Authors: Hanan al-Shaykh
He called out, “Jinni, you promised me, even swore an oath in the Almighty’s name, not to betray me. Don’t forget what the sage told King Yunan: ‘Spare me and God shall spare you.’ ”
The jinni laughed. “Get your net and follow me, my friend.”
They walked together and climbed a mountain, the fisherman all the while marvelling at the difference in size between him and the jinni and amused to now be walking alongside this vast creature which had been locked in a jar. They went down into a valley and stopped by a lake, which the fisherman had never seen before.
“Fisherman, why don’t you cast your net and let us see what will happen?” said the jinni.
The fisherman reluctantly did what he was told. How would he become rich beyond his wildest dreams by catching fish? The net shook violently and the fisherman struggled to haul it in, but
the jinni pushed him gently to one side and pulled the net in with one finger.
The net was filled with many strange, brilliantly coloured fish. Although the fisherman was captivated by the shapes and colours of these fish, he couldn’t help but say to the jinni, “I have never seen fish such as these before and I am sure that the people at the fish market will be amazed by them and I shall sell them all. But pardon me, jinni, if I ask you a question. How am I going to become rich beyond my wildest dreams for the rest of my life, as you have promised?”
The jinni laughed, saying, “Well look, you have plenty of fish and of course you will sell them for double or triple the price.”
Before the fisherman could open his mouth to object, he saw that the fish had ceased to breathe and become hard as stones, glittering and shining.
“Hey, fisherman,” said the jinni, “your catch is the jewels of the sea after all.”
The fisherman bent over the net and saw rubies and emeralds and pearls and coral and many other precious gems he had never before laid eyes upon.
The fisherman stared at the jinni, his mouth hanging open, still not believing what he saw.
“I shall miss you!” The jinni kicked the ground with his foot, whereupon it opened, swallowing him.
“I shall miss you, too!” the fisherman called. “Farewell!”
Shahrazad fell silent, and Dunyazad spoke up from beneath the bed.
“What a beautiful and extraordinary story, my sister!”
“It is indeed,” said Shahrazad. “But what is this tale, when compared to that of the fisherman’s brother, the porter, and his ordeal with the three ladies?”
“Come on then, my sister, tell it to us, especially since it’s still the middle of the night,” said Dunyazad with great excitement.
“But it is a long tale, which I will never finish by dawn. As you know, His Majesty the King is allowing me to live only until first light. To start a story and not survive to finish it would be the same as taking you both in a boat out into the middle of the sea, and then leaving you there without oars. But, if the King wishes to hear the story of the fisherman’s brother, the porter, and the three ladies, and is willing to postpone the hour of my death, then I am ready to tell it to you with great enthusiasm.”
“Why not?” King Shahrayar thought to himself. “I will die from boredom if I must now lie here and wait for the dawn. And besides, I am eager to hear a new tale from Shahrazad, for she is a formidable storyteller. I find that I am becoming quite addicted to her stories. I shall let her live a little longer, and hear this new one.”
“Come on, Shahrazad,” he said, “tell us the tale of the fisherman’s brother, the porter, and the three ladies.”
And so, in the still of the night, Shahrazad began …
heard, oh wise and happy King, that once the fisherman became a jeweller his fame spread so that his name was on the lips of every person in Baghdad. His shop was as spacious as a garden and his jewellery and precious stones as big as flowers and fruit. And yet the fisherman remained true to his humble origins and never turned his back on his past. On the contrary, he gathered all his brothers and relatives and gave them jobs in his shop, which they accepted, all except for his younger brother the porter, who refused, saying, “Me, in a jewellery shop, where the customers are the nobles, the stuck up who can barely manage to smile? How would you expect me to live without the clamour of the souks?”
Now it happened that one morning this porter was leaning on his basket when a young lady approached him. She was wrapped in a brocade coat, her face hidden beneath a sheer muslin veil. She lifted it and told him in a sweet melodious voice, “Porter, take your basket and follow me.” The porter saw her radiant face, which was as beautiful as the dawn, with deep black eyes and thick eyelashes and full smiling lips. He quickly
followed the shopper, as delighted to be doing so as if he were entering Paradise, and when he noticed her comely figure and her tiny embroidered slippers, he said to himself, “Oh lucky day, oh happy day.”
The lady stopped at a fruit seller’s stall and chose Damascus quinces, Persian pomegranates, apples from Jabal Lubnan, tamrhenna from Egypt, figs from Baalbek, grapes from Hebron, oranges from Jaffa, and she placed everything in the porter’s basket. Next she bought anemones, violets, Damascus lilies, narcissi and daffodils, pomegranate roses and stocks, choosing to carry the flowers herself.
“Porter, take your basket and follow me,” she bade the porter in a voice of great charm and coquettishness, and he followed her, thanking God and murmuring, “What a lucky day; a day filled with gardenia and jasmine.”
Next she stopped at another stall and bought Tunisian olives and Moroccan couscous, Nabulsi cheese, Egyptian pickles and fish roe, pistachios from Aleppo and raisins, Algerian thyme and Yemeni basil and Zanzibar hazelnuts. She placed everything in the basket and then said again to the porter, in the loveliest of voices, “Take your basket and follow me.”
He followed her, murmuring, “What a day—as sweet as honey!” She stopped at a nearby grocer’s shop and bought rose water, orange blossom water, candles and Omani incense, musk, saffron, cloves, turmeric and cinnamon sticks. Once more she put everything into the basket, saying, “Porter, take your basket and follow me.” He walked behind her, murmuring to himself, “I’ll follow this gazelle to the end of the world even for no reward.” When she reached the sweet shop, she stopped and bought kunafa, katayef, Turkish delight, eat-and-thanks baklava, halava, mushabback, sesame rolls, hazelnut rolls, kunafa with cheese. She put
everything in the basket and said to the porter, “Porter, take your basket and follow me.” He followed, muttering, “What a lucky day!”
