Two Arabian Tales

March 22, 2012

Leafing through my Modern Library selection of Burton’s Tales of the Arabian Nights, I came upon a story of two men with a dream, one a fool who thinks he’s smart, and the other just lucky, and a funny story of a fart that changed a life.


There lived once in Baghdad a wealthy man and made of money, who lost all his substance and became so destitute that he could earn his living only by hard labour. One night, he lay down to sleep, dejected and heavy hearted, and saw in a dream a Speaker who said to him, “Verily thy fortune is in Cairo; go thither and seek it.” So he set out for Cairo; but when he arrived there evening overtook him and he lay down to sleep in a mosque Presently, by decree of Allah Almighty, a band of bandits entered the mosque and made their way thence into an adjoining house; but the owners, being aroused by the noise of the thieves, awoke and cried out; whereupon the Chief of Police came to their aid with his officers. The robbers made off; but the Wali entered the mosque and, finding the man from Baghdad asleep there, laid hold of him and beat him with palm-rods so grievous a beating that he was well-nigh dead. Then they cast him into jail, where he abode three days; after which the Chief of Police sent for him and asked him, “Whence art thou?”; and he answered, “From Baghdad.” Quoth the Wali, “And what brought thee to Cairo?”; and quoth the Baghdadi, “I saw in a dream One who said to me, Thy fortune is in Cairo; go thither to it. But when I came to Cairo the fortune which he promised me proved to be the palm-rods thou so generously gavest to me.” The Wali laughed till he showed his wisdom-teeth and said, “O man of little wit, thrice have I seen in a dream one who said to me: ‘There is in Baghdad a house in such a district and of such a fashion and its courtyard is laid out garden-wise, at the lower end whereof is a jetting-fountain and under the same a great sum of money lieth buried. Go thither and take it.’ Yet I went not; but thou, of the briefness of thy wit, hast journeyed from place to place, on the faith of a dream, which was but an idle galimatias of sleep.” Then he gave him money saying, “Help thee back herewith to thine own country;”–And Shahrazad perceived the dawn of day and ceased to say her permitted say. 

When It was the Three Hundred and Fifty-second Night:

She said, It hath reached me, O auspicious King, that the Wali gave the Baghdad man some silver, saying, “Help thee back herewith to thine own country;” and he took the money and set out upon his homewards march. Now the house the Wali had described was the man’s own house in Baghdad; so the wayfarer returned thither and, digging underneath the fountain in his garden, discovered a great treasure. And thus Allah gave him abundant fortune; and a marvellous coincidence occurred. And a story is also current of . . .


 They recount that in the City Kaukabán of Al-Yaman there was a man of the Fazlí tribe who had left Badawi life, and become a townsman for many years and was a merchant of the most opulent merchants. His wife had deceased when both were young; and his friends were instant with him to marry again, ever quoting to him the words of the poet,

“Go, gossip! re-wed thee, for Prime draweth near:
A wife is an almanac–good for the year.”

So being weary of contention, Abu Hasan entered into negotiations with the old women who procure matches, and married a maid like Canopus when he hangeth over the seas of Al-Hind. He made high festival therefor, bidding to the wedding banquet kith and kin, Olema and Fakirs; friends and foes and all his acquaintances of that countryside. The whole house was thrown open to feasting: there were rices of five several colours, and sherbets of as many more; and kids stuffed with walnuts and almonds and pistachios and a camel colt roasted whole. So they ate and drank and made mirth and merriment; and the bride was displayed in her seven dresses and one more, to the women, who could not take their eyes off her. At last, the bridegroom was summoned to the chamber where she sat enthroned; and he rose slowly and with dignity from his divan; but in so doing, for that he was over full of meat and drink, lo and behold! he let fly a fart, great and terrible. Thereupon each guest turned to his neighbour and talked aloud and made as though he had heard nothing, fearing for his life. But a consuming fire was lit in Abu Hasan’s heart; so he pretended a call of nature; and, in lieu of seeking the bride chamber, he went down to the house court and saddled his mare and rode off, weeping bitterly, through the shadow of the night. In time he reached Láhej where he found a ship ready to sail for India; so he shipped on board and made Calicut of Malabar. Here he met with many Arabs, especially Hazramís, who recommended him to the King; and this King (who was a Kafir) trusted him and advanced him to the captainship of his body guard. He remained ten years in all solace and delight of life; at the end of which time he was seized with home sickness; and the longing to behold his native land was that of a lover pining for his beloved; and he came near to die of yearning desire. But his appointed day had not dawned; so, after taking the first bath of health, he left the King without leave, and in due course landed at Makallá of Hazramaut. Here he donned the rags of a religious; and, keeping his name and case secret, fared for Kaukaban afoot; enduring a thousand hardships of hunger, thirst and fatigue; and braving a thousand dangers from the lion, the snake and the Ghul. But when he drew near his old home, he looked down upon it from the hills with brimming eyes, and said in himself, “Haply they might know thee; so I will wander about the outskirts, and hearken to the folk. Allah grant that my case be not remembered by them!” He listened carefully for seven nights and seven days, till it so chanced that, as he was sitting at the door of a hut, he heard the voice of a young girl saying, “O my mother, tell me the day when I was born; for such an one of my companions is about to take an omenfor me.” And the mother answered, “Thou was born, O my daughter, on the very night when Abu Hasan farted.” Now the listener no sooner heard these words than he rose up from the bench, and fled away saying to himself,”Verily thy fart hath become a date, which shall last for ever and ever; even as the poet said,’

‘As long as palms shall shift the flower;
 As long as palms shall sift the flour.’

