THE POET ABŪ NUWĀS, HIS BOYS, AND THE CALIPH
The following two short stories are from the mediaeval Arabic The Thousand Nights and One Night. Abū Nuwās was the nickname by which the poet al-Ḥasan ibn Hānī al-Ḥakamī (AD 756-814) is best known. "According to the critics of his time, he was the greatest poet in Islam."
They are presented together here with a hybrid title because they both concern Abū Nuwās, a boy or boys, and the Caliph Harun al-Rashid, and because Powys Mathers, whose translation is usually most favoured on this website, has merged them into one.
The first story (in likely chronological order), called Abu Nowas With the Three Boys and the Caliph Harun al-Rashid by the translator Richard Burton, is set some time between the accession of Harun in AD 786, and the death of his wazīr Jafar al-Barmaki in 803.The first three-quarters of it, corresponding to the only part of Greek love interest is entirely omitted by Mathers, for which reason resort has had to be made here to Burton's translation, burdened as it is with archaic vocabulary.
The second story, called Harun al-Rashid and the Damsel and Abu Nowas by Burton, and ascribed by him to the 338th to 340th nights, is presented in the finer prose of Mathers's merged story called An Adventure of the Poet Abū Nuwās. Its setting is likely to be later, since Harun’s son al-Amin, described as buying his father a slave-girl, was not born until 787, though not by much, since Abū Nuwās was in exile during the last years of the reign of Harun's, who died in 809..
Abu Nowas with the Three Boys and the Caliph Harun al-Rashid
Here follows the entire story as translated by Burton, who ascribes it to the 381st to 383rd nights. Some of Burton’s more digressive footnotes are here omitted as of little interest in a Greek love context.
Abu Nowas one day shut himself up and, making ready a richly-furnished feast, collected for it meats of all kinds and of every colour that lips and tongue can desire. Then he went forth, to seek a minion worthy of such entertainment, saying, "Allah, my Lord and my Master, I beseech Thee to send me one who befitteth this banquet and who is fit to carouse with me this day!" Hardly had he made an end of speaking when he espied three youths handsome and beardless, as they were of the boys of Paradise, differing in complexion but fellows in incomparable beauty; and all hearts yearned with desire to the swaying of their bending shapes, even to what saith the poet:
"I passed a beardless pair without compare *
And cried, 'I love you, both you ferly fair!'
'Money'd?' quoth one: quoth I, 'And lavish too;' *
Then said the fair pair, 'Pere, c'est notre affaire.' "
Now Abu Nowas was given to these joys and loved to sport and make merry with fair boys and cull the rose from every brightly blooming check, even as saith the bard:
Full many a reverend Shaykh feels sting of flesh, *
Loves pretty faces, shows at Pleasure's depot:
Awakes in Mosul, land of purity; *
And all the day dreams only of Aleppo.
So he accosted them with the salutation, and they returned his greeting with civility and all honour and would have gone their several ways, but he stayed them, repeating these couplets:
"Steer ye your steps to none but me * Who hath a mine of luxury:-
Old wine that shines with brightest blee * Made by the monk in monastery;
And mutton-meat the toothsomest * And birds of all variety.
Then eat of these and drink of those * Old wines that bring you jollity:
And have each other, turn by turn, * Shampooing this my tool you see."
Thereupon the youths were beguiled by his verses and consented to his wishes, -And Shahrazad perceived the dawn of day and ceased to say her permitted say.
When it was the Three hundred and Eighty-second Night,
She said, It hath reached me, O auspicious King, that when Abu Nowas beguiled the youths with his wishes, saying, "We hear and obey;" and accompanied him to his lodging, where they found all ready that he had set forth in his couplets. They sat down and ate and drank and made merry awhile, after which they appealed to Abu Nowas to decide which of them was handsomest of face and shapeliest of form. So he pointed to one of them and, having kissed him twice over, recited the following verses:
"I'll ransom that beauty-spot with my soup; *
Where's it and where is a money-dole?
Praise Him who hairless hath made that cheek *
And bid Beauty bide in that mole, that mole!"
Then he pointed to another and, kissing his lips, repeated these couplets:
"And loveling weareth on his cheek a mole *
Like musk, which virgin camphor ne'er lets off it:
My peepers marvel such a contrast seeing; *
And cried the Mole to me, 'Now bless the Prophet.'"
