Arabian Nights and Days
First Anchor Books Edition, October 1995
Copyright © 1982 by Naguib Mahfouz
English translation © 1993 by The American University in Cairo Press
All rights reserved under International and Pan-American Copyright Conventions. Published in the United States by Anchor Books, a division of Random House, Inc., New York, and simultaneously in Canada by Random House of Canada Limited, Toronto. Originally published in hardcover in the United States by Doubleday in 1995. Originally published in Arabic in 1982, under the tide Layali alf lela. Protected under the Berne Convention.
This translation is published by arrangement with The American University in Cairo Press.
ANCHOR BOOKS and colophon are registered trademarks of Random House, Inc.
The Library of Congress has cataloged the Doubleday edition as follows:
Maḥfūẓ, Najīb, 1912–
[Layālī alf laylah. English]
Arabian nights and days / Naguib Mahfouz; translated by Denys Johnson-Davies. — 1st ed.
eBook ISBN 9781101974711
The Café of the Emirs
Nur al-Din and Dunyazad
The Adventures of Ugr the Barber
Aladdin with the Moles on His Cheeks
The Cap of Invisibility
Ma’rouf the Cobbler
About the Author
About the Translator
Books by Naguib Mahfouz
Following the dawn prayer, with clouds of darkness defying the vigorous thrust of light, the vizier Dandan was called to a meeting with the sultan Shahriyar. Dandan’s composure vanished. The heart of a father quaked within him as, putting on his clothes, he mumbled, “Now the outcome will be resolved—your fate, Shahrzad.”
He went by the road that led up to the mountain on an old jade, followed by a troop of guards; preceding them was a man bearing a torch, in weather that radiated dew and a gentle chilliness. Three years he had spent between fear and hope, between death and expectation; three years spent in the telling of stories; and, thanks to those stories, Shahrzad’s life span had been extended. Yet, like everything, the stories had come to an end, had ended yesterday. So what fate was lying in wait for you, O beloved daughter of mine?
He entered the palace that perched on top of the mountain. The chamberlain led him to a rear balcony that overlooked a vast garden. Shahriyar was sitting in the light shed by a single lamp, bare-headed, his hair luxuriantly black, his eyes gleaming in his long face, his large beard spreading across the top of his chest. Dandan kissed the ground before him, feeling, despite their long association, an inner fear for a man whose history had been filled with harshness, cruelty, and the spilling of innocent blood.
The sultan signaled for the sole lamp to be extinguished. Darkness took over and the specters of the trees giving out a fragrant aroma were cast into semi-obscurity.
“Let there be darkness so that I may observe the effusion of the light,” Shahriyar muttered.
Dandan felt a certain optimism.
“May God grant Your Majesty enjoyment of everything that is best in the night and the day.”
Silence. Dandan could discern behind his expression neither contentment nor displeasure, until the sultan quietly said, “It is our wish that Shahrzad remain our wife.”
Dandan jumped to his feet and bent over the sultan’s head, kissing it with a sense of gratitude that brought tears from deep inside him.
“May God support you in your rule forever and ever.”
“Justice,” said the sultan, as though remembering his victims, “possesses disparate methods, among them the sword and among them forgiveness. God has His own wisdom.”
“May God direct your steps to His wisdom, Your Majesty.”
“Her stories are white magic,” he said delightedly. “They open up worlds that invite reflection.”
The vizier was suddenly intoxicated with joy.
“She bore me a son and my troubled spirits were put at peace.”
“May Your Majesty enjoy happiness both here and in the hereafter.”
“Happiness!” muttered the sultan sharply.
Dandan felt anxious for some reason. The crowing of the roosters rang out. As though talking to himself, the sultan said, “Existence itself is the most inscrutable thing in existence.”
But his tone of perplexity vanished when he exclaimed, “Look. Over there!”
Dandan looked toward the horizon and saw it aglow with hallowed joy.
Dandan asked permission to see his daughter Shahrzad. A hand-maid led him to the rose room with its rose-colored carpet and curtains, and the divans and cushions in shades of red. There he was met by Shahrzad and her sister Dunyazad.
“I am overwhelmed with happiness, thanks be to God, Lord of the Worlds.”
Shahrzad sat him down beside her while Dunyazad withdrew to her closet.
“I was saved from a bloody fate by our Lord’s mercy,” said Shahrzad.
But the man was barely mumbling his thanks as she added bitterly, “May God have mercy on those innocent virgins.”
“How wise you are and how courageous!”
“But you know, father,” she said in a whisper, “that I am unhappy.”
“Be careful, daughter, for thoughts assume concrete forms in palaces and give voice.”
“I sacrificed myself,” she said sorrowfully, “in order to stem the torrent of blood.”
“God has His wisdom,” he muttered.
“And the Devil his supporters,” she said in a fury.
