First of a Thousand Harem Stories

March 23, 2020


Stories from the Thousand and One Nights.
Vol. 16, pp. 15-24 of The Harvard Classics

Shahrazad, favorite of the treacherous Sultan's harem, selected a most thrilling story for her bridal night. By leaving it unfinished she was privileged to live to continue it the next night - and so on for a thousand and one nights.

Nights 1–3
The Story of the Merchant and the Jinni

IT has been related to me, O happy King, said Shahrazad, that there was a certain merchant who had great wealth, and traded extensively with surrounding countries; and one day he mounted his horse, and journeyed to a neighbouring country to collect what was due to him, and, the heat oppressing him, he sat under a tree, in a garden, and put his hand into his saddle-bag, and ate a morsel of bread and a date which were among his provisions. Having eaten the date, he threw aside the stone, and immediately there appeared before him an ‘Efrit, of enormous height, who, holding a drawn sword in his hand, approached him, and said, Rise, that I may kill thee, as thou hast killed my son. the merchant asked him, How have I killed thy son? He answered, When thou atest the date, and threwest aside the stone, it struck my son upon the chest, and, as fate had decreed against him, he instantly died.

  The merchant, on hearing these words, exclaimed, Verily to God we belong, and verily to Him we must return! There is no strength nor power but in God, the High, the Great! If I killed him, I did it not intentionally, but without knowing it; and I trust in thee that thou wilt pardon me.—The Jinni answered, Thy death is indispensable, as thou hast killed my son:—and so saying, he dragged him, and threw him on the ground, and raised his arm to strike him with the sword. The merchant, upon this, wept bitterly, and said to the Jinni, I commit my affair unto God, for no one can avoid what He hath decreed:—and he continued his lamentation, repeating the following verses:—

Time consists of two days; this, bright; and that, gloomy; and life, of two moieties; this, safe; and that, a fearful.

Say to him who hath taunted us on account of misfortunes, Doth fortune oppose any but the eminent?

Dost thou observe that corpses float upon the sea, while the precious pearls remain in its furthest depths?

When the hands of time play with us, misfortune is imparted to us by its protracted kiss.

In the heaven are stars that cannot be numbered; but none is eclipsed save the sun and the moon.

How many green and dry trees are on the earth; but none is assailed with stones save that which beareth fruit!

Thou thoughtest well of the days when they went well with thee, and fearedst not the evil that destiny was bringing.

—When he had finished reciting these verses, the Jinni said to him, Spare thy words, for thy death is unavoidable.

  Then said the merchant, Know, O ‘Efrit, that I have debts to pay, and I have much property, and children, and a wife, and I have pledges also in my possession: let me, therefore, go back to my house, and give to every one his due, and then I will return to thee: I bind myself by a vow and covenant that I will return to thee, and thou shalt do what thou wilt; and God is witness of what I say.—Upon this, the Jinni accepted his covenant, and liberated him; granting him a respite until the expiration of the year.

  The merchant, therefore, returned to his town, accomplished all that was upon his mind to do, paid every one what he owed him, and informed his wife and children of the event which had befallen him; upon hearing which, they and all his family and women wept. He appointed a guardian over his children, and remained with his family until the end of the year; when he took his grave-clothes under his arm, bade farewell to his household and neighbours, and all his relations, and went forth, in spite of himself; his family raising cries of lamentation, and shrieking.

  He proceeded until he arrived at the garden before mentioned; and it was the first day of the new year; and as he sat, weeping for the calamity which he expected soon to befall him, a sheykh, advanced in years, approached him, leading a gazelle with a chain attached to its neck. This sheykh saluted the merchant, wishing him a long life, and said to him, What is the reason of thy sitting alone in this place, seeing that it is a resort of the Jinn? The merchant therefore informed him of what had befallen him with the ‘Efrit, and of the cause of his sitting there; at which the sheykh, the owner of the gazelle, was astonished, and said, By Allah, O my brother, thy faithfulness is great, and thy story is wonderful! if it were engraved upon the intellect, it would be a lesson to him who would be admonished!—And he sat down by his side, and said, By Allah, O my brother, I will not quit this place until I see what will happen unto thee with this ‘Efrit. So he sat down, and conversed with him. And the merchant became almost senseless; fear entered him, and terror, and violent grief, and excessive anxiety. And as the owner of the gazelle sat by his side, lo, a second sheykh approached them, with two black hounds, and inquired of them, after saluting them, the reason of their sitting in that place, seeing that it was a resort of the Jann: and they told him the story from beginning to end. And he had hardly sat down when there approached them a third sheykh, with a dapple mule; and he asked them the same question, which was answered in the same manner.

