me to marry,” she declares, “then I shall kill my husband.” Shahriman kind of shrugs and tells the envoy it’s a hopeless cause.

In night 131, Taj al-Muluk’s dad duly prepares for war. The vizier tells him to cool down for a minute, the refusal came from the princess herself and if forced to marry she’ll probably kill herself, which will do no good to anyone at all. Taj al-Muluk is not dissuaded, however. He decides to disguise himself and win her over somehow in person. His father, who can refuse him nothing, hands over a generous travel allowance. His mother gives him some more money and her blessing. Off he goes with the long-suffering vizier and his new bestie ‘Aziz, who recites poetry to distract him from romantic woe. Over two months of travel later, they enter Shahriman’s city disguised as traders. Renting a large house, Taj al-Muluk then waits for his friends to come up with a plan. They go with the vizier’s idea: sell silk, look pretty, hope someone important will eventually notice them.

The other merchants all flutter and stare when the three men arrive in the marketplace. Acting as a guardian towards the prince and his friend, the vizier explains to the superintendent of the market that he plans to stay a full year and allow his young charges to explore. We then get our second canonical gay character with the superintendent described as ‘being someone who was passionately fond of murderous glances and who preferred the love of boys to that of girls’. I’ve no idea what that first bit means, possibly it is a kink? He grants the vizier an excellent booth for displaying the silks and the disguised courtiers move in.

As night 132 begins, the younger men go to the baths and come out to find the superintendent waiting for them. He stares fixedly at their backsides. They insist he bathe too and proceed to wash him. Even the vizier’s presence can’t tamp his enjoyment; he enthuses on the general awesomeness of baths.

That’s it. That’s his part in the story over and done. At least he had fun!

The good looks of both young men soon draw the attention of the townsfolk too. Leaving the boys to sell silk and charm the populace, the vizier goes home to plan Taj al-Muluk’s romantic campaign. Someone has to, since the prince is incapable of thinking of anything other than meeting Dunya.

In night 133 an elderly lady stops at the shop with her two slave girls to ogle him and upon being offered a seat, enquires after his most beautiful goods. Ignoring any possible double entendre, Taj al-Muluk tells her his finest wares will suit only royalty and is ecstatic to hear the old lady intends the silk to go to Dunya. She selects something and openly touches herself throughout the bargaining, returning to the princess in a daze. Upon hearing Dunya’s admiration for the cloth, she raves about Taj al-Muluk’s beauty and thinks he’d make a hot match for her mistress. Dunya is amused by her enthusiasm, but really does like the silk. She sends the old lady back to the booth to see if there’s anything Taj al-Muluk wants.

Well, we know the answer to that. He sends a love letter and pays the old woman for her trouble. “What are things coming to when this trader sends me messages and writes to me?” Dunya cries, and thinks about executing him. The old lady points out she’s about as inaccessible as it is possible to be so what does it matter if this merchant fancies her? Sufficient threats should make him back off. “Deluded man, do you seek union with the moon?” Dunya writes back. “Has anyone got what he wanted from the moon?”

Taj al-Muluk sobs upon receiving her very sharp response. The old lady takes pity on him and agrees to help him win over the princess, delivering a sorrowful second note. Dunya is unmoved. By now passionately shipping the two young royals, the old lady hides a third note in her hair so that it will fall out ‘by accident’, only Dunya is not fooled at all. The old lady was her nurse; she is fond of her, but angry at the trick. She knows her reputation could be damaged by even this one-sided love and grows increasingly furious with Taj al-Muluk for ignoring her orders. “How many verses must I write to hold you back?” she demands, in her note of reply.

Realising AT LAST that the princess is really really not interested, Taj al-Muluk asks the vizier for advice and is told to call down a curse on Dunya. The next note is written by ‘Aziz and much more accusatory. When it is delivered, Dunya has her former nurse beaten and thrown out of the palace. Later the old lady tells Taj al-Muluk what happened, and also why Dunya hates men so much. The princess dreamed once of a hunter catching birds, among them a male and female pigeon; when the male pigeon was caught the female came back to free him but when the pair were netted again shortly afterwards the female was caught and the male abandoned her. Dunya decided this was a sign that all male creatures are faithless. However, despite being sacked, the old lady is more on board the romance train than ever and agrees to give Taj al-Muluk his first look at this girl he’s sure he loves.

