The Arabian Nights is a story of stories. Not only is it a rich interwoven carpet of stories within stories within stories within stories, it is also a story about the power of stories, the power of fiction to save lives, to tame murderers and to change the world.
The most authentic English translation (by Husain Haddawy) begins, “It is related — but God knows and sees best what lies hidden in the old accounts of bygone people and times — that long ago, during the time of the Sasanid dynasty, in the peninsulas of India and Indochina, there lived two kings who were brothers” (5), reminding us from the very start that we are reading a story “related” by someone. Unlike the other stories in The Arabian Nights, we do not know who is telling us the frame story, the big tale that includes all other tales, instead we get the passive form “it is related,” followed by a warning that only God knows “what lies hidden in the old accounts,” in other words only Allah knows the truth of these fictions or even the secret meaning of them.
The older brother Shahrayar, “a towering knight and daring champion,” ruled in India and Indochina (Southeast Asia) and gave his brother Shahzaman the land of Samarakand (in south-eastern Uzbekistan) to rule. Ten years later, the older brother sent his vizier with a request that the younger visit him, a request the younger immediately agreed to, having the vizier camp outside the city as he began preparations. Ten days later, he appointed a chamberlain and left the city to spend the night in his tent.
At midnight he returned to the palace in the city, to bid his wife goodbye. “But when he returned to his palace in the city, he found his wife lying in the arms of one of the kitchen boys” (6). He realized that he was barely outside the city, he hadn’t even left yet and this was how she behaved. Mad with jealousy he slayed them both with his sword, then “he dragged them by the heels and threw them from the top of the palace to the trench below” (6).
When Shahzaman arrived at his brother’s palace, his elder brother could see that something was wrong, his younger brother was growing thin and sickly. Thinking his brother was homesick, he invited him to go hunting after which he promised to send his brother home.” The younger brother refused. While Shahrayar was away, his brother was looking morosely out of the palace window into the gardens below and saw his brother’s wife emerge with twenty slave girls, ten white and ten black. “Then they sat down, took off their clothes, and suddenly there were ten slave-girls and ten black slaves . . . . Then the ten black slaves mounted the ten girls, while the lady called, ‘Mas’ud, Mas’ud!’ and a black slave jumped from the tree to the ground, rushed to her, and, raising her legs, went between her thighs and made love to her” (7-8).
Shahzaman, seeing the great calamity and misfortune is relieved of his own care and sorrow and said to himself, “‘This is our common lot . . . . I am no longer alone in my misery. I am well'” (8). When Shahrayar returns he finds his younger brother fully recovered, joyous and healthy. He demands to know why. Shahzaman hesitates at first but at last gives in and tells his brother about his wife’s infidelity. His elder brother does not believe him, so they plan another hunting trip and return to the palace secretly. Alas, all is true.
They leave the palace to find another in greater misery than themselves and come across a demon with a woman locked up in a large glass chest with four steel locks, but as the demon sleeps she forces the two kings to have sex with her or she will scream and awake the demon. She says, “A hundred men have known me under the very horns of this filthy, monstrous cuckold” (13).
The kings were greatly amazed and danced with joy. The brothers return to their cities, vowing to never marry again. Shahrayar has the vizier kill his wife and he kills the slave girls and black slaves himself. “He then swore to marry for one night only and kill the woman the next morning, in order to save himself from the wickedness and cunning of woman, saying, ‘There is not a single chaste woman anywhere on the entire face of the earth”‘ (14). He kept his promise, “until all the girls perished, their mothers mourned, and there arose a clamor among the fathers and mothers, who called the plague upon his head, complained to the Creator of the heavens” (14).
Finally, it got so bad that the vizier’s daughter Shahrazad, “intelligent, knowledgeable, wise and refined” (15) demanded that her father offer her as a wife to the king, so that she could save the daughters of the land. The vizier calls her mad, but she is insistent, so he tells her a story of the Ox and the Donkey, to prove that meddling in others’ affairs often causes problems for you. This does not dissuade her, so he tells her another story of the Merchant and his Wife, which ends with the merchant severely beating his wife and warns Shahrazad that he will do the same to her, but it is just a story. When she is adamant, he does not beat her but offers her to the king. The king warns the vizier what will happen, but when the vizier insists, he is delighted.
When Shahrazad goes to bed with the king and he began to fondle her, she wept and asked to be allowed to say good-bye to her sister Dinarzad before daybreak. The king sent for the sister, who came and went to sleep under the bed (if she could sleep under the circumstances) and waited until the king satisfied himself, then Dinarzad cleared her throat and said, “‘Sister, if you are not sleepy, tell us one of your lovely little tales to while away the night, before I bid you good-bye at daybreak, for I don’t know what will happen to you tomorrow.’ Shahrazad turned to King Shahrayar and said, ‘May I have your permission to tell a story?’ He replied, ‘Yes,” and Shahrazad was very happy and said, ‘Listen.'”
She then began to tell the story of the Merchant and the Demon. A merchant is traveling, stops under a tree to eat some dates, when suddenly a terrible demon appears and accuses the merchant of killing his son. The merchant denies it, but the demon says that as he was carelessly throwing away the pits of the dates, one hit his tiny son and killed him (yes, the first story of the first night begins with such an apparently insignificant cause), so the demon is about to kill the merchant, and raised the sword to strike….
(Painting by Ferdinand Keller: Scheherazade und Sultan Schariar, 1880)
But then morning overtakes Shahrazad and she lapse into silence. Dinarzad says, “What a lovely and entertaining story!” Shahrazad answers, “If you thought this was an amazing story, what is this compared to what I shall tell you tomorrow night if the king spares me and lets me live? It will be even better and more entertaining.” And what is this tale compared to what I will tell you in my next post…
(For more on The Arabian Nights see my paper Eros and the Arabesque: The Serial Proliferation of Life in The Arabian Nights about the connection between life and death in the endless proliferation of stories! Read more about The Nights in the following posts: 10,001 Nights: The Frame Stories around the Frame Story and The Power of Stories to Change the World: Another Arabian Night.)
The Arabian Nights, New Deluxe Edition, trans. Husain Haddaway. W. W. Norton & Co, Inc., 2008.