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The Lovers of Bassorah


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The Caliph Harun al-Rashid was sleepless one night; so he sent for Al-Asma'i and Husayn al-Khalí'a[1] and said to them, "Tell me a story you twain and do thou begin, O Husayn." He said, "'Tis well, O Commander of the Faithful;" and thus began: Some years ago, I dropped down stream to Bassorah, to present to Mohammed bin Sulayman al-Rabí'í[2] a Kasidah or elegy I had composed in his praise; and he accepted it and bade me abide with him. One day, I went out to Al-Mirbad,[3] by way of Al-Muháliyah;[4] and, being oppressed by the excessive heat, went up to a great door, to ask for drink, when I was suddenly aware of a damsel, as she were a branch swaying, with eyes languishing, eyebrows arched and finely pencilled and smooth cheeks rounded, clad in a shift the colour of a pomegranate flower, and a mantilla of Sana'á[5] work; but the perfect whiteness of her body overcame the redness of her shift, through which glittered two breasts like twin granadoes and a waist, as it were a roll of fine Coptic linen, with creases like scrolls of pure white paper stuffed with musk.[6] Moreover, O Prince of True Believers, round her neck was slung an amulet of red gold that fell down between her breasts, and on


1^  Al-Khalí'a has been explained in vol. i. 311: the translation of Al-Mas'udi (vi. 10) renders it "scélérat." Abú Alí al-Husayn the Wag was a Bassorite and a worthy companion of Abu Nowas the Debauchee; but he adorned the Court of Al-Amin the son, not of Al-Rashid the father.
2^  Governor of Bassorah, but not in Al-Husayn's day.
3^  The famous market-place where poems were recited; mentioned by Al-Hariri.
4^  A quarter of Bassorah.
5^  Capital of Al-Yaman, and then famed for its leather and other work (vol. v. 16) .
6^  The creases in the stomach like the large navel are always insisted upon. Says the Kathá (ii. 525) "And he looked on that torrent river of the elixir of beauty, adorned with a waist made charming by those wave-like wrinkles," etc.

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the plain of her forehead were browlocks like jet.[7] Her eyebrows joined and her eyes were like lakes; she had an aquiline nose and thereunder shell-like lips showing teeth like pearls. Pleasantness prevailed in every part of her; but she seemed dejected, disturbed, distracted and in the vestibule came and went, walking upon the hearts of her lovers, whilst her legs[8] made mute the voices of their ankle-rings; and indeed she was as saith the poet:—

"Each portion of her charms we see ❋ Seems of the whole a simile"

I was overawed by her, O Commander of the Faithful, and drew near her to greet her, and behold, the house and vestibule and highways breathed fragrant with musk. So I saluted her and she returned my salam with a voice dejected and heart depressed and with the ardour of passion consumed. Then said I to her, "O my lady, I am an old man and a stranger and sore troubled by thirst. Wilt thou order me a draught of water, and win reward in heaven?" She cried, "Away, O Shaykh, from me! I am distracted from all thought of meat and drink."—


And Shahrazad perceived the dawn of day and ceased to say her permitted say.

Now when it was the Six Hundred and Ninety-fourth Night,

She pursued,


It hath reached me, O auspicious King, that the damsel said, "O Shaykh, I am distracted from all thought of meat and drink." Quoth I (continued Husayn), "By what ailment, O my lady?" and quoth she, "I love one who dealeth not justly by me and I desire one who of me will none. Wherefore I am afflicted with the wakefulness of those who wake star-gazing." I asked, "O my lady, is there on the wide expanse of earth one to whom thou hast a mind and who to thee hath no mind?" Answered she, "Yes; and this for the perfection of beauty and loveliness and goodliness wherewith he is endowed." "And why standeth thou in this porch?" enquired I. "This is his road," replied she, "and the hour of his passing by." I said, "O my lady, have ye ever foregathered and had such commerce and converse as


7^  Arab. Sabaj (not Sabah, as the Mac. Edit. misprints it): I am not sure of its meaning.
8^  A truly Arab conceit, suggesting—
The mind, the music breathing from her face;
her calves moved rhythmically, suggesting the movement and consequent sound of a musical instrument.

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might cause this passion?" At this she heaved a deep sigh; the tears rained down her cheeks, as they were dew falling upon roses, and she versified with these couplets:—

"We were like willow-boughs in garden shining ❋ And scented joys in happiest life combining;
Whenas one bough from other self would rend ❋ And oh! thou seest this for that repining!"