Now that he has an opportunity to see Dunya, the prince loses all interest in being a fake merchant and gives over his goods to ‘Aziz. The two young men and the vizier go to the royal gardens, where they have a picnic while scoping out the land. Noticing a dilapidated pavilion, the vizier bribes the gardener into…letting him renovate it. Including murals from the dream about the pigeons, and an image not from the dream, of the male pigeon in a hawk’s claws. Afterwards they go home where ‘Aziz and the vizier calm down their prince with poetry.

As for Dunya, she’s accustomed to taking her walk with the old lady and so makes peace with her. Alerting Taj al-Muluk, the old lady goes to her. The prince puts on his best robes and hides in the garden, while the old lady convinces Dunya to send away her guards. The princess walks around the garden, unaware that she is being watched. Coming to the pavilion, she is struck by the pictures – it seems the male pigeon was killed before he could save his mate, so maybe men are not evil after all? At this moment of doubt Taj al-Muluk follows the old lady’s signal and walks under the pavilion windows, being ridiculously attractive. Dunya’s attention is caught. Pleased, the old lady gestures for Taj al-Muluk to go home and allow the idea to settle in Dunya’s mind.

It does more than settle. Dunya is determined to meet him and pays the old lady to arrange it. Which she does, dressing him up as a slave girl so as to avoid detection. The chief eunuch is puzzled by the arrival and wants to search ‘her’, as per his orders, but in night 135 the old lady threatens him with the princess’s displeasure and sends Taj al-Muluk off on his own. Upon entering Dunya’s chamber, the two halves of this very strange couple fly into each other’s arms. With the old lady as their lookout, they spend an enthusiastic night together.

For a month they manage to carry on a secret affair. Not once does Taj al-Muluk send a message to his friends, leading them to believe him in grave peril. ‘Aziz and the vizier go back to the prince’s kingdom and tell his father that Taj al-Muluk has vanished into the palace. Immediately, Sulaiman Shah orders his army to set off for the islands.

Six months into their affair, Taj al-Muluk finally tells Dunya who he really is. He wants to ask her father for her hand again; she agrees at once. Unfortunately this is the day they sleep late and the king’s chief eunuch, sent to Dunya with a present, catches them in bed together. He immediately tells the king, who is furious. When his daughter tries to defend her lover, he has her taken back to her room, but Taj al-Muluk announces his identity proudly and assures Shahriman that he will really regret it if he kills him. The king hesitates. His vizier, however, advocates a quick death and Shahriman orders his reluctant executioner to take off the young man’s head.

After one of Sharazad’s best cliffhangers, the story continues in night 136. Just as the executioner is about to swing, screams are heard from outside as the cavalry arrives! Literally, Taj al-Muluk’s father has thousands of horsemen thundering to the rescue. Messengers from Sulaiman Shah demand news of the prince. If he’s safe, so is Shahriman’s kingdom; if he’s been harmed, ‘be assured of the ruin and the devastation of your country, for [the king] will make it a wilderness in which the ravens croak’. Lucky the executioner was so slow! Sulaiman Shah’s vizier recognises Taj al-Muluk, who leaps up to embrace him. The prince assures a very alarmed Shahriman that he bears him no ill will while Dunya is safe and well.

Which isn’t much of a guarantee because she’s acquired a sword from somewhere and is preparing to run herself through. Her father intercepts her, assures her that her boyfriend is very much alive and hey, they can get married any time! Dunya tells him he deserves to die – Shahriman, that is, not the boyfriend – but as it is, she wants to see Taj al-Muluk more than she wants to fight. The lovers fling themselves at each other. Her father leaves them to it. He has a fellow king to appease, an enemy army to calm and a wedding to arrange.

Fortunately, now that he’s not about to kill his son, he gets on very well with Sulaiman Shah. Taj al-Muluk soon reunites with his anxious father, and sends ‘Aziz to his own home with all the riches he could desire. It’s about time. His mother has built a tomb, assuming him dead. She faints at the sight of him but quickly recovers and is delighted to discover their financial future is now one hundred percent assured.

Back in the isles, Dunya marries Taj al-Muluk and packs up her stuff for the trip to his kingdom. Probably for the best, given the breakdown in relations with her father. They arrive in Sulaiman Shah’s city to a joyful reception and a second wedding. Therein they live happily ever after.

