Monday, September 24, 2007

Plot Summaries:

[Charles Vess]

Stories concerning Christianity and the Crusades from the Thousand and One Nights

[Story I]
(Nights 45-145) - “The Tale of King Omar Bin Al-Nu’uman, and his sons Sharrkan and Zau Al-Makan” (Burton, The Book of the Thousand Nights and a Night, (1885) 2: 77 - 3: 113):

Prince Sharrkan is the son and heir of the mighty King of “East and West ... with whatsoever regions lay interspersed between them” (2:77), Omar bin Al-Nu’uman. The latter has four wives and 360 concubines, one of whom - a Greek named Sophia - becomes pregnant and bears him a daughter and a son, called respectively Nuzhat al-Zamán and Zau al-Makán. Sharrkan had intended to have the child killed if it were male, but his messenger leaves after the first birth and thus does not hear of the second.

One day an ambassador comes from “the King of Roum [Anatolia], Lord of Constantinople the Great” (2: 81), King Afrídún, to ask Omar’s assistance in a war he is waging with another Christian King to recover some jewels. Omar agrees, and appoints Sharrkan and his Wazir Dandán to command his forces. A few weeks travel from Baghdad, Sharrkan goes out exploring by himself one day, and observes a group of women having a wrestling match in a Christian Monastery. Sharrkan laughs as the strongest and fairest of them all defeats an old woman named Zát al-Dawáhí [“Queen of Calamities” (2: 87)], thus revealing his presence. The damsel challenges him to wrestle, and defeats him three times, because “he was confounded by her beauty and loveliness” (2: 91). She invites him home with her, and reveals that she is Abrízah, daughter of Afridun’s opponent King Hardub of Roum. The two are interrupted by some Christian soldiers, sent by Zat al-Dawahi, and, when she refuses to surrender her guest to them, Sharrkan and she slaughter them in battle. They agree to flee together, and “the two plighted their troth” (2: 110). She reveals to Sharrkan that the war is really about the fact that King Hardub sent Afridun’s daughter Sophia as tribute to King Omar, without knowing who she was, after recovering her from some pirates. The story about the jewels was a fabrication. Sharrkan rejoins his army, leaving Abrizah to meet him at Baghdad. The Christian army soon overtakes the retreating Islamic host, and in the subsequent battle one “Frankish cavalier” (2: 115) does particularly well. Sharrkan challenges the knight to single combat only to find that it is in fact Abrizah, who now rejoins him.

On his return to Baghdad, Sharrkan discovers that he has a brother, which puts him in a sulk. His father King Omar, however, falls in love with Abrizah and rapes her while she is drugged. She becomes pregnant and looks for an opportunity to return to her people. A black slave whom she enlists to help her in her flight attacks her while she is giving birth, and she dies of the wound. King Hardub discovers the body, and confers with his mother Zat al-Dawahi over a suitable plan of revenge.
Meanwhile, in Baghdad, Sharrkan’s jealousy grows to the point where he is sent away to take command as viceroy of Damascus. Omar’s other two children, who are now fourteen, have become very pious and accomplished, and decide to steal away together incognito to perform the pilgrimage to Mecca. They do so, but on the way back Zau al-Makan falls ill in Jerusalem, and his sister spends all they have looking after him. One day she goes out begging and does not return; after various tribulations he is rescued from a rubbish heap by a bath-stoker, who nurses him back to health. Nuzhat al-Zaman, on the other hand, is captured by “an old Badawi” (2: 140), who whips and mistreats her and then sells her as a slave in Damascus. She is bought by the Sultan Sharrkan, who takes her as his queen. She becomes pregnant by him before he discovers their common parentage , upon which he rapidly marries her off to his Chief Chamberlain to cover up the disgrace. They name their daughter Kuzia Fakán [’decreed by Destiny” (2: 175)].

Meanwhile, back in Baghdad, the old woman Zat al-Dawahi gets her planned revenge on Omar. She has had five damsels trained in “all arts and sciences befitting mortals to know” (2: 176), and brings them to him as tribute. He is enchanted by their learning, but is poisoned by them while off guard (they flee with Sophia, the King of Constantinople’s daughter).

Nuzhat al-Zaman has been reunited with her brother Zau al-Makan on her way back to Baghdad and, when they hear of their father’s death from the Wazir Dandan, it is agreed that Zau al-Makan should succeed him. He accordingly summons his brother Sharrkan to take part in a holy war to avenge their father, and the latter agrees. The Christian Kings Hardub and Afridun conclude a truce at this news, and the battle is on.

The Moslems, after much detailed fighting, defeat the Christian host, but Zat al-Dawahi devises another cunning plan. She disguises herself as a Christian hermit and is admitted to the Moslem camp. She inveigles the leaders of the army into an ambush with a false tale, and betrays Zau al-Makan, Sharrkan and Dandan into captivity. They escape, however, and - rejoining their army - succeed in chasing the Christians to the gates of Constantinople. She manages to convince them (all except Dandan) of her zeal in the cause, however, and continues to move between the two armies. After another large battle, it is agreed that a single combat between Sharrkan and King Afridun should decide the conflict. Sharrkan is wounded badly, and Zat al-Dawahi (pretending to tend him) cuts his throat when they are alone. Meanwhile, during the next day’s fighting, Zau al-Makan has slain King Hardub. On hearing of the loss of his brother, he falls into gloom - relieved by the news that his wife has borne him a son called Kánmákan, and by a series of tales told him by Dandan [The Tale of Taj al-Muluk and the Princess Dunya (2: 283 - 3: 48), including The Tale of Aziz and Azizah (2: 298 - 3: 8)].

