three pairs of lovers with space

THE TALE OF ZUMURRUD AND ALĪ SHĀR

 

This one of the stories told by Shahrazād to entertain King Shahryār in the mediaeval Arabic The Thousand Nights and One Night. Though it is not a boy-love story, it is rich in allusions to Greek love and thus informative about mediaeval Near Eastern attitudes to it.

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 Tale of Zumurrud and Alī Shār was the main story told in the Italian film of 1974, Arabian Nights, directed by Pier Paolo Pasolini, though in it the protagonist Alī Shār was renamed Nur-e-din. All the images on this page are taken from it.

 

The Tale of Zumurrud and Alī Shār

Following the death of his father, a rich merchant in the land of Khorāsān, the beautiful Alī Shār squandered his wealth on debauched living until he was reduced to begging. One day he saw a beautiful virgin slave-girl named Zumurrud on sale in the market. However, her owner had sworn not to sell her to anyone to whom she would not consent to be sold. When she refused four buyers with cutting remarks about their deficiencies, the broker asked her to look to see if there was anyone there who pleased her, “so that I may offer you to them”:

Zumurrud: "That is the purchaser I want, that youth with the gentle face and swaying body"

The delightful child closely regarded all the members of the crowd, one by one, and, when her gaze fell upon Alī Shār, a violent love for him was lighted in her heart; for he was indeed of extraordinary beauty, and none might look upon him except passionately.[4] Zumurrud quickly pointed him out to the broker, saying: “That is the purchaser I want, that youth with the gentle face and swaying body; for I find that he is much to my taste, that his blood mingles already with mine, and that he is lighter than a breeze from the north. It was of him the poet said:[5]

We who are young, they who are old.
     Have looked upon your grace,
     O youth.
     Behold,
     In selfish ruth,
     A thousand victims bring a thousand veils
     To hide your face.

Another said of him:

     Will you not understand, my lord?
     Beauty like yours is not to hoard.
     But to be thrown adrift , a golden joy,
     My lord, my gentle boy.
     Your thighs are heavy and your waist is small;
     Do you not feel the need for love at all,
          My lord, my gentle boy?
     To have your buttocks press upon my knee
     Is heavy ecstasy,
     And when you rise I do not feel relief,
     But heavier grief,
          My lord, my gentle boy .
     God says to feed the hungry in their need,
     And murder is not praised by any creed,
          My lord, my gentle boy.[6]

Another has said:

     His checks are carmine silk,
     His spittle a sweet milk
          To cure the heart;
     His eyes’ black honey puzzles those
     Who build a talc in prose;
     His eyes’ black honey puzzles worse,
          Strange wistful race apart,
     The men who carve an ecstasy in verse;
     And then the limbs which these have decked
     Can make the greatest architect
          Mistrustful of his art.

Another has said:

     I sipped wine from his tongue
     And I thought the world was young
          And I played the very devil for his curls’ sake.
     Oh, the camphor of his teeth
     And the amber of his breath . . .
          They turned him out of heaven for the girls’ sake.

Another has said:

     Gross fools with heavy wits,
     May they be blasted soon
     With all their censuring!
     Dare to accuse him of a fault at times;
     As if the moon
     Were not a perfect thing
     Because she shines and flits
     In different parts of heavens vault at times.

Another has said:

     This fawn with curling hair
     And cheeks of sunset rose,
     I swear
     Promised to meet me.
     Yet he shut his eyes as he said yes;
     It is after the hour, and I confess
     I think that he will cheat me. . . .
     But suppose. . . .

And yet another said of him:

     To-day
     My friends object:
     ‘How can you love a cheek with so strong down?’
     ‘When ruddy Eden apples grow there,
     Can you expect
     The shady clusters not to show there,
     From which they’re grown?’
     I say.” [II 337-9]

Taken back to A's room, Zumurrud removes A's loincloth before he mounts her

When Alī Shār explained to Zumurrud that he had no money at all to buy her, she slipped him a thousand dinars: nine hundred to buy her with and a hundred for their pressing needs, which turned out to include the materials for superb embroidery by her, which gave them a good living for a year. Their happiness together ended when she was abducted by an old Christian lecher.

