“Peut-on…”: Intertextual relations in The Arabian Nights and Genesis
Psychoanalysis and the Intertext
After showing in The Interpretation of Dreams how the processes of condensation and displacement operate in the “dream text,” Freud moved further afield and in The Psychopathology of Everyday Life and Jokes and Their Relation to the Unconscious ambitiously used the same principles to explain other seemingly “normal” mental processes, among them forgetting and jokes. Since every scheme Freud put forth to explain the mind was fundamentally dualistic, psychoanalysis as a form of reading and interpretation has always been concerned with “intertextual” relations no matter how one designates the two psychic “texts”-whether one calls them “primary” and “secondary,” “latent” and “manifest,” or “unconscious” and “conscious.” This fact alone would make psychoanalysis a “science of tropes” in Harold Bloom’s words, something noticed by readers of Freud as diverse as Trilling and Lacan. Moreover, the recognition of a certain correspondence between Freud’s concepts of condensation and displacement and Jakobson’s definitions of metaphor and metonymy has led to theories of narrative that equate these processes with the categories of similarity and difference that for a formalist like Todorov always operate in narrative.’ The theory that Peter Brooks lays out in “Freud’s Masterplot” is probably the best known example in this regard, though others with a more Lacanian bent have also been put forth.
My intention here is to show how the concepts of condensation and displacement can be used to explain the intertextual relations of different narratives. To do so, I will use two different methods to read stories from The Thousand and One Nights and Genesis against each other. I use the first method, which might be called “philological,” to understand how “The Story of the First Sheikh,” a medieval Arabic narrative, takes up and revises the story of Abraham in Genesis 11-25. The two stories are clearly related by plot, though the question remains as to how much of the revision can be attributed to conscious artistic changes to the biblical plot by the medieval Arab storyteller, and how much to the prior activities of Muslim traditionists and theologians engaged in the reinterpretation of Jewish materials in the early Islamic era. In any case, the relation between the two stories has not, to my knowledge, been recognized by anyone recently-by which I mean since the Middle Ages. The second method could be called “postmodern” in that it creatively brings together two texts that most likely have had no prior connection, “The Merchant and the Jinn” in The Thousand and One Nights and the story of Tamar, Er, Onan and Judah in Genesis 38.
Insofar as the first way of reading presupposes that one or more “storytellers,” “traditionists”-or whatever you might wish to call someone who unravels an old yarn to spin a new one-knew the kinship of the two stories, we can think of it as a kind of “canny” reading; that is, it brings together two narratives that belong together because of a literary, cultural and historical connection. The second method of reading, on the other hand, brings together two narratives on the basis of a similarity that is purely coincidental, and this might be called “uncanny” in that certain coincidences stir an uncanny feeling. For as Freud says, “we attach no importance to the event when we hand in an overcoat and get a cloakroom ticket with the number, let us say, 62; or when we find that our cabin on a ship bears that number. But the impression is altered if two such events, each in itself indifferent, happen close together-if we come across the number 62 several times in a single day . . . We do feel this to be uncanny” (17:237-38). Similarly, the coincidental and “uncanny” intertextual relations between these narratives encourages us to seek out thematic connections between them, comparing one to the other in order to understand each story more completely. More importantly, this endeavor juxtaposes the two works in the form of a joke as the processes of condensation and displacement work together to create a new text. Thus, while the general model of condensation and displacement Freud describes in The Interpretation of Dreams provides an apt analogy for intertextual relations in a philological reading, the structure of the joke provides the best analogy for a creative postmodern reading.
