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three pairs of lovers with space



The following from the mediaeval Arabic The Thousand Nights and One Night is one of the longest stories from it not to be interrupted by a sub-story.

The text presented here is from Powys Mathers’ celebrated translation (reprinted London, 1947) of Mardrus’s translation into French, volume II pp. 129-196, where it is recounted on the 249th to 269th nights, but most of the second half is omitted here as of no Greek love interest. Significant differences, especially if of Greek love interest, with Sir Richard Burton’s more scholarly but archaic translation and Malcolm Lyons's most accurate but more prosaic translation[1] are pointed out in the footnotes.

Regarding the date at which the story is set, Harun al-Rashid, who reigned 786 to 809, was Caliph both when the eponymous hero Abū Shāmāt was aged fourteen and when he returned from exile fourteen years later. Abū Shāmāt is therefore to be imagined as born between 772 and 781.




After hearing The Tale of Kamar al-Zamān and Princess Budūr, King Shahryār had requested Shahrazād to tell a story containing “explanatory details of this unknown pastime” as he called the “new fashion” of boy-love (p. 93).  Instead, Shahrazād told The Tale of Happy-Handsome and Happy-Fair, which had only a little pederastic innuendo. At last, it was concluded …

When Shahrazād fell silent, King Shahryār exclaimed: “O Shahrazād, the tale has pleased me and the verses in it have inspired me. But I was a little surprised not to find any details of that other way of love.”

Shahrazād smiled lightly, saying: “O auspicious King, you will find those details in the Tale of Ala al-Dīn Abū Shāmāt, which I will tell you if you still continue to be troubled by your insomnia.” “What is that you say, O Shahrazād?” cried King Shahryār. “As Allāh lives, I would rather die of insomnia than not hear the Tale of Alā al-Dīn Abū Shāmāt. Begin at once.”

But at that moment Shahrazād saw the approach of morning and postponed her tale.


SHE said:


IT IS RELATED, O auspicious King, that there was once in Cairo a venerable old man, who held the office of syndic among the merchants of the city. All the market respected him for his honesty, his grave politeness, his thoughtful language, his wealth and the number of his slaves. His name was Shams al-Dīn.

At the bazaar, Cairo by Richard Karlovich Zommer

One Friday, before the prayer, he went first to the hammām and then to a barber’s shop. At the latter place he had his moustaches cut to the border of the upper lip and his head carefully shaved. He took the mirror which the barber offered him and, after having recited the act of Faith against pride, looked within it. Sadly he considered the white hairs of his beard, which were now more numerous than the black, and noticed that at length the black were indeed hard to find. “A white beard is a sign of age,” he thought to himself, “and age is an advertisement of death. Poor Shams al-Dīn! You are at the door of the tomb and have no children. You will be snuffed out like a candle and no more seen.” Filled with these desolate thoughts, he made his prayer at the mosque and then returned to his house. His wife, who knew his usual hour of return and had prepared herself to receive him with bath and, perfume and careful depilation, ran to meet him with a smile, saying: “A happy evening attend you!"

Instead of returning his wife’s wish, the syndic said sharply: “What talk is this of happy evenings? Is there any happiness left for me?” “The name of Allāh be upon you and about you!” cried his astonished wife. “Why this gloom? What happiness do you lack? What is the cause of your sadness?” “You are,” he answered. “Listen, woman, and try to imagine my bitter pain when I go to the market every day and see the merchants sitting with two, three, or four little children by them, bright promises growing up in the sight of happy paternal eyes. They are proud of their issue, and I alone have not that consolation. Often I wish for death rather than such a life as this, and pray to Allāh, Who has called my fathers to His rest, to put a term to my suffering.”

“Do not think of such distressing things,” answered his wife. “Come and do honour to the cloth which is spread for you." But the merchant cried: “As Allah lives, I will neither eat nor drink and especially I will accept nothing at your hands. You are the sole cause of our sterility. Forty fruitless years have passed since our marriage, and you have always forbidden me to take other wives; you even profited on the night of our wedding by the weakness of my flesh to make me swear never to know another woman. Also, worse and worse, you kept me to my oath, which, when you saw your barrenness, you should at once have forgiven. I swear by Allāh that I would rather cut off my zabb than ever give it to you or even kiss you. I see that it is lost labour to work with you; I would as likely get children by thrusting my concern into a hole in a rock as into a dry field like yours. Yes, it is all wasted seed that I have generously dropped within your bottomless pit."

His wife saw the light change to shadows before her eyes and cried, with the bitterest voice that anger could give her: “Scent your mouth before you speak, old cold one! Allah preserve me from all ugliness and false imputation! If you think that I am the backward one, undeceive yourself, old uncle. If you want to complain, complain of yourself and your cold eggs; for, as Allāh lives, they are as ice, secreting a liquor all too clear and absolutely worthless. Buy something to heat them and thicken their sap, and you will see whether my fruit has excellent seed or not.”

These words somewhat shook the syndic in his conviction and, in a hesitating voice, he said: “Admitting that my eggs are cold and transparent, and that their sap is cold and worthless, can you by any chance tell me where to buy a drug to thicken the stuff?” “At the first druggist you come to,” answered his wife, “you will find a mixture to thicken the eggs and make men apt to get children upon their wives.”

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


SHE said:

“AS ALLĀH LIVES,” said the syndic, “to-morrow morning I shall go to a druggist and buy a little of this mixture.”

The Sahleb Vendor, Cairo by Ludwig Deutsch

As soon as the market was open next morning, the old man took a porcelain bowl and brought it to a druggist, saying: “Peace be with you!” “The morning is blessed which brings you for my first customer. What may I have the pleasure of selling you?” answered the man, and the syndic held out his bowl, saying: “I want an ounce of that mixture which thickens a man’s eggs.”

Not knowing what to think, the druggist said to himself: “Our syndic is very solemn as a rule, but 1 think that he wishes to jest this morning, so I will answer him in his own vein.” So aloud he said: “As Allāh lives, I had plenty of it yesterday, but it is so popular that to-day my provision has run out. You had better go to my neighbour.”

The syndic went to a second druggist, then to a third, and finally to all in the market. Each one gave him the same answer, laughing behind his hand the while.

Disappointed in his search, the old man returned to his shop and sat down to dream disgustedly upon life. As he sat in his black humour, there alighted before his door the sheikh of the brokers, whose name was Samsam. He was a phenomenal hashīsh eater, a drunkard, a user of opium, a model of debauchery for all the lowest in the market; but he respected Shams al-Dīn and never passed his shop without bowing to the ground with polished words of compliment. This morning he saw that the syndic answered all his salutations with bad grace, so he said: “What disaster has so troubled your spirit, O venerable syndic?” “Come, good Samsam,” answered the other, “sit down by my side and listen to me; you will see if I have good cause to be afflicted or no. I have been married for forty years and have not had so much as a sniff of a child. Now they tell me that I am the cause of this lack, because my eggs are transparent and their sap too clear and worthless. I have been to every druggist in the market for a mixture to thicken these things, but not one of them has it. I am very unhappy, because I cannot find anything to give a proper density to this most important humour of my body.”

