The Arabian Nights, or as we Arabs call it (One Thousand and One Nights), contains a fantastical story called “The Story of Hassan of Basra”. What I appreciate the most in the story is how it depicts a modern dilemma that today’s women face. Namely, how us women give up our power in the name of romantic love and later must fight tooth and nail to reclaim it. When I was writing Graffiti Hack, I created my own version of “The Story of Hassan of Basra” that focuses on the woman figure to include as a story within a story. I am aware that my version is different from the original text of Arabian Nights.
The Lady With Feather Dress (A story from Arabian Nights)
Praise be to god, the forgiving and the compassionate.
Praise be to god, who knows all hidden things.
Praise be to god, who created the whole universe and managed to wedge his mercy into every tiny dust spec.
Nothing is so strange it cannot be true. No story is so unlikely it cannot be told. No lie has a place in a story, for every tale is a magnetic levitation train that leads to the capital city of the truth.
There are three types of people in this world. The first learn from experience; these are wise. The second learn from others, these people are happy. The third learn from no place at all, these, my dear friend, are fools.
This is the mother of all stories. The wise will understand it. The happy will delight in it. And the fools will be bamboozled by it.
Long long time ago, in a faraway land, lived a handsome young man called Hassan of Basra. Basra, back then, same as now is a city in southern Iraq, located at the crossroads between the Mediterranean and trade roads heading towards China. Hassan was so charming that women from far and close competed with each other to capture his attention. He received gifts, love poems, party invitations and even (from the most confident of admirers) marriage proposals. Everywhere he went he was lavished with sly winks, loaded smiles and attentions that made all other men present feel uncomfortable. What young man would not grow arrogant in light of such adoration? I beg you to contemplate that question. To the great dismay of all his lady fans, Hassan remained unimpressed. He courteously acknowledged each broken heart, with the dreaded “Let’s be friends”.
Hassan’s mind was occupied with a different matter altogether – he was bankrupt. Zilch is what he found in his money sack after a lively escapade in the tavern one early morning. Penniless, broke, there were no more dinars. After squandering his entire fortune left to him by his father on wine and gallant company, he decided to sail away to strange lands to seek new fortunes.
Some people have all the luck in in the world, no matter how foolishly they behave. Hassan of Basra was a member of the clan of these lucky clowns that all of us hate yet secretly wish we could join. Everywhere he sailed, he met new friends and new admirers. Kings lavished him with gifts in return for a charming conversation. Treasure, he effortlessly found one evening while wandering in an abandoned field. He kicked a rock for sport and found a trove of jewels. Just like that!
Yet there was something else that Hassan found on his adventure. Something that he didn’t know he was looking for, yet as soon as his sight beheld it, he couldn’t live without it. Gazing at the sea from a high terrace one night, he was struck by the graceful movements of a large bird who had landed on the beach. Suddenly the bird shed what turned out to be a dress made of feathers, and out stepped a beautiful naked woman, who ran to swim in the waves. She outdid in beauty all human beings. She had a mouth as magical as Solomon’s seal and hair blacker than the night….She had lips like corals and teeth like strung pearls….Her middle was full of folds….She had thighs great and plump, like marble columns. But what captivated Hassan from Basra the most was what lay between her thighs: “a rounded dome, like a bowl of silver or crystal.”
Smitten with love, Hassan stole the beauty’s feather dress while she was swimming and buried it in a secret tomb. Deprived of her wings, the woman became his captive. Hassan installed her in a palace back in Basra showering her with silks and precious stones. But he couldn’t entice, not even a single grateful glance from the beauty. He doubled his charm and adorned his visage with his most radiant smile. None of his usual magic held potency in this rarest of situations. Hassan went mad, he was at his wits end, this was a new challenge, the likes of which he has never encountered before. Desperate times require desperate measures. Hassan wrote love poetry and learned to play the flute. He stood under the window of the object of his desire and serenaded her with tender words of affection that would melt even the none existing heart of a rock. She sighed, rolled her eyes and complained that his singing gave her a headache. Upon consulting with one of his wiser lady friends, he got the advice to hold a party at his palace and introduce the lady with the feather dress to his adoring fans. This seemed counter intuitive to Hassan, but at that point he was willing to try anything. A lavish party was thrown and nearly all the women of Basra and neighboring villages attended to hold sight of the miraculous beauty that had enchanted their idol. They stood around in their finest clothes like a bevy of widows giving each other support in their darkest hour. During the banquet, the lady with the feather dress looked across the room. She saw women of different shapes, sizes, ages, social statuses and fashion senses. And they all had a single thing in common. They all wished they could be in her shoes. When she saw the look of envy in their eyes, something mysterious began to stir in her chest. Was it vanity? Was it the need to be adored? Or was it some other calamity to which we have not yet attributed a name yet? Who knows! Soon after the party a wedding date was set. Honeymoon lasted for 40 days and 40 nights. Hassan became the happiest man on the planet earth. She bore him two sons. After two years of blissful marriage, he relaxed his attentive tenderness, believing that she would never again think about flying. He started traveling on long trips to increase his fortune again, and was astonished to discover one day when he returned from an adventure that his wife, who had never stopped looking for her feather dress, had finally found it and flown away.