“The Story of the First Sheikh”
“The Story of the First Sheikh” is told in the course of “The Merchant and the Jinn.” In “The Merchant and the Jinn” a merchant inadvertently kills the son of ajinn, and three sheikhs, each leading an animal or two on a rope, ransom his life by telling stories to the jinn. The first sheikh, who leads a gazelle on a rope, tells the jinn, “This is my wife.” His story goes like this:
When his wife after thirty years of marriage has still not given him a son, the sheikh takes a mistress. Soon enough the mistress gives birth to a son. While the sheikh is away, the wife casts spells on the mistress and the son, turning the mistress into a cow and the son into a calf. When the sheikh returns, his wife tells him that the mistress has died and the son has run away. She then persuades him to have his herdsman slaughter the cow/mistress for a feast day, despite the husband’s misgivings about the cow’s somewhat unusual behavior. This turns out to be a bad decision, for despite her healthy appearance the cow mysteriously yields nothing but skin and bones. Thus, when his wife tries to convince him to kill the calf/son the sheikh resists. Instead he tells his herdsman to take the calf home. Now the herdsman’s daughter is also skilled in magic and sorcery, and when she sees the calf she hides her face, laughs, then cries. She tells her father that the calf is his master’s son whom the wife has bewitched. That was why she laughed. She cried because the wife had contrived to get the mistress slaughtered. The herdsman takes his daughter to the sheikh, and the girl proposes to remove the spell if she can take the son for her husband and be allowed to cast a spell on the wife. The sheikh agrees. The herdsman’s daughter marries his son and turns his wife into a gazelle. Some years pass, the sheikh’s daughter-inlaw dies, and his son wanders off to a foreign land. The sheikh leaves home to search for him, and it is on this journey that he comes upon the merchant awaiting his death at the hands of the jinn. The jinn says that this is a most amazing story, and he agrees to give the sheikh the right to a third of the merchant’s blood.
Here I will assert a biblical “hypotext” whose intertextual presence has been unrecognized, at least in our era. “The Story of the First Sheikh” recalls the story of Abraham in several important respects, especially when medieval Islamic versions of that story are taken into account. The wife does not give birth to a son, a la Sarah, and so the sheikh, like Abraham, takes a mistress who does bear a son for him, a la Hagar. The sheikh’s son is almost sacrificed on what the text calls `id Allah al-akbar.2 This is al-‘ id al-kabir, the tenth day of the month of Dha ‘l-hijja. This feast, which marks the end of the pilgrimage season, commemorates the sacrifice of Abraham-and the near sacrifice of his son. Here, however, we must note a divergence from the story as it is familiar to the reader of Genesis. Among early Muslim authorities there was a dispute as to which son, Ishaq/Isaac or Isma`il/Ishmael, Abraham intended to sacrifice, some authorities maintaining that there was a Jewish cover-up, that it was really Isma`il, ancestor of the Arabs. By the later Middle Ages, when The Thousand and One Nights had assumed the form close to what we now know, the consensus among medieval Muslims was that it was not Isaac/Ishaq, but Ishmael/Isma`il that Abraham was called upon to sacrifice. And indeed there is no confusion in our story; it is the son of the concubine, and so, we may say, it is Hagar’s son Isma`il who is almost sacrificed. At the same time, Isaac/Ishaq is wholly absent, a striking effect about which more will be said later.
These similarities make it clear that we are reading a revision or, better, a “rescription” of a biblical story, for as a rescription is a reply by a Pope or emperor to a letter sent him, so too the medieval Arabic version, precisely because of its revisions, can be seen as a reply to the biblical version. The principle intertextual relations between the two stories can be described as a series of condensations and displacements. The first sheikh and his wife are condensations of Abraham and Sarah; the mistress and her son are condensations of Hagar and Ishmael. Perhaps more interesting are the displacements that have occurred. First and foremost, the sacrifice is not demanded by God, but by the jealous wife-in whom also loom all the evil step-mothers of countless stories. The curious ending of the story shows another important displacement. As a comic tale, the story should predictably end with the marriage of the herdsman’s daughter to the son of the mistress and the transformation of the wife into a gazelle. Yet the story does not end here, but goes on to narrate the death of the daughter-inlaw and the subsequent departure of the son who wanders off into a foreign land, bildd al-Hind or “the land of India” as the text has it. While this event is used to explain why the sheikh encounters the merchant and the jinn, it is hardly necessary for that purpose; he could very well have been on a business trip such as the one he took earlier when his wife bewitched the mistress and the son. But “The Story of the First Sheikh” tells us that the sheikh searches for his son, and a glance at the biblical story of Abraham suggests why. In the biblical tale when Sarah sees Isaac and Ishmael playing together one day, she says to Abraham, “Cast out this slave woman with her son; for the son of this slave woman shall not be heir with my son Isaac”(Genesis 21:10). Abraham hesitates, but God insists that he get rid of them. He leaves them in the desert, where they almost die of thirst, but God shows them a spring of water. Then they wander off into the wilderness of Paran, where Ishmael becomes father of the Arabs (in a kind of biblical footnote), while Isaac becomes the father of the Jews. We hear nothing more about Ishmael until the appearance of Islam-the return of the repressed, so to speak.
