The Reading Room

The Magic of Merchants in The Arabian Nights

In a previous visit to the Reading Room, I made a case for The Arabian Nights as an anti-epic embodying the commercial values of medieval and early modern Islamic silk road merchants. Today, I want to talk a bit about the actual representations of merchants and commercial culture in the work.
In writing about the romance genre, David Quint argues that these episodic travel adventures—modeled on the wandering of Ulysses in Homer’s Odyssey—increasingly came to be identified with the voyages of actual merchants, as European involvement in global trade grew. For authors of Renaissance epics, the introduction of Circean romance interludes became a way to negotiate and contain these associations and the threat they posed to epic’s imperial ideology, distinguishing the “serious” affairs of epic from the “self-absorbed” business of commerce symbolically echoed in these episodes.
In The Arabian Nights, by comparison, merchants appear as sympathetic characters virtually from the outset. Shahrazad’s first story is about a merchant returning from a business trip in a foreign country. Having traveled for three days, he stops in an orchard for lunch on the fourth, casting the pits from his dates aside. Suddenly, he is confronted by a djinn whose son has been killed by one of those pits, and he is told to prepare for his own death in recompense.
Beyond invoking the reader’s sympathy, I would argue that this story ennobles certain realities of life on the silk roads by cloaking them in the story’s fantastical elements. Does not this djinn, enraged at the discarding of date-pits, serve as a brilliant metaphor for the difficulties of negotiating the unexpected cultural norms encountered in international trade? Something as mundane as disposing of your lunch can suddenly give offense and derail a carefully negotiated deal. Within The Arabian Nights, the actual threats of commercial life can offer inspiration for its fantastical episodes.
The travels of this merchant also point toward the remarkably cosmopolitan outlook of these stories, an aspect of the collection perhaps best captured in a series of intertwined stories surrounding the death of a hunchback. The stories are situated in China, where a Muslim tailor encounters an entertaining (if inebriated) hunchback and invites him in, only to have him choke to death on a fishbone. Uncertain of what to do, the tailor’s wife convinces him to dispose of the body, which he does in a way that leads his neighbor, a Jewish doctor, to believe that he has accidentally killed the hunchback. His disposal of the body leads to a similar misunderstanding on the part of a Muslim steward, who repeats the pattern and convinces a drunken Christian broker that he is the guilty party.
The Christian broker is arrested for the crime and condemned to death by the King of China, leading to a series of admissions of guilt by his predecessors, and thence to a series of new stories narrated by each of these men to please the King.
In the cosmopolitan world of The Arabian Nights, Muslim, Jew, and Christian happily interact while plying their trades in China. In European epics and romances, the Muslim knights and princesses are inevitably depicted as exotic others. While this cavalcade of world religions does create some coloring of exoticism, the religious differences have no impact on the presentation of these characters or their interactions with one another. As Voltaire noted of the Royal Exchange of London, so too the commercial world of The Arabian Nights: “the Jew, the Mahometan, and the Christian bargain with one another as if they were of the same religion.”
In addition to demonstrating the ecumenical attitude associated by Voltaire and others with commercial culture, merchants in The Arabian Nights are at least occasionally admired for their bourgeois values.  In one early story, an old man (or sheikh) tells the tale of himself and his two brothers, each of which inherits 1000 dinars. While the storyteller is content to run his shop at a consistent profit, his brothers both sell all to fund trading ventures which leave them destitute. 
The prudent brother uses his profits to recapitalize his brothers, and while they are eager for him to join them in another trading venture, he resists for six years. By that time, both brothers have “eaten and drunk and squandered everything they had.” Surveying his profit of 6000 dinars, the prudent brother buries half before splitting the remaining capital evenly with them. His trading ventures then earn a ten-fold return on his investments.
While this responsible brother is surely admirable for his generosity and loyalty, there can be little doubt that his bourgeois prudence enables these other virtues and is itself an admirable trait. The tale thus implies a link between his economic prudence and his sympathetic interest in others, in contrast to his self-absorbed and imprudent brothers.
Interestingly, Shahrazad essentially re-tells this story 56 nights later, but with a prudent sister who makes “much money by spinning and producing silk,” while her sisters squander their inheritances on unfortunate marriages. She describes herself to her future husband as “the head of her family, mistress over servants and slaves, and a businesswoman of considerable wealth.” Even in women, it would seem, bourgeois values are to be admired in contrast to selfish and ill-considered recklessness.
This brief account of merchants in The Arabian Nights passes over much, including the collection’s most famous trader: Sinbad the Sailor. While I hope to return at some point with thoughts on his role in the work, my larger hope is to have inspired some of you to explore this remarkable expression of Islamic commercial culture on your own.