Having concluded his tale, the vizier Dandan is praised by his listening king Dau’ al-Makan. And they get back to besieging Constantinople.

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.

The Sharazad Project: Week 44

Night ninety six opens with a recap: the chamberlain is leading an army towards Constantinople while Dau’ al-Makan, Sharkan and their vizier Dandan take a hundred riders and secretly slip off to plunder a monastery. Little do they know that their guide is Dhat al-Dawahi, self-declared ‘mistress of mischief’, and that her plan is to destroy them. The hundred Syrian Christians she disguised as merchants have been granted permission to leave and go to take their next part in her scheme.

Once the royals arrive at the mountain where the monastery is situated, Dhat al-Dawahi sends a note to Emperor Afridun by messenger pigeon, asking for ten thousand horsemen to sneak up to the mountain. There are two big problems with this request – a) most of the emperor’s army got slaughtered recently, and b) how do TEN THOUSAND men and horses sneak anywhere? But Afridun knows she’s the best strategist he’s got and duly sends out the troops. Reaching the monastery, they hide and wait. When the royals and the vizier reach the same place, the only person they see is a monk called Matruhina, whom Dhat al-Dawahi commands they kill. They cut him down on the spot.

The narrative really hates Dhat al-Dawahi, it keeps calling her ‘damned’, it just makes me determined to appreciate her more. I mean, she’s not a nice person, but she’s a hell of a lot more interesting than anyone else left alive in this story.

Her account of the monastery’s treasure was accurate; prince and king load up the lot and wait for the promised beauty Tamathil to appear, but word of the recent battle has spread and she is not stupid. When she has not shown up after three days, Sharkan gets antsy about his army and Dau’ al-Makan agrees it is time to leave. As they descend the mountain, however, they are ambushed by Afridun’s troops. Trapped as they are in a ravine, they cannot fight their way out. Dandan has been here before, on a long ago campaign with King ‘Umar – he tells them to keep moving lest the soldiers toss rocks down on them. Dhat al-Dawahi makes her derision known. “Why are you afraid? You have sold your lives for the sake of God Almighty on His path. By God, I stayed as a prisoner underground for fifteen years and never protested to God about what He had done to me.” And so on.

Dau’ al-Makan and Sharkan take her words to heart. They hold their ground as the soldiers close in and Sharkan, in particular, is so formidable a warrior that nothing they try can stop him. Not everyone is so lucky – by the end of the day the royals have lost almost half the men who came with them, and are looking around in concern for their ‘ascetic’ when Dhat al-Dawahi returns bearing the head of their enemies’ commander. He was actually killed by an arrow before she got to him, but they don’t know that. As night ninety seven begins, Dhat al-Dawahi waxes lyrical about her battle frenzy. She tells them to wait while she checks out the way ahead, then Dau’ al-Makan and Dandan will follow her out of the ravine and bring back reinforcements from the main army.

Of course, what she actually does is alert her allies to the forthcoming opportunity and lead Dau’ al-Makan and Dandan straight into the enemy camp. What’s more, the imperial troops pretend they cannot see Dhat al-Dawahi, leading her two companions to believe they are being punished by God.

In night ninety eight, the prisoners are bound and set under guard. The next day, when Sharkan arises in preparation for another day’s fighting, the imperial forces warn him of their hostages and tell him to surrender – which, after tears and internal wrestling, he decides not to do. He leads his men into battle with his usual fervour, but the numbers are badly against them. Their only hope now lies in defending from the mouth of a cave while awaiting those reinforcements. Who are never coming.

Come night ninety nine, Sharkan has only twenty five men left and is still refusing to surrender. His enemies respond by blocking up the cave entrance with wood and setting it on fire. At that, Sharkan finally gives in. There is some debate over whether or not they should be killed, but the leader of the imperial forces thinks that decision should be left to Afridun, so the prisoners are bound while the soldiers celebrate. The narrative, however, ADORES Sharkan. He’s tied up? Pfft. He goes all Incredible Hulk, bursts free of the bonds and steals the keys so he can free everyone else. His next idea is that they kill a few guards and take their clothes as a disguise, but Dau’ al-Makan is afraid the noise would draw attention and so they just steal a pile of weapons and twenty five horses on their way out. That wouldn’t be noisy at all!