Readers unfamiliar with Islamic tradition may not realize the importance of Abraham to a polemic with Judaism in which Muslims claim Abraham as “the first Muslim.” Medieval Muslim apologists exploited the fact that Abraham (Ibrahim in the Arabic) was not a Jew-there were no “Jews” yet-but only a Semitic monotheist, and therefore, to their way of thinking, the first Muslim. Crucial revisions to the biblical account follow from this. In Muslim tradition, Abraham does not simply send Hagar and Ishmael packing; he follows them into Arabia, where he founds the sanctuary at Mecca. After this bold stroke, the claim that the son that Abraham was called upon to sacrifice was not Isaac (Ishaq) but Ishmael (Isma`il) follows as an obvious corollary, asserted simply on the basis of the “corruption” of the Torah-corruptions Muhammad was sent to correct. At length, after completing his work in Arabia, Abraham does return to resume his biblical tasks, but the crucial point has been made. As Michael Cook puts it, these revisions of the biblical story “endow Arabia and the Arabs with an honoured place in monotheist history, and one geneologically independent of the Jews and Christians” (38). In other words, through the paternity of Abraham, the younger offspring, Islam, makes a claim to displace the older one, Judaism-a nice ironic reversal of Isaac’s displacement of Ishmael, but one consistent with numerous other examples in Genesis, as Robert Alter insists.
In any event, we can see now that the curious departure of the sheikh’s son not only provides motivation for the sheikh’s trip, but also allows an important revision of the earlier biblical narrative. While in the Hebrew Bible Abraham reluctantly writes off Ishmael, in the Arabic tale Ibrahim now goes in search of Isma’il, “correcting” the record, so to speak. As already noted, biblical Isaac is absent from the Arabic tale; he is, from the Muslim standpoint, wittily ejected from the tale-or foreclosed, to borrow Lacan’s term. That is, he is not repressed, but ejected from memory. His expulsion from the narrative can be seen as a rejoinder to the expulsion of Ishmael in the biblical story and also as a displacement of that event. The “expulsion of the brother,” is, in effect, split and “overdetermined” insofar as it occurs on two different levels of the text: once in the form of the son’s wandering off to bildd al-Hind, and a second time in the absence of Isaac. And yet, if we are aware of the intertextual relation to the biblical story, the absence of his presence is palpable, to borrow a notable phrase from the late Howard Cosell.
At least one key question remains, however: how much of this revision can be attributed to a medieval Arab storyteller in The Thousand and One Nights tradition and how much to the prior activities of traditionists and theologians engaged in working over Jewish materials in the early Islamic era. Since it seems unlikely that an ordinary storyteller would have had firsthand knowledge of the biblical story of Abraham, we can assume that in “The Story of the First Sheikh” he is working on narrative material that has already undergone many of the crucial revisions examined above. Indeed, this sort of narrative can be found in any of the medieval Arabic works of the qisas al-anbiya’, or “stories of the prophets” variety. The storyteller himself presumably excised the proper names, reset the story in its present setting, and gave the principles various occupations. He also added magic to the narrative, which here entails the transformation of people into and from animal forms. The storyteller’s contribution might thus be compared to Freud’s process of “secondary revision” in which the dream content undergoes further changes under the scrutiny of a “censoring agent”-though I would not want to push this analogy too far. For it is likely that the gradual transformation of biblical Abraham into the first sheikh was the work of many hands, more agents in any event than are usually at work in Freud’s account of dream production.