Instead of being astonished at what the syndic said or laughing at him, the broker Samsam stretched out his hand, palm upwards, saying: “Give me a dinar and your bowl, and I will do the business myself.” “By Allah, is that possible?” answered the syndic. “I swear by the life of the Prophet that your fortune is made if you succeed. Here, to begin with, are two dinars instead of one.” And he handed two gold pieces and the bowl to Samsam.

On this occasion that creature of fabulous debauch showed himself more learned in medicine than all the druggists of the market. He bought what he needed and set himself to prepare the following mixture:

He took two ounces of Chinese cubebs, one ounce of fat extract of Ionian hemp, one ounce of fresh cloves, one ounce of red cinnamon from Sarandīb, ten drachms of white Malabar cardamoms, five of Indian ginger, five of white pepper, five of pimento from the isles, one ounce of the berries of Indian star-anise, and half an ounce of mountain thyme.[2] These he mixed cunningly, after having pounded and sieved them; he added pure honey until the whole became a thick paste; then he mingled five grains of musk and an ounce of pounded fish roe with the rest. Finally he added a little concentrated rose-water and put all in the bowl.

After this work was completed, he carried the bowl to Shams al-Dīn, saying: “Here is a sovereign mixture which will harden the eggs and thicken the sap when it has become too thin.”

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


SHE said:

SAMSAM CONTINUED: “You must eat this paste two hours before the sexual approach; but, for three days before that, you must eat nothing save roast pigeons excessively seasoned with spice, male fish with their cream complete, and lightly fried rams’ eggs. If, after all that, you do not pierce the very walls of the room and get the foundations of the house with child, you can cut off my beard and spit in my face.” With these words he went away.

“Surely,” thought the syndic, “Samsam, whose whole life is one riot of lewdness, ought to know all about these hardening medicines. I will put my trust in Allāh and in him.” He at once returned home and made it up with his wife; and, as they both loved each other, each apologised for their passing anger and told the other how sad it had been to stay estranged for a whole night.

Shams al-Dīn scrupulously followed Samsam’s diet for three days and then ate the paste, which he found delicious. Soon he noticed that his blood was boiling, as it had when he was a boy and made bets on certain matters with lads of his own age. He went to his wife and mounted her; she met him half-way, and they were both astonished with the resulting hardness, repetition, heat, jet, intensity and thickness. That night the syndic’s wife well and truly conceived; as she herself made certain, when three months passed without flow of blood.

Her pregnancy followed a normal course and, at the end of nine months to a day, she underwent a happy but intensely difficult labour; for the child, when he was born, was as big as if he was already one year old. After the usual invocations, the midwife declared that never before had she seen so big and beautiful a boy; nor is that to be wondered at when we consider the excellent paste.

The midwife washed the child while she invoked the names of Allāh, Muhammad and Alī, and whispered the act of Faith into the baby's ear; then she swaddled him and returned him to the mother, who gave him the breast until he fell asleep. The old woman stayed by the wife for three days to see that all went well; and at the end of that time the usual sweetmeats were distributed among the neighbours.

On the seventh day salt was thrown into the room, and then the syndic entered to congratulate his wife. “Where is Allāh’s gift?” he asked, and, when she held out the child, he marvelled at the beauty of his son, who had the figure of a full year and a face brighter than the rising moon. “What would you like to call him?” he asked, and the wife replied: “If it had been a girl, I would have found a name; but as it is a boy you have the right of choice.”

Just at that moment one of the girl slaves, who was swathing the infant, burst into tears of passionate pleasure on seeing a fair brown mole, like a grain of musk, which lay bright upon the small left thigh. Because of this discovery and also because his son had on both cheeks two much smaller beauty-spots of velvet blackness, the good syndic cried: “We will call him Alā al-Dīn Abū Shāmāt!”

So the boy was called Alā al-Dīn Abū Shāmāt, but soon this name was found too long and he was called simply Abū Shāmāt. For four years he was given the breast by two nurses and by his mother, so that he became as strong as a young lion, while the white of him remained the white of jasmine and the rose the rose of rose. He was so handsome that all the little girls of the neighbourhood adored him to idolatry; he accepted their homage, but would never allow himself to be kissed by one of them, scratching them cruelly when they came too close; so the little girls, and even the big girls, used to take advantage of his sleep to cover him with kisses and rejoice in his fresh beauty.

When his father and mother saw how much Abū Shāmāt was admired and petted, they feared the evil eye for him and resolved to protect him from its influence. They did not act like so many other parents, who leave their baby’s faces to be covered by flies and filth so that they shall seem less beautiful; but at once shut their child in a cellar, built below the house, and had him brought up away from every indiscreet eye. Abū Shāmāt grew without anyone knowing of him, though he was surrounded by the incessant care of slaves and eunuchs.[3] When he became older, he was given learned masters, who taught him fair writing, the Koran, and many sciences. Though he soon became as learned as he was handsome and strong, his parents resolved not to let him leave the cellar until his beard sprouted.

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


SHE said

ONE DAY A SLAVE, who had brought Abū Shāmāt his meal, forgot to shut the cellar door; seeing this opening, which he had never noticed before owing to the great size of the cellar and to the fact that it had many curtains and hangings, the boy hastened through it and ran upstairs into the presence of his mother, who was surrounded by certain high-born women upon a visit.

At that time Abū Shāmāt was a fair child of fourteen, as handsome as a drunken angel[4]; his cheeks were downed like fruit and the twin moles shone on either side of his mouth. I say nothing of the one which might not be seen. When the women saw this unknown youth bound into their midst, they veiled their faces in fright and said to the wife of Sham? al-Dln : “By Allah, what shame is this, that you allow a strange young man to see us? Do you not know that modesty is one of the essential dogmas of faith?*

Abū Shāmāt’s mother answered: “Call on the name of Allāh! O guests, this is my dearly-loved son, the fruit of my bowels, offspring of the syndic of the merchants of Cairo. He has been brought up at the breasts of nurses with a generous milk, in the arms of beautiful slaves, on the shoulders of chosen virgins, in the purest and noblest laps; he is his mother’s eye and his father’s pride; he is Abū Shāmāt! Call on the name of Allāh, O my guests."

“The name of Allāh be upon him and about him!" answered the amīrs’ and rich merchants’ wives. “But tell us why you have never shown your son to us before.”

Shams al-Dīn’s wife rose and, kissing her son upon the eyes, sent him away that he might no longer embarrass her friends; then she said: “His father has had him brought up in the cellar of our house to protect him from the evil-eye; he is determined not to show him until his beard sprouts, in case his beauty should attract danger and wrong influences. His escape just now must be the fault of some eunuch who forgot to close the door.” Before they left, her guests congratulated the syndic’s wife on the beauty of her son and called down the blessings of Allāh upon his head.

Abū Shāmāt returned to his mother and, seeing the slaves harnessing a mule, asked her what the animal was for. “To fetch your father from the market,” she said, and he continued: “What is my father’s business?” “My dear,” she replied, “your father is a great merchant and syndic of all the other merchants in Cairo. He furnishes the Sultān of Arabia and all the Mussulmān Kings. To give you an idea of his importance: buyers never go to him direct, save for transactions which involve over a thousand dinars; if a trivial nine hundred and ninety-nine dinars are in question, people go to your father’s underlings and not to himself. No merchandise can go in or out of Cairo without your father being told of it and consulted about it. Allāh has given your father incalculable riches, my child; therefore be grateful to Him.”

