The Fall of the Barmakids in Historiography and Fiction: Recognition and Disclosure

In: Journal of Abbasid Studies
Philip Kennedy New York University USA

Search for other papers by Philip Kennedy in
Current site
Google Scholar
Full Access

This study traces a centuries-long development in, transformation of, and argues for a variegated rapport between a group of disparate texts, some historiographical, some fictitious. Classical historiographies recounting the Barmakid debacle (al-Ṭabarī through Ibn Khallikān), late medieval and pre-modern popular accounts of the Barmakid tragedy, tales that accompany these accounts, and others in the Arabian Nights that mention Jaʿfar the Barmakid and related ones that do not, are all analyzed by appealing to Aristotle’s concept of anagnorisis (recognition or discovery). Anagnorisis makes narrative and historiography read like fiction and is a structuring device in these texts, a window into narrative hermeneutics, and specifically, the feature that indicates significantly that these various texts are of a piece, according to both conscious and subliminal design. Anagnorisis reverberates with calamitous recognition built into the Barmakid story — one which unveils hard and tragic truths, and just as importantly preserves malignant secrecy, a secrecy that the Arabian Nights unconsciously transforms into felicity.

* I am grateful to a few friends for their patient and helpful advice on many aspects of this study: Dan Beaumont, Samia Meziane, James Montgomery, Shawkat Toorawa and Wen-chin Ouyang.


Of the tale-cycles taking pride of place in the Arabian Nights one is that of The Three Apples,1 a murder story about uncanny destinies, the other is The Two Viziers,2 a comic/parodic-romance, which also — not wholly coincidentally — concerns uncanny destinies. The Two Viziers, while far lengthier, is embedded in the first and told as a ransom tale. The threat of death suffuses both stories, albeit the literary or generic tone is not unstintingly sinister — they are in some measure to be read as light-hearted narratives, distilling away some of the effect of a real historical tragedy. The importance of this two-part mini-cycle, and its claim to authenticity in the early (though probably not earliest, i.e., pre-extant) canon of the Nights, is spoken for by its inclusion in all recensions, both Syrian and Egyptian.3 It bears traces of Mamluk origin, culturally as well as chronologically,4 i.e., it by no means has a pedigree as old as the pre-Islamic Indian elements in the frame-story and it probably had not already settled in the Nights by the time of the earliest surviving manuscript fragment from the ninth century ce.5 But it comes early in the long sequence of stories told by Scheherazade: it is related during the nineteenth and twentieth6 nights of the young queen’s ordeal, and the faint tissues that connect it, in overt and subliminal ways, with the themes of the frame-story are (or can be) preserved in the minds of its readership/audience due to its early positioning soon after the opening frame.7

Moreover, the issue of authenticity is important, since I will consider below shared elements of the two tales against the celebrated accounts of “The Fall of the Barmakids,” the historical tragedy which lurks as a brooding spectre behind the stories. It is a historical-cum-fictional cycle8 that has far less claim to legitimacy within the canon of the Nights, but which exerted an influence — the nature of which can admittedly be debated — on The Three Apples and The Two Viziers.9 The relationship between these paired tales from Alf layla is often overlooked; and when it is not ignored altogether it is largely played down.10 Yet the relationship is essential in respect of certain important literary details, as is so often the case in the Nights where the frame-story casts an interpretive shadow upon the nested tales told by Scheherazade. The Three Apples may be as close as we come in medieval Arabic literature to a detective story;11 as such it has a plot underscored by a movement — both recurrent and foundational — towards disclosure, bringing semantic and semiotic coherence to the tale. It is a story of recognition, and it is this dynamic, together with the striking fateful ironies that attend it, which The Three Apples shares with The Two Viziers. Recognition (anagnorisis), coterminous with the revelation of destiny’s role, is essential to both stories.12

What we label “The Fall of the Barmakids” is an apparently unrelated cycle which revolves around the tragic and romanesque (i.e., probably fictive) affair between Jaʿfar al-Barmakī and Hārūn al-Rashīd’s sister, ʿAbbāsa. Echoes of this cycle, which survives variously in historiographical and popular sources from the tenth to seventeenth century ce, can be detected in The Three Apples and plausibly also in The Two Viziers. Indeed, in combination, The Three Apples and The Two Viziers may be a sublimation of elements of the Barmakid story. Following Bouvat, Julie Scott Meisami has noted the similarity of the legend’s general outlines to materials in the Nights, “such similarities, however, do not indicate common sources as much as they do common interpretive paradigms.”13 Joseph Sadan tells us a little more about the Barmakids and the Nights:

The French translation by J.C. Mardrus of the Arabian Nights: Mille et une nuits, was first published in Paris 1899-1904; some of the sources and mss he relies on, or pretends to rely on have not yet been identified . . . In earlier editions and translations this series of stories is not to be found, except for the Breslau edition of the Arabian Nights (. . . vii, 259-260). R. Burton, in his Arabian Nights, Benares 1885, ix (Supplementary Nights), 165 ff., translates from the above-mentioned Breslau edition. These passages in the Breslau edition . . . are poor in material and there is no doubt that the long and rich story given by Mardrus in his Mille et une nuits relies on other sources . . . and not on any version of the Arabian Nights known in Arabic . . .14

Mardrus’s account bears all the signs of being spurious and inauthentic but his selection and placement of the story is a clue to a tendency towards a retrospective reading connecting the frame and enframed tales, and his version of the Barmakid tragedy is one of the best constructed — a relatively complex tale set against the background of an aggregated historiographical and popular cycle, one which makes optimal use of the device of recognition.

The following study is about the relationship between a group of disparate texts, some about the Barmakids, some not, some historiographical, others purely fictitious. However, we argue that there is a variegated rapport between them all. We trace a development across the centuries and, with that development, elements of a certain kind of story being transformed. Anagnorisis is explored throughout. This is Aristotle’s concept of recognition or discovery as described in his Poetics; it is demonstrable in the entire body of texts examined below: in the classical historiographies that recount the Barmakid debacle, from al-Ṭabarī through Ibn Khallikān;15 in late medieval and pre-modern popular accounts of the Barmakid tragedy; in the tales that accompany these accounts; and the Arabian Nights — tales that mention Jaʿfar the Barmakid and related ones that do not, although we can perceive the ghost of his history informing the texture of complicated comedy.

As Terence Cave has discussed at length in his commanding book, anagnorisis is a device that makes narrative read like fiction. But, because it shapes narrative, historiography makes use of it too. In all the texts treated below it is a structuring device; a window into narrative hermeneutics, and more specifically, the feature that indicates significantly that all these histories and tales are somewhat of a piece, according to both conscious and subliminal design. Anagnorisis reverberates with the calamitous recognition that is built into the Barmakid story — one which, in its various redactions, unveils hard and tragic truths, but just as importantly preserves malignant secrecy. It is the latter, with the tragedy that attaches to it, that evaporates away in the popular stories, unconsciously transforming tragedy into felicity.

The Barmakid Legend

I quote from Mardrus:16

The most reliable chroniclers place the origin of the Barmakids in the city of Balkh in Khurasan, where they occupied a position of great distinction. It was not until a little more than a hundred years after the Hijrah of our Prophet [. . .] that the family moved to Damascus and took root there under the dynasty of Umar. In the reign of Hisham, the head of the house was converted from the Magian cult17 and became ennobled in Islam.

But it was not until the accession of the Abbasids that the family was admitted into the counsels of the court, and began to brighten the earth with its glory. Khalid ibn Barmak was made grand-wazir by Abu al-Abbas al-Saffah, the first of the Abbasids; and, during the reign of al-Mahdi, the third in the line of Abbas, Yahya ibn Khalid was charged with the education of Harun al-Rashid, the Khalifah’s favourite son, who was born only seven days after al-Fadl, Yahya’s son.

When al-Rashid was invested with supreme power, after the unexpected death of his brother al-Hadi [in 786 ad], he had no need to go back to the memories of his earlier youth, spent with the Barmakid children, before calling Yahya and his two sons to share in his aggrandizement; it was only necessary for him to recall his education by Yahya and the devotion which that good man had shown in braving the menaces of al-Hadi in order to assure his pupil’s inheritance. On the very night of al-Hadi’s death the tyrant had given order that Yahya and his children should be beheaded.18

When Yahya went in the middle of the night with Masrur to tell Harun that he was now master of the empire and Khalifah of Allah upon the earth, al-Rashid immediately named him grand-wazir and raised his two sons, al-Fadl and Jafar, to be wazirs under him. This action augured most happily for the new reign.

After that the Barmakids were an ornament for the brow of their century, and a crown upon its head. Destiny showered her most favourable gifts upon them, so that Yahya and his sons became bright stars, vast oceans of generosity, impetuous torrents of kindness, beneficent rains. The world lived at their breath, and under their hands the empire reached the pinnacle of its splendour [. . .]

And suddenly [after 17 years in ministerial command] the sons of Barmak were cast from the greatest height which men have reached to the lowest depths of horror; they drank the most bitter cup which calamity can pour.19

The execution of Jaʿfar al-Barmakī in January 187/803 came cruelly. As Sourdel summarizes it,

The Caliph . . . on returning from Pilgrimage . . . in 186/802, suddenly decided to put an end to their domination; during the night of Saturday the 1st Ṣafar 187/28-9 (9 January 803), he had D̲j̲aʿfar executed, al-Faḍl and his brothers arrested, Yaḥyā placed under observation and the property of all the Barmakids (with the exception of Muḥammad b. K̲h̲ālid) confiscated. D̲j̲aʿfar’s remains were left exposed in Baghdad for a year.20

Sourdel goes on to underscore that

The brutal fall of the Barmakids came as a surprise to their contemporaries, who had no satisfactory explanation to account for it21 and therefore invented various fictitious reasons, such as the story of ʿAbbāsa . . ., which have too long been given credence.22

Not only was the manner in which the caliph brutalized Jaʿfar abrupt and unexpected, but for many — for the collective memory of the community as it came to be recorded in histories — its causes were largely enigmatic, and remained at some level impenetrable. There appear to have been some foretokens of discontent in the caliph’s attitude toward his once favored minister and companion,23 but no real inkling that Jaʿfar’s tragic peripety would be so atrocious and irreversible.24

The caliph made the execution a public and candid sign of his sovereign rage: the body of Jaʿfar was decapitated, halved and gibbeted (on three of the capital’s bridges);25 but the mythology clustering around the incident stresses the caliph’s utter insistence on the fact that the actual reasons for the execution should remain unspoken — until long after the events. There is thus a dissonance between an atrocious and open fact and the obsessive, nigh paranoid, suppression of its cause (both tendencies for which the caliph was apparently responsible). The execution was clear for all to see, but, if the sources are anything to go by, its causes were by no means clearly understood. The subjects of al-Rashīd were free — at first — to contemplate the deed variously. As time went by they did so with greater, quasi-folkloric, unanimity, but there may also have been differences of perception among the classes of people who contemplated or remembered Jaʿfar’s rotting corpse. Which is to say: while individuals may well have drawn their own inferences from what they saw, it was the distinction of social classes that probably determined differing perceptions. A broadly applicable dichotomy of perception was likely constituted of the political elite and the masses; or the khāṣṣa and the ʿāmma: those with privileged access to knowledge and those without. All, in any case, now knew that the caliph was newly in charge of his Empire.26

As intimated, we appear unable to reconstruct with much certainty of detail what the caliph’s courtiers and political entourage made of his motives (a fact complicated by the probability that some of these were themselves the conspiratorial cause of what took place).27 The earliest written sources tell us very little; they sketch a picture, surely enough, that the Barmakids merited some comeuppance, but it is the sheer horror of Jaʿfar’s demise that beggars belief when we attempt to reconcile it with the more credible causes relayed to us.

Now, it is inconceivable that at least a small minority of those close to the caliph did not understand, but because they guarded the secret so closely they may have given rise to the tenor of the accounts of this episode in subsequent literature (among the mythology of the masses and in the Islamic historiographical tradition at large). The execution made public this fact: that those who knew its cause should keep it quiet — precisely because no constructive gloss could be placed upon it. Those who didn’t know would be dying, literally, to find out.

Meisami has noted that:

Ṭabari makes no comment either on the morality or on the ultimate consequences of the Caliph’s act. By contrast, his Persian translator Balʿamī, who completed his version of Ṭabarī’s history in 963, adds the following comment, in which it is difficult not to see the influence of al-Masʿūdī’s intervening work: Hārūn’s conduct in this matter was generally disapproved. People said that, had it not been a question of his sister, whatever he might have done would have seemed legitimate; but now he has been dishonoured by his acts. Had he been patient the intrigue would scarcely have been known (even) by his contemporaries; but because he was cruel and inflicted an excessive punishment, now everyone talks about the affair, and (in future) when the terrible fate of the Barmakids is mentioned and the cause is asked, it will be said that it was because of the intrigue with ʿAbbāsah, the sister of Hārūn al-Rashīd. The memory will perpetuate itself till the Day of Resurrection, and people will know that the punishment inflicted on the Barmakids was neither a wise action nor a discreet one.28

In Jaʿfar’s execution lay a paradox and contradictory tension: that of suppression concomitant with disclosure.29 The caliph in a sense revealed something (which was nothing if not a sign) in order to suppress something even more essential. What is fascinating when we read about the events is that this dichotomous dynamic suffuses many of the individual aspects — episodes told — leading to the Barmakid fall. And this dynamic is itself central to the chief fictional element in the collective cycle.30 Anagnorisis of course thrives on this tension in narrative and drama. It is anagnorisis that is inscribed in the imaginary incident (the illicit marriage) which came somehow to encapsulate the Barmakid calamity. It is necessary to analyse the interrelationship between anecdotes in the Barmakid cycle in the light of anagnorisis; i.e., to explore to what extent, and how exactly, the semantic power and dynamic narrative force of the ʿAbbāsa-Jaʿfar intrigue determines our reading of the surrounding material, by which, paradoxically, it was probably engendered.

In the later versions (al-Hawrānī, al-Atlīdī and especially Mardrus), the materials are deftly woven together in a single narrative — disclosure in these versions delivers the maximum suspense; but these castings follow, and are formed from, the disparate narrative seeds sown in the earlier historiographical accounts, which purport not to tell a single coherent narrative but pretend rather to give an objective account of differing, variously relevant, and discrete incidents. These are the inchoate elements of a narrative puzzle that was only later to be assembled in different ways. Al-Ṭabarī (d. 310/923), the earliest important source, was perhaps objective;31 Ibn Khallikān (d. 681/1282) palpated some of the same materials in his biographical dictionary, and wedged his foot firmly in the door of — if not fiction — then rhetorical and semantic manipulation.

The Jaʿfar-ʿAbbāsa Intrigue

The most celebrated element in explanations of Jaʿfar’s fall, which has come to be seen with general agreement as smacking of imaginary concoction, is given in a relatively detailed and early version by al-Masʿūdī (d. 345/956):32

[2588] Someone who knew many stories told about the Barmakids (dhakara dhū maʿrifatin bi-akhbāri l-barāmika . . .) mentioned that when Yaḥyā b. Khālid b. Barmak and his two sons Jaʿfar and al-Faḍl and other Barmakids were at the zenith of their political authority . . . Hārūn al-Rashīd said to Jaʿfar b. Yaḥyā: “Heavens Yaḥyā! There is no person in the world more dear to me and in whom I take more pleasure . . . than you; and my sister occupies no lesser place in my heart . . . I have thought about the matter regarding myself and the two of you and found that I cannot bear patiently either your absence or hers. I find myself to be unfulfilled, missing your cheer when I am with her, and vice-versa. But I have found a solution which would bring together my happiness and through which my pleasure and intimacy can be intensified.” Jaʿfar replied: “May God bring you success and may he make firm your intent in right-guidance and matters generally.” Al-Rashīd continued: “I have married her to you (zawwajtu-ka-hā)33 in such a way that it is lawful for you (yaḥillu la-ka) to attend her and to look upon her and be together with her at any majlis at which I am present. But nothing more (wa-lā siwā dhālika) (i.e., this is a marriage in name only).34

[2589] So he married him off in this way (though Jaʿfar attempted vainly to resist) in the presence of his entourage and servants and intimate clients; and he took a solemn religious oath from Jaʿfar that he would not sit with her in a majlis and be alone with her unless al-Rashīd should be the third man in their party. Jaʿfar swore to this, accepting it and made it encumbent upon himself. They would then join together in this way, and all the while Jaʿfar would avert his gaze from her [ʿAbbāsa] out of reverence for the caliph and in fulfillment of his pledge . . . [in the recension of ʿAbd al-Hamid: but ʿAbbāsa grew infatuated with him (ʿaliqat-hu) and made secret plans to trick him], so she wrote to him about this; he replied to her go-between with insults and threats; she then repeated her overtures and he was again equally trenchant in reply. When she grew despairing in respect of him she went to see his mother (qaʿadat umma-hu) who was capable of being neither resolute nor circumspect (jazlah).35 ʿAbbāsa enticed her with gifts and blandishments, precious jewels and much money;36 when she [ʿAbbāsa] could see that [Jaʿfar’s mother] had become as pliant and obedient to her as a slave-girl, and as counseling and sympathetic as a mother,37 she revealed to her some of what she wanted to do and informed her what benefits she and her son would reap in respect of the great prestige of becoming an in-law of the Prince of the Faithful; she led her to believe that such a course of action, if it were to be carried through, would guarantee her and her son’s safety from the evanescence of material luxuries and social status.

[2590] So Umm Jaʿfar acceded to her request and promised to arrange an appropriate ruse to [entrap Jaʿfar] and to give herself assiduously to ʿAbbāsa’s [cause] until she succeeded in bringing the two together. So she approached Jaʿfar one day and said to him: “My son, a slave-girl brought up in a palace in accordance with the education of princes has been described to me: she has received and achieved a high level of education, knowledge, charm and elegance in addition to being astonishingly beautiful and well-proportioned; she has laudable qualities seldom to be seen; I have determined to buy her for you and the matter is close to being settled with her master.” Jaʿfar received her words well and she thus managed to snare his heart and made him long for this [beauty]. But she delayed [bringing them together] so that his desire and longing would increase and strengthen; he meanwhile insisted that she hasten to fulfill her promise; and when she was certain that he had exhausted his patience and was utterly disturbed she said to him: “I will deliver her to you tonight.” She sent word to ʿAbbāsa informing her of this.

[2591] She readied herself in a manner worthy of her status.38 And Jaʿfar set out that night from al-Rashīd’s [palace], still somewhat drunk, to perform the resolution he had made (li-mā qad ʿazama ʿalayhi). He entered his house and asked after the slave-girl and was informed where she was. So she was introduced to an inebriated man unable to discern her form or recognize her features. He went to her and slept with her, and when he had consummated his desire she said to him: “What did you think of the tricks of the daughters of kings?” He replied: “Which daughters do you have in mind?” For he had considered her to be some Byzantine princess. He jumped in a start, his inebriation now cleared and his lucidity returned to him; he went up to his mother and said: “You have sold me at a cheap price! And placed me on a perishing mount: see now how I will end up!”

[2592] ʿAbbāsa then left having conceived a child, and she subsequently gave birth to a boy whom she entrusted to a servant called Riyāsh and a child-nurse called Barra; when she feared that the news would get out and spread she sent the child to Mecca39 with the two servants and ordered them to bring him up. Jaʿfar carried on for a long time as before; both he and his brothers and father dominated the affairs of state.

Jaʿfar’s recognition of ʿAbbāsa after sleeping with her is the pivotal anagnorisis and tragic turning point (or peripety) in the story; its effect is strong enough to exert an influence on the remainder of the account, resonating in our minds when we read of the execution. The words Jaʿfar utters when he realizes whom he has slept with are a foreshadowing of what is to come and therefore the episode is normally placed structurally in the early part of the cycles we have; this anagnorisis leads to others — its ancillaries — notably al-Rashīd’s discovery of this treachery.40 That Jaʿfar should have failed to recognize ʿAbbāsa is in one sense a purely mechanical detail; but in elaborate versions (or in the potential of the story to be written into an involved tragedy)41 there is a moralistic-cum-philosophical essence to it also: all characters are challenged to understand things and at times even challenged in their understanding; it is the way the challenge is met (or the way they are fated to meet the challenge) that determines what fate holds in store for them. Such stories in historiography are apt to encourage the reader to determine a moralistic meaning.42

Al-Masʿūdī continues:

[2593] Zubayda Umm Jaʿfar, the wife of al-Rashīd, was unequalled in the position she enjoyed in his eyes. [At this time] Yaḥyā b. Khālid was in charge of the Harem of the caliph and prevented the women from availing themselves of the service of the eunuchs. Zubayda complained about this to al-Rashīd and so he said to Yaḥyā: “Father! Why does Umm Jaʿfar complain about you?” he replied: “Commander of the Faithful, am I being accused in respect of your harem and about the way I run your palace?” he replied: “No, by God!” Yaḥyā continued: “Do not accept what she says about me.” Al-Rashīd said: “I will not broach this again.” Yaḥyā then became more stringent in constricting her movements and more severe: he would order the gates of the harem to be locked at night and take the keys home with him.