  Immediately after, the dust was agitated, and became an enormous revolving pillar, approaching them from the midst of the desert: and this dust subsided, and behold, the Jinni, with a drawn sword in his hand; his eyes casting forth sparks of fire. He came to them, and dragged from them the merchant, and said to him, Rise, that I may kill thee, as thou killedst my son, the vital spirit of my heart. And the merchant wailed and wept: and the three sheykhs also manifested their sorrow by weeping and crying aloud and wailing: but the first sheykh, who was the owner of the gazelle, recovering his self-possession, kissed the hand of the ‘Efrit, and said to him, O thou Jinni, and crown of the kings of the Jann, if I relate to thee the story of myself and this gazelle, and thou find it to be wonderful, and more so than the adventure of this merchant, wilt thou give up to me a third of thy claim to his blood? He answered, Yes, O sheykh; if thou relate to me the story, and I find it to be as thou hast said, I will give up to thee a third of my claim to his blood.

The Story of the First Sheykh and the Gazelle

THEN said the sheykh, Know, O ‘Efrit, that this gazelle is the daughter of my paternal uncle, and she is of my flesh and my blood. I took her as my wife when she was young, and I lived with her about thirty years; but I was not blessed with a child by her; so I took to me a concubine slave, and by her I was blessed with a male child, like the rising full moon, with beautiful eyes, and delicately-shaped eyebrows, and perfectly-formed limbs; and he grew up by little and little until he attained the age of fifteen years. At this period, unexpectedly had occasion to journey to a certain city, and went thither with a great stock of merchandise.

  Now my cousin, this gazelle, had studied enchantment and divination from her early years; and during my absence, she transformed the youth above mentioned into a calf; and his mother, into a cow; and committed them to the care of the herdsman: and when I returned, after a long time, from my journey, I asked after my son and his mother, and she said, Thy slave is dead, and thy son hath fled, and I know not whither he is gone. After hearing this, I remained for the space of a year with mourning heart and weeping eye, until the Festival of the Sacrifice; 1 when I sent to the herdsman, and ordered him to choose for me a fat cow; and he brought me one, and it was my concubine, whom this gazelle had enchanted. I tucked up my skirts and sleeves, and took the knife in my hand, and prepared myself to slaughter her; upon which she moaned and cried so violently that I left her, and ordered the herdsman to kill and skin her: and he did so, but found in her neither fat nor flesh, nor anything but skin and bone; and I repented of slaughtering her, when repentance was of no avail. I therefore gave her to the herdsman, and said to him, Bring me a fat calf: and he brought me my son, who was transformed into a calf. And when the calf saw me, he broke his rope, and came to me, and fawned upon me, and wailed and cried, so that I was moved with pity for him; and I said to the herdsman, Bring me a cow, and let this—

  Here Shahrazad perceived the light of morning, and discontinued the recitation with which she had been allowed thus far to proceed. Her sister said to her, How excellent is thy story! and how pretty! and how pleasant! and how sweet!—but she answered, What is this in comparison with that which will relate to thee in the next night, if I live, and the King spare me! And the King said, By Allah, I will not kill her until I hear the remainder of her story. Thus they pleasantly passed the night until the morning, when the King went forth to his hall of judgment, and the Wezir went thither with the grave-clothes under his arm: and the King gave judgment, and invested and displaced, until the close of the day, without informing the Wezir of that which had happened; and the minister was greatly astonished. The court was then dissolved; and the King returned to the privacy of his palace.

  [On the second and each succeeding night, Shahrazad continued so to interest King Shahriyar by her stories as to induce him to defer putting her to death, in expectation that her fund of amusing tales would soon be exhausted; and as this is expressed in the original work in nearly the same words at the close of every night, such repetitions will in the present translation be omitted.]

  When the sheykh, continued Shahrazad, observed the tears of the calf, his heart sympathized with him, and he said to the herdsman, Let this calf remain with the cattle.—Meanwhile, the Jinni wondered at this strange story; and the owner of the gazelle thus proceeded.

  O lord of the kings of the Jann, while this happened, my cousin, this gazelle, looked on, and said, Slaughter this calf; for he is fat: but I could not do it; so I ordered the herdsman to take him back; and he took him and went away. And as I was sitting, on the following day, he came to me, and said, O my master, I have to tell thee something that thou wilt be rejoiced to hear; and a reward is due to me for bringing good news. I answered, Well:—and he said, O merchant, I have a daughter who learned enchantment in her youth from an old woman in our family; and yesterday, when thou gavest me the calf, I took him to her, and she looked at him, and covered her face, and wept, and then laughed, and said, O my father, hath my condition become so degraded in thy opinion that thou bringest before me strange men?—Where, said I, are any strange men? and wherefore didst thou weep and laugh? She answered, This calf that is with thee is the son of our master, the merchant, and the wife of our master hath enchanted both him and his mother; and this was the reason of my laughter; but as to the reason of my weeping, it was on account of his mother, because his father had slaughtered her.—And I was excessively astonished at this; and scarcely was I certain that the light of morning had appeared when I hastened to inform thee.