“I thank Him that He created me the son of a syndic,” answered Abū Shāmāt. “But I do not want to pass all my life shut away from my fellow men; to-morrow I will go to the market with my father.” “May Allāh hear you, my son,” answered his mother. “As soon as your father returns this evening, I will speak to him about it.”

When Shams al-Dīn came in, his wife told him all that had passed, adding: “It is really time that you took your son to the market with you.” “O mother of Abū Shāmāt,” replied the syndic, “do you not know that the evil-eye is a very real thing, not a subject for jests? Have you forgotten what happened to the sons of our neighbour so-and-so and our neighbour such-and-such and a host of others, killed by the evil-eye? Half the graves of time are filled with victims of the evil-eye.

“Father of Abū Shāmāt,” objected his wife, “every man carries his Destiny about his neck and cannot escape it. What is written cannot be cancelled, and sons will follow their fathers through life and the doors of death. That which is to-day, to-morrow is not! How terrible it would be if our son were to suffer through your fault; for some day—after a long and entirely fortunate life, I hope—you will die and no one will recognise our boy as the legitimate heir to all your riches, since no one knows of his existence. The Treasury will take your goods and cheat your son out o fhis inheritance. If I called the old men as witnesses, they would only be able to say: “We never heard of son or daughter being born to the syndic Shams al-Dīn.”[5]

These shrewd words made the syndic reflect; after a little while he answered: “As Allāh lives, I think you are right! To-morrow I will take Abū Shāmāt with me, and teach him the arts of buying and selling and all the secrets of my business.” Turning to his son, who was jumping for joy, he continued: “I know you will be delighted to come with me, and that is very well; but you must remember that, in the market, one has to be very serious and keep one’s eyes lowered modestly. I hope that you will remember to practise the wise precepts which your masters have taught you.”

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


SHE said:

NEXT MORNING, SHAMS AL-DĪN took his son to the hammām and, after he had bathed, dressed him in a robe of very soft satin, the finest which he had in his shop, and bound his brow with a light turban of striped material, sewn with delicate gold silk. They ate a morsel together and drank a glass of sherbert to refresh themselves before leaving the hammām; then the syndic mounted his white mule and took Abū Shāmāt up behind him, who shone so fresh and fair that he would have seduced the angels themselves. They rode to the market among a group of slaves, who wore new dresses for the occasion; and all the merchants fell to marvelling and saying to each other: “Yā Allāh! look at the boy! Surely that is the moon a fortnight old!” Others added: “Who can the delicious child be? We have never seen him before.”

As they were all exclaiming at the passage of the white mule, the broker Samsam passed also and perceived the boy. Now, owing to his excessive debauchery, to his fabulous consumption of hashish and opium, Samsam had completely lost his memory, and had therefore quite forgotten the cure which he had worked upon the syndic with his miraculous paste of male roe, musk, cubebs, and the rest.

Therefore, as soon as he saw his old friend accompanied by a youth, he grinned and began to make crapulous jokes to himself, and say to various of the merchants: “Look at the old man! Is he not like a leek, white-haired but green in body?” With that he went from one to another, repeating his jests and epigrams, until no one in the market doubted that the syndic Shams al-Dīn had installed a young minion in his shop.

Merchants of Cairo by Emile Bernard

When this rumour came to the ears of the principal merchants, they formed an assembly of the oldest and most respected among them to judge the matter; and Samsam appeared before them, making wide gestures of indignation and saying: “We do not wish to have at our head as syndic a lewd old man, who rubs himself against young boys in public. I suggest that we abstain this morning from going to read before him the seven holy verses as is our custom, and that during the day we choose another syndic who is a little less partial to youth.” The merchants found nothing to say against Samsam’s plan, which was unanimously adopted.

When the worthy Shams al-Dīn saw the hour pass on which the merchants and brokers usually came to recite before him the ritual verses of the Fātihah, or opening of the Koran, he did not know what to make of this breach of tradition; therefore, seeing the dissolute Samsam watching him out of the corner of his eyes, he beckoned him to approach. The broker had been waiting for this, so he stepped forward, moving slowly and negligently, with knowing glances at the shop-keepers to right and left, that he might be the centre of all eyes and be considered as the latest posted in this scandal.

As he leaned against the front of the shop, Shams al-Dīn said to him: “How is it, my good Samsam, that the merchants and their chief have not come to recite their holy verses before me?” The broker answered with a cough: “Hm! Hm! I really could not say. There are rumours running about the market, rumours, just rumours. This I can tell you, though: a party has been formed among the chief oldsters to deprive you of your office and elect another syndic.”

The worthy merchant lost colour at this, but he asked calmly: “Can you tell me the reason for this decision?” Samsam winked and undulated his hips, saying: “Do not be coy with me, old friend; you ought to know better than anyone else. That boy in your shop now; I take it he is not there to kill the flies.[6] Mind you, I strongly undertook your defence, I only among the whole of them. I told them that, if you had been a lover of boys, I should have been the first to know of it, because I always seem to make friends with those who have a taste for green fruit. I told them that the lad must be some relation to your wife or to one of your friends in Tantah or Baghdād; but they turned against me and insisted on your replacement. Allāh is great, old friend; and you have one consolation, that truly delightful boy, on whom I heartily congratulate you.”

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


SHE said:

SHAMS AL-DĪN COULD NO longer contain his indignation and interrupted Samsam, crying: “Be quiet, O most corrupt of evil-livers! Do you not know that that is my son? Where is your memory, O hashīsh eater?” “Since when have you had a son?” asked Samsam. “Was he fourteen years carried in the belly of his mother?” “But, ridiculous Samsam,” exclaimed the merchant, “do you not remember that you yourself prepared that miraculous paste for me fourteen years ago, which so thickened my eggs and concentrated their sap? Working through its means, Allāh gave me a son; but you never came to ask news of your prescription. I have brought the boy up in the great cellar of our house for fear of the evil-eye, and this is the first day that he has been out with me. I had meant to keep him from the sight of all until he could hold his beard in his fingers, but his mother persuaded me to liberate him and teach him my business ... I am glad to have the opportunity of paying my debt to you, O Samsam. Here are a thousand dinars for that paste of yours.”

The broker no longer doubted the truth of Shams al-Dīn’s statement, so he hastened to the rest of the merchants and told them of their mistake; thereupon all the chiefs of the market hurried to the syndic to congratulate him and to apologise for not having come to recite their ceremonial verses before him, an omission which they hastened to repair. “O venerable syndic,” said Samsam in the name of all, “may Allāh preserve in our affection both the tree and the branches, and may the branches in their turn give odorous and gilded fruit to a starved world! It is the custom, even among the poor, to make a birth the occasion of a distribution of sweetmeats to friends and neighbours, and we have not yet sweetened our lip* with butter and honey asīdah to the good health of your first-born. Is there any chance of a great cauldron of asīdah making its appearance?”