After further misadventures and travel, she arrived disguised as a man in a city which welcomed her as its new King, its custom being to do so to the first stranger to arrive after the death of a King without a son. Meanwhile, Alī Shār lived sick with misery in Khorāsān for a year, then set out on a quest to find Zumurrud wherever she might be. This eventually led him to her city, where he joined a feast she as King was giving her people. She recognised him, but, “as she did not wish to betray herself before her people,” she merely summoned and talked to him. Then …

Zumurrud catches sight of Alī Shār arriving at the feast

Proclaiming the feast at an end, she ordered the little slaves to conduct Alī Shār to the hammām and, after providing him with a robe of honour from the royal cupboards and a steed from the royal stables, to bring him back to her at nightfall.

The people, having seen these things and heard these orders, said to each other: “What secret reason can the King have for treating this young man with so much honour and consideration?” “As Allah lives,” returned those more knowing than the rest, “the boy is beautiful. What other reason do you want?” But yet others of them said: “We knew exactly what would happen directly we saw the King allow him to finish his meal of rice-cream.” By Allāh, we did not know that rice-cream could cause so powerful and so different results.” With that the guests trooped away, still buzzing with opinions and aphorisms.

Zumurrud waited with indescribable impatience for nightfall, when she might be alone again with the dear one of her heart. No sooner had the sun disappeared and the muezzin begun to call the folk to prayer than she undressed and lay down upon her couch, clothed only in a silk chemise. She lowered the curtains that she might be in shadow and ordered the two little eunuchs to introduce Alī Shār.

In the meanwhile the chamberlains and officers of the palace, seeing Alī Shār treated in this unusual way, said to each other: “It seems certain that the King has fallen in love with this young man. To-morrow, after they have passed a night together, he will surely be appointed chamberlain, or perhaps general of the army.”[7] So much for them.

When Alī Shār was led in, he kissed the earth between the King’s hands and, after offering up prayers for his safety, waited to be questioned. “I will not reveal myself to him all at once,” thought Zumurrud, “for, if he recognised me suddenly, he might die of emotion.” So she turned to him and said: “Gentle youth, come a little nearer to me. Have you been to the hammām?”[8] “Yes, my lord,” he answered, and she continued: “Were you washed and perfumed and refreshed all over?” “Yes, my lord,” answered Alī Shār, and Zumurrud went on: “Did not the bath give you an appetite? See, here is a dish of chicken and pastries to your hand. I pray you eat a little.” When Alī Shār had eaten and was content, “Now you must be thirsty,” said Zumurrud, “see, here are drinks. Allay your thirst and then come nearer to me still." Alī Shār drank a glass from each jar of wine and somewhat timidly approached the couch.

The King took him by the hand, saying: “You please me very much, O youth. Your face is beautiful, and I love beautiful faces. I pray you, bend down and rub my feet.”[9] Alī Shār rolled up his sleeves and, stooping, began to rub the feet of the King, who after a few moments said to him: “Now rub my legs and my thighs.”

Alī Shār rubs the feet of the King

While Alī Shār rubbed the legs and the thighs of the King, he was astonished to find them unbelievably tender and white; so he said to himself: “As Allāh lives, Kings’ thighs are not like those of other men! They are quite white and hairless.”

“Sweet youth,” said Zumurrud, “your hands are most expert in the art of rubbing. Go up a little higher now, towards my navel.” Alī Shār stopped suddenly in his work and said with a frightened accent: “Excuse me, my lord, but I do not know how to rub higher than the thighs. I have now finished all that I know.”

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

BUT WHEN
THE THREE-HUNDRED-AND-THIRTIETH NIGHT
HAD COME

SHE said:

AT THIS ANSWER Zumurrud assumed an angry voice and cried: “Do you dare to disobey me? As Allāh lives, if you hesitate any longer, this night shall be a fatal one to your head! Bend down, now, and satisfy my desire. In return, I will make you my lover of lovers, and appoint you my amīr of amīrs, my captain of captains.” “But, O King, I do not understand exactly what you wish,” said Alī Shār. “What must I do to obey you?” “Undo your drawers and lie down on your face,” answered the King, and Alī Shār exclaimed: “That is a thing which I have never done before in all my life. If you force me to it, I will hold you accountable on the Day of Resurrection. Let me go out of here and leave this country.” But Zumurrud answered in a yet more furious voice: “I order you to take down your drawers and lie upon your face. Otherwise I will have your head cut off. Be reasonable, sweet youth, and lie with me. You will never repent it.”

