KNOW, O MY MASTERS AND NOBLE PERSONS, there was, in the days of the Caliph Haroun Alrashid, a certain Afrit of little sense and great power, named Beiman Be-uql [Faithless and Senseless], dwelling in the city of Bagdad, who had devised brazen engines that ran upon iron roads. These, by the perfection of their operations, dilated the heart with wonder and the eye with amazement, for they resembled, as it were, litters drawn by fire-breathing dragons. Now the Afrit did not make benefactions for the sake of the approbation of Allah, but for money. For such-and-such pieces of money the brazen engines of unexampled celerity accommodated themselves to the desires of the adventurous. They bore the lover to his beloved, the merchant to his market, the fisherman to his nets, and the weaver to his loom, as was permitted by the All-Merciful. The people of Bagdad, who are both amorous and adventurous, disported themselves by day and by night on these engines, and gave the Afrit gold as from a catapult; and some twelve merchants of the city entered into a partnership with the Afrit, for the gains that accrued. Accordingly the Afrit became slothful and of a negligent disposition, forgetting that which is written:
'Except sword contend against sword in battle how shall a sword be sharpened? Except his neighbour contend against him in the market-place even the Very Veracious would sell rotten figs at enormous profit.'Allah (Whose Name be exalted!) caused the belly of the Afrit to expand with fatness, and his eyes to be darkened with over-much meat; and he dismounted from the steed of zeal and stretched himself upon the pillow of shamelessness, and ceased to concern himself at all with the comings and the goings of his brazen engines.
The rumour of these things reached the ears of the Prince of the Faithful (whose perspicacity be rewarded!), and he called Mesrour, chief of the Eunuchs, and Giaffar into his presence, and he said: 'What is the complaint against the Afrit that his engines are lacking in celerity?' Upon which Mesrour kissed the ground, and said: 'O my Lord, let the Prince of the Faithful go out into the city and make enquiry.' Then Mesrour fetched the clothes of three Frankish merchants, and they went out, all three, disguised as Frankish merchants, to the place of the brazen engines, which is over against the chief quarter of Bagdad. And they met a young man with a pair of linen drawers upon his shoulder and a linen cloth under his arm - for he would bathe in the water - and as he walked he wept and recited the following verses:
'May Allah preserve the pure-intentioned from the engines of the Afrit! I am old in calamity, but expert in resignation. I enter the engines constrained only by stringent necessity: They regard the efflux of time as a drunkard regards the fallen petals of his chaplet: and they attain their ends solely by the fortuitousness of unmitigated fatuity.'Then they went into the caravanserai appointed for the coming and the departure, and it was as though a battle had passed that way; for the caravanserai was full of smoke, black and white, and the ground was piled with the baggage of the faithful - pots, and bundles, and food, and medicaments, and the implements of exercise and diversion, all in little heaps, and by each heap stood distressful women and children not a few, imploring guidance. Hereupon the Caliph enquired: 'What have these done to merit extinction?' And Giaffar replied: 'They go a journey in the brazen engines,' and he recited the following verses:
'The Mercy of Allah is upon all things created, whereby the ignorant emerge from vicissitude:Then came a servant of the Afrit clad in bluish raiment, and cried: 'With thy permission!' and smote the legs of Giaffar from under him by means of a small wheeled cart which he wheeled in haste, and he recited the following verses:
'O True Believers! The first is behind the third, and the third is before the second. Advance boldly and turn to the right! Continue and turn to the left, for that brazen engine which departs for Lawaz and Isbahan upon the hour of second prayer lacking one eighth of an hour.Then the Afrits of the engines shrieked with a lamentable shrieking, and the faithful were cast into turmoil. Then came Mesrour with written bonds which he had purchased from the Afrit for money, and upon each bond was written the following verses:
'By the merit of this white bond it is permitted to such an one, the son of such an one, to enter into such-and-such an one of my engines, and to sit in the place appointed for such as hold the white bonds, and to proceed to such-and-such a place.But it is forbidden to such an one to linger more than a day after that he has purchased the bond: nor may he give away the bond even to his maternal uncle, but must strictly seat himself at the hour appointed. Moreover, I take Allah to witness that I wash my hands thrice of all that may befall this person, either by the sloth and negligence of my Afrits, or by the sloth and negligence of any other Afrits, or by the errors of any of the creatures of Allah!'
