By the Twisted Word, Slain;
By the Good Word, Saved . . .
& Other Stories
VI. Famous Last Words: Oriental Crimes and Punishments
I’ve warned against too much Orientalism, but at this point the Arabian Nights are as much Western as they are Eastern classics. Furthermore, like all tricky tellers-of-tales and spinners of yarns, I reserve the right to contradict myself on occasion. The untangling of knots I’ll leave to the scientists, philosophers, and Alexanders, if they can. What we have come to call “The Arabian Nights” was not a single work, but a collection of unrelated stories initially not meant to be preserved in libraries or on bookshelves, but told to amuse the general public. Eastern storytellers might have carried their own annotated versions of these disparate tales, organically adding, modifying, and omitting from them. When a story became worthy enough to remember, authors recorded them; many times a story in the Nights ended as the Sultan “summoned chroniclers and copyists and bade them write all that had betided him . . . first and last . . .” Yet, the tastes of listeners remained a paramount consideration.
At least one reference in 950 AD called them The Thousand and One Nights, proving their unified collection at that date, but the text’s sources were much older and their genealogy complicated. Episodes descended from Indian and Persian folklore, with the Arabic stories from Baghdad and Cairo added later. By the 1500s, they had coalesced and more or less assumed their final Eastern form.
Medieval European stories borrowed some of their motifs from the legends that would later become The Arabian Nights, since Westerners came into regular contact with the Orient through trade and war; through the Byzantine Empire — that ancient colossus that once held together East and West athwart the Bosporus — as well as successive Crusading waves into the Levant and Islamic invasions into southern Europe. Biblical lands maintained an aura of mysticism and importance in the Christianized West, but the non-religious tales such as those of Sinbad the Sailor, whose exploits resembled those of Odysseus, also enjoyed popularity in the Middle Ages.
Frenchman Antoine Galland first translated the Nights into a European language in the eighteenth century, followed by translations from Edward Lane and the rather salacious Richard F. Burton. These men gave the Nights an overarching narrative, with European tastes as, or more important than, an accurate transcription. In the Western versions of the Nights, storytellers narrated the tales in the format of stories within stories . . . within stories. Out of the thousand-and-one Oriental adventures to choose from, I have picked two in which the act of narrating an account corrected more than one sin or sorrow; in which “last words” seemed to doom their speakers, but instead somehow saved them from death and error: the healing power of the communal parable.
Long ago and during one of those small-numbered centuries, there lived a man named Haroun-Al-Raschid, the Caliph of Baghdad, who “sat in his palace wondering if there was anything left in the world that could possibly give him a few hours’ amusement.” It was then, as the Caliph was sunk in this weary posture that Giafar, his vizier, approached him. Commander of the Faithful, the vizier began, I have taken it upon myself to remind you that you have chosen today to devote to the task you have set of “observing secretly for yourself the manner in which justice is done and order kept throughout your city.” Perhaps in completing this project, you will find a distraction from the melancholy to which you have fallen prey.
Energized by the prospect of the mission in front of him, the Caliph told his vizier to accompany him into the city, the two disguised as foreign visitors. Through a hidden door they walked out into “the open country.” Turning toward the Euphrates, they crossed “the river in a small boat,” and entered the part of town that lay along the far bank. Almost immediately they ran into an old blind man, holding out his knotty hands and begging for charity. The Caliph pressed into the beggar’s palms a few pieces of silver, and was about to continue on his way when the blind man did a strange thing. He seized the Caliph’s retreating arm and asked that he strike him a blow, for “I have deserved it richly,” the blind man said. My friend, the Caliph gently replied, what good would my alms do, if I were to treat you so badly?
My lord, the blind man shook his head sadly, please, take back your money, or “give me the blow which I crave, for I have sworn a solemn oath that I will receive nothing without also receiving chastisement.” Trust me, if you knew what I’d done, you would consider the punishment but a tenth part of what I deserve. Because he had other business on which to attend and had no time to argue the matter, the Caliph yielded and hit the blind man lightly on the shoulder before moving on. His curiosity, however, was piqued, and the Caliph ordered his vizier to go back to the blind man, deal him another piece of money and a blow, then invite him to the Caliph’s palace for an audience the next day.