Alī Shār expecting imminently to be mounted by the King

Alī Shār was forced to obey: he undid his drawers and lay down on his face; Zumurrud took him in her arms and, mounting upon him, lay all along his back. Feeling the King mount him so impetuously, Alī Shār said to himself: “Now shall I be destroyed!” But then, feeling some soft thing lightly caressing him with a touch as of silk or velvet, something round and gentle at the same time, something firm and moist at once, he said: “As Allah lives, this King has a flesh which I prefer to that of any woman!” And he waited for the critical moment. But after lying for an hour in this way, without feeling any terrible perforation, he suddenly saw the King rise from his back and stretch himself on his own back. “Glory and thanks be to Allāh,” thought Alī Shār, “his zabb has not risen! In what a sorry state would I have been if it had done so!” He was beginning to breathe more freely when the King said: “You must know, dear Alī Shār, that my zabb will only rise when it is manipulated with the fingers. If you do not now handle it, you are a dead man. Give me your hand.” So saying, Zumurrud, who lay still upon her back, took Alī Shār’s hand and placed it gently upon the curved part of her story. Alī Shār felt something round and as high as a throne, as fat as a chicken, warmer than the throat of a pigeon, hotter than a loving heart; and this round thing was smooth and white, melting and enormous. Suddenly it reared up like a mule between his fingers; like a mule pricked in the nostril or an ass stabbed in the back.

“Surely this King has an entrance!” thought Alī Shār in astonishment. “This is the most prodigious thing I ever heard of.” And, emboldened beyond all its hesitations by this discovery, his own zabb rose in a moment to the extreme limit of erection.

This was the time for which Zumurrud had been waiting; she burst out laughing so heartily that she would infallibly have fallen over on her back if she had not been there already. [II 373-6]

Alī Shār and Zumurrud joyfully reunited

Zumurrud then revealed herself and, after a night of rapturous love-making, announced she was abdicating in order to go and live with the newly-arrived youth in his own country, so her people should find a new King. The court bade them farewell with abundant gifts. They returned to Alī Shār’s home and had many sons and much joy.

 

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

[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] Alī Shār’s father was already sixty when he was born (Burton and Lyons, 308th night), which helps explain why he was still a boy (as described until the end of the story) and desirable to “all”, ie. including men.

[5] Though the context in which this passage and the following seven poems are given is a girl’s desire for a boy, they are presented here because it is generally true of the many poems about the appeal of boys in The Thousand Nights and One Nights that they express feelings that are at least as likely to be a man’s for a boy. In this actual case, consider especially the second poem, where the poet is aggrieved no longer to have the boy’s buttocks pressing upon his knee, and the seventh, where the poet’s friends expect down on the boy’s face to be off-putting, hardly likely if the poet was in fact female.

[6] This and the next poem are not in the version translated by Sir Richard Burton, The Book of the Thousand Nights and a Night: A Plain and Literal Translation of the Arabian Nights Entertainments (10 volumes, 1885), and by Malcolm Lyons, The Arabian Nights: Tales of 1,001 Nights (3 volumes, 2008) though the poem before and those after are all in their translations of the 311th night.

[7] “The rule in Turkey where catamites rise to the highest rank: C'est un homme de bonne famille (said a Turkish officer in Egypt) il a été acheté. Hence "Alfi" (one who costs a thousand) is a well-known cognomen. The Pasha of the Syrian caravan, with which I travelled' had been the slave of a slave and he was not a solitary instance. (Pilgrimage i. 90.)” [Note by Burton to his 1885 translation]

[8] “i.e. ‘art thou ceremonially pure and therefore fit for handling by a great man like myself?’ ” [Note by Burton to his 1885 translation]

[9] Burton, in his 1885 translation has “shampoo” rather than "rub" and adds this footnote: “In past days before Egypt was "frankified" many overlanders used to wash away the traces of travel by a Turkish bath which mostly ended in the appearance of a rump wriggling little lad who offered to shampoo them. Many accepted his offices without dreaming of his usual-use or misuse.”