[2594] Umm Jaʿfar had had as much as she could take of this. So she entered one day upon al-Rashīd and said: “O Commander of the Faithful, what impels Yaḥyā to continue preventing me from having access to my servants and keeping me where I don’t belong?” al-Rashīd replied: “Yaḥyā cannot be impugned before me in respect of my womenfolk.” She replied: “If that were so he would have prevented his son from committing his crime.” He asked: “What was that?” So she told him the story of ʿAbbāsa with Jaʿfar.43 He fell upon his hands and asked: “Do you have any proof of this or witness?” She replied: “What proof is more telling than a son?” He said: “Where is the son?” She said: “He was here, but when she [ʿAbbāsa] feared the divulgence of the matter (ẓuhūr al-amr), she sent the child to Mecca.” He asked: “Does anyone other than you know of this?” Her reply: “There is no servant-girl in your palace who does not know this.” Hārūn said nothing44 and kept the matter hidden inside . . .45

On the intrigue between ʿAbbāsa and Jaʿfar, Bosworth has remarked:

This alleged reason for al-Rashid’s anger against Jaʿfar, which so caught the imagination of later chroniclers, does not appear in such early sources as Jahshiyari and Yaʿqubi. Ibn Khaldun, tr. i 28-30, rejected its authenticity, and the words of the executioner Masrur to an enquirer at a later time, in al-Mutawakkil’s reign, indicate that “women’s tales,” amr al-marʾah,46 were already circulating by then around the causes of the Barmakids’ fall (Jahshiyari, 204;47 cf. Sourdel, Vizierat, i, 158). Of modern writers, Bouvat, 70, 74, and Horovitz, ei2 s.v. ʿAbbāsa, regard it as legend, as does Sourdel, op. cit., i, 167; only Abbott,48 loc. cit., gives it credence.49

Approaching the materials from another angle, Meisami cautions us from being so dismissive, questioning any neat distinction between history and fiction:

This account of the fall of the Barmakids is, in the view of most modern historians, pure fiction; the causes of the catastrophe, they assert, were too complex to be attributed to a single incident, and were in any case predominantly political. Indeed, as Masʿūdī tells us at the beginning of his account, “People differ on the causes of their downfall: while the apparent causes [al-ẓāhir] were their acquisition of great wealth, and the release of an ʿAlid placed in their charge, the innermost reasons [wa-ammā al-bāṭin] are unknown; various things have been mentioned, but only God knows what they were.” However, Masʿūdī’s version of the catastrophe (as well as his apparent indifference to its political causes) contrasts with other accounts, including the more detailed version of al-Ṭabarī (d. 923) in his Ta’rīkh al-rusul wa’l-mulūk . . .50

So it is the very nature of the fiction which demands inquiry.

As Meisami further comments:

That other causes for the catastrophe (including complex psychological motives related to the Harun/Jaʿfar/ʿAbbasah triangle) existed is without question; that these causes were of less interest to some historians at least suggests that rather than excluding the Jaʿfar-ʿAbbasah affair we should explore the reasons for its presence and specific treatment in the histories in which it occurs.51

Meisami’s principal argument is to show the rhetorical assemblage of al-Masʿūdī’s account of the Barmakids: to explain in this respect the juxtaposition of the intrigue with the preceding (and quite lengthy) philosophical discussion on love said to have taken place at the court of Yaḥyā b. Khālid al-Barmakī:

In terms of the conventions of the courtly game of love — conventions evoked only indirectly and negatively [in the discussion] — the affair of Jaʿfar and ʿAbbāsa as presented by al-Masʿūdī appears almost as a parody. While convention dictates that the noble lover suffer in his pursuit of the unattainable lady, the historical situation was quite otherwise. Assigned roles of chaste lover and unattainable lady by Caliphal whim, it was the lady who chafed against this constraint, and who first entreated, then seduced through deception, an unwitting and unwilling Jaʿfar; the result was the loss of, not her virtue, but his life.52

However, when Meisami avers that “al-Masʿūdī deliberately rejects any tendency to present the intrigue in terms of idealized love,” she is apparently, tacitly at least, imputing to him authorship of the episode;53 it seems more likely that he inherited what had developed independently according to a topical paradigm known as the bedtrick. Horovitz alludes to pagan Arab stories containing “a remarkably similar episode of the marriage of the minister of a king with the latter’s sister (D̲j̲adhīma al-Abrash),” and avers that “it was very easy to transfer to D̲j̲aʿfar the motif of the story.”54 But the Jadhīma story is not a bedtrick, and therefore cannot provide a full explanation of the literary genesis of the intrigue.

According to Wendy Doniger, a bedtrick is when

You go to bed with someone you think you know, and when you wake up you discover that it was someone else — another man or another woman, or a man instead of a woman, or a woman instead of a man, or a god, or a snake, or a foreigner or alien, or a complete stranger, or your wife or husband, or your mother or father. This is what Shakespearean scholars call “the bedtrick” — sex with a partner who pretends to be someone else.55

The bedtrick provides a rich vein in the stratigraphy of world literature and folklore; Doniger considers an impressive range of other materials from China to the Americas (including Inuit legend and an extensive filmography from Hollywood), from Biblical56 to Graeco-Roman and European narratives (medieval, Shakespearean, Renaissance, Enlightenment, Romantic, Modern and postmodern). Bedtricks share certain formal and literary features, principally: the theme of lying (about love and sex) and the structural element of disclosure (the unmasking of the lie, which leaves the players and the readers pensive). The texts are striking, often shocking, and invariably leave one meditative and brooding on what one has come (not) to know. But the scenarios can also be — and indeed need to be — understood in the varying contexts of the cultures in which they were fashioned. They have an essential non-narrative context; for instance,

some of the Hindu myths . . . may be explained by certain assumptions encoded in the caste system, and some of the narratives of the Hebrew Bible by considerations of the positions of the Jews in the ancient Near East; American films reflect the attitudes of the cold war; European fairy tales refract early modern ideas about embryology.57

“The bedtrick is an exercise in epistemology: How could you know? How could you not know?”58 These questions may help us to mull over what idea embodied in the bedtrick is relevant to the larger Barmakid cycle. Is it really simply a mechanism to facilitate the tragedy of Jaʿfar (to explain it without intending to philosophize about the stark humanity of the event, as Bowden would have it)? This seems reductionist. Can we not at least extract the theme of knowledge out of this and ponder it in the context of the epistemology of the way the affair was narrated? The bedtrick is about lying (and the later Islamic versions put this to the service of a self-avowed misogyny); but the earlier historiographical versions of the story identify, intentionally or not, a number of social, ethical and more generally human/psychological issues: the strict, perhaps even unnatural, segregation of the women of the Abbasid elite; the inexorable gravity that sex exerts on feelings of love, passion and attraction; the evils of alcoholic inebriation; the utter allegiance to his whims which the caliph expected to command and the abuse of power which this could lead to (both al-Rashīd and ʿAbbāsa are shown to be guilty of this); seeing and not seeing (in all senses, esp. cognitive); the nature of personal responsibility for one’s actions in the face of fate’s manipulations: recognition is often little more than the realization of a person’s predetermined destiny, leaving moot the question of responsibility. But bedtricks are at root about lying and therefore about (eroded) truth, and it is this theme, together with the way it challenges human understanding, that resides at the heart of the Barmakid materials — the truth about which, ironically, we will never know.

Other bedtricks in the Islamic tradition can be found in several Persian romances, e.g., Niẓāmī’s Khosrow and Shīrīn and Haft Paykar, and Fakhr al-Dīn Gurgānī’s Vīs and Rāmīn, in which Vīs persuades her nurse to sleep with her husband (King Moubad) while she has a tryst with Rāmīn on the palace roof.59 One can conjecture that related Persian elements exerted an influence on al-Masʿūdī’s adaptation of what he found in the earlier sources describing the relationship between Jaʿfar and ʿAbbāsa (i.e., the collapsed version we find in al-Ṭabarī, discussed further in the next section). But he certainly did not invent the bedtrick in general, or even in respect of some of the details within the basic plot (e.g., the instrumental role of drunkenness in facilitating deception). Al-Masʿūdī was authorial more in the way in which he used the episode than in inventing it.

Al-Ṭabarī (d. 310/923)

In his Tārīkh, al-Ṭabarī collapses the anecdote about ʿAbbāsa’s intrigue: Jaʿfar is not deceived, rather he knowingly sleeps with his bogus-wife, and there is no tragic recognition — no sexual masquerading takes place here to put the blame for Jaʿfar’s demise squarely on the shoulders of a woman.60 But in al-Ṭabarī’s descriptions of earlier episodes, e.g., the complicity of the Barmakids with Yaḥyā b. ʿAbdallāh, the ʿAlid rebel, there are some striking recognitions, and we are able cautiously to suggest an epistemological kaleidoscope in the cycle: issues of identity and truth are brought into focus but yet fragmented.

Al-Ṭabarī writes: “Concerning the reasons for Jaʿfar’s killing . . . there are various accounts;” these turn on small incidents, and the chronology is not clear. Those with intelligence and perspicacity could read the signs of what was to happen in the comportment of the caliph. But it was just as easy to be blind, we gather. Yaḥyā b. Khālid al-Barmakī was no dupe to the shifting atmosphere: on the authority of Bukhtīshūʿ b. Jibrīl, “who had it from his father:”

I was sitting in al-Rashīd’s court circle when Yaḥyā b. Khālid appeared. It had always been the practice previously that he should enter without seeking formal permission. Now, when he entered, drew near to al-Rashīd and greeted him, the latter returned only a perfunctory salutation. Yaḥyā then realized that their relationship [or: the position of the Barmaki family, amrahum] had changed.61

The caliph explains himself, but he is being disingenuous; this sets a pattern of disclosure and deceit. The first anecdote leaves us with no reason for the turn of the caliph against Yaḥyā, other than that “people [were] talking.” A second incident then gives an example of one such person. This two-part prelude ends with a description of how Yaḥyā came to be treated disrespectfully by the servants at al-Rashīd’s court: they would delay in bringing him a mere glass of water, foretelling in their actions the greater torments he would encounter in prison after the butchering of his son.

Al-Ṭabarī moves from this premonitory prelude to a more concrete episode, the release from prison of Yaḥyā b. ʿAbdallāh by the Barmakids; this incident will leave the caliph dissembling with Jaʿfar, but to the privileged reader (effectively given access to the sovereign’s inner thoughts) he divulges his dark intentions. The account begins with a peremptory element that lends it great weight: Abū Muḥammad al-Yazīdī — one of the people most knowledgeable about the Barmakids — mentioned: “If anyone says that al-Rashīd killed Jaʿfar b. Yaḥyā for any other reason but over Yaḥyā b. ʿAbdallāh b. Ḥasan, don’t believe him!” We know already that Jaʿfar is to die; great weight and historical specificity is given to this section.

It is al-Faḍl b. Rabīʿ who in the first account about Yaḥyā b. ʿAbdallāh informs the caliph of the ʿAlid’s release. But al-Rashīd “indicated ostensibly that he was uninterested in his information, and said: ‘What’s the matter with you, may you be deprived of your mother? For all you know, this may be at my express command!’ ”62 Al-Faḍl is crushed by this dismissive retort, but the caliph will be equally devious and dissembling with Jaʿfar himself when the latter is then confronted by the sovereign. In the encounter between Jaʿfar and al-Rashīd the Barmakid at first tries to hide the facts about the ʿAlid, but then

Jaʿfar — who had one of the acutest intelligences and soundest perceptions among all mankind — drew back, and realized within himself that the Caliph in fact knew about the affair.63

The caliph’s response to Jaʿfar’s confession is “You did well! You have done exactly what was in my own mind!” (echoing, though the sentiments are inverted — from contrived anger to blandishment — words he had spoken to al-Faḍl b. Rabīʿ). When Jaʿfar recedes out of sight the caliph bursts out: “May God slay me with the sword of right guidance for having committed an erroneous act if I don’t kill you!”64 This incident may not have happened: it is a detail corresponding with the fact that the caliph, in accounts of the night of the execution, never actually confronts Jaʿfar: there is thus affinity between the two elements, regardless of the historicity that may lie behind them. In a poignant manner they introduce, and sustain, the caliph’s suppression of intent; Jaʿfar’s realization of the extent of the sovereign’s wrath will not come before the moment of his death.

Having set a pattern of highlighting details that are essentially incidental but tellingly psychological in the account of the Barmakids’ impending doom, al-Ṭabarī moves on to the caliph’s private interview with an unnamed man. It is a dramatic dialogue, in which there are elements that hark back to the previous confrontations with both al-Faḍl b. Rabīʿ and Jaʿfar:65

Idrīs b. Badr has transmitted the information, saying: A man presented himself before al-Rashīd (or: presented a petition to al-Rashīd, ʿaraḍa li-al-Rashīd) whilst the latter was engaged in a discussion with Yaḥyā (al-Barmakī), with the words, “O Commander of the Faithful, a word of advice (for you), so summon me before you!” Al-Rashīd said to Harthama, “Take this man aside with you, and ask him about this piece of advice of his.” Harthama questioned him (about it), but he refused to tell him, saying, “It is a secret meant for the Caliph’s ear alone.” Harthama informed al-Rashīd of what the man said, and the Caliph replied, “Don’t let him leave the palace gate until I have a chance to speak with him privately.” He related: When it was midday, all those who had been with the Caliph departed, and the Caliph summoned the man. The man said, “Accord me complete privacy.” So Hārūn turned to his sons and said, “Please go away lads!” and they sprang up (and left). Khāqān and Ḥusayn remained standing by his head. The man looked at them. Al-Rashīd told them, “Retire from my presence,” and they did so. Then al-Rashīd went up to the man and said: “Now tell me what is in your mind.” The man replied, “Provided that you grant me a promise of personal security and safe conduct.” The Caliph said, “I undertake to grant you such a promise of personal safety and to treat you well.”

The man said, “I was at Ḥulwān, in one of the caravanserais there, when I realized that I was in the presence of Yaḥyā b. ʿAbdallāh, who was wearing a coarse, open-fronted tunic [durāʿa] of wool and a coarse, green-colored woolen cloak. He was accompanied by a group of persons who encamped whenever he encamped and who traveled on whenever he traveled on and who took up a position near him, (nevertheless) giving the impression to anyone who saw them that they did not know Yaḥyā although they were in reality his aides. Each one of them had a chit [manshūr] guaranteeing him safe-conduct, should he be stopped.” Al-Rashīd said, “Do you know Yaḥyā b. ʿAbdallāh, then?” He replied, “I have known him for a long time, and it was this which made certain my recognition of him the other day.” Al-Rashīd said, “Describe him to me.” The man replied, “(He is) a man with an appearance of well-being, slightly swarthy in complexion, with receding hair at the temples, pleasant eyes, and a substantial paunch.” Al-Rashīd retorted, “You have spoken truly, he is just like that,” and went on to say, “What did you hear him say?” The man replied, “I didn’t hear him say anything, except that I saw him praying . . .”

Al-Rashīd exclaimed, “May God bless your father! How excellently you remembered all this! . . . May God grant you a handsome reward and thank you appropriately for your efforts! But who are you?” The man replied, “I stem from the progeny of the ‘sons of the dynasty;’ my family origin is Marw and my birthplace is the City of Peace.” The Caliph said, “Is your house, then, there?” He replied, “Yes.” The Caliph remained silent, with his eyes to the ground, for a considerable period and then said, “How would you be able to endure an unpleasant experience, which you would have to suffer, as an act of obedience to me?” The man said, “I would undergo the unpleasantness of that inasmuch as the Commander of the Faithful wishes it.”

The ensuing section is enigmatic:

The Caliph said, “Stay where you are until I come back,” and he darted quickly into a chamber which was at his back and pulled out a purse containing two thousand dinars. He said, “Take this, and let me put into operation a plan which I have thought up concerning you.” The man accordingly took the money and wrapped his robes over it. Then the Caliph called out, “O slave!” and Khāqān and Ḥusayn answered the call. He said, “Strike this son of a stinking, uncircumcised whore [ibn lakhnāʾ]!” So the two of them punched him about a hundred times. Then the Caliph said, “Take him out to those who are still in the palace precincts, with his turban round his neck, and proclaim, ‘This is the reward of the person who brings slanderous accusations against the Commander of the Faithful’s courtiers and retainers!’ ” They did all that, and the people talked about the man and what had happened to him, but no one knew about the man’s real role nor about what he had communicated to al-Rashīd until the fall of the Barmakids eventually took place.

What we notice in this stylized exchange is the diegetic grammar and syntax of the process by which a truth is disclosed in narrative form; it is the discovery of identity internalized within the information about Yaḥyā b. ʿAbdallāh that afforces the message — the truth about the actions of those who released the ʿAlid (depicted here significantly as a religious leader). Al-Rashīd confirms his identity: the features of Yaḥyā b. ʿAbdallāh are confirmation of the danger of this man to the caliph (at least in the caliph’s view: he was deeply suspicious of the ʿAlids). But the revelation is partial (or at least limited). Just as al-Rashīd had dissembled with both al-Faḍl and Jaʿfar, so he dissembles in the case of the informer from the “sons of the dynasty,” ordering the man to be beaten up so as to dissociate himself publicly at this stage from his private suspicions about Jaʿfar: “This is the reward of the person who brings slanderous accusations against the Commander of the Faithful’s courtiers and retainers!” As the account of the Barmakids unfolds, we witness a twin process: the suppression of facts exists in counterpoint with a continuing series of anecdotal disclosures. While the anecdotes are individually transmitted and are not apparently mutually (or sequentially) engendering, they modulate the dynamic of hiding and seeking, most tellingly revealed in a dramatized (and very literal) way in the section describing “The Barmakid’s growing fears of the Caliph’s threatening intentions:”66

Zayd b. ʿAlī b. Ḥusayn b. Zayd (al-ʿAlawī) has mentioned that Ibrāhīm b. al-Mahdī transmitted the information to him that Jaʿfar b. Yaḥyā said to him one day . . . “I have begun to feel suspicious regarding this man’s — he meant al-Rashīd’s — attitude, and I have got the idea that this stems from some previous action of his which has affected me. Hence, I wished to examine that in the light of another person’s opinion; now you are that person. So keep an eye on that point as you go about today’s business, and let me know what you observe regarding him.” He related: In the course of my day’s activities, I did that. When al-Rashīd rose up from his court session, I was the first of his companions to rise up and leave with him. I then went along to a clump of trees along the road which I was wont to take and went inside it, together with my attendants, and ordered them to extinguish the candles. The Caliph’s boon-companions began to pass by where I was, one by one. I could see them but they could not see me. Finally, all of them had gone, when suddenly Jaʿfar appeared in view. When he came through the clump of trees he called out, “Come forth, my dear friend!” He related: So I came forth. He said, “Well, what information have you got?” I replied, “Not till you tell me how you knew I was here!” He said, “I was aware of your solicitude over what I am worried about and aware that you are not the sort of person who would go home without informing me of what you observed in him. I also know that you would not like to be seen standing about at this sort of hour. There is no better place for concealment along the road than this one, so I decided that you must be here in it.” I said, “Yes, true.” He said, “Now let’s hear what you have learnt!” I replied, “I observed a man who jests when you speak seriously, and who becomes serious when you jest.” He said, “That is exactly how he appears to me, so go homewards, my dear friend.” He related: I then went home.

Jaʿfar’s concealment, lying in wait for his informer, must surely be a variant (a sort of dramatized metonymy) of suppressed knowledge coming to light; that Ibrāhīm b. al-Mahdī should have known where Jaʿfar was hiding lends weight to his instincts and therefore to his understanding of the caliph’s changing attitude toward his patron. Both men indeed are gifted with perspicacity; but semi-sight is never full sight, and Jaʿfar will not be certain of his demise, and the cruel form it will take, until his executioner comes to dispatch him. (Indeed, Jaʿfar does not seem as perspicacious as Ibrāhīm b. al-Mahdī who detected his hiding place!)

