three pairs of lovers with space

THE ADVENTURES OF HASAN OF BASRAH

 

This story of abduction from the mediaeval Arabic The Thousand Nights and One Night is of only mild Greek love interest, but is presented in the interests of giving everything on the subject to be found in them.

The text is from Powys Mathers’ celebrated translation of Mardrus’s translation into French.[1] However, significant discrepancies between that and the more scholarly translations by Sir Richard Burton[2] and Malcolm Lyons[3] have been noted.

 

The Adventures of Hasan of Basrah

14th-century Arabic manuscript of the 1,001 Nights

IT IS RELATED—but Allāh is All-wise and All-beneficent—that there was once, in the drift of years long ago, a youth of the city of Basrah who was the most handsome, gracious, and dainty of his time. His name was Hasan, and none had ever been called Beautiful with better cause. His father and mother loved him greatly, for he was the child of their old age, begotten by following the advice of a magician who had made them eat the middle portions of a great snake, according to the prescriptions of our Lord Sulaimān (upon whom be prayer and peace!). At the time appointed, Allah, the All-hearing, the All-Seeing, permitted that Hasan’s father should pass into His peace, and the boy found himself heir to great riches. As he had been badly brought up and spoilt by his parents, he soon wasted his father’s savings in feasting and dissipation with young men of his own age; but, when he had nothing left, his mother could not bear to see him sorrow and therefore opened for him a goldsmith’s shop in the market with her own portion of the inheritance.

Allāh aiding, Hasan’s beauty drew the eyes of all passengers towards his shop, and none crossed the market without stopping at the door to contemplate and marvel at this work of the Creator. The shop became the continuous centre of a crowd of merchants, women, and children, who came together to watch the new youth using his hammer, and admire him at their leisure.[4]

One day, as Hasan sat in his shop and the crowd outside was beginning to diminish, a Persian passed, having a long white beard and a tall white turban.[5] His carriage proclaimed nobility and, in his hand, he carried an old book.[6] After regarding Hasan attentively for some time, he approached, exclaiming loudly: “As Allāh lives, an excellent goldsmith!” Then he began to scratch his head with a gesture of limitless admiration and so stayed until the rest of the passers had dispersed to the noon prayer. At length he entered the shop and saluted Hasan; the young man returned his greeting and begged him to be seated. The Persian sat down with a tender smile, saying: “My child, you are a youth of very pleasing appearance. As I have no son, I wish to adopt you and teach you the secrets of my art; it is unique in the world, and thousands upon thousands beg to be instructed in it. Yet now, for the first time, my soul and its love are moved to reveal what I have so carefully hidden, that you may be the depository of my learning after I am dead. I will rear an unpierceable wall between poverty and you, sparing you the fatigue of this trivial trade, which exposes your too charming person to dust and coal and flame.” “As Allāh lives, O venerable uncle,” answered Hasan, “I ask nothing better than to be your son and the heir to your skill. When will you begin to initiate me?” “Tomorrow,” replied the Persian, rising to go. He took Hasan’s head between his hands and kissed it, and then left the shop without another word.

At this point Shahrazād saw the approach of morning and discreetly fell silent.

BUT WHEN
THE FIVE-HUNDRED-AND-EIGHTIETH NIGHT
HAD COME

Shahrazād by Sophie Anderson, late 19th century

SHE said:

