(Part II)

Night 250

Morning now dawned and Shahrazad broke off from what she had been allowed to say. Then, when it was the two hundred and fiftieth night, SHE CONTINUED:

I have heard, O fortunate king, that Shams al-Din told his wife: ‘It is you who are the cause of my sorrow.’ ‘Why is that?’ she asked.  ‘When I opened my shop today,’ he answered, ‘I saw that every single merchant had one, two or more sons sitting like their fathers in their shops and I said to myself: “Death, which took your father, will not fail to visit you.”  The night on which I first lay with you I swore that I would not marry another wife, that I would not take a concubine, be she Abyssinian, Rumi or a slave girl of some other race; and that I would not spend a single night away from you.  The fact is, however, that you are barren, and marriage to you is like chiselling rock.’ ‘As God is my witness,’ his wife replied, ‘it is you who are the cause of the difficulty and not I, as your sperm is watery.’ ‘What is the matter with men like that?’ he asked.  ‘They cannot impregnate women and produce children,’ she told him. ‘Where is there something to thicken sperm?’ he asked.  ‘I shall buy it to thicken mine.’  She told him to search among the apothecaries.

Next morning they were both sorry for having reproached each other, and Shams al-Din set out for the market, where he found an apothecary.  They exchanged greetings and Shams al-Din then asked the man whether he had anything that would thicken sperm.  ‘I did have,’ said the man, ‘but no longer.  Try my neighbour.’  So Shams al-Din went around asking everyone and being laughed at, after which he went back to his own shop and sat there sadly.  In the market there was a poor hashish addict, the syndic of the auctioneers, Muhammad Simsim by name, who used to take opium, opium paste and green hashish.  This man was in the habit of saying good morning to Shams al-Din every day, and he now came up as usual. They exchanged greetings, but Shams al-Din was irritated and Shaikh Muhammad asked him why.  Shams al-Din then told him what had happened between him and his wife.  ‘I’ve been married to her for forty years,’ he explained, ‘but she has given me neither a son nor a daughter.  I have been told that the reason she has never become pregnant is that my sperm is watery and that I should look for something to thicken it, but I haven’t been able to find anything.’  Shaikh Muhammad said ‘I have got something that will do that.  What would you say about someone who could see to it that, after forty years, you managed to impregnate your wife?’  ‘If you do that,’ said Shams al-Din, ‘I shall shower you with favours and benefits.’  ‘Give me a dinar,’ said the other, and when Shams al-Din produced two, he took them and said: ‘Give me this china bowl.’

When Shams al-Din had done that, Muhammad took the bowl off to the hashish seller, from whom he got two ounces of Rumi opium, together with a portion of Chinese cubebs, cinnamon, cloves, cardamom, ginger, white pepper and mountain lizard.  He pounded all these ingredients and boiled them up in good quality oil, after which he took three ounces of male frankincense in chunks and a cupful of cumin seeds.  After having infused these, he made all this into a paste, using Rumi honey.  He then put the paste in the bowl and went back and gave it to Shams al-Din.  ‘This,’ he said, ‘will thicken sperm.  You must take it on a spatula after a meal of mutton and domestic pigeon seasoned with hot spices.  Take the mixture on the spatula, eat your evening meal and then take a drink made with refined sugar.’

Shams al-Din took the mixture and passed it to his wife, together with the meat and the pigeons.  He told her to cook them well and to take the sperm thickener and to keep it with her until he needed it and asked for it.  She did as she was told and then placed the food in front of him.  After his meal he asked for the bowl and ate from it.  He liked it so much that he ate all the rest of it, after which he lay with his wife and she conceived that night.  When her periods had ceased for three months she knew that she was pregnant.  As her pregnancy came to its end and the labour pains began, the women raised cries of joy.  It was a difficult delivery and by way of a charm the midwife pronounced the names of Muhammad and ‘Ali over the baby, reciting the formula Allahu akbar! and the call to prayer in his ear.  Then she wrapped him up and handed him to his mother, who gave him her breast and suckled him. He drank until he had had enough and then fell asleep.  The midwife stayed there for three days and then, on the seventh day, they distributed marzipan cakes that they had made, together with sweetmeats, after which they sprinkled salt.

Shams al-Din came in and, after having congratulated his wife on her safe delivery, he asked: ‘Where is the child God has entrusted to us?’ She brought him a baby of surpassing beauty, the handiwork of God, the ever-present Ruler.  Although he was only seven days old, anyone who saw him would have taken him for a year-old child.  When his father looked at his face, he saw that it was like a radiant full moon and that he had moles on each cheek.  ‘What have you called him?’ he asked his wife.  ‘Were this a girl I would have named her,’ she replied, ‘but as he is a boy, no one should name him but you.’  At that time, people used to rely on omens in choosing their children’s names.  While Shams al-Din and his family were consulting about the name, someone there suddenly said to his friend: ‘O my master ‘Ala’ al-Din.’  Shams al-Din promptly said: ‘We shall name the child ‘Ala’ al-Din Abu’-Shamat.’

