three pairs of lovers with space

THE TALE OF KAMAR AND THE EXPERT HALĪMAH

 

The following story from The Thousand Nights and One Night was begun by the narrator, Shahrazād, on the seven-hundred-and-eightieth night of her story-telling.  It becomes evident only towards its end that the setting is Cairo was the setting for the part of the story presented here.

The main translation presented here is Powys Mathers’ celebrated translation of Mardrus’s translation into French, volume III pp. 641-8. Important differences with Sir Richard Burton’s more scholarly and reliable but archaic translation[1] are pointed out in the footnotes.  However, the last three paragraphs of Mathers’s translation (interwoven with two poems) are exceptionally here so short and lame compared to Burton’s version, that the latter is given as an appendix.

 

IT IS RELATED that there was once in the antiquity of time—but Allāh knows all!—a worthy merchant called Abd al-Rahmān whom the Giver had favoured with one son and one daughter. The daughter’s name was Morning-Star, because of her perfect beauty, and, since the boy was altogether like the young moon, they called him Kamar[2]. When they grew up from babyhood, the merchant, who saw that Allāh had dowered them with dangerous charm, feared the evil-eye of envy and all the wiles of corruption; so he kept the two shut up in his house until they were fourteen, and never allowed them to see anyone, except the old slave who ministered to their wants. But a day came when the merchant, contrary to his custom, seemed in a jovial and bending humour; so his wife said to him: ‘O father of Kamar, our son has become a man and can do as men do. Tell me now, is he a girl or is he a boy?’ ‘A boy, surely,’ cried the astonished Abd al-Rahmān. ‘In that case,’ retorted his wife, ‘why do you keep him shut up from the eyes of the creation like a girl, instead of taking him to the market and seating him beside you in the shop? Why do you not introduce him to the world and let people know that you have a son to succeed you? I pray to Allāh that your life may be long, but, when you have to die, no one will know of the existence of your heir if you keep him imprisoned in this way. It will be all very well for him to say: “I am the son of Abd al-Rahmān.” Folk will quite justly answer: “We never heard that Abd al-Rahmān had a son or anything like a son.” Then, woe upon our house, the government will seize your goods and cheat the boy of his inheritance…. And with Morning-Star it is the same! I wish to make her known to our relations; for that might lead to a suit in marriage and we could rejoice again in her wedding as we rejoiced in our own. This world is made of life and death, O father of Kamar, and we may not know the day of Destiny.’

Volume III of the 1986 edition of the translation by Mardrus and Mathers

The merchant Abd al-Rahmān reflected for an hour, and then answered: ‘Oh daughter of my uncle, it is true that no man may escape the Destiny which hangs about his neck; but I only hid the children for fear of the evil-eye; surely you cannot reproach me for my prudence?’ ‘Far be all Evil!’ exclaimed his wife. ‘Pray for the Prophet, O sheikh!’ So he cried: ‘The blessing of Allāh be upon Him and His!’ and she continued: ‘Now put your trust in Allāh, for He can safeguard our children from all ill-omen. Here is the turban of white Mosul silk which I made for Kamar; I sewed a roll of holy verses in a silver tube among its folds; therefore you need have no fear. Take Kamar with you to-day, show him the market and introduce him to his father’s shop.’ Without waiting for a reply, she went to fetch young Kamar, whom she had advised to dress in his best,[3] and led him into the presence of his father. Abd al-Rahmān rejoiced to see him, and said: ‘The name of Allāh be upon you and about you, O Kamar!’ Then, being overpersuaded by his wife, he took the boy by the hand and led him forth.

At this point Shahrazād saw the approach of morning and discreetly fell silent.

BUT WHEN THE SEVEN-HUNDRED-AND-EIGHTY-FIRST NIGHT HAD COME

SHE said:
BUT NO SOONER had they left the threshold and ventured into the street than they were surrounded by a crowd of passengers, who halted in trouble of spirit, snared by the sweet damnation of Kamar’s looks. Yet the streets were as nothing to the market; on their entrance, all who walked there immediately ceased from walking and surged about the two. Some kissed Kamar’s hands, others saluted his father, and yet others cried: ‘O Allāh, the sun has risen twice this morning! The little crescent moon of Ramadān has come again! Here is the new moon in the market!’ A babel of admiration and good wishes rose about father and son, and, although Abd al-Rahmān in confusion and anger pushed and expostulated, the citizens continued to stand in close rank, feasting their eyes on beauty and calling down the blessing of Allah upon that day. Doubtless they excused themselves with these words of the poet:

    

A Cairo Bazaar by John Frederick Lewis, 1878

     Who beauty loveth and created hath
     With the same breath which bade us fear Thy wrath,
          Lover and Lord, we pray Thee to remove
     Either restraint or beauty from our path.