“He loves you, Shahrzad,” he pleaded.
“Arrogance and love do not come together in one heart. He loves himself first and last.”
“Love also has its miracles.”
“Whenever he approaches me I breathe the smell of blood.”
“The sultan is not like the rest of humankind.”
“But a crime is a crime. How many virgins has he killed! How many pious and God-fearing people has he wiped out! Only hypocrites are left in the kingdom.”
“My trust in God has never been shaken,” he said sadly.
“As for me, I know that my spiritual station lies in patience, as the great sheikh taught me.”
To this Dandan said with a smile, “What an excellent teacher and what an excellent pupil!”
Sheikh Abdullah al-Balkhi lived in a simple dwelling in the old quarter. His dreamy gaze was reflected in the hearts of many of his old and more recent students and was deeply engraved in the hearts of his disciples. With him, complete devotion was no more than a prologue, for he was a Sheikh of the Way, having attained a high plane in the spiritual station of love and contentment.
When he had left his place of seclusion for the reception room, Zubeida, his young and only daughter, came to him and said happily, “The city is rejoicing, father.”
“Hasn’t the doctor Abdul Qadir al-Maheeni arrived yet?” he inquired, not heeding her words.
“Maybe he’s on his way, father, but the city is re
Nothing dislodges him from his calm, however: the contentment in his heart neither diminishes nor increases. Zubeida is a daughter and a disciple, but she is still at the beginning of the Way. Hearing a knock at the door, she left, saying, “Your friend has come on his usual visit.”
The doctor Abdul Qadir al-Maheeni entered. The two of them embraced, then he seated himself on a mattress alongside his friend. As usual the conversation was conducted in the light from a lamp in a small recess.
“You have no doubt heard the good news?” said Abdul Qadir.
“I know what it is my business to know,” he said with a smile.
“Voices are lifted in prayer for Shahrzad, showing that it is you who primarily deserve the credit,” said the doctor.
“Credit is for the Beloved alone,” he said in reproof.
“I too am a believer, yet I follow promises and deductions. Had she not been a pupil of yours as a young girl, Shahrzad would not, despite what you may say, have found stories to divert the sultan from shedding blood.”
“My friend, the only trouble with you is that you overdo your submission to the intellect.”
“It is the ornament of man.”
“It is through intellect that we come to know the limits of the intellect.”
“There are believers,” said Abdul Qadir, “who are of the opinion that it has no limits.”
“I have failed in drawing many to the Way—you at the head of them.”
“People are poor creatures, master, and are in need of someone to enlighten them about their lives.”
“Many a righteous soul will save a whole people,” said the sheikh with confidence.
“Ali al-Salouli is the governor of our quarter—how can the quarter be saved from his corruption?” inquired the doctor, suddenly showing resentment.
“But those who strive are of different ranks,” the sheikh said sadly.
“I am a doctor and what is right for the world is what concerns me.”
The sheikh patted his hand gently and the doctor smiled and said, “But you are goodness itself and good luck.”
“I give thanks to God, for no joy carries me away, no sadness touches me.”
“As for me, dear friend, I am sad. Whenever I remember the God-fearing who have been martyred for saying the truth in protest against the shedding of blood and the plundering of property, my sadness increases.”
“How strongly are we bound to material things!”
“Noble and God-fearing people have been martyred,” bewailed Abdul Qadir. “How sorry I am for you, O my city, which today is controlled solely by hypocrites! Why, master, are only the worst cattle left in the stalls?”
“How numerous are the lovers of vile things!”
Sounds of piping and drumming reached them from the fringes of the quarter and they realized that the people were celebrating the happy news. At this the doctor decided to make his way to the Café of the Emirs.
The Café of the Emirs
The café was centered on the right-hand side of the large commercial street. Square in shape, it had a spacious courtyard, with its entrance opening onto the public way and its windows overlooking neighboring sections of the city. Along its sides were couches for the higher-class customers, while in a circle in the middle were ranged mattresses for the common folk to sit on. A variety of things to drink were served, both hot and cold according to the season; also available were the finest sorts of hashish and electuaries. At night many were the high-class customers to be found there, the likes of Sanaan al-Gamali and his son Fadil, Hamdan Tuneisha and Karam al-Aseel, Sahloul and Ibrahim al-Attar the druggist and his son Hasan, Galil al-Bazzaz the draper, Nur al-Din, and Shamloul the hunchback.
There were also ordinary folk like Ragab the porter and his crony Sindbad, Ugr the barber and his son Aladdin, Ibrahim the water-carrier and Ma’rouf the cobbler. There was general merriment on this happy night, and soon the doctor Abdul Qadir al-Maheeni had joined the group that included Ibrahim al-Attar, Karam al-Aseel the millionaire, and Sahloul the bric-a-brac merchant and furnisher. That night they had recovered from a fear that had held sway over them; every father of a beautiful virgin daughter felt reassured and was promised a sleep free from frightening specters.
