Friday, July 10, 2009

A Woman from the Arabian Nights

No single work of literature in the world contains more fascinating women than the Arabian Nights. The most amazing thing about the book is that it contains women of every imaginable shade, and each single one of them is unforgettable. There are hundreds of women whose stories are told in the Nights, but no two women are alike, and no two women’s stories are the same. There are women who display the highest love and devotion and there are betrayers and adulteresses by the score; there are women the savagery of whose acts is beyond belief and others whose goodness is equally unbelievable; if there are women whose powers would awe you, there are others whose beauty will caste a spell over you; if women of great chastity abound, there are innumerable sex hungry women whose predatoriness will stop at nothing.

I was looking for scholarly women in literature when I came across this particular woman in the Arabian Nights, one of my all-time favourite books. I wonder if literature has ever portrayed a woman of more amazing learning. Or of wit, for that matter. And she is young and breathtakingly beautiful too. Fearless, daring, assertive, proactive…a woman or substance in every sense of the term. Her name, in Payne’s translation of the Arabian Nights is Taweddud. Burton spells her name Tawaddud. Lane chooses to omit her story.

Abu al-Husn [spelt Aboulhusn in Burton’s translation] is the son of a rich merchant in Baghdad. After his pious father’s death, Abu began living an extravagant life in the company of his friends, spending all his wealth on drinks, food, and women. After a while there is nothing left of his enormous wealth, and all his friends desert him, as frequently happens. Deep in sorrow, he stays in his room without eating or drinking, refusing to leave the room for three days. And then his only possession left, Tawaddud, the slave girl his father had given to him, comes to him.

This is how the story describes Tawaddud’d beauty: “She was noted for her swimming gait, flexile and delicate, albeit she was full five feet in height and by all the boons of fortune deckt and dight, with strait arched brows twain, as they were the crescent moon of Sha'ab├ín, and eyes like gazelles' eyne; and nose like the edge of scymitar fine and cheeks like anemones of blood-red shine; and mouth like Solomon's seal and sign and teeth like necklaces of pearls in line; and navel holding an ounce of oil of benzoin and waist more slender than his [Aboulhusn’s] body whom love hath wasted, and hind parts heavier than two hills of sand.”

Tawaddud asks Abu al-Husn to take her to the sultan, Harun al-Rashid, and sell her to him for ten thousand dinars. She asks her master not to sell her for any less, for she is worth even more, and if the sultan had any doubts about her merits, then he can have her merits tested and she is sure to prove her merits. Abu al-Husn does as she asks him to do.

The sultan asks her what her name is and she says, “"My name is Tawaddud." He then enquires, "O Tawaddud, in what branches of knowledge dost thou excel?" and she replies, "O my lord, I am versed in syntax and poetry and jurisprudence and exegesis and philosophy; and I am skilled in music and the knowledge of the Divine ordinances and in arithmetic and geodesy and geometry and the fables of the ancients. I know the Sublime Koran by heart and have read it according to the seven, the ten and the fourteen modes. I know the number of its chapters and verses and sections and words; and its halves and fourths and eighths and tenths; the number of prostrations which occur in it and the sum total of its letters; and I know what there is in it of abrogating and abrogated; also what parts of it were revealed at Al-Medinah and what at Meccah and the cause of the different revelations. I know the Holy Traditions of the Apostle's sayings, historical and legendary, the established and those whose ascription is doubtful; and I have studied the exact sciences, geometry and philosophy and medicine and logic and rhetoric and composition; and I have learnt many things by rote and am passionately fond of poetry. I can play the lute and know its gamut and notes and notation and the crescendo and diminuendo. If I sing and dance, I seduce, and if I dress and scent myself, I slay. In fine, I have reached a pitch of perfection such as can be estimated only by those of them who are firmly rooted in knowledge."

There are things she knows but she does not mention here: for instance, she is a mistress of the game of chess.


That is amazing indeed! What incredible scholarship! And what intelligence that requires to achieve such mastery over so many subjects – I am sure that’s the list of every known subject of the day – at such a young age – Tawaddud is only in her teens. And I like her eloquence, assertiveness, confidence and resourcefulness as much as I like her intelligence and scholarship. And look at her self-image! “If I sing and dance, I seduce, and if I dress and scent myself, I slay.”

