THE TWO SINBADS

The adventures of Sinbad the Sailor occupy most of the column inches in the seven tales that feature him in the canon of the Arabian Nights. His voyages, discoveries in strange lands, and many near-death experiences are described in wonderful detail, enchanting anyone who hears them. In many ways, these tales embody much of what is enthralling in The Nights – they are filled with color, intrigue, magic, and surprise, to mention just a few of their many virtues.

However, there’s another Sinbad who features in each of these tales – Sinbad the Porter. This poor street-dweller doesn’t have a shekel to his name–at least before he meets Sinbad the Sailor he doesn’t–and spends much of his time bewailing the injustice of his lot. How can it be, he ponders, that some people such as the sailor can have so much, while so many lack even a daily meal or clothes to protect their bodies?

This is a question that we may well ask today, but that’s a topic for another time. What interests me is how the two Sinbads interact. Their first encounter is cordial, but the porter wonders what the motive of the sailor is. The poor man is invited each night to join the sailor in his house, to enjoy a lavish meal, and be entertained with another of the great adventurer’s stories. He even is offered a monetary gift each time the meal ends, leaving him in no doubt that his host is genuine in his wish to show hospitality.

As the seven tales unfold, it becomes clear that the sailor uses his storytelling as a way of expunging his guilt for some of the bad things he has done during his voyages (like killing). With the ever-more fantastical adventures that he describes testing credulity, we might begin to wonder whether he doesn’t occasionally embellish what really happened. He seems desperate to impress, and possibly lost in something of a fantasy himself.

The porter, meanwhile, becomes more comfortable in himself, increasingly feeling satisfied when he leaves the sailor’s house each evening. The two begin to act out a dance, indulging each other’s company, and possibly even becoming slightly dependent on each other. One projects aspects of himself onto the other; even if they don’t see it, there’s a person they recognize in the character of the other.

Some commentators on The Nights suggest that the two Sinbads are really meant to represent one person. Both may have faults, seen in their shadow selves. It’s by coming together and seeing how they can complement and teach other that both men are able to move on from their current states of mind.

We all have shadow selves, the part of us that is unseen and gets projected onto others. Often it’s those closest to us who are best able to reflect back something of this hidden character. That’s one reason why we are attracted to some people – they are perfect partners for helping us grow. I think that there’s something of the porter and the sailor in all us.

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