We give you the fruit of the palm and the vine from which you derive intoxicants and wholesome food


As Batmanglij notes, Muslims who wished to drink alcohol gave a variety of excuses. Wine was being drunk as a medicine. It was alleged that the Koran only forbade over-indulgence in wine. Wine that was diluted or boiled was acceptable. The ban applied only to wine and not to arak, beer, or fermented mare’s milk. Dick Davis, the eminent translator of classic Persian texts, has contributed an excellent chapter on “Wine and Persian Poetry” in From Persia to Napa in which he points out that the heroes of Firdawsi’s great epic, the Shahnama, drank heroically. He also discusses the metaphorical employment of “wine” in Persian Sufi poetry to signify ecstasy. Though many Sufi poems have survived in which this is indeed the case, Davis is rightly doubtful about the automatic translation of wine as some figurative reference to a spiritual experience. “Sometimes, and perhaps usually, a cigar is just a cigar – and wine just wine” according to Davis, paraphrasing Freud. In particular, Davis is sceptical about the wholesale assimilation of the fourteenth-century poetry of Hafiz of Shiraz into the mystical canon: “My own feeling is that he is almost always writing about what he says he is writing about, wine and carnal love, and that his occasional hankerings for a more secure and spiritual world safe from the vicissitudes of earthly life, are just that – occasional hankerings”. Wine and feasting feature prominently in the Arabian Nights, though the most famous of all the stories’ meals, the Barmecide feast in “The Barber’s Tale of His Sixth Brother”, was a decidedly notional one. The barber’s impoverished brother goes to dine with a member of the wealthy Barmecide clan. However, the wine and food offered by his host are invisible and impalpable. As the barber’s brother rises to leave, he strikes his host on the neck, before apologizing and claiming that he is drunk from having imbibed so much excellent wine. The host, in turn apologetic and amused, now provides him with a real meal. Zirbajah was another dish immortalized by literature, as it features in “The Reeve’s Tale” in the Nights. In this story, which is told by the controller of the King of China’s kitchen, a man turns up at a feast, but when presented with a dish of zirbajah, he vehemently refuses to eat it. On being pressed to reveal why, he shows that his thumbs have been cut off. His story is that he was on the verge of marrying a beautiful handmaiden of the caliph Harun al-Rashid. But while waiting to be admitted to the bedroom, he ate some zirbajah and forgot to wash his hands afterwards. When his bride-to-be discovered this, she was so enraged that she had his thumbs cut off.

more from the TLS here.