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three pairs of lovers with space



This one of the stories told by Shahrazād to entertain King Shahryār in the mediaeval Arabic The Thousand Nights and One Night is not a tale of Greek love, but has interesting allusions to it that are informative about mediaeval Near Eastern attitudes.

All but the beginning of the story is set between AD 694, when Al-Hajjaj became governor of Kūfah and AD 705, when the caliph Abd al-Malik ibn Marwān died.

The text presented here is from Powys Mathers’ celebrated translation of Mardrus’s translation into French.[1] However, significant discrepancies between that and the more scholarly translations by Sir Richard Burton[2] and Malcolm Lyons[3] have been noted.

Mathers calls the two main characters by English translations of their names. His Happy-Handsome is called Ni'amah Allah by Burton and Ni'ma Allah by Lyons, while Happy-Fair is called Naomi by Burton and Nu’m by Lyons.

The Tale of Happy-Handsome and Happy-Fair

Silver dirham following Sasanian motives, struck in the name of al-Hajjaj AD 702-3

A rich merchant of Kūfah in Iraq bought a slave-woman and her baby daughter, renamed Happy-Fair, mostly so that the girl, whose beauty was promising, could be brought up with his own baby son Happy-Handsome. When the latter was ten[4], he took Happy-Fair as his wife, but after five blissful years together, the governor, Al-Hajjaj, came to hear of Happy-Fair’s beauty and accomp-lishments and abducted her as a present for the caliph, Abd al-Malik ibn Marwān, to whom he pretended he had bought her. Taken to the caliph’s palace in Damascus, she fell ill with grief, but the patient caliph allowed his kind sister Dahīa to look after her. Meanwhile Happy-Handsome also fell ill with despair in Kūfah, but was relieved by a Persian doctor peculiarly capable of identifying ailments, who promised to get him back his girl. Together they set out for Damascus:

You must know that by this time Happy-Handsome had reached the perfection of adolescence; seventeen[5] years had left their light touches on the carnation of his cheeks in a powder of down; all who beheld him stopped suddenly short with a feeling of ecstasy. It was not long before the Persian doctor came under the boy’s delicious spell and loved him with all his heart; therefore he deprived himself of any luxury upon the journey which might add to his companion’s comfort, and took great pleasure when the lad was pleased.

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


SHE said:

UNDER THESE CONDITIONS the journey passed pleasantly, and the two travellers arrived in health and safety at Damascus. At once the Persian sage went with Happy-Handsome to the principal market and hired a large shop, which he caused to be redecorated and fitted with velvet-covered shelves. On these he arranged with careful art his precious flasks, his salves, his balms, his powders, his syrups held in crystal, his fine theriacs contained in pure gold, his pots of Persian porcelain which shone with a glaze of silver and held to ripen old pomades made up of the sap of three hundred rare kinds of herb. Among the greater jars, retorts and alembics, he gave a place of honour to his golden astrolabe.

A Persian doctor attending the Caliph (but a century later)

He dressed himself in the full robes of his profession and bound his head with a turban of seven folds. Then he clothed Happy-Handsome in a blue silk shirt with a cashmere jacket, and fastened about his wrist a rose silk apron worked with threads of gold, that he might stand by his side as an assistant, fill prescriptions, pound drugs in the mortar, make little bags of scent, and write magic cures to his dictation. When all was ready, he said to the youth: “From this moment you must call me father and I will call you son, as we do not wish the inhabitants of Damascus to think we practise you know what.”[6] As soon as the shop was open, the people crowded to it, some with diseases, some to see for themselves the beauty of the assistant; and all were stricken with a happy surprise to hear the boy converse with the sage in the Persian tongue, which seemed to them beautiful enough on such lips. [II 112-4]

Soon the doctor’s fame reached Dahīa, who sent an old woman to procure medicine for Happy-Fair. She told them who the medicine was for, so Happy-Handsome put a note in the box of medicine for Happy-Fair, who promptly recovered. The Persian then told the truth to the old woman, who promised both boy and girl to risk her life to reunite them.

She left Happy-Fair, who had kissed her hands and wetted them with tears of joy, and, after making up a packet of female garments, jewelry and articles of toilet, went out again to the sage’s shop and signed to Happy-Handsome to go apart with her. The youth led her behind a curtain at the back of the shop, and heartily approved the plan which she unfolded to him.

