The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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- An interrogation of the Arabian Nights - I

So: how many women did they actually kill, this King, this Shahryar, the Sassanid monarch of the island or peninsula (jazeera) of “India and China,” and his brother Shah Zaman, sovereign ruler over barbarian Samarkand' It began, or so the story goes, when Shah Zaman found his wife in the arms of a palace cook, whose chief characteristics were that he was (a) black, (b) huge and (c) covered in kitchen grease. In spite of, or perhaps because of these characteristics, the queen of Samarkand was obviously having far too much fun, so Shah Zaman chopped her and her lover into several pieces, left them there on the bed of their delight, and headed for his brother’s home; where, not long afterwards, he chanced to espy his sister-in-law, Shahryar’s queen, in a garden, by a fountain, in the company of ten ladies-in-waiting and ten white slaves. The ten and ten were busy gratifying one another; the queen, however, summoned her own lover down from a convenient tree. This hideous fellow was — yes! — (a) black, (b) huge and (c) slobbering. What fun they had, the ten and ten and the queen and her “blackamoor”! Ah, the malice and treachery of womankind, and the unaccountable attraction of huge, ugly, dripping black men! Shah Zaman told his brother what he had seen; whereupon the ladies in waiting, the white slaves and the queen all met their fates, personally executed by Shahryar’s chief minister, his Vizier or Wazir. The slobbering black lover of Shahryar’s late queen escaped, or so it seems; how else to explain his absence from the list of the dead'

Lucky man!

King Shahryar and King Shah Zaman duly took their revenge on faithless womankind. For three years, they each married, fucked and then ordered the execution of a fresh virgin every night. It is not clear how Shah Zaman in Samarkand went about his gory business, but of Shahryar’s methods there are things that can be told. It is known, for instance, that the Vizier — Scheherazade’s father, Shahryar’s wise prime minister — was obliged to carry out the executions himself. All those beautiful young bodies, decapitated; all those tumbling heads and bloody, spurting necks. The Vizier was a cultured gentleman: not only a man of power but also a person of discernment, even of delicate sensibilities — he must have been, must he not, to have raised such a paragon, such a wondrously gifted, multiply accomplished, heroically courageous, selfless daughter as Scheherazade' And Dunyazad, too, let’s not forget the kid sister, Dunyazad. Another good, smart, decent girl. What would it do to the soul of the father of such fine girls to be forced to execute young women by the hundred, to slit girls’ throats and see their lifeblood flow' What secret fury might have burgeoned in his subtle breast' We are not told. We do know, however, that Shahryar’s subjects began to resent him mightily, and to flee his capital city with their womenfolk, so that after three years there were no virgins to be found in town.

No virgins except Scheherazade and Dunyazad.

How did Shahryar behave towards his doomed brides' Was he cold or hot' Did he roughly deflower them and then hurl them scornfully at his chosen axeman, or did he treat them, while they lived through that single night in the conjugal bed, like the queens they so briefly and fatally became' Did he show them tenderness, was he merely aroused or was he careful, did he give pleasure as well as receiving it, and did these royal couplings improbably achieve, beneath Death’s watchful gaze, a few moments of delirious abandon' And if the girls saw desire in his eyes, did they dare to dream, during their dreadful first-and-last nights, that the king’s lust might save them' Did he torment his victims by granting them the priapic illusion of hope'

There are no answers. There are only questions. We are alone with our imaginations, and with arithmetic.

Three years: one thousand and ninety-five nights, one thousand and ninety-five dead queens for Shahryar, one thousand and ninety-five more for Shah Zaman, or one thousand and ninety-six each if a leap year was involved. Let’s err on the low side. One thousand and ninety-five each let it be. And let us not forget the original twenty-three. By the time Scheherazade entered the story, marrying King Shahryar and ordering her sister Dunyazad to sit at the foot of the marital bed and to ask, after Scheherazade’s deflowering was complete, to be told a bedtime this time, Shahryar and Shah Zaman were already responsible for two thousand, two hundred and thirteen deaths. Only eleven of the dead were men.

Shahryar, upon marrying Scheherazade and being captivated by her tales, stopped killing women. Shah Zaman, untamed by literature, went right on with his vengeful work, slaughtering each morning the virgin he’d ravished the night before, demonstrating to the female sex the power of men over women, the ability of men to separate fornication from love, and the inevitable union, as far as women were concerned, of sexuality and death. In Samarkand the carnage continued for at least another one thousand nights and one night, because it was only at the conclusion of the entire cycle of Scheherazade’s tales, when that greatest of storytellers begged to be spared, not in recognition of her genius but only for the sake of the three sons she had given Shahryar during the fabled years, and when Shahryar confessed his love for her, the last of his one thousand and ninety-eight wives, and gave up all pretence of murderous intent, that Shah Zaman’s project also ended; cleansed at last of blood-lust, he asked for, and received, sweet Dunyazad’s hand in marriage.

The minimum total number of the dead by this time was, by my calculation, three thousand, two hundred and fourteen.

Only eleven of the dead were men.

Three thousand, two hundred and three headless queens. The human body contains six quarts, 5.6 litres, of blood. If the queens were killed by simple beheading, then their hearts would have stopped at once and much of this blood would have coagulated within their lifeless bodies. If, however, they were killed as animals were, that is to say, by having their throats slit so that the heart could go on pumping, then almost eighteen thousand litres of human blood would have poured out of three thousand-odd necks. The average household bath holds two hundred litres. The dead queens provided enough blood to fill ninety baths, enough for Shahryar and Shah Zaman to bathe once a month in human blood during the three pre-Scheherazade years, and for Shah Zaman to go on bathing in this fashion, monthly, until he, too, saw the light. Is that what they did' We cannot know. We have only arithmetic and imagination to help us understand.

Ninety blood baths. Imagine that.

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