“I ask for nothing better,” answered Shams al-Dīn. “Only I do not offer you a cauldron of asīdah simply, but a great feast at my country house among the gardens. I invite all of you, my friends, to come to my garden to-morrow morning, and there we will make up, if Allāh wills, for lost time.”

The excellent syndic returned home at once and made great preparations for the morrow. He sent sheep, which had been fattened for six months on green leaves, to be roasted at the ovens, with well-buttered lambs, a multitude of pastries, and other pleasant things; he overwhelmed with work those among his slaves who were skilled in the making of sweetmeats and all the confectioners of Zainī Street.

Early on the following morning he took Abū Shāmāt with him to his garden and caused the slaves to spread two enormous cloths in two different parts of it. He said to his son: “One of these cloths is for the men, and the other for the boys who will come with their fathers. I will entertain the bearded and you must look after the comfort of the beardless." “Why this separation?" asked Abū Shāmāt in surprise. “Surely it is only usual when there is a question of men and women? Boys like myself have nothing to fear from bearded men." “My son," answered the syndic, “the lads will feel freer and have a more amusing time without their fathers.”[7] And Abū Shāmāt, who was naturally innocent, contented himself with this reply.

When the guests came, Shams al-Dīn received the men, and Abū Shāmāt the boys. They ate and drank and sang, gaiety and delight shone from every face, incense and aromatic woods were burnt in braziers. When the feast was finished, slaves handed round cups of sherbert and snow; and the grown men chatted agreeably together while the boys played games.

Now among the guests there was a certain merchant, perhaps the syndic’s best customer, a famous pederast, whose exploits had spared none of the pretty boys in the quarter in which he lived. His name was Mahmūd,[8] but he was never known under any other title than that of Bilateral.

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


SHE said:

WHEN MAHMŪD BILATERAL heard the sweet shouts of the boys at play, he was stirred to his depths and thought to himself: “Surely there may be some windfall to be picked up over there.” He rose and, pretending that he had a pressing need, stole through the trees until he came all amongst the boys. He halted in appreciation of their lithe movements and handsome faces; it was not long before he decided that by far the most exquisite was Abū Shāmāt.[9] He revolved a thousand plans for speaking to the lad and taking him apart, and was muttering: “Yā Allāh! if only he would move a little away from his comrades!” when Destiny played into his hands.

Abū Shāmāt, excited by the game, his cheeks blowing with healthy roses, felt the need to piss and, being well brought up, did not wish to squat down in front of his guests. Therefore he went aside among the trees. Seeing him, Bilateral said to himself: “If I approach him now, I will frighten him. I must adopt some other plan.”

Egyptian Boys with Flute by Arturo Zanieri

He walked out from behind the tree and was at once recognised by the boys, who began to hoot at him and run between his legs. He smiled happily at them, and at last said: “Listen, my children, each of you shall have to-morrow a new robe and enough money for all his foolishness, if you can succeed in determining Abū Shāmāt to travel and vagabond away from Cairo.” “That will be easy, Bilateral,” answered the boys; so Mahmūd left them and returned to the other company.

When Abū Shāmāt came back to his place, his comrades winked at each other and the most eloquent said: “While you were away, we were talking of the marvels of travel and of wonderful far countries, of Damascus and Aleppo and Baghdād. Your father is so rich that you must surely have been many journeys with him among the caravans. Tell us a few of the wonders you have seen.” “I?” answered Abū Shāmāt. “Do you not know that I was brought up in a cellar and only came out yesterday? One cannot see much of the world in a cellar. It was hard enough to persuade my father to take me to the shop.”

“Poor Abū Shāmāt! You have been deprived of the most delightful joys in all the world. My friend, if you only knew what a wonderful thing is travel, you would not stay another day in your father’s house. All the poets have sung the delights of wandering. One of them said:

Sing the joys of vagabonding.
All that’s beautiful travels far;
Even the moon-coloured pearl
Must forsake the deep green levels.
Leave the ancient ocean’s bonding,
And be drawn across the beaches
Where the waiting merchants are.
Ere it shows and glows and reaches
To a crown’s immortal bevels
Or the white neck of a girl.”

When he heard this poem, Abū Shāmāt answered: “You may be right; but a quiet home has its charm also.” One of the boys began to laugh, saying to the others: “Poor Abū Shāmāt is like the fish who cannot live out of water.” Another improved on this, saying: “He is afraid of spoiling the roses of his cheeks.” “He is like a woman,” added a third, “no woman can go a step alone.” A fourth exclaimed: “O Abū Shāmāt, are you not ashamed of being such a girl?”

The poor boy was so mortified that he at once left his guests and, mounting his mule, galloped back to the city. He ran to his mother, with rage in his heart and tears.in his eyes, so that the woman was frightened by his appearance. He repeated the mocking jests which had been made at his expense and declared his intention of setting out at once, for no matter what place, so long as he could set out. “You see this knife,” he added, “I shall thrust it into my breast if I am not allowed to travel.”

His mother could only weep and acquiesce. “I promise to help you in every way I can,” she said. “As I am sure your father will refuse his consent, 1 will give you an outfit of merchandise at my own expense.” “Then we must act before my father’s return,” said Abū Shāmāt.

Shams al-Dīn’s wife got the slaves to open one of the reserve stocks of her husband’s goods, and made enough of them into bales to load ten camels.

As soon as his guests had gone, the syndic hunted for his son in the garden and at last learned from the slaves that he had set out for home. Fearing lest some misfortune had happened to him by the way, Shams al-Dīn rode his mule at full gallop and came breathless to the courtyard of his house, where he was relieved to hear from the gate-keeper that his son had returned in safety. Nevertheless he was greatly surprised to see bale after bale standing ready in the court, all ticketed to such destinations as Aleppo, Damascus and Baghdād.

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


SHE said:

HE HURRIED TO his wife, who told him all that had passed and insisted that it would be dangerous to thwart the boy. “Nevertheless I will try to dissuade him," said the syndic, and, calling Abū Shāmāt to him, he addressed him thus: “My child, may Allāh lighten your understanding and turn you from your fatal project! Our Prophet (upon whom be prayer and peace!) has said: ‘Happy is die man who lives on the fruits of the earth and finds contentment for his whole lifetime upon the spot where he was born.’ The ancients had this saying: ‘Do not enter upon a journey, even for one mile.’ After these two wise counsels, do you still persist in your resolution?”

“Dear father,” answered Abū Shāmāt, “it would grieve me very much to disobey you, but, if you refuse to let me leave, I will throw off my costly clothes, dress in the rags of a darwīsh, and wander on foot through all the countries of the world.”

Seeing that his son was determined, the syndic said: “Very well, my child, I will give you forty more loads, so that you will have fifty camels altogether. You will find goods appropriate for each of the towns which you enter; for you must not try to sell at Aleppo the fabrics which are popular in Damascus. That would be a bad speculation. Go, my son, and may Allāh protect you and flatten the road before you. Above all, take great care when you go through the Valley of Dogs, which is in the Desert of the Lion. Notorious bandits haunt there, under the leadership of a Badawī known as Quick.” “Evil and good alike lie in the hand of Allāh,” answered Abū Shāmāt. “Whatever I do I shall only receive that which is due to me.”

