three pairs of lovers with space

SHORT EXCERPTS FROM THE THOUSAND NIGHTS AND ONE NIGHT

 

Presented here are all the short prose passages of Greek love interest in the mediaeval Arabic The Thousand Nights and One Night, with short notes to explain the context in which they appear.

The translations are by Powys Mathers. The nights stated for each excerpt are those in which they were recounted according to the Arabic text of The Nights, “Calcutta II”, translated by Sir Richard Burton and Malcolm Lyons and thus indicate where in their equivalent translations these excerpts may be found. Significant discrepancies between the latter two and Mathers’ version are noted.

 

Harem Pool by Gérôme, Jean-Léon, ca. 1876

The Tale of the Negro Bukhait, the Third Sudanese Negro

Three black eunuchs resting together agree to pass the time by each telling the story of his castration.

I will tell you about the destruction of my eggs, and you will see that I deserved an infinitely worse fate. I outraged my mistress and fornicated with her little son.

But the details of this fornication are so extraordinary, so rich in savoury incident, that the tale is too long to tell you here. [Mathers I 440, 40th night]

Bukhait never in fact got round to telling his story.

 

The Tale of the Monastery

The narrator has been treacherously thrown into prison by the monk in charge of a Christian monastery he was invited into:

While I was thus confined, the chief general of all the monks came on a special visit to the monastery. As is the custom of these gentry, he had with him ten pretty young monks and a girl fairer than them all, dressed in a monk’s robe which showed off her breasts and hips to lascivious perfection. Allāh alone knows what the monk-general used to do with this girl, who was called Tamāthīl, and with the young monks.[1] [Mathers I 613-4, 95th night]

 

The Tale of Hammād the Badawī

The protagonist, Hammād, has narrated how stranded in the desert one day, he saw a sweet meadow with a tent pitched, so he dismounted from his horse:

As I approached, I saw a smooth-cheeked boy sitting upon a white mat, as beautiful as the crescent of the young moon. On his right reclined a slim-waisted girl in the delicate splendour of her beauty. She seemed like the new-born branch of a willow.

I fell in love at that moment with a passion I had not yet known, and yet could not be sure which of them was the cause of this. Allāh alone knows which is more beautiful, the full moon or the crescent moon. [Mathers I 777-8, 144th night]

 

Hārūn al-Rashīd by Khalil Gibran

The Tale of Ibn al-Mansūr and the Two Girls

The caliph Hārūn al-Rashīd [who reigned AD 786-809], being sleepless one night, called for his sword-bearer Masrūr, who suggested as possible remedies rejected by the caliph, a night walk, a visit to his young women, listening to the sages and poets of Baghdād, and then:

“My lord,” continued Masrūr, “there are delightful cupbearers and charming youths[2] within the palace; shall I order them to bear you company?” [Mathers II 427, 327th night]

 

The Girl Cool-of-the-Eyes

The caliph al-Mamūn [who reigned AD 813-33] has been treated to a sumptuous feast at the palace of his cousin Alī ibn Hishām:

When the eating was finished, an astonishing wine, pressed from grapes chosen globe by globe, matured with perfumed fruits and scented edible nuts, was served in cups of gold and silver and crystal by young beautiful boys. These were dressed in floating Alexandrian draperies with silver borders; they sprinkled the guests with musked rose water from diamond sprays while plying them with the wine. [Mathers II 563, 415th night]

 

The Tale of the Shifts of Delilah-the-Wily

Delilah was an expert fraudster who lived in Baghdād in the caliph Hārūn al-Rashīd’s reign [AD 786-809]. In the following episode, she has just fooled, by two different ruses, a beautiful married girl and a “a very handsome young merchant […] whose cheeks had not yet sprouted down”[3] into following her:

As she walked on, followed in order by the girl and the young man, her eyes fell upon the shop of a dyer called Hājj Muhammad, a man famous in all the market for the dual direction of his tastes. He was like the knife of one who sells kolocasia, which cuts through male and female alike; equally he loved the tender fig and the acid pomegranate.[4] Hājj Muhammad lifted his eyes when he heard the clicking of anklets and, seeing the boy and girl, strongly felt that which he felt. As he was gazing, Delilah came up and said with a bow: “Surely you are Hājj Muhammad, the dyer?” “I am,” he answered, “what do you want?” “Folk have spoken well of you to me,” she replied. “Now look at these, my son and daughter, two charming young people whose education has cost me a pretty penny. . . . The house where they live with me is great but very old, so that of late I have had to strengthen it with wooden joists and props. Now the master builder has said that I risk being crushed if I go on living there until the place has been rebuilt. I am therefore on the lookout for some other house, where I can live for the time being with these two children. I was recommended to come to you, and now I beg that you will, of your generosity, allow us to stay in your house until the repairs are finished.”