After prayers the following evening, the blind man approached the Caliph, who was now dressed in his Commander’s robes and sitting on a dais. Upon learning that the blind man’s name was Baba-Abdallah, the Caliph requested that he tell him his story, for his way of asking alms was so bizarre “that [the Caliph] had almost told [Baba-Abdallah] to cease from causing a public scandal.” But before doing so, the Caliph wanted to hear the blind man’s story, his motive for taking such a curious vow. “Tell me . . . the whole truth, and conceal nothing,” the Caliph demanded. Baba-Abdallah fell to his knees: “I beseech your pardon for asking your Highness to do an action that might seem to have no meaning, but I look on it as a slight expiation of a fearful sin of which I have been guilty,” and if your Highness will listen to my tale, you will surely agree that no punishment could atone for my crime.
Years ago, Baba-Abdullah had been a successful businessman who lent wandering tradesmen and merchants the use of his camel herd, and he frequently accompanied them on their travels. During one such journey back from India, Baba-Abdallah found an area of pasture where he rested and fed his herd. As he sat beneath a shade-tree, a dervish making his way on the road toward Balsora stopped there as well, and joined Baba-Abdallah in conversation and repast. After they’d shared their meal and become good friends, the dervish “happened to mention that in a spot only a little way off . . . there was hidden a treasure so great, that if [Baba-Abdallah’s] eighty camels were loaded till they could carry no more, the hiding place would seem as full as if it had never been touched.” At this, Baba-Abdallah became consumed with greed. He promised the dervish that if he led him to the cavern, that he would give him half his herd — 40 camels — weighted with treasure in exchange. So, they all set out, until they reached a valley with such a narrow entrance and shut up by two straight and forbidding cliffs, that the camels could pass through but one at a time. When at last, they came to a clearing exactly between the two mountains, the dervish told Baba-Abdallah to have the camels “lie down in the open space, so they could easily load them.”
Then, the dervish lit a fire with kindling, spoke a few words that Baba-Abdallah did not understand, and threw perfumes upon the flames. The smoke rose up into two vast columns, and then “a rock, which stood like a pillar between the” crags appeared, slowly opened, and “a splendid palace” filled with piles of jewels emerged, glimmering from within. So consumed with covetousness was Baba-Abdallah that he fell upon the first heap of gold that he found, and began ladling the stuff into sacks and loading the animals with them two and three at a time; for his part, the dervish was choosier, and confined himself to precious stones. At length, the camels were loaded, and nothing remained but to reseal the treasure trove and go their separate ways, each man vastly richer than before. The last thing the dervish brought from inside the hoard was a golden vase, “beautifully chased,” from which he removed a small wooden box. Concealing it within his robes, the dervish said only that the box contained a rare ointment. Then, he performed the closing rites, and the palace disappeared behind smoke and rock. The two men led the herd out of the valley, embraced, and parted with each of his 40 camels.
But the “demon of envy” filled Baba-Abdallah’s soul before long, and he thought to himself: For what would an old dervish need 40 camels loaded with treasure? He quickly backtracked and found the old man. “My Brother!” Baba-Abdullah exclaimed when he caught up to him, a thought occurred to me at the moment we left one another, “which might not have occurred to you. As a dervish,” you are a simple man, living a quiet life and careless of worldly goods. Perhaps you do not realize the burden you place upon yourself by taking all of these camels loaded down with riches. They are “stubborn beasts anyway and hard to manage.” If you are wise, you would encumber yourself with no more than 30 of them.
The dervish thought for a moment, then agreed to give back to Baba-Abdullah ten of his camels. It was all so easy that before the dervish had gotten far, the camel-driver stopped him again. My brother, in your own interest, I’m sure you would agree that you would manage easier if you were to give me ten more. Again, the dervish gave up the camels. This ritual repeated until Baba-Abdullah had taken back all of his camels loaded with treasure. Yet, this was not enough. Still looking for something else to grasp, he questioned the dervish about the wooden box the old man had placed inside his robes. What would a man like yourself need of such an ointment? It seems hardly worth taking with you, Baba-Abdullah cajoled none-too-subtly. At this, the dervish cheerfully handed over the box with the ointment: “take it my friend.” Baba-Abdullah swiped it hungrily while asking the dervish what use it might have. The ointment was magical, the dervish divulged, and if a man rubbed it on his left eye, all the treasures hidden within the bowels of the Earth would be revealed to his sight. H had to take care not to get any of the oil onto his right eye, however, lest he go permanently blind.
Baba-Abdullah urged the dervish to apply the ointment to his left eye, which the older man did obligingly. When the camel-driver opened his left eye after the treatment, he “saw spread out, as it were before [him], treasures of every kind and without number.” But during these astonishing moments of discovery, he kept his right eye closed, which was becoming tiresome. Come, dervish, Baba-Abdullah demanded, apply the ointment to my other eye as well; if one side shows me these riches, surely the other must show how to extract them from the ground! The dervish shook his wizened old head and repeated the warning. But Baba-Abdullah would not take “no” for an answer, and he threatened the dervish into rubbing the ointment onto his right eye. “Pray so no more, but do what I ask!” Famous last words.