Al-Ṭabarī’s rendering of the cycle is deeply psychological to the extent that it explores the recesses of suspicious minds — minds that are ensnared in a web of seeking and stumbling upon information, both searching it out, then dissembling it while exposing it in enigmatic half-measures that cannot be interpreted with certainty. These are delicate anecdotes in so far as they are not hugely significant on their own (and seem at times hardly credible). But the whole of al-Ṭabarī’s cycle is incipiently coherent according to the reading scheme we are imposing upon it; there are many proleptic details and as we move forward we encounter themes that echo each other: e.g., description of the Pilgrimage to Mecca in 186-7/802-3, and the stopover at al-ʿUmr on the return journey, all of which is transparently significant as a foreshadowing of the Pilgrimage a year later on the way back from which Jaʿfar was executed at al-ʿUmr.

We must concede, however, that the account of “the alleged misconduct between Jaʿfar and the caliph’s sister ʿAbbāsa” is not given an optimal literary and fictional form (the one that drives our epistemological reading).67 We should observe simply that this is not so much a collapsed variant as an early version of what then evolved increasingly into the tragic romance of the bedtrick. The genesis of the bedtrick episode may well have been triggered by those other themes (e.g., in al-Ṭabarī) of deception, misunderstanding and, in the end, tragic disclosure.

Pseudo-Ibn Qutayba

Pseudo-Ibn Qutayba’s account of the Barmakids positions the intrigue between Jaʿfar and ʿAbbāsa as an epilogue to the description of an imaginary encounter between Umm Jaʿfar and Hārūn al-Rashīd. As Hamori tells us, it is part of a triptych:68

Sahl’s narrative is tied to the two anecdotes about al-Rashīd that immediately precede it in the Imāma. Each of the three narratives turns on an inconvenient pledge. The three texts interpret each other by representing three ways of hanging a story on such a plot.69

In the debate between al-Rashīd and Umm Jaʿfar the question of what it is that aroused his anger and vengeance so harshly troubles the mind of the reader. No clue is given; indeed quite apparent in the exchange between caliph and his former wet-nurse is precisely the fact that he does not divulge the reasons for his trenchant and inclement stance.

Al-Rashīd will not or cannot offer one. Secrecy (“whoever wants to grasp this man’s crime will soon be riding his mount”) colors the historical memory of the matter of the Barmakis. It motivates the often and variously told story of Jaʿfar’s sexual encounter with the Abbasid princess, and act of lèse-majeste that must be concealed by the injured party.70

When the intrigue is told in the end it is given sketchily, but is has great power — revelation releasing some of the tension of the enigma — and ends with an ambivalent wa-llāhu aʿlam. It is an unbelievable story.71

Ibn Khallikān (d. 681/1282)

Ibn Khallikān was as a descendant of the Barmakids. Did he therefore exert himself creatively in his account of Jaʿfar? As in all biographies (al-Ṭabarī, al-Masʿūdī, etc.) the account is composite, and the author is quite consistent in acknowledging his sources, limiting the sense of a continuous single narrative. But some features of the text merit mention: there are passages that appear to be rhetorically connected with each other, and a semantic dynamic may emerge. A good place to begin our analysis of the text is at the very end. It has a poignant epilogue — a recognition:

The apprehension of prolixity prevents me from giving numerous passages from the eulogistic poems and the elegies composed on the Barmekides; the present article has already attained a considerable length; but this, it is true, was rendered unavoidable by the necessity of stating, in a connected manner, the particulars of their rise and fall [sharḥu l-ḥāli wa-tawālī l-kalāmi aḥwaja ilay-hi]. —One of the most singular examples which history offers of the vicissitudes of fortune is thus related by Muhammad Ibn ar-Rahmân al-Hâshimi, chief of the prayer at Kûfa (48): “On a certain day, which was the festival of Sacrifices (49), I went in to my mother’s, and found with her a woman of respectable mien, but dressed in shabby clothes. ‘Do you know who this is?’ said my mother. — ‘No,’ I replied. — ‘This,’ she said, ‘is the mother of Jaafar the Bermekide.’ On this I turned towards her and saluted her with respect; we then conversed together for some time after which I said: ‘Madam (50), what is the strangest thing that you have seen?’ To which she answered: ‘There was a time when this anniversary found me with four hundred female slaves standing behind me to await my orders, and yet I thought that my son did not provide for me in manner adequate to my rank; but now my only wish is to have two sheep-skins, one to serve me for a bed and the other for covering.’ I gave her,” said the narrator, “five hundred dirhems, and she nearly died from excess of joy. She afterwards continued to visit us till death placed a separation between us.”72

As in pseudo-Ibn Qutayba we are presented with an Umm Jaʿfar of great nobility and poise.73 We have established one tenuous connection between the materials in the epilogue’s solemn retrospective commentary on the account of the Barmakids; there are others, principally the accentuation of suspense inherent in a series of tenebrous auguries.

After the folkloric description of the twin-collared shirt worn by Jaʿfar and al-Rashīd, Ibn Khallikān begins in encomiastic mode by listing the qualities of Jaʿfar: “his disposition was generous, his looks encouraging, his demeanour kind; but his liberality and munificence, the richness and prodigality of his donations, are too well known to require mention . . .” The qualities are listed so far very much in the manner of a casual inventory, and the next detail follows without apparently being privileged over others; but the incident certainly resonates with the ensuing tragedy and we must posit that a rhetorical strategy has placed it there.74

Ibn Khallikān continues:75

The following example is related of his penetration; having learned that al-Rashîd was much depressed in consequence of a Jewish astrologer having predicted to him that he should die within a year, he rode off to the khalif and found him deeply afflicted: the Jew had been detained as a prisoner by the khalif’s orders, and Jaafar addressed him in these terms: “You pretend that the khalif is to die in the space of so many days?” — “Yes,” said the Jew. — “And how long are you yourself to live?” said Jaafar. — “So many years,” replied the other, mentioning a great number. Jaafar then said the khalif: “Put him to death, and you will be thus assured that he is equally mistaken respecting the length of your life and that of his own.” This advice was followed by the khalif, who then thanked Jaafar for having dispelled his sadness. The Jew’s body was exposed on a gibbet . . . the astrologer lost his life through his own folly.

This episode foreshadows the later debacle and works by contrast: while here astrology and prognostication — the peddling of signs of events foretold — is debunked, yet such signs are written with much dramatic irony into incidents that follow, with increasing pertinence to the imminent fall of the Barmakids. The significance of signs is that they engage the reader in a hermeneutics of reading: the Jew was obtuse, a false claimant to the gift of augury, but the fated and therefore tragic unfolding of lives which can be sensed in the misgivings that prelude dark events can be felt at several significant points of the ensuing cycle.76

While giving his various sources, Ibn Khallikān edits his material into a coherent account and in so doing allows one to set greater store by the intrigue than it would otherwise have. First, he provides a very brief description of the marriage arranged by al-Rashīd between ʿAbbāsa and Jaʿfar:

Ar-Rashîd could not suffer being deprived of Jaafar’s company, neither could he bear being separated from his own sister al-Abbâsa, daughter of al-Mahdi, whom he loved with an extreme affection; his pleasure was never complete in the absence of one or the other; he therefore said to Jaafar: “My pleasure is never complete except when you and al-Abbâsa are with me; I shall therefore marry you together, in order that you may legally keep company with her; but beware that you meet her and I not present!” Jaafar accepted this condition and married her.77

In other accounts the intrigue follows closely on the conclusion of the marriage; Ibn Khallikān chooses at this juncture to tell us briefly of the Barmakid fall from power in order then to give the various accounts of its cause, and allowing for an implicit complementarity between them (while reminding us that historians disagree “respecting the motives which turned al-Rashid against them”). In each of the causes given there is some dissembling, a failure to read the semiotics (of identity and of intent); the same point has been made in the analysis of al-Ṭabarī’s account. Ibn Khallikān then ends his description of the causes (the seduction, the freeing of the ʿAlid, and general atmosphere of conspiracy at court) with the following fleeting but celebrated exchange:

Ibn Badrun relates that Olaiya, daughter of al-Mahdi, said to ar-Rashîd, after the fall of the Barmekides: “My lord, I have not seen you enjoy a day of perfect happiness since you put Jaafar to death. Why did you do so?” To this ar-Rashîd replied: “My dear life! If I thought that even my inmost garment knew the reason, I should tear it in pieces.”78

While the foregoing may have been true explanations of the events of history, still it casts ambiguous light upon the whole affair and countenances as much a personal (and unlikely) intrigue as political jealousies and the affairs of state. It is only of life’s poignancy that we are informed with any confidence.

The Popular Cycles: ʿAbd al-Raḥīm al-Hawrānī (Fourteenth Century ce)

The Kashf asrār al-muḥtālīn wa-nawāmis al-khayyālīn is a collection of both pious and picaresque tales about the wiles of women; it is on the whole misogynistic but women are also treated ambivalently, as well as in a positive light. The penultimate tale, which is the version of the Barmakid debacle later appearing in al-Atlīdī’s (seventeenth century ce) Iʿlām, is longer and more elaborate than the surrounding anecdotes and can appear quite distinct. One of the features it has in common with its sibling tales, apart from the obvious fact of containing plots about trickery and deception, is anagnorisis. The following are the most salient tales in synopsis, drawn from René Khawam’s translation, Les Ruses des femmes:

  1. Le Paragon de Vertu.”79 A man of excellent social standing would, whenever he spoke about his wife in public, vaunt her discretion and loyalty; he boasts: “Does she not, after all, cast a veil across her face and avert her gaze when the cock pursues the hen?” One day the man had to quit town on business. His wife took this opportunity to go and visit her lover, who welcomed her, and set off to run an errand before he could lie with her; he left her in his house locking the door behind him. On his way, however, he bumped into his landlord to whom he owed several months rent. A dispute took place and the lover ended up in jail — lover and beloved both now effectively imprisoned. How to release his beloved? The lover managed to persuade his jailer to fetch a discrete friend to go and release her. When the friend opened the door to the house in which she was captive he gazed upon the woman he had come to release and recognized her as his own wife! (The affair is, after some negotiation, hushed up, avoiding the public exposure of shame.)

  2. L’Épouse Récalcitrante.”80 A merchant from Cairo had business to do in Syria; he set off on his journey saying goodbye to his wife. Upon leaving the house, however, he fell upon a boon-companion who insisted on entertaining him before he pursued his journey. He now found himself in the company of carousers, each attended by a beautiful woman. They welcomed him while his host disappeared to fetch a woman as beautifully attired as she was sweetly perfumed. How great then was the guest’s surprise when he recognized this woman, who was being delivered to him for an evening’s dalliance, as his wife! It was she — quick-witted — however, who pounced upon him, enraged, upbraiding his own infidelity in attending this house; her own presence, she explained, was due only to information she had received about her husband’s activities, and she was simply there to test and ensnare him. This story is the variant of the classic bedtrick in which husband and wife, by the deceit of either one or other or by the machinations of an outside party, are unfaithful to each other with each other — only here there is no actual consummation of carnal infidelity before the harsh scolding of the wife.

  3. Un Pieux Déguisement81 — the story of a pious Israelite. A widowed Israelite king decides to retire from the world and join a group of seven hermits who live in the countryside; his daughter decides to follow him but must disguise herself as a man in order to live among the hermits. One day while out selling some wares in the neighboring city the local king’s daughter espies her (assuming her to be a man) and is taken by her beauty; she summons her (him) and commands her (him) to lie with him. She refuses and returns to her fellow hermits, never uttering a word of what has happened. At this point the princess, described as a lascivious woman, experiences a strong sexual desire and asks her maid to find a man whom she might sleep with. A young libertine is procured and the princess conceives a child with him. When the child is eventually discovered the princess accuses the young ascetic of having sired it. All seven hermits and their young companion are summoned by the king, and in an act of clemency, rather than being killed, she is banished to the wilderness. The bastard child born to the fornicating princess is then sent to be looked after by the exiled hermit. Through the agency of Gabriel, she tames gazelles and other fauna to provide for herself and the child. This hallowed life draws the attention of the king’s subjects who prevail upon him to recall her to his kingdom where she lives out the rest of her days. Upon her deathbed she demands to be buried in her clothes, but it is protested that her body must be washed before burial. She thus instructs the oldest among the seven hermits to clean her only from head to the upper chest; her breasts are of course felt and her true gender is recognized (along with her innocence of the crime with which she had been framed).82 And her piety is further emphasized in her attention to the fact that the man who washed her is spared the peccadillo of looking upon the naked body of a woman. Several elements of this story are shared, somewhat blandly, with the Barmakid fall as told in this collection: the siring of an illegitimate child; a sovereign’s rage and retribution (though here less catastrophically); the deceiving actions of an evil woman; the framing of the innocent.

  4. Un Jugement Plein de Sagesse.”83 In one essential detail this story is inversely related to the previous anecdote (though the moral vector is still very much the same: the truth that emerges is essentially edifying): Abū l-Faraj Ibn al-Jawzī was told the following story about the reign of ʿUmar b. al-Khaṭṭāb, on the authority of al-Shaʿbī (d. ca. 103/721) who heard it from ʿĀṣim b. Damra who heard one day a young man crying out in the streets of Medina: “O Commander of the Faithful, give a ruling in my dispute with my mother!” Enquiring about this the son explained that his mother refused to recognize him as her son. The caliph summoned the woman; she arrived in the company of four brothers who all testified to the fact that the woman did not know the young man and that the allegation against her was unfounded. The mother confirmed this and stated, furthermore, that she was a virgin and had never slept with a man. The young man was cast in prison. Meanwhile ʿAlī b. Abī Ṭālib, the Prophet’s cousin, was engaged to judge the affair, and he decided, following his wise instincts, to marry the woman off to the young man (he himself providing the man with the requisite dowry of forty pieces of silver). The young man goes along with the ruse, but at the point when he was to retire with his bride she cried out: “Protection! Protection! O cousin of the Prophet, are you really going to make me marry my own son?” She confessed all: her brothers had made her renounce the child in order then to be entitled to inherit her wealth. Here recognition — which is always a disclosure — is nuanced further as acknowledgment of identity and as a confession.

  5. Une Passion Criminelle84 fashions a similar role for ʿAlī. In this much longer story the pious and chaste Faḍlūn turns down the insistent advances of Nubāta, who has fallen deeply in love with him. But in despair she conceives a child with her black slave Rayḥān (the name of Jaʿfar’s slave in The Three Apples) and during the pilgrimage frames Faḍlūn with the rape and murder of a servant. Four hundred fellow pilgrims, on the basis of the fabricated evidence, are witnesses to the crime. Eventually ʿAlī makes the truth known by performing a miracle; he interrogates Nubāta, asking her: “Will you agree to the embryo inside you giving evidence in your case?” She accepted this condition, and the truth is divulged by the unborn child speaking from the womb. When the child was born it was black, like the real father it had identified, and died soon after birth. Nubāta was put to death by ʿUmar b. al-Khaṭṭāb under whose reign this crime of passion took place. Several elements, again, are structurally related to the tale of Jaʿfar and ʿAbbāsa (Maymūna in this collection, as in al-Atlīdī’s Iʿlām): notably the killing off in the end of children illegitimately conceived.

  6. Un Simulacre85 is a short anecdote, even more typologically formed than most in this collection. The encounter it describes between a pious man and the devil who tempts him is a common motif. Recognition provides the resolving syntax that allows one to understand a diabolical riddling metaphor according to which the whole anecdote is cast. A pious Israelite once — unknowingly — encountered the Devil carrying a bag full of snares for catching game. The devil said he would fashion a snare for the hermit, who otherwise relied solely on people’s alms for his nourishment. One day, wandering through an alley in a neighboring town, the pious Israelite passed by a woman sitting at the threshold of her house. She asked him if he could read, for she had just received a letter from her traveling husband.86 He offered his services and entered; however, once past the threshold she trapped him inside by locking the door and threw herself upon him for carnal intercourse. He resisted her advances steadfastly and feigned a mad seizure at which she took fright and made for the door; he escaped and encountered the trapper. “What snare have you fashioned for me?” asked the Israelite. “I fashioned one exquisitely,” he replied, “but your righteousness prevented you from falling into it!” At which the Israelite understood that he been tempted by the very Devil — God curse him!

So, a good third (6 of 19) of the stories leading up to al-Hawrānī’s recension of the Barmakid downfall feature anagnorisis. On the whole the discovery inhering in this figure resolves an uncomplicated truth. The story of Jaʿfar is more complex because this is a tragedy, and to this end the caliph never acquires an objective understanding of events that have taken place. Al-Hawrānī’s account of the downfall weaves elements together meaningfully, giving the reader an illusion of cause and effect; these narratives are descended from the much earlier, and more composite, historiographical accounts.

The story begins with a synopsis of the sexual intrigue: after the marriage between Jaʿfar and the caliph’s sister (here Maymūna), the latter develops an apparently unreciprocated passion for the young vizier. At a banquet she arranges for al-Rashīd to be provided with a beautiful concubine, and promises that the same is in store for Jaʿfar.87 Maymūna is cast in a negative light and even threatens Jaʿfar should he falter in his visits and affections. Jaʿfar predicts his own and her demise (the latter being an added detail in later popular versions of the story). Time passed and Jaʿfar continued to visit Maymūna fearing lest she should otherwise divulge the affair. Four children are conceived during this time.88 Ismaʿīl b. Yaḥyā al-Hāshimī becomes the interlocutor of the caliph and the foil through which his suspicions of the Barmakids are voiced and developed: al-Rashīd expresses misgivings and resentment at the wealth of the corteges, the extent of their properties and their apparent slighting of the caliph (failing on one occasion to acknowledge his presence as they processed by in numbers). The caliph, who has failed to read the signs of Maymūna’s pregnancies attaches much importance to trivial and imaginary signs of contempt: the horses from the Barmakid stables are lodged with their hind quarters pointing towards the caliph’s palace such that they defecate in the direction of the caliph; Ismāʿīl is sworn to secrecy. At this point the caliph offers a fine servant to Jaʿfar who is in fact a spy instructed to report back to the caliph. Jaʿfar misreads this sign and delights in the gift; the servant witnesses an exchange between Jaʿfar and Ismaʿīl in which Jaʿfar in the heat of the moment rashly rejects Ismaʿīl’s advice that he should placate the caliph by giving up some of his properties. Jaʿfar goes as far as to say that the caliph, who owed his position to the Barmakids, would pay for the consequences if he were coerced in any way. Ismāʿīl senses the unfortunate symmetry of resentment and suppressed feeling obtaining between the caliph and his vizier. When the servant reports back to the caliph he is incensed and Zubayda, who has long resented the Barmakids, stokes his anger suggesting there is something else he should be apprised of — she sends Maymūna’s servant, Urjuwān, to reveal the liaison between Jaʿfar and Maymūna; when al-Rashīd is told of the affair he executes Maymūna by having her buried in a chest in the palace precincts and then silences the affair by having the forty servants who committed this crime drowned in the Tigris — al-Rashīd’s actions will be driven by the intention to eradicate all traces of having been shamed and dishonored. The encounter which follows (Jaʿfar’s interview with al-Rashīd on the eve of his intended departure for Khurasan) adapts, and moulds more meaningfully into the narrative, a scene related in Ibn Khallikān: Jaʿfar’s consultation with an astrolabe: Jaʿfar can see that the signs are inauspicious but cannot interpet them and apply them fittingly to his situation: they have nothing to do with the journey to Khurasan that he will in fact never make: he cannot read the signs properly. Jaʿfar, still unaware of the dark events that have already taken place, is then summoned to the caliph’s palace by Masrūr — he is executed, as in all other earlier versions, without ever confronting the caliph: his innocence is never determined; this execution scene develops the basic sequence in the earliest source (e.g., al-Ṭabarī), though the location and movements leading to this are quite distinct: it does not take place at al-ʿUmr (near al-Anbār) upon the return from pilgrimage to Mecca. Only later does the caliph summon from Medina the young illegitimate princes — Ḥasan and Ḥusayn — whose conspicuous names and the political challenge they would represent to an anti-ʿAlid Abbasid caliph must be obliterated;89 the princes are interred in the same pit as their mother had been earlier; a significant detail in one of several codas to this narrative shows how the events which al-Rashīd tried to suppress, and which he prohibited all talk of, came to haunt him: a piece of paper turned up under his prayer mat denouncing the butchering manner in which he had dispatched his former viziers: a servant had found this in the palace court, of unknown authorship and sought to secrete it under the (pious!) caliph’s prayer mat: still the fact of Jaʿfar’s innocence is unresolved; the narrative ends with details of the other Barmakids, notably depicting Yaḥyā’s pleas to the caliph for clemency: the elements here have a marked affinity with the description of Yaḥyā’s final days in pseudo-Ibn Qutayba. Al-Rashīd, unrepentant of his actions, and unable to see the injustice he is responsible for, quotes the Qurʾān.

