Cupbearer with orange turban. Persian
miniature painting by the School of Reza Abbasi, ca. 1620. Iran, Safavid period. Opaque watercolor, ink and gold on paper. Paris, Musée du Louvre, OA 35508.
From The Book of the Thousand Nights and One Night (Arabic: أَلْف لَيْلَة وَلَيْلَة ʾAlf layla wa-layla, Persian: هزار و یک شب Hezār-o yek šab; 9th–14th Century), rendered into English from the literal and complete French translation of Dr. J. C. Mardrus by Powys Mathers, Volume 2 (London; New York: Routledge, 1989). First edition published in 1923 in England by the Casanova Society.
The Youth and his Master
It is related that the wazīr Badr al-Dīn, governor of Yaman, had a young brother, whose beauty was so incomparable that both men and women would stop and turn when he passed them and stand bathing their eyes in the charm of his appearance. The wazīr, who feared that some untimely adventure might come to so fair a being, kept him far from the regard of men and prevented him from companionship with lads of his own age. Not wishing to send him to school, where he might not be sufficiently watched, he had a venerable and pious old man, whose manners were notoriously chaste, come to the house as tutor. This old man visited every day and was shut up for many hours together with the pupil in a room which the wazīr had set aside for the lessons.
It was not long before the beauty and seduction of the boy had their usual effect; after a few days the old man was so violently in love with his young charge that he heard all the birds singing again in his soul and, at their singing, something woke which had long slept.
Knowing no other way to master this feeling, he opened his heart to the boy and assured him that he could no longer live without him. ‘Alas,’ said the youth, who was deeply touched by the emotion of his teacher, ‘my hands are tied, and every minute of my time is watched over by my brother.’ The old man sighed and said: ‘How I long to pass an evening alone with you!’ ‘You may well say so,’ retorted the other. ‘If my days are so well guarded, what do you think is done about my nights?’ ‘I know, I know,’ said the old man, ‘but the terrace of my house joins the terrace of this; it should be easy, when your brother is asleep, to climb up noiselessly on to your terrace. There I will meet you and lead you over the little barrier wall on to my terrace. No one can spy on us there.’
At this point Shahrazād saw the approach of morning and discreetly fell silent.
Said King Shahryār to himself: ‘I will not kill her until I know what passed between the youth and his master!’
So when the three-hundred-and-seventy-fifth night had come
The youth accepted the invitation. He pretended to go to sleep that night, but, as soon as his brother the wazīr had retired, climbed on to the terrace, where the old man was waiting for him. The sage led him by the hand over the boundary wall on to his own terrace, where fruits and filled wine cups were arranged for his entertainment. They sat down on a white mat in the moonlight and began to drink and sing together, the clear night aiding and inspiring them and the stars’ soft rays lighting them on to ecstasy.
As the time was thus passing pleasantly, the wazīr Badr al-Dīn took it into his head to visit his young brother, before lying down himself to sleep, and was mightily astonished not to find him. After searching the whole house, he went up on to the terrace and, approaching the boundary wall, saw his brother and the old man sitting side by side with wine cups in their hands. As good luck would have it, the old man had, on his side, noticed the approach of the wazīr and, being possessed of a ready tact, he broke off the song on which he was engaged and improvised a stanza so adroitly that it appeared to belong to the original:
His mouth graced the cup with his spittle
Before it met mine,
And the shame of his cheek dimmed a little
The red of the wine. . . .
His excellent brother, the Full Moon of Duty,
Can hardly object
If I call this sweet other the Full Moon of Beauty
Serene and unflecked.
When the wazīr Badr al-Dīn heard this delicate allusion, being a discreet and very gallant man, and also seeing nothing improper between the two, he retired, saying to himself: ‘As Allāh lives, I will not trouble their festivity.’ So the couple continued their evening in perfect happiness.
Colorized postcard showing a turbaned arab boy with jasmine flowers over his ear. Tunisia, c. 1905. Photograph by Lehnert & Landrock.