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Thursday, October 19, 2017
1001 ARABIAN NIGHTS (Free Preview)
In ancient times there lived a sultan, a king, who ruled over his people with a kind and understanding hand. The rest of him was pretty nice, too. Why was the king so nice? Why was he so favorable and happy? Because he had the love of a beautiful woman. He made her his sultana (like a queen) and they lived together in wedded bliss for many years, and the people of the kingdom were very happy which, I know sounds more like the end of a fairy tale than the beginning, but just wait.
Because one fateful day, the Sultan found that his wife was unfaithful and had been deceiving him for many years. He was furious, and in his rage, he ordered that his wife be executed, which she was. But what the Sultan didn’t know was that his wife was actually a witch! And the last words she said on this earth were, “A curse upon my husband, on his marital bed and his entire kingdom!” She died, but her curse lived on.
From that day forward, those close to the Sultan saw a marked changed in him. He was gloomy and melancholy. He was paranoid and mistrustful, especially of women. The witch’s curse had turned his heart and mind and drove him mad with anger and fear. He declared that women of all kinds were the devil’s children and would have nothing more to do with their entire cursed sex.
The problem was that, by the law of the land, the Sultan needed a wife. If he did not marry again soon, he could lose his kingdom entirely. So, in the depths of his madness, this king conceived a solution. Yes, he would take a wife…for one night. He would marry that very day, spend exactly one night with his new bride, and, on the following morning, have her put to death. Then that night, he would choose another bride and so continue from then on. Not only would this satisfy his need for a queen, but he would be doing all the world a favor by reducing the number of wicked women in the world.
The Sultan ordered Ja’afar, his grand vizier, his most trusted advisor, to bring him a suitable bride, and to tell the executioner to be ready to ply his trade the next morning. This put the poor vizier in a terrible position. He was loath to disobey his Sultan, but at the same time, he could not sacrifice an innocent woman to die for the sake of the king’s twisted fancy. Ja’afar had known the Sultan since the great ruler was only a boy, and it pained him to see his master transformed so, and prayed to Allah that a solution could be found…And it was!
Ja’afar had a daughter named Scheherazade. She was beautiful, clever and possessed a truly great memory. If she was told a thing only once (a story, for example) she would remember it always. As such she held in her mind a truly vast collection of the most wonderful stories you ever heard. She had grown up alongside the Sultan, and played with him as a boy. It broke her heart to see her old friend and playmate twisted by that witch’s curse.
But she had a plan.
“Father,” she said, “is it true what they are saying? That the Sultan is to take a new bride today? That she will be dead by morning?”
“I’m afraid so, child,” answered her father, wearily.
“Then I humbly request that you present me to him.” Ja’afar was stunned silent at his daughter’s words. “I will marry the Sultan and save the women of this kingdom from a terrible fate.”
“My child,” said the vizier. “You cannot ask me to do this. You are all I have in this world. You are asking me to condemn you to death.”
“I won’t die, Father. I have a plan that will save us all. Myself, my sisters, you, the whole kingdom…and the Sultan, whom I love with all my heart.”
It is never easy to talk a strong-willed woman out of doing something she has set her mind on, even if you are a grand vizier…or just an okay vizier…so in the end, he agreed to help his daughter with her plan and, that very day, Scheherazade and the Sultan were wed.
Night fell and the Sultan’s mind, still addled by the witch’s treachery, was uneasy. He found he could not sleep. “Have you any skill?” he asked his new bride, who he did not recognize as the little girl he played with as a child. “Can you play a harp or sing to soothe my mind?”
“I can play a little and sing a little more,” said Scheherazade. “But perhaps his majesty would like me to tell a story instead. I know some wonderful stories, my love.”
“Very well, if you wish, you may tell me a story.”