At first she only wanted to try it on – for old times’ sake. When she felt the wind in her face and sensed the flight motion in her body a flood of yearning overcome her. Old memories began to rush through her mind. “I thought I was happy “ she said out loud “I thought I had everything that I needed”.
Taking her sons in her bosom, she wrapped herself in the feather dress and became a bird, by the ordinance of god to whom alone belongs absolute might and absolute majesty. She walked with a swaying and graceful gait and danced and flapped her wings, flying away to reach her native island of Waq Waq. Yet before leaving, she left a message for Hassan: He could join her if he had the courage to do so. No one knew then, and still less know now, where the mysterious “Waq Waq” — land of faraway strangeness — is located. Arab historians such as Mas’udi, the ninth-century author of Golden Meadows, situated it in East Africa, beyond Zanzibar, while Marco Polo describes Waq Waq as the land of the Amazons, or the “female island”. Others identify Waq Waq as being in Madagascar, or Malacca, and still others situate it in China or Indonesia.
Night after night Hassan of Basra wept till he fainted. During the day he wandered the streets like a dervish in a daze. Two months passed and the perpetual bewilderment of Hassan continued. Until, one day, an ancient Jinni heard of Hassan’s story through an intermediary. The Jinni’s heart was griped with a rare sentiment of compassion and appeared before Hassan in the middle of the night to reveal the secret of the true location of the land of Waq Waq. Didn’t I tell you that some people are just lucky? Unfortunately, I can’t reveal to you what was said that night. For most men who hear of its location are irresistibly drawn to go there, yet, very few can survive the experience. Suffice to say that Hassan had to cross seven valleys, climb seven mountains, sail across an ocean and pass a river. Along the way he was beaten, robbed and even sexually molested when he was captured by giantess and placed in a cage. Somehow, through some crazy miracle, he survived all and finally emerged half dead in the lush gardens of Waq Waq that is ruled by women and guarded with beauties trained in the art of archery.
Most visitors would have been dazed by such a sight and immediately been exposed as an outsiders. Hassan had eyes only for his wife and two sons and as such was able to wonder about unnoticed for weeks. He even made friends with the natives. One such friend, to whom he confided, informed him that his wife was not a mere inhabitant of the wondrous land of Waq Waq, but rather a princess and a sister to the queen. Upon visiting the royal palace, the Queen felt outraged by Hassan’s ridicules request to garner an audience with his wife. The queen of Waq Waq laughed and laughed and laughed. “What woman would leave the land of Waq Waq and choose to live among unrefined company of her own free will?” Asked the queen, not expecting a reply. “You!” She pointed an accusatory finger. “With your dinky little palace, in the puny city of Basra. Where humidity makes your hair turn kinky, where sand storms blind your vision and the heat drives you mad. All that strange and disgusting food you eat.” Each word was annunciated with careful attention to give it weight. Each word felt like a stone flung with intention to hurt. Hassan was hastily thrown in a jail cell. Shackles adorned his wrists and ankles the way jewelry adorns a bride on her wedding night.
When Hassan’s wife heard of his predicament she was seized with a new kind of madness. Was it love? Was it compassion? Or was she simply touched that somebody was willing to risk life and limb for her? Who knows?! She whipped out her feather dress and carried both her sons and her husband back to Basra in her bosom.
And that is how Hassan finally learned that when a woman sets her mind upon a course of action, it is useless to stand in her way.
I don’t own a feather dress. But I do own a dress with peacock feather pattern on it. Here I am wearing my feather dress pretending to be in the process of taking flight as if I am a fantastical character from the Arabian Nights.
Do you have a favorite story from Arabian Nights? Which one is it?