  When I heard, O Jinni, the words of the herdsman, I went forth with him, intoxicated without wine, from the excessive joy and happiness that I received, and arrived at his house, where his daughter welcomed me, and kissed my hand; and the calf came to me, and fawned upon me. And I said to the herdsman’s daughter, Is that true which thou hast said respecting this calf? She answered, Yes, O my master; he is verily thy son, and the vital spirit of thy heart.—O maiden, said I, if thou wilt restore him, all the cattle and other property of mine that thy father hath under his care shall be thine. Upon this, she smiled, and said, O my master, I have no desire for the property unless on two conditions: the first is, that thou shalt marry me to him; and the second, that I shall enchant her who enchanted him, and so restrain her; otherwise, I shall not be secure from her artifice. On hearing, O Jinni, these her words, I said, And thou shalt have all the property that is under the care of thy father besides; and as to my cousin, even her blood shall be lawful to thee. So, when she heard this, she took a cup, and filled it with water, and repeated a spell over it, and sprinkled with it the calf, saying to him, If God created thee a calf, remain in this form, and be not changed; but if thou be enchanted, return to thy original form, by permission of God, whose name be exalted!—upon which he shook, and became a man; and I threw myself upon him, and said, I conjure thee by Allah that thou relate to me all that my cousin did to thee and to thy mother. So he related to me all that had happened to them both; and I said to him, O my son, God hath given thee one to liberate thee, and to avenge thee:—and I married to him, O Jinni, the herdsman’s daughter; after which, she transformed my cousin into this gazelle. And as I happened to pass this way, I saw this merchant, and asked him what had happened to him; and when he had informed me, I sat down to see the result.—This is my story. The Jinni said, This is a wonderful tale; and I give up to thee a third of my claim to his blood.

  The second sheykh, the owner of the two hounds, then advanced, and said to the Jinni, If I relate to thee the story of myself and these hounds, and thou find it to be in like manner wonderful, wilt thou remit to me, also, a third of thy claim to the blood of this merchant? The Jinni answered, Yes.

Note 1. The Grest Festival, commencing on the 10th of Dhu-l-Hijjeh, when the pilgrims, halting on their return from mount ‘Arafat to Mekkeh, in the valley of Mine, perform their sacrifice.

The Story of the Second Sheykh and the Two Black Hounds

THEN said the sheykh, Know, O lord of the kings of the Jann, that these two hounds are my brothers. My father died, and left to us three thousand pieces of gold; 1 and I opened a shop to sell and buy. But one of my brothers made a journey, with a stock of merchandise, and was absent from us for the space of a year with the caravans; after which, he returned destitute. I said to him, Did I not advise thee to abstain from travelling? But he wept, and said, O my brother, God, to whom be ascribed all might and glory, decreed this event; and there is no longer any profit in these words: I have nothing left. So I took him up into the shop, and then went with him to the bath, and clad him in a costly suit of my own clothing; after which, we sat down together to eat; and I said to him, O my brother, I will calculate the gain of my shop during the year, and divide it, exclusive of the principal, between me and thee. Accordingly, I made the calculations, and found my gain to amount to two thousand pieces of gold; and I praised God, to whom be ascribed all might and glory, and rejoiced exceedingly, and divided the gain in two equal parts between myself and him.—My other brother then set forth on a journey; and after a year, returned in the like condition; and I did unto him as I had done to the former.

  After this, when we had lived together for some time, my brothers again wished to travel, and were desirous that I should accompany them; but I would not. What, said I, have ye gained in your travels, that I should expect to gain? They importuned me; but I would not comply with their request; and we remained selling and buying in our shops a whole year. Still, however, they persevered in proposing that we should travel, and I still refused, until after the lapse of six entire years, when at last I consented, and said to them, O my brothers, let us calculate what property we possess. We did so, and found it to be six thousand pieces of gold: and I then said to them, We will bury half of it in the earth, that it may be of service to us if any misfortune befall us, in which case each of us shall take a thousand pieces, with which to traffic. Excellent is thy advice, said they. So I took the money and divided it into two equal portions, and buried three thousand pieces of gold; and of the other half, I gave to each of them a thousand pieces. We then prepared merchandise, and hired a ship, and embarked our goods, and proceeded on our voyage for the space of a whole month, at the expiration of which we arrived at a city, where we sold our merchandise; and for every piece of gold we gained ten.

