The following beautiful story, with setting in ancient Persia, is as narrated by a certain barber to the king al-Mustansir Billah, famed Prince of Believers. According to the narrator, those were good days for the people, because he (the king) loved the poor and the lowborn, though he himself was ever companioned by sages and seers and poets. He goes: ‘But I would not like you to think, Prince of Believers, that I am exaggerating the faults and disqualifies of my brothers. You will only understand how different they are from me if I tell you all their stories. The tales about them are full of moral lessons for the circumspect. Without more ado I will tell you:


KNOW, O Commander of the Faithful, that the eldest of my brothers, he who became lame, is called Bakbuk because when he tattles he makes a glucking noise like water coming out of a jar. At one time he was a tailor in Baghdad. He used to do his sewing in a small shop which he rented from a very rich merchant, who himself lived in the top part of the house above the shop. In the basement there was a mill where a miller lived and kept his bullock.

One day, as my brother Bakbuk was sitting sewing in his shop, he chanced to raise his eyes and saw a woman looking out at the passersby from a skylight let into the terrace floor above him. She was the wife of the owner of the building, and her looking forth was like the rising of the young moon. Bakbuk’s heart was fired with passion at the sight of her. He could sew no more, but spent all day with his head fixed, looking up at the skylight as if he were an idiot. Next morning he was in his place by dawn, and every time he took a stitch his eye wandered to the skylight, so that he pricked his fingers more than the cloth. For several days he did the same, neither working nor bringing in any money.

It was not long before the young woman understood my brother’s feelings and made up her mind to derive both profit and amusement from them. One day, as Bakbuk was sitting there in his customary adoration, she threw him a laughing glance which pierced his heart. He gave her back a languishing look which was so ridiculous that she had to retire precipitately to laugh at her ease. And the fool Bakbuk was overjoyed that day by the conquest which he thought he had made.

Next morning, therefore, my brother was not astonished to see his landlord entering the shop, carrying a great roll of rich silk under his arm. The merchant said: ‘I have brought this piece of stuff so that you can sew some shirts for me.’ ‘Certainly, certainly, they shall be ready this very evening,’ answered Bakbuk, who supposed that the landlord had been sent by his wife to further their intrigue in some way. He set to work so quickly, not allowing himself a moment for food, that twenty beautifully cut and sewn shirts were ready by the evening. The landlord came down to the shop again and asked: ‘How much do I owe you?’ but just at that moment the young woman appeared secretly at the skylight and signed to Bakbuk with her eyes and brows not to accept any money from her husband. So Bakbuk refused any payment, although he was extremely poor at the time and the smallest coin would have meant much to him. Yet the ass thought himself very lucky to be able to do the husband’s work for the love and bright eyes of the wife.

That was only the beginning of my infatuated brother’s trials. Next morning the landlord came again and handed a new roll of silk to Bakbuk, saying: ‘They tell me at home I must have some new trousers to go with the new shirts, so I have brought you the stuff. Let them be plenty large enough, do not stint the material, and use the finest needlework.’ ‘I hear and I obey!’ answered my brother, and for three whole days he worked fasting, so as to lose no time and also because there was not a single dirham in the house with which to buy food. When he had finished the fine new trousers, he folded them together and carried them joyfully upstairs to the landlord.

It is unnecessary to tell a person of your sagacity, O Commander of the Faithful, that the young woman was in league with her husband to make a laughing-stock of my unfortunate brother and to play him every trick that she could think of. When the landlord had received the trousers, he pretended to want to pay for them, but just at the right moment the pretty head of his wife appeared round the door and signed again to the tailor to refuse. So Bakbuk said that he would take no sort of payment. The husband withdrew for a moment to confer with his wife and then returned, saying: ‘As my wife and I feel that we must repay your splendid services in some way, we have determined to marry you to our white slave girl, that you may become in some sort one of the family. She is both beautiful and submissive.’ My witless Bakbuk thought that this was a clever ruse of the wife to give him free entry to the house, so he accepted without hesitation and was married straightway to the young slave.

When evening came, Bakbuk wished to approach his bride, but she said: ‘No, no, it cannot be to-night,’ and he was not able to take even a kiss from her.

Usually Bakbuk slept in the shop, but that night it had been arranged that the couple should sleep in the millroom, as it was larger; so, when the slave refused to let him lie with her and went upstairs again to her mistress, my brother was obliged to sleep in that unpleasant place alone.