Then he pointed to the third and, after kissing him half a score times repeated these couplets:
"Melted pure gold in silvern bowl to drain *
The youth, whose fingers wore a winey stain:
He with the drawers served one cup of wine, *
And served his wandering eyes the other twain.
A loveling, of the sons of Turks, a fawn *
Whose waist conjoins the double Mounts Honayn.
Could Eve's corrupting daughers tempt my heart *
Content with two-fold lure 'twould bear the bane.
Unto Diyar-i-Bakr (“maid-land”) this one lures; *
That lures to two-mosqued cities of the plain."
Now each of the youths had drunk two cups, and when it came to the turn of Abu Nowas, he took the goblet and repeated these couplets:
"Drink not strong wine save at the slender dearling's hand; *
Each like to other in all gifts the spirt grace:
For wine can never gladden toper's heart and soul, *
Unless the cup-boy show a bright and sparkling face."
Then he drank off his cup and the bowl went round, and when it came to Abu Nowas again, joyance got the mastery of him and he repeated these couplets:
"For cup-friends cup succeeding cup assign, *
Brimming with grape-juice, brought in endliess line,
By hand of brown-lipped Beauty who is sweet *
At wake as apple or musk finest fine.
Drink not the wine except from hand of fawn *
Whose cheek to kiss is sweeter than the wine."
Presently the drink got into his noddle, drunkenness mastered him and he knew not hand from head, so that he lolled from side to side in joy and inclined to the youths one and all, anon kissing them and anon embracing them leg overlying leg. And he showed no sense of sin or shame, but recited these couplets:
"None wotteth best joyance but generous youth *
When the pretty ones deign with him company keep:
This sings to him, sings to him that, when he wants *
A pick-me-up lying there all of a heap:
And when of a loveling he needeth a kiss, *
He takes from his lips or a draught or a nip;
Heaven bless them! How sweetly my day with them sped; *
A wonderful harvest of pleasure I reap:
Let us drink our good liquor both watered and pure, *
And agree to swive all who dare slumber and sleep."
While they were in this deboshed state behold, there came a knocking at the door; so they bade him who knocked enter, and behold, it was the Commander of the Faithful, Harun al-Rashid. When they saw him, they all rose and kissed ground before him; and Abu Nowas threw off the fumes of the wine for awe of the Caliph, who said to him, "Holla, Abu Nowas!" He replied, "Adsum, at thy service, O Commander of the Faithful, whom Allah preserve!" The Caliph asked, "What state is this?" and the poet answered, "O Prince of True Believers, my state indubitably dispenseth with questions." Quoth the Caliph, "O Abu Nowas, I have sought direction of Allah Almighty and have appointed thee Kazi of pimps and panders." Asked he, "Dost thou indeed invest me with that high office, O Commander of the Faithful?"; and the Caliph answered "I do;" whereupon Abu Nowas rejoined, "O Commander of the Faithful, hast thou any suit to prefer to me?" Hereat the Caliph was wroth and presently turned away and left them, full of rage, and passed the night sore an-angered against Abu Nowas, who amid the party he had invited spent the merriest of nights and the jolliest and joyousest. And when day-break dawned and the star of morn appeared in sheen and shone, he broke up the sitting and, dismissing the youths, donned his court-dress and leaving his house set out for the palace of the Caliph. Now it was the custom of the Commander of the Faithful, when the Divan broke up, to withdraw to his sitting-saloon and summon thither his poets and cup-companions and musicians, each having his own place, which he might not overpass. So it happened that day, he retired to his saloon, and the friends and familiars came and seated themselves, each in his rank and degree. Presently, in walked Abu Nowas and was about to take his usual seat, when the Caliph cried to Masrur, the sworder, and bade him strip the poet of his clothes and bind an ass's packsaddle on his back and a halter about his head and a crupper under his rump and lead him round to all the lodgings of the slave-girls, - And Shahrazad perceived the dawn of day and ceased saying her permitted say.