As these sentiments were unanswerable, the syndic did not reply; but his wife could not be satisfied until she had made a thousand exclamatory prayers,; promised a hundred sheep to various holy men, and again and again placed her son under the protection of Abd al-Kādir Jīlānī, saint of wayfarers.

While Abū Shāmāt was escaping with difficulty from the farewells of his weeping mother, Shams al-Dīn took aside the old intendant of the camel-drivers, one Kamāl, and said: “Worthy intendant, I confide my child to you, the apple of my eye; I trust him to your guardianship and the protection of Allāh .... Remember, my son, that this is your father while you are away. Obey him, and never do anything without his advice.” Then he gave a thousand golden dinars to Abū Shāmāt, saying as a last recommendation: “I give you these that you may live on them while waiting for the ripe and advantageous moment on which to sell your goods. Do not offer for sale that which others are offering at the same time; keep it till the stocks of your rivals are exhausted and the price rules high.” After last farewells the caravan started and was soon outside the gates of Cairo.

As soon as Mahmūd Bilateral heard of Abū Shāmāt’s departure, he hurried forth and overtook him at two leagues from Cairo, with a troop of mules, camels, and saddle horses. “O Mahmūd,” he said to himself, “here in the desert there is no one to denounce you, no one to spy upon you; you can enjoy this child with a tranquil mind.”[10]

At the first halt, Bilateral had his tents pitched beside those of Abū Shāmāt and, telling the child’s cook not to trouble to light a fire, invited the object of his desire to feed in his own tent.

Abū Shāmāt came, but he was accompanied by old Kamāl, the intendant of the camel-drivers, so that Bilateral had only his trouble for his pains. The same thing happened on each succeeding day, until both caravans reached Damascus.

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


SHE said:

AT THIS CITY, as at Cairo, Aleppo and Baghdād, Bilateral had a house where he was accustomed to entertain his friends; so he sent a slave to Abū Shāmāt, who remained in his tents at the entrance of the city, inviting him to come alone to visit him. “Wait till I have asked old Kamāl’s advice,” answered Abū Shāmāt; but the worthy camel-driver frowned at the invitation, and said: “No, my son, you must decline.” Therefore Abū Shāmāt sent a message of polite refusal.

Aleppo. A 16th century miniature by Nasuh Al-Matraki

Neither caravan stayed long at Damascus; when both reached Aleppo, Bilateral sent the same invitation to Abū Shāmāt, and Kamāl again advised him to refuse. Although he did not understand why the intendant insisted so, the boy refused again; and Bilateral was still without any reward for his journey.

As soon as Aleppo was left behind, Bilateral swore that he would be thwarted no longer; at the first halt on the road to Baghdād, he prepared a wonderful feast and went himself to invite Abū Shāmāt. This time the youth was obliged to accept, as he had no serious excuse.

As he was dressing himself suitably in his tent, Kamāl came to him, saying: “You are very imprudent, O Abū Shāmāt. Do you not understand Mahmūd’s intentions? Do you not know why he is called Bilateral? At least you should have asked the advice of this old man, of whom a poet has written:

As an old man I walked bent
Because my youth was spilt and spent
Upon the ground;
I stooped to look for it and take it thence
When lo! I found
The fardel of experience
So heavily upon my back had lain
I could not straighten it again.”

But Abū Shāmāt answered: “It would have been very rude to refuse the invitation, whatever reason people have for calling our friend Bilateral. Besides, he cannot eat me.” “Can he not? He has already eaten many others,* answered the intendant sharply.

Abū Shāmāt laughed and hastened to rejoin Bilateral, who was waiting anxiously for him. They entered the tent where the feast was spread, and the boy saw that his host had spared no pains to receive him with all that might charm the eye or flatter the senses. The meal was gay and animated; both ate heavily and drank from the same cup until they were satisfied. When the wine had well mounted to their heads and the slaves had discreetly withdrawn, Bilateral leaned over Abū Shāmāt and, taking his two cheeks in his hands, tried to kiss them; but the boy, whose mind was troubled by this, instinctively lifted his hand, so that the kiss fell upon its palm. Next Mahmūd threw one arm round his guest’s neck and drew him to him with the other. “What do you wish to do?” cried Abū Shāmāt, and Bilateral answered: “Simply to expound by practice these verses of the poet:

Are not this child’s eyes all fire?
     O desire,
Feel the first flush of the eggs
     Between his legs!
Dearest, seize what you can seize,
     If you please;
Fill your boyish fist with me
     And then see
Will it go a little way.
     Just in play?”

Having said these verses in a certain fashion, Bilateral would explain them practically to the boy; but Abū Shāmāt, without very well understanding, felt uncomfortable and wished to depart. Mahmūd held him back, however, and at last made all clear to him.

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


SHE said:

WHEN A SHĀMĀT UNDERSTOOD Bilateral’s intentions and had well considered his request, he rose, saying: “As Allāh lives, I do not sell that kind of goods. The only consolation I can give you is the assurance that, if ever I sell it to others, I will give it to you for nothing.”[11] Then, in spite of his host’s prayers, he left the tent and hurried back to his own camp, where the intendant was anxiously awaiting him. “Tell me, in Allāh’s name, what has passed?” said Kamāl, noticing the boy’s strange looks. “Nothing happened,” answered Abū Shāmāt. “Only we must certainly strike camp at once and journey to Baghdād, as I do not want to travel longer with Bilateral. His pretensions are exaggerated and troublesome." “Did I not tell you so?" cried the camel-driver. “But praise be to Allāh that nothing happened! I think it would be very dangerous for us to go on alone; it would be better for us to stay as we are, a single caravan, for mutual protection against the Badawī cut-throats who haunt these ways.” But Abū Shāmāt would not be convinced, and the little caravan set out alone and journeyed forward, until one day at sunset it was only a few leagues from the gates of Baghdād. Kamāl came to Abū Shāmāt, saying: “My son, we had better push on to Baghdād to-night instead of camping in this place, which is the most dangerous of all our journey and is called the Valley of Dogs. If we were to pass the night here, we would almost certainly be attacked. Let us hurry forward and reach the city before the gates are shut;, for you must know that the Khalīfah has them strictly closed at night, lest the wandering fanatics should enter his city by stealth and throw all the books of science and literary manuscripts into the Tigris."

Abū Shāmāt was not at all pleased with this plan, and answered: “As Allah lives, I do not want to enter the city by night. I want to enjoy the sight of the sunrise over Baghdād. We will pass the night here, for I am in no hurry; as you know, I am not journeying for business, but for the simple pleasure, and to see what I have never seen before.” The old intendant could only give way, although he had dark forebodings of the result.

Part of the Caliphate of Harun al-Rashid, showing all the cities to which Abū Shāmāt travelled

Abū Shāmāt ate a light meal and then, when the slaves had lain down to sleep, left his tent and, walking up the valley for a little way, sat down under a tree in the moonlight. He called to mind books which he had read with his masters in the cellar and, inspired to reverie, began to sing this song:

With delicate pleasures
O queen of Irāk,
O Baghdād, city of poets,
So long have I dreamed of you:
O calm . . .