Sighing, the dervish did so. When the camel-owner tried to open it, a “heavy darkness floated before [him], and he was as blind as [the Caliph] saw him now.” Though he begged the dervish to give him back his sight, the old man refused. Unhappy wretch! It is not my fault that this has befallen you, but “it is a just chastisement . . . you have proved yourself unworthy of the riches that were given you. Now they have passed into my hands, whence they will flow into the hands of others less greedy and ungrateful than you.” So, the dervish left him stranded on the road, and there Baba-Abduallah remained until a passing caravan took pity on him and allowed him to ride with them on their way back to Baghdad. One moment a rich man, and the next a destitute one, begging alms and beatings for his crimes. This, Baba-Abdullah ended, was his tale of woe.
The Caliph was “much pleased” with the story of the Blind Man and the Dervish, though he was somber in regards to Baba-Abdallah’s personal agonies. Indeed, your sins are considerable, the Caliph said to the man sitting before him, but you have suffered enough. Henceforth, repent in private, and I will have funds sent to you, day by day, for all your wants. At this, the blind man flung himself at the Caliph’s feet and “prayed that honor and happiness might be his portion forever.” To several other men of mysterious natures and origins the Caliph listened and dispensed his wisdom, thus restoring good order and justice to his city, while also restoring to his troubled mind a sense of purpose. These were invigorating, and not simply “amusing” adventures that filled the halls of Haroun-Al-Raschid’s court.
Of course, the best example of the story’s rejuvenating power, the ability of words to heal, was the enchanting recital and its enchantress herself that bound all of these “thousand-and-one” tales into a single volume of night-time “entertainments.” It was during the ancient dynasty of the Sassanids, who ruled for more than 400 years from the borders of Persia to the outskirts of China, and from the northern wastes of Tartary south, past even the mighty Ganges, that a noble king of that line reigned, named the Sultan Shahryar. Now this ruler had a wife whom he loved more than anything else, and he lavished on her all the splendors his vast wealth and power could afford. His devotion, unfortunately, went unreturned, and by an accident one day, Shahryar discovered that she was an unfaithful wife.
So shameful were her crimes, that he felt it his duty to order his grand-vizier to execute her. The Sultan’s sorrow was great and “the blow so heavy, that his mind gave way,” and he pronounced all women hateful and “as wicked as the late Sultana” had been. The fewer there were of them in the world, the better, he decided. Every morning, he married a fresh wife, then ordered the grand-vizier to strangle her the next day. The poor man carried out his task with the greatest reluctance. Soon, the country contained almost no young women, and the families of doomed girls lamented their misfortunes bitterly. In one house there was a father, weeping for the loss of his daughter; in the next, there was a mother “who trembled at the fate of her child.” Instead of the blessings that had once been heaped on the head of Shahryar, there were now only curses.
The grand-vizier’s position had to this point protected his own daughters, the elder Scheherazade and the younger Dinarzade. One day, beautiful Scheherazade, educated in all the arts and refinements, “his delight and his pride,” asked her father for a favor. I can deny you nothing, Daughter, the grand-vizier replied, what would you have me do?
I am determined to stop this barbarous practice of the Sultan; to stop the curses of the fathers and weeping of the mothers. Therefore, I ask that you offer my hand in marriage to Sultan Shahryar.
Imagine the poor man’s fear and dismay! Are you mad, Daughter? You know that it will be I who will have to kill you the next morning, lest I, too, and all the rest of our family lose our lives!
But Scheherazade was calm, and replied that she realized her risk; if she died, it would be a noble, glorious sacrifice, and if she succeeded in her designs, she would have performed a great service to her nation. After much pleading from the one side and firm insistence from the other, the grand-vizier finally acceded to his daughter’s wish. The Sultan received this offer with astonishment, and warned, “let there be no mistake, vizier, that I will not spare her, and it will be you who shall execute her yourself.” The man nodded numbly and sadly and returned with the news to Scheherezade, who “received it as if it had been the most pleasant thing in the world.” She bade her sister listen to her plan: When the wedding was over and Scheherezade had become Shahryar’s new wife, she would beg the Sultan to allow Dinarzade to sleep with them in their chamber — a last gift to comfort a doomed woman. An hour before morning dawned, Dinarzade must then wake and ask her sister to “tell her one of her charming stories.” So, Scheherezade explained, “I shall begin, and I hope by this means to deliver the people from the terror” that holds dominion in this country.
