And Shahrazad perceived the dawn of the day, and ceased saying her permitted say. Then quoth Dunyazad, “O my sister, how pleasant is thy tale, and how tasteful, how sweet, and how grateful!” She replied, “And where is this compared with what I could tell thee on the coming night if the king deign spare my life?”
Part 3 of the project left us in the middle of the 9th night, with the retribution of the sultan for the Ensorcelled Prince, and at the start of a new, riotous tale of drinking games and codes of honor. Today, we dive into the tale of The Porter and the Three Ladies of Baghdad. This tale is quite long, lasting from the 9th night to the 18th.
Note: contains tasteful, nude images from the text and adult themes.
The Porter and the Three Ladies of Baghdad
As always, a truly in-depth summary of the tale can be found on Faith’s posts (#5-9) at Beyond the Dreamline. I’ll offer my own, in brevity, here. But even so, this may need to be divided over a couple of posts.
Sometimes a story can reach out and grab you in a few sentences, and you know it’s going to be one you’ll love. The charm of a story like that is apparent in the tale of the Porter, which starts off with our unassuming lead, a simple man trying to make his day’s wages by carting people’s wares around the city in his basket. However, this day will not be like the others, and soon he is approached by a beautiful woman who asks him to progressively carry more and more, until he (good-naturedly) comments that she might have told him how much she was buying, so he could have brought a pony. After cuffing him teasingly on the nape, the woman assures him his fare will make up for the inconvenience.
After she buys enough stuff to put the girls from Clueless to shame, they finally arrive at the woman’s house. The door is opened to reveal a woman so beautiful the Porter nearly drops his basket. After a few internal thoughts on the perfect quality of her pomegranate-sized breasts and wide naval (a mark of beauty), he is finally invited in to be relieved of his load. Here he comes across a third lady, who is so beautiful as to knock him silly with poetic verse. Burton notes the rhyming clauses are characteristic of the Nights, and he made no attempt to change them, in the end, giving us something like this:
Thereupon sat a lady bright with blee, with brow beaming brilliancy, the dream of philosophy, whose eyes were fraught with Babel’s gramarye and her eyebrows were arched as for archery; her breath breathed ambergris and perfumery and her lips were sugar to taste and carnelian to see….
This last woman, the eldest sister, tells her other sisters to help him take his basket down and to pay him his fee, but the man is so stunned by their obvious singleness, and the great stores of wine and food they have that he doesn’t leave even when dismissed. With the confidence of a true pickup artist, he inquires as to their condition, and suggests that surely their lives are missing some sort of entertainment without a man around to be with them.
They laugh, but indulge him, saying that what he tells might be true, but they are maidens, and wary of who they will entrust their secret to. Of course, ‘secret’ may be working as a double innuendo here. The Porter wants to fondle the girls, and they do have literal secrets they wish to keep hidden. In any case, the women recite the adage “Sans hope of gain, love’s not worth a grain” and demand he offer them something in return for the chance to be in the intimate company of their beautiful selves. They wish him to pay a fair sum for it, given that their money has already gone into the grand upkeep of their home.
Before the Porter even has a chance to respond, however, the youngest sister (the procuratrix) intervenes, commending him for not losing his patience with her in the market, and offers to pay what the other sisters want of him. To this the other sisters accept, but demand that the Porter swear an oath not to ask anything that does not concern him, or face a sound flogging. The Porter, in a white hot lust, agrees without really thinking about it.
And they start drinking. They start drinking a lot. It is most accurately portrayed by the image in the book itself:
The Porter, roaring drunk at this point, starts cooing various degrees of obsession, calling himself a slave or pleasure animal. The women seem to enjoy this, allowing groping, molesting, and fingering, while they beat him and slap him, before they start to take turns bathing themselves in preparation for the ‘activities’ to come.
Once the first sister to bathe is finished (the middle sister), she hops in the Porter’s lap and points at her nethers, asking the Porter rather candidly, while they are all naked, what that ‘article’ is. Many strange names come along, such as: thy cleft, thy womb, thy vulva. The sister is mortified by such crude language and cuffs him several times, demanding he try again. He gets to calling it the actual scientific term, and is bashed so soundly he is bruised and his neck aches. Finally, he asks her to tell him the answer, which is apparently, the “basil of the bridges.”
