Early 16th century Iranian earthenware decorated with pomegranates - in the Louvre. Picture from Wikimedia Commons.

A few posts back I wondered how well you know your brother and posited that, generally speaking, we really do not know those whom we think we know very well indeed.

But here’s another question. If you did not know you were a father (an ignorance no mother can match), and were later to meet your son in circumstances that completely hid his provenance, would you know?

Hasan feels a mysterious attraction to the young lad who comes unannounced into his cookshop in Damascus one day eleven years on from his ‘ifrit-mischief wedding night, and ‘Ajib too feels inexplicably drawn to the bearded stranger offering him food. But once again the audience is left on tenterhooks by the gap between their inside information and the cloud of unknowing enveloping the hapless protagonists.

So near, and yet so far. Is Allah at play? Or is the audience – not, you understand, Ja‘far’s rapt audience of three dervishes, a caliph and a bevy of beauties, nor yet Shahrazad’s bedroom audience of misogynist husband and faithful little sister, but the eager crowd in the dusty market place, pressing in closer the better to hear such marvels – is the audience demanding more, not wanting it to end, not yet, the night is young, so that the storyteller is obliged to add yet another level of delay and convolution to hold off the denouement?

And to do it twice!

It’s not as if we have not already tensed in anticipation as Shams al-Din (a clever man) deduces from the few clothes and possessions strewn around the bridal chamber that the changeling bridegroom is none other than his nephew, and so the rightful destined husband of his daughter after all, and we have shared in his conviction that Hasan must surely return to claim his bride, and in their joint anguish as time passes, and passes, and a son is born the handsome image of his father, and the years go by – and there’s no sign.

Why doesn’t Hasan come back to Cairo? It’s not as if he’s a prisoner over there in Damascus where the jinni dropped him, and we know that his own father got from Cairo to Basra without benefit of jinni, so it can be done. I have forsworn leaping ahead in this blog, but not leaping back, so I carefully reread the account of the wedding night to look for clues. And it appears that not only did Hasan not have the faintest idea of the identity of his bride, he had not the faintest idea where in the world the ‘ifrit and the jinna had brought him. So there was no way back for him.

The storyteller succumbs to the audience’s demands, the encounter between Hasan and ‘Ajib ends in a brawl of  misunderstanding and paranoia, the Egyptian party leave for Basra on their quest for the missing husband, oblivious that one of them has already seen the holy grail… oh sorry, different story!

But now they get a second chance. Will they realise this time that what is pulling them together is the call of blood to blood?

No. It’s all going to come down to a cook off.

The proof of the pudding is in the eating, and ‘Ajib is in no doubt that his newly found grandmother’s pomegranate dessert – all her own recipe, you must understand, known only to her long lost son – is far inferior to that of the lowly Damascus cookshop owner who has just stuffed him so full he cannot take another mouthful.

She is not amused.

Are we there yet?

Wedding strangers

Things are a-sizzle in Ja’far the Vizier’s tale of the fateful working out of a family quarrel among viziers.

jinniya and an ‘ifrit have become involved in the affairs of the humans, as they do, and, distance being no barrier to a winged spirit, now bring Nur al-Din’s handsome son Hasan face to face at last with his destined bride, the fabulously fair Sitt al-Husn, daughter of Shams al-Din.

But it was never going to be straightforward.

For a start, she’s about to wed someone else. Her bridegroom-to-be is no true rival to the handsome Hasan, but has the advantage of the Sultan’s edict behind him. By this edict, the lowliest and ugliest man in Egypt will wed the most beautiful girl.

Sultans do tend to have a rather overblown sense of entitlement, and this edict is no act of generosity to an unfortunate servant, but an act of revenge against Sitt al-Husn’s father, who has had the temerity to turn down the Sultan himself as her suitor, his heart still being set, in spite of the disappearance of his brother, on his dream of a union between his daughter and his nephew.

Why the Sultan didn’t just have the father killed and marry the girl anyway, Allah only knows, and isn’t telling.

