Tuesday, February 4, 2014

"I will be content with a hundred dinars for each dead man" - More Arabian Nights

I continue to read tales from the Thousand and One Nights. This morning it's "The Tale of Jouder and His Brothers," which begins thusly:
There was once a merchant named Omar and he had three sons, the eldest of whom was called Salim, the second Selim and the third Jouder. He reared them all till they came to man's estate, but the youngest he loved more than his brothers, who, seeing this, waxed jealous of Jouder and hated him. Now their father was a man stricken in years, and when he saw that his two eldest sons hated their brother, he feared lest trouble should befall him from them after his death. So he assembled a company of his kinsfolk, together with divers men of learning and assessors of the Cadi's court, and letting bring all his money and stuff, said to them, 'O folk, divide ye this money and stuff into four parts, according to the law.' They did so, and he gave one part to each of his sons and kept the fourth himself, saying, "This was my good and I have divided it among them; and now they have no farther claim upon me nor upon each other; so, when I die, no difference shall arise between them, seeing that I have parted the inheritance among them in my lifetime; and this that I have kept shall be for my wife, their mother, wherewithal to provide for her subsistence [after my death].'

A little while after this he died, and neither of the two elder brothers was content with his share, but sought more of Jouder, saying, 'Our father's good is in thy hands.' So he appealed to the judges and those who had been present at the partition came and bore witness of that which they knew, wherefore the judge forbade them from each other; but Jouder and his brothers spent much money in bribes to him. After this, they left him awhile, but presently they began again to torment him and he again appealed to the magistrate, [who again gave judgment in his favour;] but all three once more lost much money in bribes. Nevertheless Salim and Selim forbore not to seek his hurt [and to carry the case] from court to court, losing, he and they, till they had given all their good for food to the oppressors and they became poor, all three. Then the two elder brothers went to their mother and took her money and beat her and laughed at her and drove her away. So she betook herself to her son Jouder and told him how his brothers had dealt with her and fell to cursing them. 'O my mother,' said he, 'do not curse them, for God will requite each of them his deed. See, I am become poor, and so are my brethren, for contention begetteth loss of good, and we have contended amain, I and they, before the judges, and it hath profited us nothing: nay, we have wasted all our father left us and are disgraced among the folk by reason of our testimony, [one against the other]. Shall I then contend with them anew on thine account and shall we appeal to the judges?
"Huh," I said. "That sounds familiar. Only this time it's not The Odyssey, it's Bleak House! Apparently the "lawsuit" plot has been around for a long time. Our old friend Anonymous only manages to get a couple of paragraphs out of it, where Dickens worked it for 600 pages. That's what we call progress.

Later on in the same story (which, like so many folktales and myths, is clearly a collection of short tales stitched together end-to-end to form a long entertainment), Jouder is paid 100 dinars to drown a Moor (at the Moor's request). The next day he's paid another 100 dinars to drown another Moor.
After awhile, his feet appeared above the water and Jouder said, 'He is dead and damned! So God will, may Moors come to me every day, and I will bind them and push them in and they shall die; and I will be content with a hundred dinars for each dead man.' Then he took the mule to the Jew, who exclaimed, on seeing him, 'The other is dead?' 'May thy head live!' answered Jouder, and the Jew said, 'This is the reward of the covetous.' Then he took the mule and gave Jouder a hundred dinars, with which he returned to his mother. 'O my son,' said she, 'whence hast thou this money?' So he told her and she said, 'Go not again to Lake Caroun, for I fear for thee from the Moors.' 'O my mother,' answered he, 'I do but cast them in by their own wish, and what am I to do? This craft brings me in a hundred dinars a day and I return speedily; wherefore, by Allah, I will not leave going to Lake Caroun, till the race of the Moors is cut off and not one of them is left.'
These quotes are all taken from Volume VI of the John Payne edition of 1901, available for mayhem online. In the N. J. Dawood translation I'm reading, it's quite a bit funnier. I laughed aloud on the bus, to the alarm of my seatmate.

Much as I'm enjoying these tales, I look forward to reading something long and sustained and more formally integrated. A novel, in other words.


  1. What I wish was that I knew enough about Islamic history and culture to be able to see when reading these tales which parts of them harken back directly to pre-Islamic society, and which parts of them are newer graftings of Islamic belief. Because some of the tales are old, old, old. In the Arabic versions, people are always invoking Allah and His prophet, and there is a contest of Moslem-versus-pagan faith in many of the stories. In the ancient Persian versions, who knows what gods were invoked? I don't. It's also interesting, in these hybrid stories, to read about alleged followers of Islam who drink a lot of wine and fornicate like mad. Clearly Allah and His prophet entered these stories at a late date. So this idea of cultural appropriation is interesting to me. I know about it in Western culture (this morning a coworker and I discussed the connections between Groundhog Day and Michaelmas), but I was ignorantly not expecting to see it in the Middle East. I suppose it happens everywhere, yes? Of course it does.

  2. Is it bad that I'm intrigued by these Moors that pay to be drowned?

    Lately I've felt frustrated that I can't read books in their original language. I want to experience Anna Karenina in Russian and Proust's long novel in French.

  3. The thing about The Arabian Nights is that the "original" language is three or four languages, from a span covering hundreds of years and several cultures. Some day I'll have good enough Russian to read Chekhov in the original; that's my goal.

  4. The legal wrangles were always so, I guess--was today reading the NT parable about the widow who keeps badgering the judge for vindication. He's corrupt and doesn't want to bother but finally does because he sees she will badger him right on... So that's 2K years ago.

    I have written you a note about how your novel was basely stolen from me before I could sit down with it, and how it took me time to find out where it had once again vanished, and how the thief keeps reading me enticing bits. Which is by turns annoying (because I don't have it to read) and entertaining (because it is.)

  5. That's Luke, right? If we persist, we will have justice; I like that story. I'm not sure we get the same message from Bleak House, but the courts are a metaphor in the NT, I suppose!

    Thank you for your note. I'll respond to it directly.