three pairs of lovers with space

THE TALE OF THE WAZĪR NŪR AL-DĪN, HIS BROTHER THE WAZĪR SHAMS AL- DĪN AND HASAN BADR AL- DĪN

 

This story from the mediaeval Arabic The Thousand Nights and One Night was told to the caliph Hārūn al-Rashīd (reigned AD 786-809) by his wazīr Jafar al-Barmaki (died 803) and set after the Ummayad Mosque was built in Damascus in AD 706.

There is no Greek love story within this tale, but plenty about the feelings involved in the sixth of it that is presented here.

The text is from Powys Mathers’ celebrated translation (reprinted London, 1947) of Mardrus’s translation into French, volume I, where it is recounted by Shahrazād on the 20th to 24th nights of the enveloping compendium. A poem omitted by Mathers has been taken from Lyons’s translation of the 21st night and put in blue (besides two others to be found in the footnotes).

 

The Tale of the Wazīr Nūr al-Dīn, his Brother the Wazīr Shams al-Dīn, and Hasan Badr al-Dīn

The brothers and joint wazīrs of Egypt Shams al-Dīn and Nūr al-Dīn quarrelled about the dowry to be paid when their intended children marry each other. The latter left Egypt and married the daughter of the wazīr of Basra, who promised him his office. By coincidence, Shams al-Dīn married at the same time.the daughter of a merchant of Cairo.

Just as the brothers had agreed before their quarrel, their wives not only conceived on the same night but brought forth on the same day: to Shams al-Dīn, Wazīr of Egypt, a daughter more beautiful than any in all the land and to Nūr al-Dīn, at Basrah, a son whose beauty had no peer among any who were alive upon the earth at that time. The poet has said:    

Shahrazād telling the stories of the 1,001 Nights, by Adolphe Lalauze, 1881

     Drink at his mouth,
     Forgetting the full red cups and reeling bowls.

     Drink at his eyes,
     Forgetting the purple scent of the vine.

     Drink at his cheeks,
     Forgetting the life of roses poured in crystal.

     Drink at his heart,
     Forgetting everything.
[1]

Because of his beauty Nūr al-Dīn’s son was named Hasan Badr al-Dīn, the beauty of faith’s moon. [I 180]

After Hasan Badr al-Dīn had reached seven[2] years of age:

Hasan grew in beauty and in all accomplishments. In the words of the poet:

     He is a moon to whom the sun bequeaths
     Light for his cheek’s scarlet anemone sheaths;
     He is a king who has beneath his power
     All the warm meadows and each coloured flower.

During all this time young Hasan never left his father’s house for an instant, because his old tutor demanded every moment of his time for lessons. But when he reached his fifteenth year[3] and had nothing more to learn from the old man, his father Nūr al-Dīn put on him the most magnificent of all his robes and setting him on his finest mule went forth with him to visit the Sultān. All the people in the streets of Basrah cried out at the sight of young Hasan Badr al-Dīn, commenting on the beauty of his face and of his body, the rarity of his manner and of his carriage, and exclaiming: ‘Yā Allāh! how beautiful! A moon! Allāh preserve him!’ This was as the poet puts it:

     One night as the astronomer watched, he saw
     The form of a graceful youth wandering in his twin robes.
     He observed how Gemini had spread for him
     The graceful beauty that his flanks displayed.
     Saturn had granted him black hair,
     Colouring his temples with the shade of musk.
     From Mars derived the redness of his cheeks,
     While Sagittarius shot arrows from his eyelids.
     Mercury supplied keenness of mind,
     And the Bear forbade slanderers to look at him.
     The astronomer was bewildered at what he saw
     And then ran forward to kiss the earth before him.[4]

As for the Sultān, when he saw Badr al-Dīn he lost his breath and could not regain it for a whole minute. He bade him approach and, falling in love with him at first sight, made him his favourite, showered gifts upon him and said to his father Nūr al-Dīn: ‘Dear wazīr, bring him to me every day, for I cannot live without him.’ So Nūr al-Dīn was forced to answer: ‘I hear and I obey!’ [5]