A final word on Abraham may serve as transition here to the story of “The Merchant and the Jinn.” He too may be overdetermined, since his presence can also be detected in the figure of the merchant in “The Merchant and the Jinn,” the frame story for “The Story of the First Sheikh.” In that story the merchant obtains his reprieve by insisting that he must return home to pay his debts. Qur’an 53:36 likewise emphasizes an “Ibrahim alladhi wafft” (an “Abraham who upheld his obligations”)-a parallel that suggests that Abraham looms behind both the first sheikh and the merchant, the story of whom we now take up. “The Merchant and the Jinn”
“The Merchant and the Jinn” is the first story Shahrazad tells King Shahriyar in order to win a day’s reprieve, and while the story pleases King Shahriyar, scholars-perhaps we should not be surprised-have been more critical than this deranged despot. D.B. Macdonald writes in “The Earlier History of the Arabian Nights,” “It has often been remarked that Shahrazad certainly did not put her best foot foremost in her storytelling and that this first experiment of hers is in a different class entirely from the story of the fisherman and the jinni, which immediately follows” (376). Mia Gerhardt would seem to agree, for she says, “Shahrazad is given a surprisingly insignificant piece for a beginning” (402-3).
Given their low opinions of the story, both Macdonald and Gerhardt are at pains to explain its prominent position in the book. Macdonald declares the story to be “of a pronounced desert and Arabic type,” and Gerhardt concludes that this explains its “place of honor.” However, as Gerhardt notes, Macdonald’s conclusion about the provenance of the story rests on a had*th, or tradition about the prophet Muhammad, found in ash-Sharishsi’s thirteenth-century commentary on the Maqamdt of al-Hariri.3 AshSharishsi cites the hadith (which Macdonald translates) to explain the word khurdfa, which by the thirteenth century probably meant something like a fictional narrative, perhaps with some fantastic elements.
In the hadith, Muhammad’s favorite wife `A’isha asks him to tell her “the hadith of Khurafa,” and Muhammad tells her a story about a man named Khurafa who is captured by three jinn and subsequently ransomed by three passers-by who tell three stories. The plot is that of “The Merchant and the Jinn”-with some differences. To begin with, the three stories told to ransom the man differ, despite a few common motifs, from those in “The Merchant and the Jinn,” though, as Macdonald tells us, two of these stories are found elsewhere in the One Thousand and One Nights. The story of the well that changes the sex of the person who drinks from it is found in “The Seven Viziers,”‘ and the story of the sawiq or parched meal that casts a spell on the person who eats it is found in “Badr Basim.” The story of the bull-the weakest, I think-does not appear in the Nights. The number of jinn also differs from the number in “The Merchant and the Jinn,” but the most significant difference for our reading is that the jinns’ capture of Khurafa in the hadith is unmotivated, whereas the merchant incurs the wrath of the jinn in the version in the Nights by unwittingly killing the jinn’s son.
Given the late medieval date of ash-Sharishsi’s commentary, there is no certainty that the hadith, an obvious fiction itself, served as the prototype for the story in The Thousand and One Nights; in fact, it cannot be ruled out that the latter served as the prototype for the hadith, or, a third possibility, that they had a common ancestor-or even a slew of them. But it doesn’t really matter, since the notion of textuality operating here makes identifications such as “pronounced Arabic type” something of a fiction also. However, the intertextual question still occupies us as an example of the coincidental and “uncanny” connections characteristic of the second (“Postmodern”) way of reading I outlined at the beginning of this essay. Let us examine the beginning of the story in more detail. A merchant, in the course of a business trip, sits down to rest for a moment beneath a tree. He takes a crust of bread and a date from his bag and eats them.