Aleksandra Ekster - Design for 'Dance of the Seven Veils' *

A dramatic wedding ceremony unfolds, with gorgeous singing girls (all lusting after the handsome stranger) and an assemblage of matrons (just as lustful as the girls)  to cheer on the bride. Sitt al-Husn’s seven bridal robes are removed one by one, each more alluring than the last. I was especially taken with the one described as ‘the bitter cut’, because it ‘cuts men’s hearts’.  Sitt al-Husn’s long black curls creep like scorpions when they’re not wriggling like snakes. She and Hasan have eyes only for each other and the ’ifrit’s really quite astounding explanation of what is going on is swallowed as if it is the most natural thing in the world.

You’ve got to feel sorry for the original bridegroom, who is only a tool and didn’t ask for any of this, and ends up with his head down a toilet as part of the ’ifrit’s machinations. This farcical situation offers the narrator a great opportunity to do their best rib-tickling animal impersonations, always a winner with a live audience. It’s not clear whether Shahrazad has a good donkey bray or not…

But the ’ifrit’s explanation does not explain everything, as he does not actually know the full story behind this wedding couple. And so it is that Hasan and Sitt al-Husn meet, and wed, and strip, and

Sitt al-Husn went up to him and drew him to her as he drew her to him. He embraced her and placed her legs around his waist. He then set the charge, fired the cannon and demolished the fortress … and after a restorative pause, he returned fifteen times, as a result of which she conceived.

A touch militaristic perhaps. But fifteen times is certainly impressive.

All without an inkling of who the other is.

Such, of course, is the natural state of brides and grooms. Among the fabled powers of Cupid’s dart is its ability to convince you that you have known your beloved forever, but in truth we always marry strangers, and marriage may justly be described as a long journey towards acquaintance, which never quite reaches its destination.

Hasan and Sitt al-Husn hardly get a chance to start on their particular journey, however, for Hasan is whisked away asleep by the interfering jinniya and ‘ifrit, who must return whence they came before daybreak.

The denizens of Damascus, where Hasan is unceremoniously dumped en route, clothed only in his nightshirt, are suitably impressed with the glory of his unclothed nethers, but rather inclined to dismiss his account of his provenance as the ravings of a drunkard.

And as for the pregnant bride, he has left behind… but soft, what light through yonder window breaks?

* Intrigued by the description of Sitt al-Husn’s seven amazing wedding dresses, I went on a picture search to accompany this post, and came across Aleksandra Ekster’s design for ‘Dance of the Seven Veils’, featured at Tate Modern as part of an exhibition of Soviet art entitled ‘The Short Life of the Equal Woman’. Somehow, it seems apposite, and I recommend the associated article in ‘Tate Etc’ – it’s fascinating!

Deathbed advice

You may think it’s a long time since my last post, but a whole sixteen years have gone by since Nur al-Din ’Ali fell out so spectacularly with his dear brother Shams al-Din Muhammad over the (imaginary) marriage of their (imaginary) children, and there has been no further contact between them.

But falling out and getting uppity have no influence on fate, which will come to pass as Allah decrees, no matter how angry you are.

And now Nur al-Din ’Ali is about to depart this life, wondering if he was right to nurse his anger against his brother for so long and cut himself off so completely in a foreign country, even if he has done perfectly well for himself there.

He makes his handsome son Hasan (such a lovely lad that

A moon reaches its full in the heavens of his beauty )

write down the whole story of the family rift so that he will know his roots, and, should the will of Allah ever draw him across the path of his uncle, be able to deliver to him a full account of his estranged brother’s fate.

And, of course, Nur al-Din must leave his son an injunction or two to guide him through the perils of life, for that is but a dying father’s duty.

What shall we make of his parting advice?

… do not be on intimate terms with anyone, for in this way you will be safe from the evil they may do you

… injure no man, lest Time injure you, for one day it will favour you and the next it will harm you, and this world is a loan to be repaid

… keep silent and […] concern yourself with your own faults and not those of others

… be on your guard against drinking wine, for wine is the root of all discord and it carries away men’s wits

… guard your wealth and it will guard you; protect it and it will protect you

A thousand years have passed since these stories were first written down, and many were already ancient well before that, so we may fairly conclude that these maxims are the distilled wisdom of the ages. And indeed, you have only to scan the problem pages (or even the news pages) of any journal of our own day to see the same advice being handed out:

  • get too close and you’ll get hurt
  • do wrong and you’ll pay for it
  • you can only change yourself
  • drink makes you stupid
  • without money you’re in trouble

Pragmatic stuff, focused on survival. Nothing wrong with that.