About the time that Hasan Badr al-Dīn became firmly established as the friend and favourite of the Sultān, Nūr al-Dīn fell seriously ill … [pp. 183-4]

Nūr al-Dīn soon died, and Hasan neglected the Sultan while mourning for him for two months. The angry Sultan ordered his arrest and the confiscation of his property. Forewarned, he went to his father’s grave in a cemetery haunted by jinn. An admiring jinniya met an ifrit who told her Hasan had his match in beauty in a girl of 18 in Cairo, the daughter of the wazīr Shams al-Dīn. The latter had refused the Sultan’s request for her on the grounds that she was promised to his brother’s son, and the furious Sultan had ordered her marriage to a hunchback, which was to be consummated that very night. The jinniya and ifrit transported Hasan to Cairo and instructed him on how to infiltrate the wedding ceremony:

Hasan attracting attention at the wedding, by Albert Letchford, 1897

Hasan mingled with the crowd and threaded his way so well that he came to the head of the procession and walked by the side of the hunchback. His beauty appeared in all its wonderful splendour. He was dressed in the fine robes which he had worn at Basrah, on his head was a tarbūsh wound in the mode of Basrah, with a wide silk turban embroidered in silver and little tinted flowers; he wore a cloak enriched with falls of silk and broad decorations in gold thread. All this only added to his beauty.

Each time a singer or a dancer came out of the group of players and postured before the hunchback, Hasan threw her a handful of gold which fell before her, or filled her little tambourine to overflowing. This he did with an air of perfect grace.

Soon all the women and even all the men of the crowd were giving their full attention to his beauty. [p. 192]

With the help of the ifrīt, Hasan took the hunchback’s place as bridegroom, and [in perhaps the hottest scene in the whole of The Thousand Nights and one Night] deflowered the bride, Sitt al-Husn. Before dawn, the ifrītah started to fly Hasan home on her back, but was interrupted and obliged to put him down outside “one of the gates of Damascus in the land of Syria”.

When day rose, the gates of the city were opened and the people who came forth for their business were astonished to see a lovely youth lying on the ground dressed only in his shirt, with a nightcap on his head and wearing no drawers. ‘Ah, how awake he must have been,’ some said, ‘to be so deep asleep!’ But others exclaimed: ‘By Allāh, he is fair! Lucky the woman who lay with him last night! But why is he naked?’ ‘Probably,’ answered a third group, ‘the poor young man was at a tavern longer than he should be and drank beyond his strength. Finding the gates shut he must have laid down to sleep outside them.’

While they were speculating in this sort the morning wind came to kiss the lovely Hasan and lifted up his shirt so that all saw a belly, a navel, thighs, and legs wrought of crystal, and a zabb with eggs of a surprising beauty.

As they were enjoying all these splendours, Badr al-Dīn woke and seeing himself outside an unknown gate and surrounded by strangers, cried out: ‘Tell me where I am, good people, and why you stand about me in this way? What has happened?’ ‘We stopped to look at you,’ they answered, ‘simply because you are beautiful.’ […pp. 200-1]

When Hasan told the crowd that he had just spent the night in bed with a bride in Cairo, they thought he was mad. He was obliged to walk through the city to the accompaniment of mockery until he took refuge in a baker’s shop.

The Hajj Abdallāh—for so was the cook named—looked over young Hasan Badr al-Dīn carefully and at once fell in love with his beauty and his natural gifts. ‘Where do you come from, dear youth?’ he asked of Hasan. Tell me your story, for I already love you more dearly than my life.’ So Hasan told all his story to Abdallāh the cook, who was greatly surprised by it and said when it was ended: ‘My young lord Badr al-Dīn, your tale is indeed a marvellous one, but I would counsel you, my child, not to tell it to anyone else, because it is a dangerous thing to confide in one’s fellow men. All my shop is at your disposal, and I beg you to live here with me until Allāh sees fit to make an end of your misfortunes. I have no children and will be rejoiced if you will accept me as a father. Yes, I will adopt you as my son.’ ‘Let it be as you wish, dear uncle,’ answered Badr al-Dīn. [pp. 202-3]

