Authors: Hanan al-Shaykh
“I beg you, my brother, in God’s name, to forgive me for not answering this question,” Shahzaman replied.
“But you must tell me. I am bewildered by the ease with which you overcame your grief in just ten days, as if what you had suffered was but a minor injury, when it takes centuries to recover from cuckoldry,” said Shahrayar.
“My King, I fear that if I tell you, you will suffer greater devastation and desolation than my own,” said Shahzaman.
Shahrayar pressed him. “How, brother, could that be? Now I must insist that I hear your explanation.”
“I witnessed your misfortune with my own eyes,” said Shahzaman. “The day that you set out on the hunt, I looked out upon the garden to enjoy the beauty of your estate and saw the palace gate open and your wife emerge with her twenty slave girls in train, ten white and ten black. As I watched, they disrobed, and the ten black girls were men in disguise, and as I stood hidden they fell upon one another and began to make love. Your wife
called out the name ‘Mas’ud’ and another black slave appeared, jumping over the wall, and leaping upon your wife, in your own garden …”
“In my garden?”
“Yes, beneath my window. They must all have thought that I had accompanied you on the hunt. And so, as I watched your own misfortune unfold, I told myself that my brother was King of all the world, and yet this had happened, even to him. What he had suffered was far worse. I had been betrayed by my wife, but I alone knew of the indignity I had suffered, whereas my poor brother was betrayed even by his concubines, in broad daylight and in his own palace garden. And so in no time at all I began to eat and drink again and forgot my strife and sorrow.”
Shahrayar was overcome by fury and there was murder in his eyes. “I will not, I cannot, believe one word of what I have heard, until I have seen it with my own eyes,” he stammered.
When Shahzaman saw his brother’s rage, he said, “If you cannot believe in your misfortune unless you have witnessed it for yourself, why don’t you announce that you intend to go on another hunting trip tomorrow? Then you and I will sneak back to my quarters in disguise under the cover of darkness and you shall see for yourself everything that I have described.”
Shahrayar agreed with his brother’s plan and ordered his Vizier to arrange a hunting trip with his brother. The news of the journey spread through the palace like wildfire and with the beat of tambourines, the blowing of trumpets and great commotion, the hunting party departed. As they’d planned, the two Kings snuck back, disguised, to Shahzaman’s quarters.
Shahrayar tossed and turned on his bed all night long, as if it was made of burning coals. When day broke, he lay listening to the chirrup of birds and water tumbling from the fountain,
which he heard each morning, and couldn’t help thinking that his brother had hallucinated and imagined it all. But then he heard the gate open, and he hurried with Shahzaman to the window.
Shahrayar’s wife appeared, followed by twenty slave girls, ten white, ten black, exactly as Shahzaman had described. The entourage strolled in the garden under the trees and stopped beneath Shahzaman’s window. As the two Kings watched, they undressed, revealing the ten black slave men, who immediately paired up with the girls, embracing and kissing them. Shahrayar’s wife again called “Mas’ud, Mas’ud!” and a solid, heavily built black slave jumped from the tree to the ground, saying, “What do you want, you slut? Allow me to present Sa’ad al-Din Mas’ud.” He pointed to his prick and Shahrayar’s wife giggled and fell on her back and opened her thighs, ready for him.
As Mas’ud began to make love to her, the ten black slaves mounted the girls.
Shahrayar almost cried out, like a lion fatally wounded by an arrow to the eye. Quick as a bolt of lightning, he reached the garden with his sword in his hand, thirsty for revenge. All of a sudden the moans of pleasure and ecstasy in the garden became screams and yelps, piercing cries and wails, as Shahrayar cut off his wife’s and Mas’ud’s head, in one stroke. And then, like an insane gardener, he severed every other head and body, as if he was chopping every stem in the garden, leaving the heads to fall and roll into the earth.
Seeing that no head was left on its body, Shahrayar threw his sword on to the ground, took off his stained robe and walked with heavy steps until he reached a rock, sat on it and rested his head in his hands. The next day Shahrayar stood at the heart of his palace and decreed a new law. “I, Shahrayar, shall each night marry a virgin, kissed only by her mother. I shall kill her the following
morning and thereby protect myself from the cunning and deceit of women, for there is not a single chaste woman on the face of this earth!”