But is it what you would really want to say to your son or daughter, supposing you agree that your last breaths are best spent in giving advice?

May Allah decree my deathbed still far off, but I feel moved to devise my own provisional words of wisdom on the five principles espoused by Nur al-Din, lest my son or daughter are unable to attend on the fateful day.

So, dear children…

IntimacyGet really close to a few people (not too many). You will get hurt, because being close to another person renders you vulnerable, but closeness can also bring deeper joy and reveal more of your true nature than you can possibly discover by yourself.

Of course, if you’d rather not know too much about yourself, then it’s best to keep others at bay.

EthicsWrong and right are not as easily distinguishable as people would have you believe. You’ll be punished for doing what you think right, and rewarded for doing what you think wrong. You still have to make choices with no guarantee that you are ‘really’ right or wrong – and take the consequences anyway.

The only help is to be ready to forgive yourself on a pretty regular basis for not being master of the universe.

ResponsibilityIt’s much easier to identify what other people should do than to determine – and pursue – the proper course for yourself. But there is only person you are responsible for changing (if that is the proper course) and only one person you can change.

You will influence other people whether you mean to or not, it is true, but you will be astounded (and not necessarily pleased) to learn – when you ever do – exactly how you influenced them.

IndulgenceGood wine is a delight – but (too much) drink really does make you stupid and it’s hard to tell, while quaffing, just how much is too much. So take care, my dear ones, and drink a toast for me.

WealthMoney matters because it gives you more choices in many areas of life, but it is not the only or even the most important kind of wealth you can have. However much of it you have, or seek to have, you will lose out if you are unable to distinguish between value and price.

The best things in life are free – but not necessarily easily obtainable. A storyteller yet more famed than Shahrazad herself put it like this:

A pearl of great price?

Again, the kingdom of heaven is like unto a merchantman, seeking goodly pearls: who, when he had found one pearl of great price, went and sold all that he had, and bought it. (AV Mark 13: 45-46)

Make the study of pearls your life’s work, and practise giving things away. In this way, should that one peerless gem appear before you whose supreme beauty warrants the surrender of all your wealth – you will be ready.

And with these words, she breathed her last…

Ja‘far the vizier, having narrowly escaped execution for failing to identify the perpetrator of a heinous murder, now discovers that a slave in his very own household has played a pivotal (though entirely accidental) role in the unfolding of that tragedy. So he must die, of course.

And of course, a slave is a replaceable commodity, and that the slave should pay with his life for a foolish but minor misdemeanour that led to the death of an innocent woman is surely preferable to his master paying with his life for no misdemeanour whatsoever but simply as a blood tribute to his master’s reputation as the defender of justice.

Ja‘far seems less than totally comfortable with this watertight proposition, however, for he offers to buy a stay of execution for his slave in the traditional manner – with a marvellous story. The Caliph is doubtful that any story could be more amazing than what has just transpired, but it will be a great surprise if in the course of this voyage through the Arabian Nights we encounter anyone immune to the persuasions of fiction.

Perhaps Ja‘far is a little lacking in imagination as a story teller, electing to tell us a story about viziers, but then he moves in somewhat restricted circles. And his story doesn’t tell us much about viziers, as such. It tells us how fraternal love can rather readily transform into fraternal hate.

The love of these two brothers is so close and fond that they not only plan to marry on the same day, but to consummate on the same night – specifically so that they may produce a boy and a girl whom they will later marry off to each other in order to bond the family even more closely than before.  But their love is quite undone by the matter of the dowry.

The modern feminist reader (me) could get hot under the collar about several aspects of this scenario – arranged marriages, dowries, disregard of women, consanguinity – but it’s more intriguing that the bone of contention that divides the two brothers is nothing more than a figment of their imaginations.

They made it up.

And isn’t that just how it is with many a family fall out?