And he ceased not travelling and voyaging and returned to India; and there abode in self exile till he died; and the mercy of Allah be upon him! And they tell another story of . . .

Scientific Researches?

April 9, 2005


It can get pretty grim today, examining the rampant run of pseudo-science. There are a lot of intellectuals out there, and a lot of pseudo-intellectuals (that’s SWAY-do, if you’re not in the know) and even more pseudo-scientists. The image by Gillray lifts my spirits a bit, with its hilarious shafting of savants, intent on the investigation of the pneumatic power of farts.

Yes, there’s cold fusion – when will the cold water thrown on it finally wash it away? – and there’s Intelligent Design – a “theory” without content – and there are the worthy epigones of that Victorian blockhead, John Galton, the contemporary running-dog-lackeys of vulgar empiricism. Right now, I’m thinking of Charles Murray, Adam Bellow, and the latecomer to the club, John Gartner. Not household names? – read on!

When I think of pseudo-science, I think of Murray, who made his splash with The Bell Curve, a statistical mishmash that manages to avoid the important question of just what he purports to be measuring. Race, intelligence? Does anyone have a clear definition of what these are? No? Then it’s off to the races, no pun intended – develop your own theory of anything. Murray hit the stores with another book in which assessed human “achievement” of civilizations with a quantitative method. Surprise, the west is on top! You pays your money, make your assumptions, and…

(Those who want a more intelligent assessment of why some cultures have won out while others disappeared should check out Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs, and Steel. His critics often tar him as a simple “environmental determinist”, but his arguments are quite rational, and far more subtle and profound than his critics appreciate.)

Murray’s first book was published by Adam Bellow, who has since weighed in with his cogent analysis of nepotism, a deliciously self-serving tome by someone who’s principal claim to fame – no fault of his own – seems to be his (recently deceased) father. Yes, it’s all genetic, ants do it, fish do it, nepotism is natural. Even Edward Wilson, the father of sociobiology, who stumbles badly when he tries to advance his ideas to the human cultural realm (He is a big-time subscriber to the naturalistic fallacy, i.e., that you can get an ought from an is.), might cavil. The crude socio-biologists always warp the same way: animals have evolved behavior A; humans have behavior B; A and B appear to be similar types of behavior; therefore, human behavior B is nothing but animal behavior A, and it is the same in all respects, origins, and purposes. Quite a few leaps there, and nature doesn’t make big jumps, does she? Back on the purely human level, Bellow said in a NYTimes Opinion piece,

“…a name, nepotism can serve to get your foot in the door, but after that, you’re on your own”.

Of course, legions of struggling actors, artists, and other professional aspirants well tell you deadpan, straight off, getting your foot in the door is THE crucial step! They’re all smart! So, pseudo-science serves, once again, to dress up some propositions that are most gratifying to one’s self-esteem.

I happen to know that the next member of my anti-pantheon, John Gartner was Bellow’s school chum. Is this a co-inky-dink? Or…is it in the genes!? [And why am I talking about them? Simple: Saul Bellow died this week, and Gartner’s book was just reviewed in the NYTimes today. And there are other connections, too dark and nefarious to mention here… ] Now he has written a book which posthumously analyzes several American high achievers and concludes that they were all hypomanic, i.e., just this side of clinically manic. Pity they aren’t around to suggest otherwise. Of course, this just proves that the USA itself is one great big self-selecting gene pool of hypomanics, which is why the USA is so successful, and presumably always will be. This is science? Yes it is, by jingo!

Finally, I must refer to Nicholas Kristoff’s column today, in which he asserts that Nukes are Green. NK doesn’t pretend to be a scientist, but he does claim to be factual and rational. Still he comes out with this statement:

Radioactive wastes are a challenge. But burdening future generations with nuclear wastes in deep shafts is probably more reasonable than burdening them with a warmer world in which Manhattan is submerged under 20 feet of water.

Okay, nuclear plants are pretty safe, I agree. Okay, they don’t contribute to greenhouse gases, but why does he assume that we should be more worried about submerging Manhattan than burying waste? Is he certain that they are equally probable. Nukes do produce waste – Manhattan under 20 feet – that’s a stretch for even the worst warming scenarios. Is it because the French do it? Hey, pass the Freedom Fries! “Probably more reasonable?” Better be sure before you bury!

Environmentalists often state that human civilization is conducting a giant, uncontrolled experiment with the climate, and if it turns out badly, we’re in bad shape. Doesn’t burying tons of intensely radioactive waste and assuming that our progeny will properly take care of it for the next 100,000 years or so amount to a rather daring experiment? A little radioactive waste in the groundwater could be a big problem, not to mention the fact that the USA can’t even seem to find a place to accept burial of even part of its waste. You can’t just dream away political problems such as NIMBY, although if we had a French Revolution here, that would be a solution, We could simply quell parochial resistance by forking over money to those affected the way the French government does. Bravo, bon idee!

Why does Kristoff pose the energy issue as one of “how do we maintain our current level of consumption in our current distribution system?” Green energy options are most feasible when the Grid is gone, replaced by more local sources. Utopian in the short run, perhaps, but the short run is quite malleable in this case by public policy. The long run, in which we are all dead, as Keynes famously remarked, is bad in any case. The facts, and imagination, are both part of science.