‘Ala’ al-Din was left in the charge of nurses, both wet and dry, and after drinking milk for two years he was weaned. He grew big and began to walk, and when he was seven he was put in a room beneath a trapdoor for fear of the evil eye.  He was not to leave, his father said, until his beard grew, and he was put in charge of a slave girl and a black slave.  The girl would prepare his food and the slave would carry it to him.. He was circumcised and his father produced a great feast for him, after which a faqih was brought to teach him.  This man taught him how to read and to recite the Quran, as well as instructing him in the other sciences, until he became proficient and learned.

One day it happened that the slave who brought him his food forgetfully left the trapdoor open.  ‘Ala’ al-Din climbed through it and went to his mother. A group of the leading ladies of the city were talking with her, and when the boy came in, looking like a mamluk intoxicated by his own beauty, they veiled their faces at the sight of him and said to his mother: ‘May God punish you! How can you let this mamluk, a stranger, come into us? Don’t you know that modesty is a part of the true faith?’  ‘Call on the Name of God,’ she replied.  ‘This is my son, the fruit of my heart, fathered by Shams al-Din, the syndic of the traders, and reared in all comfort and luxury.’ ‘Never in our lives did we think that you had a son,’ they exclaimed, and she explained: ‘His father was afraid lest he be hurt by the evil eye and so had him brought up in an underground chamber.’

Fertility, pregnany, childbirth, breastfeeding and parenting all in the 1001 Nights – all wrapped up in a single Night!

What can we learn from this important Night?

That the world of the Nights is one where magic, medicine and faith are one and the same; that miracles can and do happen; that sometimes help can come from the most unlikely of sources and those that are good and persistent are rewarded.  An older couple manages to conceive thanks to a concoction of everyday herbs (cubebs are a type of aphrodisiac Indonesian pepper historically used to remedy infertility and Marco Polo describes Java as a producer of these; note also that the frankincense must be male!) – with the magic-realist addition of a mountain lizard.*

The relationship between husband and wife in this tale is good-natured.  The husband listens to his wife in all matters, and the wife also concedes to her husband where necessary.  He has sworn not to marry any additional wife – in times when it was relatively common for a man to have two or three wives – so I like this guy.  They feel remorse for their argument – they are a normal couple after all – and the wife offers a solution for his watery sperm without blame, which the husband duly follows up.  The husband leaves the wife to give birth – a woman’s realm – with other women present and then sees his baby son when all is ready and the time is right for his wife to welcome him.  He offers her the chance to name their child but she graciously allows him this honour; their relationship is respectful and harmonious.

No need for a pregnancy test – three months of missed periods is enough confirmation.  Since pregnancy is a normal part of life and not an illness, they don’t even bother describing the second and third trimesters – they skip straight to the labour pains.  Labour is supposed to be painful.  She gives birth in the company of women who raise cries of joy in support.  The midwife delivers the baby and recites charms in his ear – magic and medicine combined with faith.  Childbirth is a sacred, not medical, occasion.  The baby is handed to his mother straightaway and she immediately breastfeeds him – the normal, natural sequence of events since time immemorial.  He drinks his colostrum, the first drops of liquid gold, and then promptly falls asleep as he should.  They celebrate on the seventh day, when the baby is already one week old.

Breastfeeding continues for 2 years, as is normal and as scientists are only now beginning to acknowledge.

School begins at 7 years old, as also seems normal to me. 

His father puts him in an underground chamber, which is not normal… note that this is also a story, with all its accompanying twists and turns… note also the similarities to the Aladdin we know and love in popular culture today, which may itself be a Western creation, based loosely on the Nights – tonight could be a contender for the original inspiration.  A merchant father, trapdoors, dodgy ‘uncles’ who waylay innocent boys, beautiful girls, riches galore, commoners raised to ranks of royalty, near-death experiences, love separated then reunited, talismanic jewels (a magic ring?) that can cause sofas to fly and feasts, gardens and palaces to appear from nothing…

*There are other translations of the Nights which describe slightly different recipes such as Richard Burton’s:  ‘So he gave it to him and the broker betook himself to a hashish-seller, of whom he bought two ounces of concentrated Roumi opium and equal-parts of Chinese cubebs, cinnamon, cloves, cardamoms, ginger, white pepper and mountain skink; and, pounding them all together, boiled them in sweet olive oil; after which he added three ounces of male frankincense in fragments and a cupful of coriander-seed; and, macerating the whole, made it into an electuary with Roumi bee honey’ – skink is the mountain lizard here.