The merchant’s perplexity knew no bounds when he found his son the centre of a packed mob of men and women, all gazing at him with shining eyes. Under his breath he heaped on his wife all those curses which he would have liked to have applied more loudly to these vulgar admirers. As none of his entreaties had any effect, he finally pushed roughly through the people and, gaining the shelter of his shop, seated Kamar so far back that passers could only see him from a distance. At once the shop became the one centre of interest in the market, and hour by hour the jostling of great and small grew heavier about it; for those who had seen wished to see again and those who had not seen most ardently desired to see.

When the spectators were at their thickest, a darwīsh with an ecstatic eye came towards the shop and, seeing Kamar sitting beside his father, halted with a profound sigh, and said these lines in a broken voice:

     I saw the thin branch of the ban
     Where shines the moon of Ramadān
          In sickle saffron glow.
     ‘What is your name?’ ‘Lulu,’ said he,
     ‘Lūlū, a pearl.’ Then I: ‘Lī? Lī?
     Lī? Lī? O pearl, are you for me?’
          He: ‘Lā! lā!, Lā! lā!, no!’

Then the old darwīsh came up to the counter, stroking his long white beard, his great age making a way for him among the crowd. He looked at the boy with tear-filled eyes and offered him a branch of sweet basil; finally he sat down quite close to him upon the front bench of the shop. If you had seen his emotion, you might have applied these words of the poet to him:

    

A Street in Cairo by Carl Haag, 1890

     Where, Ramadān’s gold moon to fasters,
     There is a slight fair boy, my masters,
     You may be sure to see draw near
     A sheikh, snow-bearded and severe,
     Who has so studied lore of love,
     Below, behind, about, above,
     With licit and with illicit,
     That he could take degrees in it.
     Between the lasses and the lads
     He’s lost his pleasant body pads,
     A toothpick in a shroud is he,
     But oh, a Moor[4] for buggery!

     They say his interest in woman
     Is rather casual, though human;
     But I can tell you, for a fact,
     He holds his own in either act.
     With bearded and with breasted youth
     He seeks the principles of truth,
     And in young concave, young convex
     Holds fair the balance of his sex…
     (With this proviso, certainly,
     That he’s a Moor for buggery.)

Seeing the ecstasy of this darwīsh, the people drew their own conclusions, saying: ‘As Allāh lives, all darwīshes are alike! They are all knives for colocassia, making no difference between male and female.’ And others cried: ‘Far be the Evil One! He burns for the pretty boy! Allāh confound such darwīshes!’[5]

The merchant Abd al-Rahmān thought that the best way out of these difficulties would be to return home earlier than usual. In the hope of persuading the darwīsh to depart, he drew some money from his belt and held it towards him, saying: ‘Take to-day’s chance, O darwīsh!’ Then he turned to his son, and exclaimed: ‘My child, I trust that Allāh will punish your mother according to her deserts, for she has given us a hard day!’ Finally, as the darwīsh did not move or make any motion to take the money, he said to him: ‘Rise up now, uncle, for I wish to shut the shop.’ He got to his feet as he spoke and began to close the two leaves of the door, so that the darwīsh was obliged to rise from the bench, to which he had seemed nailed, and go out into the street; yet he never took his eyes from young Kamar. Also, when the merchant and his son had shut the shop and battled their way through the crowd, he followed them out of the market and came behind them to their house, his stick beating a rhythm to their footsteps. Seeing his tenacity, and not daring to curse him, both because of the bystanders and because of his respect for religion, the merchant turned round, and asked: ‘What do you want, O darwīsh?’ ‘O my master,’ the man replied, ‘I greatly desire to be your guest tonight; and remember that he who invites a stranger invites God.’ Kamar’s father exclaimed as heartily as he could: ‘Welcome to the guest of Allāh! Enter my poor house, O darwīsh!’ But below his breath he said: ‘I know what he is after; if he has evil intentions towards my son and should be so unlucky as to try anything, I will kill him and bury him in the garden and spit upon his grave! But first I suppose I must give him something to eat, for he is my guest met upon the road of Allāh.’ He led the old man into his house and bade the negress take him food and drink and water for his ablutions. The darwīsh invoked the name of Allāh as he washed and, placing himself for prayer, recited all the Chapter of the Cow, followed it with the Chapter of the Table, and finished with the Chapter of Immunity. Then, and not till then, he invoked the Name a second time and ate with discretion and dignity.