Climbing up the mountain, Sharkan orders the remaining royal forces to scream out war cries as if they are the army come as reinforcements. Dau’ al-Makan doesn’t like this idea either. It will give the imperial troops a chance to come after them. But Sharkan gets his way and as the hundredth night begins it all works out as Sharkan planned, with the bewildered soldiers below fighting amongst themselves. But Dau’ al-Makan is also right, because when dawn comes and they sort themselves out, the imperial soldiers are soon hot on the royal heels. Just as they turn for a last-ditch battle, the real royal reinforcements appear in the distance. With the tables turned, the imperial forces are slaughtered, the royals are reunited with part of their army, and they hear the source of their good luck – facing a siege at Constantinople, the chamberlain wanted his best fighters back before battle commenced and sent a large search party to the monastery.

In the meantime, however, Dhat al-Dawahi has ridden hard for the nearest part of the army to deliver news of a defeat that did not actually happen. The army rides away only to come face to face with their not so dead king and prince. Well, to quote: ‘the sweet scent of Dau’ al-Makan and his brother Sharkan spread over them and both groups recognised each other’. So apparently they even smell really royal. Revitalised, they march afresh on Constantinople. Where Dhat al-Dawahi is already spreading misinformation, as we find out in night 101. They send off a large part of their forces as reinforcements for a battle that’s now long over. When he sees the approaching horses, Sharkan assures Dau’ al-Makan he’ll be protected from whatever danger lies ahead, but of course that’s not necessary. The royals hear of the ascetic’s ‘miraculously’ swift travel and press on.

When they reach the besieged city of Constantinople, it is to find the camp of their army on fire. The ‘ascetic’ appears through the smoke, urging the new forces to avenge their dead companions. Dandan disapproves. “By God,” he remarks, “my hear recoils from this ascetic for I have never known anything but evil to come from an excess of religious zealotry.” LISTEN TO YOURSELF, MAN. YOU ARE FIGHTING A HOLY WAR. WHERE IS THERE NOT ZEALOTRY IN THIS. Sharkan defends her and insists she come with them the rest of the way. Outside Constantinople, the chamberlain lives but is about to flee.

In night 102, we find out just how busy Dhat al-Dawahi has been – separating the Muslim army, sending battle plans to her son and ally. King Hardub is immensely proud of his mother’s cunning; Afridun is her biggest fan. They immediately send out their soldiers. Prayers fill the air from both sides; the narrative reminds us it is 100% Team Muslim. Just as the chamberlain’s forces look routed, Sharkan arrives at full charge. The imperial forces panic and have to be reined in by their united monarchs. As Sharkan prepares for battle, a rider comes out from the opposite ranks to propose single combat. Sharkan will represent the Muslims – Afridun will represent the Christians. By this point, I could not be less interested. It’s just carnage, totally pointless.

Warned by Dhat al-Dawahi, Afridun knows he’s up against a great warrior, but he’s a strong man and an experienced soldier so looks forward to the duel with confidence. The two men deck themselves out in fancy armour, exchange pompous remarks and go at it. Afridun, who has learned a few tricks from Dhat al-Dawahi, causes Sharkan to glance behind him and injures him with a well-aimed javelin; Dau’ al-Makan has his brother brought back to safety and, because single combat was meaningless anyway, the armies go back to hacking at each other.

In night 103, Afridun plans his next move while Dau’ al-Makan and the ‘ascetic’ pray over the injured Sharkan. He wakes in the morning and the brothers are entirely happy to lay that recovery at Dhat al-Dawahi’s feet. Dau’ al-Makan rides out in Sharkan’s place to fight and King Hardub takes on the mantle of his challenger. The latter’s horse gets admiring poetry. Hardub isn’t so lucky – Dau’ al-Makan beheads him and battle recommences. The imperial army is eventually forced to retreat behind the city walls while Dau’ al-Makan goes to check on his brother and share an account of their victories. In night 104, Dhat al-Dawahi sits by and hears of her son’s death from the man who killed him. She cannot hold back her tears, but pretends to be weeping in joy as she plots vengeance.