Mathers 1990: ‘He took two ounces of Chinese cubebs, one ounce of fat extract of Ionian hemp, one ounce of fresh cloves, one ounce of red cinnamon from Sarandib, ten drachms of white Malabar cardamoms, five of Indian ginger, five of white pepper, five of pimento from the isles, one ounce of the berries of Indian star-anise, and half an ounce of mountain thyme. Then he mixed cunningly, after having pounded and sieved them; he added pure honey until the whole became a thick paste; then he mingled five grains of musk and an ounce of pounded fish roe with the rest. Finally he added a little concentrated rose-water and put all in the bowl.’ Both these versions are notable for their descriptions of the origins of all the ingredients, which also belies the fact that these items were traded regularly; we sometimes erroneously think of our world as the only globalised world but the fact is that in the past, their world was teeming with trade too.  Since this version includes mountain thyme, I wonder if the lizard could be a mistranslation – any Arabists who can shed light on this?

Rashid al-Din - Rashid al-Din, Djami al-Tawarikh, early 14th century.

Miniature painting of a lady breastfeeding from Rashid al-Din, Djami al-Tawarikh, early 14th century




(Part 1)

Picture this: it’s the middle of a long winter night. A young woman, nervous, apprehensive yet resolute, gives birth to a baby, with the support of her equally nervous yet steadfast husband. The child is not even his, yet he is totally supportive – a good man and true. They are surrounded by animals and are miles away from home. This is not by choice. They have no midwife.

They are, essentially, refugees.

The woman has just given birth for the first time. It’s a boy! By the grace of the universe her baby is healthy and full-term.

She’s exhausted. They are happy and nervous, like all new parents, with the added burden of being on the run. She takes a quick breath and snuggles her baby – and then, having barely delivered, they have to go. Again.

So, with the gritty determination that awakens at the moment of birth and unites the couple like never before, they pack up and flee while it’s still night and they are under cover of darkness.

And they ride, with only the stars and their steely resolve to guide them to a safe haven for the sake of their precious cargo.

They ride and ride and are tired. Eventually they realise that they have covered some distance and have not been followed, and it’s now safe to take a quick break. Small relief for the couple, who can finally catch their breath before continuing on their journey.

The first thing the woman does is to pause, scoop up her little boy and breastfeed him. She does this through instinct alone, with no one to guide her, although perhaps she has grown up seeing other women do it so she does have a vague idea. But this is her first time, and she has to feed her son – she has no other choice – he’s a hungry newborn. Infant formula won’t be invented for another 2,000 years.

The woman’s name is Mary. Her baby’s name is Jesus.

This pause is called ‘The Rest on the Flight into Egypt’ and it’s one of the most famous, most painted moments, indeed sacred moments, in Western art history. I understand why. It’s the first moment of real bonding of mother and child. It parallels the rise of landscape painting as a respected genre in itself (another vested interest of mine since I locate my own work here). It’s the first break the exhausted couple has – and lest we forget – they are refugees that have just given birth to a miracle.

Artists throughout history would have been surrounded by breastfeeding, if not witnessing their own families, then those of other people. (There are other genre paintings depicting more mundane scenes of everyday life which show breastfeeding.

I’m currently collecting and compiling images of breastfeeding in art and literature throughout history as I continue on my own journey with my child.  Sometimes it’s a natural part of mundane everyday life, and other times it is revered as a sacred act.  I find these references in unexpected places, when I’m not looking for them at all, and it’s a nice reminder of something that connects me to the long line of our female ancestors since time immemorial… anyone who has ever breastfed is part of this chain that links us to our original, mammalian past.


Meanwhile, in Arabia…

(Part II)


From the Prado Museum, Madrid:

Patinir, Joachim (1480-1524)
Rest on The Flight into Egypt
1518 – 1520. Oil on panel, 121 x 177 cm





‘Walk a mile in another person’s shoes’

As part of my general relentless anti-racist drive I have a mini-project for my baby son to collect shoes from other cultures as far as possible for him to wear. I’m sure it’s been done before by countless parents because it’s also fun. Thus cultivating empathy, respect and love of all cultures. I look forward to more shoes (I love shoes and hats anyway – I am not into buying kiddie things really but books, shoes and hats are great exceptions)

So it starts with these Greek slippers!






