Sunday, November 15, 2009

how to tell a story - the porter and the three ladies

Safie, One of the Three Ladies of Bagdad - 1900 - William Clarke Wontner

The following is a selection of paragraphs from different versions of the English language Nights. All are from a favorite story of mine “The Porter and the Three Ladies of Bagdad,” which relies on a bit of fun with sexuality and at the same time gives a lot of agency to the female characters, making it a sort of sexually subversive scene.

In case you don’t know the story it involves a porter who is waiting for a job on the street, is picked up by a young woman who makes him carry a feast of foods that she buys, she takes him to a house/courtyard with a fountain and two other young attractive women, and the foursome end up drinking and frolicking and a joke is told involving everyone’s private parts that, if you haven’t read it, I won’t spoil the humor of.

Here are the various takes on it, some range from the nonexistent (Lane) to the over the top (Burton, though Burton’s is by far the most humorous in its tone), to the defensive and anti-poetic to the downright boring, how can you make this story so boring?!

I think Pasolini does it well in his film. And I also like Burton, Mathers and kind of Dawood but the others are too far gone to salvage. Bulak and the Egyptian Arabic versions are much more explicit and fun than the Mahdi/Galland manuscript too.

But I digress and let thou be thy own judge:


“The wine continued to circulate among them, and the porter, taking his part in the revels, dancing and singing with them, and enjoying the fragrant odours, began to hug and kiss them, while one slapped him, and another pulled him, and the third beat him with sweet-scented flowers, till, at length, the wine made sport with their reason; and they threw off all restraint, indulging their merriment with as much freedom as if no man had been present.”

Note 25 (at end of quote) – "I here pass over an extremely objectionable scene"

[this is the second time they drink in the story, as Lane has it - I can feel his fretting through his language, though why include the story at all if he’s so nervous about its contents?]



[I feel the need to include the entire section though I’ll just put the paragraph below, though Lane excises the whole “joke” of the story almost completely, leaving out the “what do you call this…” sections and ruining the need for the story at all. I’m a hesitant fan of Dawood’s even if his version has its own problems…]

“When they had drained their cups a second time, they rose and danced round the fountain, singing and clapping their hands in unison. They went on drinking until the wine took possession of their senses and overcame their reason, and, when its sovereignty was fully established, the first girl got up and cast off all her clothes, letting down her long hair to cover her nakedness. She jumped into the fountain, frolicking and washing her body, filling her mouth with water and squirting it at the porter. At length she came out of the pool and threw herself into the porter’s lap. Then she pointed down to that which was between her thighs and said: ‘Darling master, what do you call that?’”


Grub Street Edition/ Robert Mack editor:

(also a little on the tame side and no “what do you call it” joke):

“After they had eat a little, Amine, who sat next the sideboard, took up a bottle and cup, filled out wine and drank first herself, according to the custom of the Arabians, then she filled the cup to her sisters, who drank in course as they sat; and at last she filled it the fourth time to the porter, who, as he received it, kissed Amine’s hand; and before he drank, sung a song to this purpose: That as the wind brings along with it the sweet scents of the perfumed places through which it passes, so the wine he was going to drink, coming from her fair hands, received a more exquisite taste than what it had of its own nature. This song pleased the ladies so much, that each of them sung another in their turn. In short, they were extraordinary merry all the time of dinner, which lasted a long while, and nothing was wanting that could make it agreeable.”


