The Book of the Thousand Nights and a Night

Ali Khwajah and the Merchant of Baghdad

Under the reign of Caliph Harun al-Rashid there dwelt in the city of Baghdad a certain merchant, ‘Alí Khwájah hight, who had a small stock of goods wherewith he bought and sold and made a bare livelihood, abiding alone and without a family in the house of her forbears. Now so it came to pass that each night for three nights together he saw in a vision a venerable Shaykh who bespake him thus, “Thou art beholden to make a pilgrimage to Meccah; why abidest thou sunk in heedless slumber and farest not forth as it behoveth thee?”307 Hearing these words he became sore startled and affrighted, so that he sold shop and goods and all that he had; and, with firm intent to visit the Holy House of Almighty Allah, he let his home on hire and joined a caravan that was journeying to Meccah the Magnified. But ere he left his natal city he placed a thousand gold pieces, which were over and above his need for the journey, within an earthen jar filled up with Asáfírí308 or Sparrow-olives; and, having made fast the mouth thereof, he carried the jar to a merchant-friend of many years standing and said, “Belike, O my brother, thou hast heard tell that I purpose going with a caravan on pilgrimage to Meccah, the Holy City; so I have brought a jar of olives the which, I pray thee, preserve for me in trust against my return.” The merchant at once arose and handing the key of his warehouse to Ali Khwajah said, “Here, take the key and open the store and therein place the jar anywhere thou choosest, and when thou shalt come back thou wilt find it even as thou leftest it.” Hereupon Ali Khwajah did his friend’s bidding and locking up the door returned the key to its master. Then loading his travelling goods upon a dromedary and mounting a second beast he fared forth with the caravan. They came at length to Meccah the Magnified, and it was the month Zú al-Hijjah wherein myriads of Moslems hie thither on pilgrimage and pray and prostrate before the Ka’abah-temple. And when he had circuited the Holy House and fulfilled all the rites and ceremonies required of palmers, he set up a shop for sale of merchandise.309 By chance two merchants passing along that street espied the fine stuffs and goods in Ali Khwajah’s booth and approved much of them and praised their beauty and excellence. Presently quoth one to other, “This man bringeth here most rare and costly goods: now in Cairo, the capital of Egypt-land would he get full value for them, and far more than in the markets of this city.” Hearing mention of Cairo, Ali Khwajah conceived a sore longing to visit that famous capital, so he gave up his intent of return Baghdad-wards and purposed wayfaring to Egypt. Accordingly he joined a caravan and arriving thither was well-pleased with the place, both country and city; and selling his merchandise he made great gain therefrom. Then buying other goods and stuffs he purposed to make Damascus; but for one full month he tarried at Cairo and visited her sanctuaries and saintly places and after leaving her walls he solaced himself with seeing many famous cities distant several days’ journey from the capital along the banks of the River Nilus. Presently, bidding adieu to Egypt he arrived at the Sanctified House,310 Jerusalem and prayed in the Temple of Banu Isra’íl which the Moslems had re-edified. In due time he reached Damascus and observed that the city was well builded and much peopled, and that the fields and meads were well-watered with springs and channels and that the gardens and vergiers were laden with flowers and fruits. Amid such delights Ali Khwajah hardly thought of Baghdad; withal he ceased not to pursue his journey through Aleppo, Mosul and Shiráz, tarrying some time at all of these towns, especially at Shiráz, till at length after seven years of wayfaring he came back to Baghdad. — And as the morn began to dawn Shahrazad held her peace till

The end of the Six Hundred and Fortieth Night.