The siege of Constantinople lasts four years, but at last the Moslems are forced to retreat. Zau al-Makan falls ill, and has the twelve year-old Kanmakan appointed as his successor, with his sister’s husband the Chamberlain as regent. He then dies. The Chamberlain, over time, becomes confirmed as the Sultan Sásán, and is therefore reluctant to allow his wife’s daughter to marry the now orphaned and penniless Kanmakan. The latter grows to the age of seventeen and leaves home, love-sick and despairing. Meanwhile the Wazir Dandan has led a revolt in Kanmakan’s favour, and the Sultan, in panic, invites him to come back (intending to have him killed). After various attempts, which are all foiled, Kanmakan leaves the city with his aunt Nuzhat al-Zaman and cousin Kuzia Fakan, and joins Dandan. Their army is, however, ambushed by the Greek King Rumzan, who is about to have them executed when his nurse reveals to him that his mother, Abrizah, conceived him by King Omar, and that these people are his close relatives. He is moved by the tale and releases them, and on their triumphal entry into Baghdad Sasan is forced to do homage to them and Kanmakan is confirmed as King. The old woman Zat al-Dawahi is crucified for her crimes, the Badawi who enslaved Nuzhat al-Zaman found and beheaded, and they all live happily ever after.

[Story II] (Nights 412-14) - “The Prior who became a Moslem” (5: 141-45):

Abu Bakr Mohammed ibn Al-Anbári [a 10th century grammarian] tells of meeting the prior of a Christian monastery who gave him shelter for the night. The next year he met him and five of his fellows circling the Ka’abah in Mecca. The monk explained that the cause of his conversion was a young Moslem who entered a nearby village to buy food, and fell in love with a Christian damsel who was selling bread there. He sat down next to her booth and refused to go away, upon which the locals beat him up. The monk tended him, but before long he returned to the woman’s shop-door. She offered him marriage if he would convert, but he refused; she offered to let him “take thy will of me and wend thy ways in peace” (142); he refused. So the village boys stoned him, and he died before he could be taken back to the monastery. Next day the Christian woman said that she had met him in Paradise in a dream, and that she had had to convert to Islam to enter Paradise with him. Thereupon she stopped eating, and died on his grave. There was a quarrel between two passing Moslems and the monks about whose the body was. It was resolved when forty monks could not lift her from the spot, but the two Shaykhs could do so with ease. The monks and all the villagers accordingly converted to Islam.

[Story III] (Nights 474-77) - “The Moslem Champion & the Christian Damsel” (5: 277-83):

During the siege of Damascus by the second Caliph Omar bin al-Khattáb, two brothers particularly distinguished themselves among the Moslem attackers. The Captain of the fortress waylaid them both - killing one and capturing the other. Not wanting either to kill or release him, the Captain planned to inveigle the Moslem to “embrace the Nazarene Faith and be to us an aid and an arm” (278). To this end, one of his knights sent his daughter to wait upon the prisoner, who responded by “closing his eyes ... [and] reciting the Koran” (278) over a period of seven days. Eventually she fell for him and got him to explain the faith to her, upon which she converted “to win thy favours” (280). He explained that this was unlawful without marriage, so the two planned to escape together. She told her parents that he was on the point of conversion, but could not feel comfortable at doing this in the town where his brother was killed. The ruse worked, and the two were sent to an outlying village, from which they rode away during the night. Frightened by apparent sounds of pursuit, the girl suggested that they pray for aid, upon which the dead brother appeared and explained that the noise was actually “the host of Allah and his angels” (281) who had come to escort them to Medinah, where they were met by the Commander of the Faithful, Omar, who celebrated a marriage feast for the two of them.

[Story IV] (Nights 477-78) - “The Christian King’s Daughter and the Moslem” (5: 283-86):

Sídi Ibrahim bin Al-Khawwás tells the tale of how he once travelled into the “country of the Infidels” (283) until he came to a city whose (Christian) King’s daughter was very ill - “no leach goeth in to her and treateth, without healing her, but the King putteth him to death” (284). He agreed to see her, but omitted the full salutation due to another Moslem, for which she rebuked him. She explained that she had been a believer now for four years, and Allah had promised her the day before to send her “Ibrahim the Basket-maker” (285) as a deliverer. After seven days of visits, during which she pretended to be getting better, the two fled together to Mecca, “where she made a home hard by the Holy House of Allah and lived seven years; till the appointed day of her death” (286).