"Family constellations could be described as living family trees. These constellations reveal inner images and behaviors that exist below our consciousness, and whose hidden dynamics motivate us throughout our lives." -- Scott Bader, DC

Family members who’ve grown up together assume that they know each other well. They know what, and how, each of them thinks and feels. Or so they think.

Psychologists have explained to us how different family members adopt or have imposed on them particular ‘roles‘ to play in the family structure. This is generally an unconscious process and will occur even in families who think they are ever so consciously promoting the independent individuality of their members.

While everybody plays along with the family myth, things are manageable and predictable – just what you want in family life – thus making it more likely that the myth, and the pigeonholing associated with it, will be perpetuated. “I know what makes my brother tick!”

But you don’t know what makes your brother tick, unless you consciously make the effort to ask him, and then listen very carefully indeed when (and if) he tells you.

Shams al-Din Muhammad and Nur al-Din ‘Ali may love each other dearly – but they haven’t asked each other these questions. And that means trouble.

Prenuptial agreements were in the news here recently following a court ruling on the case of a divorcing couple whose marriage was not that of two equals – at least in matters of wealth.

Rights to the marital wealth were not the focus of the prenuptial agreement so gladly signed up to by our lovely doorkeeper (not a doorkeeper at the time, of course) so much as rights to marital honour (as defined by her husband) and we are all horrified that she had to pay so very dearly – despite mounting a highly spirited and eloquent defence in free verse (as you do) – for the breach that was not even a breach.

But the truly shocking revelation of the night is not the injustice meted out to her, nor even the possible complicity of her ill-favoured mother-in-law, but the exposure of the true identity of the man she married.

Shahrazad’s stories ask us to suspend our disbelief and swallow jinnis, ‘ifrits, sorceresses, magic, people turning into animals, people finding undreamed of treasure, and all the rest. Nothing wrong with a bit of magic for the sake of a good story. But it is still a little hard to swallow a father – and not just any father, but the illustrious and wise Harun al-Rashid, Caliph of Baghdad –listening to an account of the marriage of his own not at all long lost son, and not knowing it.

Not to mention not recognizing a description of a woman who must (surely) be his own wife. True, he has more than one wife, and any number of concubines, but she is particularly memorable.

Even harder to swallow is his notion of how to right the terrible wrong suffered by his daughter-in-law. Let’s bring the unhappy couple back together, renew their marriage contract with the help of some lawyers and set them up in a nice new home with lots of dosh – and meanwhile I’ll marry my daughter-in-law’s half sister and add her to my harem!

And the people were astonished at his magnanimity, generosity and wisdom.

Magnanimity and generosity I’ll grant, but wisdom?

Not the Caliph of Baghdad - but very much how I imagine him

Now according to the notes so helpfully appended by Mr Lyons, our esteemed translator, Harun al-Rashid is no mere figment of Shahrazad’s imagination but a real historical person with dates and everything. He ruled for over twenty years (a long time in those days) and seems to have been a great encourager of the arts and sciences, which flourished at his court (see Pathfinders: The Golden Age of Arabic Science by Jim al-Kahlili for a fascinating account). I’ll bet you didn’t know that the first paper mills were established in Baghdad during his reign, at the end of the eighth century.

Paper mills notwithstanding, in a largely illiterate era people knew of the great Caliph not from books but from the numerous stories circulating about him, many of which were surely embroidered, not to say invented, in order to enhance his glorious reputation. Nonetheless, as Mr Lyons points out, some of what we hear of him from Shahrazad is actually true!

And nicely cooked into Shahrazad’s very next fantastical story of the fisherman’s chest are the quite discernible grains of some of that truth.

Ja’far the Barmecide (a specific kind of murderer?), vizier to Harun al-Rashid, is held responsible for a truly shocking murder (aha, so he is a murderer!) and sentenced to death by the Caliph, who will not stand for such a crime to go unpunished in his lands. Not only will Ja’far himself have to die, but so will forty of his Barmecide cousins (surely they cannot all be murderers?).

But Ja’far is not the murderer, in spite of how his family name falls on the English ear, and is merely guilty of failing to identify the true culprit , and so must bear the penalty (along with all his family) in order to keep up the Caliph’s reputation for justice. We have already had occasion to wonder about this Caliph’s ‘wisdom’. At the last minute… well, you can read all that for yourself.