Beyond the obvious lessons that caution against overweening pride and rash insouciance, this story could easily be set before a (fictional) sovereign struggling against the dark forces of (his own) injustice, caused by his own myopic misperception of marital infidelity. The story would thus aptly take its place in the Nights. It does not exist in the “authentic” core; however, we will examine traces of it that can be detected in The Three Apples after evaluating its explicit inclusion in a translator’s (Mardrus’s) own selection.

Al-Atlīdī (Seventeenth Century ce)90

Of al-Atlīdī’s “Notification to the Public Concerning that which Occurred to the Barmakids at the Hands of the Abbasids” (Iʿlam al-nās bimā waqaʿa li-l-barāmika maʿa banī l-ʿabbās), Sadan writes,

On the face of it, this work should have dealt exclusively with the history of the Barmakid family . . . In fact however, the compilation deals with more than just this. The treatment accorded to the events relating to the Barmakid family is proportionately not greater than any other of the events of Moslem history. Why then the misleading title?91

Sadan does not answer this question, but there is justification in the plasticity of the title to search for links (thematic and other) holding the materials together, for themes recurring across stories and resonating with the section on the Barmakids.

The story lying next but one before the account of the fall of Jaʿfar is a version of the Mock Caliph, well-known from its inclusion in Zotenberg’s Egyptian Recension of the Arabian Nights.92 The players are: an insomniac Hārūn al-Rashīd distracting himself at night by roaming the outlying parts of his capital in the company of Jaʿfar al-Barmakī (both will be unwittingly implicated, on a variety of levels, in the spectacle they witness); ʿAlī b. Muḥammad, the Mock Caliph.; “the Lady Dunyā,” sister to Jaʿfar al-Barmakī; and Zubayda, wife of al-Rashīd. The story in brief: the disguised caliph, together with his two companions, witness the antics of a man who, ensconced on a luxurious riverboat and surrounded by a retinue worthy of the sovereign, poses as Hārūn al-Rashīd himself. The causes of this masquerade, and the divulging of all veiled identities, are the following: the man had fallen in love with and been seduced into marriage by Lady Dunyā — who in an uncanny coincidence turns out to be the sister of Jaʿfar. In telling his story the false caliph, Muḥammad ʿAlī (a wealthy merchant), prefaces his account by reciting some poetry in which he more than hints at the fact that he is aware of the identities of those seated before him. But this register is oblique and there is a measure of proleptic firāsa in this detail. The continuation: Lady Dunyā, lady-in-waiting to Zubayda, the caliph’s wife, disappeared one morning from her home to run an errand; she made her husband swear, under the threat of severe consequences, to stay put, not to quit their home under any circumstances. Meanwhile Zubayda, having learnt about Dunyā’s newly acquired husband, wishes to interview him and sends for him: he cannot deny the caliph’s spouse’s request. Zubayda is impressed by the man and sanctions the marriage of Dunyā, but when the latter returns home her husband is absent and he must accordingly suffer the pains of corporal punishment and permanent separation from his wife. This, in an enigmatic turn, leads to his masquerading as caliph: he had wished in fact to attract al-Rashīd’s attention in order for him to resolve his marriage to Dunyā.93 The latter is summoned eventually by the sovereign and he brings the couple back together, after some token and petulant resistance from Dunyā.

In the context of our knowledge about the Barmakids, it is possible that this tale offers a mitigated picture of the vizierial family’s status vis-à-vis the caliph. Dunyā, having spurned Zubayda in effect, is suborned by al-Rashīd, and the imperious nature of her actions are countermanded by the more happy ending. The overweening pride of the Barmakids is held in check as part of the chemistry of a felicitous romance. This comic-romantic tendency is common to much material involving the Barmakids, and can be seen to play against the disturbing elements in the perceived historical facts of the family’s demise (whose incorporation as a story in the collection, even in a popular version as related, e.g., by al-Hawrānī, the Nights appears to have resisted).

The first story in the al-Rashīd cycle of al-Atlīdī’s Iʿlām is entitled, “The Story of Hārūn al-Rashīd and the Bedouin.”94 It is a picaresque-cum-hagiographic tale of imposture and recognition, voicing an ecumenical (Shiʿi and Sunni) statement about social, political and religious status. It begins:

When the Caliph Hārūn al-Rashīd made a pilgrimage to the holy city of Mecca . . . and began the Ṭawāf . . . every person, no matter of what social status, was forbidden to enter the area of the Kaʿba so as to allow the Caliph to circumambulate it alone. A Bedouin suddenly appeared and ran ahead of him. Greatly indignant at the Bedouin, Hārūn al-Rashīd turned to his chamberlain (Ḥājib) and rebuked him in the strongest of terms.

The chamberlain then said to the Bedouin “move away from the area (in which the faithful encircle the Kaʿba) and let the Caliph encircle it alone.”

“But,” answered the Bedouin, “this holy place relates to ruler and subjects equally as witness these words of the Lord: [Those who disbelieve, and bar from God’s way and the Holy Mosque that We have appointed equal unto men,] alike him who cleaves to it and the tent-dweller, and whosoever purposes to violate it wrongfully, We shall let him taste a painful chastisement (Q 22:25).”

Upon hearing these words, Hārūn al-Rashīd became very disconcerted and asked the chamberlain to release the Bedouin. Hārūn then approached the sacred Black Stone in order to touch and kiss it. Here also, the Bedouin hastened to reach the Holy Stone and touch it before the caliph did so. And when Hārūn arrived at the Holy Place for prayer, the Bedouin preceded him and offered his prayer before him. Having completed his own prayer, Hārūn turned to his chamberlain and said: “Bring that Bedouin to me”. The chamberlain approached the Bedouin and said: “I have no need of him. If, on the other hand, he has need of me, it would be better if he made an effort and came to me.” Hārūn then walked up, stood before the Bedouin and greeted him with the greeting of peace which was reciprocated by the Bedouin.

Hārūn then said: “O Bedouin, if you will allow me, I should like to sit here.”

After a protracted discussion — a series of semi-specious theological questions and answers during which the mysterious man delivers unexpected, albeit comprehensible, answers — it ends:

Hārūn al-Rashīd was heard sighing. He then asked him about his family and his place of origin. The Bedouin told him that he was Mūsā al-Riḍā ibn Jaʿfar al-Ṣādiq ibn Muḥammad al-Bāqir ibn al-Ḥusayn ibn ʿAlī ibn Abī Ṭālib. Mūsā used to wear Bedouin attire for ascetic reasons and to get away from this world. Al-Rashīd arose and kissed him on the forehead and, in a loud voice, he said: “God knows whom to entrust with His mission.” (Q 6:124)95

Sadan’s detailed analysis of this anecdote, of which this seventeenth century version is the most elaborate form, explores a variety of conflicts: Arabism versus Persianism (the role of the chamberlain was a Persian importation to Abbasid protocol); authentic versus non-authentic religious tradition; nomadism versus sedentarism; the religiosity of a mundane man versus that of an ascetic; Shiʿa Islam versus Orthodox Sunnism. The hero of this story sheds his masks in stages: his Bedouin mask is shed to reveal an ascetic (Sufi) and then finally an ʿAlid imam. In many respects this is every bit an Arabian Nights tale (of the kind we would expect to find in the later, Egyptian, accretions); it draws on hagiographical materials and exhibits a structure common to many tales: suspending the revelation of true identity and a concomitant truth until some moment of anagnorisis. In such stories the reader may be omniscient; in this case the reader, while anticipating the moment of disclosure, is held in the dark and allowed to experience some of the transforming effects of enlightenment. Hence the pleasure of the story. It is the abuses and possible misapprehensions of power which the anecdote shares with the “False Caliph” and, though less sinisterly, with the account of the downfall of Jaʿfar. Sadan’s conjecture as to why it is not, however, contained in any edition of the Arabian Nights, is, to put it blandly, sensible:

Our collection of tales contains generally pro-Abbasid elements from the famous Arabian Nights and other sources, glorifying the Abbasid dynasty; however, the story of Hārūn al-Rashīd and the Bedouin has a genuine anti-Arabian Nights character, that is to say opposed to the pro-Abbasid trend, most common in Arabic literature.96

Sadan could have made the same case to explain the exclusion of the Jaʿfar-ʿAbbāsa affair from the authentic core of the Nights. Mardrus’s translated and self-fashioned collection of the Nights goes against this grain.

Mardrus: “les Milles et une nuits fantasmées”97

The version of the Barmakid downfall in Mardrus’s French translation is well crafted, and does not appear to be entirely his own invention.98 The ʿAbbāsa-Jaʿfar intrigue in this rendering has a claim to being the most deftly structured version of the fall of Jaʿfar: disclosure here is positioned in the ideal place within the short compass of the narrative to constitute a climactic structural turning point, and as a theme it is not one that is simply residually lingering (and as such notionally resonating) as it has been in our reading of earlier (Arabic) sources. Two recognition stories provide epilogues for Mardrus’s version (the first is akin to, and probably derivative of, the epilogue in Ibn Khallikān in which the recognition of a destitute but dignified Umm Jaʿfar epitomizes the whole cycle in reflective and brooding sentiment).

I begin my discussion of this text with a look at the way in which it ends, thus the “First Epilogue”:99

The celebrated poet, Muḥammad of Damascus, gives this final word concerning the Barmakids: “One day I entered a hammām to take a bath, and the master delegated a handsome boy to serve me. As the cleansing proceeded, I began to chant to myself, led on by I know not what whim of the mind, certain verses which I had composed to celebrate the birth of a son to my benefactor, al-Faḍl ibn Yaḥyā al-Barmaki. Suddenly the boy who was washing me fell to the floor in a swoon. When he came to himself a few moments later, his face was wet with tears, and he fled, leaving me alone in the water.”

Nights Break (998th Night to follow)

. . . “In some astonishment I left the water and sharply reproached the master of the hammām for allowing me to be attended by an epileptic. But the man swore that he had never noticed a sign of that malady in the youth and, to prove his words, recalled the fugitive to my presence. ‘What has happened to make this lord so discontented with you?’ he asked. The boy hung his head and then turned to me, saying: ‘O my master, do you know the author of those verses which you were chanting while I bathed you?’ ‘I am the author,’ I replied, and he continued: ‘Then you are the poet Muḥammad of Damascus. You made those verses to celebrate the birth of a son to al-Faḍl the Barmakid. I beg you to excuse me if the sudden hearing of those lines gripped me about the heart and caused me to fall. I am that son, of whose coming you sang so excellently.’ Then he fell into a second swoon.

Moved to the soul to see the lad so reduced, and mindful that I owed to his father all my riches and the greater part of my fame, I lifted him and clasped him to my breast, saying: ‘O son of that great generosity, I am old and have no heir. Come with me to the kādī, and I will adopt you as my son. You shall inherit all my goods when I am dead.’

But the young Barmakid answered with further tears: ‘May Allāh pour his blessings upon you, O son of virtue! It would not sort with my dignity in His eyes to take back a single dirham which my father gave.’

In spite of all my prayers, the child would accept nothing. They were of true blood, those Barmakids! Allāh reward them according to their great desserts! . . .”

In recognition nobility is acknowledged and restored to the Barmakids. If they did anything to merit the caliph’s wrath only he knows what it was; which is to say: if he killed them on account of the romantic intrigue he committed a grotesque misjudgment. Jaʿfar should never have been blamed. That al-Rashīd actually realized this emerges uniquely from the second epilogue.

“The Second Epilogue”100 relates the death of Hārūn al-Rashīd foretold in a dream. The mythology of this episode is well-known; it survives in a variety of sources adduced by Tayeb El-Hibri.101 It is the affinity of this particular element of Abbasid mythology with elements of Barmakid myth which is striking. Mardrus’s version (which we trust is based essentially on an Arabic copy)102 provides poetic justice in this envoi and signals to us the importance of the issue of textual and narrative affinities in the exploration of a given theme in a complex cycle. Foretelling dreams that are recognized at the moment of their resolution (here: in death) is a topos — and genre even — of writing; that in his final moments Hārūn al-Rashīd may have come to realize much more than his own demise surfaces from this version of the tale.103 In this coda, in which al-Rashīd recognizes the declarative signs of his own death, the caliph is utterly repentant, tempering the impenitent harshness of his character in earlier and other sources. Here is the full episode:

As for the Khalīfah Hārūn al-Rashīd: after his cruel vengeance for some wrong known only to himself and Allāh, he returned to Baghdād, but passed it by . . . He established himself at Rāka [sic] and never returned to the Place of Peace. . . . Since the disappearance of his friends, al-Rashīd got no good of his sleep; his regrets burned him day and night, and he would have given his kingdom to bring back Jaʿfar. If any courtiers had the misfortune to speak even a little slightingly of the Barmakids, the Khalīfah would angrily cry out to them: “Allāh damn your father! Either cease from blaming them, or try to fill the place they left empty.”

Though he remained all-powerful until his death, al-Rashīd imagined that he was surrounded by traitors. He feared to be poisoned by his sons, who were indeed no cause for pride. At the beginning of a punitive expedition into Khurāsān, from which he was not destined to return alive, he sadly admitted his doubts to al-Ṭabarī, the annalist, who was one of the courtiers most in his confidence. When al-Ṭabarī tried to reassure him as to certain presages of death which he had received, he drew the chronicler into the shadow of a great tree, where they might be rid of prying glances, and opened his robe to show him a silk bandage wrapped about his belly. “I have a deep and incurable disease,” he said. “No one knows of it save you. And I have spies round me, sent by al-Amīn and al-Maʾmūn to filch away the little remainder of my life. They feel that I have lived too long. They have corrupted my most faithful servants. Masrūr is the spy of my favourite son al-Maʾmūn, my doctor Jibrīl Bakhtiyāshū is al-Amīn’s spy. And there are many more. Would you have proof of their plots? I have ordered a riding horse to be sent to me, and instead of choosing one with a strong and easy action, you will see them bring to me a worn beast, having a broken pace to aggravate my suffering.”

This prophecy was fulfilled; al-Rashīd was given such a horse as he described, and he accepted it with a look of sad understanding to al-Ṭabarī.

A few weeks after this incident, Hārūn saw in his dream a hand stretched out above his head, holding a little red earth. A voice cried: “This shall be his sepulcher.” “Where?” asked another voice, and the first replied: “In Ṭūs?”

Some days later the course of his malady obliged al-Rashīd to halt at Ṭūs. At once he showed signs of grave disquiet, and sent Masrūr to bring him a little earth from the outskirts of the city. The eunuch returned in an hour, bearing a handful of red soil, and al-Rashīd cried: “There is no God but Allāh, and Muḥammad is the Prophet of Allāh! My vision is accomplished, my death is very near!” . . .

The epilogue about Umm Jaʿfar in Ibn Khallikān, a reflective and poignant scene, dissipates the tension which is still residual after the main cycle of the Barmakid narrative.104 Mardrus’s epilogues perform the same function, only much more effectively, since the main narrative cycle about the Barmakid fall is structured pointedly towards the tragic anagnorisis. Mardrus’s account is thus finely assembled for maximum rhetorical effect. It begins with a brief history of who they were (quoted above), evoking the final tragedy. A description of the execution follows, conforming largely with the earliest account in al-Ṭabarī.105 Only afterwards are the causes of the downfall described in four unequal parts and according to an optimal structure — pushing anagnorisis as far back as possible, deferring it to the very end in a series of modulating episodes. Here, first of all, is the brief prelude, which we will recognize, to the description of the causes:106

One day, some years after the end of the Barmakids, Alīya, al-Rashīd’s sister, plucked up the heart to say to him: ‘My lord, I have not known you pass one tranquil day since the death of Jafar and disappearance of his family. How did he come to merit such disgrace?’ Al-Rashīd’s face grew dark, and he pushed her away, saying: ‘My child, my life, my sole remaining happiness, how would it advantage you to know the reason? If I thought my shirt knew, I would tear my shirt in pieces.’

The effect of positioning this brief incident as a sort of preface to the detailed description of the causes of the debacle is to generate ambiguity from the outset and to cast doubt upon all the explanations that are then offered. Paradoxically, it credits them all, including the most fictional element.

The first cause relates the caliph’s increasing envy at the wealth and power that the Barmakids wielded: his increasing sense of exclusion. Among other details we find the famous account told by Jibrīl b. Bukhtīshūʿ:

The Khalīfah, after remarking the number of horses which were being held near the steps of his favourites and the crowd pressing about their door, said in my hearing, but as if to himself: “May Allāh reward Yaḥyā and his two sons! They bear all the burden of my reign, leaving me free to look about me and live at ease.” But, on another occasion, I saw that he was beginning to regard the Barmakids in a different manner. As he looked out of the window upon the same affluence of men and horses, he said: “Yaḥyā and his sons have taken the management of my reign away from me. They are the true power and I am only a figure.” This I heard, and from that time made sure of the disgrace of the Barmakids.

The second cause treats the release of the ʿAlid Yaḥyā b. ʿAbdallāh (following the details surviving in al-Ṭabarī and Ibn Khallikān). The third cause is their suspect orthodoxy, which is completely unfounded. The fourth cause describes the Jaʿfar-ʿAbbāsa intrigue, which is laid out in all its details, including the uncovering of the affair by Zubayda and al-Rashīd’s subsequent pilgrimage to Mecca in order to find the alleged sons of ʿAbbāsa. The element here takes us back to the earlier account of the execution: “It was on his return from that pilgrimage, when lying at the monastery of al-ʿUmr near Anbār on the Euphrates, that al-Rashīd gave his fateful command to Masrūr.”107 The appended detail that “ʿAbbāsa was buried alive with her sons in a ditch dug in the floor of her own apartment” displays the kinship of Mardrus’s version with all later, popular, accounts of the cycle which tend to contain this element.108 Yet in Mardrus ʿAbbāsa is given her real, historical, name which is either a simple correction on the part of Mardrus or a sign that this version contains an admixture of early/historiographical and late/popular narrative elements. It may well be the latter (a composite arrangement), an argument supported by its optimal structure.109

The account ends with Scheherazade interpreting the story as a tale of destiny, placing it squarely within a schema of reading attuned to the frame story:

It remains for me to say, O auspicious King, that other and quite worthy historians contend that Jafar and the Barmakids had done nothing to deserve their fate, and that it would not have come upon them if it had not been written in their destiny.110

Tales of recognition are frequently tales about destiny; in this context, and with the Barmakids in mind, we can now turn to The Three Apples cycle.

Tragi-Comic Disclosure

In the “Tale of the Mock Caliph” we noted the presence of those players who have principal roles in the Barmakid tragedy: Jaʿfar, Hārūn al-Rashīd, his wife Zubayda, and more abstractly, but significantly, the sister of one of the two historical men who provide the central axis of the events, imaginary or true. In the “Mock Caliph” it is Ja’far whose sister, in a moment of some surprise and ahistorically, provides the central disclosure of identity within the scrutinizing and desired presence of the caliph111 — who is both listener and sovereign. In the emanation of sororal identity we are reminded with transparent irony of the role of al-Rashīd’s sister, ʿAbbāsa. The “False Caliph” is a love story that is not stymied, but it almost is — and here may lie the point: the story reconstructs the earlier narrative and transfigures the characters, not in their identities but in their moods, motives and their more tolerantly human affections. Zubayda is the cause of the relationship’s disruption, but unusually her motives are not malicious; quite the opposite: she can see, and approves of, the young lover’s qualities, and endorses the fact that he merits one of her most prized ladies-in-waiting.

The tale of “ʿAlī b. Bakkār and Shams al-Nahār,” which as a romance is unique112 in its fatal ending for the lovers, also bears traces of the Barmakid episode.113 The historical Barmakid events, in their aggregated narrative form, are part of the scarred psychology of this text, which in the prevalent atmosphere of fear of the caliph’s discovery of betrayal, is a sister text (or one of a number of sister texts) of “Ghānim b. Ayyūb.” Similarly, it has affinity with “The Tale of ʿAlāʾ al-Dīn Abū Shāmāt,” the latter text being curious for its admixture of picaresque and romance elements. (This generic register is rendered quasi — if not fully — parodic by the contrastive presence of the earlier mode: two stories appear to have been sown together, and disclosures and recognitions depart throughout on differing tangents of tension and resolution — in the end, romance recognition arrives at an amusing and absurd register; see below.)114 Bencheikh115 has discussed the social background of ʿAlī b. Bakkār, hinting at the mythic narrative (conveying a sense of a historico-cultural milieu, and, more pointedly, of a specific putative text) by which it may be marked and of which it would then be a sort of impressionistic imaging. That the hero, ʿAlī b. Bakkār, is said to be of Persian origin — and of princely demeanor — chimes with the ethnicity of Jaʿfar al-Barmakī.

Bencheikh posits no unequivocal links between “ʿAlī b. Bakkār” and the Barmakid episode, but he evokes the connection in the juxtaposition of subjects: first, he treats the social backdrop of the culture of the qayna (singing girl) which is so accurately reflected in the story, highlighting descriptions of the heroine, Shams al-Nahār, which correspond with elements in al-Jāḥiẓ and al-Washshāʾ’s analysis of the qiyān (singing girls); the author shows the importance of courtly poetry in their professional activities, and comments: “Princesses and Caliphs’ daughters like ʿAbbāsa, ʿUlayya, and others, are sources of inspiration who gather around the poets . . .” Then, in a subsequent part of his essay, he treats the elements of historical veracity lying behind the story:116

One could have expected a logical reaction, which would lead to the execution of Shams, of her servants and slave girls, of her palace guards, of her police, in short any person who had the slightest knowledge of the story.117 The necessary punishment should have been intended as much for the culprits as for those who might remember what had happened. Nobody was to be allowed to remember what had happened. However, this is not what happens at all. Hārūn al-Rashīd, in a surprising twist, has discovered everything, but still has trust in and sympathy for the star-crossed Shams. This tale could have been the recollection of a sort of drama in the caliph’s palace, first murmured among the initiated and then spread to gossipmongers far from where the action took place, finally turning into a real tale.

The changes, according to which the tale eventually took shape, may well have been due to inexorable fading memory, effacing details of the truth, but also to the desire for a “romanesque” accentuation and the more general, perhaps, subconscious popular quest for an alchemy toward narrative bliss (which in this case missed the mark in an unusual creative turn, influenced probably by ʿUdhrī romance). These romances are all stories existing in an extended tapestry, woven from similar elemental threads, creating narrative patterns that speak of, and resonate with, each other, while in each case individually qualifying tone and mood. Some are romantic (Ghānim), some are — one at least is — tragic (ʿAlī b. Bakkār): the comic-romantic tends to evoke (at least the threat of) tragedy, but strives to diminish its influence, and in general succeeds in doing so.

Bencheikh adopts the view of Horovitz on the literary genesis of the ʿAbbāsa-Jaʿfar story: “What strikes us as specially important is that some historical characters attract ancient stories. Horovitz remarks on the transfer of the story of Jadhīma to Jaʿfar, the Vizier.”118 Bencheikh adds further:

When the hacks lie in order to unite ʿAbbāsa and Jaʿfar, they discover a possibility for the imaginary to actualize a deep-rooted scheme, namely that of two beings violating a major interdict in order to give an irrefutable example of passion. Irremediable love, doomed to failure, has selected its characters.119

This is well-spoken: a felicitous literary evaluation of the material (though it ignores our own sense of the archetypal importance of the bedtrick); but the postulation should also be inflected with a sense of varying and contrary impulses in certain Nights versions: the enchantment that transports the characters into happier situations and romantic-comic plots. Such is the case, incipiently, in The Three Apples which in turn nests the final utter enchantment of The Two Viziers.

On its own, it would be hard to argue that The Two Viziers sublimates the Barmakid tragedy; but, as it is, nested in The Three Apples, its very tangible and self-conscious exploration of generic themes, emplotment, structure and tone (from saccharine romance to hysterical elements of farce), prompts reflection on generic context more generally, reflections that are filtered and refracted through The Three Apples which would itself, we might suspect, turn tragedy into romance in a final twist of the plot — if only the redactor could revive the dead. Resuscitation and awakening — revival from metonymic death120 — is a key theme, figurative and real, in the culminating moment of The Two Viziers.

The Three Apples (or “Murdered Lady”)121

Synopsis. Hārūn al-Rashīd is restless of a night; he descends into his capital, Baghdad, in the company of Jaʿfar al-Barmakī. This is a standard opening topos. They come upon an old forlorn fisherman who has lost hope of catching any fish; the caliph feels sorry for him and instructs him to cast his nest into the Tigris just one more time, pledging to buy anything that he catches at a 100 dinars. A trunk (or chest) is fished out of the water, and al-Rashīd takes it up to the palace, having paid off the happy fisherman (who now disappears from the scene) — this movement, or vector, from misery to felicity, is not to be a constant one. The opening of the chest is described in much, suspenseful, detail: the corpse of a murdered woman is unveiled from within folded wraps: she had been cut into pieces (to amplify how unfortunate a misunderstanding has taken place; and that she is well and truly dead: other women come back to life in the Nights;122 the murder will seem all the more unfortunate the more ghastly the details of its occurrence; paradoxically, and in a misogynist strain, it augments the misfortune of the husband who innocently[!] kills his wife). Enraged at this macabre find, and blaming his vizier, the caliph orders Jaʿfar to find the murderer, giving him a stay of three days to do so, or face his own execution. After the three days, Jaʿfar’s time is up; he is about to be publicly hanged (to the puzzlement of the crowd, unaware of the cause of his punishment) when a young man pushes to the fore of the assembled masses, confessing the crime. An old man (the young man’s father-in-law) also confesses the murder, though falsely. It was the young man’s deed, and he explains his actions: “I am the one who four days ago killed the girl, placed her in a basket of palm leaves, covered her with a woman’s cloak, placed a piece of carpet over it, sewed the basket with a red woolen thread, and then threw her into the river.” His knowledge of the details of the woman’s demise and the manner in which she was found are the deliberately inscribed tokens of his guilt. The explanation: she had been his wife, and having fallen ill one day, after some years of marriage, she felt a sudden craving for an apple: “If I could smell it and take a bite, I wouldn’t care if I die afterwards.” The irony here being, in an oblique and tragic causality, that she dies in the end precisely because she neglects to consume the apples that are eventually procured. Apples, a seasonal delicacy, are hard to come by, but the young husband travels to Basra and there acquires three of the fruit from the caliph’s garden; they are stamped with the sovereign’s insignia and will be all too easy to recognize. “But when I handed them to her, she showed no pleasure in them but laid them aside.” One day the young man saw a black slave holding one of the three apples in his hand, boasting insolently that he had been given it by his mistress whose husband had traveled to Basra to purchase three apples at a premium price. Convinced now that he has been cuckolded — and suffering from an unbearable misapprehension — he flies into a rage and dispatches his wife in the gruesome manner described. But her innocence soon emerges: his eldest son had snaffled this apple (of discord) from his mother’s bedside, and it was subsequently snatched from him by the black slave, who learnt simultaneously of how his father had come to buy it after the time-consuming toils of a trip to distant Basra. “This is the story of the murdered girl.” Jaʿfar is now charged by the newly angered caliph with identifying the slave, the true cause of the tragic incident. Another stay of three days is granted the vizier. When his time is again up, bidding a mournful farewell to his family before execution, Jaʿfar embraces his daughter and feels a round spherical shape in her pocket — the apple, which, it transpires, Rayḥān, his very own slave, had in fact sold to her for two dinars (augmenting, in an act of greed, the original price for which it was bought). Recognizing it ( fa-ʿarafahā), Jaʿfar cries out: “O Speedy Deliverer!” Rayḥān now confesses to having stolen the apple from some children at play a few days before. The truth is out. The caliph is struck by the whole chain of coincidences (ittifāqāt), which, together with wonder (ʿajab), will become the distilled theme-cum-effect of this and other stories. Though Rayḥān’s life is now forfeit to his crime, his life is ransomed by the story which Jaʿfar offers to tell the caliph: a story of even greater coincidence (ittifāqāt) and wonder (ʿajab). The felicity of the second story will act as a balm to the tragic residue of the first.

The figure of disclosure (anagnorisis) is never consciously mentioned, not even in the final evaluation of the caliph, as part of an explicit mechanism of these two stories; yet it is essential to their effect and begs discussion as part of a tacit narrative poetics that is, for whatever reason (perhaps because the sense of its purely structural inherence holds sway over its phenomenological aspect), taken for granted. The tale of The Two Viziers is a comic-romance in which disclosure, as in The Three Apples, is contrived by means of a fruit. This is a miniscule and quite possibly coincidental detail, but already apparent on a micro-level is that commentary on The Three Apples can be skewed by a perception of its relationship with The Two Viziers.

The Two Viziers

The Inaugural Quarrel. The Two Viziers of Egypt, the brothers Shams al-Dīn and Nūr al-Dīn, imagine in a moment of familial reverie that they will one day marry two sisters on the same day.123 A symmetry sets in, establishing the importance of structured patterning in the story. The sisters, so they dream, will give birth to a son and a daughter also on the very same day — cousins who will be betrothed and married off to each other with time. The syntax of this unlikely reverie is at this point marked by a conditional register (hypothetical imaginings are as yet intangible and unreal); but pique sets in between the brothers and they begin to quarrel acrimoniously over the price of the dowry which Shams al-Dīn (will) demand uncompromisingly from his sibling: 3,000 dinars and much real estate. The brothers call off the engagement and Nūr al-Dīn decides to leave Egypt for Basra, never to return (for as long as there remains a corner of the globe which he hasn’t visited: he condemns himself in these words to a death in exile).

We should emphasize the syntax that has underpinned their bitter altercation: the conditional “if” of their reverie about their children’s putative and imaginary marriage turns furtively into a more realized “when” — a more concrete ontology — and in their parting words they speak of their as yet unborn heirs as if they actually existed:124 “Damn you for comparing your son to my daughter and thinking that he is worthier than she . . . By God, I will never marry my daughter to your son, not even for her weight in gold. I will never marry her to your son . . .” There has been an almost imperceptible progression from inchoate reverie to the concrete and the real — and this happens at the very point when they decide to abandon the reality they have conjured in their minds. This will be one — if not the — principal irony of the story (linking the beginning with the end): that destiny will render true (in a sort of spiting of the foibles of their squabble, and of the material greed which lay behind it) the situation they have arrogated to themselves the right to relinquish. Destiny will fulfill the initial dream, following almost to the letter its perfect generational symmetry (notwithstanding the minor fact that the brothers do not in fact marry two sisters; everything will in due course fall into place while they are in various degrees unwitting of the impending events).

Symmetries and patterns surrender meaning readily; Shams al-Dīn will recognize that destiny has realized in two stages the dream which the brothers surrendered to their petulance. It will seem in the end that destiny had eavesdropped on their fraternal altercation, deciding to take up matters in the interest of a happy ending at the very point of their angry separation. Shams al-Dīn will come to see this in two stages; and in his dying bequest (or testament) to his son in distant Basra, it may even seem that Nūr al-Dīn has come to sense the way the future would unfold. The identity given to Badr al-Dīn in Basra in a written paternal testament describes his father’s, Nūr al-Dīn’s, past; in establishing this identity for Badr al-Dīn the document will be essential in the future coalescence of family and marriage. On this level recognition, as we shall see, is written, both authorially and fictionally, very mechanically and transparently into the text. But while a happy ending is, even at this stage, predictable, neither reader nor player can foretell the turn of events that will lead finally to the (re-)union of Badr al-Dīn and his foreordained wife, Sitt al-Ḥusn.

Nūr al-Dīn in Basra. Having fled Cairo, Nūr al-Dīn settles in Basra, where his exquisite demeanour and beauty attract attention.125 Physical beauty is part of the gravity exerted by the drive towards recognition. He is married there to the local vizier’s daughter, and with time succeeds his father in law in his ministerial function. A son, Badr al-Dīn is born to him; he is of a similar exquisite beauty.126 When Nūr al-Dīn dies he writes out (taktub mā umlīhi ʿalayka)127 for his son an account of his past in Egypt, detailing his quarrel with his brother. Badr al-Dīn is to carry this document as his paternal inheritance; the audience can see, in the stress placed upon the detail, the emergence of his identity, cast in the mould of the brothers’ initial wish. The writing out of this document will allow — we already suspect — others to read it, while the son himself — insouciant of destiny’s machinations — runs the risk of being physically, if only temporarily, despoiled of his inscribed identity. Indeed, when he loses it subsequently he will come to doubt who he is, and others will suspect him of madness in a turn of events typical of romance emplotment in which madness is a conventional and formulaic token of a temporary loss of identity, and always as precursor to reunion.

Badr al-Dīn is devastated by his father’s death, and stays so long away from the local sultan’s court that the latter turns against him in vainglorious anger. The young man takes refuge at his father’s grave (which Hamori has described as a metonymy for death), and there — in a curious conjunction of events — he meets a Jewish merchant.128 The Jew purchases from Badr al-Dīn a cargo of goods soon to arrive in Basra, and here again the material mechanism of the recognition plot comes to the fore: the Jew insists on a written bill of purchase, a copy of which Badr al-Dīn is to keep in his pouch.129 It contains his name, and will provide further proof, along with his father’s testament, of who he is.

Deus ex machina. Exhausted, Badr al-Dīn falls asleep at his father’s tomb, and is espied by a passing female genie who is enchanted by his beauty. Another genie insists on the equal beauty of a young Egyptian bride who is about to be married to a hideously ugly hunchbacked stablekeeper; the two demons decide to bring the two beauties together, while Badr al-Dīn still sleeps. Transported to Cairo the young man finds himself in the preparatory wedding festivites of Sitt al-Ḥusn130 (daughter of Shams al-Dīn), who is about to be forced into a marriage with the hunchback; this is punishment directed by the Sultan of Egypt against Shams al-Dīn, his vizier, for having refused the ruler his daughter’s hand in marriage (for Shams al-Dīn, we learn, had become apprized of his brother’s, Nūr al-Dīn’s, survival in Basra and of the birth of the latter’s son simultaneously with that of his own daughter; he had decided, reviving the plans of the initial reverie, to reserve his daughter for his nephew as a bride — to the malevolent chagrin of the imperious sultan). Shams al-Dīn is already, we learn, cognizant of the symmetry of events according to which the lives of his family are beginning to adhere.

The Marriage. The marriage is a dramatic and at times farcical mise-en-scène, part of the parody of emplotment: Sitt al-Ḥusn, in a detailed descriptive tableau, performs a wedding dance in seven different robes, each change perhaps a symbol of precarious, superficial identity — an emblem of the ephemerality of appearance. Badr al-Dīn, in the middle of the festivities is told by the genies that the marriage is in fact his own: the “pretended” marriage to the hunchback was simply a humorous “masquerade” (— all is indeed the redactor’s own masquerading administration of events). At the same time the hunchback is threatened with death by the male genie (who in a series of metamorphoses has taken the form of a buffalo) should he dare to consummate his marriage with the young girl, and he spends the night grotesquely sullying himself upended in the latrine — he has been told that Sitt al-Ḥusn is the genie’s paramour. Meanwhile, Sitt al-Ḥusn, veiled by curtains within her marital bed, awaits her ugly groom (the hunchback), unaware of the switch orchestrated by the genies, only to be delivered to the handsome Badr al-Dīn. They make love repeatedly, Badr al-Dīn having carefully and conspicuously placed his turban (containing his father’s testament) and his purse (containing the Jew’s receipt of purchase and the thousand dinars) upon a shelf and under the mattress, respectively. Bemused by a marriage to a woman he doesn’t even know, he is now also materially denuded of the tokens of his identity. (Re-)union will be short-lived. This marriage is a comedy of errors, and the misapprehensions of roles that have been played out will continue into the following morning.

Before waking Badr al-Dīn is transported by the genies to Damascus — the genies are killed off, having served destiny’s purpose, and remain unwitting to the end of the fact that the two lovers they had brought together were cousins destined for each other. In the morning Shams al-Dīn approaches his daughter’s wedding chamber, incensed that his progeny could have accepted to consummate the desires of a foul and hunchbacked stable-keeper. But he learns of the hunchback’s plight in the latrine, accepts the story about the genie’s threat, and then marvels upon discovering the tokens of Badr al-Dīn’s identity and upon realizing the miraculous nature of the cousins’ union. But, of course, Badr al-Dīn has already enigmatically disappeared. By this point a whole series of misidentifications, but principally the identity of Badr al-Dīn, comes to light and the inaugural symmetry of the brothers’ reverie emerges more clearly into view, understood uniquely by Shams al-Dīn (who finding the 1,000 dinars in Badr al-Dīn’s wallet, understands this to be his daughters diminished [but more reasonable?]131 dowry). Marvelling at what he has discovered, Shams al-Dīn takes the (at this stage) enigmatic step of recording every detail of the room in which his daughter had spent the night with her lost husband132 — he will thus be able to recreate the scene years later, allowing Badr al-Dīn to recognize the reality of what he will by then consider to have been nothing but a dream (adghāth aḥlām).133 The subsequent re-staging of the wedding at the very end, as dense and contrived as the plot is in staging the romance, will wrest Badr al-Dīn from the disorientation of self-identity and the sense of irreality into which he slips during his ensuing adventures in Damascus.

So far, things have taken place according to fantastic manipulation (the interference of the genies); in subsequent events human deeds, Shams al-Dīn’s quest (and the responsibility of actions he assumes in transparent penance for his earlier material avidity) will bring the lovers back together. The marvellous chemistry of events will come thus increasingly to defer to human action in the form of a quest coordinated in space and time, with periodic episodes and repetitions (of places visited and peoples encountered). Indeed, much time will need to pass, for it will be the son of Badr al-Dīn — ʿAjīb — who, due to a desire to know his father incites the concluding search and reunion.134 ʿAjīb is already an adolescent before, teased by his fellow schoolmates, he finds out that his father is not Shams al-Dīn. Hence the otherwise inexplicable, at best curious, delay in the quest for Badr al-Dīn.135 (Twelve years pass before the latter is sought.) Here we fall back on a functionalist explanation: the story desires (or contrives in this way) a final reunion of three generations, while the principal celebration of the ending — the concluding recognition, as in The Winter’s Tale — will be between bride and groom, the objects of the Two Viziers’ initial reverie. ʿAjīb will have a role in the travels and events that lead to the finding of his lost father, complicating the plot in a series of poignant near/mis-recognitions that play successfully upon the irony of human circumstantial ignorance.

Badr al-Dīn in Damascus. On the night of his orchestrated wedding to Sitt al-Ḥusn, Badr al-Dīn was taken by the genies (denuded of the written tokens of his identity) back to Basra; but on the way the genies were pelted from the heavens and thus forced to depose him, still asleep, by the gates of Damascus. Found semi-naked, he is jeered at by the crowd, who disbelieve the story he tells them of having slept in Cairo the night before: he is deemed mad (one of Frye’s themes of displaced identity in romance), and is taken in by a sympathetic cook/ex-convict, who adopts him as a son (evoking in word and attitude the role of Potiphar with Joseph in the Qurʾān: the archetypal romance is arguably part of the backdrop to this tale). From this point until the end Badr al-Dīn is disoriented in his self-awareness;136 and to preserve this point he has been told by his adoptive father to keep his story to himself, a fact that will retard the ending/final familial recognition scene. (To tell those who come in search of him who he is would accelerate the ending, and spoil the poignancy of the twin and discrete scenes between Badr al-Dīn and his son, ʿAjīb.)

The Quest for Badr al-Dīn. When Shams al-Dīn, his grandson ʿAjīb and daughter Sitt al-Ḥusn, arrive in Damascus years later on route to Basra, the cook has already died, and Badr al-Dīn has taken charge of his adoptive father’s eatery. He is visited there by his son, ʿAjīb in the company of his tutor, and in the ensuing encounter much irony in the ignorance of the players delights the audience. “When ʿAjīb and the servant stood before Badr al-Dīn’s shop, and he gazed on his son’s extraordinary beauty and grace, his heart began to throb, his stomach began to flutter, and he felt happy, as the blood hearkened to blood, driven by instinctive sympathy and divine mystery . . .”;137 the instinct is reciprocal: ʿAjīb says to his man-servant: “Tutor, I feel sympathy and pity for this cook, who seems to have lost a son or a brother . . .” Knowledge and ignorance have reached a fraught breaking point of tension. We must remember: Badr al-Dīn had been instructed by his adoptive father not to speak of his story; were he to tell his tale now some of the ensuing pain might be avoided. And the pain is real and physical: upon leaving the restaurant, Badr al-Dīn follows his son and tutor, who mistake his desire for lurid design. ʿAjīb throws a rock at this father, drawing blood — the Call of Blood is physically now reified as a token of identity that will play its own minor part in the final awakening of Badr al-Dīn to his true self. ʿAjīb, for his part, will feel some remorse for his harsh act.

Basra Again. Shams al-Dīn, ʿAjīb and Sitt al-Ḥusn proceed to Basra to be united with Badr al-Dīn’s mother. The reunion is prefunctory; the matriarch’s role in the story will be purely functional:138 to identify her son in Damascus in a scene that is intensely burlesque and betrays the intentional humor of the story (of which we may have lost sight in synopsis).

Return to Damascus. On route back to Cairo, the search party sojourn again in Damascus, where ʿAjīb, feeling remorse at the asperity with which he treated his unknown father, returns to the restaurant, resisting the objections of his tutor. “ ‘Tutor, let us go into the city to enjoy the sights and see what has become of the cook whose food we ate and whose head I cut, for he was kind to us, but we treated him badly.’ Then they left their tents, as the blood tie drew ʿAjīb to his father.”139 The Call of Blood motif, we must stress, is a prominent convention of romance. However, the denouement of this comic-romance, while enacting a recognition scene, will be far from conventional: in its unique and transparent staging of events it farcically mocks romance convention.

Under the soulful gaze of Badr al-Dīn, ʿAjīb eats his fill of a dessert made from pomegranate seeds. Satiated, he can eat none of his grandmother’s food upon returning to camp. She is offended that a dish of this kind should be preferred to her own: only her lost son Badr al-Dīn, she states, can cook a dish as good as her own. She thus demands to taste the wares of this cook of Damascus, who himself, pursuing the irony of the situation, avers: “By God, noble lord, no one can cook this dish as well but myself and my mother and she is far away;”140 “Badr al-Dīn’s mother took it, and when she tasted it and noticed its excellent flavour, she knew who had cooked it, shrieked, and fell down in a swoon.”141 (We can be forgiven a smile and a chuckle at the redactor’s wry manipulation of romance convention; the situation is risible, and will continue so more intensely in the subsequent cold and calculating actions of Shams al-Dīn.)

The uncle too realizes the identity of his nephew, but retards the incandescence of a family reunion we might otherwise expect to follow immediately upon this moment of emotional shock. He orders the cook to be arrested, with license from the local sultan, and that his shop should be razed to the ground. Badr al-Dīn’s present identity — personally misconceived — is thus erased; but he himself is kept (literally) in the dark, placed in a trunk and transported to Cairo as a miscreant. Shams al-Dīn will explain himself wryly: “Damn you, aren’t you the one who cooked the pomegranate dish? . . . I will crucify you . . ., and parade you throughout the city, because the pomegranate dish you cooked lacked pepper and tasted awful!”142 There follows a mock-execution, another metonymic death (the first having taken place at the graveside of his father in Basra). But from death Badr al-Dīn will be brought back to life in the final matrimonial recognition. Why all this play-acting? It is part of the contrivance of the plot. (All romance is contrived; the redactor simply accentuates convention in a parodic drive that is certainly designed to be humorous.) The redactor’s literary application of self-conscious plot construction is betrayed in these scenes and reflected in the elements of the story that are themselves staged (they are a kind of synecdoche of the authorial process). But another reason, subtended by the epistemology of the story (and its ilk), is the drive for certainty and understanding: Shams al-Dīn must be sure of the identity of his nephew143 and desires simply to reintroduce his daughter’s groom into the very same wedding-chamber, identical in décor, from which he had been snatched by the genies years before. When Badr al-Dīn recognizes the chamber instantly, Shams al-Dīn will be certain to have found the very husband (and nephew) who was destined for his daughter, and the story will have turned full circle. Shams al-Dīn thus contrives to make Badr al-Dīn feel that he has woken up from a dream (or into a dream): the latter’s constant refrain (in the Būlāq edition) upon being sequestered from Damascus is that of experiencing adghāth aḥlām.144

Here is the final reunion, which is both a recognition between husband and bride and, allowing us again to evoke the relevance of Sūra 12, a taʾwīl al-aḥādīth (a quasi-epiphanic exegesis of providential events):145

That night Badr al-Dīn lay down in a state of confusion, now saying: “I was dreaminng,” now, “I was awake.” (Referring to his years in Damascus.) He kept looking in astonishment at the room, the objects and the bride, saying to himself, “By God, till now I have not completed one night with her.” Then he would reflect again and say, “It must have been real,” until it was morning and his uncle came in, bidding him good morning. When Badr al-Dīn saw him, he recognized him and was utterly confused. He said, “In fact, aren’t you the one who gave the orders to beat, tie, shackle, and crucify me because of the pomegranate dish?” The vizier replied, “Son, the truth is out, for what was hidden has been revealed.146 You are my true nephew, and I did all this to be sure that you were indeed the one who had consummated the marriage with my daughter that night. You recognized your turban, your clothes, and your gold purse, as well as the scroll written by my brother, hidden in the lining of your turban. Had the man we brought here been other than you, he would not have recognized these objects.147

Like Joseph in Sūra 12, a man in power will have tested the lives and actions of men in a token of human epistemological empiricism before an essentially numinous truth is allowed to come to light.

The thematic effect of both stories (The Three Apples and The Two Viziers) is the wonder (ʿajab) of coincidences (ittifāqāt); it is the caliph who voices this phenomenological response. These are standard elements of (romance) recognition stories where the pattern of lives, normally understood only with hindsight, inspires awe at the workings of providence. No mention is ever made, in a voiced poetics (that is, in internalized dialogue or redactorial commentary) of recognition per se; yet it is a process that is fundamental to both stories (especially The Two Viziers in which Bencheikh has labeled it, in his functionalist reading, “l’opération générale”). What word in any case would carry the concept in any technical sense? Maʿrifa? This would be somewhat bland, trivial, and inadequate since maʿrifa is not understood as a term of even a tacit poetics. We have repeated this often: there is no narrative poetics in Arabic embracing anagnorisis, despite its prominence in Arabic literature. ʿAjab and ittifāqāt impose themselves as the principal operatives of what we might call, borrowing the qurʾānic phrase, aḥsan al-qaṣaṣ, and which drives the conscious fascination of an audience, within the text certainly and probably outside it.148 This absence ignores the fact that recognition undergirds wonder (ʿajab) and marvellous coincidence (ittifāqāt).

Two points have emerged: (i) recognition functions as a metatheme of redactorial consciousness and technique, and of readerly appreciation, (its hermeneutic implications will be explored below): it is quintessential, but does not court acknowledgement as one of the principal filaments underpinning ʿajab; and (ii) that knowledge (with its tendency to be distilled, at some point or points of a narrative, in anagnorisis, singular or multiple) subtends the standard, even popular, theology of this kind of tale of destiny. And/or vice versa: knowledge is predestined: recognition is an operative agent of a broader knowledge that has become patterned in space and time (i.e., in a human narrative providing didactic sustenance);149 and knowledge, in its most emotive and transforming human form —anagnorisis — can even seem to have leverage over destiny, since it is recognition that sheds light on destiny best of all, and in a sense creates a cognitive human dependency for the latter.

Two important and effective elements in the Barmakid tragedy (and I refer to the cumulative cycle of historiography and popular story-telling described above, from the tenth to seventeenth centuries) are: (i) a perceived (sexual) betrayal: Hārūn al-Rashīd understands that Jaʿfar betrayed him in a sort of displaced and perceived act of both fraternal and amical cuckoldry; (ii) the contrivance of what we may call a staged marriage; we may aver in purest abstraction that: marriage as a concept and institution is manipulated to selfish ends. However, actions devised by men turn back on their agents, in one case with tragic effect (for Jaʿfar), and in the other case happily (for the reunited family in The Two Viziers). The Three Apples and The Two Viziers share these elements between them: The Three Apples, for its part, is about the cause and tragic consequences of a perceived betrayal; The Two Viziers, by contrast, is a staged plot represented most manifestly in a dramatized, choreographed and initially simulated marriage which is transformed form the realm of the oneiric, at least in the perception of the groom Badr al-Dīn, to the real — the final awakening, reunion and recognition of Badr al-Dīn and his cousin Sitt al-Ḥusn whom he was always destined to wed. The whole story is, indeed, a sort of parodic exercise in emplotment in which destiny, having itself, from the very outset, decided on a course of action (despite the quarrelling brothers, fathers of the bride and groom), gives a progressively greater role to the human players. With cumulative recognition, rendered increasingly through human quest and desire, comes the force of action and the acquisition of understanding: following the contrivance of narrative construction (that is, following the intensity and density of a series of recognitions rendered purely ex machina at first and then through both temporally and spatially vectored cause and effect [and with the increasingly attendant redactorial pretence of human agency and responsibility]), a marriage is “staged” at first in reverie (the initial discussion of the brothers about their plans for their future and putative progeny), then in reality — the latter in an essential two-part romance.

Concerning marriage and betrayal, there is a reverse dynamic governing the epistemology of the actors and actions in the three tales under scrutiny: in the Barmakid intrigue of Jaʿfar and ʿAbbāsa a state of full consciousness — the perverse conditions of a bogus marriage — leads to an unwitting state (ʿAbbāsa’s devious seduction of Jaʿfar) from which there can be no full recovery; the unwitting and the tragic are somehow aligned, and this may explain the doubt we entertain about the fate of Jaʿfar: was he really unaware that ʿAbbāsa was seducing him? Did al-Rashīd never realize or even consider Jaʿfar’s possible innocence in being duped? Or was there some subconscious duplicity, and therefore responsibility, in the vizier’s deception?

In The Two Viziers the dynamic is essentially reversed. Recognition (and the affective and intellectual realization that comes with it) of a pre-existing unwitting state (the husband’s killing of his innocent wife) is a recipe for tragedy when disclosure is incapable of undoing what has been done. Contrarily, recognition, when coterminous with the acquisition of a knowledge that buttresses understanding of providential fate, produces (comic-)romance: the unwitting — the misrecognitions and misapprehensions that attend the players throughout the story in moments of transparent irony (orchestrated certainly by the redactor[s] for the audience) — no longer exerts a negative influence upon a happy denouement. And there is a human, intellectual dividend in all this maneuvering.

But there is a difference between, if not causes, then ultimate effect in the Barmakid episode and The Three Apples. In the former, perceived betrayal has an irreversible tragic consequence when disclosed; while in The Three Apples the first disclosure has a tragic and irreversible consequence (the murdered lady cannot be brought back to life), yet the subsequent disclosure of earlier misapprehension saves Jaʿfar, placing him finally in the same ambiguous position he suffers from in the ʿAbbāsa intrigue: he is certainly innocent, yet willy-nilly embroiled, for it was his slave who set in motion the tragic murder. Such ambiguity of guilt and/or human responsibility is then excised unequivocally from The Two Viziers (notwithstanding the fact that Nūr al-Dīn, who dies early in the course of events, is perhaps a sacrificial victim to the hubris of the brothers’ initial bickering). So, the ambiguity of Jaʿfar’s position in the denouement of The Three Apples generates a sort of generic distinction between itself and the Barmakid tragedy, while still the story is not in its own right fully disengaged from tragedy; it takes another embedded story, The Two Viziers, to render this possible: to complete the alchemy that transforms a painful memory, in the popular narrative consciousness of the Arabic Islamic tradition, into a comic-romance — to break the temporary and illusory spell that fate can only be darkly predestinarian.

The Three Apples has two enframing narratives (allowing for a hermeneutic relationship between the various narrative layers of the Nights): (i) the outer frame of the Arabian Nights (Scheherazade threatened by an emotionally and intellectually dysfunctional and brutally jealous king), and (ii), as a tacit complement to this frame — as a sort of “hypotext” of The Three Apples — the Barmakid story. In addition to the general parallels of the roles of the characters, and the themes and moods of the two enframing stories, certain details afforce such a reading: e.g., in the Leiden edition (the Syrian recension) the transition from the 69-70th Night150 occurs when the murdered lady’s corpse is found by al-Rashīd in the chest. First we are told she was of exquisite beauty, then, gruesomely, that she has been cut to pieces (maqtūla muqaṭṭaʿa); Scheherazade cuts off her recitation at this point, suggesting she might continue the following night should she live (in ʿishtu). The thematic and programmatic link is evident; but the burial of the murdered lady in a chest may also be inflected subliminally with the detail of ʿAbbāsa’s murder through burial in a chest in the popular narratives of the Barmakid tragedy.151 (Note: intertextuality between stories does not impose a sustained parallel reading; we must understand rather the existence of discrete, somewhat modulating and reciprocally evocative, details.)

If there is a parallel between the horror of the Nights’ frame and the Barmakid tragedy, from which the nested Barmakid tales in the Nights attempt, following both popular sympathy and desire, to affect an escape, there is also an essential distinction: the frame of the Nights can participate in the alchemy that turns horror into the felicity of romance; this is essentially part of the dividend of a hermeneutic reading of the story, of Shahriyar’s progressive understanding — of his process of recognition: Shahriyar sees himself in (some of) the tales he hears (which element, both fluctuating according to the individual nature of a given story and in a sudden crescendo, is particularly apparent in certain endings of the frame-story).

Most analyses (with which I am familiar) of The Three Apples and/or The Two Viziers highlight in particular one aspect of literary craftsmanship: that the stories are constituted of suspense and the sustained retardation of anagnorisis. This process is played out in the broad structures of both tales, from beginning to end according to a cyclical development that is the more complex in the second tale; it exists also, as part of this cyclical periodicity, on a micro-level: on the level of descriptive detail (which Hamori has identified as the effect of a sort of ekphrastic “strip tease” in The Two Viziers).152 A fine example of this can be seen in Pinault’s analysis of the discovery of the murdered lady; he emphasizes the measured calibration of both suspense and the sequencing of the details and events in this gruesomely charged unveiling:153

In all three texts (the Būlāq, Leiden and MacNaughten Arabic editions) the transition between the Tigris/fisherman scene and the palace is disposed of very quickly: we are told simply that al-Rashīd and his attendants bring the chest to the palace. But once Hārūn arrives at the palace, the pace of the narrative slows, as his attendants lift layer after layer of coverings from the box. It is interesting to observe that, despite the difference of detail in this scene between Leiden and the two Egyptian editions, the three texts follow exactly the same sequence in unwrapping the contents of the chest: basket-carpet-shawl-slain woman. It is as if the editions of all three versions recognized the dramatic potential of this scene and its value to the story, and so made no attempt to abridge it or hurry through.

Retardation is common to the structuring of anagnorisis, and it is striking that Pinault compares at length the final recognition scene in The Three Apples (where Jaʿfar discovers the apple in his daughter’s pocket, realizing its significance), with the recognition scene in Euripides’ Iphigenia in Tauris (— any number of the Aristotelian paradigms of Greek tragedy could have been selected for this analytical purpose). In the episode in which Jaʿfar understands that his very own slave Rayḥān has been the cause of the tragic death of the woman found dismembered in the chest:

We see accomplished the anagnorisis or recognition of identity which permits the final resolution of our tale. It is worth noting how carefully this recognition is arranged. The pace of the narrative slows; the redactor lingers over each gesture in detail. Of course the plot could have been structured so that Jaʿfar notices the apple at once; but a perfunctory rendering such as that would spoil the pleasure of suspense. Instead the redactor postpones the moment of recognition till the last possible moment: Jaʿfar summons the judge, makes out a will, bids his children farewell, receives the caliph’s messenger, and weeps when he hears the message. This causes his children to weep afresh, which in turn causes a second round of farewells. And it is only when Jaʿfar has bid everyone else in the house farewell that he finally turns to his youngest daughter; and of course our redactor has reserved her for last, as she will prove to be Jaʿfar’s salvation . . . This delayed recognition is as well constructed in its way as the anagnorisis in Euripides’ Iphigenia in Tauris, where the priestess Iphigenia unwittingly is about to sacrifice her brother Orestes to the goddess Artemis, and all depends on her recognizing the victim as her brother before it is too late . . . As in the Iphigenia so too in The Three Apples an object serves as the means of recognition which delivers Jaʿfar at the last moment. And as in the Iphigenia, the anagnorisis in The Three Apples has the special merit of appearing to arise, as Aristotle says, “from the incidents themselves.” It is natural for Jaʿfar to hug his daughter farewell; and thus (again in Aristotle’s words), “the startling discovery is made by natural means:” by hugging her he discovers the apple in her pocket. When we pause to consider this scene as a whole we realize that the redactor in fact has contrived the entire episode to culminate in this embrace, but has done so in such a way as to make the climax seem realistic and unforced.

This is all finely stated; we should simply add: recognition is developed and woven far more intricately in the tale of The Two Viziers. Can we not then posit that this is one of the essential elements binding the two tales together? To deny this is almost to suggest that recognition is an anodyne — purely and exclusively generic — process.

Of the Būlāq and Leiden editions of the Nights (representative of the Egyptian and Syrian recensions), the Būlāq version has a slightly more enhanced epistemology, which comes close to identifying recognition, distilled from a more general epistemology, as part of the signature of the text. The Fisherman encountered by al-Rashīd and Jaʿfar towards the beginning of the story recites a plaintive song which is absent from Leiden. It contains nine verses of which the first and second contain a significant comment on the tale’s popular theology, and explain how both this text, and even more essentially The Two Viziers, are structured. The Fisherman resists in his poem the praise of his fellow men:

— They say, “Among men, with your knowledge, you are like the moonlit night (anta bayna l-warā bi-ʿilmika ka-l-laylati l-muqmira)”

— I replied, “Spare me your saying: for there is no knowledge unless accompanied with power (and destiny) (lā ʿilma illā maʿa l-maqdira)”

Knowledge is useless if it is not concomitant with power, we are told. But even the powerful are ill-served by their material wherewithal, as apparent in the roles played by both the caliph and his vizier. In the end, knowledge is measured out by destiny and fate (which itself deals out either poverty or riches). So, one of the connotations which maqdira appears to have here is that of qadar, its cognate root. And this dovetails with the sense enounced in the tale by the powerful concept of ʿālam al-ghayb (to which man has no voluntary access); it is the phrase used when Jaʿfar defends himself against the unfair expectation that he should find the culprit of the murder: hal anā aʿlamu l-ghaybi ḥattā aʿrifahu (Do I have knowledge of the Unseen — of what is fated — so as to know who the murderer is?)154 Throughout the story the ignorance of people is described at intervals, showing the level of misinterpretation that foreruns a knowledge that is only fated to be divulged in order to produce a meaningful, numinously controlled, patterning of lives.155 That Jaʿfar’s (largely passive) quest leads him effectively to an image and reflection of himself (of his own unwitting embroilment in affairs) shows how fate has manipulated events.156 It is essential to the transparency of the tragic irony of the human condition according to this romance.

This is also an important element of The Two Viziers where coincidence, providential orchestration of events, is what is brought to light for the surviving players to contemplate, even if it is only the reader who adopts the role of surrogate for the players’ reflections. That Nūr al-Dīn dies in Basra allows the success of the revelation given to the brothers which they had stymied by their intemperance. Once the marriage has been contrived by marvelous means (through the genies: agents of miraculous providence that are callously punished for perverting the fulfillment of the dream, abandoning the field to human endeavor), the story, which at this point runs the risk of premature culmination, continues in a series of adventures and repetitions (conforming with a conventional romance periodicity of events) that allows the human players, notably Shams al-Dīn, to orchestrate the denouement to which they have been fated. (Shams al-Dīn is especially, if not solely, active in this process once he discovers the identity of the young groom who has slept with his daughter only to disappear mysteriously; it will be Shams al-Dīn’s role to confirm as absolutely as humanly possible, according to material tokens and empirical evidence, the identity of Badr al-Dīn — to restore the identity of which the boy himself, having settled down as a cook in Damascus, has come to doubt.)

Seen in these terms, the romance is a narrativization of the standard orthodox theology requiring the believer to understand God’s determination of events while accepting the necessity of, and responsibility for, his/her own actions. Pre-determination does not determine or prescribe human passivity: the tokens of recognition in this story are in the end products of human action, notwithstanding the quasi-numinous halo of beauty which draws attention to Nūr al-Dīn, and his son and grandson. The pretence that the unseen (ghayb, corollary of destiny) is predicated upon human agency is nicely represented in the detail (in the Leiden edition) whereby the Call of Blood (“la voix du sang”) motif is reified as a physical token of identity when ʿAjīb, son of Badr al-Dīn, throws a stone at his father’s head, drawing blood. The scar is a token of the past and of identity, and plays its part in the culminating recognition scene: it is the product of human action.157


In The Two Viziers, a text that toys with recognition, several literary devices enable anagnorisis: irony and coincidence, plot acceleration and retardation, the operation of predictable elements and the contrary surprise at the coming to pass of what has been long expected will actually come to pass; there is also the delight in detecting a far more familiar text behind the overwrought façade — evocations of the Joseph romance.158 In this story the author/redactor has staged a plot (the story itself), which in turn stages a plot (the realization of what the brothers have unwittingly abandoned) that itself, on a third level, stages yet another plot (the two parts of a protracted marriage): on at least three levels there is the contrivance of charade and masquerading. Recognition thus uncovers the human misconception of destiny and identity: it uncovers fiction (which is linked to the fact that it is an essentially operative factor in fiction).

In any tale recognition echoes the plot, and in so far as this tale is about recognition159 it is more than any other an exercise in emplotment. In this sense it is a sort of literary experiment; it succeeds by the careful calibration of its interconnecting elements and in the process warps to delightful (comic) ends the more restrained mood of romance. (Read in one way it provides little more than the satisfaction one feels at the syntax of a well-constructed sentence.)