Then said she:— It behoveth thee now, O auspicious King, to hear of the Baghdad merchant and his lack of probity. For seven long years he never once thought of Ali Khwajah or of the trust committed to his charge; till one day as his wife sat at meat with him at the evening meal, their talk by chance was of olives. Quoth she to him, “I would now fain have some that I may eat of them;” and quoth he, “As thou speakest thereof I bethink me of that Ali Khwajah who seven years ago fared on a pilgrimage to Meccah, and ere he went left in trust with me a jar of Sparrow-olives which still cumbereth the store-house. Who knoweth where he is or what hath betided him? A man who lately returned with the Hajj-caravan brought me word that Ali Khwajah had quitted Meccah the Magnified with intent to journey on to Egypt. Allah Almighty alone knoweth an he be still alive or he be now dead; however, if his olives be in good condition I will go bring some hither that we may taste them: so give me a platter and a lamp that I may fetch thee somewhat of them.” His wife, an honest woman and an upright, made answer, “Allah forbid that thou shouldst do a deed so base and break thy word and covenant. Who can tell? Thou art not assured by any of his death; perchance he may come back from Egypt safe and sound tomorrow or the day after; then wilt thou, an thou cannot deliver unharmed to him what he hath left in pledge, be ashamed of this thy broken troth and we shall be disgraced before man and dishonoured in the presence of thy friend. I will not for my part have any hand in such meanness nor will I taste the olives; furthermore, it standeth not to reason that after seven years’ keeping they should be fit to eat. I do implore thee to forswear this ill purpose.” On such wise the merchant’s wife protested and prayed her husband that he meddle not with Ali Khwajah’s olives, and shamed him of his intent so that for the nonce he cast the matter from his mind. However, although the trader refrained that evening from taking Ali Khwajah’s olives, yet he kept the design in memory until one day when, of his obstinacy and unfaith, he resolved to carry out his project; and rising up walked towards the store-room dish in hand. By chance he met his wife who said, “I am no partner with thee in this ill-action: in very truth some evil shall befal thee an thou do such deed.” He heard her but heeded her not; and, going to the store-room opened the jar and found the olives spoiled and white with mould; but presently he tilted up the jar and pouring some of its contents into the dish, suddenly saw an Ashrafi fall from the vessel together with the fruit. Then, filled with greed, he turned out all that was within into another jar and wondered with exceeding wonder to find the lower half full of golden coins. Presently, putting up the moneys and the olives he closed the vessel and going back said to his wife, “Thou spakest sooth, for I have examined the jar and have found the fruit mouldy and foul of smell; wherefore I returned it to its place and left it as it was aforetime.” That night the merchant could not sleep a wink for thinking of the gold and how he might lay hands thereon; and when morning morrowed he took out all the Ashrafis and buying some fresh olives in the Bazar filled up the jar with them and closed the mouth and set it in its usual place. Now it came to pass by Allah’s mercy that at the end of the month Ali Khwajah returned safe and sound to Baghdad; and he first went to his old friend, to wit, the merchant who, greeting him with feigned joy, fell on his neck, but withal was sore troubled and perplexed at what might happen. After salutations and much rejoicing on either part Ali Khwajah bespake the merchant on business and begged that he might take back his jar of Asafiri-olives which he had placed in charge of his familiar. Quoth the merchant to Ali Khwajah, “O my friend, I wot not where thou didst leave thy jar of olives; but here is the key, go down to the store-house and take all that is thine own.” So Ali Khwajah did as he was bidden and carrying the jar from the magazine took his leave and hastened home; but, when he opened the vessel and found not the gold coins, he was distracted and overwhelmed with grief and made bitter lamentation. Then he returned to the merchant and said, “O my friend, Allah, the All-present and the All-seeing, be my witness that, when I went on my pilgrimage to Meccah the Magnified, I left a thousand Ashrafis in that jar, and now I find them not. Canst thou tell me aught concerning them? An thou in thy sore need have made use of them, it mattereth not so thou wilt give them back as soon as thou art able.” The merchant, apparently pitying him, said, “O good friend, thou didst thyself with thine hand set the jar inside the store-room. I wist not that thou hadst aught in it save olives; yet as thou didst leave it, so in like manner didst thou find it and carry it away; and now thou chargest me with theft of Ashrafis. It seemeth strange and passing strange that thou shouldst make such accusation. When thou wentest thou madest no mention of any money in the jar, but saidst that it was full of olives, even as thou hast found it. Hadst thou left gold coins therein, then surely thou wouldst have recovered them.” Hereupon Ali Khwajah begged hard with much entreaty, saying, “Those thousand Ashrafis were all I owned, the money earned by years of toil: I do beseech thee have pity on my case and give them back to me.” Replied the merchant, waxing wroth with great wrath, “O my friend, a fine fellow thou art to talk of honesty and withal make such false and lying charge. Begone: hie thee hence and come not to my house again; for now I know thee as thou art, a swindler and imposter.” Hearing this dispute between Ali Khwajah and the merchant all the people of the quarter came crowding to the shop. — And as the morn began to dawn Shahrazad held her peace till

The end of the Six Hundred and Forty-first Night.

Then said she:— I have heard, O auspicious King, that the multitude which thronged about the merchant’s shop warmly took up the matter; and thus it became well known to all, rich and poor, within the city of Baghdad how that one Ali Khwajah had hidden a thousand Ashrafis within a jar of olives and had placed it on trust with a certain merchant; moreover how, after pilgrimaging to Meccah and seven years of travel the poor man had returned, and that the rich man had gainsaid his words anent the gold and was ready to make oath that he had not received any trust of the kind. At length, when naught else availed, Ali Khwajah was constrained to bring the matter before the Kazi, and to claim one thousand Ashrafis of his false friend. The Judge asked, “What witnesses hast thou who may speak for thee?” and the plantiff answered, “O my lord the Kazi, I feared to tell the matter to any man lest all come to know of my secret. Allah Almighty is my sole testimony. This merchant was my friend and I recked not that he would prove dishonest and unfaithful.” Quoth the Judge, “Then must I needs send for the merchant and hear what he saith on oath;” and when the defendant came they made him swear by all he deemed holy, facing Ka’abah-wards with hands uplifted, and he cried, “I swear that I know naught of any Ashrafis belonging to Ali Khwajah.”311 Hereat the Kazi pronounced him innocent and dismissed him from court; and Ali Khwajah went home sad at heart and said to himself, “Alas, what justice is this which hath been meted out to me, that I should lose my money, and my just cause be deemed unjust! It hath been truly said, ‘He loseth the lave who sueth before a knave.’ “ On the next day he drew out a statement of his case; and, as the Caliph Harun al-Rashid was on his way to Friday-prayers, he fell down on the ground before him and presented to him the paper. The Commander of the Faithful read the petition and having understood the case deigned give order saying, “To-morrow bring the accuser and the accused to the audience-hall and place the petition before my presence, for I myself will enquire into this matter.” That night the Prince of True Believers, as was his wont, donned disguise to walk about the squares of Baghdad and its streets and lanes and, accompanied by Ja’afar the Barmaki and Masrúr the Sworder of his vengeance, proceeded to espy what happened in the city. Immediately on issuing forth he came upon an open place in the Bazar when he heard the hubbub of children a-playing and saw at scanty distance some ten or dozen boys making sport amongst themselves in the moonlight; and he stopped awhile to watch their diversion. Then one amongst the lads, a goodly and a fair-complexioned, said to the others, “Come now and let us play the game of Kazi: I will be the Judge; let one of you be Ali Khwajah, and another the merchant with whom he placed the thousand Ashrafis in pledge before faring on his pilgrimage: so come ye before me and let each one plead his plea.” When the Caliph heard the name of Ali Khwajah he minded him of the petition which had been presented to him for justice against the merchant, and bethought him that he would wait and see how the boy would perform the part of Kazi in their game and upon what decision he would decide. So the Prince watched the mock-trial with keen interest saying to himself, “This case hath verily made such stir within the city that even the children know thereof and re-act it in their sports.” Presently, he amongst the lads who took the part of Ali Khwajah the plaintiff and his playmate who represented the merchant of Baghdad accused of theft, advanced and stood before the boy who as the Kazi sat in pomp and dignity. Quoth the Judge, “O Ali Khwajah, what is thy claim against this merchant?” and the complainant preferred his charge in a plea of full detail. Then said the Kazi to the boy who acted merchant, “What answerest thou to this complaint and why didst thou not return the gold pieces?” The accused made reply even as the real defendant had done and denied the charge before the Judge, professing himself ready to take oath thereto. Then said the boy-Kazi, “Ere thou swear on oath that thou hast not taken the money, I would fain see for myself the jar of olives which the plaintiff deposited with thee on trust.” Then turning to the boy who represented Ali Khwajah he cried, “Go thou and instantly produce the jar that I may inspect it.” And when the vessel was brought the Kazi said to the two contentious, “See now and say me: be this the very jar which thou, the plaintiff, leftest with the defendant?” and both answered that it was and the same. Then said the self-constituted Judge, “Open now the jar and bring hither some of the contents that I may see the state in which the Asafiri-olives actually are.” Then tasting of the fruit, “How is this? I find their flavour is fresh and their state excellent. Surely during the lapse of seven twelvemonths the olives would have become mouldy and rotten. Bring now before me two oil-merchants of the town that they may pass opinion upon them.” Then two other of the boys assumed the parts commanded and coming into court stood before the Kazi, who asked, “Are ye olive-merchants by trade?” They answered, “We are and this hath been our calling for many generations and in buying and selling olives we earn our daily bread.” Then said the Kazi, “Tell me now, how long do olives keep fresh and well-flavoured?” and said they, “O my lord, however carefully we keep them, after the third year they change flavour and colour and become no longer fit for food, in fact they are good only to be cast away.” Thereupon quoth the boy-Kazi, “Examine me now these olives that are in this jar and say me how old are they and what is their condition and savour."— And as the morn began to dawn Shahrazad held her peace till

