Friday, 27 April 2012

The Arabian Nights

Eastern City by Edmund Dulac
by John Dickinson

The cave of wonders! Torchlight glitters on piles of gems. It glows on jars of incense, on carpets, cloth, leather and canvas sacks that have split with the weight of coin and cascaded gold and silver across the floor. There’s pile upon pile of it, more than can possibly be counted, receding into the shadows. The light trembles. The hand the holds the torch shudders.

 Where did all these things come from? The men that laid them here are fierce and cruel. Hanging on hooks among the silks, like a carcass at a market, are the dismembered quarters of an unlucky traveller who was seized and hacked to pieces for daring to enter the cave. The last drops of his blood still drip to black pools upon the floor. He died not long ago. His killers must be close by. What’s that noise? Is it sand, trickling in a crevice, or the hiss of indrawn breath? Is it gold that glitters from the deepest shadows - or is it blades of steel?

Surprisingly, Ali Baba may not one of the original stories in The Arabian Nights. Like Sinbad and Aladdin it may have been collected separately by Galland, the eighteenth century French traveller who popularised the Nights in Europe. But it’s one of my Arabian Nights – the Nights that have been with me since childhood. It was in the big, colourful, yellow-jacketed hardback book that my parents gave us and through which we entered that fantastic world. I can still remember the pictures, flat and stylised like Persian miniatures, and the way the robber chief throws up his arm before the cave as he cries “Open Sesame!”

So many stories! Ali Baba and his slave-girl Morgiana, and thirty-nine thieves dead in their jars of oil. Aladdin and his lamp. The Sultan Haroun al Raschid and his vizier Jafaar. The hunchback and the bone he choked upon. The brothers Aboukir and Abousir, and the city where the dyers only know how to colour things blue. Turbans and curling beards and gongs and incense. Cunning and beauty and terrible cruelty. This was fantasy, an other world far removed from Western living-rooms, long before Tennyson wrote his Idylls or Tolkien woke our Northern myth from its slumber.

Scheherezade by Edmund Dulac


And Scheherazade herself. The young woman who, night after night, tells the stories to her husband the Caliph, knowing that if she ever loses his interest she will be executed in the morning like all his other wives before her. In the sweltering darkness she whispers to him, and he listens with his head propped on silken pillows as she ends one tale and begins another, only to fall silent just as her royal murderer is begging for more. Young as she is, she has mastered the art of the cliffhanger. (I never asked myself, when I had that yellow book in my hands, what else she might have known about amusing men in bed. Nor did I wonder if the Caliph’s problem with women might have stemmed from some very private little problem of his own, and the reason the stories worked for him was because nothing else was going to. Sad creature that I am, I can think these things now. )

14th C manuscript of the Thousand and One Nights, Bibliotheque Nationale, Paris


A thousand stories! I’m a storyteller myself, and used to being asked about my ideas. But where did she get all hers from? Maybe she walked at dawn through in the peacock gardens, her brain dull from fear and lack of sleep, plotting the twists and turns that would keep her alive for one night more. That story about the sailor went well. It must be worth a sequel or two. Is seven pushing it too far? All right, but what’s he going to do on his seven voyages? (Bird flies by with mouse dead in its claws) That’s it! Birds! Big birds, big enough to feed on elephants! That’ll make him sit up. That will get me one more dawn like this. One more…

Stories inside stories inside stories. Scheherazade tells of Jafaar the vizier, who, found wanting by his master Haroun, obtains a pardon for himself by entertaining his Caliph with the Tale of Nur al-Din Ali. (No harm, you can hear Scheherazade thinking, in planting the idea of mercy in her own Caliph’s head). The Fisherman tells the Djinn the story of the sage Duban. Sinbad the Porter hears the story of the seven voyagers from his namesake the Sailor. It’s like Russian dolls, one inside another inside another, and each decorated and striking, and the myriad of voices that tell them seem to come from all around, echoing inside the cave.


Sufi imam from the Thousand and One Nights, 14th C manuscript

A thousand and one stories? Some collections have as many – ancient tales that go back into the folklore of different Middle Eastern cultures, including some about historical figures who lived long after Sheherazade and her Caliph are supposed to have existed. But most tellings have only a selection. Ours probably included no more than twenty. Some I recall very clearly. Other stories have elements I remember or half-remember, like tricking the djinn back into the bottle, or the book whose pages are poisoned, or the Caliph who enters a house in disguise, is entertained, and nearly loses his life. I must have read those stories and then forgotten them. Or maybe I never did, but others like Umberto Eco and James Elroy Flecker did at some time and have served them up to me since, set like gems in stories of their own making. Running my eye down the list of a thousand titles, I’m surprised to see how few I can recognise. The Nights were part of my childhood, and yet what I have is only a small proportion of what is there. They are the piles upon piles of untouched treasures that I left behind me in the cave when I escaped with my little bag of jewels all those years ago.


John Dickinson is the son of the author Peter Dickinson, and worked in the Ministry of Defence, Cabinet Office and NATO before leaving the civil service to begin writing.  His brilliant YA fantasy novel  ‘The Cup of the World’ and its sequels ‘The Widow and The King’ and ‘The Fatal Child’ are set in a far-off, war-troubled medieval kingdom where once, long ago, Wulfram the Seafarer came with his seven sons and conquered the land. Now the different baronies and territories descended from those sons are in turmoil and open revolt, bitter with complex politics and grudges. John has also published a historical novel for adults, ‘The Lightstep’, set in a German palatinate at the time of the French Revolution (one of the best adult novels I read last year) - and a coldly beautiful science fiction novel called ‘WE’.  His forthcoming book 'Muddle and Win, the Battle for Sally Jones', is a sort of 'Screwtape Letters' for children, in which a small devil and a guardian angel slug it out for the soul of good girl Sally Jones.  It will be out in September.

John Dickinson is also over at Fantabulous Fridays, Scribble City Central, this morning, talking about 'D for Devil' - I'm heading over there now!

1 comment:

Lucy Coats said...

I too grew up on the Arabian Nights, and this lovely piece of John's has woken a desire to dive into its pages again. Jewels indeed!