shopping in 15th century baghdad

From my bookshelves: Tales from the Arabian Nights (Avenel Books, New York: 1978), a selection of the choicest stories from The Book of a Thousand Nights and a Night (Alf Laylah Wa Laylah) translated by Sir Richard Burton and privately published in 16 volumes in London in 1885-88.

I bought this for fifty pesos, which was my Christmas money I think, on 9 December 1982 at the now-defunct Alemar’s bookstore in Makati. I had just turned 15 and at the time it was the most expensive book I owned. This volume is a limited edition run and contains illustrations from the 1859 edited edition of the EW Lane translation.

Editor David Shumaker says in the foreword that the tales, while spoken of as early as 944 by Mas’udi, may have been collected in Cairo by a professional storyteller in the 15th century and recast in the form familiar to us now – of the clever princess Shahrazad avoiding death by telling a story each night to King Shahryar.

From the story “The Porter and the Three Ladies of Baghdad”, a description of a shopping expedition to the market:

…she stopped at a fruiterer’s shop and bought from him Shami apples and Osmani quinces and Omani peaches, and cucumbers of Nile growth, and Egyptian limes and Sultani oranges and citrons; besides Aleppine jasmine, scented myrtle berries, Damascene nenuphars, flower of privet and camomile, blood-red anemones, violets, and pomegranate-bloom, eglantine and narcissus, and set the whole in the Porter’s crate, saying, “Up with it.”

So he lifted and ¬†followed her till she stopped at a grocer’s, where she bought dry fruits and pistachio-kernels, Tihamah raisins, shelled almonds and all wanted for dessert, and said to the Porter, “Lift and follow me.”

So he up with his hamper and after her till she stayed at the confectioner’s, and she bought an earthen platter, and piled it with all kinds of sweetmeats in his shop, open-worked tarts and fritters scented with musk and “soap-cakes”, and lemon-loaves and melon-preserves, and “Zaynab’s combs”, and “ladies’ fingers”, and “Kazi’s tit-bits” and goodies of every description; and placed the platter in the Porter’s crate….

Then she stopped at a perfumer’s and took from him ten sorts of waters, rose scented with musk, orange-flower, water-lily, willow-flower, violet and five others; and she also bought two loaves of sugar, a bottle for perfume-spraying, a lump of male incense, aloe-wood, ambergris and musk, with candles of Alexandria wax…until she stood before the greengrocer’s, of whom she bought pickled safflower and olives, in brine and in oil; with tarragon and cream-cheese and hard Syrian cheese…

The device of using lists to add description, depth, or provide background to a story was also used to great effect by many other writers in both fiction (for instance, Oscar Wilde in his collection of original fairy tales, The House of Pomegranates, 1891) and non-fiction (Sei Shonagon in her memoir The Pillow Book, 1002).

The Arabian Nights tales are exotic and bawdy, set in a time and land so far removed from our own that many of the references would be incomprehensible if it weren’t for the footnotes Burton thoughtfully provided. Yet the themes – of love and betrayal, passion and pleasure, heroism and humor – are archetypal and resonate to the present day.

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2 Comments on shopping in 15th century baghdad

  1. Bea
    29 December 2010 at 11:53 pm (2636 days ago)

    I’ve actually never read the Arabian Nights. I really should. Haha!

  2. bleubug
    30 December 2010 at 9:37 am (2635 days ago)

    The translator, Richard Francis Burton, is in himself an amazing story. One of the most colorful and scholarly explorers of the 19th century and the model for dozens of fictitious characters.

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