When she stopped at the butcher’s and stroked with her lovely hennaed hands a lamb which was feeding, the porter said to her, “If you had told me, my good lady, that you were going to buy a live lamb, I would have brought with me a mule and carriage.”
The lady just laughed and went into the butcher’s, where she purchased the best meat and wrapped it in banana leaves and placed it in the basket. Next she went to a store with nothing on display in its window, but as she entered the man behind the counter saw her and quickly handed her a jar of wine.
The lady then continued on her way, holding the flowers, with the porter following at a respectful distance, murmuring to himself, “How I wish I was even a thorn in the flowers she is holding.”
The lady stopped before a magnificent mansion, adorned with stately pillars and a huge garden filled with trees. She knocked on the door three times and another beautiful, blossoming lady opened the door. For the first time that day the porter shifted his eyes from the lady who had hired him. The doorkeeper’s face was as round as the moon, her breasts like a pair of big pomegranates and beneath her clothes her tummy was as flat as a page folded in a book. At the sight of this woman the porter nearly fell down with his basket, but she thought he had collapsed under his heavy load and so she reproached the shopper, who had rushed inside to put the flowers into a vase. “What are you waiting for? Don’t you see that this poor porter is barely able to shoulder his heavy burden?”
The porter followed the two women into a spacious room. He was unable to believe his eyes, for the room was decorated with beautiful wooden furniture inlaid with mother of pearl and ivory,
and brightly coloured cushions, and in the centre was a fountain decorated in blue mosaic as if a piece of the blue sky had fallen into the sitting room. The two ladies began to empty the basket, when the porter heard the voice of a third woman calling, “Great, you’re back, sister. Welcome!” At this the shopper stopped what she was doing and drew back a red silk curtain and the porter saw a woman reclining on a couch, as beautiful as if she was a shining sun. If she hadn’t spoken and then stood up, the porter might have mistaken what he beheld for a painting. Her beauty was intoxicating: huge dark eyes like a
of heaven with eyelashes so long they nearly touched her eyebrows and a mouth the colour of the rare wild strawberries he sometimes saw in the market. When she smiled she revealed her teeth, which were like a row of pearls. The porter nearly fell to the floor with his basket when this lady approached to see the goodies her sister had bought, overwhelmed as he was by her radiant beauty and her amber scent, which aroused all of his five senses. He let out a long sigh. The girls thought he was hurrying them up.
The shopper handed him one dinar, but the porter remained fixed to the spot, and so she asked him, “Why are you still here? Do you think that what I gave you isn’t enough?” The third lady, who was the mistress of the house, handed him another dinar, but the porter shook his head and remained standing, reluctant to leave. Finally the mistress of the house asked him, “Tell us, porter, what’s going on?”
“Please, I beg of you, ladies,” the porter said, “correct me if I am mistaken but it seems to me that you live on your own without the presence of a man, is that so?”
“That is correct,” the mistress of the house answered.
“How can that be, when God, being so generous with you three ladies, gave you everything—beauty, fine manners, fruit, meat, nuts
and wine? Don’t you believe that the happiness and good fortune of women cannot be attained without the company of men? It is certainly the case that a man cannot achieve pleasure without a woman. Remember also, ‘The company of four is always better’ as the proverb says, ‘just as a steady table needs four legs and not three.’ ”
The mistress of the house answered, “Yes, you’re right—we live on our own without men, we keep to ourselves, because we fear that if we entrust others with our secrets, they will not be kept and we will suffer as a result. As the poet said:
“ ‘Guard your secrets closely
When they’re told they fly
If unable to keep treasures in our own heart
Who then can forbid another, yours to impart?’ ”
The porter said, “I’m just a mere porter, but I assure you ladies that I have studied literature and memorised poetry and above all I have learned the importance of revealing the good and concealing the bad. You may be certain that I am just as the poet described:
“ ‘My secrets are locked
In an impenetrable fortress
To which the key has long vanished
And the lock’s forever tarnished.’ ”
The three ladies exchanged glances which suggested that they liked and appreciated what they’d heard and the porter sensed an understanding between them and felt emboldened to say, “Why don’t you ladies let me stay with you, not as your companion but as your servant?”
The three women again exchanged glances and winks, and the mistress of the house said, “You know well how much we spent to get all these provisions. How can you contribute to our entertainment in return? Don’t you know that ‘without gain, love is not worth a grain’?”
“If you have nothing then you must leave with nothing,” the doorkeeper added.
The shopper intervened, saying, “Stop teasing him, just listen to me, this porter served me today very well and he was so patient.”
The porter took out the two dinars, telling them, “Please, ladies, take back your money. It is all that I have earned today, but my reward has been to spend time in your company.”
“No, this is your money and you are welcome to join us,” the mistress of the house told him.
At this, the shopper laid a table by the fountain, filling it with food and drink in beautiful ornamental dishes and cups. She asked everybody to come and sit down, poured herself a drink and offered one to the others. The porter bowed and drank his in one gulp, at which she said to him, “Drink it in good health.”
The porter took her hand and kissed it and recited:
“Share your cup only
With those who are beloved and trusted,
Those pure of heart and full of grace,
For wine is delicious when shared with the sweet
But acrid and foul with men of deceit.”
Then the four continued to drink one cup after another. The porter, who was by now quite tipsy, stood and began to dance like a belly dancer, singing: