Eric Ormsby

Stories Told in Bed

Stranger Magic: Charmed States & the Arabian Nights

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Chatto & Windus 540pp £28 order from our bookshop

Visions of the Jinn: Illustrators of the Arabian Nights

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Oxford University Press/The Arcadian Library 256pp £120 order from our bookshop

On certain restless nights, despite the plush furnishings of his royal bed or the soothing melodies of his musicians or even the exquisite attentions of one or more of his 300 concubines, the mighty caliph Harun al-Rashid, fifth in the Abbasid line, could not find sleep. Accompanied by his favourite eunuch, Masrur, who also served as his headsman, he prowled the palace gardens or roamed in disguise through the souks of Baghdad; sometimes he summoned learned scholars for a chat – normally an infallible remedy for insomnia. If these expedients failed, he had his eunuch fetch Ali ibn Mansur, a wit from Damascus, to while away the long hours of the night with his fabulous tales. In the end, only stories could lull the caliph to sleep.

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