The careful construction of The Two Viziers is measured out in the symmetry — or the challenge to a symmetry engaging destiny and fate — that is set on the opening page. And the syntax of the tale borrows the syntax of the language in which the brothers’ wishful reverie is cast. The hypothetically imagined “if” of the two viziers’ reverie about the future marriage of their non-existent offspring defers to a more concretely realised “when.” If we allow ourselves tentatively into the mind of the author, we might posit that the story had its origins in a mental shift of focus while the story was still inchoate — had yet to be fully plotted. “If” becoming “when” in the author’s mind, engendering a literary experiment: for the whole is an exercise in imagining: what if hypothetical, imagined and oneiric events (like Joseph’s dream), the reins of which are initially wrested from human agency by providence, have the power of reification: of effectively creating the incidents of a story. Most romances — recognition stories — have ironic coincidence as an essential constitutive element: the characters in this story little realize the author’s consummate irony: that their dreams in fact fashion their destiny; that they are eventually and tantalizingly — for the audience — given a role in the destiny that unfolds around them while they are initially utterly ignorant of this fact. But there is an even sharper irony in the text: at the point when the principal players have abandoned their reverie, quarrelling now over the price of a putative dowry, destiny has decided to fulfil their initial wishful design, and in the process altered the very cause of the argument: the price of the dowry.

There is auspicious design in the detailed (and personalized) unfolding of human lives. Here the nigh hubristic will of the players, the two viziers, creates the structure of lives by which they will effectively become restrained. (In this sense, Badr al-Dīn’s closeting in the trunk in the coda of the tale is a physical realization of this curtailment of freedom, that can only be subject to providential determinism, even though it is Shams al-Dīn who has orchestrated the manoeuvre.) So, a clever literary game manages to concentrate the essential paradox of romance; this is after all (inasmuch as it is about recognition) a romance about romance — or more accurately, a comedy about comedy — (and parodic, as evident especially in the farcical elements of the choreographed marriage) that is surprizing for its very success: one would be more inclined to expect such a seemingly dry experiment in emplotment to fail.

The story is the exegesis of the brothers’ initial reverie, reminding one of the broad structure of Sūra 12: translating the reverie and quarrel into a dream, according to our own interpretive license, we can then view the events that ensue as a sort of taʾwīl al-aḥādīth; they are recognized as such in the final resolution of the denouement where the establishment of identity is a metonym for understanding. Consider the grammar of the brothers’ wish, overloaded with conceit and eschewing all sentiment: “Brother, I wish that you and I would marry two sisters, draw our marriage contracts on the same day, and go in to our wives on the same night”160 — a wish, then. Yet only a few lines later the grammar and mood alters perceptibly: “The elder brother said to Nūr al-Dīn, ‘Tell me brother, if you and I perform our wedding on the same day and consummate our marriage on the same night and if your wife and mine conceive on our wedding night and at the end of their pregnancy give birth on the same day and if your wife gives birth to a boy and my wife to a girl, tell me, will you marry your son to my daughter.’ ” A desire has been cast in the conditional. The conversation continues and acrimony erupts between the brothers on account of the sum of the dowry to be paid by Nūr al-Dīn to Shams al-Dīn. The grammar, mood and tense shifts yet again, and now the brothers, ignorant of the absurdity of their conversation, quarrel over, not hypothesis, but a fact that has become concrete in their petulant minds. They now speak of their future off-spring not as objects of desire but as if actually existing and as if the disputed issue were real and pressing: “Damn you for comparing your son to my daughter and thinking that he is worthier than she. . . . By God, I will never marry my daughter to your son, not even for her weight in gold. I will never marry her to your son . . .” Fate, however, will do just that. Mischievously partial to the orchestration of uncanny situations, fate has eavesdropped on this conversation. The author, himself, has written the outcome of the tale according to the grammar and syntax of the initial quarrel such that we as readers, and eventually Shams al-Dīn too, can read, realize and recognize the irony that inheres in the structure of the whole.

1 For the (various) Arabic text(s) see Alf layla wa-layla, ed. Mahdi, i, 219-225 [hereafter Leiden]; Alf layla wa-layla, ed. al-Sharqāwī [hereafter Būlāq], i, 51-54; The Alif Laila or Book of the Thousand and One Nights, ed. Macnaghten [hereafter Calcutta i], 142-8; Tausend und Eine Nacht, Arabisch. Nach einer Handschrift herausgegeben, ed. Habicht and Fleischer [hereafter Breslau], i-ii, 350-004. For English translations see Haddawy, The Arabian Nights, 150-157; Burton, The Book of the Thousand Nights and One Night, i, 186-195. For a studied comparison of these various Arabic sources cf. Pinault, Story-Telling Techniques, 86-99.

2 Leiden, 225-280; Būlāq, 54-73; Calcutta i, 148-199; Breslau, i, 4-123; Haddawy, 157-206; Burton, The Book of the Thousand Nights and One Night, i, 195-255.

3 For the history of the 15th, possibly 14th century Syrian and later (17th-18th century) Egyptian recensions (also known as zer = Zotenberg’s Egyptian Recension), see Irwin, The Arabian Nights: A Companion, 9-62; Mahdi, Introduction, The Thousand and One Nights, i, and esp. iii, 1-126.

4 Cf. Miquel, Sept contes des Mille et Une Nuits, 193-295; see also esp. Popper, Data for dating a tale in the Nights. Miquel, Sept contes, 193, suggests the final version of the tale to have been written between 1416 and 1427 ce in Egypt.

5 Cf. Abbott, A Ninth-Century Fragment. This fragment, from which we can identify the frame-story, seems to have contained stories about local Syrian Bedouin; the Merchant and the Genie cycle was perhaps already in this early collection, but there is no evidence for anything else.

6 According to the Būlāq edition; in Leiden the stories occupy the 67th-71st nights.

7 It is only the fourth cycle after The Merchant and the Genie, The Fisherman and the Genie and The Porter and the Three Ladies of Baghdad.

8 I use the term in the sense of a group of stories united by a central theme; each of the sources I examine contains its own version of the Barmakid cycle, but the more one reads the materials the more one acquires a sense of an aggregated cycle existing in full only across sources and through time — this became, to some extent, the common heritage of later versions of the tragedy in popular story collections.

9 For an excellent general review of the relationship between stories about the Barmakids and the Arabian Nights, see Pinault, Story-Telling Techniques, esp. 84-86; this is a cogently argued assessment of the figures of Hārūn al-Rashīd and Jaʿfar al-Barmakī in the Nights echoing their roles in the Barmakid debacle.

10 For studies of The Three Apples, see Allen, An Analysis of the “Tale of the Three Apples,” 51-60, and Pinault, Story-Telling Techniques, 82 ff. For individual studies of The Two Viziers, but wherein the critical gaze largely excludes The Three Apples, see Bencheikh, Les Milles et Une Nuits, ch. 2, “Le conte du Vizier Nûr ad-Dîn et de Shams ad-Dîn son frère”; Hamori, A Comic Romance; Miquel, Nûr ad-Dîn.

11 On medieval Arabic detective stories in general, see Malti-Douglas, The Classical Arabic Detective and Classical Arabic Crime Narratives.

12 On recognition, see Cave, Recognitions: A Study in Poetics; Kennedy, Recognition in the Arabic Narrative Tradition; and Kennedy and Lawrence (eds.), Recognition: The Poetics of Narrative.

13 Meisami, Masʿūdī on Love, 262 n. 24; Bouvat, Les Barmécides, 120-122.

14 Sadan, Death of a Princess, 148 n. 43. For the Barmakid stories and elements in the Nights, see Bouvat, Les Barmécides, 121-2; Chauvin, Bibliographie, v, 163-170 and vi, 142-143.

15 Albeit the latter was a biographer not a historiographer.

16 Mathers (tr.), The Book of the Thousand Nights and One Night [hereafter Mardrus], iv, 509-510.

17 In fact they had been Buddhists; cf. Barthold/Sourdel, al-Barāmika: “The later authors (Yaḳūt, iv, 819; Ibn Khallikān, Cairo 1948, iii, 198), who make this sanctuary a Zoroastrian Fire-Temple, were doubtless influenced by the tradition which envisaged the Barmakids as the descendants of the ministers of the Sāsānid empire.”

18 Their eventual demise would be almost as gruesome — it is as if this is a leitmotif of related materials.

19 Mardrus, iv, 509-510. We are uncertain of Mardrus’s sources, but he provides us with an eloquent, and finely shaped, sense of who they were. For historical studies of the Barmakids see Barthold/Sourdel, al-Barāmika; Bouvat, Les Barmécides; Sourdel, Vizirat, i, 127-81; a comprehensive list of the principal historiographical sources can be had from: Hamori, Going Down in Style; Meisami, Masʿūdī on Love; Bosworth, The Abbasid Caliphate in Equilibrium, 201-2, n. 679; and Sadan, Death of a Princess, 134 n. 4.

20 Barthold/Sourdel, al-Barāmika, 1034.

21 This is a recurring topos of stories about, and influenced by, the demise of the family, and esp. Jaʿfar’s execution (cf. below, passim).

22 Barthold/Sourdel, al-Barāmika, 1034; for the most trenchant and significant critique of the fictitiousness of the ʿAbbāsa intrigue in a medieval historiographical source, see Ibn Khaldūn, The Muqaddimah, 18-21.

23 See, e.g., al-Ṭabarī, History (cf. Bosworth, The Abbasid Caliphate); and below. Sourdel, Vizirat, provides the best evaluation and reconstruction of the probable historical background of events.

24 Cf. Abbott, Two Queens of Baghdad, 199: “. . . the Barmakids had fallen ‘like Lucifer, never to hope again [quoting Wolsey].’ . . . Not even the women were spared, some of whom, including Hārūn’s foster-mother, made pathetic and futile appeals on behalf of the two prisoners [cf. pseudo-Ibn Qutayba in Hamori, ‘Going Down in Style.’] Danānīr the songstress, who in earlier years had so charmed Hārūn, fell with the rest, faithful to the last (cf. ʿIqd, iii, 28-29; Ibn ʿAbdūs, p. 302).”

25 The exact nature of Jaʿfar’s posthumous mutilation varies from source to source.

26 For a nuanced view of whether Hārūn al-Rashīd was indeed consistently seen as an absolutist monarch in historiographical sources and anecdotes, see Nawas, Toward Fresh Directions: the caliph was often brutal (cf. the killing of Bishr b. Layth, 24, and how Jibrīl b. Bukhtīshūʿ narrowly escaped being cut into pieces, 42 ff.); but his clemency of character is also a recurring feature of these anecdotes (cf., e.g., an incident with a pious man during a pilgrimage to Mecca, 24-25).

27 It is clear that the Barmakids had come to acquire many political enemies, notably al-Faḍl b. Rabīʿ who succeeded Yaḥyā b. Khālid to the vizierate (cf. Sourdel, Vizirat, passim).

28 Meisami, Masʿūdī on Love, 260.

29 In the execution scenes (in which there are many divergent details), al-Rashīd never confronts Jaʿfar directly. Why this consistent absence? Was the caliph preempting the pleas he assumed Jaʿfar would make? Or, more subliminally, is this simply part of the suppression of the facts that lie so uncomfortably at the heart of this affair? Still, why then, when Jaʿfar was condemned to die so alone, the public exposure of his body? Hārūn al-Rashīd tried to obliterate the traces of his own shame and dishonor (popular versions make this motif very clear; cf. al-Atlīdī’s Iʿlām and Jurjī Zaydān’s al-ʿAbbāsa ukht al-Rashīd); he may have been aware that everyone knew about the affair, but the brutality meted out to Jaʿfar’s corpse would warn people away from facetious and disparaging gossip. There was in the visual horror of Jaʿfar’s execution a tacit but unmistakable warning to the masses: “I know you know (or probably know) why I have done this. If you do not know, so much the better. If you do know, speak irreverently about this matter at your peril.” There can have been little sniggering at the perceived cuckolding that stood behind the dreadful decapitation. But that the threat was only good while the caliph lived was an irony he did not, it seems, appreciate, for we certainly haven’t needed to wait till Judgment Day (cf. Hawrani on Yaḥyā b. Khālid’s final resignation) to turn the tables of society’s judgment at least against al-Rashīd. (Cf. Burton, “Terminal Essay,” in Burton, x, 136-137: “a single crime, a tragedy whose details are almost incredibly horrible, marks [Aaron the Orthodox’s] reign with the stain of infamy, with a blot of blood never to be washed away;” cf. also Mardrus, iv, 508: “that sorry tale which mars the reign of the Khalifah Harun al-Rashid with a bloodstain which not even four rivers shall wash away.”)

We might also consider another, somewhat contrary, view: Hārūn may be legitimizing his treatment of Jaʿfar by making his corpse that of a non-Arab traitor — in other words, this act of exposure may itself voice the caliphal reason for the Fall of the Barmakids. (Cf. the punishment for rebel generals).

30 What we find as a nexus of stories when we bring all the larger accounts together.

31 Though we will argue below that there is some rhetorical manipulating of themes in the episodes he relays. Al-Ṭabarī presents Hārūn as an ideal caliph: unaccountable, inscrutable, desirous, upon realization, of the need to maintain his “divine” autonomy. His Hārūn is something of an exemplar; al-Masʿūdī appears to have been writing somewhat against this agenda later in the tenth century.

32 Al-Masʿūdī, Murūj, iv.

33 Note past tense; al-Rashīd has determined matters without prior consultation: he is solely responsible for the disasters that will follow.

34 Cf. Netton, The Passion of the Barmakids: “The marriage is not to be consummated, a ruling incidentally which was contrary to the Shariʿa or Holy Law of Islam”; cf. also Lunde and Stone (tr.), Meadows of Gold, 442, n. for 115.

35 These failings contrast starkly with the qualities ascribed to (an even more fictional) Umm Jaʿfar in pseudo-Ibn Qutayba (cf. Hamori, Going Down in Style).

36 This seems hardly credible given the reputed wealth of the Barmakids.

37 Note the amplified characterization of role, emotions and intent; this seems to be just one element of the abuse of power and betrayal of a close kin, since her attitude toward Jaʿfar’s mother is that of both mistress and daughter.

38 The point is that, being drunk, Jaʿfar does not recognize her despite the obviousness of her identity.

39 This element in the cycle seems to have emerged from the fact that al-Rashīd executed Jaʿfar on his way back from the Ḥajj in 186-7/802-3 ce.

40 Al-Rashīd always, apparently, misunderstood the exact nature of Jaʿfar’s betrayal, except in al-Ṭabarī’s version where Jaʿfar is depicted as fully conscious of what he was doing; only the retrospectively omniscient narrative of historiography, which relates this version of the Jaʿfar-ʿAbbāsa liaison without ever providing a source, knows that Jaʿfar was himself tricked into sleeping with the princess. There is of course transparent tragic irony in the fact that al-Rashīd insisted on the marriage. In al-Masʿūdī’s account, far more than al-Ṭabarī’s, al-Rashīd is shown as at fault because of his perverse matrimonial insistence — his arranged marriage impels ʿAbbāsa to fall in love with Jaʿfar. What may be at issue here is the role of the Abbasid caliphs as imams with hermeneutic autonomy: al-Rashīd effects an unnatural and anti-Islamic/Sharīʿa marriage and thus this type of caliphal imamate is shown to be fallible and not maʿṣūm.

41 Cf. an early 19th century European dramatization of the story: Milner, Barmecide; or, the fatal offspring. A dramatick romance. This play, which appears to have enjoyed some success, obliterates the tragic element and allows for a romantic ending — it is cloying and sentimental, and in fact spoils the drama which it inherited.

42 Cf. El-Hibri, Reinterpreting Islamic Historiography.

43 Cf. the alternative version in other sources (e.g., al-Ṭabarī) represented in Breslau/Burton (op. cit., 121): “The affair abode concealed till there befell a brabble between Abbasah and one of her hand-maidens whereupon the slave-girl discovered the affair of the child to Al-Rashid and acquainted him with its abiding place.”

44 Cf. a similar dissemblance on the part of al-Rashīd in al-Ṭabarī’s account when the caliph learns of the release of the ʿAlid, Yaḥyā b. ʿAbdallāh (see below).

45 At ¶ 2596 al-Rashīd goes on a false pilgrimage, confirms the truth of what he has been told and begins the preparations for the execution during his return stopover at al-ʿUmr near al-Anbār (in lower Mesopotamia) (2596-9; thus ¶¶ 2588-99 are woven into a single narrative, uninterrupted by variants or mention of sources). The execution constitutes, as Meisami has written, a “dramatic set piece.”

46 Probably better translated as: “the affair with the woman.”

47 Jahshiyārī, Kitāb al-Wuzarāʾ, 254.

48 Cf. Abbott, Two Queens of Baghdad, 195-196. Bosworth in fact overstates the credence Abbott lends the episode, for she states only: “The nucleus of this version of the tragic story of Jaʿfar and ʿAbbāsa is found in some of the earliest as in some of the most authoritative histories of Islam. It was not long, however, before the major tragedy had caught the imagination of men of literary fancy, who enlarged upon it, embellishing it here and there until, alas for the royal honor of the ʿAbbāsids, it soon came to be one of the most widely known tales in Moslem lands. No less a historian than the famous Ibn Khaldūn (Tārīkh, i, 126) tried to kill the story by removing it, in its entirety, from the realm of authentic history into the pale of questionable fiction. But he failed. The tale continued to grow and thrive and still promises to be as immortal as the very name of Barmak, on the one hand, and Hārūn al-Rashīd, on the other.”

49 Bosworth, Abbasid Caliphate in Equilibrium, 215 n. 731.

50 Meisami, Masʿūdī on Love, 259-260.

51 Ibid., 262 n. 24.

52 Meisami, Masʿūdī on Love, 259; cf. Pinault, Story-Telling Techniques, 117-118, “On Love and Submission” and “The Tale of the False Caliph.”

53 Though no source is ever identified for the episode (cf. al-Masʿūdī, ¶ 2588: “this is what a person well-informed about the history of the Barmecides recounts”), this is natural enough, since Jaʿfar and ʿAbbāsa met in intimate privacy. It seems, furthermore, hard to credit that ʿAbbāsa — and even less so Jaʿfar — would have boasted of what she had said to him, exposing herself glibly while sensing the tragic consequences of such an action. Her smug boast to Jaʿfar (which sows the seeds of the misogyny in the service of which this episode came to be used) could not have been overheard and is obviously pure fiction (though not al-Masʿūdī’s who hands it down on authority).

54 Horovitz, ʿAbbāsa; for the story of Jadhīma see al-Masʿūdī, Murūj, ii, 214-217, ¶¶ 1039-40 (it is also in al-Ṭabarī’s Tārīkh). This is a family romance (somewhat truncated and therefore enigmatic, but clearly part of the lore of tribal identity) with its own recognition scene (¶ 1043). As a family romance it is quite generically distinct from the Jaʿfar-ʿAbbāsa intrigue.

55 Doniger, The Bedtrick: Tales of Sex and Masquerading, 1.

56 Leah and Jacob, of all the material discussed, is more directly relevant to us since their story may have been known to the Islamic tradition (which was nevertheless probably uncomfortable with it); it seems to be echoed, along with elements of the Joseph romance, in Ibn Sīnā’s “visionary recital,” Salamān and Absāl. Furthermore, like stories in akhbār (history and adab) the biblical stories are sketchy and economical with detail, leaving issues (moral, ethical, philosophical and epistemological) to be expatiated upon in the tradition of apocrypha (i.e., isrāʾīliyyāt and midrashīm respectively).

57 Doniger, The Bedtrick, xviii.

58 Ibid., 491.

59 Morrison (tr.), Vīs and Rāmīn, 146-156, esp. 153. The episode has been likened to the one in Tristan and Isolde where Brangane, Isolde’s maid, sleeps with a drunken and unwitting King Mark.

60 The misogynistic element in the story seems to have developed only in the later popular accounts of the Barmakids (cf. discussion of al-Hawrānī and al-Atlīdī, below).