Shahrayar sat upon his throne and ordered his Vizier (the father of Shahrazad and Dunyazad) to find him a wife among the daughters of the princes of his lands. As soon as the Vizier found him a princess, Shahrayar spent the night with her, deflowered her, and then when dawn broke ordered his Vizier to put her to death. The Vizier did as he was told. The next night he took the daughter of one of his army officers, slept with her and sent her to her death the following morning. On the third night it was the turn of the daughter of a merchant.
Soon, many girls had perished, and their families mourned their losses, amidst growing anger and stirrings of revolt, praying to the creator who hears and answers prayers to strike King Shahrayar down with a fatal disease. But the bloodbath continued, night after night. Then one day Shahrazad, the elder daughter of the Vizier, a woman of great intelligence and refinement, went to her father and said, in the presence of her younger sister Dunyazad: “Father, I want you to marry me to King Shahrayar, so that I may either succeed in saving the girls of the kingdom, or perish and die like them.”
The Vizier couldn’t believe his ears. She was so wise, so intelligent, so learned, versed in the great texts of philosophy, medicine, literature, poetry and history, and so delicate of bearing and graceful of manners. He said to her, “Foolish one, are you not aware that if I give you to the King he will sleep with you for one night only and then have me put you to death in the morning? And are you not aware that I shall have to carry out his wishes, since I am unable to disobey him?”
But Shahrazad was not to be deterred. “Father, you must offer me to him, even if it will result in my death.”
The Vizier sought to understand her motivation, in order that he might discover how to change her mind. “What has possessed you that you wish to endanger your life in this way?”
“You must give me to him, father,” Shahrazad answered.
The Vizier, unable to comprehend his daughter’s foolishness, grew furious with rage and shouted, “He who misbehaves ends up in trouble and he who considers not the end of the world is not his own friend. I am afraid that you will meet the same fate as that of the bird who encountered a group of apes.”
Shahrazad asked, “Father, tell me what happened to the bird and the group of apes.”
And so the Vizier said, “A bunch of apes mistook a passing firefly for an ember. They threw wood on it and huffed and puffed, trying to ignite it. A bird tried to tell them it was a firefly, but the apes ignored the bird. A man, who was passing, said, ‘Listen, bird, you cannot endeavour to bring into line something which has been forever wayward, or to enlighten those who cannot see, so listen to what I am telling you.’ But the stubborn bird wouldn’t give up, until one of the apes smote the bird to the ground, killing it.”
But Shahrazad said to her father, “Your tale will not change my mind, and if you do not take me to the King, I will go to him in secret myself, and tell him that you refused to give me to one such as him, and that you would begrudge your Master one such as me.”
The Vizier appealed to her one last time. “Must you really do this, my beloved daughter?”
And Shahrazad answered, “Yes, father, it is final.”
The Vizier said, “Always remember that I offer advice only out of love and compassion for you.”
“I know, my beloved father,” she replied.
So the agonised Vizier forced himself to go before the King, who asked, “Have you brought me what I want?”
The Vizier kissed the ground before his sovereign and replied, “My daughter Shahrazad.”
And the King, astonished and bewildered, said, “Vizier, but how, when you know more than anyone else what will be the fate of your daughter tomorrow morning, and that if you refuse to put her to death, I will, by God, the creator of heaven, put you to death as well!”
The Vizier replied, “I tried to explain to her, but in vain, she is determined to come and be with you tonight.”
King Shahrayar, astonished but delighted, ordered his Vizier, “Then go and prepare her and bring her to me early in the evening!”
The Vizier went back to Shahrazad and asked her to ready herself. Then, leaving her, he said, “May God not deprive me of you.”
Shahrazad called to her younger sister Dunyazad, saying, “Beloved sister, listen to what I am telling you very carefully. I am going as you know to King Shahrayar tonight and I plan to send for you. When the King has finished with me, I want you to plead with me, and say, ‘Sister, since you’re not sleepy, tell us a story, so that we may pass the waking part of this night.’ Then I shall tell you a tale in the hope that it will engage the King fully, keep me alive, and cease his actions, thereby saving both my own life and those of all the girls who remain in the kingdom.”