One of the gates of Damascus shown in The Reception of the Venetian Ambassadors, 1511 (unknown artist, The Louvre)

The baker straightaway adopted Hasan, who soon became an excellent pastry-maker, helped by what he had once learned of pastry-making from his mother …

The beauty of Hasan, the fair young man from Basrah, the son of the pastrycook, was soon a byword throughout Damascus, and the shop of Abdallāh became the most famous of all the pastry shops in the city. [p. 203]

The same morning, Shams al-Dīn discovered from the youth’s left-behind belongings that the one who had deflowered his daughter was in fact his own nephew. While Hasan lived the next twelve years as a baker in Damascus, Sitt al-Husn gave birth to their son, the beautiful Ajīb. Raised as the son of Shams al-Dīn, when he was twelve his mocking schoolfellows told him he was really the fatherless grandson of Shams al-Dīn. Seeing how he was hurt by this, Shams al-Dīn obtained the Sultan’s permission to take his daughter and grandson on a journey east to find Hasan. On arriving in Damascus, those in Shams al-Dīn’s caravan each went to do different things in the city.

While the others were doing these things, Ajīb went up into the city to amuse himself, accompanied by the good eunuch Said, who walked a few paces behind him carrying a whip large enough to stun a camel; for he knew the reputation of the people of Damascus and hoped to prevent them with his whip from approaching his beautiful young master. His precautions had not been wasted, for scarcely had they seen the handsome Ajīb than all the men of Damascus began to call each other’s attention to his grace and charm, saying that he was sweeter than the northern breeze and more to be desired than water in thirst or health in sickness. Half the people left their houses and shops and ran behind Ajīb all the time, in spite of the great whip, and the other half ran on ahead of him and sat down that they might watch his coming at greater leisure. At last Destiny led Ajīb and the eunuch to the shop of a pastrycook; and, when they were in front of it, they halted because the crowd was increasing at every moment.

Now you must know that this shop was none other than that of Hasan Badr al-Dīn, Ajīb’s father; for the old cook had died and Hasan as his adopted son had inherited the place. That day Hasan chanced to be preparing a delicious confection of choicely-sugared pomegranate pulp. Seeing the two strangers stop before his shop Hasan looked up and was not only charmed by Ajīb’s unusual beauty but felt himself stirred and drawn towards him in a manner that was both divine and extraordinary. Full of this new love he called: “My little lord, you who have come to snatch away my heart and reign within my soul, you towards whom my bowels are moved within me, will you not honour my shop by stepping in? I pray you out of compassion for me, deign to taste some of the sweet things that I have made.” Hasan’s eyes were filled with tears as he spoke and he wept at all the memories which came back to him at the sight of Ajīb.

The boy, hearing his father’s words, felt his heart drawn towards him, so he turned to the eunuch saying: “Saīd, this pastrycook has touched my heart. I think he must have a son who is like me and who is far away. Let us go in to pleasure him and take what he sets before us. If we are compassionate to him in his grief, surely Allāh will have pity on us and further our search for my father.”

But Saīd the eunuch cried: “Oh no, no, my master! As Allāh lives, we cannot do that! The son of a wazīr cannot go into a common pastrycook’s and eat there publicly. If you are afraid of all these ruffianly men who are following you about, rest assured that I can drive them off with my excellent whip. But as for going into the shop—no, decidedly no!” Hasan the pastrycook heard the eunuch’s words, so he turned his weeping eyes and tear-stained cheeks towards him, saying: “Honourable one, why will you not have compassion on me and come into my shop? Your outside may be as black as a chestnut’s but inside I am sure you are as white as she is. O you who have been praised in admirable verses by all our greatest poets, enter and I will reveal to you a future as white without as you are white within!” At this the brave eunuch burst into thunderous laughter, crying: “Really, really, have they so? Can you now? Well well, in Allāh’s name let me hear!” So Hasan Badr al-Dīn made up these lines in praise of eunuchs on the spur of the moment:

    

Black eunuch, Egypt

His exquisite manners and tact
     Have made him the trusted of kings;
     And peris would come down on wings
     To help him control every act
     Of the Sultān’s divine little things.