He was interrupted by a terrible clamour on his left, by a galloping of horses, and wild cries from a hundred throats. He turned and saw his camp overwhelmed by a large band of Badawī, who seemed to spring from the earth. A sight so strange kept him, as it were, nailed to the ground, and, in spite of himself, he saw the wholesale massacre of the caravan and the plundering of his goods. When the Badawī outlaws saw that no one was left upon his feet, they drove off the camels and mules, and disappeared with incredible swiftness.

Abū Shāmāt miraculously saved from being killed by the Badawī. An illustration from Burton's 1897 edition of The Thousand Nights and a Night

As soon as his stupefaction had a little decreased, the boy hurried to the place where his camp had been and looked upon the bodies of his dead; even old Kamāl’s grey hairs had not been spared, he lay with his breast riddled by lances. Abū Shāmāt could not bear to look upon these things, he fled precipitately without daring to glance behind him.[12]

So as not to excite the greed of some other band of robbers, he took off his rich clothes and threw them away from him, keeping only his shirt. After running all night, he entered Baghdād half-naked at the break of day.

As he was broken by fatigue and could no longer stand, he stopped before the first public fountain at the entrance of the city. After he had washed his hands, face and feet, he climbed to the platform overlooking the water and, lying down upon it, fell fast asleep.

Mahmūd Bilateral had also journeyed forward the night before, but he had taken a short cut and so escaped the bandits. He arrived at the gates of Baghdād within a few minutes of Abū Shāmāt. As he passed the fountain, he rode near the stone trough to water his tired horse, but the animal saw the shadow of the boy upon the water and started back. Thus it was that Bilateral lifted his eyes to the platform and nearly fell out of the saddle on recognising the half-naked sleeper as Abū Shāmāt.

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


SHE said:

HE JUMPED FROM from his horse and, climbing up to the platform, stood still in admiration before the delightful picture which the boy made, his head resting on one of his arms in the abandonment of sleep. For the first time Bilateral was able to enjoy the naked perfections of this young and crystal body, starred by that adornment which had given the child his name. As he revolved the mystery of chance which had led him to find the purpose of all his journey asleep above a public fountain, he feasted his eyes upon the round beauty-spot upon the left thigh before him. “What must I do?” he said to himself, “Wake him? Set him on my horse and fly with him to the desert? 'Wait till he wakes, speak to him tenderly, persuade him to come to my house in Baghdād?”

He finally decided on the last course, and therefore sat down at the boy’s feet to wait his waking, enjoying the rose stains which the sun dropped upon that childish body.

When Abū Shāmāt had had his fill of sleep, he moved his limbs and half-opened his eyes; at once Mahmūd took him by the hand, saying in a voice which he knew very well how to make sweet: “Have no fear, my child. You are safe with me. I beg you to tell me what has happened.”

Abū Shāmāt sat up and, although he was a little troubled to find himself in the presence of his admirer, told Mahmūd the whole story. “Give praise to Allāh, my young friend,” cried the merchant, “for though he has taken away your fortune, he has spared your life. A poet has said:

My gold is lost, my life is spared;
That is to say
My finger nails are pared,
A thing of every day.

Baghdad under the Abbasid Caliphs

Also your fortune is not lost, for what is mine is yours. Come to my house for a bath and new raiment; from now on I beg you to consider all Mahmūd’s riches your own; even Mahmūd’s life, if you require it.” He went on speaking to the boy like a good father, until he persuaded him to his will; then he climbed down and helped the boy into the saddle behind him. As he rode towards his house, he shivered with pleasure to feel the lad’s warm bare body straddled against him.

He led Abū Shāmāt to the hammām and bathed him himself, without the help of any rubber or slave; then he dressed him in a most expensive robe and led him to the hall where he was used to receive his friends. This hall was a delicious place of cool shadows, lighted only by the blue-tinted reflections of enamel and frail porcelain, elusive stars falling through the half light. The odour of a rare incense carried the soul to dream gardens of camphor and cinnamon; a fountain sang low in the middle of the floor; rest and ecstasy made one in the serene air.

As the two sat down on carpets, Mahmūd set a cushion for Abū Shāmāt’s elbow; they ate daintily and drank choicely together, until at last Bilateral could contain himself no longer, and cried aloud the words of a poet:

Lust is not content with blushes,
Kisses taken from pure lips.
Not content with wedded glances:
Lust must have a thing which dances,
Lust must have a thing which gushes.
Lust must have a thing which drips.

Abū Shāmāt had become accustomed to Bilateral’s verses, so he easily understood the drift of this rather obscure poem. He jumped to his feet, saying to his host: “I cannot understand why you so harp upon this one string. I can only repeat that, on the day I sell this thing, I will give it to you for nothing.”[13] With that he ran out of the hall and out of the house.

He wandered about the city in the falling night and, being a stranger ignorant of Baghdād, determined to pass the night in a mosque which he found. He entered the court and was about to take off his sandals before going further, when he saw two men coming towards him attended by slaves with lighted lanterns. He stepped to one side to let them pass, but the elder paused before him and looked at him closely, saying: “Peace be with you!” Abū Shāmāt returned his greeting, and the other continued: “Are you a stranger to the city, my child?” “I come from Cairo,” answered Abū Shāmāt, “my father is Shams al-Dīn, syndic of merchants in that place.”

The old man turned to his companion, saying: “Allāh has prospered our research! We did not think to find our stranger so quickly.”

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


SHE said:

THE OLD MAN took Abū Shāmāt aside, saying: “I thank Allāh who has placed you in our way! We wish to ask you a favour for which we will pay you five thousand dīnārs, with goods for a thousand, and a horse worth another thousand.

“You must know, my son, that our law decrees the following: when a Mussulmān puts away his wife once, he may take her back at the end of three months and ten days without any formality; if he puts her away a second time, he may again take her back after the legal interval; but if he puts her away a third time, or if, without ever having put her away before, he says: ‘I put you away three times,’ or ‘I swear by the third divorce that you are none of mine,’ he may not take her back until another man has legally married her, lain with her one night, and himself divorced her.

“Now a few days ago this young man who is with me lost his temper with my daughter, his wife, and shouted at her: ‘Get out of my house! I know you not! I put you away by the Three!’ My daughter covered her face with her veil in the presence of her husband, who was then a stranger, took back her dowry, and returned to my house. But now her husband is very anxious to have her again; he has begged me to undertake the reconciliation. In brief, I offer you the position of Unbinder; you are a stranger, therefore no one need know anything about the matter, except the parties concerned and the kādī.”

Poverty compelled Abū Shāmāt to accept this offer. “I shall have five thousand dīnārs, goods for a thousand, a horse worth a thousand, and a whole night of coupling,” he said to himself, and then turned to the two men, crying: “I accept the office of Unbinder.”