She helped him to dress as a woman, lengthening his eyes with kohl and increasing the mole on his cheek with a black pigment; then she put bracelets upon his wrists and jewels among his hair beneath its Mosul veil. She cast a last glance upon her handiwork and found the boy more ravishing than all the women of the palace put together.[7] “Blessed be Allah in His works!” she said. “Now you must walk as a young virgin walks, with little steps, bringing the right hip forward and the left hip back, and making small learned wriggles with your bottom.[8] Practise awhile before we go forth.”

Volume II of the 1986 edition of the Mardrus & Mathers translation

Happy-Handsome practised these things in the shop and acquitted himself so well that the old woman cried: “As Allāh lives, women need not be so proud in future; the bottom moves marvellously and the hips superbly! Now. that nothing shall be lacking, you must give your face a more languorous expression, thrusting your neck a little forward and looking out of the corners of your eyes. There, that is perfect; you can follow me.” [II 119]

Thus disguised, Happy-Handsome was brought into the caliph’s harem as one of Dahīa’s slave-girls by the old woman, but he got lost and was found by Dahīa herself. When she started to uncover him, he confessed the truth. She proved sympathetic and brought Happy-Fair to him. After letting them alone for an hour, she returned and, moved by their love, asked them to sing a love-song to her, which they did in alternate stanzas.

Hardly had the notes of this song died away upon the lips of Happy-Fair, when the curtains parted and the Khalīfah himself stepped into the hall. All three sprang to their feet and kissed the earth between his hands. He smiled at them and sat down among them, calling to the little slave to bring wine. “We must drink together,” said he, “to celebrate the recovery of Happy-Fair.” Then, lifting his cup with a “For love of your eyes, my dear!” he drank slowly. As he put down his cup he noticed the veiled slave, and turned to his sister, saying: “Who is this girl whose light veil promises so much beauty?” “She is a friend who cannot bear to be separated from Happy-Fair,” answered Dahīa. “They can neither eat nor drink unless they are together."

The Khalīfah parted the youth’s veil, starting back before the beauty of him; for Happy-Handsome had no hair upon his cheeks, but there was a very light down upon them which gave an adorable texture to their whiteness: also you must not forget the beauty-spot which smiled upon his chin.

“As Allāh lives, my sister,” cried the delighted Sultan, “henceforth I take this new slave as a concubine and reserve for her, as for Happy-Fair, an apartment worthy of her beauty and a following equal to that of a lawful wife.” “Indeed, my brother,” answered Dahīa, “she is a morsel worthy of you ... [II 125-6]

Obverse of a gold dinar of the caliph Abd al-Malik ibn Marwān, showing his likeness

The Caliph then accepted his sister’s offer to tell him a story and she gave him a summary of  the true story of the boy and girl, which she knew from them, concluding with the fiction that when the Caliph discovered them, he beheaded them at once. Dahīa asked her brother if he would have done the same and, when he said not, told him the truth. He said he would not go back on his word and got Happy-Handsome to tell him the full story.

The astonished Caliph then appointed the Persian as his own physician and feasted Happy-Handsome and Happy-Fair for seven days before sending them back to Kūfah with presents.


[1] The Thousand Nights and One Night. The edition used here is the revised one published in 4 volumes, London, 1941).

[2] The Book of the Thousand Nights and a Night: A Plain and Literal Translation of the Arabian Nights Entertainments, 16 volumes, 1885-87.

[3] The Arabian Nights: Tales of 1,001 Nights, 3 volumes, Penguin, London, 2008.

[4] Mathers says he was twelve, but Burton and Lyons, considered more accurate translators, say ten. They all agree the union was consummated without delay.

[5] Mathers has upped his age considerably. The more reliable Burton and Lyons agree he was, in Lyons’s words, “then fourteen years old and had no down on his cheeks.” (241st night in their versions). Moreover, Mathers damns his version of their ages through self-contradiction. He implies that Happy-Handsome and Happy-Fair were babies together, and yet he describes the former as seventeen when the latter was sixteen.  Burton and Lyons are clear that both were fourteen.

[6] In Burton’s and Lyons’s versions, the Persian gave no explanation as to why Happy-Handsome should pretend to be his son.

[7] "Easterns, I have remarked, mostly recognise the artistic truth that the animal-man is handsomer than woman and that "fair sex" is truly only of skin-colour. The same is the general-rule throughout creation, for instance the stallion compared with the mare, the cock with the hen; while there are sundry exceptions such as the Falconidae." [Footnote by Burton]

[8] "The Badawi (who is nothing if not horsey) compares the gait of a woman who walks well (in Europe rarely seen out of Spain) with the slightly swinging walk of a thoroughbred mare, bending her graceful neck and looking from side to side at objects as she passes." [Note by Burton]




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