[Story V] (Nights 863-94) - “Ali Nur Al-Din and Miriam the Girdle-Girl” (8: 264 - 9: 19):

Ali Nur al-Din is the son of a Cairene merchant, who is invited one day to go “a-pleasuring” (8: 265) in a nearby garden. After much recitation of poetry, he drinks too much wine and returns home drunk. When his father rebukes him, he hits him and accidentally puts out his right eye. His mother gives him some money and persuades him to run away before the father recovers. This he does, and soon reaches the city of Alexandria. An old man meets him there and persuades him to stay in his house, as he is very beholden to Nur al-Din’s father.

One day he sees a Persian selling a slave-girl in the market. She has been promised her own choice of masters, and refuses one man after another until she sees Nur al-Din, whom she persuades to bid all the money he has left for her. He borrows money from his father’s friend and spends it on food and - at her suggestion - silk. Next morning, after a night of bliss, he discovers that she has made a girdle of the silk, which he sells for a profit. And so it continues for a year.

At the end of this time, Miriam tells him to be on his guard against a “swart-visaged oldster” (8: 309) whom she has seen in the city. Nur al-Din is waylaid by the man, a Frank, who persuades him to sell him a handkerchief which Miriam had made. The other merchants urge Nur al-Din to accompany them to a party given by the Frank, who tricks him - while drunk - into selling him Miriam for a large sum of money. “Now this handmaid was the daughter of the King of France, the which is a wide and spacious city” (8: 315), but had been captured by Moslem pirates while on a pilgrimage. Her new owner, a Persian merchant, converted her to Islam and allowed her her own choice of masters because she nursed him during an illness. The cunning Frank is her father’s chief Wazir, and rejoices at having recovered her. She, on the other hand, will not stop weeping all the way home.

Nur al-Din, after a lot of crying and lamenting, “fell down in a swoon” (9: 322) on the docks, and was revived by an old Shaykh who happens to be the captain of a merchant ship bound for France. On the way they are captured by corsairs, taken to the King of France, and thrown in prison. On hearing that his daughter is no longer a virgin, the King is advised that “naught will purify her save the striking off of an hundred Mohammedan heads” (9:324), and accordingly starts executing the merchants. Nur al-Din is only saved by an old woman who reminds the King of his promise to supply her church with Moslem captives. Miriam comes there next day and he dares to accost her, despite her being surrounded by four hundred damsels with shining swords. She sends off her waiting women, and the two of them make love in the church. She gives him directions for finding a ship in the harbour, and they escape together the next day (she disguised as a ship’s captain). They are, however, pursued - and the Franks recapture her in Alexandria while Nur al-Din is ashore getting her some women’s clothes.

Back home, Miriam’s father has had enough. He threatens to have her crucified, but his Wazir suggests marrying her to him instead. Nur al-Din, despairing, returns to France and is again captured by the Franks. He is on the point of execution when the Wazir comes to collect captives to be sacrificed in front of the palace he is building for his bride. When they get there, however, Nur al-Din’s knowledge of horses causes him to be appointed as a farrier. One day the Wazir’s daughter overhears one of his versified laments, and discusses it with Miriam. The latter sends him a message, telling him to saddle two horses and be ready the next night. She drugs the Wazir and, after killing an impertinent horse-thief, gallops off with Nur al-Din and the Wazir’s jewels. Pursued by his father and his army, she turns to meet them, killing her three brothers in single combat, and terrorises the entire host into retreat. The Frankish King writes to the Caliph Harun al-Rashid demanding that the two be returned, and he accordingly has them arrested and brought to Baghdad. There Miriam persuades him that she is indeed a true believer, and when the Frankish Wazir, who has come to claim her, threatens that he will not leave without her, she secures the Caliph’s permission to behead him. The two live happily ever after in Baghdad and Cairo.

[Story VI] (Nights 894-96) - “The Man of Upper Egypt and His Frankish Wife” (9: 19-24):

Some visitors at his house ask an old Egyptian man why his children are so white while he is so dark. He answers, “Their mother was a Frankish woman, whom I took prisoner in the days of Al-Malik al-Nasír Saláh al-Dín [Saladin], after the battle of Hattín, when I was a young man”(19), and proceeds to tell the story of how he won her. In former days he used to sell flax in Acre, when it belonged to the Christians, and there saw and fell in love with this woman. He arranged (and paid for) an assignation with her through an old woman go-between, but “abstained” from her when she came to see him for fear of the wrath of Allah. Next day she was very angry, as was the old woman, and he repented his decision - paying twice as much gold for a second night. The same happened again. There was no third meeting, as at this point the truce expired between the Christians and the Moslems. He went to Damascus, and became a trader in slave-girls. Having supplied one for the Sultan Saladin, fresh from his victory at Hattin, he was invited to choose one of his captives to make up a shortfall in the price - and saw in the camp his old inamorata, now “the wife of one of the cavaliers of the Franks” (22). At first she did not know him, but on having the coincidence explained, made “perfect profession of Al-Islam” (22-23). He accordingly had her freed and married her. When, a few days later, the King of the Franks ransomed all his prisoners, she was offered the choice of going back or staying with her new husband. She chose the latter and, among the effects sent to to her in captivity by her mother, the Egyptian found his two purses, both untouched.


Humen said...

Thank you for your hard work, your summary has been extremely helpful!~

Humen said...
This comment has been removed by the author.