61 Bosworth, Abbasid Caliphate in Equilibrium, 202.

62 Ibid., 206.

63 Loc. cit.

64 Loc. cit.; it is not clear who was meant to, or did, overhear these words.

65 Ibid., 207 ff.

66 Ibid., 210-211.

67 Ibid., 214-215: “Aḥmad b. Zuhayr — I think from his paternal uncle Ẓāhir b. Ḥarb — transmitted the information to me that the reason behind the destruction of Jaʿfar and the Barmakids was that al-Rashīd could not bear to be away from the company of Jaʿfar and of his own sister ʿAbbāsa bt. al-Mahdī. He used to invite them both to be present when he had one of his drinking sessions, this being after he had told Jaʿfar how little able he was to endure Jaʿfar’s and ʿAbbāsa’s absence from him. He said to Jaʿfar, ‘I will give her to you in marriage so that it will be licit for you to look on her when I invite her to my court sessions,’ and he ordered him not to touch her [i.e., sexually] or do anything at all of what a man usually does with his wife. So al-Rashīd gave her him in marriage on these conditions. He used to invite them both to his circle when he held a drinking session, then he would get up from the circle and leave the two of them together. They would then become intoxicated with the wine, and both of them being in the vigor of youth, Jaʿfar would make for her and copulate with her. Subsequently she gave birth to a boy. She was afraid of her own safety from al-Rashīd, if he should get to know about that, so she sent the newly born child, accompanied by nurses for him from among her own slaves, to Mecca. The matter remained concealed from Hārūn until some bad blood arose between ʿAbbāsa and a certain slave girl of hers, and this latter thereupon communicated the story of her affair and the matter of the child to al-Rashīd, informing him at the same time of the child’s whereabouts, of the slave girls of ʿAbbāsa who were looking after him, and of the ornaments with which his mother had adorned him [which seem to be none other than tokens of recognition].”

68 Hamori, Going Down in Style, 109.

69 The first anecdote (which is the version of a story preserved in many sources) has its own internal (subordinate) anagnorisis, thus one of the running themes is that of misprision and misidentification (Hamori, Going Down in Style, 109): “In the first anecdote, al-Rashīd sends his vizier, ʿAmr ibn Masʿada, to al-Ahwāz, where he must punish the governor, al-Rukhkhajī, for having pocketed the tax revenues. He orders ʿAmr to spend more than one day in Baghdad before returning to al-Raqqa. On his passage downriver, ʿAmr meets a ragged character who calls himself a weaver, but turns out to be a splendid kātib fallen on hard times — a weaver of words, not of cloth — and delays on account of this man. By the time ʿAmr arrives back in Raqqa, al-Rashīd is in a rage and has vowed to punish him. But when the ‘weaver’ is presented, al-Rashīd sees (ii, 161) that ʿAmr did the right thing. ‘When you delayed, I vowed that I would walk to the Kaʿba on foot if I didn’t make you see an evil day, but by God, that is not how I should repay you. What is to be done?’ ” (A pilgrimage to Mecca on foot, ironically the same destination which will be linked with the demise of Jaʿfar.)

70 Cf. Hamori, Going Down in Style, 104.

71 Ibid., 97: “[T]he narrative . . . give[s] a version of the famous explanatory story of Jaʿfar’s affair with an Abbasid princess, told to Sahl by one of the eunuchs of the palace. Jaʿfar is represented as completely blameless. Al-Rashīd’s sister Fākhita bint al-Mahdī (sic) admires Jaʿfar from a distance and asks the caliph for permission to bestow gifts on him. Every Friday she makes him a present of a virgin, until at last she substitutes herself for the customary gift, not revealing her identity until afterwards. Jaʿfar conceives great affection for her, but asks her to desist and stops accepting her gifts. Yaḥyā advises Jaʿfar to confess the matter to the caliph at once, but he refuses. A slave woman denounces Jaʿfar.”

In italics are elements of the account which is at variance with the version in al-Masʿūdī and Ibn Khallikān, to wit the fact that it is the caliph’s sister (here Fākhita, in other later popular texts Maymūna) not Jaʿfar’s mother (at the instigation of ʿAbbāsa) who devises a way of hoodwinking her lover. This is important if this version of the tragic intrigue is to be seen to have been appended with sensitivity to the contest between al-Rashīd and this particular vision for an Umm Jaʿfar — who is a far cry from the obtuse mother of al-Masʿūdī’s account. Hamori’s article comes with its own anagnorisis. At the very end of the study we are informed that the anonymous redactor misidentified the heroine of the story: the Umm Jaʿfar credited in the historical memory with a great facility with words was not the biological mother of Jaʿfar al-Barmaki but Zubayda, wife of Hārūn al-Rashīd — the very person who precipitated the downfall of the Barmakids by divulging Jaʿfar’s liaison to her husband. Misidentification can have tragic consequences; it also serves the semantic purposes of literature and stories have ways of warping in unpredictable directions.

72 Ibn Khallikān, tr. De Slane, i, 315; cf. the parallel story entitled “Haroun Er Reshid and the Woman of the Barmecides” (translated from the Breslau Arabic text of the Nights, vi, 189-191) in Payne, Tales from the Arabic, i, 57-58.

73 It is therefore a token of internal coherence in pseudo-Ibn Qutayba’s narrative that in the earlier account of the intrigue between ʿAbbāsa and Jaʿfar, Umm Jaʿfar’s role is not predicated on the fact that she is undiscerning (cf. al-Masʿūdī).

74 Perceiving Ibn Khallikān’s own rhetorical bent in the arrangement of the ensuing material is problematic, not least because most of it rings familiar from readings of earlier historiographers, e.g., the execution of Jaʿfar at the hands of the ill-starred Yāsir depends on materials in al-Masʿūdī. But the exact arrangement is quite distinct, in subtle ways (al-Nuwayrī followed Ibn Khallikān quite closely in Nihāyat al-arab).

75 Ibn Khallikān, tr. De Slane, i, 302.

76 Cf. the theme of augury in pseudo-Ibn Qutayba. For the commonplace interdependence of recognition and augury in narrative consider Homer’s Odyssey and the Joseph story.

77 Ibn Khallikān, tr. De Slane, i, 306. Cf. al-Masʿūdī where Jaʿfar attempts to resist.

78 Ibid., i, 310.

79 Khawam, Ruses, 27-30. I have thus far had access to this unpublished Arabic text in Khawam’s French translation.

80 Ibid., 43-45.

81 Ibid., 53-65.

82 Cf. the extraordinary true story of Dr James Barry, d. 1865, recounted in Burton, Impostures, 140 ff.

83 Khawam, Ruses, 77-80.

84 Ibid., 81-105.

85 Ibid., 135-136.

86 Cf. the use of this motif in the Nights tale of ʿAzīz and ʿAzīza, a version of which, not insignificantly, rounds off al-Hawrānī’s collection.

87 Having al-Rashīd written into the staging of the bedtrick intensifies the drama and the sense of his betrayal. This is one of the popular flourishes of the text.

88 The caliph should have noticed this! But that is a detail of realism which concerned the redactors as little as the pregnancies of Scheherazade passing unnoticed by Shahrayar during the 1001 Nights.

89 This may be a displacement of the ʿAlid element in earlier historiography — the release of Yaḥyā b. ʿAbdallāh which so angered al-Rashīd; in some predetermined (and over-determined) sense the offspring of Jaʿfar and Maymūna are condemned to be suppressed as a result of the fictional names they are given: there is no trace of them in history, which there would otherwise surely be — fiction has its cake and eats it: giving political import to characters in the names it invents for them, then killing them off to explain their absence from subsequent political history.

90 Muḥammad Diyāb al-Atlīdī was a seventeenth century author from Atlidam, near Minya, in Egypt. He spent the majority of his life in Cairo where he compiled his anthology ca. 1688. See Sadan, Nomad versus Sedentary, 60.

91 Ibid., 60.

92 For other versions of this tale, with some significant distinctive details, cf. Pinault, Story-Telling Techniques, 99-139.

93 This detail is apparent from the manuscripts of the tale (differing from the Nights’ version) studied by Pinault, Story-Telling Techniques.

94 Al-Atlīdī, Iʿlām, 70-73.

95 There is a topical resemblance between this tale and the anecdote told about Hārūn al-Rashīd on pilgrimage to Mecca; cf. Nawas, Toward fresh directions, 24-25 (citing Gibb, Haroon and the Great Abbasids).

96 Sadan, Nomad versus Sedentary, 77.

97 For a recent review of Mardrus, cautioning any trust in his work, see Irwin, Companion, 36-40 (and 301, n. 19 for a detailed bibliography); also Larzul, Les Traductions françaises, 139-220, who provides a litany of foibles. Note, however, that Kilito, L’Oeil et l’aiguille, 35-38, makes good use of Mardrus.

98 See Sadan, Death of a Princess, 148 n. 43 on Mardrus’s sources, including Larzul, Les Traductions françaises, 150, on Mardrus and the origin of the Barmakid story, a reference to Perron, Femmes arabes avant et depuis l’Islamisme, which contains a version of the Jaʿfar-ʿAbbāsa intrigue (401 ff.). This version, however, which draws on, e.g., Ibn Khallikān, can by no means be considered Mardrus’s unique source, though certain elements from it may have influenced the French translator (e.g., reference to the fact that Hārūn al-Rashīd was unwittingly “torturing” his sister and his vizier with his eccentric marital arrangements).

99 Mardrus, iv, 518-519.

100 Ibid., 519-521.

101 El-Hibri, Reinterpreting Islamic Historiography, 54. It is striking that El-Hibri discusses al-Rashīd’s death scene after his treatment of a tropology in the treatment of the Barmakids.

102 It is the anachronism of the historian al-Ṭabarī being given the role of annalist and courtier of the caliph which suggests that Mardrus cannot have invented this epilogue but inherited it from some popular Arabic source; such misidentification of characters is common in the more popular and later renderings of the story.

103 We are reminded in this respect of one of the most stunning exemplary tales in the Nights, Dūbān and Yūnān (akin to Borges’s “The Mirror of Ink”).

104 The semantics that connect these two epilogues can be gleaned from “Haroun Er Reshid and the Woman of the Barmecides” (translated from the Breslau Arabic text of the Nights, vi, 189-191) by Payne in Tales from the Arabic, i, 57-58.

105 Mardrus, 512.

106 Ibid., 512.

107 Ibid., 518.

108 Cf. Sadan, Death of a Princess, passim.

109 If we accept that narrative structure, unlike historical veracity, is like an evolutionary process, always progressing.

110 Mardrus, iv, 518.

111 In this tale, the caliph appears accidentally to witness the bizarre charade of the False Caliph; but in fact the true sovereign’s presence has been orchestrated by the masquerader — in a most complicated lifestyle of dissimulation — in order to achieve the desired goal: the mending of his sundered marriage to Jaʿfar’s sister, Dunyā; this orchestration can be seen in the uncanny knowledge the False Caliph has of whom he is addressing midway through the story: it is an instance of both firāsa (rendered effective by dint of the poetic, non-referential, register in which his knowledge is expressed) and canny, albeit convoluted, maneuvering.

112 The Arabian Nights romances are not in general akin to the genre of Maṣāriʿ al-ʿushshāq, tales (about the deaths of lovers) which themselves often culminate in tragic recognition; cf. Leder, The ʿUdhrī narrative in Arabic literature.

113 For a detailed discussion of the mythic and historical background of this tale see Bencheikh, Historical and Mythical Baghdad.

114 It contains a similar generic dissonance posited independently by both Hamori and Bencheikh for the complete cycle of Qamar al-Zamān and his two sons.

115 See Bencheikh, Historical and Mythical Baghdad.

116 Ibid., 21.

117 Italicised is an important detail in the accounts of the public execution of Jaʿfar.

118 Ibid., 23.

119 Ibid., 24.

120 Cf. Hamori, A Comic Romance, 43 (“each love scene is preceded by a metonymy of the hero’s death”).

121 Leiden, 219-225; Būlāq, i, 51-54; Macnaghten, i, 142-148; Breslau, i, 350 to ii, 4; Lane, i, 250-258; Burton, i, 186-195; Haddawy, i, 150-157.

122 Cf. Zubayda (not al-Rashīd’s wife) in “ʿAlāʾ al-Dīn Abū l-Shāmāt.”

123 The setting is utterly fictive and ahistorical.

124 This narrative syntax is more apparent in Būlāq than in Leiden: cf. Būlāq, i, 54: in qadara llāhu wa-khaṭabnā . . . nuzawwijhumā li-baʿḍihimā: this conditional locution gives way to the more declarative grammar of the following utterance: lā uzawwiju bintī li-waladika wa-law wazantu thiqlahā dhahaban . . .

125 On the significance of the consistently emphasized physical beauty of Nūr al-Dīn, his son and grandson, cf. the importance Miquel, Nûr ad-Dîn, 193 and passim, attaches to this detail as an attribute of recognition.

126 As Miquel, Nûr ad-Dîn, 208, has pointed out, Badr al-Dīn’s beauty is moon-like, like Endymion.

127 Būlāq, i, 58.

128 Cf. Bencheikh, Historical and Mythical Baghdad, 71, who questions the logic of the presence of a Jew in a Muslim cemetery.

129 In a flawed detail of Leiden there is indication that only Badr al-Dīn keeps a copy of the proof of purchase. On this element of the tale, cf. also Miquel, Nûr ad-Dîn, 207.

130 For a discussion of the bride’s name, which can be read when unvocalized as Sitt al-Ḥasan (Badr al-Dīn’s full names is Badr al-Dīn Ḥasan al-Baṣrī), see Miquel, Nûr ad-Dîn, 220-221: “. . . n’est il pas émouvant de penser que les pères de ces deux enfants nés le même jour leur ont finalement, sans le savoir, l’un en Irak et l’autre en Egypte, donné le même nom ou presque? La révélation tardive de celui de la jeune fille n’en aurait que plus d’effet: ce nom, il ne devient vraiment sien qu’au moment où, tous les obstacles abolis, il est sûr enfin qu’elle ne sera la «dame» d’aucun autre. Son union avec Hasan Badr al-Dîn étant prés de se réaliser, les puissances dont le nom est le siège et le signe peuvent alors être dévoilées, comme l’amante à son amante.” Here Miquel makes a fine argument pertinent to a narrative of becoming, a dynamic commonly subtending stories about recognition and identity.

131 3,000 dinars have become 1,000. On other and related material aspects of the story, cf. Miquel, Nûr ad-Dîn, 212.

132 For motives behind this detail that may be other than functionalist in terms of the construction of the plot, see Miquel, Nûr ad-Dîn, 230, in which he describes the emotions driving the habit of preserving the space once occupied by one now deceased or disappeared; this might also then be a detail that is independent of any narrative scheme.

133 A phrase, taken from Sūra 12 of the Qur’an, repeated often by Badr al-Dīn in the coda of the Būlāq version of the story.

134 On ʿAjīb’s quest for identity, and the dimension it gives to the tale, see Miquel, Nûr ad-Dîn, 224-226: the nature of Badr al-Dīn’s own identity is established from two directions of parental affinity: by the quest of both his father and his son whose legitimacy is instituted in culminating events.

135 Cf. Hamori’s comment (A Comic Romance, 54, n. 34) on the way the midrashic tradition explains why it is that Joseph, once established as potentate in Egypt, did not seek for many years to reassure his father Jacob of his own survival.

136 As Bencheikh, op. cit., 74, points out, Badr al-Dīn in Damascus is simply waiting to become himself, in chrysalis, a sort of dis-animated body: jasadun bi-lā rūḥ.

137 Haddawy, 189. The attention ʿAjīb attracts in Damascus from both his father and others is a recognition — muted, but there; in a film narrative a musical leitmotif would accompany his appearances, achieving simply a greater intensity in the culminating moment.

138 See especially the view of Bencheikh, op. cit., 48: “Révélons . . . que, durant le séjour de Badr à Damas, sa mère vit à Bassora et sa cousine au Caire, sans qu’on nous dise un seul mot. Le conte les sollicitera au moment voulu et pour des raisons bien précises.” This is an anti-humanistic way of reading the text which we must attenuate in our own reading of other, more significant, elements and characters.

139 Haddawy, 195.

140 Ibid., 198.

141 Ibid., 198-199.

142 Ibid., 201.

143 Rather like Penelope in Book 23 of The Odyssey.

144 This is a significant intertextual detail of Būlāq: we know that aḍghāth aḥlām (“tangled nightmares”) came true in the locus classicus and generative moment of their occurrence in a recognition story: Pharaoh’s dream came true in adumbration of Joseph’s incandescent recognition of God and the significance of prophecy. There is a meeting here between the human and the divine.

145 Haddawy, 205.

146 Cf. Leiden, 279: yā waladī bāna l-ḥaqqu wa-ẓahara mā takhabbā.

147 As Bencheikh, op. cit., 72, has pointed out so cogently, in the mechanism of recognition Badr al-Dīn has been caught up by each phase of his identity-constituting biography: “lorsque Badr se réveille, dans la chambre où, treize ans auparavant, il a couché avec une jeune fille inconnue, il est si profondément perturbé qu’il ne sait plus quelle partie de sa vie appartient au rêve et quelle autre à la réalité. Il lui faut donc se prouver que c’est bien lui, Badr, qui a successivement été le fils d’un vizier à Bassora, le fuyard du cimitière, l’époux du Caire, le restaurateur de Damas. Pour chacun de ces phases qui se sont suivies d’une manière incompréhensible, il a besoin d’une preuve établissant leur réalité. Ainsi peut-il reconstituer l’unité et la réalité de son existence.”

148 Cf. Leiden, 225: Hārūn al-Rashīd is described upon hearing The Three Apples: fa-taʿajjaba l-khalīfa kulla l-ʿajab wa-ḍaḥika ḥattā nqalaba wa-qāla fa-qul inna sababa l-fitna ʿabduka qāla naʿam yā amīra l-muʾminīna fa-akhadha l-khalīfa l-taʿajjub kathīran bi-hādhihi l-ittifāqāt fa-qāla Jaʿfar li-amīr al-muʾminīn lā taʿjab min hādhā fa-mā huwa aʿjab min ḥadīthi l-wazīrayn . . . Cf. Būlāq, 54: amara [al-khalīfa] an tuʾarrakh hādhihi l-ḥikāya wa-tujʿal sayyiran bayna l-nāsi fa-qāla lahu Jaʿfar lā taʿjab yā amīr al-muʾminīn min hādhihi l-qiṣṣa fa-mā hiya bi-aʿjab min ḥadīth al-wazīrayn nūr al-dīn maʿa shams al-dīn akhīhi . . . (The English title, The Two Viziers, refers to Nūr al-Dīn and Badr al-Dīn in Leiden and to Nūr al-Dīn and Shams al-Dīn in Būlāq; this is a minor detail, but indicates the spread or even shared complexity of roles in the story.)

149 Cf. Hamori, A Comic Romance, 39: “In these tales piety sanctions wonder at coincidence, and approves delight in the mere intricacy of design.”

150 This break does not exist in the Būlāq edition at all; furthermore, the bulk of the story occupies the 19th Night.

151 Cf. Sadan, Death of a Princess, passim.

152 This is the label he gives to the section of his essay dealing with recognition (see below).

153 Pinault, Story-Telling Techniques, 87-88.

154 Leiden, 52.

155 On ignorance cf. loc. cit.

156 Such stories are a favorite of the fiction of Borges, who even borrowed the device from the Nights.

157 This is all part of the tension between the marvelous and the real discussed by Miquel, op. cit., 197; cf. also his discussion on page 246 on how numinous agency defers to the human.

158 The fine literary qualities of the tale are also attested in the use the redactor makes of poetry throughout; we have not addressed this element in our analysis, but cf. Miquel, op. cit., 196. Miquel has further provided an excellent defense of this story, which by others has been simply characterized as a “roman bourgeois” (193); for him it is a “roman d’amour”: “pris dans un extraordinaire masse d’événements qui défient, pour toujours peut-ètre, l’analyse exhaustive.” Miquel’s study is untiring in examining the details of realism in the story, e.g., the elements describing the voyages undertaken by the players which allow one to demythologize the story and appreciate simultaneously “la réalité quotidienne et modeste des choses” (196).

159 Pace esp. Bencheikh, Les Milles et Une Nuits, ch. 2.

160 One incidental detail is absent from this desire: that they should necessarily be aware of each other’s nuptials on the actual day.


Primary Sources

Alf layla

  • ʿAbd al-Raḥmān al-Sharqāwī Alf layla 1835 Cairo Būlāq

  • Macnaghten W. H. The Alif Laila or Book of the Thousand and One Nights 1839-42 Calcutta

  • Mahdi Muhsin Alf layla wa-layla/The Thousand and One Nights 1984-94 3 vols Leiden Brill

  • Habicht M. & Fleischer M. H. L. Tausend und Eine Nacht, Arabisch. Nach einer Handschrift herausgegeben 1825-43 12 vols Breslau Josef Max & Co.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Haddawy Husain The Arabian Nights 1990 New York Vintage [based on a Fourteenth-Century Syrian Manuscript edited by Muhsin Mahdi]

  • Burton R. F. The Book of the Thousand Nights and One Night 1886 10 vols London The Burton Club

  • The Book of the Thousand Nights and One Night: rendered into English from the literal [sic] and complete French translation of Dr J.C. Mardrus by Powys Mathers 1972 New York Routledge (reprint)

    • Search Google Scholar