The Adventures of Hajji Baba of Ispahan, by James Justinian Morier

Chapter xiii

Hajji Baba leaves Meshed, is cured of his sprain, and relates a story.

When I had cleared the gate which leads out of Meshed to Tehran, I shook the collar of my coat, and exclaimed to myself: ‘May Heaven send thee misfortunes!’ for had I been heard by any one of the pilgrims, who were now on their return — it very probably would have gone ill with me. My companion, Dervish Sefer, whom I knew to be of my mind, entered into my feelings, and we both vented our spleen against the inhabitants of that place; I for the drubbings which had been inflicted upon me, he for the persecutions he had undergone from the Mollahs.

‘As for you, my friend,’ said he to me, ‘you are young; you have much to suffer before you gain the experience necessary to carry you through life: do not repine at the first beating; it win probably save you many more, and will teach you another time to discover a Mohtesib, although hid under a woman’s veil: but’ (taking hold of his beard) ‘for a man of my age, one who has seen so much of the world, to be obliged to set out upon his travels again, is truly a great misfortune.’

‘But it would have been easy for you,’ said I, ‘to remain at Meshed, if you had chosen it: had you been regular in your prayers and ablutions, you might have bid defiance to the Mollahs.’

‘That is true enough,’ said the Dervish; ‘but the fact is, that the festival of the Ramazan is now close at hand, when I should have been more closely watched than ever by them; and as I cannot and will not fast (smoking being as necessary to me as air, and wine as daily bread), I have thought it better to make a journey during that time, for the sake of the indulgence which is permitted to travellers. I might perhaps have deceived them, as I have frequently done before, by eating and smoking in secret; but one so notorious as I, who lives by the supposed sanctity of his character, being narrowly watched, cannot take such liberties.’

We arrived at Semnan without the occurrence of anything remarkable, excepting, that a day or two before we reached it, when I was helping my friend Ali Kâtir to load one of his mules, I sprained my back again in its old place: the pain was so great, that it became impossible for me to proceed with the caravan, and I determined to remain where I was until I was cured; particularly, as all danger from the Turcomans having passed, it was needless to make myself any longer a dependant upon a caravan. Dervish Sefer, who was anxious to get to the wine and pleasures of the capital, continued his journey.

I took up my abode in a tomb on the skirts of the town; and having spread my goat’s skin in a corner of it, I proclaimed my arrival, according to the custom adopted by travelling dervishes, blowing my horn, and making my exclamations of Hak! Hû! Allah Akbar! in a most sonorous and audible manner. I had allowed my person to acquire a wild and extravagant appearance, and flattered myself that I did credit to the instructions which had been given me in the arts of deception.

I was visited by several women, for whom I wrote talismans, and they repaid me by small presents of fruit, milk, honey, and other trifles. My back became so painful, that I was obliged to inquire if no one at Semnan could afford me relief. The barber and the farrier were the only two supposed to possess any medical talents; the one skilled in bleeding, drawing teeth, and setting a limb; the other, from his knowledge in the diseases of horses, being often consulted in human ailments. There was also a gîs sefid, or grey wig, an old woman of a hag-like and decrepit appearance, who was looked up to as an oracle in all cases where the knowledge of the barber and farrier was of no avail, and who had besides a great many nostrums and recipes for all sorts of aches. Each came to me in succession: all were agreed that my disorder proceeded from cold; and as fire was the hottest thing in opposition to cold that they knew of, they as unanimously agreed that the actual cautery should immediately be applied to the part; and the farrier, on account of his dealings in hot and cold iron, was appointed operator. He accordingly brought a pan of charcoal, a pair of bellows, and some small skewers; and seating himself in a corner, made his fire, and heated his skewers: when they were red hot, I was placed on the ground flat on my face, and then, with great solemnity, my back was seared with the burning iron, whilst all the bystanders, at every touch, exclaimed, with great earnestness, ’Khoda shefa mîdehed,’ God gives relief. My medical attendants, in their united wisdom, out of compliment to the prophet and the twelve Imâms, marked me in thirteen different places; and although, when I had endured half the operation, I began to cry out most lustily with the pain, still I was not let off until the whole was gone through. It was long before the wounds which they had inflicted were cured; and as they never would heal unless I was kept in perfect quiet, I confined myself to my cell for a considerable time; at the end of which, my sprain had entirely taken its leave, and strength was restored to my whole frame. Of course, my recovery was attributed to the thirteen worthies, who had presided over the operation, and all the town became more than ever persuaded of the efficacy of hot iron; but I could not but think that long repose had been my best doctor — an opinion which I took care to keep to myself; for I had no objection that the world should believe that I was a protégé of so many holy personages.