However, the next woman to bathe asks the same, and when he tries to use that word, the women all laugh at him (in good fun), continuing to slap him until he asks again. This time it is “the husked sesame seed.”
It is expected that the third woman goes much the same, and it does, with her favored term being “Khan of Abu Mansur.” The Porter cries his great relief to not have to be on that end of the game anymore, and they drink for a full hour more, before he finally bathes as well.
Then, it is time for revenge. The Porter demands the women tell him what his own genitals are called, and they give the expected, unimaginative answers, receiving a bite each for their mistakes. —But Sharazad stops here for the 9th Night, and is obviously spared. Who wouldn’t want to hear where this is going?— In the end, the Porter proclaims that his is called “the mule Burst-all, which browseth on the basil of bridges, and muncheth the husked sesame, and nighteth in the Khan of Abu Mansur.”
His cleverness gets the girls laughing on their backs upon the floor, and finally the Porter gets to have them. He is also permitted to stay on for the night, after the procuratrix lobbies on his behalf, so long as he holds true to the oath he made, and so it is.
The girls and the Porter settle in to drink again when there comes a knock at the door, and the procuratrix informs that there are three Persian Kalandars (almanac creators), each blind in the left eye, requesting a place to stay for the night. The women force these men to make the same oath, but instead of offering intimacies, request the men to play music. This causes such a raucous din that a passing Caliph, Harun al-Rashid, demands to have a look. At his side is the wazir Ja’afar. I had the same reaction as Faith here. Ja’afar! I could only imagine him as impossibly tall and skinny, and maybe as the back story as to why Jafar was such a bad guy in Aladdin. After what he’s going to go through tonight, I wouldn’t blame him for going bad and thinking all men of power are incompetent!
Ja’afar is against this idea, but the Caliph is his superior, and orders him to make up something. So Ja’afar goes to the women’s house and says they are merchants separated from their party and are in desperate need of lodging. The women agree to host them, as long as they make the same oath as the others.
This is when you start worrying if their secret is that they are going to kill someone at midnight.
In truth, it is a covenant pact that the women must take part in at the end of the night. Faith offers a much more in-depth explanation of these ‘debts’ they are forced to repay, but I’ll summarize it here: the youngest sister must whip a couple of dogs to near death before hugging and kissing them; the middle sister has the youngest sing two songs and the eldest sing one song of abandonment and untrue love, wherein the middle sister tears all of her clothes off at the end of each, revealing the scars of a palm whip (one must wonder why the Porter didn’t see them before…)
The Caliph, obviously being the only one in the room who has proven himself disingenuous, can’t keep a lid on his curiosity, and progressively keeps trying to push Ja’afar to ask the women what all of these strange customs are about. The wazir wisely reminds the Caliph that they made an oath, and they are guests in the women’s home, and finally, he should just call them to the palace the next day if he really wants an answer to his question. The Kalandars mumble amongst each other that they really should have never called on the home of these strange women.
Unfortunately, rather than being dissuaded, the Caliph decides to see if the Kalandars will ask the women, and when they will not, all eyes (except Ja’afar, who I am sure is shaking his head from the foolishness) turn to the Porter. The eldest sister hears the commotion and asks the Porter what is going on, and he respectfully stands, to ask what is on the men’s minds.
This of course means he has broken his oath. The sisters are furious, and alert seven slaves to enter the room and kill all of them. The Porter begs the sisters to spare his own life, at least, as he had only been passing on the message. He makes no excuses for the rest of the party, and after a quote reminding the women that no person should be judged for the sins of another, the eldest sister laughed —and again Shahrazad breaks for the end of the 11th night— and decides that the men will have one hour to explain who they are. The Caliph, relieved, tells Ja’afar to tell them the truth so that they aren’t slain by mistake, but the wazir only snorts, “It is part of your just deserts.” I love this character so much!
In any case, the Caliph has some time to collect his wits, because the eldest sister decides to go after the Kalandars first, demanding an explanation of each of their missing left eyes. As it turns out, they are all princes, and rulers in their own right, and intrigued, the eldest decides (much like the Jinni in the Tale of the Trader and the Jinni) that if their stories are interesting enough, she will spare them.
The Porter is the first to run forward, and speak his simple story, most of which they already knew, and after begging for his life, she laughs and benignly excuses him from execution. But the Porter, like the Shaykhs, says he can not leave until he sees the conclusion of the night.
And so begins the first Kalandar’s tale…