Beauty and the brains, and so many other things besides!

I must interrupt here to add something that Fatema Mernissi says in her book Scheherezade Goes West. Mernissi quotes the German philosopher Immanuel Kant, one of the most important modern German philosophers, who says: "Laborious learning, even if a woman should greatly succeed in it, destroys the merits that are proper to her sex, and because of their rarity they can make of her an object of cold admiration; but at the same time they will weaken the charms with which she exercises her great power over the other sex." And then, after quoting him, she says: “Kant's message is quite basic: Femininity is the beautiful, masculinity is the sublime. The sublime is, of course, the capacity to think, to rise higher than the animal and the physical world. And you'd better keep the distinction straight, because a woman who dares to be intelligent is punished on the spot: She is ugly. The tone in Kant's book is as cutting as that of a Muslim Imam. The only difference between an Imam and Kant, who is considered to be "the chief luminary of the German Enlightenment," is that the philosopher's frontier does not concern the division of space into private (women) and public (men) realms, but into beauty (women) and intelligence (men). Unlike Harun Ar-Rachid, a caliph who equated beauty with erudition, and paid astronomical sums for the witty jarya in his harem, Kant's ideal woman was speechless.”

I must also add here something that I have written about in many of my articles including The Silencing of Draupadi and Re-imagining Indian Womanhood: Sita as a Woman of Substance [both available online]. While in later days Indian culture came to admire the speechless woman, the women who inhabit our epic space are far from speechless – their eloquence is astounding. Even Sita, who is generally perceived as the epitome of submissiveness and obedience, is astonishingly powerful in her speech in the Valmiki Ramayana. Her assertiveness is unbelievable. While asking Rama to take her with him on his fourteen-year exile she tells him: “I am coming with you to the jungle today – let there be no doubt about this. Noble One, once I have made up my mind, nothing can turn me back.”
Barring one single occasion in her life, Sita is eloquent and assertive throughout the Ramayana. And the same assertiveness and eloquence is found in woman after woman in our epic literature – in Kunti, in Satyavati, in Shakuntala, in Tara, in Amba and in numerous others.

In fact, I would say there is hardly a beautiful woman in ancient Indian literature who did not combine intelligence, learning and power of speech. Tara, who becomes the wife of both of Bali and Sugriva, displays astonishing brilliance, eloquence, power, learning and competence. Ravana accuses Sita of speaking as if she were a scholar – in her own way, she was, though her scholarship wasn’t a match to that of Ravana, who was among the greatest scholars of his age. Hanuman too senses Sita’s intelligence with a mere look at her the first time he sees her. Draupadi is famous for her beauty, intelligence, eloquence, power, assertiveness and learning. And all these women were of unsurpassed beauty.


Well, to continue with Tawaddud’s story, the incredible list that she mentions astonishes Harun al-Rashid as much as it astonishes us today. According to the story, Tawaddud is quite young at this time and only in her teens. “When the Khalif heard her words, he wondered at them and at the eloquence of her speech, seeing the tenderness of her age, and turning to Aboulhusn, said to him, 'I will summon those who shall examine her in all she lays claim to; if she answers [correctly,] I will give thee the price thou askest for her and more; and if not, thou art fitter to [possess] her [than I].' 'With all my heart, O Commander of the Faithful,' replied Aboulhusn. So the Khalif wrote to the Viceroy of Bassora, to send him Ibrahim ben Siyyar the poet, who was the first man of his day in argument and eloquence and poetry and logic, and bade him bring with him readers of the Koran and doctors of the law and physicians and astrologers and sages and geometricians and philosophers.”

To be continued….2


Note: I have quoted much from Burton’s as well as Payne’s text directly for the charm of their language and the liveliness of their narration. The spellings are slightly different in the two translations, but that shouldn’t pose any problem for the reader. Incidentally, Payne’s translation is the earlier one. Burton’s translation, which came soon after Payne’s, is almost identical with that of Payne, for which reason Burton has been accused of plagiarising Payne, an accusation that we find is easily justified when we compare their texts.

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