The end of the Six Hundred and Forty-second Night.

Then said she:— I have heard, O auspicious King, that the two boys who played the parts of oil-merchants pretended to take some berries from the jar and taste them and presently they said, “O our lord the Kazi, these olives are in fair condition and full-flavoured.” Quoth the Kazi, “Ye speak falsely, for ’tis seven years since Ali Khwajah put them in the jar as he was about to go a-pilgrimaging;” and quoth they, “Say whatso thou wilt those olives are of this year’s growth, and there is not an oil-merchant in all Baghdad but who will agree with us.” Moreover the accused was made to taste and smell the fruits and he could not but admit that it was even so as they had avouched. Then said the boy-Kazi to the boy-defendant, “ ’Tis clear thou art a rogue and a rascal, and thou hast done a deed wherefor thou richly deservest the gibbet.” Hearing this the children frisked about and clapped their hands with glee and gladness, then seizing hold of him who acted as the merchant of Baghdad, they led him off as to execution. The Commander of the Faithful, Harun al-Rashid, was greatly pleased at this acuteness of the boy who had assumed the part of judge in the play, and commanded his Wazir Ja’afar saying, “Mark well the lad who enacted the Kazi in this mock-trial and see that thou produce him on the morrow: he shall try the case in my presence substantially and in real earnest, even as we have heard him deal with it in play. Summon also the Kazi of this city that he may learn the administration of justice from this child. Moreover send word to Ali Khwajah bidding him bring with him the jar of olives, and have also in readiness two oil-merchants of the town.” Thus as they walked along the Caliph gave orders to the Wazir and then returned to his palace. So on the morrow Ja’afar the Barmaki went to that quarter of the town where the children had enacted the mock-trail and asked the schoolmaster where his scholars might be, and he answered, “They have all gone away, each to his home.” So the minister visited the houses pointed out to him and ordered the little ones to appear in his presence. Accordingly they were brought before him, when he said to them, “Who amongst you is he that yesternight acted the part of Kazi in play and passed sentence in the case of Ali Khwajah?” The eldest of them replied, “ ’Twas I, O my lord the Wazir;” and then he waxed pale, not knowing why the question was put. Cried the Minister, “Come along with me; the Commander of the Faithful hath need of thee.” At this the mother of the lad was sore afraid and wept; but Ja’afar comforted her and said, “O my lady, have no fear and trouble not thyself. Thy son will soon return to thee in safety, Inshallah — God willing — and methinks the Sultan will show much favour unto him.” The woman’s heart was heartened on hearing these words of the Wazir and she joyfully dressed her boy in his best attire and sent him off with the Wazir, who led him by the hand to the Caliph’s audience-hall and executed all the other commandments which had been issued by his liege lord. Then the Commander of the Faithful, having taken seat upon the throne of justice, set the boy upon a seat beside him, and as soon as the contending parties appeared before him, that is Ali Khwajah and the merchant of Baghdad, he commanded them to state each man his case in presence of the child who should adjudge the suit. So the two, plaintiff and defendant recounted their contention before the boy in full detail; and when the accused stoutly denied the charge and was about to swear on oath that what he said was true, with hands uplifted and facing Ka’abah-wards, the child-Kazi prevented him, saying, “Enough! swear not on oath till thou art bidden; and first let the jar of olives be produced in Court.” Forthwith the jar was brought forward and placed before him; and the lad bade open it; then, tasting one he gave also to two oil-merchants who had been summoned, that they might do likewise and declare how old was the fruit and whether its savour was good or bad. They did his bidding and said, “The flavour of these olives hath not changed and they are of this year’s growth.” Then said the boy, “Methinks ye are mistaken, for seven years ago Ali Khwajah put the olives into the jar: how then could fruit of this year find their way therein?” But they replied, “ ’Tis even as we say: an thou believe not our words send straightway for other oil-merchants and make enquiry of them, so shalt thou know if we speak sooth or lies.” But when the merchant of Baghdad saw that he could no longer avail to prove his innocence, he confessed everything; to wit, how he had taken out the Ashrafis and filled the jar with fresh olives. Hearing this the boy said to the Prince of True Believers, “O gracious sovereign, last night in play we tried this cause, but thou alone has power to apply the penalty. I have adjudged the matter in thy presence and I humbly pray that thou punish this merchant according to the law of the Koran and the custom of the Apostle; and thou decree the restoring of his thousand gold pieces to Ali Khwajah, for that he hath been proved entitled to them."— And as the morn began to dawn Shahrazad held her peace till