Quoth I, "O maid, and what betideth thee of thy love for this man?"; and quoth she, "I see the sun upon the walls of his folk and I think the sun is he; or haply I catch sight of him unexpectedly and am confounded and the blood and the life fly my body and I abide in unreasoning plight a week or e'en a se'nnight." Said I, "Excuse me, for I also have suffered that which is upon thee of love-longing and distraction of soul and wasting of frame and loss of strength; and I see in thee pallor of complexion and emaciation, such as testify of the fever-fits of desire. But how shouldst thou be unsmitten of passion and thou a sojourner in the land of Bassorah?" Said she, "By Allah, before I fell in love of this youth, I was perfect in beauty and loveliness and amorous grace which ravished all the Princes of Bassorah, till he fell in love with me." I asked, "O maid, and who parted you?"; and she answered, "The vicissitudes of fortune, but the manner of our separation was strange; and 'twas on this wise. One New Year's day I had invited the damsels of Bassorah and amongst them a girl belonging to Sírán, who had bought her out of Oman for four score thousand dirhams. She loved me and loved me to madness and when she entered she threw herself upon me and well-nigh tore me in pieces with bites and pinches.[9] Then we withdrew apart, to drink wine at our ease, till our meat was ready[10] and our


9^  The morosa voluptas of the Catholic divines. The Sapphist described in the text would procure an orgasm (in gloria, as the Italians call it) by biting and rolling over the girl she loved; but by loosening the trouser-string she evidently aims at a closer tribadism—the Arab "Musáhikah."
10^  We drink (or drank) after dinner; Easterns before the meal and half-Easterns (like the Russians) before and after. We talk of liquor being unwholesome on an empty stomach; but the truth is that all is purely habit. And as the Russian accompanies his Vodki with caviare, etc., so the Oriental drinks his Raki or Mahayá (Ma al-hayát=aqua vitæ) alternately with a Salátah, for whose composition see Pilgrimage i. 198. The Eastern practice has its advantages: it awakens the appetite, stimulates digestion and, what Easterns greatly regard, it is economical; half a bottle doing the work of a whole. Bhang and Kusumbá (opium dissolved and strained through a pledget of cotton) are always drunk before dinner and thus the "jolly" time is the preprandial, not the postprandial.

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delight was complete, and she toyed with me and I with her, and now I was upon her and now she was upon me. Presently, the fumes of the wine moved her to strike her hand on the inkle of my petticoat-trousers, whereby it became loosed, unknown of either of us, and my trousers fell down in our play. At this moment he came in unobserved and, seeing me thus, was wroth at the sight and made off, as the Arab filly hearing the tinkle of her bridle.—


And Shahrazad perceived the dawn of day and ceased saying her permitted say.

Now when it was the Six Hundred and Ninety-fifth Night,

She resumed,


It hath reached me, O auspicious King, that the maiden said to Husayn al-Khali'a, "When my lover saw me playing, as I described to thee, with Siran's girl, he went forth in anger. And 'tis now, O Shaykh, three years ago, and since then I have never ceased to excuse myself to him and coax him and crave his indulgence, but he will neither cast a look at me from the corner of his eye, nor write me a word nor speak to me by messenger nor hear from me aught." Quoth I, "Harkye maid, is he an Arab or an Ajam?"; and quoth she, "Out on thee! He is of the Princes of Bassorah." "Is he old or young?" asked I; and she looked at me laughingly and answered, "Thou art certainly a simpleton! He is like the moon on the night of its full, smooth-cheeked and beardless, nor is there any defect in him except his aversion to me." Then I put the question, "What is his name?" and she replied, "What wilt thou do with him?" I rejoined, "I will do my best to come at him, that I may bring about reunion between you." Said she, "I will tell thee on condition that thou carry him a note;" and I said "I have no objection to that." Then quoth she, "His name is Zamrah bin al-Mughayrah, hight Abú al-Sakhá,[11] and his palace is in the Mirbad." Therewith she called to those within for inkcase and paper and tucking up[12] her sleeves, showed two wrists like broad rings of silver. She then wrote after the Basmalah as follows, "My lord, the omission of blessings[13] at the head of this my letter shows mine insufficiency, and know that had


11^  "Abu al-Sakhá" (pronounced Abussakhá) = Father of munificence.
12^  Arab. "Shammara," also used for gathering up the gown, so as to run the faster.
13^  i.e., blessing the Prophet and all True Believers (herself included).