When he finished eating the date, he threw the pit away, and then, all of a sudden, there appeared a towering jinn brandishing a sword. He drew close to the merchant and said, “Stand up so that I can kill you as you have killed my son!” (IO) Many of the virtues of narrative style in The One Thousand and One Nights as a whole are apparent in this brief scene. The swift transitions between sexual acts and death found in the frame story are matched here by another such transition, in this instance from eating to death. This particular moment joins other disparate elements in the story as well: the visible and the invisible, the small and the great, the mundane (bread crusts and date pits) and the fantastic (a towering jinn), and, of course, life and death. The words of the jinn create for the reader a sense of wonder (though perhaps not fear) similar to that of the merchant: how on earth did the poor merchant kill the jinn’s son? This, of course, is just what the merchant asks, and the jinn’s reply is superb: “When you ate the date and threw the pit, it entered my son’s chest. Just like that-one moment he was walking, and then he died instantly!” (10)
The jinn’s reply is superb not because it is such a fine answer, for it only answers the merchant’s question in a gross sense; it explains-sort of-how the jinn’s son died. It is superb because as it explains it creates a new question that carries the narrative to a new level, creating a new tension in the narrative that will not be resolved. It cannot be resolved, since this “explanation” brings into relation two events and two realms that are incommensurable, which is a large part of the uncanny effect here. By the seemingly innocent act of casting aside a date pit, the mundane world is invaded by death-the death of the jinn’s son, and for the merchant the prospect of his own imminent death. I should mention that the famous nineteenth-century Orientalist Edward Lane says the merchant is culpable, an opinion that rests on the custom of ninteenth-century Egyptian peasants saying, “Destour!”-which in familiar Egyptian usage means “permission” before they toss date pits away. The merchant’s omission of this word makes him guilty in Lane’s view. But the story predates this custom by at least half a millennium, and traditions that tell us of Muhammad throwing date pits make no mention of him uttering any precautionary formulas. Those unacquainted with Islamic law might be surprised that even the throwing of a date pit, trivial as it may seem, is a matter of law, but every action of Muhammad is potentially a matter of law and a model for all Muslims to imitate. Thus, in Ibn Hanbal’s collection of traditions, the Musnad, we find a tradition in which we are told that the Prophet, “used to, when he ate [a date], throw the pit… He would put the pit on his index and middle finger and then throw it” (4: 189). This suggests that it is permitted to throw date pits without uttering destour, since tradition does not record any preemptive utterance by Muhammad in connection with this act.
Rather than seeking a way to convict the merchant of negligence, it is more profitable to read the story as being about the merchant’s loss of innocence. For the power of the story, I think, derives from the way it reenacts that moment in the life of every human when he realizes that, despite his “innocence,” simply by being alive his life is already forfeit. And, insofar as death is the necessary correlate of being an animal that reproduces itself, that “debt” is expressed in the story by the act of casting a seed on the ground. Thus, a seemingly trivial act, whose dire consequences are unforeseeable, may represent for us the intrusion of the “Real,” as Lacan calls it, the Real being that order of experience that eludes the symbol or the image. An aspect of this can be seen in the way that the death in the story is present only when it is told by the jinn after the fact. The death of the son is not narrated as an event as such, on the level with the throwing of the date pit; the merchant only knows of it through language, through the words of the jinn. Yet the event is also comic-at least to the reader whose loan is not yet due.
Perhaps on this point a digression in response to Macdonald and Gerhardt may be allowed. Whether the provenance of this story could, in some limited sense, be called Arab and pre-Islamic (pace Macdonald) or non-Arab and non-Islamic, it must be admitted that the suddenness with which the world of the merchant is turned topsy-turvy is consonant with a management style favored bv Allah in the Qur’an. Here I refer to the celebrated inscrutability of His will, which at times borders on mere capriciousness, a trait that might be considered in relation to the trickster-like aspects of Yahweh sometimes apparent in Genesis-although, as the Bible says, “Far be it from God, that he should do wickedness.” That the jinn in his visible form should be so huge, towering over the merchant as he does, and yet, when invisible, that he and his son should be so small that a date pit could kill one of them; that one and the same creature is now invisible, now visible, now tiny, now enormous and, of course, now alive, now dead-and, as with life and death, that there should be no intermediate stage; and that all these transformations are caused by nothing more than the casting of a date pit-all of these things are not inconsistent with a view of God’s relation to the world found in the Qur’an, especially in the more apocalyptic passages. Nor, for that matter, is it inconsistent with the divine narrative style in that book. Note for example the suddenness with which the “vanished people” are dispatched: “A shout claimed the evil doers and in the morning they were prostrate in their houses, as though they had never prospered there. Thamud denied their Lord. Gone are the people of Thamud” (Qur’an 11:67-68).