As soon as Abd al-Rahmān learnt from the negress that the darwīsh had finished his repast, he determined to test the old man’s intention; so he called his son, saying: ‘O Kamar, go to our guest and ask him if his need is satisfied; talk with him a little, for the words of those who walk over the length and breadth of the world are pleasant to hear, and the tales they tell are profitable. Sit quite near him, and if he takes your hand do not snatch it away; those who teach often prefer to have some direct contact with their pupils, as a surer means of transmitting knowledge. In all things show him the respect due to a guest and to an old man.’ Then he sent his son into the darwīsh and hastened to post himself at a window in the upper storey, through which he could see and hear all that went on in the hall. [6]

As soon as the lovely youth appeared on the threshold, the holy old man was so moved that tears jetted from his eyes and he sighed as a mother sighs who has lost and found her child. Kamar went up to him and, in a voice which would have turned the bitterness of myrrh to honey, asked if he lacked for aught and had taken sufficient of Allāh’s blessing. Then, with a graceful movement, he sat down quite close to him and, as he sat, unintentionally exposed a thigh whiter and smoother than almond curds. Well-inspired was the poet who sang:

    

A dervish: Persian, 2nd quarter of the 17th century

All men shall rise on Resurrection Day
          Up to the sky,
     Or when the pearl and almond you display,
          Sweet, of your thigh.

But instead of allowing himself any kind of liberty with the charming youth, the old man retired a few paces from him and sat down again in an attitude of assured decency and self-respect. He went on looking at him in silence and shedding tears, so that Kamar was surprised and asked if he had offended him, or if the hospitality of the house had been insufficient. For sole response the darwīsh recited, with great elegance and dignity, these musical lines:

     The horses of beauty have drawn up my heart,
          For beauty is perfection, to a spot
     High in the hills, where longing has no part
          And flesh is not.

Kamar’s father saw and heard these things in great astonishment. ‘I offended against Allāh,’ said he, ‘When I suspected this wise darwīsh of perverse intentions. May He confound the Tempter who lures us to have evil thoughts about our brothers!’ He hastened down to the hall and greeted his guest most benevolently, saying: ‘I conjure you, in Allāh’s name, my brother, to tell me the reason of your tears and sighs when you beheld my son; for surely such an effect must have a cause.’

… The story then seamlessly takes a heterosexual twist as the darwīsh explains that he was moved by the boy’s similarity to a stunningly beautiful girl he had recently caught sight of in Basrah, “for he is as like her as if the two were twins”, and the next morning Kamar sets off thither to find her for himself.

 

Supplement:  Kamar Al-Zaman and the Jeweller’s Wife

From the moment Kamar’s father left him alone with the darwīsh with instructions to encourage amorous advances from him, Mathers’s foregoing account becomes so truncated and tame as to be quite unsatisfactory. Burton’s version of this part of the story is therefore preferable despite its obscure language and is presented here as a supplement:

As to the lad, as soon as his sire had left them, he came up to the Dervish and began to provoke him and offer himself to him, whereupon he waxed wroth and said, “What talk is this, O my son? I take refuge with Allah from Satan the Stoned! O my Lord, indeed this is a denial of Thee which pleaseth Thee not! Avaunt from me, O my son!” So saying, the Dervish arose and sat down at a distance; but the boy followed him and threw himself upon him, saying, “Why, O Dervish, wilt thou deny thyself the joys of my possession, and I with a heart that loveth thee?” Hereupon the Dervish’s anger redoubled and he said, “An thou refrain not from me, I will summon thy sire and tell him of thy doings.” Quoth the lad, “My father knoweth my turn for this and it may not be that he will hinder me: so heal thou my heart. Why dost thou hold off from me? Do I not please thee?” Answered the Dervish, “By Allah, O my son, I will not do this, though I be hewn in pieces with sharp-edged swords!”; and he repeated the saying of the poet,

     “Indeed my heart loves all the lovely boys
     As girls; nor am I
     slow to such delight,
     But, though I sight them every night and morn,
     I’m neither of
     Lot’s folk[7] nor wencher-wight.”