The fascinating kernel of truth revealed by Mr Lyons’ notes is that the Persian Barmecide clan really were the civil service of Baghdad during the reign of Harun al-Rashid – until they were all suddenly executed by his order in 803. Nobody knows why. A wise decision?

The paper mills had arrived – but not the newspapers.

A dangerous bargain

Remember the two jealous brothers who got turned into dogs? We now learn that a similar story underlies the mistreatment of the black bitches. Maybe the jinnis have to follow magical best practice guidelines over jealousy.

The maltreated black bitches are the beautiful lady of the house’s beautiful full sisters (while the doorkeeper and the housekeeper are but her beautiful half-sisters). And their sin is jealousy.

Unlike those brothers, they do not covet their sister’s great wealth – she has given it to them – but they are mad with jealousy over her luck in love after their own misfortunes in that field, and  they won’t stand for it. Their murderous plot is only half-successful, however, and once their sister gets involved with a jinni, their fate is sealed.

There is an unusual twist, however. The jinni cunningly ensures that their decidedly soft-hearted sister will never be tempted to mercy, swearing

By the inscription on the ring of our lord Solomon, on whom be peace, if you do not give each of these bitches three hundred lashes every day, I shall come and turn you into a bitch like them.

And who would not beat them every day to avoid that fate, no matter what they deserved?

As it is only just past midnight, Shahrazad moves right on, because the doorkeeper has yet to explain the origins of the mysterious scars on her body, and the Caliph Harun al-Rashid cannot be any more curious about them than King Shahriyar.

You won’t be too astounded to learn that her terrible scars are also linked with jealousy, although no jinni is involved on this occasion and they are the work of human hands alone. But it is an astoundingly tortured tale, not so much because of the actions of a madly (and stupidly) jealous man as because of the seemingly inexplicable actions of his mother.

The doorkeeper’s first sight of her mother-in-law-to-be (not that she knows this relationship awaits) is not reassuring:

…an old woman with pendulous cheeks, thinning eyebrows, popping eyes, broken teeth and a blotched face. She was bleary-eyed, with a head that looked as though it had been covered in plaster, grey hair and a bent body covered in scabs. Her skin was discoloured and she was dribbling mucus…

and as if this is not enough, poetry gets recited to express the full horror of

An old woman of evil omen – may God have no mercy on her youth
Or pardon her sins the day she comes to die –
She could lead a thousand bolting mules
With a spider’s web for reins, so domineering is she.

This is surely a nudge, a tip from the storyteller to the wide-eyed listener, from the author to the ‘gentle reader’ – watch out for this old witch! This narrative device is a little tricky for the oral storyteller to pull off neatly and it clunks a bit here in the mouth of the doorkeeper who is both narrator and protagonist. But never mind, we have got the message, even if she seems quite oblivious of the import of what she is saying.

For by her account it seems that the old woman wants nothing more than a kindness for her daughter, and happiness for her son, and the doorkeeper (not yet a doorkeeper, you understand) anyway falls head over heels for the handsome son of this ugly mother and is ready to do anything he asks and accept any condition in order to be his bride.

Of course, it is the breach of that condition which leads to the whip scars, and he is a jealous bully whose concern to be on the right side of the law owes more to his desire to cover himself for any action he might take than to his superior morals. And it is the old hag who pleads for her life, the saving of which is what now enables Harun al-Rashid to hear the full dreadful story from the victim herself, who lays no blame whatever at the old woman’s door.


Worth one kiss?


But. But.

We can’t help but note that the old woman actively encourages her daughter-in-law to permit the silk merchant’s kiss, on the grounds that it will a) save money and b) leave no trace. Does she really not know what the merchant, whom she clearly knows well, will do?

Is it a set-up?

If so, she has got clean away with it, with daughter-in-law cast out but believing her mother-in-law to be her saviour.

Or has the storyteller trailed a red herring before us?

We are left to wonder, while Harun al-Rashid orders it all to be written down in the archives.