IN A FEVER OF excitement Hasan shut his shop and ran to tell his mother what had passed. “What are you telling me, Hasan?” asked the old woman doubtfully. “How can you believe a Persian heretic?” “The venerable sage is not a heretic and his turban is of white muslin like those of true Believers,” answered Hasan; but his mother continued: “Do not make any mistake, my son. These Persians are cheats and libertines; their learning is alchemy, and Allah alone knows what snares they set in the darkness of their souls for the confounding of their fellow men.” But Hasan laughed, saying: “Mother, we are poor and have nothing to tempt the cupidity of any. Besides, there is no one in the whole of Basrah with a face and carriage more engaging than this Persian. I have seen in him evident signs of virtue and good will. Instead of criticising him, let us thank Allāh for His compassion.’ His mother answered nothing to all this and Hasan’s impatient anxiety prevented him from closing an eye all night. Next morning he went very early to the market with his keys, and opened his shop before the arrival of the other merchants. When, in a little while, the Persian entered, he rose in his honour and would have kissed his hands, but the other embraced him instead and asked him if he were married. “As Allah lives, I am a bachelor,” answered Hasan, “though my mother is always urging me to take a wife.” “That is excellent,” said the Persian. “If you had been married I could not have introduced you to my secrets. Have you any copper in your shop?” “I have an old battered brass dish,” answered Hasan, and the sage went on: “That is what I need. Light your furnace, put the crucible on the fire, and use your bellows. Then cut up the old dish with your scissors.” When Hasan had done these things, the Persian said again: “Put the brass scraps into the crucible and work at the fire until they melt.” Hasan placed the pieces in the crucible, worked at the fire and blew upon the metal with his air cane until the metal melted. At once the Persian approached the furnace and read unknown incantations over the bubbling metal from his old book; then, raising his voice, he cried: “Hak! Mak! Bak! Let the virtue of the sun penetrate you, O vile metal! Hak! Mak! Bak! Let the virtue of the gold cleanse you, O vile metal! Hak! Mak! Bak! O brass, be gold!” As he spoke these words, the old man drew from the muslin folds of his turban a small paper packet; opening this, he dropped from it a pinch of saffron-yellow powder into the molten brass. At once the mass hardened and formed an ingot of the most pure gold.

Alchemy

Hasan was amazed; but, at a sign from the Persian, he rubbed one corner of the shining ingot with his testing file, and made sure that he had to do with true gold, of the kind which is most eagerly sought for among jewellers. Again he would have kissed the old man’s hands; but the other prevented him, saying: “Go quickly to the market and sell this gold. Lock away the money which you get for it in your own house and say no word of what you know to anyone.” Hasan hurried to the market and gave the ingot to the crier, who, after determining its weight and quality, sold it for two thousand dinars. Hasan took the money and sped on wings of joy to his mother; the old woman was so astonished that she could say nothing; but, when Hasan with a laugh told her it was the fruit of the old man’s learning, she lifted terrified hands, and cried: “There is no God but Allāh! There is no power or might save in Allāh! What did you do with that Persian alchemist, my son?” “He has begun to instruct me in alchemy,” answered the boy. “He first showed me how a base metal could be changed into pure gold.” Then, without paying any attention to his mother’s forebodings, he took from the kitchen the large brass mortar, in which the woman used to pound garlic and onions and make crushed corn cakes, and ran with it to his shop where the Persian awaited him. He set the mortar down on the floor, began to blow up the fire and, when the Persian asked him what he was doing, answered that he wished to turn his mother’s mortar into gold. The sage laughed and exclaimed: “You are mad to think of showing gold ingots in the market twice in the same day; you would rouse all sorts of suspicions and draw upon our heads the penalties for alchemy.” “You are right,” answered Hasan, “but I am very anxious to learn the secret of your art.” The Persian laughed even more heartily than before. “Again you are mad, Hasan!” he exclaimed. “Do you think that the art and the secrets of the art can be taught in the open street, or that a lad may serve his apprenticeship in the middle of the market, under the eyes of the police?[7] If you really wish to be seriously instructed, take up all your tools and follow me to my house.” Without a moment’s hesitation Hasan took up his tools and followed the Persian.

But, on the road, Hasan recalled what his mother had said about the men of Persia, and, a thousand doubtful thoughts flocking into his head, he halted and began to reflect deeply. The Persian saw him stop and said, with another laugh: “You certainly are mad, Hasan! If you were as clever as you are delightful, you would never baulk before so fair a Destiny. I wish nothing but your happiness, and you hesitate!… Still, my son, as I do not wish you to have the least doubt of my intentions, I will teach you the mysteries of my science in your own house.” “That will calm my mother’s fears,” answered Hasan; and the Persian bade him lead the way.

