Arabian Marriage Blues, by AKUTAGAWA Ryūnosuke

Offensive orientalist nonsense originally published in women's magazine Fujin no kuni (literally "Women's Country"). Original here. Translation was once-through, with no editing afterwards-- sorry.

Are you all familiar with the tale of Zeraiid?

Zeraiid was a beautiful princess. To put it all in literary terms, it was said that her feet were like soapstone, her thighs like ivory, her naval like a pearl in a clam, her belly like an alabaster urn, her breasts like a bouquet of lilies, the nape of her neck like a dove, her hair like fragrant grass, her eyes like a pond in the palace garden, and her nose like the turret on a grand gate, so she must have been a real one-in-a-million beauty.

Before long, Zeraiid was fast becoming a lady, and so it was decided that a suitable partner should be found for her to marry. If this had taken place in Japan, they would probably have asked a relation, an acquaintance, the principal of her all-girl high school or some other fiercely useless person to act as an intermediary. And if it had been the West, perhaps her mother and elder sisters would have been recruited as consultants to put together a strategic plan for capturing her future husband. But Zeraiid was not only a princess, she was also highly intelligent, and so she decided to choose a prince or minister's son for herself.

They say that the list of candidates I am about to give you took three years, seven months and sixteen days to put together once Zeraiid had decided to get married. The original is in the Oriental Library's "Arabia" section, under "Z", in volume 138; I invite the studious to consult it for themselves. I will provide here only the outlines, not bothering with names and so forth.

  1. An Indian prince. His physique was indescribably magnificent. But, he was not very wise. It was said that he once mistook an elephant for a mountain and came very near to being trampled to death.
  2. A Persian prince. He was said to have been as beautiful as a woman, yet aflame with blood-red passion. He already had 600 concubines, 2,300 wives, and as for slave girls -- well, he had so many tens of thousands of slave girls that one man could not even estimate their number.
  3. A minister's son from Zeraiid's own country. Though still young, he boasted great learning and wisdom. How terribly unfortunate, though, that he should have been born a hunchback.
  4. A Babylonian prince. His stock of gold, silver, pearls and jewels was perhaps the richest in the world. The only mark against him, it was said, was that he enjoyed torture, and frequently sliced off a maid's ear or some other appendage which he then ate with onions on the side.
  5. A Chinese prince. They say he was neither more nor less handsome than the Persian prince. But he came across as terribly impersonal, and even when blowing his nose had one of his ministers do it for him.
  6. A minister's son from Lydia. He had no particular flaw. But, he had 25 ex-wives and children, and it was said that one of them was a monster both of whose legs ended in chicken feet.
  7. A minister's son from Media. People spoke well of his strength and bravery. But they also spoke of his debt, which was so great that you couldn't bet against him selling his own father out if it came to that.
  8. A minister's son from Judea. He was said to be well versed in poetry and music. However, he preferred the company of men, and was highly unlikely to get married.
  9. An Egyptian prince. He was fair, educated, and an unbeatable shot with the bow. Marry this prince, and even a long journey in the desert might be pleasant. Tomorrow, let both families -- Update: We regret to report that our sources say he was just eaten by a crocodile while bathing in the river.
  10. The Sorceror King Zian Ben Zian. Whereabouts unknown.

Of course, the list of candidates did not end with these few. Volume 138 of the Oriental Library's "Arabia" section, under "Z", lists precisely 280 names. However, it seems that no candidate was quite what Zeraiid had hoped for. She spent every day with her maids of honor, passing the time amidst the blooming pomegranate and saffron blossoms of the imperial palace. Love, however, masters us all in the end, and this beautiful Arabian princess did not escape its clutches. One clear-mooned night, Zeraiid and her lover quietly slipped out of the palace. Romantic Arabian poet Dejar ("the Great"), put it thus:

O Zeraiid! O Rose of the Desert!
How fortunate your lover!
You are your lover's cane,
You are your lover's teeth,
How blessed your lover!
Oh, O Zeraaid! O Rose of the Desert!

"Your lover's cane" and "your lover's teeth" may sound a little peculiar. But that's because you're making assumptions about what kind of man Zeraiid's lover was. The story has it that he was an ugly, seventy-six-year-old black slave.

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Interesting okurigana in the original... does it reflect the actual pronunciation at the time? Or perhaps a dialect?


Nah, it reflects a palimpsest of all the pronunciations from the Nara period up to and including Edo times... by the time Akutagawa was born, no-one would actually have pronounced しつてゐます "shi-tsu-te-wi-ma-su", but that was still the official spelling. They finally reformed the orthography after WWII, and that's why today we can write しっています instead.




Saibancho, I wondered that too, but I can't find any solid connections (other Japanese sources who spell the name similarly, or English sources who mangle the name so that it might sound like that.) In the end I decided that the name was probably as made-up as the rest of the story. (I was secretly hoping someone would correct me though.)

Sir G:

There was a nice little book lately on Occidentalism, some famous fellow, name escapes me.

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