The Book of the Thousand Nights and a Night

Al-Hajjaj and the Three Young Men117

They tell that Al-Hajjáj118 once bade the Chief of Police go his rounds about Bassorah city by night, and whomsoever he found abroad after supper-tide that he should smite his neck. So he went round one night of the nights and came upon three youths swaying and staggering from side to side, and on them signs of wine-bibbing. So the watch laid hold of them and the captain said to them, “Who be you that ye durst transgress the commandment of the Commander of the Faithful119 and come abroad at this hour?” quoth one of the youths, “I am the son of him to whom all necks120 abase themselves, alike the nose-pierced of them and the breaker; they come to him in their own despite, abject and submissive, and he taketh of their wealth and of their blood.” The Master of Police held his hand from him,, saying, “Belike he is of the kinsman of the Prince of True Believers,” and said to the second, “Who art thou?” Quoth he, “I am the son of him whose rank121 Time abaseth not, and if it be lowered one day, ’twill assuredly return to its former height; thou seest the folk crowd in troops to the light of his fire, some standing around it and some sitting.” So the Chief of Police refrained from slaying him and asked the third, “Who art thou?” He answered, I am the son of him who plungeth through the ranks122 with his might and levelleth them with the sword, so that they stand straight; his feet are not loosed from the stirrup, whenas the horsemen on the day of the battle are a-weary.” So the Master of the Police held his hand from him also, saying, “Belike, he is the son of a Brave of the Arabs. Then he kept them under guard, and when the morning morrowed, he referred their case to Al-Hajjaj, who caused bring them before him and enquiring into their affair, when behold, the first was the son of a barber-surgeon, the second of a bean-seller, and the third of a weaver. So he marvelled at their eloquent readiness of speech and said to the men of his assembly, “Teach your sons the rhetorical use of Arabic:123 for, by Allah, but for their ready wit, I had smitten off their heads!”

117 Bresl. Edit., vol. vi. pp. 188-9, Night ccccxxxiv.

118 Of this masterful personage and his energie indomptable I have spoken in vol. iv. 3, and other places. I may add that he built Wásit city A.H. 83 and rendered eminent services to literature and civilization amongst the Arabs. When the Ommiade Caliph Abd al-Malik was dying he said to his son Walid, “Look to Al-Hajjaj and honour him for, verily, he it is who hath covered for you the pulpits; and he is thy sword and thy right hand against all opponents; thou needest him more than he needeth thee, and when I die summon the folk to the covenant of allegiance; and he who saith with his head — thus, say thou with thy sword — thus” (Al-Siyuti, p 225) yet the historian simply observes, “the Lord curse him.”

119 i.e. given through his lieutenant.

120 “Necks” per synecdochen for heads. The passage is a description of a barber-surgeon in a series of double-entendres the “nose-pierced” (Makhzúm) is the subject who is led by the nose like a camel with halter and ring and the “breaker” (háshim) may be a breaker of bread as the word originally meant, or breaker of bones. Lastly the “wealth” (mál) is a recondite allusion to the hair.

121 Arab. “Kadr” which a change of vowel makes “Kidr” = a cooking-pot. The description is that of an itinerant seller of boiled beans (Fúl mudammas) still common in Cairo. The “light of his fire” suggests a double-entendre some powerful Chief like masterful King Kulayb. See vol. ii. 77.

122 Arab. “Al-Sufúf,” either ranks of fighting-men or the rows of thread on a loom. Here the allusion is to a weaver who levels and corrects his threads with the wooden spate and shuttle governing warp and weft and who makes them stand straight (behave aright). The “stirrup” (rikáb) is the loop of cord in which the weaver’s foot rests.

123 “Adab.” See vols. i. 132, and ix. 41.

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Last updated Wednesday, March 12, 2014 at 13:31