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How Budur - the king - almost raped her husband Qamar

[Book excerpt] She plays the trick on him in order to exert power over him as he had exerted power over her, to put him in danger of being raped just as his absence had put her in danger of being raped.

 |  20-minute read |   05-07-2017
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The tale of Budur and Qamar-al-Zaman, which takes the theme of the dream ring in new directions, is part of the oldest core of the Arabian Nights.

It is retold in numerous versions of that much-retold text, in Europe as well as Asia. George Eliot, in Daniel Deronda (1876), likens her hero, Daniel, to “Camaralzaman” and his beloved Mirah to “Queen Budoor,” on several occasions.

Unlike “The Story of the Two Viziers,” this story is not, in fact, about a dream meeting. Although the characters in it think they have dreamed it, they do actually (magically) meet. In this it is closer to the Indian tale of the prince of Malava. Moreover, in this story, the woman is the one who does the raping, or, rather, stages a homosexual rape of her husband. The rings play different, though still essential, roles:

King Shahraman had a handsome son named Qamar al-Zaman. The King wanted his son to marry, but Qamar insisted, “Father, I have no wish to marry, nor am I inclined to women, for I have read tales of their guile and heard verses on their cunning.”

When he remained adamant, his father had him imprisoned in a tower. Meanwhile, the beautiful Princess Budur, the daughter of the king of the Interior Islands of China, had said, “I have no wish to marry, for I am a sovereign princess who rules over men, and I do not wish any man to rule over me.” Her father imprisoned her in a tower. Two djinns brought Budur to Qamar’s tower in her sleep, to determine which was the more beautiful. They laid her beside the young man. They looked very much alike, as if they were brother and sister.

First the jinns awakened Qamar, who was stunned by Budur’s beauty and desired to make love to her. He undressed her but could not awaken her, for the djinns kept her asleep. He wondered if this was the woman his father wanted him to marry, or if his father had sent the woman to test the sincerity of his resolve.

He therefore refrained from touching her, but as a souvenir, he took from her little finger a valuable ring and placed it on his own little finger. The ring was inscribed with a verse that began and ended thus: “Do not think that I have forgotten your vows…. By God, I will remain with you always.” Then he turned his back to her and went to sleep.

arabian-nigts_070517035439.jpgAt dawn, when Budur and Qamar awoke alone, each remembered the other and saw the ring, but each was told that no one had been there in the night. After three years, Budur’s stepbrother entered the harem disguised as a woman. Photo: Karavansara

The djinns then awakened Budur, who assumed that Qamar was the man her father had wanted her to marry. She, in turn, tried to awaken him to make love, but again the djinns kept him asleep. When she saw her ring on his little finger she cried out, “I love you, and you love me, but you turn away from me out of coquetry. You came to me while I was asleep, and I do not know what you did to me, but I will not take my ring from your finger.” Then she took his ring from his finger and put it on her own and kissed his mouth and hands and every spot on his body, even his penis. She took him in her arms and embraced him, but felt ashamed of her own desire, and fell asleep.

The djinns returned Budur to China. At dawn, when Budur and Qamar awoke alone, each remembered the other and saw the ring, but each was told that no one had been there in the night. After three years, Budur’s stepbrother entered the harem disguised as a woman.

He spoke to Budur and promised to help her find her prince. He brought Qamar to the kingdom of Budur’s father, and Qamar sent Budur a letter, enclosing her ring. They met and were married; they made love, and slept in each other’s arms until the morning.

Then Qamar persuaded Budur to return with him to his father in his own country. One day on the journey Qamar came upon Budur asleep; desiring her, he began to remove her pants, whereupon he discovered a blood-red jewel that she had kept tied to the ribbon of her pants and hidden in her most precious part. He took the jewel outside to look at it in the light, and a bird carried it off.

Qamar followed the bird and did not return. Budur awoke to find that he had gone and had taken the jewel, without knowing its secret power. Fearing that her servants would make bold with her if they knew her husband was gone, Budur put on some of Qamar’s clothes and a turban like his, veiled the lower part of her face, and departed. No one discovered her identity, for she resembled Qamar so much that everyone took her for him.

In this guise she journeyed to the City of Ebony, where the king said to her, “I have not been blessed with a son, but I  have one daughter, whose face and body resemble yours in beauty and grace. Will you be willing to live in my country? I will marry you to my daughter and give you the kingdom.”

Budur-as-Qamar agreed to this, but when she failed to consummate the marriage, the princess, Hayat al-Nufus, said, “I fear for you from the king, for he has resolved that if you don’t take my virginity and consummate the marriage tonight, he will depose you and banish you from his country; he may even become more enraged and kill you.”

ringg_070517040134.jpgThe Rings of Truth: Myths of Sex and Jewelry; Wendy Doniger; Speaking Tiger Rs 899

Budur-as-Qamar revealed that she was a woman, and Hayat said, “I will not divulge your secret.” She took a chicken, slaughtered it and smeared herself with its blood. Then she took off her pants, and cried out. The women of her family went in to her, and her waiting women let out trilling cries of joy.