The dyer felt his heart dancing among his entrails at this speech. “O Hājj Muhammad,” he said to himself, “here is butter on a biscuit for your old teeth!” [Mathers II 688-9, 701st night]

Hājj Muhammad gives Delilah the key to his house, which she robs at the same time as making off with the girl’s jewels and the youth’s money.

 

The Tale of the Yellow Youth

The Dama Game by Frantz Charlet, 1891

In what follows, a youth is recounting to the caliph Hārūn al-Rashīd [reigned AD 786-809] what happened when he had just come to Baghdād, and was wandering through its streets for the first time:

I let the crowd take me at random and thus came to Karn al-Sirāt, which is the favourite objective of those who stroll in Baghdād. In this place I saw, among tall and beautiful houses, one taller and more beautiful, giving upon the river. On the marble steps sat an old man dressed in white; he had a venerable appearance and was distinguished by a beard which fell to his waist in two equal silver divisions. This old man was surrounded by five boys, quite as beautiful as moons and scented with chosen essences, even as he was.[5]

Being won over by the appearance of the white old man and the beauty of his boys, I asked a passer-by what his name might be. “That is the sheikh Tāhir ibn al-Alā, friend of youth,” he said. “Those who enter his house do nothing else but eat, drink, and amuse themselves, according to their fancy, with the boys or girls who dwell there.” [Mathers III 76-7, 948th night]

 

The Tale of Young Nūr and the Warrior Girl

Set in the reign as caliph of Hārūn al-Rashīd [who reigned AD 786-809], the Warrior Girl of the title is the daughter of the Greek “king” of the Christians in Constantinople, who had converted to Islam and was defying her father and his army.  She has just slain two troop-leaders sent against her:

In mortification and despair the King called his third troop-leader, an illustrious lover of boys called Fasyān the Farter. “O Fasyān, O bugger of all time,” he said, “it is for you to go up against this wanton and avenge the deaths of your companions.” [Mathers III 465, 892nd night][6]

 

The Master of Shifts and Laughter

Goha was a witty jester who lived in Cairo. The following is the beginning of one of many anecdotes about him:[7]

Another day, at another mosque, Goha heard the Imam say: “O Believers, O you who forsake your wives and run after the buttocks of boys, let it be known to you that each time one of the Faithful accomplishes the act of husbandry with his wife Allāh builds for him a shelter in Paradise.”  [Mathers IV 422, not in ms. “Calcutta II”]

 

The Tale of the Sea Rose of the Girl of China

The following is the beginning of a new tale recounted on the 954th night in Mathers’s version:[8]

IT IS RELATED, O King of time, that there was once in a certain land of Sharkastān,—but Allāh on high knows all!—a King called Zain al-Mulūk, whose fame had gone out to the horizons of the world and who was the very brother of lions for valour and generosity. Though he was still young, he had two upstanding sons already, and a time came when, by the grace of Allāh, a third was born to him, a child picked out among ten thousand, whose beauty dispelled the shadows as a girl moon at her full dispels them. As the boy’s years increased, his eyes, those cups of drunkenness, troubled the wise with the sweet fires of their regard, his lashes shone like curved dagger blades, the curls of his musk black hair confused the heart like nard, his cheeks mocked the cheeks of young girls; his smiles were arrows, he walked nobly and daintily; the sun had dexterously painted a freckle on the left commissure of his lips; his breast was smooth and white as a crystal tablet, and hid a lively heart. [Mathers IV 565, not in ms. “Calcutta II”]

 

[1] Mathers later says the monk-general’s name was Kaiyanūs, but Lyons calls him Decianus and does not mention that his “ten servants” were young or pretty. Burton is, as usual, similar to Lyons.

[2] Instead of “delightful cupbearers and charming youths”, Burton writes “pretty boys and the wits and the cup-companions”.

[3] In the words of the most accurate translation by Malcolm and Ursula Lyons in The Arabian Nights: Tales of 1,001 Nights (3 volumes, London, 2008), 700th night. Later, when Mathers simply refers to him as “young”, Lyons translate more precisely that he was a “handsome beardless boy”.

[4] “The figs refer to the anus and the pomegranates, like the sycomore, to the female parts. Me nec fæmina nec puer, &c., says Horace in pensive mood.” [Note by Burton]

[5] In Burton’s and Lyons’s versions, the old man was (in the latter’s words, 948th night) “surrounded by four slave girls and five pages.”

[6] In the version translated by Burton and Lyons, the “Warrior Girl” is called Miriam, her father is the King of Ifranja, a city “resembling Constantinople” (878th night), and the three troop-leaders were his sons. The third was called “Fasyan Salh al-Sibyan”, but nothing was said about his sexual activities or farting (892nd night).

[7] None of the anecdotes are in the version translated by Burton and Lyons.

[8] This story is also not in the text translated by Burton and Lyons.

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