Day 48 (???) of Malaysia’s Movement Control Order (MCO); Day 2 of its Conditional Movement Control Order
In times of crisis we instinctively turn to the past for instruction, if not for a solution then at least for how to manage suffering. During the on-going Covid-19 pandemic, one point of common reference has been Giovanni Boccaccio’s The Decameron, with its gathering of friends telling stories to pass the time while they quarantine themselves from the Black Death. Instead of picking up the Italian Decameron, I picked up the Arab-Persian-Indian smorgasbord, Tales from the Thousand and One Nights, the 1972 version translated by N.J. Dawood and published by Penguin Classics. I picked it up in search of inspiration for a writing project, but really it was a way to procrastinate from that project, then the procrastination transformed into escapism.
The Nights are an unparalleled piece of escapism, a sublime world of vernacular story-telling that transports you into another time on the back of a djinn, in the twinkling of an eye: the medieval world but with shades of mysticism and supernaturalism, a world that existed but now does not, a world with different ethics and values, a simpler and straightforward yet also procedurally complex world, a world where all forms of the fantastic are possible, but strictly within the immutable hierarchy of kings.
Stories have elaborate twists that, as a writer trying to extract inspiration, make me jealous at the prospect of the disavowal — or perhaps transcendence — of logic required to even start imagining them. It seems ridiculous that a tale could turn simply on a chance meeting in a foreign land, or the fortuitous discovery that leads to safety after a shipwreck, or in the inexplicable magic and existence of djinns. Not to mention the endless racket of superlatives, the infinite riches of one story always being doubled by the next. Everyone must be ‘wealthier and more generous than any King or Sultan who ever lived before.’ Riches are described with a sort of fractal effect, starting with the construction of a magnificent palace, then an enumeration of all the richly-decorated halls within the palace and the extensive slave network to serve the palace, then zooming in on the fine detailing of the furnishings and the magnificence of each slave’s livery, and so on and so forth. An evocative example is the ‘unfinished window’ in “Aladdin and the Enchanted Lamp”, a single bejewelled window set in a magnificent dome in Aladdin’s new djinn-magicked palace that he leaves unfinished so that he may challenge the King to finish it in the same style as the other windows in the dome. The King empties his coffers of precious jewels, but they are not enough for even a fraction of the window. He seizes the jewels of his Vizier and courtiers, then orders for the seizure of all jewels owned by prominent men in his land, and yet after days of work the window isn’t even halfway finished. From a fraction of the window we can extrapolate the magnificence of the other windows, the dome, the surrounding room, and ultimately the palace. With all the jewels in the city used up, Aladdin bids the craftsmen undo their work and return them to the rightful owners, and has the djinn complete the window overnight.
If you don’t believe the stories, an excuse can be given by reverting back to the Master story, that of King Shahriyar and Shahrazad (a story quite incredulous in itself), who, remember, is simply telling ‘a tale of marvel, so that the night may pass pleasantly’. All the Tales are framed as bedtime stories, like those of our youth, but unlike us modern adults who choose to wholesale import our capacity for imagination from Disney instead, the adults in the Nights continue to have an earnest indulgence for bedtime stories. And unlike Disney’s stories (which also include Marvel and Star Wars now), the Nights do not censor life’s passionate extremities. All forms of bodily punishment are inflicted and all sorts of sexual dalliances take place across its pages; the tales don’t dwell on these either, but rather simply describe the action as yet another bead clicking into place on Fate’s thread.
In the Nights, psychology doesn’t exist, not like in our modern fixation on the Individual. Barely any of the characters are more than words on the page, simple vehicles for their story and their destiny. Stock figures abound and within the stock figures are also stock dichotomies. There are the Caliphs and Kings, who are often just and munificent, but who can also be foolish and greedy; there are the Viziers, either loyal or traitorous; the “Moors”, often deceptive pagan (= bad) sorcerers or contradictorily God-worshiping (= good) sorcerers; the everyman, who could be a porter, cobbler, fisherman, or any other from the range of jobs lower than a merchant in the marketplace hierarchy, foolish and aggressive but just as often obedient and worthy; and then there are women, fair and naive, but also wise and cunning, but also calculating and deceitful. And then, of course, there is the omniscient but invisible force of Allah, the bearer of fortune and life, but also the Destroyer of all earthly pleasures, the Annihilator of men.
This lack of psychology and, to a lesser degree, reason and justice (often, fools can become wise overnight, and even the most dastardly of characters can be redeemed and rewarded if they can spin a good yarn), is one of the most compelling escapes that reading the Nights offers. For all our self-inflicted loss and misery, all the mental lashes and beard-rendings we deal ourselves as punishment for our own foolishness, the Nights does not dwell long on these nor on the question of whether they are deserved. Often, self-inflicted suffering is tossed off with a compression of time, as for example, ‘In this way he suffered for one year’ with no other elaboration, or through a total outright passing-over (“not interesting!”) by bluntly rounding off a character’s story with, ‘so much for him’ so that another, more interesting sub-plot can be followed.
All wickedness and suffering can be redeemed in the Nights if you can produce a good story from it. All claims of injustice and inaccuracies can be silenced by pointing to the nature of story-telling itself (it’s all made up; we already told you so from the start). In the end, all will perish and the only survivors will be our stories and Allah. Thus the Nights offers a perfect escape — unlike, for example, our more contemporary equivalent of “escaping” into Netflix entertainment, which isn’t very escapist considering they still rely on our common shared ethics and a background knowledge of real, current events. The Nights is pure, uncut story, hitting like a potent drug.