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my prayer been answered, thou hadst never left me; for how often have I prayed that thou shouldest not leave me, and yet thou didst leave me! Were it not that distress with me exceedeth the bounds of restraint, that which thy servant hath forced herself to do in writing this writ were an aidance to her, despite her despair of thee, because of her knowledge of thee that thou wilt fail to answer. Do thou fulfil her desire, my lord, of a sight of thee from the porch, as thou passest in the street, wherewith thou wilt quicken the dead soul in her. Or, far better for her still than this, do thou write her a letter with thine own hand (Allah endow it with all excellence!), and appoint it in requital of the intimacy that was between us in the nights of time past, whereof thou must preserve the memory. My lord, was I not to thee a lover sick with passion? An thou answer my prayer, I will give to thee thanks and to Allah praise; and so—The Peace!"[14] Then she gave me the letter and I went away. Next morning I repaired to the door of the Viceroy Mohammed bin Sulayman, where I found an assembly of the notables of Bassorah, and amongst them a youth who adorned the gathering and surpassed in beauty and brightness all who were there; and indeed the Emir Mohammed set him above himself. I asked who he was and behold, it was Zamrah himself: so I said in my mind, "Verily, there hath befallen yonder unhappy one that which hath befallen her[15]!" Then I betook myself to the Mirbad and stood waiting at the door of his house, till he came riding up in state, when I accosted him and invoking more than usual blessings on him, handed him the missive. When he read it and understood it he said to me, "O Shaykh, we have taken other in her stead. Say me, wilt thou see the substitute?" I answered, "Yes." Whereupon he called out a woman's name, and there came forth a damsel who shamed the two greater lights; swelling-breasted, walking the gait of one who hasteneth without fear, to whom he gave the note, saying, "Do thou answer it." When she read it, she turned pale at the contents and said to me, "O old man, crave pardon of Allah for this that thou hast brought." So I went out, O Commander of the Faithful, dragging my feet and returning to her asked leave to enter. When she saw me, she asked, "What is behind thee?"; and I answered, "Evil


14^  The style of this letter is that of a public scribe in a Cairo market-place thirty years ago.
15^  i.e. she could not help falling in love with this beauty man.

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and despair." Quoth she, "Have thou no concern of him. Where are Allah and His power?"[13] Then she ordered me five hundred dinars and I took them and went away. Some days after I passed by the place and saw there horsemen and footmen. So I went in and lo! these were the companions of Zamrah, who were begging her to return to him; but she said, "No, by Allah, I will not look him in the face!" And she prostrated herself in gratitude to Allah and exultation over Zamrah's defeat. Then I drew near her, and she pulled out to me a letter, wherein was written, after the Bismillah, "My lady, but for my forbearance towards thee (whose life Allah lengthen!) I would relate somewhat of what betided from thee and set out my excuse, in that thou transgressedst against me, whenas thou west manifestly a sinner against thyself and myself in breach of vows and lack of constancy and preference of another over us; for, by Allah, on whom we call for help against that which was of thy free-will, thou didst transgress against the love of me; and so—The Peace!" Then she showed me the presents and rarities he had sent her, which were of the value of thirty thousand dinars. I saw her again after this, and Zamrah had married her. Quoth Al-Rashid, "Had not Zamrah been beforehand with us, I should certainly have had to do with her myself."[17] And men tell the tale of

Ishak of Mosul and his Mistress and the Devil

16^  "Kudrat," used somewhat in the sense of our vague "Providence." The sentence means, leave Omnipotence to manage him. Mr. Redhouse, who forces a likeness between Moslem and Christian theology, tells us that "Qader is unjustly translated by Fate and Destiny, an old pagan idea abhorrent to Al-Islam which reposes on God's providence." He makes Kazá and Kismet quasi-synonymes of "Qazá" and "Qader," the former signifying God's decree, the latter our allotted portion; and he would render both by dispensation. Of course it is convenient to forget the Guarded Tablet of the learned and the Night of Power and skull-lectures of the vulgar. The eminent Turkish scholar would also translate Salát by worship (du'á being prayer) because it signifies a simple act of adoration without entreaty. If he will read the Opener of the Koran, recited in every set of prayers, he will find an especial request to be "led to the path which is straight." These vagaries are seriously adopted by Mr. E. J. W. Gibb in his Ottoman Poems (p. 245, etc.) London: Trübner and Co., 1882; and they deserve, I think, reprehension, because they serve only to mislead; and the high authority of the source whence they come necessarily recommends them to many.
17^  The reader will have noticed the likeness of this tale to that of Ibn Mansúr and the Lady Budúr (vol. iv., 228 et seq.) For this reason Lane leaves it untranslated (iii. 252).