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À mon chevet: 'The Arabian Nights'

À mon chevet is a series of posts featuring a quote from whatever book is on my nightstand at the moment.

book cover
When everything was readied before the Caliph Harun al-Rashid, he turned to one of the damsels who had come with him and said, "Sweetheart, sing me a song." The damsel played the lute and sang the following verses:

If water can turn cheeks into green fields,
My tears might have covered my cheeks with green,
Reflecting the same tincture in their flow,
Turning my face into a verdant scene.
Except that I have shed nothing but tears
When my departing soul bade me adieu
And, finding no relief but death, I said,
'Welcome, O death', when the hour nearer drew.

The two men looked and saw that Shams al-Nahar was so agitated that she slumped and fell off the chair to the ground, while the girls rushed to her and lifted her up. Abu al-Hasan kept looking at her, and when he turned to her beloved, he found him unconscious, lying on his face motionless. He said to himself, "Fate has proved kind to them both, by treating them equally." But, aware of the grave danger, he was overwhelmed with alarm. Presently, the girl came and said, "Rise for we do not have much leeway, and I fear that all hell will break loose tonight." The druggist asked her, "Who can arouse this young man in his condition?" The girl sprinkled Nur al-Din Ali's face with rosewater and rubbed his hands until he came to himself. His friend the druggist said to him, "Wake up at once or you will destroy us with you." Then they carried him and went down with him from the gallery, and the girl, opening a small iron gate, brought them out to a jetty on the river. She clapped her hands softly, and a rowboat appeared with a boatman, who rowed until the boat touched the jetty. Abu al-Hasan related later, "As we entered the boat, the young lover, stretching one hand toward the palace and the young lady's apartment and placing the other on his heart, recited in a faint voice the following verses:

I stretched one feeble hand to bid adieu
And placed the other on my burning heart.
But let this nourishment be not my last,
Nor this parting keep us always apart.

The boatman rowed us away, together with the damsel.

But morning overtook Shahrazad, and she lapsed into silence. Then Dinarzad said to her sister, "What a strange and entertaining story!" Shahrazad replied, "What is this compared with what I shall tell you tomorrow night if the king spares me and lets me live! It will be even stranger and more amazing!"

-- The Arabian Nights, pp. 372-73 (trans. Husain Haddawy)
Haddawy's choice of the oldest complete manuscript source for his translation of these famous tales reveals a core of the most authentic stories. The many layers of accretions, added to collections, editions, and translations over the years, are stripped away, including the famous tales of Sindbad, Ali Baba, and Aladdin and the Magic Lamp. That last one, perhaps the most famous story associated with these tales, was actually written by an 18th-century Frenchman named Antoine Galland and then translated into Arabic and mixed into later collections. As Haddawy puts it in his fine introduction, reading only the tales in this old source reveals a structure that is obscured when the other stories are added. Shahrazad's storytelling reaches a climax with two longer tales, including this one of the immortal love between Shams al-Nahar, the caliph's favorite slave girl, and a young man named Nur al-Din Ali ibn-Bakkar, who are aided by the young man's friend, the druggist Abu al-Hasan. In this passage, their love is almost revealed as Shams al-Nahar passes out hearing poetry about her feelings of love. Her beloved, watching from a hidden place with the druggist, has the same reaction. He may be too weak to do much of anything, but Ali ibn-Bakkar can still recite poetry about his love.

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