The Dark Side of the Arabian Nights by Robert Irwin

In an essay on toy theatres, ‘A Penny Plain and Twopence Coloured’, the novelist Robert Louis Stevenson recalled the evening when as a child ‘I brought back with me “The Arabian Nights Entertainments” in a fat, old double-columned volume with prints. I was well into the story of the Hunchback, I remember, when my clergyman grandfather (a man we counted pretty stiff) came up behind me. I grew blind with terror. But instead of ordering the book away, he said he envied me. As well he might!’ The innocent childhood delight in reading The Arabian Nights (or more correctly The Thousand and One Nights) has been much celebrated in Victorian and subsequent literature.

The stories are indeed delightful, but how innocent are they? A fisherman, desperate to make a living, casts his net out four times a day. On the particular day in question he has little luck until the fourth attempt when he finds a brass jar in his net. When he unstoppers the jar an enormous ‘ifrit (a kind of jinni) comes billowing out and the ‘ifrit, whom Solomon had imprisoned in the flask, now threatens to kill the fisherman, but the wily fisherman tricks the jinni into re-entering the flask and he only releases the ‘ifrit on receiving the promise that he the ‘ifrit will not harm him, but instead will reward him. So then the ‘ifrit takes him to a lake where there are white, red, blue and yellow fish. The fisherman takes some of these fish to the sultan’s palace where he is richly rewarded. The sultan orders that the fish should be cooked, but just as the fish are put in the pan, ready to be fried, the wall of the kitchen bursts open and a woman appears who demands to know if the fish are true to their oath.  They affirm that they are.

Now the sultan and the fisherman are determined to solve the mystery of the curiously coloured fish and they set out towards the lake that no one has ever seen before.  Then the sultan proceeds on alone and enters a palace in the middle of which he encounters a prince who has been turned to stone from the waist down.  The prince tells the sultan his story . . . So far so mysterious.  And so innocent.  But just as the leisurely flow of the Thames in Joseph Conrad’s The Heart of Darkness carries the novel’s readers on to the depths of the Congo and the horrors that were being practised there, so the bizarre and meandering narratives of the linked stories of ‘The fisherman and the ‘ifrit’ and ‘The semi-petrified prince’ conduct us to a tale that is dark and cruel. 

The prince relates how he used to rule over the Black Islands and believed that he was happily married, but, eavesdropping on his wife’s slave-girls he learns that is being cuckolded, for every night his wife has been giving him a sleeping draught before going out to visit her lover.  So the following night the prince pretended to take the sleeping draught and feigned sleep before following his wife out of the palace. When she enters a hut he climbs on the roof to spy on her.  She goes up to a black slave. ‘One of his lips looked like a pot lid and the other like the sole of a shoe—a lip that could pick up sand from the top of a pebble.  The slave was lying on cane stalks; he was leprous and covered in rags and tatters.  As my wife kissed the ground before him, he raised his head and said: “Damn you, why have you been so slow?  My black cousins were here drinking and each left with a girl, but because of you I didn’t want to drink.”  The prince watches his wife humble herself before the slave and cook for him, but when he sees her undress and get in the bed of rags and tatters with the black slave, he loses control of himself and, descending from the roof, he unsheathes his sword and strikes at the neck of the slave with what he hopes is a fatal blow before slipping away.  When his wife, who is a sorceress, eventually discovers it was he who came close to killing her beloved, she casts the spell upon him that turns his lower half into stone. 

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