three pairs of lovers with space

THE TALE OF PRINCESS ZULAIKAH

 

Presented here are the two excerpts touching on Greek love from The Tale of Princess Zulaikah, a story in the mediaeval Arabic The Thousand Nights and One Night.

The text is from Powys Mathers’ celebrated translation (reprinted London, 1947) of Mardrus’s translation into French, volume IV pp. 246-9, according to which these passages were recounted by Shahrazād on the 877-8th nights of the enveloping story. Unusually, The Tale of Princess Zulaikah is not in “Calcutta II”, the Arabic text from which the two other unexpurgated and, in a sense, complete, translations into English were made.[1]

The setting is after AD 693, when the city of Shīrāz was founded, but well before 744, when the Ummayad caliphs ceased to rule from Damascus.

 

The Tale of Princess Zulaikah

The Town of Shīrāz in Persia (engraving in Les voyages de Jean Struys, 1681)

Hasan, the wazīr of one of the Ummayad caliphs who ruled from Damascus, is telling the story of his youth. Here he is recounting what happened when, following the death of his father, a merchant of Damascus, he had just arrived at Shīrāz in Persia, intending to set himself up there as a merchant of precious stones:

As I was leaving the-great porcelain mosque, whose beauty had thrown me into an ecstasy of prayer, I saw one of the King’s wazīrs passing by. He halted when his eyes fell upon me, and stood at gaze as if I had been an angel. Then he said: “O fairest of all boys, I see by your habit that you are a stranger. From what land do you come?” “I am a citizen of Damascus, good master,” I replied with a bow, “and I have come to Shīrāz to be educated by contact with her inhabitants.” The wazīr rejoiced at my words and clasped me in his arms, saying: “O sweet words of your mouth, my son! How old are you?” “Your slave is in his sixteenth year,’ I answered. At this he rejoiced still more, for he was directly descended from Lot.[2] He said: “It is a fine age, my child, a fine age. If you have nothing better to do, I will take you to the palace to present you to our King, for he loves handsome faces and will make you one of his chamberlains. Surely you will be the crown and glory of them all!” “Be it upon my head and before my eyes!” I answered.

He took me by the hand and we walked on together, talking of this and that, and my companion marvelled not only at my charm and elegance, but also to hear me speak Persian with purity and assurance. “As Allāh lives,” he cried, ‘if all the youth of Damascus are like you, the city must be an outskirt of Paradise and the stretch of sky above it Paradise itself!”

When I was introduced into the presence of King Sābūr-Shāh, he smiled at me, saying: “Damascus is welcome to my palace! What is your name, delightful boy?” “The slave Hasan, O King of time,” I answered. “Never was name more fitting!”[3] he exclaimed in high delight. “I appoint you, forthwith, one of my chamberlains, that I may rejoice my eyes with the sight of you each morning.” When I had kissed his hand and humbly thanked the King, my friend the wazīr led me away and himself clad me in the robes of a page. Then he gave me my first lesson in my duties and formally took me under his protection. I became his friend, and all the other chamberlains, a young and handsome band, became my friends also. My life promised to be one river of happiness among the delicacies of that palace.

Shahrazād telling Shahryār one of the stories of the 1,001 Nights, her sister beside her, by Harry Theaker

One evening soon afterwards, Hasan fell asleep in the palace gardens, strictly forbidden to men after a certain hour, and was confronted by a beautiful woman who would not let him go and asked:

“Tell me who you are and what you do in the palace.” “I am Hasan of Damascus,” I answered. “I am the King’s new chamberlain and the favourite of his wazīr.” “So you are the handsome Hasan who has crazed Lot’s grandson!” she cried. “Joy, oh, joy, oh, joy, that I have you alone for myself this night, my love!”

 

[1] Those of Sir Richard Burton (1885) and Malcolm Lyons (2008).

[2] The Arabic word liwāt, meaning pedication of males, is a shortening of the expression for "the act of the people of Lot", who was an inhabitant of Sodom, an ancient city believed by Moslems to have been destroyed by Allāh because its inhabitants practised pedication.  The implication is therefore that the wazīr was a sodomite, and he “rejoiced still more” on hearing that Hasan was fifteen because that meant he was in his prime for being loved by a man.

[3] Hasan means “good” or”handsome”.