The end of the Six Hundred and Forty-third Night.

Then said she:— I have heard, O auspicious King, that the Caliph ordered the merchant of Baghdad to be taken away and be hanged, after he should have made known where he had put the thousand Ashrafis and that these should have been restored their rightful owner, Ali Khwajah. He also turned to the Kazi who had hastily adjudged the case, and bade him learn from that lad to do his duty more sedulously and conscientiously. More-over the Prince of True Believers embraced the boy, and ordered that the Wazir give him a thousand pieces of gold from the royal treasury and conduct him safely to his home and parents.312 And after, when the lad grew to man’s estate, the Commander of the Faithful made him one of his cup-companions and furthered his fortunes and ever entreated him with the highmost honour. But when Queen Shahrazad had ended the story of Ali Khwajah and the merchant of Baghdad she said, “Now, O auspicious King, I would relate a more excellent history than any, shouldst thou be pleased to hear that I have to say;” and King Shahryar replied, “By Allah! what an admirable tale is this thou hast told: my ears do long to hear another as rare and commendable.” So Shahrazad began forthright to recount the adventures of313

307 These visions are frequent in Al-Islam; see Pilgrimage iii. 254-55. Of course Christians are not subject to them, as Moslems also are never favoured with glimpses of the Blessed Virgin and the Saints; the best proof of their “Subjectivity.”

308 For this word see De Sacy, Chrest. ii. 421. It has already occurred in The Nights, vol. iii. 295.

309 Not a few pilgrims settle for a time or for life in the two Holy Places, which are thus kept supplied with fresh blood. See Pilgrimage ii. 260.

310 i.e. Bayt al-Mukaddas, for which see vol. ii. 132.

311 An affidavit amongst Moslems is “litis decisio,” as in the jurisprudence of mediæval Europe.

312 In Arab folk-lore there are many instances of such precocious boys —enfants terribles they must be in real life. In Ibn Khall. (iii. 104) we find notices of a book “Kitáb Nujabá al-Abná” = Treatise on Distinguished Children, by Ibn Zakar al-Sakalli (the Sicilian), ob. A. D. 1169-70. And the boy-Kazi is a favourite role in the plays of peasant-lads who enjoy the irreverent “chaff” almost as much as when “making a Pasha.” This reminds us of the boys electing Cyrus as their King in sport (Herodotus, i. 114). For the cycle of “Precocious Children” and their adventures, see Mr. Clouston (Popular Tales, etc., ii. 1-14), who enters into the pedigree and affiliation. I must, however, differ with that able writer when he remarks at the end, “And now we may regard the story of Valerius Maximus with suspicion, and that of Lloyd as absolutely untrue, so far as William Noy’s alleged share in the ‘case.’ “ The jest or the event happening again and again is no valid proof of its untruth; and it is often harder to believe in derivation than in spontaneous growth.

313 In Galland Ali Cogia, Marchand de Bagdad, is directly followed by the Histoire du Cheval Enchanté. For this “Ebony Horse,” as I have called it, see vol. v. p. 32.

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