“Speak now,” the sultan’s voice thunders like a thousand waterfalls, “and tell me who you are and what you were doing in my private gardens.”
“This story begins many moons ago,” I begin in a sing-song voice, “in a city very much like this one. I was younger then and very handsome.” (The sultan and his courtiers gaze at my wrinkled face in disbelief.) “All the girls were in love with me, but I had eyes for only one of them: Fairuza, daughter of Hakim the spice-merchant.” I half-close my eyes as if thinking of her. “She was beautiful,” I continue. “Large, almond eyes... hair the colour of night... and her breasts! Twin gazelles feeding...”
“Gazelles!” one of the princes interrupts.
I regard him severely. “Who is telling this story? Anyway,” I continue, resuming the sing-song voice, “Fairuza was beautiful and her father thought she could do much better than me – I was only a humble water-seller in those days – so I set off to seek my fortune, walking across many deserts, determined that I would not return until I could show Hakim that I would make a good husband for his daughter.”
One of the courtiers yawns. It seems he has heard several stories in this vein already.
“At last I reached a big city with gates of gold and turbaned guards. When they asked me why I wanted to enter, I had no answer, save that I had been walking for many days and was near exhaustion.
They would have turned me away had it not been for a merchant who had just arrived with his camels and needed help leading the train through the gates. He not only vouched for me: he promised to give me food and drink and a bed for the night if I would help him unload his wares when he reached his dwelling. I readily agreed, and so it was that I came to the house of Hasan el-Manzoor, little realising what would befall me there.
At first glance, el-Manzoor was a respectable man – one who had travelled much and traded more. However, I was soon to learn that looks can be deceptive, for he was not a merchant but a brigand, and the goods we unloaded from his camels were the spoils he and his fellow robbers had taken from the men they had killed. I realised this only when I unwrapped a package wrapped in black cloth and discovered the head of one of their victims.”
The sultana lets out a gasp. I lower my voice and continue my tale.
“Imagine my horror when I unwrapped what I thought was a bundle of cloth and found a human head staring up at me! But I could not let el-Manzoor see how frightened I was or let him know what I had found – I did not want my head to suffer the same fate.
I quickly rewrapped the head and busied myself with something else, but I could feel the brigand’s eyes watching me. I was sure he knew.
Excusing myself to use the privy, I quickly stole away, intending to leave el-Manzoor’s house and find a doorway to sleep in. Creeping past many darkened rooms, my eye was suddenly caught by a plainly furnished chamber that was little more than a closet. This must be el-Manzoor’s prayer room, thought I, and it was almost time for the evening Salah. I slipped off my shoes, then entered the room and prostrated myself on the mat I saw before me, asking Allah to be merciful and to keep me safe from the murderous thief whose house I had so unwittingly entered.
‘I wish I were far away from this terrible place,’ I groaned, and then a wondrous thing happened: the carpet on which I was lying rose into the air. It was a magic carpet!”
I casually set down the rolled-up mat beneath my arm, hoping it will lend credibility to my story.
“The carpet took me at my word,” I continue. “Even as el-Manzoor burst into the room, the mat rose into the air; and before I knew what was happening, it sped out of the window. I closed my eyes in fright, clinging to the sides of the carpet with both my hands lest I should fall off. After a while, I dared to open them, and what a sight I now beheld! Sunset shattered into shards of red and pink and orange, and then the whole sky was filled with twinkling silver stars. On and on we went, passing through many lands on that one night, until eventually dawn broke over a sea of golden sand and then I saw spires and domes beneath me and realised that the carpet had brought me to a wondrous palace in the midst of a fertile oasis.
I slipped off the carpet and rolled it up. Luckily, it had landed within the palace walls so I would not have to convince the guards at the gates to let me enter. I was in a pleasant courtyard, full of palm trees and roses – the aroma of these delicate pink flowers was wonderful! – and a sparkling fountain tinkled in the background. Yet it was not these delights that caught my eye, for sitting by the fountain was a beautiful girl who reminded me of my fair Fairuza. She looked up with a start when she saw me, but I put a finger to my lips to warn her not to cry out.
‘How came you to this place?’ she asked, her eyes full of wonder.
‘I might ask the same of you,’ I replied.
At this, her face grew sad and I felt instantly wretched. Taking her in my arms, I exclaimed, ‘O beauteous maiden! If it be within my power to assist you in any way, then I will serve you with all my heart. Only tell me why you weep!’