Readers know what happened next: Scheherazade saved herself and her nation by telling stories every night before the dawn; stories that wove one into another; threads of stories that Shahryar could not find it in himself to cut; stories that eventually returned to the Sultan his humanity and removed from his heart his hatred of all womankind. Her “last words” lasted until love once more carpeted the highlands of Persia, where the native damask roses and pomegranates grew and flourished as thickly as their native love of romance and poetry.
VII. Local Word Is Law: Medieval Songs of Love and Money
“Song did not awake until the Provençal viol aroused it.” — Ezra Pound
The closest in spirit to these Persians in the West were troubadour-courtiers in twelfth and thirteenth-century Aquitaine/Poitiers, Toulouse, Gascony, northern Spain, and Italy. We of the Anglosphere owe much of what we know about the troubadours to Ezra Pound, the Modernist poet who located the rebirth of Western poetry after the end of the Classical age in the troubadour/jongleur tradition of southwestern Europe — particularly in France. His study and translation of old Provençal poetry juxtaposed courtly love and love of homeland to the usury Westerners have always despised; they were antithetically related and competing codes of law and conduct.
In most troubadour verses, the protagonist was a knight — a wandering singer and storyteller who celebrated chivalry and local region. The lover-poet, by combining erotic and religious worship, achieved the highest awareness of beauty, Nature, and divinity. Although sometimes denounced for its excessive elevation of ladies as ideal figures and even judges in “courts of love” (which should be seen as a literary device), such verses sung in southern courts also elevated a warrior mentality, manliness, and aristocracy. It was an exercise for the upper and landowning classes, the men who had the time to devote to innovating new ways of arranging words and meters in their vernacular dialects. These medieval chansons Pound loved combined Homeric wandering, desire for romance and fatherland, joy, despair, and madness sung by troubadour-jongleurs — those mischievous “court-galls” and provocateurs of the Middle Ages; in short, all of the tropes of which this essay has since sung the praises (indeed, “praise” and song in earlier times were synonymous).
Returning from the Orient on Crusade, one troubadour sounded an Odyssean note, for “From the depths of the sea From the perilous strait From the port’s ennui, he had, thank God, escaped, And thus the miseries he’d faced, he could express And share . . . [now] That [he] with joyful heart again
[Found himself] in the Limousin,” the home that he was “blessed with.” As if sighting once more his beloved Ithaca and waiting there his beloved wife Penelope, the narrator declared that though he’d seen the riches of the East:
Here a man’s more wealthy
With a small orchard than
He’d be with an expanse
Of land and riches elsewhere. For these
Joys of homecoming — gifts that please,
Affectionate words, noble deeds,
The favors my lady grants,
And her sweet countenance —
No other country can exceed.
Most of all, there was glorification of the word, raised to a new pitch in troubadour lyrics as one would hear it in his native tongue. Troubadour Piere Vidal chanted:
Breathing I draw the air to me
Which I feel coming from Provença,
All that is thence so pleasureth me
That whenever I ear good speech of it
I listen laughing and straightway
Demand for each word an hundred
So fair to me is the hearing.
None have known
. . . any place with such joys
As there are among the French folk where
I left my heart a-laughing in her care,
Who turns the veriest sullen unto laughter. . . .
He who would speak her praise to the
full, has no need of skill and lying.
One might speak the best, and yet
she were still above the speech.
If I have skill in speech or deed
hers is the thanks for it, for she has
given me proficiency and the understanding whereby I am a gay singer,
and every pleasing thing that I do is because of her fair self.
In this poem Vidal made the ideal feminine mistress not a lady of flesh and blood, but Mistress and Lady Languedoc. His love was a more ancient one of blood-soil, and the mellifluous language sprung from its roots.
By contrast, usury — a loan or sale of credit purchased at often exorbitant rates of interest — was the antithesis of everything the troubadours esteemed. Because of inflation and the growing power of urban commercialism, landowners in the twelfth century had to increasingly turn to cities and moneylenders for credit. The resulting debt led to a loss of possessions and ancient family holdings — a loss of soil held through bloodlines — especially if knights and nobles decided to go on Crusade, or to war, their other raison d’etre. To counteract this, there arose in the troubadour tradition a war of words that upheld the chivalric “hero-outlaw”: the courtly warrior who defied distant elites and the merchant class. In one of Ezra Pound’s translations of Bertan de Born’s poetic paeans to southern bravery, the nobleman-narrator sung,
Well pleaseth me the sweet time of Easter
That maketh the leaf and the flower come out.