After some time, Qamar found the jewel that was the cause of his separation from his wife. He hid it in a cask of gold on a ship that was to take him to the City of Ebony, but the ship sailed without him. When it landed, Budur-as-Qamar, now king of the Ebony Islands, found the jewel. Through it she discovered Qamar’s whereabouts and sent her men to capture him and bring him to her.

When Qamar arrived, Budur-as-Qamar said to him, “I love you for your surpassing beauty and grace, and if you grant me my desire, I will grant you more favours, make you more prosperous, and appoint you vizier, just as the people made me king, in spite of my youth.”

When Qamar heard this, he felt embarrassed and blushed until his cheeks seemed on fire, and he said, “I have no need of favours that lead to sin.”

Budur-as-Qamar kept arguing with him, reciting many obscene verses about men who prefer anal sex (with boys or with women) to full frontal sex with women. At last Qamar became convinced that there was no escape from compliance with the king’s will.

He said, “O King of the age, if you must do it, promise me that you will do it to me only once.” He opened his trousers, feeling extremely embarrassed and shedding tears in fear. Budur-as-Qamar smiled, took him with her to bed, and said, “After tonight, you will experience nothing offensive again.”

Then she bent over him, kissing and embracing him and wrapping her leg around his. When Qamar discovered that she lacked male genitals, he said to himself, “Perhaps this king is a hermaphrodite, being neither male nor female.”

So he said to her, “Your majesty, you don’t seem to have a tool like other men. What then moved you to carry on like this?” When Budur-as Qamar heard this, she laughed until she fell on her back, and she said, “O my darling, how quickly you have forgotten the nights we spent together!” Then she revealed herself to him, and he recognised her as his wife Budur. So he embraced her and she embraced him, and he kissed her and she kissed him, and they made love. Then he began to remonstrate with her, asking, “What made you treat me like this tonight?”

She replied, “Do not reproach me, for I only did it in jest, to increase the pleasure and joy.” Qamar married Hayat al-Nufus, and Budur, who was not jealous, willingly became her maidservant and co-wife. Qamar ruled his people well and lived with his wives in happiness and delight and fidelity and cheerfulness, spending one night with each in turn. Eventually Budur returned to her father’s kingdom, and her son ruled there, while Hayat’s son ruled on the throne of her father, and Qamar al-Zaman went back and ruled his father’s kingdom.

Only a few elements of the story of Budur and Qamar can be mapped onto the outline of the clever wife theme. These could be summarised as follows: Qamar vows never to marry. He encounters Budur while she is asleep, gives her his ring and takes hers. He leaves without consummating their union. Searching for her, he sends her a letter, enclosing her ring. He marries her, but again leaves her. Budur disguises herself as a king and seduces Qamar, who does not recognise her in her disguised form. At last she reveals herself to him and he welcomes her. She bears him a son who becomes king of her country.

The husband’s refusal to sleep with his wife, in the folktale, appears here first in the form of Qamar’s refusal to marry any woman at all and then in the episode in which he abandons Budur when he steals her jewel. It is also echoed in his violent resistance to sleeping with her when he thinks she is a man.

The riddles of the folktale appear here in the riddling verses that Budur-as-Qamar recites to Qamar, verses that are simultaneously obscene, misogynistic, homophobic, and blasphemous.

And the ring that identifies the impregnator in other stories here appears both as the rings with which the lovers persuade others of the reality of their encounter and as the ring with which Qamar identifies himself to Budur as her husband. The son is not, as he usually is, the pivot of the first part of the story, with its riddles and rings, but he does appear at the end of this tale.

The Arabian story can no more be reduced to this set of themes than Mozart’s Twelve Variations on the tune of the French folk song “Ah vous dirai-je, Maman” can be reduced to the jingle known in English as “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star.”

These narrative bones are grotesquely bare, but other details of the Arabian text flesh them out in interesting ways and tie up some loose ends that otherwise seem to play no significant role in the story as we have it.

Budur and Qamar exchange two rings in a mock wedding ceremony, but neither ring is intentionally given: on the contrary, each of the lovers takes the ring from the hand of a sleeping partner who cannot give it freely. In one version of the story, Qamar puts one of his own rings on Budur’s finger when he takes her ring; she does not take his ring from him, nor does her ring have an inscription.

Departing slightly from the conventional roles of rings as proof that the lovers have slept together, the rings in the tale of Budur and Qamar, like the jewelry in the tale of Shridarshana and Anangamanjari, prove only that they have met and fallen in love, but that is enough.