When it was the Three hundred and Eighty-third Night,
She said, It hath reached me, O auspicious King, that the Caliph commanded Masrur, the sworder, to strip Abu Nowas of his court-suit and bind an ass's packsaddle on his back and a halter about his head, and a crupper under his rump and lead him round to all the lodgings of the slave-girls, and the chambers of the Harim, that the women might make mock of him; then cut off his head and bring it to him. "Hearkening and obedience," replied Masrur and, doing with Abu Nowas as the Caliph had bidden him, led him round all the chambers whose number equalled the days of the year; but Abu Nowas was a funny fellow, so he made all the girls laugh with his buffooneries and each gave him something whereby he returned not save with a pocketful of money. And while this was going on behold, Ja'afar the Barmecide, who had been absent on an important business for the Commander of the Faithful, entered and recognising the poet, albeit in this plight, said to him, "Holla, Abu Nowas!" He said, "Here at thy service, O our lord." Ja'afar asked, "What offence hast thou committed to bring this punishment on thee?" Thereupon he answered, "None whatsoever, except that I made our lord the Caliph a present of the best of my poetry and he presented me, in return, with the best of his raiment." When the Prince of True Believers head this, he laughed, from a heart full of wrath, and pardoned Abu Nowas, and also gave him a myriad of money.
Here follows Powys Mathers’ translation (volume II pp. 236-41, reprinted London, 1947) of Mardrus’s translation into French. He ascribes its narration to the much earlier 287-8th nights.
IT IS RELATED — but Allāh is all-wise and all-knowing —that the Khalīfah Hārūn al-Rashīd was afflicted one night with lack of sleep and a preoccupation of spirit, so he went out alone from his palace and walked in the gardens to distract his weariness. He came at last to a pavilion the door of which was open, but guarded by a black eunuch who slept across the sill. The Khalīfah stepped over the body of the slave and, entering the single hall of the pavilion, saw a bed with lowered curtains, which was lighted on the right and left by tall torches. Beside the bed stood a little table holding a jar of wine topped by an inverted cup.
Hārūn al-Rashīd was astonished to find these things of which no one had informed him, so he lifted the curtains of the bed and stood stock-still with amazement at the sleeping beauty of a slave who lay there, as fair as the full moon, covered for sole garment with her fallen hair. He took the cup and filled it; then he drank slowly, saying beneath his breath: “To the roses in your cheeks, O child!” Setting down the cup, he leaned over the youthful face and dropped a kiss upon a little black mole which smiled to the left of the parted lips. Though this kiss was light as air, it woke the girl, who recognised the Prince of Believers and jumped up in the bed. The Khalifah calmed her fright, saying: “O young slave, there is a lute beside you which I am sure you can play charmingly. Give me a taste of your skill, for I am determined to pass the night with you although I do not know you, and wish , as a preliminary, to hear your voice.”
The girl took the lute and played upon it in twenty-one different modes, so that the Khalīfah was exalted with delight. Seeing the good impression that she had made, the young woman determined to profit by it, and said: “O Prince of Believers, I suffer from the assaults of Destiny.” “How is that?” asked the Khalīfah, and she continued: “Your son al-Amīn bought me a few days ago for ten thousand dīnārs, intending to give me as a present to your majesty; but your wife, the lady Zubaidah, heard of his intention and, paying him back the money he had spent, gave me to a black eunuch with instructions to keep me a prisoner in this isolated pavilion.”
The Khalīfah was annoyed when he heard this; therefore, after promising to give the girl a palace and a train worthy of her beauty on the morrow, he hastened to waken the sleeping eunuch and ordered him to go at once to command the poet Abū Nuwās to present himself at the palace. For you must know that Hārūn al-Rashīd was always wont to send for the poet when he was in an evil humour, in order to distract himself with the improvised poems and rhymed adventures of that remarkable man.
The eunuch went to Abu’s house and, not discovering him there, searched throughout all the public places in Baghdad until he found him in a disreputable tavern at the lower end of the quarter of the Green Gate. He went up to him, saying: “O Abū Nuwās, our master the Khalīfah sends for you.” The poet laughed as he answered: “O father of whiteness, how am I going to leave this place when I am in pawn for a young boy?” “Where is he and who is he?” asked the eunuch, and Abū Nuwās replied: “He is slender, beardless and pretty. 1 promised him a thousand dirhams; as I have not the money about me, I can hardly go away.”
“In Allāh’s name,” cried the eunuch, “show me this boy and, if he is as delightful as you say, you shall be excused and more than excused.”