And it pleaseth me when I hear the clamor
Of the birds, their song through the wood;
And it pleaseth me when I see through the meadows
The tents and pavilions set up, and great joy have I
When I see o’er the campagna knights armed and horses arrayed. . . .
for no man is worth a damn till he has taken and given many a blow . . .
I tell you that I find no such savor in eating butter and sleeping, as when I
hear cried “On them!” and from both sides hear horses neighing through
their head-guards, and hear shouted “To aid! To aid!” and see the dead
with lance truncheons, the pennants still on them, piercing their sides.
Even if these feudal chieftains could not return the funds given them to outfit their armies for war, it mattered little. “Pawn your castles, lords! Let the Jews pay,” de Born goaded his comrades in another poem. Breaking faith with the fraudulent was no treachery. His “compagna,” or Provençal countrymen, would defy any laws that sought to hold them fast in inglorious fetters, including the authorities in Paris and Rome. Let any who dared, come and take it!
Unfortunately for these spirited storytellers and singers, Paris and Rome, church and state, united in one blunt instrument known to history as the Albigensian Crusade — a shameful episode in which southern French Christian and heretic Cathar alike were pitilessly massacred. The troubadours then turned their songs to bitter satire and
. . . scornful lines
About the treacherous kind
That one is sure to find in decadences home —
Rome, where goodness declines.
With lies and false promises,
You gnaw the flesh of foolish folk, you chew their bones;
Leading the blind, you usher them to the gravestone;
Your avaricious nature you have clearly shown.
You flout the Lord s commands;
For pardon, you demand
That money changes hands. It’s quite a load, O Rome,
Of sins your back must stand.
I hope that
it please God to let
You fall into decay —
For silver you behave
Most falsely and betray. You don’t keep covenant,
O Rome of evil race.
Like the usurers of the cities, “Rome” had betrayed the beautiful and godlike; had ground the nose of aristocratic pride in the filth of “money [that] changes hands,” their officials the pimps collecting the coins of their used-up prostitutes — a complete inversion of the chivalric love borne of French poetry.
Poetries, tragedies, triumphs, farces, rimes, no matter — each of these stories have throughout our rich history fulfilled the first directive of art: that it never bores. A good story must always begin as “an escape from dullness.” Ezra Pound had strong words that matched his strong opinions about everything — but most especially about the storyteller, for it has ever been his “business . . . to prevent ennui . . . to relieve, refresh, revive the mind . . . with some form of [delight], by some splendor of thought, some presentation of sheer beauty, some lightning turn of phrase.” After all, “laughter is no mean ecstasy.”
No “artist” am I, yet I hope I’ve managed to entertain you tonight as “rosy-fingered” dawn threatens to rise and dispel the magic we’ve made. Though far from having run out of tales to tell, I’ve said enough. So for now, readers, this is my final word.
* * *
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 Sir Richard Burton, Tales from the Arabian Nights (Franklin, Penn.: Franklin Library, 1978), 769.
 Andrew Lang, The Arabian Nights Entertainments (Boston: Dover, 1969), 316.
 Lang, 317.
 Ibid., 318-319.
 Ibid., 320-322.
 Ibid., 322.
 Ibid., 325.
 Ibid., 327-328.
 Ibid., 328.
 Ibid., 330.
 Ibid., 1-2.
 Ibid., 4-5.
 See also Robert Casillo, “Love and Usury in Ezra Pound’s Writings” in Texas Studies in Literature and Language, 27, no. 2 (Summer, 1985), pp. 125-153.
 Gaucelm Faidit, “From the Depths of the Sea” in Lark in the Morning: Verses of the Troubadours, trans. Ezra Pound, W. D. Snodgrass, & Robert Kehew (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2005), 233-235. Lark in the Morning is a wonderful source and contains the original Old Provençal alongside the modern translations.
 Pierre Vidal, “The Song of Breath,” Lark in the Morning, 242-243.
 Bertran de Born, “A War Song,” Lark in the Morning, 141-145.
 Ezra Pound’s rendering of Bertran de Born’s “Near Perigord,” in Personae: The Collected Poems of Ezra Pound (New York: New Directions, 1950), 152.
 Guillem Figueira, “Rome, Where Goodness Declines,” Lark in the Morning, 288-293.
 Ezra Pound, The Spirit of Romance: An Attempt to Define Somewhat the Charm of the Pre-Renaissance Literature of Latin Europe (Norfolk, Conn.: New Directions, 1910), 7.
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