Friday, March 27, 2009

On Beyond Zebra: A Thousand Nights and a Night (2)

Raqa'iq al-hilal fi Daqaiq al-hiyal' (literally "Cloaks of Fine Fabric in Subtle Ruses") is a collection of parables and allegories believed to have been compiled in the late 13th or early 14th century. The anonymous compiler organized his anthology hierarchically, beginning at the top with God (whose ruses he respectfully refers to not as 'cunning' but as 'wisdom'). He works his way down, chapter by chapter, through angels and jinn and then prophets before getting to us mortals. He continues to descend the hierarchy with tales of caliphs, kings and sultans, then vizirs and governers, and finally judges, ascetics and tax collectors.

The book is full of familiar characters. Besides God, there is, of course, Satan, as well as Jacob, Gabriel, Adam, Jesus, Muhammad, Abraham and others. Some of the stories will be familiar to many readers, but others are unusual and perhaps unique to this collection (The Angel of Death, for example, uses a ruse on Moses to get his soul). Alexander the Great is here as well, as is Caliph Al-Rashid.

The stories are many and varied, with titles like "A Supposedly Impotent Man", "How to Weigh an Elephant", "The Testimony of the Tree" and "The Harmful Effects of Eloquence". Military ploys abound, with tricks used to win battles or avoid wars. "The Boxes", for example, includes a siege-ending ruse that is very reminiscent of Odysseus's Trojan Horse. Translated by Rene R. Khawam as "The Subtle Ruse: The Book of Arabic Wisdom and Guile."

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