In the morning he was awakened by the loud voice of the miller saying: ‘Devil take the bullock! He has had a great deal of rest lately. Now I must harness him up to grind all the accumulated store of corn. My customers will be wanting their flour to-day.’ Then, feigning to take my brother for the bullock, he said: ‘Up lazy one! Come and be harnessed!’ and with that he fastened the dumbfounded Bakbuk by the middle to the pole of the mill and gave him a great blow with the whip, crying: ‘Ya Allah!’ Feeling the whip sting about his loins, my brother began to low like a bullock and started to turn the mill. For a long time the miller thonged him on, and Bakbuk trotted round and round, lowing dismally and snuffling between the blows just as a bullock does.

In course of time the landlord came down to see what was happening. Satisfied that the plan was going well, he returned to his wife, who sent the slave girl down to my brother. By this time the miller had disappeared, so the young girl unfastened Bakbuk from the mill, saying in tones of the deepest concern: ‘My mistress begs me to say that she has just heard of the abominable mistake which has been made. She is desolated, and so am I.’ The unhappy bridegroom was so exhausted by the blows and the unusual labor that he could not answer a word.

The slave girl left him alone, and soon the clerk who had drawn up the marriage contract appeared and saluted him, saying: ‘Allah grant you a long life and a fortunate marriage! You seem to have passed the happiest of nights, with amusing and intimate embraces I am sure, sweet kisses and fornications from night till day.’ ‘Allah confound such lying snakes, O thousand fold traitor!’ answered my brother. ‘Your contract has caused me to turn a mill all night.’ The clerk asked for details of this singular thing and, when he had heard them, said: ‘I understand it all. Your star does not agree with the star of the young woman.’ ‘Wretch,’ cried Bakbuk, ‘get out of this and play your dirty tricks elsewhere!’ Then he went up to his shop and began to work sorrowfully to make a little money, he who had worked so joyfully for love.

While he was sitting sewing the white slave came down to him and said: ‘My mistress desires you madly. She bids me say that she is about to mount on the terrace for the pleasure of looking at you through the skylight.’ At the same moment Bakbuk saw the face of the lady of his love all bathed in tears appearing at the skylight. She wept, saying: ‘My dear, my darling, why will you not look at me? Why will you not smile at me? I swear that. I was in no way privy to what happened in the mill. As for this foolish slave, I beg that you will not honor her even with one glance. I and I only shall be yours, my love.’ She spoke so sweetly that Bakbuk at last lifted his head and gazed fully at her. Then were all his trials forgotten and his eyes filled with joy through looking on her charms. They spoke a little together, and soon he began to think that his misfortunes had happened to someone else.

Bakbuk continued to work assiduously in his own place, sewing shirts and trousers, undergarments and overgarments, for many hours a day in the hope of seeing his fair tormenter again. One day the slave girl returned, saying: ‘My mistress greets you and would have you know that my master will be away all night at a feast given by one of his friends. She will wait you with loving impatience and lie with you all night in delicious love and amusement.’ Hearing this, my all too simple brother thought that he was already in Paradise.

Now you must know that the graceless young woman had conceived a plan, with the help of her husband, to get rid of my brother and so avoid all payment for the work he had done for them. The landlord had said to his wife: ‘How can we persuade him to visit you, so that I may surprise him and send him up before the wall?’ And the wife had answered: ‘Leave it to me, and I shall so deceive and compromise him that he shall be shamed throughout all the city.’

To think that they should have been at such pains to do him hurt, and the poor fool guess nothing of it! Alas, alas, he knew little of women!

When evening came, the slave girl led Bakbuk to her mistress, who smiled on him, saying: ‘As Allah lives, my master, I burn to have you near me!’ ‘And I burn, too,’ said Bakbuk. ‘Let us be quick, first to kiss and then…’ He had not time to finish his sentence before the door opened and the husband rushed in with two black slaves, who fell upon my brother, bound him, threw him to the floor and belabored his back with whips. But that was only the beginning; when he had been well trounced, they took him upon their shoulders and carried him before the wall, who condemned him to the following punishment: after two hundred stripes had been laid on with rods, he was to be hoisted on the back of a camel and led through all the streets of Baghdad, preceded by a public crier who should announce in a loud voice: ‘Thus shall adulterers be punished!’

This sentence was carried out, and, during the procession, the camel became unmanageable and began to make great jumps about the street. Bakbuk was thrown to the earth and broke his leg; since then he has always walked with a limp. Further, the wall banished him, and he was forced to drag his broken limb away from the city. But just in the nick of time, Commander of the Faithful, I was told of what had happened, so I ran after him and brought him back secretly to the city. Since then I have cured him at my own charges and kept him in food and raiment.

When the Khalifah al-Mustansir Billah heard this story of Bakbuk, my masters, he rolled on his throne in laughter, calling out: ‘A capital tale and a capital teller!’

-Adapted from A thousand and one nights

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