  And when we were about to set sail again, we found, on the shore of the sea, a maiden clad in tattered garments, who kissed my hand, and said to me, O my master, art thou possessed of charity and kindness? If so, I will require thee for them. I answered, Yes, I have those qualities, though thou requite me not. Then said she, O my master, accept me as thy wife, and take me to thy country; for I give myself to thee: act kindly towards me; for I am one who requires to be treated with kindness and charity, and who will requite thee for so doing; and let not my present condition at all deceive thee. When I heard these words, my heart was moved with tenderness towards her, in order to the accomplishment of a purpose of God, to whom be ascribed all might and glory; and I took her, and clothed her, and furnished for her a place in the ship in a handsome manner, and regarded her with kind and respectful attention.

  We then set sail; and I became most cordially attached to my wife, so that, on her account, I neglected the society of my brothers, who, in consequence, became jealous of me, and likewise envied me my wealth, and the abundance of my merchandise; casting the eyes of covetousness upon the whole of the property. They therefore consulted together to kill me, and take my wealth; saying, Let us kill our brother, and all the property shall be ours:—and the devil made these actions to seem fair in their eyes; so they came to me while I was sleeping by the side of my wife, and took both of us up, and threw us into the sea. But as soon as my wife awoke, she shook herself, and became transformed into a Jinniyeh. She immediately bore me away, and placed me upon an island, and, for a while, disappeared. In the morning, however, she returned, and said to me, I am thy wife, who carried thee, and rescued thee from death, by permission of God, whose name be exalted. Know that I am a Jinniyeh: I saw thee, and my heart loved thee for the sake of God; for I am a believer in God and his Apostle, God bless and save him! I came to thee in the condition in which thou sawest me, and thou didst marry me; and see, I have rescued thee from drowning. But I am incensed against thy brothers, and I must kill them.—When I heard her tale, I was astonished, and thanked her for what she had done;—But, said I, as to the destruction of my brothers, it is not what I desire. I then related to her all that happened between myself and them from first to last; and when she had heard it, she said, I will, this next night, fly to them, and sink their ship, and destroy them. But I said, I conjure thee by Allah that thou do it not; for the author of the proverb saith, O thou benefactor of him who hath done evil, the action that he hath done is sufficient for him:—besides, they are at all events my brothers. She still, however, said, They must be killed;—and I continued to propitiate her towards them: and at last she lifted me up, and soared through the air, and placed me on the roof of my house.Having opened the doors, I dug up what I had hidden in the earth; and after I had saluted my neighbours, and bought merchandise, I opened my shop. And in the following night, when I entered my house, I found these two dogs tied up in it; and as soon as they saw me, they came to me, and wept, and clung to me; but I knew not what had happened until immediately my wife appeared before me, and said, These are thy brothers. And who, said I, hath done this unto them? She answered, I sent to my sister, and she did it; and they shall not be restored until after the lapse of ten years. And I was now on my way to her, that she might restore them, as they have been in this state ten years, when I saw this man, and, being informed of what had befallen him, I determined not to quit the place until I should have seen what would happen between thee and him.—This is my story.—Verily, said the Jinni, it is a wonderful tale; and I give up to thee a third of the claim that I had to his blood on account of his offence.

  Upon this, the third sheykh, the owner of the mule, said to the Jinni, As to me, break not my heart if I relate to thee nothing more than this:—

Note 1. Dinar—about half a guinea.

The Story of the Third Sheykh and the Mule

THE MULE that thou seest was my wife: she became enamoured of a black slave; and when I discovered her with him, she took a mug of water, and, having uttered a spell over it, sprinkled me, and transformed me into a dog. In this state, I ran to the shop of a butcher, whose daughter saw me, and being skilled in enchantment, restored me to my original form, and instructed me to enchant my wife in the manner thou beholdest.—And now I hope that thou wilt remit to me also a third of the merchant’s offence. Divinely was he gifted who said,

Sow good, even on an unworthy soil; for it will not be lost wherever it is sown.

  When the sheykh had thus finished his story, the Jinni shook with delight, and remitted the remaining third of his claim to the merchant’s blood. The merchant then approached the sheykhs, and thanked them, and they congratulated him on his safety; and each went his way.

  But this, said Shahrazad, is not more wonderful than the story of the fisherman. The King asked her, And what is the story of the fisherman? And she related it as follows:—

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