And then of course Burton:

“Then the lady took the cup, and drank it off to her sisters’ health, and they ceased not drinking (the Porter being in the midst of them), and dancing and laughing and reciting verses and singing ballads and ritornellos. All this time the Porter was carrying on with them, kissing, toying, biting, handling, groping, fingering; whilst one thrust a dainty morsel in his mouth, and another slapped him; and this cuffed his cheeks, and that threw sweet flowers at him; and he was in the very paradise of pleasure, as though he were sitting in the seventh sphere among the Houris of Heaven. They ceased not doing after this fashion until the wine played tricks in their heads and worsted their wits; and, when the drink got the better of them, the portress stood up and doffed her clothes till she was mother-naked. However, she let down her hair about her body by way of shift, and throwing herself into the basin disported herself and dived like a duck and swam up and down, and took water in her mouth, and spurted it all over the Porter, and washed her limbs, and between her breasts, and inside her thighs and all around her navel. Then she came up out of the cistern and throwing herself on the Porter’s lap said, “O my lord, O my love, what callest thou this article?” pointing to her slit, her solution of continuity.”

(vol 1: 90)

Haddawy: (I hear the humor in Burton, there is none here, I feel, just my humble opinion):

Thus receiving the full and returning the empty, they went on drinking cup after cup until the porter began to feel tipsy, lost his inhibitions, and was aroused. He danced and sang lyrics and ballads and carried on with the girls, toying, kissing, biting, groping, rubbing, fingering, and playing jokes on them, while one girl thrust a morsel in his mouth, another flirted with him, another served him with some fresh herbs, and another fed him sweets until he was in utter bliss. They carried on until they got drunk and the wine turned their heads. When the wine got the better of them, the doorkeeper went to the pool, took off her clothes, and stood stark naked, save for what was covered of her body by her loosened hair. Then she said, “Whee,” went into the pool, and immersed herself in the water.

[here Haddawy has a night and morning section]

I heard that the doorkeeper went into the pool, threw water on herself, and, after immersing herself completely, began to sport, taking water in her mouth and squirting it all over her sisters and the porter. Then she washed herself under her breasts, between her thighs, and inside her navel. Then she rushed out of the pool, sat naked in the porter’s lap and, pointing to her slit, asked, “My lord and my love, what is this?”


The new Lyons edition:

She then took the cup, drank it and sat down with her sister. They continued to drink, with the porter seated between them, and as they drank, they danced, laughed and sang, reciting poems and lyrics. The porter began to play with them, kissing, biting, rubbing, feeling, touching and taking liberties. One of them would give him morsels to eat, another would cuff him and slap him, and the third would bring him scented flowers. With them he was enjoying the pleasantest of times, as though he was seated among the houris of Paradise.

They went on in this way until the wine had taken its effect on their heads and brains. When it had got the upper hand of them, the doorkeeper stood up, stripped off her clothes until she was naked, and letting down her hair as a veil, she jumped into the pool. She sported in the water, ducking her head and then spitting out the water, after which she took some in her mouth and spat it over the porter. She washed her limbs and between her thighs, after which she came out from the water and threw herself down on his lap. ‘My master, my darling, what is the name of this?’ she said, pointing to her vagina.



Again the young girl took the cup to the porter and, after holding it to his lips, sat down beside her sister. Soon they began to dance and sing and to play with the wonderful petals, the porter all the time taking them in his arms and kissing them, while one said saucy things to him, another drew him to her, and the third beat him with flowers. They went on drinking until the grape sat throned above their reason, and, when her reign was fully established, the portress rose and stripped off all her clothes until she was naked. Jumping into the water of the fountain, she began to play with it, taking it in her mouth and blowing it noisily at the porter, washing all her body, and letting it run between her childish thighs. At length she got out of the fountain, threw herself on the porter’s lap, stretched out on her back and, pointing to the thing which was between her thighs, said:

‘My darling, do you know the name of that?’


Jack Zipes, in his Arabian Nights vol II, an “adaptation” of Burton, keeps everything Burton has but takes out the sentence about the Houris for some reason. Zipes’ version is quite readable for contemporary readers actually and may be one of the better adaptations, though lacking in the poetics of say Burton or Mathers.


  1. Can you tell me more about the illustration at the top? Was it ever part of a book illustration or is it just a stand-alone painting?

    Best wishes,


  2. Hi JC, I don't know much about the painting but it appears to be a "stand-alone" painting not a part of any written versions of the Nights.