Tears stood in her eyes as she regarded me, but at last she nodded and wiped them away. ’Very well. I will tell you my tale.’
‘I was born,’ she said, ‘in a city many leagues from here, and for the first fifteen years of my existence, I led a truly charmed life. My father was one of the sultan’s satraps, and it was expected that I would make a good marriage with one of the royal princes – and so I did. Prince Nasim was everything I could have hoped for: tall, strong, handsome, skilled with both bow and sword – and one of the finest poets I have ever heard. For a year and a day, we were deliriously happy in each other’s company, living in a palace next to his father’s – and then the tragedy happened.’
Her tears now fell as she relived that fateful moment.
‘My husband loved to give me presents,’ she continued, ‘and the day before, he had visited the local bazaar to search for the perfect gift to give me. One stall in particular caught his attention for it sold nothing but bottles: bottles of all shapes and sizes and colours. He enquired the price of one particular specimen, thinking that it would make a fine perfume bottle for me; but the stallholder, upon learning that he was a prince, whispered that he had something much better and handed him a tiny green phial, telling him that the bottle contained the secret of a long and happy marriage and that any wife who owned it would never look at another man as long as she lived.
My husband was both impressed and intrigued by this claim, for although I had never given him cause to doubt my fidelity, he feared that one day my eyes would turn towards another.
Alas! That vanity was his undoing, for he gave me the bottle, bidding me to keep it safe at all times, but not telling me the reason why. After a while, I began to wonder what the bottle contained that it should be so precious, and so, when my husband was out hunting one day, I removed the stopper from the bottle.’
At this point, I could hardly contain my curiosity. How had this lovely creature found herself here in the middle of the desert; and where was her husband, the prince?
‘As I removed the stopper,’ she continued, ‘a great genie appeared in a cloud of black smoke. He gave an evil grin when he saw me and declared, ‘’Many years have I been imprisoned, but now I am free – and I see Allah has rewarded me with a palace and a beautiful bride.’ At that, he waved his hand and a mighty whirlwind picked up me, the palace and everything in it and carried us away to this oasis in the desert.’
She wept so bitterly at this point that I could not prevent myself from kissing her to make her stop.”
“I thought you were in love with Fairuza,” cries out one of the princes.
“I was,” I reply calmly, “but she was not there at the time. Besides, the princess was very beautiful. Shall I go on?”
Taking everyone’s silence as acquiescence, I continue, “And so I kissed her for several hours until she smiled again, promising her all the while that I would do my best to rescue her from her captor. ‘I am only a humble water seller,’ I told her, ‘but I think I have a way to rescue you.’
At that, her eyes grew wide with gratitude and she kissed me for several hours more before we retired to her chamber, where we spent a very pleasant evening together since the genie was absent.”
“You spent the evening with her?” the sultana protests in disbelief. “But I thought she told you that the bottle her husband gave her would stop her looking at another man.”
I shrug. “And so it did – while it was in her possession. But once she uncorked the bottle, the genie appropriated it, lest she should try to put him back inside.”
Returning to storytelling mode, I continue, “Indeed, she was so grateful to me for promising to free her from the genie’s clutches that she offered herself to me. How could I refuse? She was a princess – it would have been ill-mannered of me not to accept her charming request.”
“But what about Fairuza?” the sultana asks.
“She belongs in another part of this story,” I reply. “After many pleasant hours taking delight in one another, she finally sent me to a guest chamber she had prepared for me –‘Lest my master, the genie, return unexpectedly,’ she said, dimpling at me so prettily that I could not berate her for sending me away. That night I slept in a sumptuous chamber, upon silken sheets, and my dreams were peaceful for I knew that with my magic carpet – which was rolled up beneath my bed – I could easily escape if the genie returned.
The next morning, the princess sent one of her handmaidens to attend to my needs and we whiled away the hours very pleasantly indeed – you must remember that I was a handsome young man! – until the afternoon; then I met once more with the princess and we renewed our knowledge of each other.
Many happy months passed in this way, and still I had not mentioned my magic carpet to the princess. Instead, I pretended to be spending the hours when I was not with her thinking up a plan of escape. But as the days went by, I began to realise that I could not remain in the palace forever: for one thing, the genie could return at any moment; and for another, I had vowed to return to Fairuza only when I had made my fortune. Consequently, I bethought me of a plan that would enable me to carry away as much wealth as possible when I made my escape.