First, Qamar uses Budur’s ring to persuade his father that he really did spend the night with Budur. Significantly, he likens the ring’s power of proof to that of a blood-stained sword as proof of a killing, and says, “How could all this be a lie, when the matter of the ring is true? Were it not for the ring, I would have thought that it was a dream. This is her ring on my little finger at this moment. Look at the ring, your majesty, and see how valuable it is.”

The fact that the ring is valuable is part of the proof: the dream woman was a princess.

Later, Budur’s ring, sent with a letter, is what makes her recognise Qamar after their first separation and before their marriage.

In the version of the story in The Arabian NightsEntertainment (the first English translation, in 1706), the letter says: “He presumes to present you with his ring, as a token of his passion; and, in exchange, would be proud to receive yours, which he encloses in this billet. If you will condescend to return it, as a reciprocal assurance of your love, he will reckon himself the happiest of all lovers.”

Qamar’s ring is equally useful to Budur. It convinces her that she didn’t dream their encounter, and it convinces her stepbrother, too. When he hears that Qamar had exchanged rings with his dream woman, he puts two and two together.

But Budur never uses Qamar’s ring to convince anyone else, and so she is locked up in the harem as a madwoman, until her stepbrother rescues her. In the Arabian Nights’ Entertainment, Budur does attempt to use the ring to persuade her father, but in vain: “‘But that your majesty may no longer doubt whether I have seen this cavalier, whether he has lain with me, whether I have caressed him,... see, if you please this ring.’ She then reached forth her hand, and shewed the king a man’s ring on her finger.

The king did not know what to make of all this; but as he had confined her for mad, so now he began to think her more mad than ever.”

And so he still locks her up as a madwoman. In both texts, the ring always works as hard evidence when the man invokes it, but not always when the woman does.

As in several European medieval romances, the ring is inscribed with the foreknowledge that it will be given to someone who may abandon, betray, and/or forget the giver.

(“Do not think that I have forgotten your vows, no matter how long your cruel disdain lasts.”) And this is precisely what happens when the role of the ring(s) is taken up by the “blood-red jewel” that is hidden in Budur’s genitals and acts as a metaphor for them, a “metonymy of sex.” But what of the writing on the jewel? The Arabian Nights’ Entertainment tells us that this talisman was a kind of Chinese horoscope, a scheme of Budur’s nativity, drawn from the constellations of heaven, which her mother had made for her as a charm that would keep her from any harm as long as she had it about her. It was a carnelian engraved with unknown figures and characters, which would function to identify her. Andras Hamori has this to say about it:

“The indecipherable jewel snatched from the hero by a predatory creature might be an image of anxiety about sexual possession, of a worry (justified by later events) much like Gratiano’s about Nerissa’s ring. Or, the failure to read the inscription on this intimate jewel might be seen as an encoding of fears of inadequacy. (‘He does not know its secret,’ says Budur). Anxiety about the very nature of sexual passion would fit too: like magic, sexuality threatens to cut across the order of things, and sexual magic is like the magic of rings and lamps in being detachable from the rest of the personality.”

We will return to this theme of sexual anxiety at the close of this chapter. Here let us just remark that in his ignorance of the power of the jewel/ring he takes from the sleeping Budur, Qamar resembles Siegfried,xviii who does not know the power of the ring that he takes from Brünnhilde, sometimes in her sleep, sometimes after raping her.

In several Arabic texts, what is hidden in Budur’s pants is not just a jewel but a ring set with a blood-red jewel.

The widely distributed theme of a ring of identity that is lost and then found in a fish (reuniting separated lovers) is here conflated with the also common theme in which a bird mistakes a ruby for flesh and carries it off, causing the separation of lovers who are reunited when the ruby is found in the craw of the bird.

These myths convey the sense of the unbelievable, unlikely good luck of finding a jewel in an animal; the odds of finding a jewel in a bird may not be quite so astronomical as those of finding a ring in a fish, but close. The jewel in the tale of Budur, however transformed, still bears most of the weight of the proof of identity that it has in the plot of the tale of the clever wife. The skeleton plot of the clever wife thus provides a framework that reveals Budur as the heroine of the story.

Budur breaks out of the initial conventional situation of amazing physical identity with her lover to become a most unconventional woman, and someone quite different from him in every way — more active, more powerful, more deceptive. Yet she can only accomplish her goal of union with him by pretending to be him, using her cleverness to play upon the convention of their identical beauty. And in the course of her maneuvers, she threatens to rape him. To do this, she cross-dresses.

As jewellery is often strongly gendered, the exchange of rings (and other things) amounts to a kind of minor cross-dressing, which may have inspired the more extensive cross-dressing in tales like that of Budur and Qamar.