Sharkan recovers his strength quickly. The brothers part in good spirits that night, each to his own pavilion – upon which Dhat al-Dawahi takes out a poisoned dagger, cuts Sharkan’s throat while he sleeps and kills all his servants for good measure. She then goes to Dau’ al-Makan’s tent, but his guards are still awake so she turns to Dandan. He’s also awake, and suspicious. He decides to follow her when she leaves, only to be immediately noticed and shamed into returning to his tent. Unable to sleep, he goes to see Sharkan – and of course finds a pavilion of corpses.

Dau’ al-Makan is wild with grief when he hears the news and realises very quickly who the murderer must have been. “From the beginning my heart recoiled from [the ascetic],” Dandan declares, “as I know that all religious fanatics are evil, scheming men.” He does know that this is a religious war, right? Because that fact has been jammed down my throat for weeks now, what with all the shouting of ‘infidel’. Sharkan is buried; his loyal soldiers weep for him.

Some time ago, back around Week 33, I was so depressed by the way the female characters of these stories had been treated that I was thinking about ending this project. Nothing I’ve read since has changed my mind; once this story has been concluded, the whole project will be at an end. It makes me sad to give up on it, and I’m sorry if anyone who has been reading along is disappointed. If there was not so consistent a pattern of misogyny, I wouldn’t be taking this step, but every time a female character is introduced I have to brace myself and it doesn’t feel worth it any more. Now that the story has been bogged down with a relentless campaign of bigotry and violence, I am less enthusiastic than ever. As I intend to wrap up this cycle by the end of the year, be warned: some upcoming posts may be pretty lengthy!

The Sharazad Project: Week 43

Trigger warning: references to rape and homophobia

Last week Dau’ al-Makan, his brother Sharkan and their brother-in-law who still doesn’t have a name beyond ‘the chamberlain’ all rode off with their enormous army to fight a holy war against the king of Rum, whose mother killed King ‘Umar, because ‘Umar raped Abriza and the family blamed him for her murder too. ‘Umar’s sons are aware of the allegation but have totally ignored it in favour of VENGEANCE.

We return to night eighty eight, as Dau’ al-Makan’s army crosses the border and the local townsfolk flee to Constantinople for protection. Dhat al-Dawahi tells her son to get his act together – she’s done her part by killing ‘Umar and taking back the princess Sophia, now it’s time for the fathers of both wronged girls to destroy ‘Umar’s successor. Emperor Afridun is totally on board with her plan and happy to contribute his armed forces. I love how Dhat al-Dawahi manages to be an international diplomat, ruthless assassin and bossy mum all at once. For all their familial arguments, I think Abriza would have liked it too.

The imperial army is camped on the coast when they hear of Dau’ al-Makan’s approach. Within days both forces are facing each other, and Dandan is the first to ride forth with thirty thousand riders around him. Little do they realise that Dhat al-Dawahi has drawn up the emperor’s battle plans, presumably based on her experiences in Baghdad. She sent out fifty thousand men to sea where they are to wait until Dau’ al-Makan’s army is in position. The secret assault will take the invaders by surprise and pin them between the emperor’s forces. “What an excellent plan this is of yours,” Afridun approves, “mistress of the cunning old women and refuge of the priests in time of discord!”

So as Dau’ al-Makan’s men advance, their camp is burned behind them. This is a holy war as well as a vengeance quest and the narrative will not let anyone forget it, with much shouting of ‘infidel!’ on both sides. It’s also obvious that the narrative sides with the Muslims. Sharkan leads the charge against this new front. With heavy losses on both sides, he wins the battle. The royal commanders spend the night pepping up their exhausted men and thanking the wounded. Afridun decides to send out his greatest knight, Luqa ibn Shamlut, to take on the warrior prince in combat. Consecrating his troops with the finest incense, the emperor prepares for a second day of warfare.

In night ninety, it becomes clear that the narrative really doesn’t like Luqa ibn Shamlut, despite his lyrical name. It condemns his looks even as it praises his skills, and describes him as ‘the blackness of night, the foul breath of the lion and the daring of the leopard’. He rides out to battle carrying a trident, towards hellfire apparently. When he calls out his challenge, Sharkan comes barrelling out armed with lance and poetry. He shows off his reflexes by catching Luqa’s javelin out of midair and throws it back at him, along with a second javelin that kills him instantly.