“You are helping us out of a great difficulty,” said the husband, who had not yet spoken. “I love my wife to distraction. My one fear is that to-morrow morning you may find her to your liking and not wish to give her back; in that case the law would be on your side; therefore I shall require you to make an engagement before the kādī to forfeit ten thousand dinars to me if you do not consent to the divorce when to-morrow comes.” Abū Shāmāt accepted this condition, as he had quite made up his mind only to lie with the woman for one night.

A scholar of mediaeval Baghdad

All three went to the kādī and made the two contracts in his presence. While the legal formalities were being complied with, the kādī looked often at Abū Shāmāt and learned to love him with consuming passion. We shall hear of the kādī during the course of our narrative.

When the contracts had been signed, the father of the divorced woman led Abū Shāmāt to his house and begged him to wait in the vestibule, while he himself hurried to his daughter, saying: “My dear child, I have found an excellently well-built youth, whom I hope will please you. I recommend him to you with all my heart; have a fine night with him, and deny yourself nothing! It is not every night that one can have so delicious a boy within one’s arms.” This good parent then returned to Abu Shamat and made him much the same recommendation, begging him to wait for a short time until his daughter should be ready to receive him.

Now the original husband was very jealous, so he lost no time in seeking out a very cunning old woman who had brought him up. “Good mother,” he said to her, “I beg you to find some means to prevent this Unbinder from lying with my wife.” “On your life, that is easy enough,” answered the old woman.

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


SHE said:

WRAPPING HERSELF IN her veil, she went to the house of the divorced woman and sidled up to the youth, whom she found in the vestibule, saying: “Can you tell me where I can find the girl who was recently divorced? I come here every day to rub her body with my pomades, although I hardly expect to cure her leprosy, poor thing.” “Allāh preserve me!” exclaimed Abū Shāmāt, “is she a leper, good mother? I have to lie with her tonight; I am the Unbinder chosen by her husband.” “Allāh keep whole your youth, my son!” she answered. “You had better not lie with a person like that.” She left him in a state of the uttermost confusion and, going to the bride, told her the same tale about the Unbinder, advising her not to risk the contamination of his body.

Abū Shāmāt waited a long time for the girl to call him, but he saw no one except the slave who brought him food and drink. When he had finished his supper, he recited from the Koran to pass the time, and then began gently to sing over some lyric verses in a voice more beautiful than that of David before Saul.

The young woman heard his voice and said to herself: “What did that wicked old woman mean? A leper could not have so beautiful a voice![14] As Allāh lives, I will call him and see for myself that the old trot has lied.” She took an Indian lute and sang in a voice to draw birds from the sky:

I love a fawn with eyes of languishment;
If you would know the forest way he went,
     Watch what young branches still are practising
Their just- learned lesson of the way he bent.

As soon as Abū Shāmāt heard the first notes of this song, he ceased his own and listened with charmed attention. “By Allāh, that old salve-concocter lied!” he said to himself. “A leper could not have so beautiful a voice.” Taking his key from the last note of the song, he answered in tones which would have made a rock dance:

I send my voice to catch the quick gazelle
Who still eludes the chase,
That it may wanton where the roses dwell
In the garden of her face.

The accent of this improvisation was so ravishing that the young woman ran to lift the curtains which separated her from the singer, and showed herself to him suddenly, like a moon unrobing from her clouds. Signing to him to enter her own apartment, she showed him the way with such a movement of the hips as would have set upright any impotent old man. As Abū Shāmāt hesitated between rapture at her beautiful youth and fear of leprous contagion, the girl took off her chemise and drawers and, throwing them far from her, appeared as naked and clean as virgin silver, as firm and slim as a palm branch.

Abū Shāmāt felt the heritage of his fathers move within him, the charming child he bore between his thighs. Feeling the infant’s need to be pressing, he wished to give him to the woman, who surely would know what to do with him, but she cried out: “Do not come near! I am afraid that I will catch your leprosy!”

Abū Shāmāt answered this by taking off all his clothes and appearing in his fair nakedness, as pure as a spring of water among rocks, as virgin as a baby’s eye.

The girl saw in a flash her husband’s villainy and, running to the Unbinder, dragged him to the bed and rolled upon it with him. Panting with desire, she said:

“Prove yourself, old Zacharias, prove yourself, sinewy father!”

A 14th-century Arabic manuscript of The Thousand Nights and One Night

At this explicit appeal, Abū Shāmāt seized the girl by the thighs and aimed a great stick of conserve in the direction of the gate of triumphs; then, riding towards the crystal corridor, he halted at the gate of victories. After that he left the main road and spurred vigorously by a short cut to the mounter’s door; but, as the nerve failed a little before the narrowness of this wicket, he turned then and, staving in the lid, found himself as much at home as if the architect had built on the actual measures of both. He continued his pleasant expedition, slowly visiting Monday market, the shops about Tuesday, Wednesday counter, and the stall of Thursday;[15] then, when he had loosened all there was to loosen, he halted, like a good Mussulmān, at the beginning of Friday. Such was the voyage of discovery which Abū Shāmāt and his little boy made in the garden of girlhood.

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


SHE said:

FEELING THAT HIS CHILD was safely cradled in delight among the girl’s pillaged flower beds, he clasped her tenderly, and all three slept together till morning.

At dawn Abū Shāmāt asked his transitory wife her name. “Zubaidah,” she answered, and he continued: “Dear Zubaidah, I infinitely regret that I have got to leave you.” “And why have you got to leave me?” she asked. “Have you forgotten that I am only the Unbinder?” he questioned. “As Allāh lives, I had forgotten!” she cried. “I thought, in my happiness, that you were some marvellous gift which my father had given me to take the place of the other.” “No, charming Zubaidah, I am only the Unbinder,” he was forced to reply, “and I have signed a contract in front of the kādī to forfeit ten thousand dinars if I do not abandon you. As I have only one dirham in my pocket, it is parting either way; for if I keep you, I shall go to prison.”

Zubaidah reflected for a while and then, kissing the youth’s eyes, asked him his name. “I am called Abū Shāmāt,’' he answered, and she went on: “Yā Allāh, you are well named. Dear Abū Shāmāt, as I prefer the white delicious stick of conserve which sweetened my garden to all the sugar candies in the world, I swear that I will find some way of never leaving you; for I would die if I belonged to another after this.” “But what can we do?” he asked. “It is quite simple,” she answered. “My father will soon come to take you to the kādī to fulfil the formalities of your contract. You must take the kādī apart and whisper in his ear: ‘I do not want a divorce.’ ‘What?’ he will ask, ‘do you refuse five thousand dīnārs, goods to the value of a thousand , and a horse worth a thousand, for the sake of a woman?’ ‘Each of her hairs is worth ten thousand dinars,’ you must answer; then the kādī will say: ‘The law is on your side, but you must pay the husband ten thousand dīnārs as compensation.’

“Now, my dear, listen carefully. The old kādī, though a man of excellent character in every other way, is madly enamoured of young boys, and I am quite sure that you have already made a considerable impression on him.”[16]

“Do you think that the kādī is also bilateral?” cried Abū Shāmāt, and Zubaidah burst out laughing, as she answered: “Assuredly. Is there anything very astonishing about that?” Said the youth: “Surely it is written that Abū Shāmāt must spend his life in going from one bilateral to another! I pray you to continue, O clever Zubaidah. But first, surely you are not going to advise me to sell my goods to the old kādī?”