At this point Shahrazād saw the approach of morning and discreetly fell silent.

BUT WHEN
THE FIVE-HUNDRED-AND-EIGHTY-FIRST NIGHT
HAD COME

Shahrazād tells her stories, her sister beside her, by E. F. W. Richter

SHE said:

WHEN THEY ARRIVED, Hasan begged the Persian to wait in the vestibule and ran, like a young stallion leaping in the fields of spring, to tell his mother of their guest. “Now that he is about to eat food in our house,” he said, “there will be bread and salt between us and you need have no anxiety.” The mother answered: “Allāh protect us, my son! The bond of bread and salt is a holy thing with us, but these abominable Persians, fire-worshippers, perverts, perjurers, do not respect it. Calamity still pursues us, my son…. You say that, when I have seen him, I will not let him depart from the house; but I swear, by the tomb of your father, that I myself will not stay while this heretic is here. When he has gone, I will wash the tiles of the room and burn incense; I will not touch even you for a whole month for fear of being soiled. Yet, as he is already in our house and we have the gold which he sent us, I will prepare a meal for you two, before I go to take refuge with the neighbours.” While Hasan went back to the Persian, she spread the cloth and, after having made large purchases, prepared a meal on it of roast fowls, cucumbers, ten sorts of pastry and preserves. Then she fled to the neighbours.

Hasan introduced his friend into the dining-room and begged him to be seated, saying: “There must be the bond of bread and salt between us.” “Certainly, for that bond is inviolable,” answered the old man. He sat down by Hasan’s side and, as the two ate, he said: “Hasan, my son, I swear by the sacred bond of bread and salt, which is now between us, that if I did not love you very dearly I would not instruct you in those secret matters for which we are met here.” So saying he drew the little packet of yellow powder from his turban and showed it to the youth, adding: “With a single pinch of this you can transmute ten pounds of brass into gold; for it is quintessential elixir in solid and powdered form; I derived it from the substance of a thousand simples and a thousand ingredients, each more complicated than the last. The enormous labours and fatigues which I first had to undergo I will tell you some day.” He handed the packet to Hasan and, while the boy was eagerly examining it,[8] slipped from his turban a morsel of Cretan banj[9] and mingled it with a pastry. This he offered to Hasan and the latter swallowed it without raising his eyes from the powder; only to fall immediately head over heels in deep unconsciousness.

A story-teller recounting the 1,001 Nights, Cairo, 1911

The Persian uttered a cry of triumph and leapt to his feet, saying: “Ah, charming Hasan, how many years have I sought you! Now I have you, and you shall not escape my will!” Pulling up his sleeves and fastening his belt, he bent Hasan in two, head to knees, and tied him securely in this position. Then he emptied a chest of the clothing which it contained and put Hasan into it, with all the gold which had resulted from his first alchemical operation. He went out and came back with a porter, who took the chest upon his back and carried it to the seashore. Here a ship awaited him, and the captain, as soon as he was on board, weighed anchor and put out to sea. So much for the Persian ravisher and the chest which contained Hasan.

When the boy’s mother found that her son and the chest and the gold had disappeared, when she saw garments strewn about the room and the house door hanging open, she understood that Hasan was lost to her for ever, and that Destiny had run its course. She gave herself up to despair, beating her face and tearing her clothes; she groaned and wept and cried sorrowfully: “Alas, alas, my child! O life of my heart, alas, alas!” She spent all that night running madly among the neighbours, seeking news of her son, and, when they would have comforted her, she was inconsolable. From that time she continued sitting in grief and tears by a tomb which she caused to be built in the middle of the house. On it was written the name of Hasan and the date of the day on which he had been ravished away from her love. Also, upon its marble, she engraved these lines, so that she might ceaselessly say them over to herself and weep:

     My son comes to me when the dawn is grey,
     But when I wake for joy he goes away;
          Though his appearance is but fantasy
     I should be happier if he would stay.

