Thursday 12 November 2015

Arabian Insights

Most people imagine that the Arabian Nights is a tale of Shahrazad (Scheherazade) telling a story to the Caliph and ending on a cliffhanger every night. Most people also imagine that it's a collection of children's stories.

Most people, of course, have not actually read the book at all.

In The Story of the Thousand Nights and the One Night (to give it its original title), Shahrazad is married to King Shahryar, a Central Asian monarch, not to the Caliph. She was the daughter of the king's wazir, and volunteered to marry the monarch, in order to stop him from beheading each wife in turn to avenge his cuckolding by his first wife. Also, the king had a brother, who similarly decapitated a wife every day in his turn.

Also, Shahrazad tells her stories not to the king, but to her sister Dunyazad, who spends the night at the side of the bed, and begs her sister for stories to pass the time. Yes, Dunyazad is also an unwitting voyeur; the book explicitly says Shahrazad tells her nightly tale after the king had "done his usual" with her. 

As for children's fairy tales, you couldn't be further off if you tried. The book is crammed to the brim with political intrigue, violence, betrayal, crime, sex (including incest), as well as an eye-glazing amount of bigotry and racism. Strangely enough, alcohol and homosexuality are treated with indulgence, in fact with approval, as long as the "right" people are doing it; and mullahs are handled with suspicion when they're mentioned at all. 

Oh, and it doesn't actually occupy 1001 nights. Shahrazad takes breaks to have two kids in between, and only reveals them to the king at the end.  I suppose such things as swelling bellies were too mundane for a king to notice.

All this said, it's one of the greatest works of imaginative literature I've ever come across. Just make sure you're reading the original unexpurgated version, that's all, not the Disneyfied crap.

Meanwhile: I've been working on a rather long detective story, which I hope to finish by tomorrow, as a Friday the Thirteenth Special. I rather enjoy detective stories, both reading and writing them. The most difficult thing about writing one of these isn't coming up with the plot. It's making your clues so unambiguous as to offer no other solution. ..while at the same time scattering said clues around unobtrusively enough that your reader goes, all by himself or herself, right up the garden path you've prepared. You need the reader, at the denouement, to blink in confusion and say, "But...of course! How stupid of me that I didn't think of that myself!" 

And at the same time, as far as I'm concerned, you should try to avoid the Agatha Christie trope of overly convoluted plots, where every circumstance has to work perfectly for the criminal's nefarious plan to succeed. If a butler's attention has to be diverted at exactly the right moment by a contrived telephone call so that the killer can run downstairs to shoot the Lord of the Manor, the sound of his shot being masked by a firecracker, before rushing away unobserved, that isn't the kind of thing you'll catch me writing, I can tell you that. 

The story I'm writing has a couple of protagonists you will probably find familiar. As to the plot, I'll ask you to decide for yourselves if I'd succeeded.


  1. I read the early English 'translations', which were very, very loose (with all the unsuitable material removed, and other stories from unrelated sources added). Then I found a literal translation of the Arabic, and found it unreadable. Lots of repetition and songs (repetition is standard in Arabic, songs are prohibited, but then, in almost all of the stories, people engage in activities prohibited by Islam and enjoy them and often get away with them unpunished).

    As I wrote before, there are no ghosts for most Muslims, there are djinn. I have tried to find the types of djinn, and found ifrit and marid, and statements that there are others. But the sources on the Internet are contradictory. Some say devils are a kind of djinn, but other sources say the djinn have free will, they can choose to be good Muslims or evil infidels. Devils do NOT have free will: they can only do evil. So one finds lots of contradictions about what, exactly, is a djinn.

    I found one source that lists the houri as a kind of djinn. Which is wrong.

    (As are the many, many statements that 'houri' really means 'raisin', but it was mistranslated. Although 'houri' could mean 'walnut', but the idiots who can't read Arabic script somehow missed 'walnut' and found 'raisin'.)


  2. I love the stories of the 1001 nights. Yes, they have all the intrigue, violence, sex, etc. you describe, but some of them are very funny too. Glad to read an appreciation of them.


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