“Yes, sire,” said Scheherazade, hoping to Allah that her plan would work. The king lay back in his bed. Scheherazade took a very deep breath and told her story
“It hath reached me, O auspicious king, that there lived in a faraway land a merchant…”
Scheherazade told the king the story of a good, happy, and successful merchant who had a wife and three sons. Everything was going very well for him until one fateful day when he was sitting under a tree, eating a few dates and spitting out the seeds. All of a sudden, a huge, terrifying genie appeared before him. “Murderer!” the genie roared. “You have killed my only son!”
“What?” said the Merchant, shocked and terrified. “What do you mean? I have killed no one!”
But the genie pointed to a beetle on the ground. It had been killed by one of the seeds the Merchant had spit out. Genies often take different forms, but they are vulnerable when they do. The Merchant had indeed killed the genie’s son.
“Now you must die!”
“No!” begged the Merchant. “I’m sorry! I didn’t know! It was an accident!"
“Accident or not my son is dead! And you must join him!”
The Merchant fell to his knees and pleaded with the genie. “At the very least, give me time. Give me a day to say goodbye to my family, set my affairs in order, then I swear by the Prophet that I will return to this place and let you do with me as you will.”
The genie agreed and swore to return to the tree in twenty-four hours to kill the Merchant. Then he disappeared. The Merchant thought briefly about simply running away, but he knew that genies, those powerful beings of light or smoke, were able to do incredible things and that it would be pointless trying to escape his clutches. Besides which, he had given his word. So he went home, told his wife and children of his fate and prepared himself for his demise.
The next day, as promised, the Merchant returned to the date tree to await the arrival of the genie. So distraught was he that he began to weep.
As it happens, a man traveling along the road passed the date tree and heard the man sobbing.
“What’s wrong, my good man?” he asked and the Merchant explained his plight. “Oh, I see,” said the traveler, a fisherman. “A genie, eh? Well, you’re in good company. I had some trouble with a genie a while back. Would you like to hear about it?”
The Merchant nodded. Perhaps, he thought, it will help take my mind off this terrible situation I’m in. So the Fisherman began to tell his story…
The Fisherman and the Genie
For many years, this Fisherman was able to provide for his family and, though they seldom knew luxury, they never knew hunger. But as time wore on—
“Stop!” demanded the Sultan.
“What’s wrong, beloved?” asked Scheherazade, as innocently as she could.
“You are beginning another story. I told you that you could tell me one story and you were telling me about this Merchant and the genie. Tell me that story.”
“I am, my king. This story is just part of that story. I swear.”
“All right, go on. But don’t take all night.”
But as time wore on, the Fisherman’s luck changed for the worse. For days at a time, the Fisherman would take his boat out, and put his nets in the water several times each day only to bring them back empty.
One day, he took his boat out and cast his nets without catching a single fish. He grumbled about his bad fortune as he tried again. But, again, he brought the net back empty. Rashly, the Fisherman blamed Allah for his poor fortune.
“Though I suppose,” he said aloud, “I shouldn’t expect much from one who allows evil to flourish while honest, hard-working men such as myself cannot even support our families.” He grumbled some more and threw in his nets a third time, to no avail.
“Bismallah!” the Fisherman roared. “I work and I slave and do what is right but I am rewarded only with failure and misery!” His furious blasphemy finished, the Fisherman threw in his nets a fourth and final time, and this time, they felt heavy as he pulled them back in.
He was disappointed however to find that he had not caught any fish, but rather a large copper vase which was shut tight with a lead stopper. It seemed heavy, but as he held it to his ear and shook it, it made no sound, as though empty. “Perhaps I can sell it in the market and buy some grain or corn for my family,” he thought, then to make sure it was truly empty, he took his knife and pried it open.
As soon as the stopper was removed, a thick plume of black smoke rose from the seemingly empty vase. He set it down on the bottom of his fishing boat and the smoke continued to come. It rose like steam from a blacksmith’s forge and billowed higher and higher into the sky. Finally, the smoke solidified and took the shape of a genie, greater in size than any giant from any fable. The Fisherman was terrified when he heard the giant’s powerful voice saying “At last I am free of my prison! Who was it set me free?”
“It was I,” said the Fisherman. “I set you free.”