As I lay with the princess one afternoon, I casually mentioned that I had not been entirely honest with her.
‘I told you I was a humble water-seller,’ I said, ‘but the truth is that I am a powerful sorcerer and could have left this place at any time, had I not felt compelled by your beauty to stay.’
At this, her face grew pale and her eyes widened. ‘Then you could take me away from here?’ she asked.
‘I could indeed, Princess,’ I replied, ‘and we will leave today. But I am loth to leave so many riches behind when the gold and jewels in this palace could feed the poor for several years. Why should the genie keep it for himself?’
She agreed with me that we must carry away with us as much treasure as we could, and so I unrolled my carpet and we loaded it with sackful upon sackful of gold coins and diamonds and rubies and emeralds, until a king’s ransom spilled at our feet. I gazed at the riches before me and knew that I had enough to procure my beloved Fairuza from her father; but I also knew I could not take the princess with me. Many men I knew had more than one wife, but the idea of being nagged by two was more than I could bear; and so I told the princess to fetch me a rose from the courtyard where first we had met, and as she left to find it, I commanded the carpet to take me back to my own village.”
“You mean you abandoned the princess?” the princess says in shock. “After all that time you spent with her – after promising to take her back to her husband?”
“What can I say?” I try not to sound unrepentant. “What good would it have done her or her husband to return her? She was no longer a faithful bride – their marriage would have been a sham.”
“But it was your fault she was unfaithful!” the princess argues. “You slept with her – and her handmaids.”
“Ah, but I was not married,” I reply, “and everyone knows that a man must sow a few wild oats before he settles down.”
“So you went back home with all the princess’s treasure and married Fairuza?” The sultana is agog to hear more.
“Not exactly. Listen now, and I will tell you how my story ends.
I returned to my village, expecting Fairuza’s father to welcome me with open arms, only to discover that in my absence he had married her to someone else – a camel trader named Abdul who was some thirty years older than she. Abdul was fat, with a long grey beard – but he also owned three hundred camels and he had offered Fairuza’s father ten of these camels as the bride price for her.”
I break off my story. “That should tell you how beautiful Fairuza was – every man in my village aspired to marry a wife who was worth five camels (for no one wants a wife who is worth only one camel!), yet Fairuza went for ten. Anyway... At first, I was devastated to realise I had lost my love; but I was not as heartbroken as Fairuza’s father when he saw the gold and jewels I had brought back with me and realised what a fortune he had thrown away. He told me that his daughter had not yet lain with her husband, the marriage having taken place only days before I returned: so far, she had pleaded a headache every night rather than let his fat, pudgy fingers touch her.
Between us, we devised a plan. Fairuza would tell her husband to meet her in the desert so they could consummate their love looking up at the stars. In great excitement, Abdul ordered a silken tent to be erected and filled it with velvet cushions and costly throws. Servants prepared a feast of roasted lamb and apricots, and there was iced sherbet in large glass jugs. No expense was spared for this seduction: he wanted to make sure that the mood was exactly right. He even ordered zither players and a violin, but Fairuza told him to send the musicians away – the servants too – lest their presence make her feel nervous.
Once they were alone, she slipped her robe from her shoulders and stood naked in the moonlight, making sure that the old goat was crazy with desire for her. She told him she would go and prepare herself for his mastery of her and that he should wait five minutes and then follow her into the tent. Little did he know that I had arrived on my magic carpet, armed with a basket of sand snakes. As my love secretly left through the back of the tent, I placed the snakes upon the pillows that they might greet him when he arrived. Once I could see that Abdul was dead, I told Fairuza to return to the village and let her father know that she was now a widow – a very rich widow, let me hasten to add, for she had inherited all of her dead husband’s camels.
“And so,” I continue, “I married my lovely Fairuza and she gave me sons and daughters who have been a great comfort to me in my old age.”
“This is a commonplace tale!” exclaims the sultan. “Magic carpets… Genies… I have heard all these things before. If you value your life,” he eyes me nastily, “you will think of an original story to tell me. And,” he adds, “you still haven’t told me who you are and what you were doing in my private gardens.”
I rack my brains, trying to remember all the stories told by Scheherazade. Surely there must be something that will satisfy the sultan.
“Speak now!” the voice thunders.
I clear my throat and begin again.