1001 Arabian Nights - Scheherazade part 1

1001 Words

I have loved the Arabian Nights since I was a child. There was a book I remember reading by Amabel Williams Ellis that introduced me to the concept of the Nights. Unlike other fairy tales I was often told in my youth, these ones seemed exotic and told of far away lands. Let’s face it, the ‘land, far, far away’ that was common in many children’s stories was still a variation of some Germanic or other European kingdom. It had the same kind of customs and culture as I saw around me.

But the Arabian Nights? This was a story of genies, and sultans, and places so different to my surroundings. And of sherbet; I can tell you that the idea of people drinking sherbet sounded ludicrous to an English boy whose only experience with that word was of the Fountain variety. And who thought it was pronounced ‘sherbert’ until well into adulthood.

I was also fascinated with the idea of a person telling stories over the course of a thousand and one nights, constantly stopping just as the story is reaching an interesting moment. Scheherazade truly is one of the great storytellers of literature, and I would argue, one of the greatest women in all of literature.

Historically Arabian culture has not been kind to women, and this story starts off with an extreme example of such, but Scheherazade steps up to save other women at great risk to her own. And she does it with no sword, no violence, no calls to revolution. She does it with a story.

In many other cases, the easy way out would have been to kill Shahriyar, but I am always more interested in non-violent alternatives. It’s one of the many reasons I enjoy Doctor Who, and can be seen in the success of real people like Ghandi. The question of how to solve a problem without resorting to violence always requires more thought than simple assault. And is usually much more satisfying and effective, from a storytelling point of view as well as in the real world.

The book I read was illustrated by Pauline Baynes who leant some evocative line drawings to the story to bring it to life. Again, something that was wholly different from what I was used to at the time, but is something that will always take me back to those Summer days reading that book.

Soon I grew up though, and I wanted to read the original works, and to see how Scheherazade told each story in order for them to end at precisely the right moments. Unfortunately, this was rather difficult in the pre-internet days, as the entire set currently occupies some 10-16 volumes.

The closest I got was in our school library where nobody goes. Here was filled with a load of classic books. The likes of Charles Dickens, and Homer, and all those other things that are boring to most teenagers. But it was there that I found the Thousand Nights and a Night by Richerd F. Burton. I think. I didn’t take too much notice of who wrote it then, but after researching the subject, I’m fairly certain it was his.

However, this was a truncated form of the Nights. It held much more than my children’s version, but not everything. However, it did give me a little more insight into what the original stories were like. Primarily in one aspect.

They are not for children.

Elements of the adult nature remain in the bastardised versions for kids; the murderous reign of King Shahriyar is a good example. However, when I read the ‘Porter and the Three Ladies of Baghdad’, it became apparent that this may not actually be suitable for keeping in a secondary school. Of course, I kept shtum about it because as a teenage boy I never wanted to tell anybody that I had been reading about naked ladies.

So a few years went by and though I never really looked for it, I found a complete set of Richard F. Burton’s translations. 10 volumes for the main text, with a further 6 for supplementary material!

So a lot of stuff then.

Other translations exist, but his seemed to be the most complete and true to the original works. And as I do not speak Arabic, this was the closest I could realistically get to them. But they were hard going. He used a lot of poetic prose in the works which would not be to the tastes of modern audiences.

And as an author who writes what he wants to read, I thought what better thing to do than to do my own retelling? So I did.

This series is planned to include every single one of the Nights, and every single story in some form or other (though if you read some stories, you’ll know that they don’t all fit modern styles on a fundamental level). I am treating this as a single piece split into volumes where each night is a chapter, and each volume is a main story, or collection of stories. Eventually, you should be able to follow Scheherazade’s journey by reading a single chapter every night, and be forced to wait until the conclusion the following day.

Of course, if you know anything about the Nights, you are aware that there are certain stories that are not in the original Nights. ‘Aladdin’, and ‘Ali Baba’ are the most prominent ones, despite being synonymous with the Nights. I will still include these stories, as they are now unofficially a part of the work, and are expected. I will also include much of the material in Burton’s supplemental volumes as well.

This will be the beginning of a long journey for me, as I am not the storyteller Scheherazade is, but it is a journey I do hope to finish. So, take a cup of sherbet, sit down, and let me tell you a story to while away the hours until dawn.



Ismail al’Basir watched as the young woman walked up to King Shahryar. He hadn’t tried to find out her name. Not anymore. That just made it more difficult.

The officiant usually asked people to settle down at this moment. At any other wedding at least. But here the congregation was silent in mourning. Everyone knew what would happen tomorrow.

‘Do you, King Shahryar of the Sassanian Empire, wish to accept Budur al’Jalis as your wife?’ the officiant said to the king. Ismail closed his eyes at the mention of her name. Budur. What kind of life had she led up to this point? Was she the daughter of a merchant due to marry a rich scribe before the king took her for his own? Or was she a student of the arts herself, with the potential to make great things that would now never see the world?

‘Yes, I do,’ Shahryar replied.

‘And do you, Budur al’Jalis of Isfahan, accept King Shahryar as your husband?’

The girl looked down and remained silent. The officiant repeated the question, and she looked to her family and friends; today would be the last time she’d see them. A tear crept down her cheek as the officiant asked a third time. She looked back to the cold face of the king. He tightened his eyes and creased his brow. Ismail had only seen that look a few times, most notably that day three years ago when he returned from an unexplained absence with his brother. And then he had begun this tyrannical abuse of power.

Slowly, the girl opened her mouth and whispered, ‘With the permission of my parents and elders, y … yes.’

Ismail heard a few horrified whispers come from the crowd, and someone even cried out, ‘No!’ The word broke into a wave of sobs.

Shahryar ignored the disruption. He took the girl’s arm and walked her from the chamber, leading her to his apartments to consummate the marriage.

Ismail slammed the door to his rooms and leant his head on it. At this moment the king was raping Budur al’Jalis and yet again, he had done nothing to stop it. If he listened carefully, he thought he could hear her screams.

‘What is the matter, father?’ he jumped at the sound of Dunyazad’s voice behind him. He turned around to see his daughter. She was a delicate thing. Her head didn’t even reach the tip of Ismail’s beard. If the king ever…

No. He wouldn’t allow that to happen. Besides, she had not even reached womanhood. But give her a year or so and that would change.

‘One thousand,’ Ismail whispered.

‘What?’ His daughter said.

‘I’ve been counting.’ She was safe. For the moment she was safe. ‘Every wife of his I’ve killed. This one will be the thousandth.’

‘Why do you do it?’ Leave it to a child to ask the hard questions.

Ismail shook his head and walked over to a table where a pitcher of sherbet and some glasses stood. ‘What choice do I have? If I tell him no, he’ll have me executed.’ He poured himself almost a full cup of sherbet and drank half of it in two large gulps, ‘And then he’ll get someone else to do it. My defiance won’t stop this madness, it’ll only deprive me of my life, and you and Scheherazade of a father.’

‘Have you thought … maybe…’

Ismail whipped around, sensing the unspoken words on Dunyazad’s lips. ‘Assassinate the King?’ Dunyazad nodded, and Ismail shook his head. ‘No, I can’t do that.’

‘Why not?’ A note of anger crept into her voice. ‘He’s right there next to you when you’re holding the scimitar.’

‘I can’t betray someone’s trust like that.’

‘And yet you can kill a thousand innocent women?’ Her voice, now fierce with anger, forced him to look away from her,

‘His guards would kill me where I stood.’

‘But he would be gone. You don’t want this to continue; disobeying him is pointless; and the only way you can carry on living is if you carry on killing. Your death could mean something.’

‘You can’t be suggesting this!’ Ismail drowned the remaining sherbet and walked towards his apartment.

He heard Dunyazad turn behind him. ‘You would be a martyr.’

He stopped, and hung his head, ‘A daughter has no right to ask this of her father.’

‘You are the only one who can stop this slaughter.’

Ismail walked into his room and closed the door behind him, shutting off his daughter’s voice.

Ismail’s dreams that night unsettled him. Dreams of his daughters being taken away and the King ordering him to kill them. First Scheherazade. Then Dunyazad. More than once he awoke to find himself drenched in sweat, and searched beside him for his wife.

But his hand always found empty space. He caressed the sheets where she should be, and stared into where her eyes would stare back into his.

He would lose no more of his family.

The Sun rose like an omen that morning. Like it had every day for the past three years.

Ismail got out of bed and made himself ready for what lay ahead. Before he left his chambers, he looked into the mirror and saw a murderer.

Ismail unsheathed his scimitar and laid the bare blade on the Queen’s neck. It drew blood and the girl winced; tears dropped into the blood-stained basket beneath. Shahryar stood on the opposite side of her, his expressionless face watching, and his hands held behind his back.

Dunyazad was right. He would only need to modify his swing, and he would cut off the monster’s head. He slowly lifted the blade as he looked around. Four guards surrounded them, all big muscled men, trained in the art of combat. He was old, not quite frail, but given a few years he may not even be able to lift the sword he now held. He had no chance against them.

But there he was, Shahryar, King of Kings and Tyrant of Tyrants. He hesitated, and his hands twitched, ready to strike him. Then Shahryar’s eyes met his, and Ismail swing the sword down. He cut cleanly through the Queen’s neck.

Thus ended the life of Budur al’Jalis.

Lifting the sword up, he glanced into the basket and briefly saw the girl’s eyes blink, looking at him with a horrified expression. He turned and threw the sword down. It clattered on the ground and smeared blood along the paved courtyard.

‘Ismail!’ he heard the king shout.

Ismail closed his eyes, wishing he hadn’t made such a show, and turned to face his king.

‘What was that for?’ Shahryar said. Ismail hesitated for a second. ‘Answer me.’

He took a deep breath. ‘I’m tired of killing.’

Shahryar walked up to him, grabbed his arm and pulled him to an arbour away from the guards. ‘Are you questioning my orders?’

‘This is madness, my lord. Speaking as your vizier, I advise you to stop it. You have no heir, and you never will if you carry on like this.’

‘Shahzaman can inherit the throne.’

‘He’s in Samarkand, and you haven’t heard from him in three years. He’s a recluse. His vizier runs the country. And he’s got no heir either. Your father was a beloved king and now both his sons leave no legacy. Is this really what he wanted?’

The king looked furious. ‘I may have to listen to your advice, but that doesn’t mean I have to take it. I will not be denied the pleasure of women, nor will I be burned again, do you understand?’

Ismail sighed. ‘Yes, my lord.’

‘Good. I need a new wife; the eligible women are running thin. Find me one by tonight.’

‘Yes, my lord.’

Ismail shook his head and walked through the gardens. Small trees and bushes dotted the place, and flowers grew along the path, bordering his journey. He looked up and saw his eldest daughter walking towards him. A head a wavy dark hair hung about her shoulders, and her dark eyes reminded him so much of her mother’s. She carried a basket of pomegranates decorated with a wreath of jasmine flowers. She saw him and gave a comforting smile.

She walked over to him and he held his hand out to touch her hair. Kissing her forehead, he whispered to her. ‘If your mother could see you now … she would be proud to have such a radiant daughter.’

Scheherazade smiled. ‘Oh, father. I love you as well, but is there a reason for such compliments?’

Ismail sighed. ‘Allah claimed your mother after she bore Dunyazad. It is a cruel fate that she was to be taken, while our king knows only to administer that fate to others. And now I need to find yet another woman for him.’

‘And do you have any in mind?’ Scheherazade asked, a curious look in her eyes.

Ismail barked a bitter laugh. ‘In my mind, he would have the same one day after day. But he insists that every woman will betray him. Dunyazad wants me to kill him, but that would result in my death also. And I don’t want you to suffer the loss of another parent.’

‘Father,’ Scheherazade said, a hesitant tone in her voice, ‘I have been thinking about this over the past few days and I believe I have an answer to this problem…’ She paused.

‘Daughter, if you have a solution, tell me.’

Scheherazade swallowed. ‘I want you to offer me up to be his wife.’

Ismail let his mouth drop. He composed himself and became stern. ‘No! I won’t let you do this.’

‘It is not your choice.’ Scheherazade said, her mouth tightened in resolution.

‘I am your father! And you will do as I command.’

‘Please, listen. I have thought about this for a long time, and I believe I can encourage him to change his ways. So either you offer me, or I go up to him myself.’

‘No! I forbid it. He will have me kill you, and when I refuse, he will kill us both. And that would leave Dunyazad alone, and probably next to share his wedding bed.’

‘It will not happen that way, Father. I am sure of it.’

‘No, the same will happen to you which happened to the Bull and the Ass.’

He saw her lifelong interest in stories and tales brighten behind her eyes. ‘I do not think I have heard that one. How does it go?’

Ismail offered Scheherazade a seat in the arbour, and began to tell his tale. ‘There was once a merchant who owned much money and many men, and who was rich in cattle and camels. His name was Ahmed, and he had also a wife, Jessamine, and a family. He dwelt in the country, being experienced in husbandry and devoted to agriculture.

‘Now, Allah Most High had endowed him with understanding the tongues of beasts and birds of every kind, but under pain of death if he divulged the gift to any…’

The Tale of the Bull and the Ass

Ahmed sat in his chair outside the barn after a day’s hard labour, a cup of cool water in his hand. He was about to doze off in the soothing warmth of the setting sun, when he heard voices come from the barn. He stood up and went to investigate.

Peering through the crack in the barn doors, he saw his bull and his ass talking to one another.

‘There is a reason they call you an ass,’ the Bull said, sighing with exasperation. ‘You enjoy rest and attention, and they keep your stall swept and clean. Men wait on you and feed you with sifted barely, and pure spring water. While I am taken in the middle of the night, and they set on my neck a plough and something called a yoke. I tire at turning the earth from dawn to the setting sun.

‘I am forced to do more than I can, and to bear all manner of ill treatment from night to night. After which, they take me back with my sides torn, my neck flayed, my legs aching, and my eyes sore with tears. Then they shut me up in here and throw me beans and crushed straw mixed with dirt and chaff. I lie in dung and filth and foul stinks all through the night.

‘But you, you, are always lying at ease. Except, of course, on the rare occasion the master has some business, when he mounts you and rides you into town, returning with you soon enough.

‘So it happens that I am working all the long day, while you take your ease and rest. You sleep, while I am sleepless. I hunger while you eat you fill. And I win contempt, while you win good will.’

When the Bull finished speaking, the Ass turned towards him and said, ’He lied not who dubbed you Bull-head; for you, O father of a Bull, have neither forethought nor contrivance. You are the simplest of simpletons, and you know naught of good advisers. Have you not heard the saying of the wise:—

‘For others these hardships and labours I bear
‘And theirs is the pleasure and mine is the care:
‘As the bleacher who blacketh his brow in the Sun
‘To whiten the raiment which other men wear.

‘But you, you fool, are full of zeal and you toil and moil before the master; and you tear and wear and slay yourself for the comfort of another. You go forth at the at the call to dawn prayer, and you return not till sundown. And through the livelong day you endure all manner of hardships. Beating and belabouring and bad language.

‘Now, listen to me, Sir Bull, when they tie you to your stinking manger, you paw the ground and lash out with your hind hooves, and you bellow loud, so they deem you contented. And when they throw you your fodder, you fall on it with greed and are quick to line your stomach. But, if you accept my advice, it will be better for you, and you will lead an easier life even than mine.

‘When you go afield, and they lay the yoke on your neck, lie down and rise not again. Even when they strike you. And if you rise, lie down a second time. And when they bring you home and offer you your beans, fall backwards and only sniff at your food. Withdraw and do not eat. And in this way feign sickness, and carry on for a day or three. And you shall have rest from work.’

When the Bull heard these words, he thanked the ass. ‘That is a good plan, my friend. I am sorry I was short with you earlier, but I am frustrated with the lot I have been given.’

The ass bowed his head, and a smile crept across Ahmed’s face.

Next day Nadim, Ahmed’s ploughman, took the Bull and settled the plough on his neck. But the Bull shook at the harness and lay down in the field.

Nadim looked at the Bull. ‘Why do you not work?’ the ploughman said to himself. He took up his whip and beat the Bull, to which the animal stood up, but fell back down again.

Nadim whipped the Bull again and again, but it would still not get to work. Instead, the Bull shook at the yoke until it snapped and broke off, and the Bull ran across the fields.

‘No!’ Nadim shouted at the animal, running after it. If he lost the Bull, Ahmed would not be merciful. So Nadim gave chase around the fields. But every time he caught up with the Bull, it would jump off to the other side of the field. Nadim spent most of the morning chasing it around. Eventually, the Bull had stopped with its rear facing Nadim.

Nadim could have laughed at his fortune, but he stayed quiet, not wishing to let the animal know he was there. He sneaked up and as soon as he reached it, he began to strike it.

But still, the Bull remained stubborn and did nothing but stand up and drop down until evening.

By the time the Sun was setting, Nadim had given up trying to get the Bull to work. ‘Damned stubborn thing,’ he cursed at it, leading it back to the barn.

Nadim laid out the Bull’s manger full with fodder, but the Bull drew back from it and showed no signs of interest. The Bull sniffed at the food, and left them to lie down as far from them as he could.

The next mroning, Nadim came back to the stables, and seeing the manger still full of beans, the crushed straw still untasted, and the ox lying on his back, he went over to the Bull and crouched down next to it. He placed a hand on the Bull’s head and it looked up, but then closed its eyes again. ‘By Allah, he is sick,’ Nadim said. ‘This must be why he would not plough yesterday.’

He left the stables and reported to Ahmed. His master was plucking some hens outside the far house. ‘Master,’ Nadim said as he approached Ahmed, ‘the Bull is sick.’

Ahmed looked up from his work, a smile on his face, ‘Oh? How so?’

‘He refused his fodder last night. And its all still there this morning.’

Ahmed stopped his work and leaned forward. ‘Take that rascal of a donkey, and set the yoke on his neck. Bind him to the plough. Make him do the Bull’s work.’

‘Yes sir,’ Nadim said, taking his leave as Ahmed continued to pluck his chickens.

When Nadim returned to the stables, he looked at the Ass. The animal was tiny compared to the might of the Bull. Nadim couldn’t tell how Ahmed thought it would help. But he shrugged and pulled the ass from the barn.

 The Ass was easier to control than the Bull and when he had fastened the yoke on the Ass’s neck, the animal took to the work much the same as the Bull had yesterday. Nadim gave the Ass one strike, intending to strike twice, but the Ass trotted off, pulling the plough with it.

Nadim raised his eyebrows, impressed. Though the Ass did not pull as fast as the Bull, he still accomplished more work than the day before.

The Ass also tired quicker than the Bull, but when it stopped, Nadim picked up his whip and encouraged it to move again.

When he came home in the evening, the Ass could hardly drag his limbs along, either forehand or hind legs.

He saw the Bull in his stall lying at ease.

When the Bull saw the Ass, he stood up. ‘I must thank you, my friend,’ the Bull said, ‘By listening to your advice, I have rested all day, and enjoyed the comfort of soft straw.’

But the Ass returned no reply. He saw what had become of the Bull, while he was treated with pain and toil, and lay down in his stall without a word to the Bull.

The council he had given to the Bull was stupid. He should have known they would need another animal to pull the plough. Why not him?

So the Ass laid down to sleep, listening to the Bull praise his advice.

‘And so,’ said Ismail to Scheherazade, ‘The Ass thought he was clever, but though he tried to help out someone in need, he himself was hurt. Likewise, you will die for your lack of wits. Please, do not do this. I lost your mother and I cannot bear to lose you as well. By Allah, I give this advice because I love you.’

‘But could it not be that in aiding me with your advice, you also doom yourself like the Ass?’ Scheherazade said, ‘A lover of the Queen, may wish to seek vengeance upon you. Eventually he will come for me. There are few women left, and they may be none soon enough. I can put an end to his vile ways, I know this. I must marry the King.’

‘You cannot,’ Ismail pleaded again.

‘It is my life to do with as I will. And I will save, not only my life, but yours, Dunyazad’s, and every free woman left in the empire.’

Ismail grunted at the stubbornness of the girl, ‘If you do not stop this nonsense, I will do with you what Ahmed did with his wife,’ he said in anger.

‘And what did he?’ Scheherazade said, seemingly amused at her father’s outburst of rage.

‘Know this, errant child, that after the return of the Ass, the merchant Ahmed came out on the terrace roof with his wife and family…’

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