Persian Dawns, Egyptian Nights by Lewis Grassic Gibbon

Polygon, 1998, 274 p, plus vi p Introduction (The Other Grassic Gibbon) by Ian Campbell and 3p Foreword (Good Wine) by J D Beresford.

 Persian Dawns, Egyptian Nights  cover

This edition was published as by Lewis Grassic Gibbon but originally saw the light in 1932 under the author’s real name J Leslie Mitchell. It is divided into two sections.

Persian Dawns is a series of tales supposedly mediated (and commented on) by our author from archive manuscripts in the Monastery of Mevr, written by Neesan Nerses, a Nestorian bishop of the 1200s, stories he called the Polychronicon.
I The Lost Constituent is the tale of Islam’s greatest General, Mirza Malik Berkhu, who comes back to Baghdad after his latest triumph to be told by the Caliph to sequester himself. He spends the next ten years in pursuit of the secret of eternal youth but is rudely interrupted by the Mongols.
II The Lovers are two men, one a Christian mercenary, Hormizd, son of Bishop Nerses, saved from slaughter at the hands of the Mongols by the other, a chief of the Outer Horde, who is later imprisoned for his pains, but set free by Hormizd as the Mongols return home. Theirs is a complicated relationship but it endures.
III The Floods of Spring is again set after the sack of Baghdad. A deputation from a Christian village on the Euphrates comes to the bishop at Alarlu to ask for a priest as theirs had been killed. The bishop returns with them to rouse the villagers both from their torpor and from the influence of Zeia and Romi, two wanderers who had turned up in the Mongols’ aftermath, to rebuild the dams that the Mongols destroyed.
IV The Last Ogre lives in a cleft in the rocks in the mountains of the Kablurz Beg where the bishop’s daughter, Amima, effective manager of Alarlu while her father pores over his manuscripts, had gone hunting despite his refusal of permission. The Beg is said to be the haunt not only of wild animals but also strange mythical demons. Having lost her weapons and horse in an encounter with a lion Amima finds shelter with the creature, a last vestige of prehistoric times.
V Cartaphilus is a cyclic tale; of Baisan Evid, imprisoned in a lightless dungeon for consorting with the Caliph’s favourite, Miriam. He has a companion in the darkness, eventually revealed as Cartaphilus, the denier of Christ, Wandering Jew of Christian legend. On his release, fired with a desire to persuade Cartaphilus of Christ’s godhood and so precipitate the Second Coming, Evid roams the Middle-Eastern world in search of Cartaphilus, via the tomb of Doubting Thomas among other places, before returning to Baghdad and a different realisation.
VI Dawn in Alarlu might have been crafted to counterpoint the biblical phrase What shall it profit a man though he gain the whole world and lose his own soul? as the bishop’s daughter takes the side of a monk escaped from the monastery where he was taken as a child and subjected to its harsh discipline. By escaping he stood to lose his soul; but he had gained the world.

The stories in Egyptian Nights are listed alternately under the titles of two poems by John Keats, L’Allegro and Il Penseroso. All the L’Allegro stories are prefaced by the same paragraph of introduction and are as-told-by tales which Sergie Lubow, a former White Russian, relates to our unnamed narrator. The Il Pensero stories are more straightforwardly written.

L’Allegro
I Amber in Cold Sea tells of Gavril Dan’s escape from the Crimea as the Bolsheviks took over and how that relates to the couple Lubow and our narrator see coming out of a taxi one Cairo night.
Il Penseroso
II Revolt. The same night as his sick son Hassan’s life hangs in the balance, Rejeb ibn Saud is to give the final exhortation to a crowd before a projected uprising. He resolves to encourage or condemn the revolt according to the message he will receive as to his son’s survival.
L’Allegro
III Camelia Comes to Cairo. Camelia is a woman who had left London under the cloud of a common complaint five years earlier, then studied medicine in Dresden, before coming to Cairo as it needed a female doctor. She has to prove her worth to Lubow’s friend Adrian – and his catty sister.
Il Penseroso
IV Dienekes’ Dream tells of how a street in Cairo came to have ϴΕΜΟΠΥLΑΙ inscribed on its wall, the site of a last stand against eviction by Greek immigrants who had settled on a midden and turned the site into a thriving weaving concern.
L’Allegro
V Siwa Plays the Game. Lubow tells of his commissioning by an English author of novels set in Egypt (a place said author had never visited) to show him the real Egypt. When this reality fails to live up to the author’s imaginings – too mundane, too squalid – Lubow and his Egyptian guide determine to furnish him with what he desires.
Il Penseroso
VI The Children of Ceres is a kind of Good Samaritan story, with everyone passing a poor old woman in the street until one woman recognises her.

All the stories are accomplished enough in themselves but could perhaps have done without the ‘throat-clearing’ introductions. Very little hint of Gibbon’s Scottishness shows through. But that is as it should be, given their settings. But Gibbon is never less than readable.

Sensitive souls should note that the text contains the word “nigger”.

Pedant’s corner:- In the Introduction; Wells’ (Wells’s,) Nerses’ (Nerses’s.) Otherwise; Nerses’ (Nerses’s,) noice (noise,) Tigris’ (Tigris’s,) Dienekes’ (Dienekes’s)stratagem (stratagem,) staunching (stanching,)

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