Well, how does the merchant react to this event? He utters the expression used by Muslims on any occasion where the subject of death is broached: “I belong to God, and to Him I shall return. There is no strength or power save in God, the Great and Elevated.” But the merchant’s resignation that it is all a matter of God’s will is no explanation-or, at least, it is no longer an explanation for us, for whom it amounts to saying nothing more than “just because.” We are still left to wonder what is going on here. The episode is coherent as it stands, but it is rather like a dream which, as Freud says, “even if it is quite coherent … confronts our mental life as something alien, for whose origin one cannot in anyway account” (Jokes 198). Or as a prominent nineteenth-century scholar of Arabic literature, Victor Chauvin, put it in his Bibliographie des ouvrages arabes, “Peut-on tuer avec des noyaux de dattes?” (7:23, n. 1) (“Can one kill with date pits%”). I will try to answer that question by means of a joke.
If we compare “The Merchant and the Jinn” to the biblical story of Tamar, a resemblance in plot structure between the Arabic story and the episode of Onan and Tamar can be seen. This resemblance is no doubt the result of mere chance, and yet, due to the resemblance, the two narratives can be profitably read together. Their relation can be given the structure of a joke whose condensations and displacements cast light on the meanings of both stories. The similarity of the plot structure is readily apparent if we consider the first ten verses of Genesis 38, the story of Judah, his sons Er and Onan, and Tamar:
It happened at that time that Judah went down from his brothers, and turned in to a certain Adullamite, whose name was Hirah. There Judah saw the daughter of a certain (Canaanite whose name was Shua; he married her and went into her. And she conceived and bore a son, and he called his name Er. Again she conceived and bore a son, and she called his name Onan. Yet again she bore a son, and she called his name Shelah. She was in Chezib when she bore him. And Judah took a wife for Er his first-born, and her name was Tamar. But Er, Judah’s first-born, was wicked in the sight of the Lord and the Lord slew him. Then Judah said to Onan, “Go and perform the duty of the brother-in-law to her, and raise up offspring for your brother.” But Onan knew that the offspring would not be his; so when he went in to his brother’s wife he spilled the semen on the ground, lest he should give offspring to his brother. And what he did was displeasing in the sight of the Lord, and he slew him also. (38:1-10)
This short biblical narrative is prologue to the story of Judah and Tamar. As Gerhard Von Rad writes in his commentary, the verses give “the reader the most necessary facts in a rather dry enumeration and without particular vividness… the narrator dispenses with all causes and motivations in this section and limits himself to giving the bare facts” (357). Robert Alter ties the incident to the recurrent theme in Genesis that the first-born are “losers” (6). The verses do not tell us what Er did, but in the midrash we are told that God killed him because “he ploughed on roofs” (792)that is, he practiced anal intercourse. Onan’s sin, however, is explicit in the biblical text; he refuses his duty under the institution of levirate marriage wherein the brother-in-law must marry the widow. The purpose, as Von Rad explains, is that, “The son begotten by the brother is then considered the son and heir of the deceased man, `that his name may not be blotted out of Israel’ (Deut. 25:6). But the practice has also been explained in the interest of preserving property” (358). As we all know, poor Onan’s punishment is two-fold. First, he suffers the death penalty, and secondand what is worse, for he would have died anyway-he suffers the ignominy of his name becoming synonymous with an abomination he does not even commit.
Tamar, the name of Er’s wife, is of course the Hebrew cognate of the Arabic word tamra, and has the same meaning in Hebrew, “date-palm” or simply “date.” So let us say then that, like Onan, the merchant has taken the seed out of Tamar and thrown it on the ground, and, as Onan thus “slays Er’s son,” so too the merchant slays the jinn’s son. Is “The Merchant and the Jinn” therefore a conscious revision of this biblical story as “The Story of the First Sheikh” is a conscious revision of the Abraham story? It seems not. For unlike the story of Abraham, which was central in medieval Islamic culture, the story of Judah, his sons and Tamar does not seem to be known-and yet the uncanny correspondence remains. This resemblance has two bases. Essentially both episodes are variants of the same plot; both the merchant and Onan “kill” another’s son and are sentenced to die for this by a supernatural being. But the uncanny resemblance between the two episodes is a result of more than simply the plot; in considerable measure it derives from the role of the cognate tamra in both narratives. It is a kind of “involuntary repetition”; it seems mere chance, and yet the fortuitous link established by the word suggests that the story of the merchant could have been written, and can be read, as a comic revision of the Onan -Tamar story-as a joke, that is. In Jokes and Their Relation to the Unconscious Freud shows how the processes of condensation and displacement operate in the formation of jokes even as they do in dreams, and the reading here will attempt to explain the similarities between these two episodes in terms of a joke constructed upon various condensations and displacements. A whimsical task perhaps, yet this kind of reading will reveal other thematic links between the two stories and indeed show a similarity between Tamar and the date that surpasses the coincidence of the Arabic and Hebrew cognates.