“Let us recite the Fatiha over the souls of the victims,” several voices rang out.
“Of virgins and God-fearing men.”
“Farewell to tears.”
“Praise and thanks be to God, Lord of the Worlds.”
“And long life to Shahrzad, the pearl of women.”
“Thanks to those beautiful stories.”
“It is nothing but God’s mercy that has descended.”
The merriment and conversation continued until the voice of Ragab the porter was heard saying with astonishment, “Are you mad, Sindbad?”
And Ugr, who was keen to put his nose into everything, asked, “What’s got into him on this happy night?”
“It seems he’s come to hate his work and is tired of the city. He no longer wants to be a porter.”
“Does he have ambitions to be in charge of the quarter?”
“He went to a ship’s captain and kept insisting till he agreed to take him on as a servant.”
Ibrahim the water-carrier said, “Whoever gives up an assured livelihood on dry land to run away after some vague one on water must be really crazy.”
“Water that from earliest times has derived its sustenance from corpses,” said Ma’rouf the cobbler.
To which Sindbad said defiantly, “I am fed up with lanes and alleys. I am also fed up with carrying furniture around, with no hope of seeing anything new. Over there is another life: the river joins up with the sea and the sea penetrates deeply into the unknown, and the unknown brings forth islands and mountains, living creatures and angels and devils. It is a magical call that cannot be resisted. I said to myself, ‘Try your luck, Sindbad, and throw yourself into the arms of the invisible.’ ”
Nur al-Din the perfume-seller said, “In movement is a blessing.”
“A beautiful salutation from a childhood comrade,” said Sindbad.
Ugr the barber demanded sarcastically, “Are you making out that you’re upper-class, porter?”
“We sat side by side in the prayer room receiving lessons from our master, Abdullah al-Balkhi,” said Nur al-Din.
“And, like many others, I contented myself with learning the rudiments of reading and religion,” said Sindbad.
“The dry land will not be lessened by your leaving, nor the sea increased,” said Ugr.
At this the doctor Abdul Qadir al-Maheeni said to him, “Go in God’s protection, but keep your wits about you—it would be good if you were able to record the wonderful sights you come across, for God has ordered us to do so. When are you departing?”
“Tomorrow morning,” he muttered. “I leave you in the care of God the Living, the Eternal.”
“How sad it is to part from you, Sindbad,” said his comrade Ragab the porter.
Time gives a special knock inside and wakes him. He directs his gaze toward a window close to the bed and through it sees the city wrapped around in darkness. Sleep has stripped it of all movement and sound as it nestles in a silence replete with cosmic calm.
Separating himself from Umm Saad’s warm body, he stepped onto the floor, where his feet sank into the downy texture of the Persian carpet. He stretched out his arm as he groped for where the candlestick stood and bumped into something solid and hard. Startled, he muttered, “What’s this?”
A strange voice issued forth, a voice the like of which he had never heard: the voice of neither a human nor an animal. It robbed him of all sensation—it was as though it were sweeping throughout the whole city. The voice spoke angrily, “You trod on my head, you blind creature!”
He fell to the ground in fear. H
“You trod on my head, you ignorant fellow,” said the voice.
“Who are you?” he said in a quaking voice.
“I am Qumqam.”
“A genie from among the city’s dwellers.”
Almost vanishing in terror, he was struck speechless.
“You hurt me and you must be punished.”
His tongue was incapable of putting up any defense.
“I heard you yesterday, you hypocrite,” Qumqam continued, “and you were saying that death is a debt we have to pay, so what are you doing pissing yourself with fear?”
“Have mercy on me!” he finally pleaded. “I am a family man.”
“My punishment will descend only on you.”
“Not for a single moment did I think of disturbing you.”
“What troublesome creatures you are! You don’t stop yearning to enslave us in order to achieve your vile objectives. Have you not satisfied your greed by enslaving the weak among you?”
“I swear to you…”
“I have no faith in a merchant’s oath,” he interrupted him.
“I ask mercy and plead pardon from you,” he said.
“You would make me do that?”
“Your big heart…” he said anxiously.
“Don’t try to cheat me as you do your customers.”
“Do it for nothing, for the love of God.”
“There is no mercy without a price and no pardon without a price.”
He glimpsed a sudden ray of hope.
“I’ll do as you want,” he said fervently.
“With all the strength I possess,” he said eagerly.
“Kill Ali al-Salouli,” he said with frightening calm.
The joy drowned in an unexpected defeat, like something brought at great risk from across the seas whose worthlessness has become apparent on inspection.
“Ali al-Salouli, the governor of our quarter?” he asked in horror.
“But he is a governor and lives in the guarded House of Happiness, while I am nothing but a merchant.”