As night ninety one begins, so does the real battle as both armies plunge together. There are some fairly graphic descriptions of the casualties. When darkness falls, soldiers on both sides retreat from a field of corpses. Dau’ al-Makan seizes the chance to praise his big brother for taking down Luqa, but Sharkan is making plans of his own. He sends the chamberlain and Dandan around the coast to hide as the imperial forces did, in reserve. When Sharkan’s men fake defeat, that will be a signal for his allies to rejoin the fight. Duly following this strategy, they draw the emperor’s troops into pursuit. In fact, Afridun is so confident of victory that he sends word to the king of Rum.

Night ninety two proves him wrong. Backed up by their hidden forces, the main army turns back to face the imperial army and one particular warrior carves a path with bloody elegance, blades spinning and long hair whirling. There is poetry about his hair. ‘Long hair is of no use except when it streams out/ On both sides of the head on the day of battle,/ Belonging to a young hero with a straight lance/ That drinks the blood of the moustachioed enemy’. YES, REALLY.

Sharkan is very impressed when this warrior of the luscious locks reveals himself as Dau’ al-Makan. He’s actually worried for his brother, so maybe he’s not planning to grab the throne as soon as this is over after all. “King, you are risking your life,” he warns Dau’ al-Makan. “Keep your horse close to mine, for I don’t think you are safe from the enemy. It would be better if you did not ride out from our lines, so that we may shoot at the enemies with our arrows that fly true.” “I want to match you in battle,” the young king insists, “and I don’t grudge risking my life by fighting before you.”

He’s not risking it anyway, because Afridun’s army is pretty much routed. The survivors flee for their ships and are blocked by Dandan’s forces. Most of the soldiers are slaughtered; the wealth and supplies aboard are captured.

In Constantinople, the people are celebrating a falsely reported victory. Dhat al-Dawahi has had the city decorated to welcome home the troops. Amidst the festivities, the tattered remnants of the imperial army limp in with the terrible news. Afridun is so horrified that he faints away. When he comes to, he has a religious crisis and someone called the Patriarch, who am I going to assume is probably a priest, assures his emperor that enough prayers will drive the Muslim armies away.

“O king,” Dhat al-Dawahi says, “the Muslim armies are large and it is only by a ruse that we can deal with them. I intend to play a cunning trick and I shall go to them in the hope that I can succeed in what I plan to do to their leader and kill him, their champion, as I killed his father.” She intends to destroy them utterly. To complete this, she needs a hundred Syrian Christians. The emperor duly rustles them up, explains the situation to them and receives their consent to the plan. Dhat al-Dawahi then boils up a kettle of drugs and soaks a kerchief in the ominous mess. Next, she disguises herself so effectively that she comes before the court unrecognised. Having impressed everyone with her resourcefulness, she takes her Syrians and heads off to meet the invading army.

In night ninety three, the narrative reveals that actually it hates Dhat al-Dawahi, declaring her to be ‘a sorceress, skilled in magic and in lies, unchaste, wily, debauched and treacherous, with foul breath, red eyelids…her hair was grey; she was hunchbacked’. She is very well educated in a variety of religions, to better aid her tricks. That’s apparently bad. She’s also the first canonical lesbian – a passionate lesbian, what’s more – who spends a lot of time hanging out at her son’s palace because he has a harem of gorgeous slave girls and she enjoys sex.

What part of this is meant to make me dislike her?

Abriza’s maids Marjana, Raihana and Utrujja are familiar with the old lady’s sexuality. Their erstwhile mistress didn’t get along with her grandmother – but given Dhat al-Dawahi went on a lengthy undercover mission to avenge the dead princess, that seems pretty irrelevant at this point. Abriza had a baby son, incidentally, just before she died. He’s probably about four or five now? The story seems to have forgotten his existence.

Anyway, Afridun is so afraid of the triumphant Muslim army sweeping across his lands that he empties the countryside, bringing as many people as possible to shelter at Constantinople. His ally, King Hardub of Rum, has every confidence in his mother’s ability to stop the invaders. Her plan begins by dressing her men as Muslim merchants, accessorised with mules and bales of fabric. They have an imperial edict demanding they be left to trade in peace, to complete their ruse. As for herself, she wears white robes, smears an unguent on her face and ties her legs until ugly weals are left on her skin. Next she has the men beat her up and lock her in a chest.