While the two episodes share a common plot, the comic transformation of our hypothesized travesty depends on a piece of word-play; tamra, a word that comes to be a feminine name because of its auspicious meaning as a staple fruit in the Near East, is the linchpin that holds it all together. Its role here matches numerous examples cited by Freud in his chapter on joke techniques under the rubric of words with a “double-meaning.” The transformation of Tamar the biblical girl to tamra the snack in the Arabic story is not, I should add, without precedent in medieval Arabic literature. For example, a medieval story by al-Hamadhani uses the same plot as another story found in The Thousand and One Nights, the story of “The Lame Young Man and the Barber,” which is told in “The Hunchback.” In that case the lovely daughter of a judge in the latter story is replaced by a bowl of stew in the story by al-Hamadhani, though no word play is involved in the transformation. In any event, this free hand with narrative material is found elsewhere.5
Once the transformation of Tamar to tamra is recognized, those of the other biblical figures can then be established in our comic version. As the date condenses Tamar the biblical heroine, so the merchant condenses the figure of Onan. The jinn is more problematic. On the one hand, it could be argued that he condenses Er. But taking the biblical narrative and the midrash together, we can see that Er either resists fathering a son by Tamar, or, at best, is an indifferent pervert. In either case, his ghost should have no bone to pick with Onan, who simply uses a different method to achieve the same result.?
Hence, I think our joke will gain interest if we consider the jinn as also, and perhaps more significantly, representing Judah and God, for a closer look at the biblical version reveals another similarity between the two tales. As Von Rad notes, it seems clear that after the death of his first born, Er, and his second born, Onan, Judah’s reluctance to marry his last son, Shelah, to Tamar results from a suspicion that Tamar bears some sort of curse; for marriage to Tamar has proved fatal for two of his sons. This likely is meant to exemplify the dangers of marrying outside one’s tribe, for all three of Judah’s sons are the product of his marriage to a Canaanite woman. In this case, insofar as he suspects Tamar of contributing to the deaths of Er and Onan, Judah is akin to the figure of the jinn insofar as the tamra has killed the latter’s son. My insistence here on “stuffing” so many males into the figure of the jinn follows from the fact that part of what is at stake in both stories is male lineage; that is what concerns Judah-and God. Judah wants to see his line propagated through his sons, but to do so his sons must live. This is what he seems to hold against Tamar.
At this point, an interesting displacement resulting from the transformations of the simple plot in the Arabic story deserves closer scrutiny. In the larger biblical narrative of Judah, his sons and Tamar, there is thematic emphasis on the failure of first his sons and then Judah with respect to Tamar. But the Arabic tale is all about men seeking satisfaction under lex talionis. Thus, insofar as he invokes the law, the figure of the jinn really represents the law-the nom du pere. In this travesty, the claims of Tamar are lost; we no longer have a story about a woman and the brothers and father who fail her, we have a story now solely about men. “He done her wrong” becomes “he done him wrong.” Thus, the condensations of various males in the jinn entail a displacement of the biblical theme. We will take up the question of Tamar and tamra in a moment. Here let us examine what we have created; the joke structure between the two texts might be diagrammed so:
The value of the joke may now be seen. By transforming the girl Tamar into an object, tamra in the Arabic story, an important aspect of the biblical story becomes clear: Tamar is already an object in the biblical story, no less than the date, for they are both possessed by men. As Von Rad says, the point of levirate marriage is that “the wife [of the deceased] is also a capital asset…”(358). So the joke highlights the problematic position of the woman in the Bible, in The Thousand and One Nights, and indeed in marriage in general. The problem is that in marriage the woman is exchanged like an object. But she is a special sort of object, one that also happens to be a subject, that is, a creature that speaks, and all the subsequent difficulties for Judah follow from this fact. She can invoke the law to Judah, who owes something for her, who owes a son-in-law to Tamar’s father. Judah would like to forget the whole thing, but his “date” speaks. As Lacan writes: “The fact that the woman is thus bound up in an order of exchange in which she is object is really what accounts for the fundamentallv conflictual character, I wouldn’t say without remedy, of her position-the symbolic order literally subdues her, transcends her” (Seminar, Book II 262). Tamar is thus an object of exchange no less than the tamra can be one, and our joke’s transformation of her simply strips her of her subjectivity. Yet we should note that, although the tamra in the Arabic story does not speak, it still has its effect. The symbolic effect of Tamar, the claim of the law in the biblical story, becomes in our travesty a real effect, the crushing effect of the date pit-which seems a strangely appropriate metaphor for the weight of the law.
