Beauty in The Arabian Nights

I was looking through my Facebook notes a few weeks ago and discovered some poetic lines from Richard Burton’s (d. 1890) translation of “The Second Kalandar’s Tale” in The Arabian Nights/The Thousand and One Nights, and I simply had to share them with the world. If you are interested in reading them in context, the full text of “The Second Kalandar’s Tale” can be found here, and a full version of this translation of The Arabian Nights is available here.

“Mine eyes were dragonmans for my tongue betied,
And told full clear the love I fain would hide.
When last we met and tears in torrents railed,
For tongue struck dumb by glances testified.
She signed with eye glance while her lips were mute,
I signed with fingers and she kenned th’implied.
Our eyebrows did all duty ‘twixt us twain,
And we being speechless, Love spake loud and plain.

How many a lover with his eyebrows speaketh
To his beloved, as his passion pleadeth.
With flashing eyne his passion he inspireth
And well she seeth what his pleading needeth.
How sweet the look when each on other gazeth,
And with what swiftness and how sure it speedeth,
And this with eyebrows all his passion writeth,
And that with eyeballs all his passion readeth.”

From “The Second Kalandar’s Tale” in The Arabian Nights, translated by Richard Francis Burton (d. 1890)

These lines are so evocative and beautiful that I didn’t want to lose them once I had completed my honours course on “The Body in Islam”. However, whilst they are beautiful in themselves, they are even more striking in context, and I would encourage all of you to read the short (10 pages or so) tale in its entirety by following the link above.

For the benefit of those who don’t have time or the inclination to do this, I shall attempt to place these lines into context as quickly as possible…

An exiled prince discovers a mysterious door under a tree which, upon opening, leads him into a sumptuously decorated underground cave filled with food, drink, jewels, silk and all manner of luxuries. Here he meets the most beautiful maiden he has ever seen (described with similar poetic prowess to my chosen excerpts above). She tells him that she has never seen a man before, and is being kept prisoner in this luxurious cage by an ifrit (a kind of demon), who visits her every tenth day in the form of a Persian, and has his wicked way with her.

Whilst this is unpleasant news to the prince, she invites him to stay with her and keep her company for the next 9 days and then leave before the ifrit comes back. So he stays, they eat, drink, make love and have a great time for a few days, but of course, being a bloke, the prince gets drunk and jealous. He isn’t satisfied with seeing her only for 9 days out of 10, and runs to the wall and strikes an emblem which summons the ifrit to the cave, believing he will be able to defeat him in battle.

As the ifrit begins to appear, the prince realises what he has done and flees in terror, leaving some of his personal possessions in the cave. The maiden tries to placate the ifrit, telling him that she fell against the emblem accidentally, but he notices the prince’s possessions, tortures her cruelly, and tracks the prince down, dragging him back to the cave.

Then comes the poetry. The ifrit presents the prince to the woman, who denies ever having seen him, and tells her he will spare her life if she strikes the prince dead with a sword. Agreeing, she goes to do so, when the “mute tongue of the prince’s case” says:

“Mine eyes were dragonmans for my tongue betied,
And told full clear the love I fain would hide.
When last we met and tears in torrents railed,
For tongue struck dumb by glances testified.
She signed with eye glance while her lips were mute,
I signed with fingers and she kenned th’implied.
Our eyebrows did all duty ‘twixt us twain,
And we being speechless, Love spake loud and plain.”

The maiden refuses to kill the prince, who is then presented with the same ultimatum, and similarly agrees to kill the maiden. However, the mute tongue of their case “wrote in [their] hearts these lines”:

“How many a lover with his eyebrows speaketh
To his beloved, as his passion pleadeth.
With flashing eyne his passion he inspireth
And well she seeth what his pleading needeth.
How sweet the look when each on other gazeth,
And with what swiftness and how sure it speedeth,
And this with eyebrows all his passion writeth,
And that with eyeballs all his passion readeth.”

For each refusing to kill the other, and for refusing to even acknowledge their indiscretions, the ifrit kills the maiden, and turns the prince into an ape.

Whilst the tale itself continues both after and prior to this brief summary, I just wanted to attempt to convey the gravity of the situation in which these beautiful verses are revealed. Presented with a situation where to acknowledge their love would mean certain death for both lovers, and given an opportunity to save themselves at the expense of the other, the lovers communicate their passion to each other with the only means available to them… their eyes, their eyebrows, their fingers.

Whilst these verses appear in a particularly gruesome tale, and are immediately followed by bizarre and gruesome punishments, they strike me as being perfectly fitting to any modern story of forbidden love. That a piece of literature from outside our modern “Western” context, and from a collection originating some time between the 9th and 14th centuries, could be so powerful, touching and relevant in the 21st century, is just one of the beauties which the study of literature, history, religion and more can bring to light. There must be thousands of similarly amazing discoveries waiting out there… and I find that truly stimulating!

Or maybe I’m just being overly sentimental…

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About Chris

Scholar of religion/nonreligion... PhD Student (Lancaster University), blogger, singer, actor, thinker... Northern Irish living in Scotland. Co-founder of The Religious Studies Project. Director at the NSRN. Baritone masquerading as a tenor. Vegetarian for no particular reason.

2 responses to “Beauty in The Arabian Nights”

  1. Gemma says :

    I’m now 600-odd pages through my copy of 1001 Nights (also a collection from the Burton translation) and what surprises me is not the beauty of the poetry, because I’ve known for a long time about the beauty of Arabic poetry, but the interesting position of women in tales which are being narrated by a woman attempting to escape beheading. The second kalandar’s tale is only one of a number of stories Sheherezade tells in which women actively seek illicit sexual relations, but the ‘redemptive’ notion of their punishment – being killed in the horrific and violent manner of this tale and in another story being transformed into dogs – is absent in some of the stories. There is one amusing very short story where a woman who is having an affair manages to manipulate the King, Wazir, Chief Imam and a carpenter into first thinking she will have sex with them and then locking them in a cabinet!

    It’s quite erratic given the framing narrative of the stories.

    • religionandmore says :

      Thanks for the comment Gemma… adds a bit of scholarly clout to my post :-) And very interesting at the same time… nice! Thanks for taking the time to read my ramblings as well – it means a lot! As a reward, you get blogrolled :-)

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