“Then you will die!”
There was an uncomfortable silence. “What?” cried the Fisherman. “What are you talking about?”
“I was trapped in that vase four hundred years ago. When first I was imprisoned I swore that if someone set me free before a hundred years, I would shower him with wealth and power, and be his personal slave and grant him three wishes every day until he died. After a hundred years, no one released me. I then swore that if someone set me free before two hundred years, I would shower him in wealth and give him a palace of his own. Another hundred years, and I was still a prisoner. I next swore that if I was released within the next hundred years, I would shower my liberator in wealth. But after three hundred years of waiting, I was not released. So finally I swore that whoever set me free in the next hundred years would die by my hand! I grant you only one favor: You may choose the manner of your own end.”
The Fisherman tried to persuade the genie to be merciful, he tried to convince the genie that he was being ungrateful, he even begged the genie for his life, but the genie only asked him how he should like to die.
Then, like an inspiration from above, an idea came to the Fisherman. He said to the genie, “Before I decide how I should like you to kill me, will you grant me one favor? Will you answer me truthfully a question?” The genie considered this and agreed. “Were you really inside that vase I opened?”
“What? Of course I was. You saw me emerge, did you not?”
“I don’t know what I saw. There was so much smoke. Besides, a genie of your size could not possibly fit in that little jar.”
“You insufferable mortal! I tell you I did come from inside that vase!”
“I am sorry, but I just can’t believe it. Maybe if I saw it for myself…”
“So be it!,” said the genie, and in a fit of pique he transformed back into billows of smoke which receded into the vase. “There! Are you satisfied now?” he said, but it was too late. As soon as he was back inside the vase, the Fisherman fastened the lead seal back on the vase, trapping the genie once again.
“Before we met,” the Fisherman said to his captive, “I was cursing Allah for my bad luck at not being able to catch fish. But I think I was wrong to blame Him. Just because something unfortunate happens to someone, doesn’t mean that person is forsaken by God. And as for you, you were likely imprisoned in this vase for some crime of your own devising and have no right to take out your anger on innocent others. We could both learn a valuable lesson today, if we so chose. As for you, I believe I will drop you back in the sea and build a sign on this spot warning other fishermen not to open the vase if they find it, so that you will never be free to harm others again.”
The genie begged and groveled pathetically with the Fisherman, but the Fisherman was deaf to his pleas. Finally, the genie offered the Fisherman a deal. “Cast your nets in the water one more time. You will catch more fish than you have in your life. Plump, perfect fish of fine flavor which will be greatly in demand in your village. Only set me free, please!” The Fisherman removed the seal and the genie flew away in a cloud of smoke, never to be seen again. Then, the Fisherman dropped his nets in the water, and just as he was promised, he brought in the biggest catch he’d ever had.
“That is quite a story,” said the Merchant. “You were very clever to outwit that genie.”
“Then perhaps you will be as lucky.”
“I don’t see how. I can’t think of any way of avoiding my fate.” And the Merchant again began to weep. This attracted the attention of two more travelers. Princes, in fact, who were traveling together. They too took pity on the poor man and asked what troubled him. The Merchant explained that he was to be executed by a genie.
“How very odd,” said the First Prince. “My friend and I were just talking about our own run-ins with genies.”
“Really?” asked the Fisherman. “You have en-countered genies as well?”
“Indeed,” said one of the princes, and he began to tell his tale...
“No! Enough!” bellowed the Sultan. “No more sidetracks. Just finish the story of the Merchant.”
“I cannot if you will not let me tell you the—”
“Then never mind! I don’t want to hear any more.”
“As you wish, my king. If you don’t want to hear about the Transformed Prince.”
“Transformed Prince? What is he?”
“That’s what the story tells, majesty. That and all about the genie and the monkey and the great magical battle that rocked the heavens and shook the earth…but you don’t want to hear it so—”
“Who says I don’t? Transformed princes, genies, monkeys…sounds all right. Tell me the story.”
Scheherazade smiled and continued…