These lines were so well turned and so pleasantly recited that the eunuch was greatly flattered; therefore, taking Ajīb’s hand, he entered the shop.

Hasan Badr al-Dīn was in the seventh heaven of delight and bustled about to do them suitable honour. He filled the fairest of his porcelain bowls with his conserve of sugared pomegranate, amended with almonds and delicately perfumed. This he presented on a beaten copper tray and watched his guests eat with every sign of satisfaction, saying: “This is indeed an honour for me! This is my lucky day! May all go down sweetly!”

After the first few mouthfuls, little Ajīb asked the cook to sit down with them, saying: “Eat with us and it may be that Allāh will help us in our search.” “What, my child,” said Hasan, “can you who are so young have already felt the pain of parting?” “Indeed I have, good fellow,” answered Ajīb, “my heart is already sorely tried by the loss of one I love, my own father. Even now my grandfather and I have set out to look for him through all the countries of the world.” So saying Ajīb wept and Badr al-Dīn also could not restrain his tears, while the eunuch looked on and sympathetically shook his head. Yet their grief did not prevent them from doing full justice to the delicately-confected sweetmeat; in fact, so exquisite was it that they ate more than they really needed. The time passed all too swiftly for Hasan, and soon the eunuch took Ajīb away and set out with him for his grandfather’s tents.

Badr al-Dīn felt that his soul had left with Ajīb and, not being able to resist the desire to follow him, shut up his shop and, going after them in all haste, caught them up before they had passed through the great gate of Damascus. All this time Hasan had no idea that Ajīb was his son.

When the eunuch saw that the cook was following, he turned and asked him why he was doing so. ‘I have a business appointment outside the city,’ answered Badr al-Dīn, ‘and wished to accompany you two as long as our road lay together. Truly your going away left me very desolate.’ ‘As Allāh lives,’ cried out the eunuch angrily, ‘that wretched bowlful is going to cost us dear; for see, the giver of it wishes to turn our stomach by dogging our footsteps from place to place!’ But when Ajīb saw the cook he blushed and stammered: ‘Let him be, Saīd. God’s road is free to all good Mussulmāns. If he follows us to the tents we will know that it is indeed I he is pursuing, and then we can drive him off.’ With this he went on his way, hanging his head, and the eunuch followed a few paces behind.

An Arab encampment by Alberto Pasini

Hasan continued to follow them right to the plain of Hasabah, where the tents of the wazīr were pitched. When the other two turned and saw him just behind them, Ajīb became really angry, fearing that the eunuch might tell his grandfather that he had gone into a cook-shop and been followed about by the cook. Terrified at this thought he took up a stone and, supposing, since Hasan stood there motionless and with a strange light in his eyes, that the cook’s intentions were dishonourable, threw the stone with all his might, striking his father on the forehead. Ajīb and the eunuch hastened to the tents, while Hasan fell fainting to the earth his face covered with blood. By good fortune he soon came to himself and, staunching the blood, bandaged his forehead with a piece torn from his turban. Then he began to blame himself for what had happened, saying: “It was all my fault; to shut my shop was ill-considered and to follow that lovely boy until he thought I had dishonourable designs upon him was even more incorrect.” He returned, sighing and murmuring: “God is good!”, opened his shop again and settled down once more to the making and selling of pastries. [pp. 213-7]

Shams al-Dīn and his entourage resumed their journey to Basrah, where they found Hasan’s widowed mother still grieving for him and took her with them on their return journey to Egypt. Again, they stopped in Damascus.

While the wazīr was occupied with the rich merchants of the place, Ajīb said to the eunuch: “Bābā Saīd, I want to be amused. Let us go up into the city and see what has been happening. I want to hear news of that pastrycook whom we treated so badly; for, when he gave us pleasant things to eat, I knocked him down with a stone.” Saīd answered: ‘I hear and I obey!”