Thus the poor mother lived with her grief.

At this point Shahrazād saw the approach of morning and discreetly fell silent.

The Thousand Nights and One Night by Jean-Léon Gérôme, 1824

BUT WHEN
THE FIVE-HUNDRED-AND-EIGHTY-SECOND NIGHT
HAD COME

SHE said:

THE PERSIAN, WHO had escaped with the chest on board a ship, was in reality a terrible magician, called Bahrām the Fire-worshipper, because of his alchemical pursuits.[10] Each year he would choose out from amongst the sons of the Mussulmans some well-made boy, whom he would abduct and use as his perverse and faithless nationality suggested. The Master of Proverbs has said: He is a dog, the son of a dog, the grandson of a dog; and all his line were always dogs! How then could he be other than a dog, or do other than a dog? During the voyage he went down every day into the hold and, lifting the lid of the chest, gave Hasan food and drink, feeding him with his own hand and leaving him always in a state of stupor. When the ship came to the end of her voyage, he went ashore with the chest and watched the vessel depart again for the open sea.

Worshippers at the Fire Temple in Baku by Grigory Gagarin, 1847

Then Bahrām opened the chest, undid Hasan’s bonds, and destroyed the effect of the banj by making him breathe at vinegar and casting a powdered counter-banj into his nostrils. Hasan came to himself and looked round; he saw that he was lying upon a beach, the pebbles and sand of which were red, green, white, blue, yellow and black; so that he might be sure that he was not upon his native coast. He rose in astonishment and be-held, seated behind him on a rock, the Persian alchemist; and the old man was looking at him with one closed and one open eye. At once he realised that he had been duped and, calling to mind the unhappy predictions of his mother, resigned himself to the decrees of Destiny. “I put my trust in Allāh!” he cried, and walked up to the Persian, who did not move. “What does this mean, my father?” he asked in a trembling voice. “Is there not the bond of bread and salt between us?” But Bahrām laughed, saying: “By Fire and Light, who speaks of bread and salt to Bahrām? I worship the Flame and the Spark, I worship the Sun and the Light of the Sun. I have already raped nine hundred and ninety-nine young Mussulmans into my power, and you are the thousandth. But, by Light and Fire, you are the fairest of them all![11] I did not think that you would fall so easily into my toils, O Hasan; but, glory be to the Sun, you are now in my power and shall see how much I love you. First you must abjure your Faith and adore that which I adore.” Hasan’s surprise turned to a boundless indignation at these words. “Sheikh of ill-omen,” he cried, “what abomination is this?” So the Persian, who had other views for the moment, did not insist on a renunciation that day, but said: “My proposal was only a test, Hasan, only a test of your Faith; you have come out of it with great credit in the sight of Allāh. My true and single object in bringing you here was to find the needed solitude in which to initiate you. That high and pointed mountain, which looks over the sea, is Cloud Mountain and there I find the necessary elements for my elixir. If you will let yourself be led to its top, I swear by Light and Fire that you will not regret it. If I had wanted to force you, I could have taken you there while you were asleep. When we reach the summit, we will gather the stalks of those plants which grow above the clouds, and I will then teach you further.”[12] Hasan dared not refuse, for there was compulsion in the old man’s words; but he wept bitterly and remembered his mother.

“Do not weep, Hasan,” said Bahrām. “Soon you will see how very useful my advice can be.” Then said Hasan: “How can we climb that mountain? It is as steep as a wall.” “Do not let that trouble you,” answered the magician, “we will go more easily than birds.”

