The Arabian Nights

Fate’s different for monotheists. With destiny in the hands of one god, you’d better hope it’s a good one. For the stars of The Arabian Nights, He is, leading to some of the happiest stories I’ve read, in which people act justly toward each other and are rewarded. Dull? It’s not. One story in which nothing bad happens (let’s exchange fruit for jewels!) compensates with a merman’s walking tour of the sea.

1001 nights

For some reason I’d expected a thousand and one stories, but tales stretch over many nights, becoming elaborate novellas. Shahrazad tells a story about storytellers, casting her own scenario as just another frame. I recalled that nightmare in which you just kept falling. Happily, I’d be jolted awake by a thousand and one cliffhangers: “So the executioner raised his arm until the hair in his armpit could be seen, and he was about to strike…”

The Decameron engages with the Christian problem of chastity; The Arabian Nights with the Muslim problem of hospitality. Here the schemes of lovers are not troubled by marriage but by an obligation to host. In the words of one feisty believer: “are you here as my guest or do you want to fight?”

Some sections read like The Iliad, though Homer was a more unbiased reporter of war. Unlike the raiders of Troy, the raiders of Constantinople have a singular god on their side, fighting “infidels” backed by a god who curses them. Here’s a choice piece of partisan propaganda, topped only by the scene in which the Christian army censes itself with a turd:

“The armies of Islam called out, invoking blessings and peace on The Lord of mankind and praising Merciful God for His favours. The Christians praised the Cross, the girdle, the wine, he who crushes the grapes, the priests, the monks, the palm branches and the bishop.”

But for every battle there’s a sex scene, for every curse there’s a poem. In one story of impeccable sexual ethics a man addresses his friend while sleeping with his brother, using poetry to protect the erotic scene. Whole pages are taken up with stanzas on a certain topic – baths, moles – including a hilarious sequence in defence of anal sex:

When I refused to lie with her, she said:
“Fool, yours is the height of folly.
If you won’t take my vulva as a place of prayer,
Here is another that you may prefer.”


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