Two other elements in the story also entail condensations and displacements of biblical motifs, although the motifs are not found in the Er-Onan-Tamar story, but elsewhere in Genesis. They are two words used to designate the place where the merchant meets the jinn, the tree and the garden. The story of “The Merchant and the Jinn” begins when the merchant sits down beneath a tree and eats some bread and dates. And then, when he returns on the first day of the new year to the same place, we are told, “he traveled until he arrived at that garden”- al-bustan (I:11). These two terms obviously link “The Merchant and the Jinn” not only with Genesis 2-3, but also with the frame story of The Thousand and One Nights, where the orgy of Shahriyar’s wife and her twenty slaves and slave girls takes place in a garden, and the black slave with whom Shahriyar’s wife couples climbs out of a tree. Subsequently Shahriyar and his brother Shahzaman hide from the jinn in a tree in a meadow (marja) with a spring, and beneath the tree the two have sex with the girl whom the jinn has kidnapped on her wedding night. Both the garden and the tree are abviously things “known of old and long familiar”- as Freud puts it in his essay “The Uncanny.” In the frame story, as in Genesis 2:7-9, the tree marks a primal scene, a place where an originary violation occurs. This association seems to be played upon as well in “The Merchant and the Jinn.” Insofar as the garden and the tree condense other gardens and trees, they signal that some sort of primal violation is to happen-though “violation” is perhaps not the best word to describe what happens in “The Merchant and the Jinn,” for it is really a matter here of things simply going awry.
The preceding discussion shows the viability of condensation and displacement for delineating intertextual relations in two different kinds of readings. As analytic instruments they can reveal heretofore unseen relations between narratives; in the case of “The Story of the First Sheikh” and the biblical story of Abraham, these intertextual relations may even suggest why the first of these stories is given “pride of place” in The Thousand and One Nights. If one considers that the frame story is based on products of Persia and India (as Cosquin showed a century ago), then the immediate introduction of an Arabic story that is a comic revision of Hebrew materials asserts the identity of the book in a most striking way, reenacting the manner in which Islamic culture borrows from all of these cultures to create cultural synthesis. The irony is that The Thousand and One Nights-rather like Ishmael, after all-became and has remained an outcast from the Arab-Muslim tradition that gave birth to it.
In the case of the second reading, these concepts reveal similarities in plot and theme between stories that are likely without any historical connection. Their efficacy in this regard stems from the power of abstraction that they bring to bear as concepts. As in the case of Tamar-tamra, they reveal how the word in its materiality, as Lacan calls it, functions in narrative. University of Rochester
‘ Although it is true that Jakobson correlates them with synecdoche and metonymy in Fundamentals of Language, p.95.
2 The Arabic text I am using is Macnaghten’s 2nd Calcutta edition. The translations that follow are my own.
‘ The Maqamat are brief, rhetorically elaborate narratives that recount the repeated encounters of a gullible narrator with an eloquent trickster. 4 And (Chauvin, Bibliographie des ouvrages arabes, p. 43, lists many other versions.
5 This and other such transformations are discussed in my article vA Mighty and Never Ending Affair” in Journal of Arabic Literature. 6 Incidentally, coitus interruptus is upheld by some Muslim jurists as permitted, mubah.
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