The connection between cross-dressing and rings that identify disguised women is widespread; we have seen it in The Merchant of Venice.

In a Jewish story from the Persian oral tradition, a woman who crossdresses uses a ring to find the husband whose father has appeared to her in a dream and given her the ring.

A number of clever wives cross-dress and are not recognised.

In an Indian variant, in which the woman crossdressed as a man in order to travel safely, and later disguised herself as a cowherd’s daughter, “The husband was attracted by her beauty, but did not recognize her, and proposed marriage”; and when another woman cross-dressed, her husband was “thoroughly ignorant of her real character, although he had constantly seen her at darbar, and had often heard her speak.”

Budur has been compared with the Greek mythic princess Kainis, who is raped and obtains the boon of being transformed into a man, in order to be invulnerable.

Unlike most cross-dressing wives, Budur does not bother to change back into a woman before she seduces her husband, which results in the strange case of the woman who threatened her own husband with homosexual rape. Budur may well blame Qamar for having left her (and robbed her:  she comments, blandly, “It seems that he has taken the jewel and gone”) as well as for turning his back to her in bed on their first encounter. Qamar’s initial rejection of Budur leaves her with the suspicion that he might have raped her in her sleep: “You came to me while I was asleep, and I do not know what you did to me.”

Budur both loves and hates Qamar. Her unexpressed (repressed?) resentment for being rejected, twice, may best explain her quite evident sadistic pleasure in tormenting Qamar when he thinks she is the king. She plays the trick on her husband in order to exert power over him as he had exerted power over her, to put him in danger of being raped just as his absence had put her in danger of being raped.

Her own rather lame excuse (“Do not reproach me, for I only did it in jest, to increase the pleasure and joy”) explains nothing but the trickster’s pleasure in manipulating others and wielding power over them by virtue of the trickster’s knowledge and the victim’s ignorance.

The closeted sexual motives seem to me to make the best sense of this twisted story. Budur’s initial refusal to marry at all is, like Brünnhilde’s, the female equivalent of the male sword-in-the-bed theme. A wife in drag actually rapes her husband in another variant of the tale in which there is “a parodized sodomy which the woman carries out in the guise of a physician with a radish, and thus emasculates the man and dominates him.”

Rape and rejection appear together in yet another form near the end of this story. For when each of the two women has borne and raised a son, each woman falls in love with the other’s son, propositions him, is rejected, and accuses the boy of rape.

Qamar believes the women at first and orders the boys killed, but they are spared and prove their innocence with the help of the fathers of Budur and Qamar. We know this as the “Potiphar’s wife” scenario in the Hebrew Bible (Genesis 39), and the Greek myth of Phaedra, in which rejection is reprocessed as rape. It is yet another example of the combination of these two sexual scenarios that appear to be polar opposites.

The tale of Qamar and Budur conflates the two sexual extremes in two different ways: first, a mock rape as a revenge for rejection (Budur-as-Qamar with Qamar), and then the accusation of rape made in revenge for rejection (the two queens’ calumny against the two sons).

When Budur-as-Qamar teased Qamar about forgetting how she was in bed, she laughed “until she fell on her back,” precisely the sexual position for a woman that the obscene poems explicitly rejected (advising the women to turn over on their stomachs) and that therefore may be an invitation for sex in the missionary position.

The little touches of revenge in Budur’s trick are bitter. In their first encounter, she had touched his penis and felt ashamed; now she gets him to touch what he thinks is her penis, and enjoys his confusion when it is not there. Her revenge extends into the last part of the story, when she almost makes him destroy his son (by the other wife) by claiming that the boy had raped her.

One of the obscene verses that Budur-as-Qamar recites to Qamar implies that one reason that Budur-as-Qamar does not sleep with women is that s/he does not want to have children. He chooses to sleep with men, writes the poet, because they do not menstruate or bear children; he does not wish to overpopulate the world with brats.

A legitimate son is, however, the raison d’être of the more typical clever wife, and Budur does have a son, though for a while he is a problem rather than a solution.

The blithe assertion that Qamar “lived with his wives in happiness and delight and fidelity and cheerfulness, spending one night with each in turn,” evokes the Middle-Eastern tradition that goes awry in the Hebrew Bible, in the story of Rachel and Leah, and fares little better here, where the “fidelity and cheerfulness” is certainly short-lived.

The fact that the solution to all of this transvestism and quasi-incest is to send the women home to live with their fathers might give a Freudian pause, but Qamar, too, ends up in his father’s realm, and it was in order to return to his father that Qamar left Budur in the first place.

Here I think the return to the fathers indicates little more than one more example of the virulent misogyny (and in this case the literal patriarchy) of the story.

(Excerpted with permission from Speaking Tiger Books)

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Wendy Doniger Wendy Doniger

American Indologist whose professional career has spanned five decades.

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