May the road rise to meet you, and the wind always be at your back – traditional Irish blessing

I am a floor-based person. Maybe it comes from the East; maybe it comes from living alone for years; maybe some people are just built to sprawl. I love to live on the floor. I love to do everything on a clean floor – painting, working, eating, tea-drinking, playing, sitting, reading, meditating, exercising, napping, dreaming. It is when I am at my most relaxed. I can melt into the floor, wallow in it; it is one of the safest places. One cannot fall from the floor.

Beanbags help with comfort for my back when needed; I am cross-legged with a woven band around my knees to ensure my back stays upright with correct posture in my favourite photo. A meditation cushion sometimes helps ease my lotus position into classic Buddha pose for quiet reflective times. As a child, given a choice and a chair, I would gradually recede and succumb to gravity – I always ended up on the floor. Slumping and sliding until I finally folded over and curled up to concentrate on whatever I was doing. I am happiest and at my most comfortable when I’m sitting on the floor cross-legged.

Being grounded keeps you connected to the earth; yogis and monks both practise on the floor. If you feel lost, hold your ear to the ground and feel the earth’s ancient heart beating. Traditional societies lived on the floor. Architect Witold Rybczynski divides humans into those that are chair-based, and those that are floor-based. Anthropologists remind us that it’s most natural to sit on the floor, and it is seemingly unrelated to climate and culture – you find a mix of both floor and chair people across the globe. Miniature painters work on the floor. Being of either persuasion influences your whole life – how you dress (loose clothes for ease of slinking down), what shoes you wear (slippers vs lace-up boots), whether you take them off when you enter your house, the height of your shelves, the rest of your furniture (if necessary at all)… I dream of Mediterranean marble, or underfloor heating in England. I compensate with a beautiful carpet.

A carpet is like a little island – a whole world encapsulated symbolically in the pattern and physically within the borders. But carpets are not always on the ground – they are portable floors that can be rolled up and removed to wherever they are needed. They can even lift off and fly. And then they become floating islands…

I imagine that the boundaries of my carpet are the edges of my little island. There I am, firmly in the centre of my world, calm and in control with everything I need to hand. It’s all I need, my little piece of the world. My space has a shape and a frame. The 360 degree vision all around me is echoed by the pattern of the carpet, repeating outwards from the centre until it reaches its borders. Whatever doesn’t fit on my carpet, I sometimes imagine, isn’t necessary.

So my rug of choice is a flying carpet, floating serenely through the sky while I sit cross-legged, bum firmly planted in the middle. The cross-legged position, based as it is on a triangle, is a very grounded, stable position. 3 is the geometric minimum number for 3-dimensional stability like a tripod, since 2 collapses. It is a position that, if done correctly, can be upheld for hours on end with only minimal shifting; there is a reason that it is the basis for the classic meditation posture. The following structure is also triangular in form and is always true; everyone on earth shares this same basic design (siblings are a bonus):

The Russian word for family is семья – семь-я. 7 x ‘me’. Here is a basic diagram:

дедушка  – бабушка            дедушка – бабушка
отец                    –                    мать

Grandmother – Grandfather              Grandmother – Grandfather
Father                            –                        Mother

These are your roots. Visually your roots are triangular and stable in form. Your background is distilled to a fine point, the tip of the triangle – you. The future may be behind you, as it is for the Maoris, always mindful of their forefathers. The future may also be ahead. Both are correct. Inverted, your family tree becomes a pyramid – or a mountain. At the top of the triangle-mountain, you can fly. Abraham Maslow’s hierarchy of needs is a pyramid, starting with the physiological, moving through safety, love and belonging and esteem and peaking in self-actualization – the flight of the soul.

One needs to plumb the depths of one’s roots before one can soar. To be secure. To feel the ground under your feet as a springboard from which to fly. Then the world becomes yours. Take your roots with you. Floating islands always have dangling roots – they are memories of places left behind, ready to be planted again wherever the wind takes them. Pandora’s floating islands in the film Avatar are as realistic and plausible as a moviemaker could design and the attention to detail is minute – I always watch out for the trailing roots. Roots absolutely uprooted, all the better to be immersed in new soil.

I have moved across cities, moved across continents. Moving has eroded my island – and therefore shaped my life. A rock, subject to the elements. A lump of clay, handled. They have indeed lost part of their material selves – but they are also refined. They have been formed. They are defined by what has been taken away. I sometimes get the feeling that one must be light: lightweight; spiritually light; made of light; not eating meat; not consuming too much and ready when the wind changes direction. Roll up your carpet and move on to the next pasture. Bring only your stories. Tell only your tales. I don’t believe you must lose your roots if you move. Be like a floating island, and take them with you ~


To sleep, during our Nights, perchance to dream.