Then he shed tears and said, “Arise, open the door, that I may wend my way, for I will lie no longer in this lodging.” Therewith he rose to his feet; but the boy caught hold of him, saying, “Look at the fairness of my face and the cramoisy of my cheeks and the softness of my sides and the lusciousness of my lips.” Moreover he discovered to him calves that would shame wine and cupcarrier[8] and gazed on him with fixed glance that would baffle enchanter and enchantments; for he was passing of loveliness and full of blandishment, even as saith of him one of the poets who sang,

     “I can’t forget him, since he rose and showed with fair design
     Those calves of legs whose pearly shine make light in
     nightly gloom:
     Wonder not an my flesh uprise as though ’twere Judgment-day
     When every shank shall bared be and that is Day of
     Doom.”

A Helping Hand, Cairo by Frederick Goodall, 1870

Then the boy displayed to him his bosom, saying, “Look at my breasts which be goodlier than the breasts of maidens and my lip-dews are sweeter than sugar-candy. So quit scruple and asceticism and cast off devoutness and abstinence and take thy fill of my possession and enjoy my loveliness. Fear naught, for thou art safe from hurt, and leave this hebetude for ’tis a bad habit.” And he went on to discover to him his hidden beauties, striving to turn the reins of his reason with his bendings in graceful guise, whilst the Dervish turned away his face and said, “I seek refuge with Allah! Have some shame, O my son! This is a forbidden thing I deem and I will not do it, no, not even in dream.” The boy pressed upon him, but the Dervish got free from him and turning towards Meccah addressed himself to his devotions. Now when the boy saw him praying, he left him till he had prayed a two-bow prayer and saluted, when he would have accosted him again; but the Dervish again repeated the intent and prayed a second two-bow prayer, and thus he did a third and a fourth and a fifth time. Quoth the lad, “What prayers are these? Art thou minded to take flight upon the clouds? Thou lettest slip our delight, whilst thou passest the whole night in the prayer-niche.” So saying, he threw himself upon the Dervish and kissed him between the eyes; but the Shaykh said, “O my son, put Satan away from thine estate and take upon thee obedience of the Compassionate.” Quoth the other, “An thou do not with me that which I desire, I will call my sire and say to him, The Dervish is minded to do lewdness with me. Whereupon he will come in to thee and beat thee till thy bones be broken upon thy flesh.” All this while Abd al-Rahman was watching with his eyes and hearkening with his ears, and he was certified that there was no frowardness in the Dervish and he said to himself, “Were he a lewd fellow, he had not stood out against all this importunity.” The boy continued to beguile the Dervish and every time he expressed purpose of prayer, he interrupted him, till at last he waxed wroth with passing wrath and was rough with him and beat him. Kamar al-Zaman wept and his father came in and having wiped away his tears and comforted him said to the Dervish, “O my brother, since thou art in such case, why didst thou weep and sigh when thou sawest my son? Say me, is there a reason for this?”

 

[1] In Burton’s version, this first part of the story, called by him Kamar Al-Zaman and the Jeweller’s Wife, was recounted on the 963rd to 965th nights.

[2] Burton always gives his name as Kamar Al-Zaman.

[3] As often, Burton’s translation is amorously more forthright: “Then she clad the boy in the costliest clothes and he became a seduction to all who on him cast sight and an affliction to the heart of each lover wight.”

[4] Burton says there is a textual dispute as to whether this word reads “Ajami” or “Maghrabi”, the latter meaning “a Mauritanian, Maroccan, the Moors (not the Moorish Jews or Arabs) being a race of Sodomites from highest to lowest.”

[5] This is presumably a very inaccurate translation of what the people said, as Burton instead has “some saying, ‘All Dervishes are lewd fellows,’ and others, ‘Verily, this Dervish’s heart is set on fire for love of this lad.’ ”

[6] In Burton’s translation, the father tried much harder to tempt the darwīsh.  He told the boy plainly to “provoke him to love-liesse” and refused the disconcerted darwīsh’s request to “carry thy son with thee or sleep with us”, rather than leave them alone together. The rest of this version relating what the boy did in obedience to his father is presented here as a supplement.

[7] Lot’s folk were the people of his city, Sodom, who, according to the Moslem interpretation of Genesis 19 were destroyed by Allāh for the sin of pedicating males. Hence "bugger" was a fair enough translation by Mathers.

[8] A footnote by Burton explains this is word-play “upon ‘Saki’ (oblique case of sak, leg-calf) and Saki a cupbearer.”