Soon afterwards, the Vizier came to collect Shahrazad, saying to her once again before he departed, “I pray to God not to deprive me of you.”
Shahrazad was taken to Shahrayar’s quarters, where the King led her at once to his enormous, terrible bed. He began to undo her dress, which had many tiny buttons. Shahrazad wept and the King asked her, “Why are you crying, Shahrazad?”
“I weep for my younger sister Dunyazad and so I should like to say farewell to her before daybreak.”
The King sent for Shahrazad’s sister. Dunyazad hurried into the chamber and the two girls embraced. Then Dunyazad climbed under the King’s bed and waited while Shahrayar deflowered her older sister and satisfied himself. As the night wore on, Dunyazad cleared her throat and spoke into the silence.
“Sister, tell us one of your lovely stories before I must bid you goodbye, for I do not know what will happen to you tomorrow.”
“If the King gives his permission,” Shahrazad replied.
Shahrayar, lying restless, waiting for dawn to break, welcomed the idea, saying, “Yes, go ahead.”
Shahrazad was overjoyed. She began. “It is said, oh wise and happy King, that a very poor fisherman …”
t is said, oh wise and happy King, that a very poor fisherman who swore by Almighty God that he would only cast his net three times each day, went down to the sea late one afternoon as usual, waited until he saw the moon shining above him, and then threw his net very carefully into the water. He sat there for a time, and then, when he pulled on his net and felt that it had grown heavy, he sang to himself:
“Glide over to me, my magnificent fish
And slither into my waiting net
So that someone asleep on his soft silken bed
Will awaken and buy you with his silver bread.”
He opened his net and there, to his horror, found a dead donkey. “A donkey?” he cried out. “My wretched luck. You send me a donkey when you know that my family and I are starved out of our brains?” He managed to free it from his net with one hand while pinching his nose with the other to block out the horrible smell.
He cast his net carefully into the sea again, waited for it to sink, tugged on it and to his amazement felt that the net was even heavier than the first time. It was so heavy he had to climb back on to the shore, drive a stake into the ground, and tie the rope of the net to the stake. Then he hauled with all his might until he managed to pull the net up out of the sea.
But instead of an abundance of fish jumping and playing in the net he found a broken, rusty wooden chest filled with sand. He shouted in a loud voice, “A chest? Is this how you compensate my work? My labour? Or are you telling me that the key to my good fortune lies inside this coffin?”
He kicked the chest as hard as he could, but then managed to recover his patience, and washed out his net once again.
When dawn was about to break the fisherman prayed, raising his hands and lifting his eyes to heaven in supplication. “Oh God, I beg of you, have pity on me, I have no other trade and I have sworn that I shall only cast my net three times. This is my last attempt, because I believe that my fortune has been decided and this will be my fate.”
He cast his net, put his hand on his heart and waited, murmuring to himself, “Let us hope that the third time will be lucky.”
At last he hauled the net ashore and to his amazement found a large brass jar inside, long-necked and sealed with a lid.
“I’ll sell it in the copper market and buy some wheat,” he said to himself.
He tried to lift it but it was too heavy and so he shook it, trying to tell what was inside. He examined the lead seal of the lid, on which words were engraved, and then took his knife and slowly eased it open. He tilted the jar to one side but nothing came out, which puzzled him, since the jar was so heavy. He plunged his hand into the jar, but it was empty. Suddenly a column of smoke
began to pour out, covering the ground and the sea and moving higher and higher up into the sky until it reached the clouds. The fisherman peered up into the sky as the smoke turned to a black fog and formed the shape of a huge jinni, his head reaching to the sky and his feet planted on the sand. The fisherman wanted to run away, but remained frozen to the spot, as the jinni’s head became like a tomb, his eyes like two lanterns, his nostrils like two trumpets, his ears as large as an elephant’s, his mouth a frightening cave with teeth like gravestones and two fangs like a pair of pincers. The fisherman shook with fear, his teeth rattled in his mouth, his knees knocked and his feet remained nailed to the ground.