They are horrified at the order, but she stands firm. According to their cover story, they were told by a picture to go to the the monastery of Matruhina, where a miracle worker was imprisoned. This anchorite had been imprisoned and tortured for fifteen years in an underground cell and it was a holy duty to rescue him. I’ll assume that the anchorite will be Dhat al-Dawahi herself. After all, she has to be brought before the Muslim army, where she will ‘destroy every last one of them’.

Meanwhile, the aforementioned army is celebrating with the spoils. Dau’ al-Makan is waxing lyrical about their excellent teamwork. He goes from Boy Scout good cheer to bloodthirsty evangelism, telling Sharkan he plans to ‘kill ten kings in revenge for my father, to slaughter fifty thousand Rumis and to enter Constantinople’. NO, Dau’ al-Makan, did no one ever tell you that genocide is a REALLY BAD THING? Sharkan is one hundred percent okay with it but does worry about his little girl, Qudiya-fa-Kana, left behind in Damascus. Dau’ al-Makan sympathises – he left behind a heavily pregnant wife and she may have given birth by now. “So make a pact with me,” he suggests, “that if it turns out to be a boy, you will allow me the hand of your daughter in marriage to my son, binding yourself to this with an oath.” Sharkan agrees. They congratulate each other on their victory and Dandan joins in now the conversation has moved back to war, advising the royal commanders to take their army deeper into enemy territory both on land and by sea. “‘If I am given life,'” he quotes, “‘I take war as a mother,/ The spears as brothers and the sword as a father.'” These three have the worst priorities.

They set off for Constantinople, crossing a long stretch of desert before coming upon a beautiful plain. So enchanted is Dau’ al-Makan that he orders a camp of three days, allowing his forces to rest in the unexpected paradise. At this point, his men come upon a caravan of Syrian ‘merchants’, whose goods they begin to steal as the spoils of war. The merchants call out for the king’s intercession and are granted an audience. They produce the imperial edict, admonishing Dau’ al-Makan for behaving with so much less honour than the Christian emperor. They then share their story about the anchorite, moving the royal brothers so much that both burst into tears. As night ninety five begins, the fake merchants conclude their tale by bringing out Dhat al-Dawahi’s chest and presenting her as the freed anchorite, chained and injured after the recent escape.

Dau’ al-Makan and Sharkan kiss her hands and feet in awe. She declares that she has been tested by God and wishes to join the holy war – she even refuses food, praying fervently for three days and nights. The royal brothers are both fired up and want to take up a life of asceticism, only they’ve got a war to fight, so on the morning they are to break camp they go to ensure she prays for their success, and to hear the story of her capture.

Thus follows a remarkable spiel of lies. She claims the ability to walk on water, a discovery which led her into a life of travel and spiritual exploration. Upon coming to these lands, she encountered a monk on a mountain-top and received a friendly welcome – but it was a trick, ending with her starving in a dark cell. After forty days of imprisonment, a patrician called Decianus (presumably Roman?) arrived at the monastery with his beautiful daughter Tamathil and a small entourage. In a really bizarre idea of entertainment, the monks went to bring out their prisoner’s body, only to find ‘him’ alive and well and worshiping. Cue fifteen years of torture, presided over by Decianus. In this way, the fictional anchorite watched Tamathil grow up. Intending to become a nun, she was dressed as a man to prevent the king stealing her away. Decianus also stored his wealth at the monastery.

“Tomorrow night, following her usual custom,” Dhat al-Dawhi continues, “Tamathil will go to the monastery and will be joined by her father and his servants, for he is afraid for her safety. If you want to see this for yourselves, take me with you and I will hand over to you that wealth, together with the treasures of Decianus which are on that mountain.” Including his daughter. EW.

Sharkan and Dau’ al-Makan are all enthusiasm. Dandan, experienced at manipulation, is less sure, but dares not speak against the new royal favourite. Dhat al-Dawahi suggests that the army move off a distance so as not to scare away Decianus and Dau’ al-Makan decides to take only a hundred riders to the mountain, along with plenty of mules to haul away the treasure. The chamberlain is given charge of the army in the absence of the usual commanders, and isn’t to inform anyone of the diversion. Join me next week as the rest of Dhat al-Dawahi’s plan unfolds, and this collection of very unpleasant people do more unpleasant things to each other until someone finally just gives up.

I think that might take a while, though.