How can one not be entranced by these beautiful swirling patterns with no true centre? No centre but centres everywhere. The arabesque is like the map of a city. Little pockets of interest to hold your attention that quickly lead you on, via a twist and a turn, to another focus round the corner. I am mesmerised and calmed by these spiralling forms that are at once endless and finite, dancing ghosts captured by the edges that contain them.

Variously known as the Arabesque in the West, but also as biomorphic design, vegetal ornamentation, scrollwork, Islamic illumination, islimi/eslimi, tazhib/tezhip, they are a collection of forms that characterise Islamic art and were a synthesis of older cultures spanning China to North Africa. Indeed, khataei – a central component of the form – denotes those that stem from Cathay, China, and traditionally, anything Rumi meant those connected to Rum: Rome, or the Byzantine Empire. These are ancient motifs, collected the world over then transformed under the starry skies of the desert. The ancient Arabs took these things that exist in nature and made them unreal. No longer bound to the earth, they set them free, forever to whirl in their kaleidoscope ways over tiles and carpets, miniature book pages and grand towering architecture. They released these free spirits to cover the world, touching every surface, sparking true joy. (The desert peoples, observant of heavenly phenomena as they were, also folded clouds neatly into the heart of these patterns.)

Palmettes, rosettes, lilies, leaves, foliage, stems, spirals, waves, clouds, wings, dragons, phoenixes, simurghs and a calyx betwixt: these motifs include geometric, vegetal, animal, weather and even figural motifs. They uncurl like ferns, they curve and roll, they bifurcate, they split, they fork, they hit and run, they glance back on themselves, they shiver and tremble, they pulsate and vibrate, they weave in and out, they crest and peak like waves, they return and do it all again. They are round, ribbed, feathered, fluted, convoluted. In short, they are alive.

If we think about these motifs historically then we place them in a specific space and time, which is useful. Contexts are great starting points. But if we think about them symbolically, they become timeless and universal, which is far more meaningful. Poetry is not based on fact but on feeling. Thus they transcend their origins (do they ever matter?), laughingly go back to their Divine source, teasing adamant academics and frustrating scholars alike who fail to see past this simple truth. I am trapped and then released by these strange patterns that hold me in their maze then let me go. Always I see something new, find a new trajectory through, always I learn something. I am charmed. I like these bubbling, boundless patterns and could willingly lose myself in them.

They instantaneously connect me to the past, present and future, to the earliest times in which they were drawn, to the cultures that spawned them that are forgotten. Herein lies their legacy. Humble carpet weavers and mighty architects alike have all been at one time or another hypnotised by their rhythm. I always like to think of the humble Persian carpet weaver who is considered unlettered, yet who holds within her hands a vast repository of patterns that flow automatically from her fingers – she is in many ways far more literate than I am. I liken this to the oral Indian storyteller who holds entire epics in his mind, complete with rhythm and rhyme – on learning to read and write, all his memories are lost, in time, like… tears in rain. (The season of Blade Runner 2049!)

They start with a kind of centre, of course: the middle, or the bottom from which all things spring. But it is not a true centre; the eye, restless, wanders, thereby being forced to take in all of its creation. The patterns demand that you look at them as a whole. The eye travels, rests briefly on a focal point, then sets off again – at times re-entering the same focal point via a different meandering route, other times wandering off on a tangent to discover something new. There is no real end and no real beginning. They are infinitely, inexhaustibly wondrous.

Every part is equal and does not overpower its neighbours. All parts are respected and have enough personal space to breathe – yet not so much that they get lonely. There is no ego, no ‘I’. The tiniest element has a role and a meaning, without which the whole structure would collapse. Everything is necessary. There are no others. Perfect harmony, encoded. World peace, encapsulated.

Often, when confronted with something as vastly exciting and shimmering with possibilities as the arabesque, and finding it hard to categorise what it is, I look for what it isn’t. It isn’t a still, calm or stagnant lake; it’s a flowing river. It isn’t a solid mountain; it’s all the teeny tiny rocks that make up its mass.

My love for these forms grew as my little foetus grew and transformed inside me. They both started life as spirals. The arabesque emanates growth and is excited and eager to grow, move and dance around with the sheer joy of being alive now. I too have fallen under the spell of the arabesque, like countless other artists before me and doubtless countless others to come. This connectivity is reassuring, yet I feel as though I have a place; the patterns are accommodating, having already absorbed a multitude of cultures into their midst.

This is what makes one breathless with joy. Always moving, always travelling. An ancient metaphor for our modern nomadic times. One never steps in the same river twice. It’s the same with the arabesque. There is no need to trace the same route twice, because the flowing possibilities are infinite ~