He drew from his robe a little copper drum, which was engraved with talismanic characters and had a cock’s skin stretched tightly over it. He beat on this with his fingers, and at once a cloud of dust rose round them, from which came a sound of neighing; in the twinkling of an eye there stood before them a vast black horse with wings, which pawed the ground and jetted flames from its nostrils. The Persian mounted this beast and helped Hasan up behind him; at once the horse beat its wings and rose from the earth. Before the riders had time to open one eye and shut the other, it set them upon the top of Cloud Mountain and disappeared.

The Persian looked at Hasan, with all the evil returned to his eyes, and cried in a shout of laughter: “Now, Hasan, you really are in my power; for there is no creature here to help you. Prepare to satisfy all my caprices and begin by swearing that there is no power save in Fire, the Father of Light.”

At this point Shahrazād saw the approach of morning and discreetly fell silent.

BUT WHEN
THE FIVE-HUNDRED-AND-EIGHTY-THIRD NIGHT
HAD COME

Shahrazād telling her stories, by Milo Winter, 1914

SHE said:

BUT, INSTEAD, HASAN recoiled, crying: “There is no God but Allāh! And Muhammad is the Prophet of Allāh! You, O vile Persian, are an impious infidel and the Master of Power uses me as a sword against you.” With the quickness of light he hurled himself on the sorcerer and, snatching the drum from his hands, pushed him towards the edge of the mountain. Then, thrusting out both his arms, he precipitated the perjured old man into the gulf, so that he turned upon himself in the air and was broken to pieces upon the rocks of the seashore. His evil soul departed and Iblīs gathered his life-breath to fan the fire of hell. Such was the death of Bahrām the Fire-worshipper, magician and alchemist.

Freed from his captor, who would have made him commit every abomination, Hasan first examined the magic drum with its cock’s skin;

 

[1] The Thousand Nights and One Night. The edition used here is the revised one published in 4 volumes, London, 1941) III 222-232.

[2] The Book of the Thousand Nights and a Night: A Plain and Literal Translation of the Arabian Nights Entertainments, 16 volumes, 1885-87.

[3] The Arabian Nights: Tales of 1,001 Nights, 3 volumes, Penguin, London, 2008.

[4] Up to this point, the version translated by Burton and Lyons is much shorter (778th night): Hasan is one of two sons, nothing is said about his being born in his father’s old age or squandering his inheritance, and much less is said about his beauty. Presumably Mathers was translating what Burton calls “the Bresl. Edit. (v. 264)”, in which he says Hadan was the only son.

[5] “Arab. ‘Shásh Abyaz:’ this distinctive sign of the True Believer was adopted by the Persian to conceal his being a fire-worshipper, Magian or ‘Guebre.’ The latter word was introduced from the French by Lord Byron and it is certainly far superior to Moore's ‘Gheber.’ " [Note by Burton]

[6] In Burton’s and Lyons’s version, the one book mentioned is one Hasan was reading.

[7] In Burton’s version, “the magistrates will hear of us, and we shall lose our lives”, regarding which Burton comments: “Such report has cost many a life: the suspicion was and is still deadly as heresy in a "new Christian" under the Inquisition.”

[8] In Burton’s and Lyons’s version, the Persian performed another successful transformation of base materials into gold, which is what absorbed Hasan’s attention.

[9] Lyons adds expressively that one sniff of the banj “would be enough to put an elephant to sleep for twenty-four hours.”

[10] Lyons’s version adds that he “had a great hatred of Muslims, killing any of them who fell into his power.” (781st night)

[11] In Burton’s and Lyons’s version, the Persian says nothing about raping Moslems or of Hasan being the fairest of them all, but says simply that he has murdered them. He goes on to make his purpose clearer: to gain the favour of fire by sacrificing Hasan to it.

[12] In Burton and Lyons’s versions, the Persian is more determinedly cruel. He only reverts to persuasion, temporarily and out of fear, while they are still on board the ship, when, after three months, there is a storm which the crew think is a punishment from God for his cruelty and causes them to kill his servants. From this point onwards, their version is radically different and may times longer, ending with Hasan killing Bahrām with his sword, but there is nothing in these differences of Greek love interest.