Zubaidah continued: “Wait and see. When the kādī tells you that you must pay ten thousand dinars, you will look at him like this, making your hips move gently up and down, not too much, but enough to melt him with emotion upon his carpet. When you have done this, he will give you time in which to pay your debt; and after that Allāh will provide.”

“The thing is possible,” answered Abū Shāmāt.

Just at this moment a slave entered, saying: “Mistress Zubaidah, your father waits for this youth outside.” Abū Shāmāt dressed in haste and, joining the father and the husband, went with them to the kādī.

Zubaidah’s expectations were fulfilled to the letter. The kādī, being almost done to death by the sidelong glances of the youth, gave him not only three days in which to pay, as Abū Shāmāt modestly requested, but ten days, adding: “Neither religious nor civil law obliges anyone to divorce. The four orthodox rituals are in accord upon this point. We give the Unbinder ten days in which to pay.”

Abū Shāmāt kissed the hand of the old man, who was saying to himself: “As Allāh lives, the boy himself is well worth ten thousand. I would willingly lend him the money myself.” When all was completed, the youth said farewell in his most winning manner and hurried to rejoin his wife.

At this point, the kādī disappears from the story and there is no further mention of either Mahmūd Bilateral or Greek love until the end.  Having won high office and great favour with the Caliph, Harun al-Rashid, Abū Shāmāt was framed for theft by Harun’s chief of police, Ahmad-the-Moth, and fled into exile for fourteen years until the deception was discovered and he was recalled to Baghdād and restored to favour.

Abū Shāmāt remembered that the prime cause of all his fortune was Mahmūd Bilateral, who had not only ingeniously made him travel in the first place, but had also succoured him when he lay destitute upon the platform above the fountain. He set out to look for him and at last found him, seated in a garden, singing and drinking with a company of young boys. He invited him to the palace, and had him appointed chief of police in the place of Ahmad-the-Moth.[17]

In one further paragraph, Shahrazād concluded the story of Abū Shāmāt. …

Dunyazād, Shahrazād and Shahryār by Paul Emile Detouche

Then King Shahryār, who had listened with motionless attention, cried: “O Shahrazād this tale of Abū Shāmāt is indeed a remarkable one. Mahmūd Bilateral and the broker Samsam, with his recipe for heating cold eggs, delighted me in the extreme. But I must admit that I was surprised at the paucity of poems in the story, for you have accustomed me to magnificent verses. Also some of the movements and desires of Bilateral seemed to me a little obscure; 1 should be charmed to hear any clearer explanations which you would care to give.”

Shahrazād smiled slightly and looked at little Dunyazād,[18] who appeared extremely amused, before she answered: “Seeing that this little one can hear everything, I would rather, O auspicious King, recount to you one or two of the Adventures of the Poet Abū Nuwās, the most delicious, the most charming, and the most spiritual of all the singers who have ever been in Irāk and Arabia.”[19]


[1] The Book of the Thousand Nights and a Night translated by Captain R. F. Burton (London, 1885), volume III, and The Arabian Nights: Tales of 1,001 Nights by Malcolm and Ursula Lyons (3 volumes, London, 2008), in which the story was likewise recounted on the 249th to 269th nights. The agreement betwen Burton and Lyons is hardly surprising, since they used the same manuscript source.

[2] Here Burton says in a footnote on aphrodisiacs: “Europeans deride these prescriptions, but Easterns know better: they affect the fancy, that is the brain, and often succeed in temporarily relieving impotence. The recipes for this evil, which is incurable only when it comes from heart-affections, are innumerable in the East; and about half of every medical-work is devoted to them. Many a quack has made his fortune with a few bottles of tincture of cantharides, and a man who could discover a specific would become a millionaire in India only. The curious reader will consult for specimens the Ananga-Ranga Shastra by Koka Pandit; or the "Rujú 'al-Shaykh ila 'l-Sabáh fi Kuwwati 'l-Báh" (the Return of the Old Man to Youth in power of Procreation) by Ahmad bin Sulaymán known as Ibn Kamál-Báshá, in 139 chapters lithographed at Cairo.”

[3] Burton says only “a handmaid and a blackamoor.”

[4] Instead of “drunken angel”, Burton has “as he were a white slave drunken for the excess of his beauty” and explains in a footnote “Meaning that he appeared intoxicated by the pride of his beauty as though it had been strong wine.”

[5] In Burton’s and Lyons's versions, it is Abū Shāmāt himself who concocts this argument, and his mother repeats it to his father at his behest.

[6] In Burton’s and Lyons's versions, Samsam is straightforward, not duplicitous, in his criticism of Shams al-Dīn, and here his words are blunter: “ ‘I think thou lovest him and inclines lewdly to the boy.’ "

[7] In Burton’s version, Shams al-Dīn gives his son a quite different answer: "O my son, the beardless is ashamed to eat with the bearded." Lyons' version is, as usual,  similar.

[8] Burton calls him “Mahmúd of Balkh, a professing Moslem but at heart a Magian, a man of lewd and mischievous life who loved boys.”

[9] Burton says “he was taken with love-longing and desire and affection and his heart was filled with mad passion for him.”

[10] Burton attributes the same thoughts to Mahmūd, but adds that “It chanced that he had in hand a thousand dinars which he owed to the youth's father, the balance of a business-transaction between them; so he went and bade farewell to the Consul [ie. Shams al-Dīn], who charged him, ‘Give the thousand dinars to my son Ala al-Din;’ and commended the lad to his care, saying, ‘He is as it were thy son.’ “

[11] In Burton’s version, Abū Shāmāt’s reply is harsher: “Verily this merchandise is a trust from Allah and may not be sold. If I sold this property to other than thee for gold, I would sell it to thee for silver; but by Allah, O filthy villain, I will never again company with thee; no, never!” Lyons's version is again similar.

[12] Burton’s and Lyons's versions of the encounter with the Badawī is far more elaborate, but of little Greek love interest.

[13] According to Burton, before Abū Shāmāt fled the house, Mahmūd replied: “I will give thee neither merchandise nor mule nor clothes save at this price; for I am gone mad for love of thee.”

[14] Burton explains in a footnote: “There is a peculiar thickening of the voice in leprosy which at once betrays the hideous disease.”

[15] “i.e. four times without withdrawing”, as Burton helpfully explains in a footnote.

[16] In Burton’s and Lyons's versions, Zubaidah’s says nothing about the kādī’s love of boys, and merely advises Abū Shāmāt to kiss his hand and give him a present.

[17] This paragraph about Mahmūd is absent from Burton’s and Lyons's versions.

[18] Dunyazād was Shahrazād’s younger (virgin) sister, always present at both her story-telling, for whih she acted usefully as a prompter, and her love-making with the King.

[19] Most pertinently in view of King Shahryār’s request, Abū Nuwās was also renowned as an indefatigable lover of boys. As it turned out, Shahrazād’s promise to recount his adventures was postponed until the 287th night, when she began An Adventure of the Poet Abū Nuwās.




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