As they were talking in this way, the pretty pet put his head round. the door, and Abū Nuwās exclaimed: “If the branch wavers so pleasantly, will not the song of the birds be beautiful?”
At this point Shahrazād saw the approach of morning and discreetly fell silent.
BUT WHEN THE TWO-HUNDRED-AND-EIGHTY-EIGHTH NIGHT HAD COME
ON THIS THE boy came right into the room of the tavern; and indeed his beauty was wonderful; also he was dressed in three tunics, one on top of the other, white and red and black.
Seeing him all in white, Abū Nuwās felt the fire of inspiration sparkle in his soul and he improvised these verses:
His robe was white like milk,
His eyes love-heavy underneath blue lids,
His cheeks the shadow of wine-coloured silk
Thrown upon snow.
“What modesty forbids?
Why do you pass me so?
I am as patient for your hand
As a white lamb is patient for the priest"
“You sing three whites and I have four at least:
A destiny which would be white without you,
A body white and bland,
A face of white,
A garment blanched and exquisite.
You did not count my white aright
And so I flout you.”
Hearing these lines the boy smiled and, taking off his white tunic, appeared all in brilliant red; so that Abū Nuwās was again inspired, and sang without a pause:
His tunic was as red as cruelties.
“O child, you boasted white;
What is the meaning of this sight,
Two cheeks dyed in our broken hearts,
A garment stolen from anemones?"
“The dawn has lent me her attire,
The evening sun has put his clouds apart
And given me his fire,
Red are my cheeks’ embroideries,
And red the veils which cling about my thighs,
Red is the wine which painted
Red lips where souls have fainted.
So you have missed the addition of my red,"
Delighted with this song, the minion threw aside his red garment and appeared in a black tunic, which clung to his skin and outlined a charming waist girt in by a silken belt. Seeing him, Abū Nuwās was exalted beyond reason, and sang again:
He would not look at me.
His tunic was as black as night
By no intrusive moon beguiled;
Therefore I said:
“Now I will get it right;
After the white and red,
After the red and white,
Black is the garden of your hair,
Black is your tunic everywhere,
Black are your eyes and black my destiny.
My computation shows no lack;
There*s black and black and black on black,”
When the eunuch had considered the beauty of these poems and of the boy who inspired them, he forgave Abū Nuwās in his mind and returned straightway to the palace, where he informed the Khalīfah that Abū was held in pawn at a tavern because he could not pay what he had promised to a delightful youth. The Khalīfah, who was both amused and annoyed, sent back the eunuch with the sum of money required, bidding him bring the poet without delay.
The man hastened to the tavern and brought away the poet, who staggered a little from drink. When Abū Nuwās had been supported into the presence of the Khalīfah, Hārūn al-Rashīd lectured him in a voice which he strove to make furious; but, seeing that the poet burst out laughing, he took him by the hand and led him to the pavilion which the young girl occupied.
[There is no further mention of boys in the remaining third of Mathers' rendition, most of which has been displaced from the original story Abu Nowas With the Three Boys and the Caliph Harun al-Rashid and is the same in gist to the ending of Burton’s version of that presented above]
 F. F. Arbuthnot, Arabic Authors: A Manual of Arabian History and Literature (London, 1890).
 Arab. Ghilmán,” the counterpart, I have said, of the so-called “Houris.” [Note by Burton]
 Mosul boasts of never having been polluted with idolatrous worship, an exemption which it owes to being a comparatively modern place. [Note by Burton]
 The Aleppines were once noted for debauchery; and the saying is still "Halabi Shelebi" (for Chelebi)=the Aleppine is a fellow fine. [Note by Burton]
 Mr. Payne [a previous translator into English] omits the last line. It refers to what Persian boys call, in half-Turkish phrase, "Alish Takish," each acting woman after he has acted man. The best wine is still made in monasteries and the co-called Sinai convent is world-famous for its "Ráki" distilled from raisins. [Note by Burton]
 That is, fair, white and read: Turkish slaves then abounded at Baghdad. [Note by Burton]
 A Wady near Meccah where one of Mohammed's battles was fought. The line means his waist is a thread connected broad breast and large hind quarters. [Note by Burton]
 Arab. "Almá," […]: I cannot translate "damask-lipped" to suit European taste. [Note by Burton]
 i.e. In spite of himself: the phrase often occurs. [Note by Burton]