I now determined to pursue my journey to Tehran; but before I ventured to produce myself as a dervish upon that stage, I resolved to try my talent in relating a story before a Semnan audience. Accordingly, I went to a small open space, that is situated near the entrance of the bazaars, where most of the idlers of the town flock about noon; and making the sort of exclamations usual upon such occasions, I soon collected a crowd, who settled themselves on the ground, round the place which I had fixed upon for my theatre. A short story, touching a barber at Bagdad (which I had heard when I was myself in that profession), luckily came into my memory; and, standing in the middle of a circle of louts with uplifted eyes and open mouths, I made my debut in the following words:—

‘In the reign of the Caliph Haroun al-Rashid, of happy memory, lived in the city of Bagdad a celebrated barber, of the name of Ali Sakal. He was so famous for a steady hand, and dexterity in his profession, that he could shave a head, and trim a beard and whiskers, with his eyes blindfolded, without once drawing blood. There was not a man of any fashion at Bagdad who did not employ him; and such a run of business had he, that at length he became proud and insolent, and would scarcely ever touch a head, whose master was not at least a Beg or an Aga. Wood for fuel was always scarce and dear at Bagdad; and as his shop consumed a great deal, the wood-cutters brought their loads to him in preference, almost sure of meeting with a ready sale. It happened one day, that a poor wood-cutter, new in his profession, and ignorant of the character of Ali Sakal, went to his shop, and offered him for sale a load of wood which he had just brought from a considerable distance in the country, on his ass: Ali immediately offered him a price, making use of these words, ”for all the wood that was upon the ass.” The woodcutter agreed, unloaded his beast, and asked for the money. “You have not given me all the wood yet,” said the barber; “I must have the pack-saddle (which is chiefly made of wood) into the bargain; that was our agreement.” “How!” said the other, in great amazement —“who ever heard of such a bargain? — it is impossible.” In short, after many words and much altercation, the overbearing barber seized the pack-saddle, wood and all, and sent away the poor peasant in great distress. He immediately ran to the cadi, and stated his griefs: the cadi was one of the barber’s customers, and refused to hear the case. The wood-cutter applied to a higher judge: he also patronized Ali Sakal, and made light of the complaint. The poor man then appealed to the mûfti himself; who, having pondered over the question, at length settled, that it was too difficult a case for him to decide, no provision being made for it in the Koran, and therefore he must put up with his loss. The wood-cutter was not disheartened; but forthwith got a scribe to write a petition to the caliph himself, which he duly presented on Friday, the day when he went in state to the mosque. The caliph’s punctuality in reading petitions is well known, and it was not long before the wood-cutter was called to his presence. When he had approached the caliph, he kneeled and kissed the ground, and then placing his arms straight before him, his hands covered with the sleeves of his cloak, and his feet close together, he awaited the decision of his case. “Friend,” said the caliph, “the barber has words on his side — you have equity on yours. The law must be defined by words, and agreements must be made by words: the former must have its course, or it is nothing; and agreements must be kept, or there would be no faith between man and man; therefore the barber must keep all his wood; but —” Then calling the wood-cutter close to him, the caliph whispered something in his ear, which none but he could hear, and then sent him away quite satisfied.’

Here then I made a pause in my narrative, and said whilst I extended a small tin cup which I held in my hand, ‘Now, my noble audience, if you will give me something I will tell you what the caliph said to the wood-cutter.’ I had excited great curiosity, and there was scarcely one of my hearers who did not give me a piece of money.

‘Well then,’ said I, ‘the caliph whispered to the wood-cutter what he was to do, in order to get satisfaction from the barber, and what that was I will now relate. The wood-cutter having made his obeisances, returned to his ass, which was tied without, took it by the halter, and proceeded to his home. A few days after, he applied to the barber, as if nothing had happened between them; requesting that he, and a companion of his from the country, might enjoy the dexterity of his hand; and the price at which both operations were to be performed was settled. When the wood-cutter’s crown had been properly shorn, Ali Sakal asked where his companion was. “He is just standing without here,” said the other, “and he shall come in presently.” Accordingly he went out, and returned leading his ass after him by the halter. “This is my companion,” said he, “and you must shave him.” “Shave him!” exclaimed the barber, in the greatest surprise; “it is enough that I have consented to demean myself by touching you, and do you insult me by asking me to do as much to your ass? Away with you, or I’ll send you both to Jehanum;” and forthwith drove them out of his shop.

‘The wood-cutter immediately went to the caliph, was admitted to his presence, and related his case. “’Tis well,” said the commander of the faithful: “bring Ali Sakal and his razors to me this instant,” he exclaimed to one of his officers; and in the course of ten minutes the barber stood before him. “Why do you refuse to shave this man’s companion?” said the caliph to the barber: “Was not that your agreement?” Ali, kissing the ground, answered: “’Tis true, O caliph, that such was our agreement; but who ever made a companion of an ass before? or who ever before thought of treating it like a true believer?” “You may say right,” said the caliph: “but, at the same time, who ever thought of insisting upon a pack-saddle being included in a load of wood? No, no, it is the wood-cutter’s turn now. To the ass immediately, or you know the consequences.” The barber was then obliged to prepare a great quantity of soap, to lather the beast from head to foot, and to shave him in the presence of the caliph and of the whole court, whilst he was jeered and mocked by the taunts and laughing of all the bystanders. The poor wood-cutter was then dismissed with an appropriate present of money, and all Bagdad resounded with the story, and celebrated the justice of the commander of the faithful.’

Last updated Friday, March 7, 2014 at 23:09