The two left the tents, Ajīb being driven forward by the blind force of filial love, and after going through all the markets reached the cookshop just at that time when the Believers were flocking to the mosque of the Banū Umayyah for the evening prayer. It so happened that Hasan Badr al-Dīn was again preparing the same delicious confection, an artistic compost of pomegranate pulp with almond, sugar, and perfumes. Ajīb, looking in, saw that the mark of the stone was still upon the cook’s forehead, so his heart was moved and he called to him: “Peace be with you, O pastrycook! I have come all this way to have news of you: do you not recognise me?” At the first sight of his son Hasan felt his bowels turn over within him, his heart bound frantically, his head bow over of its own weight and his tongue cleave to the palate of his mouth. Very humbly he answered with these lines:

     I ranged my grievances and came
          To where your golden eyes looked down;
          I tried, but could not make a frown,
     I tried, but could not hide a flame.

     I wrote a commination
          Of things that proved that you were foul;
          I stood there like a love-sick owl
     And had forgotten every one.

A Street in Damascus by Arthur Haddon

“Come in, my masters,” he added, “just out of the kindness of your hearts, come in and taste my wares. As Allāh lives, little lad, my heart was drawn towards you the first time I saw you. I am sorry that I followed you, for that was foolishness.” “You are a very dangerous friend,” answered Ajīb, “you imperilled us all because of that little bite you gave us to eat. I will not come in and eat with you to-day unless you swear solemnly not to follow us. If you will not do so I shall never come here again. We are going to be in Damascus a whole week, while my grandfather buys presents for the Sultān.” “I swear that I will not follow you!” cried Badr al-Dīn; so Ajīb and the eunuch entered the shop and as before Badr al-Dīn filled them a bowl with his pomegranate speciality. ‘Come and eat with us,’ said Ajīb, “and it may be that Allāh will help us in our search.’ Hasan sat down in front of them with great delight, but he could not help looking fixedly at Ajīb all the time. So persistently did he do so that the boy was disturbed and said: “As Allāh lives, you are importunately, uncomfortably, even oppressively loving, my good friend! I have already had to speak to you about that. I pray you cease eating all my face with your eyes.” Badr al-Dīn answered with these rhymes:

     I have a secret ecstasy, my friend,
     Which you could never comprehend
          Although you put the sun to rout
          And chased the silver stars in doubt
          Through all the heavens round about
          And put the white moon out.

     I have a guiltless love, dear lad,
     Which I should hide although you had
          Thrown all the sweetness in eclipse
          Of a thousand China trading ships
          With the lithe verses of your hips
          And the sugar of your lips.

To these lines Badr al-Dīn added many others, some addressed to the eunuch, some to Ajīb, until, after having eaten for a full hour, they could not swallow another grain. [pp. 220-2]

Thus filled up with Hasan’s pastries, when Ajīb was unable to eat his grandmother’s on returning to her, and compounded her fury by saying those in the shop he had been too were much tastier. Saīd was beaten and ordered to bring more from the shop for comparison. On tasting them, the grandmother fainted, knowing at once they could only have been made by her own lost son.

 

[1] Instead of this poem, Lyons gives two others:
“He was as the poet described:
     A slender youth whose hair and whose forehead
     Leave mankind to enjoy both dark and light.
     Find no fault with the mole upon his cheek;
     Every corn-poppy has its own black spot.
Another poet has produced these lines:
     If beauty comes to be measured against him,
     It must hang down its head in shame.
     Asked: ‘Have you ever seen a sight like this?’
     It answers: ‘No, I never have.’ “

[2] This age is not specified in Mathers’s version, but is stated in that translated by Burton and Lyons.

[3] This statement of age is not in the version translated by Burton and Lyons and is awkward with respect to what they said later, for which see the next note.

[4] This naïve admiration of beauty in either sex characterised our chivalrous times. Now it is mostly confined to "professional beauties" of what is conventionally called the "fair sex"; as if there could be any comparison between the beauty of man and the beauty of woman, the Apollo Belvidere with the Venus de Medici. [footnote 389 to the translation of this poem by Sir Richard Burton, 1885]

[5] Here the reputedly most accurate translation of Lyons, who said nothing about Hasan’s age when taken to meet the Sultan, adds “Every day from then on he went with him to the sultan until the boy reached the age of fifteen”, which is when he says Hasan’s father fell ill.