I am, of course, as keen to discover what lies behind the mysterious mistreatment of the two black dogs in the house of the three beautiful sisters as Harun al-Rashid himself, Commander of the Faithful, Caliph of Baghdad (I’ll spare you all his other honorifics), to whom the mistress of the house is now relating her own amazing story (which, of course, deserves to be written with needles, etc, etc).

But we don’t get all the way to the bottom of that on this seventeenth night and meanwhile my attention has been caught by one tiny detail in the lovely lady’s account of her visit to the city resembling a dove. All the citizens and rulers of that marvellous city have been turned to black stone. Except one. She encounters him at prayer in the middle of the night, reading from the Holy Quran on his prayer rug by the light of two lamps and two candles. And before he begins to tell her how the city met its fate, he

closed the Quran, and put it into a bag of satin

and at once I remembered Brother Daniel and the holy books.


Brother Daniel celebrating his retirement in typical fashion


I only met Brother Daniel Faivre once, but he’s not the sort of man you forget, with his large bushy white beard, ineradicable French mannerisms and extraordinary enthusiasm and skill for bringing unlikely people together and making them work at understanding each other. He was the inspirational founder of Westminster InterFaith, an agency of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Westminster with the specific task of fostering understanding between different faiths in the diocese.

That night, he was visiting a small parish caring for the souls of Roman Catholics in an unglamorous ethnically diverse part of West London, and he had come to talk about Muslims and Islam. The people listening to him had mostly never given much thought to Muslims or Islam. Why should they? It’s hard enough work just focusing on how to be a good Catholic.

Brother Daniel arrived with a pile of small pink and green cloths patterned with golden flowers and proceeded to give one to every person present. Christians revere the Bible, he told us, and Muslims the Quran. But Muslims also honour the actual physical copy of the Quran that they keep in their own homes, and wrap it in a beautiful silken cloth when it is not being used. The cloths he brought to us were a gift from his friends at the mosque near where he lived, given that we might use them to honour our own holy books.

Here you see two of my personal ‘holy’ books resting on the pink cloth Brother Daniel gave me. One is my Jerusalem Bible (this edition). It got quite battered over the years and I have had it rebound. I love it and would not willingly part with it, though my views on the significance of its contents have changed immeasurably since I was given it as a teenager. Many passages are underlined with red ink. When I look at them now, some still speak very powerfully to me. Others have become opaque. Why did I underline them? When and how did the meaning I drew from them change?

The other is my aunt’s commonplace book, page after page of her awkwardly angular script pinning down the thoughts of many spiritual and philosophical writers. On this page she has written out an extract of a commentary on Montaigne (unfortunately she doesn’t indicate who the commentator is):

Like Socrates, Montaigne was as ignorant as other men save in his knowledge of his own ignorance: but being Montaigne he gives the famous saying a turn of his own. “Je me tiens de la commune sorte, sauf en ce que je m’en tiens”; “I am an ordinary man, except that I know it”. The lingering trace of Socrates’ intellectualism departs. Montaigne, to himself, is simply a man who knows it.

My aunt was a nun, a holy, erudite, literary woman and a great educator. I remember her telling me about the social, political and economic discrimination against Catholics in Scotland at the end of the nineteenth and beginning of the twentieth century that had led to the establishment of specifically Catholic schools and colleges to ensure that Catholic children could get a decent education. She did not think segregation was a good thing – more an unfortunate necessity, because of bigotry. Her mother, my own grandmother, was disowned by her Presbyterian family when she married my Catholic grandfather. And this was among people who professed to share the same faith.

My aunt would have liked Brother Daniel too.

I don’t remember precisely what else Brother Daniel told us about Islam that night, but I remember very clearly what he had to say about interfaith dialogue.

The purpose of ‘dialogue’ between people of different beliefs is not that one should eventually convince the other of the error of their ways and ‘convert’ them. The purpose is to allow them, as mutual comprehension grows, to embark together upon a journey to a shared new position that would previously have been quite inaccessible – unimaginable – to either.

Such concepts are far from the mind of our storyteller. The black stone statues in the dove-shaped city have all been rendered so because they foolishly clung to their own beliefs and practices instead of accepting that there is no God but Allah and Mohammed is his prophet, even though they were given three years’ notice of the retribution that would befall them if they didn’t wise up.

%d bloggers like this: