My father always had a tale at hand
to divert our attention, or to use as a way of transmitting an idea or a
thought. He used to say that the great collections of stories from the East were
like encyclopedias, storehouses of wisdom and knowledge ready to be studied, to
be appreciated and cherished. To him, stories represented much more than mere
entertainment. He saw them as complex psychological documents, forming a body
of knowledge that had been collected and refined since the dawn of humanity
and, more often than not, passed down by word of mouth.
When he died a decade ago, I
inherited my father’s library. There were five reinforced boxes labelled
STORIES: VALUABLE, HANDLE WITH CARE. Among them were Aesop’s Fables, Hans
Christian Andersen, and the Brothers Grimm. There were many others, too, on the
Arab collections, and volumes of tales from every corner of the world – from
Albania and China, Cambodia, India, Argentina and Vietnam, from sub-Saharan
Africa, Australia, Malaysia, from Papua New Guinea and Japan.
Once the Caliph’s House was renovated
I had more time to spare. So I sat down to read the five boxes of stories from
my father’s library. I would often come to pencilled annotations in his small,
neat hand. Many of the notes hinted at wisdom locked within a tale, or likened
one story to another from an entirely different region of the world.
The only set of volumes missing was
my father’s copy of A THOUSAND AND ONE NIGHTS, the rare edition translated by
the Victorian scholar and explorer Richard Francis Burton. As a child I
remember seeing the set in his study. It stood on a shelf at ankle height. My
father prized the edition very highly, and would point out the quality of the
workmanship, or tell of how he came upon the seventeen volumes as a young man.
He said that he had saved for months to afford the books and would go each
afternoon to spend time admiring them in the shop. I realized later it was the
prized first ‘Benares’ edition of Burton’s ALF LAYLA WA LAYLA, A THOUSAND AND
The volumes were bound in waxy black
cloth, with bright gold lettering on the spines. I was young and inexperienced,
but they were just about the most beautiful thing I had ever seen. They were so
exquisite that I would stroke my fingers over them and stoop down to smell
They smelled like cloves.
One rainy afternoon a visitor arrived
at my parents’ home. He was overweight, flat-footed, and chain-smoked from the
moment he stepped inside until the moment he stepped out. I was too small to be
told anything, but I remember my parents muttering before he came. I don’t know
who he was, but he was important enough to drink tea from our best china and to
have slices of lemon served on the side.
From behind the banisters, I watched
him greet my father and move through the hall into the study. The door closed
behind them and, when it was eventually opened, the visitor was struggling
under the weight of the ARABIAN NIGHTS. At dinner, I asked what had happened to
the black and gold books.
My father’s face seemed to darken. He
looked at me hard, and said: ‘In our culture a guest is respected and honoured
very greatly, Tahir Jan. If he is under your roof, then he is under your
protection. Your possessions are his for the asking. If he was to admire
something, it is your duty to present him with it. Remember this, Tahir Jan,
remember it for your entire life.’
Tahir Shah writing about his father
in his book IN ARABIAN NIGHTS.
scheherazade possessed courage, wit, and penetration. she had read much, and had so admirable a memory, that she never forgot any thing she had read. she had successfully applied herself to philosophy, medicine, history, and the liberal arts; and her poetry excelled the compositions of the best writers of her time. besides this, she was a perfect beauty, and all her accomplishments were crowned by solid virtue.
The explicitness of the sexual encounter between the two girls is not evident in the English translation, for it rests on the use of the Arabic verb “dakhala” (to enter) twice in the above quote, first with the preposition ’“ala” (“they made Hayat al-Nefous enter into the room where Boudour was”) and then with the preposition “ila” (“Boudour entered into Hayat al-Nefous”). What must first be noted is the fact that the Arabic verb “dakhala” - meaning to enter, to penetrate - does not require the use of any preposition. The fact that the redactor chose to add not one, but two different prepositions with this verb must therefore make us pause. In its first occurrence with the preposition ’“ala,” the audience is led to understand that Boudour is already in the room into which Hayat al-Nefous is led. The second use of the verb “dakhala” with “ila” comes therefore as a surprise since such a combination can only mean to penetrate into a physical space, or to penetrate sexually, to have intercourse. In the context of this scene, only the second meaning of “dakhala ila” is possible, leading us to conclude that Boudour and Hayat al-Nefous’s initial encounter is utterly sexual.
Sahar Amer on ‘The Story of Qamar al-Zaman and Princess Boudour’ from the One Thousand and One Nights in Crossing Borders: Love Between Women in Medieval French and Arabic Literatures (2013)