1001 NIGHTS DREAMING

To sleep, during our Nights, perchance to dream.

NIGHT 7 – THE STORY OF THE SEMI-PETRIFIED PRINCE

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ON ISLAMIC ILLUMINATION – THE ARABESQUE

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 ~

NIGHT 6 OF 1001 – THE FISHERMAN AND THE ‘IFRIT

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ON STORIES AS PORTABLE EMPIRES

I think of stories as portable empires.

Wisdom distilled and truth embellished.

Stories are extremely portable. You can take them with you. They don’t weigh much; stories are light. Material possessions are heavy. The 1001 Nights idea was conceived at a time when we received our marching order. Moving house is tough enough without childbirth in between. Using my 1001 Nights brackets analogy of stories within stories, it looked a little something like this: Forward March! Move (Give Birth) House!

Or, more precisely: Forward March! Move (Give Birth [Rest A Bit {Thanks Mama}]) House!

I found a calm oasis in these stories and they centred me, and so miraculously was given a way to be very happy during pregnancy, which I believe passed on to little Caspi. This was an extremely stressful and chaotic time for us as we commenced the move during the last trimester and finished in the early months with our newborn baby. I suppose the idea came to me as a way to order my postpartum life; paring it down to the essentials, it is a simple way to mark the progression of the Nights off a calendar and honour the passing of time.

Stories – and the lessons they offer – are more valuable than gold for the education they impart. They are a way of teaching Caspian about the world. How fortunes rise and fall; how one man’s poison is another man’s medicine; how the worst of times can be followed by the best of times; how fickle Lady Luck is; how one’s moral choices affect one’s life path; the role of fate and destiny; the straight and narrow. All this is contained within the Nights. I want to envelop us in its parallel world.

One Christmas as an art student I cooked a three-course meal for a homeless man whom I passed daily as I left my flat. He used to collect bus tickets and other tickets and pass them onto me in the days of paper tickets; some already used, some still valid (I would airily hold my hand over the time and date, nonchalantly flash them at the bus driver and it worked without fail; I breezed through every time). One of my father’s life lessons to me was to always offer food to everybody as it is one of the greatest gifts. As a poor art student I appreciated the value of food and understood how to live hand to mouth, always wondering about the next meal. I’ve been almost down and out in both Paris and London.

And we talked. I gave him a hot meal; he gave me stories. I gave sustenance yet I received more; food for thought. Stories are food for the soul. It occurred to me that stories were pretty much all he had. I learned loads – he’d travelled the world and cooked for royalty. I didn’t ask why he was homeless (does it ever matter?) and I’m not sure he wanted to talk about it. I have no way of knowing whether all his stories were true. Then again, are any stories really true? We see we want to see and we remember what we want to remember. We even refer to lies as tall stories. All I know is that he criticised my cooking in a sharp and focused, keenly precise manner worthy of a chef and offered me practical, specific advice on how to make it better next time. He carefully considered every mouthful, discerned all the ingredients with the palate of a master taster and rattled off tips on how to manage a ship-shape kitchen and serve hot food simultaneously to hundreds of guests, some of them royal. His story was the personal empire of his life. I don’t think I’ll ever need to cook for multitudes and I’ve already forgotten most of what he said. But I remember the feeling that wintry day, the closeness of kings and vagabonds, and I was astounded.

It’s always worth listening to the stories of others. They are their personal kingdoms. The 1001 Nights protagonists always make time for stories – even on the brink of death. This is an inviolable rule of the Nights. Even as a king is about to put someone to death, the victim cries: Wait! Do not do as such-and-such a person did in the past! The king, suddenly captivated, enquires: What is the tale of that so-and-so? And promptly with that, the mood entirely changes and shifts from the sense of an ending to a new, fresh beginning: ‘It so happened that X…’ Stories are too good a learning opportunity to pass up. I envisage this situation like a freeze frame: the action is about to be brought to its climactic end, all characters are holding their breath when – “Hold it! All change! Everybody freeze! – Now, did you ever hear the tale of that such-and-such a person?…”

A shift in mood, a raised eyebrow, a sideways cock of the head and a delicious Mmmmm! of interest from all parties. The executioner is told to stay his hand, the sword is suspended in mid-air and all glittering eyes turn toward the storyteller. For them, a quiet hush of anticipation. For us, a relaxing breather from the tension of the tale in the limelight. A tangent to the margins and space to be distracted. The 1001 Nights’ own frame story is based on this very cycle of suspended drama, a tale of mighty procrastination at worst and hanging off the edge of your seat at best: King Shahriyar, bored and desperate, threatens to kill Scherezade each morning yet, compelled and irritated by his own curiosity, cannot but allow her to continue her irresistible tales…

Stories provide stability in an unstable world. They repeat themselves, have patterns and encircle us in their rhythms. They are a routine to settle baby Caspian, one of the most important routines I can provide him with as something to anticipate each evening and, hopefully in time, something to look forward to. While the world whirls around us, stories are our focal point. Each night, the same ritual, a different story. Our compass point while the story-verses of our Uni-verse are drawn around us. One turn to bind us. Order in chaos.

Later on, as the 1001 Nights draw to a close and I turn to other epics of world culture, I will look to more stories to tell children. As I grow in confidence with the tales, like any good storyteller, I will make the stories my own and simultaneously try to pass on the spirit of the original storytellers who came before me. We are wealthy.  Arabian Nights, Shahnameh, Mahabharat. I Dream of Red Mansions. The Odyssey. The Canterbury Tales, Beowulf, the Prose Edda… I look forward to them all.

All stories are retellings of sorts. Mighty kings and empires have risen and fallen in the time it took for stories to pass down into oral history. Who knows who told the very first stories…who lived these legends and who made these myths? Who knew? Who remembers? Who cares?

All we have left are the stories.