And it was signed with the seal of the Afrit. And the Caliph said: 'This is a notable bond. Whither go we?'
And Mesrour said: 'To Isbahan by way of Lawaz. Come swiftly.' So through the Protection of Allah, Who protects whom He will, they entered the litter appointed for such as hold the white bonds of the Afrit - a room of six seats and no more, of a bluish colour, with windows upon either side, and in the roof a lamp. Now there followed upon their heels the wife of a fisherman, perfumed with new wine, a woman of scandalous aspect; and four children who had never known the baths; and two men, sons of a kabab-seller; and a gambler upon the swiftness of horses; and a maiden, whose hair was like brass wire, who leered with the leer of invitation; and the wet-nurse of a sickly one.
When the Caliph perceived that their bonds were written on blue or brown paper only, and not one upon white, he said: 'This is the place appointed solely for such as have the white bonds. I conjure ye by Allah, remove elsewhere!' But they laughed, and the wife of the fisherman demanded of the maiden her opinion as to whether the Caliph resembled a water-bird of antiquity, and the two sons of the kabab-seller said: 'Behold his hair!' which is the salutation of the unseemly. But the wet-nurse said: 'Has Allah deprived thee of understanding, that thou hast forgotten the day is Saturday?'
At this the Caliph laughed and replied: 'What is the merit of this one day which, by the ordinances of Allah, hath recurred once in the seven since the beginning?' And the wet-nurse recited the following verses:
'When the carpet of Opportunity is unrolled before thee, do not consider where thou shalt sit, but leap swiftly into the middle thereof, and take firm hold on all four comers.So the Caliph said: 'Of what good is the Afrit's bond?' And the maiden with the hair like brass wire laughed and said: 'None to thee, O my beloved, but much to the Afrit,' and she spoke with laxity of the Caliph's wife (for she thought him to be a Frankish merchant) and of the legs and visage of Mesrour. So they abounded in impure talk and contention upon the way, and the wife of the fisherman vomited the wine from her stomach, and the Caliph's heart became contracted on account of the incommodiousness of the situation.
Thus they reached the city of Lawaz, and waited for a brazen engine to bear them to Isbahan. Now there are some eight alley-ways in that city for the entry and departure of the engines, but no man, not even the servants of the Afrit, knows by which alley-way any one engine will enter or depart. And lest men should by study attain enlightenment the place is without lamps, and the alley-ways are joined by magic bridges and corridors, and mazes that are each the work of Afrits. Therefore the adventurous must lay hold upon the bridle of courage and pursue the ball of his goal with the mallet of ferocity.
After a great while Mesrour said: 'O Prince of the Faithful, there is no escape from this pestilent locality till the Afrit brings a new engine, and it is reported to me by the veracious, whose skins are wrinkled through long waiting, that that engine is not here.' Now upon the wall of the place was written: 'At the hour of evening prayer a brazen engine will depart for Isbahan.' This was written in large characters, but beneath had the Afrit written the following verses:
'O true believers, who can do more than set forth his holy intentions?And it was signed with the seal of the Afrit.
Then the Caliph's liver grew congested, and he said: 'What are the promises of this impure Afrit?' And Mesrour said; 'As a stake in bran! Behold his shamelessness, and the names of those whom he has afflicted.' And upon another wall was written that all might read:
'Such an one, the son of such an one, was upon such-and-such a day beaten with fifty strokes of the ferash for that he tampered with a white bond of the Afrit.And the Caliph said: 'Not content with afflicting us by the means of his own idleness and uncleanliness, he afflicts the faithful by means of the law. Assuredly I will subject him to the operations of a law which he does not comprehend, and pursue him with a torment which he has not in the least anticipated.'
Then they leaped upon a brazen engine that came out of the darkness, and it bore them to a city called 'Alisham, and it ceased; and they waited in an extreme discomfort for yet other engines which came not. For three days and three nights the Caliph, and Mesrour, and Giaffar resigned the direction of their feet into the hands of the Afrit, but Allah (Whose Power is uplifting) maintained them alive. Throughout the length and the breadth of the Caliph's dominions there was not one brazen engine which arrived upon the hour appointed; nor within an hour of that hour; nor was there any shame or penitence among the servants of the Afrit. There was no dependence upon their veracity and no refuge under the shadow of their assertions. And the Caliph spoke with men anxious to see their sick who desired them; and with merchants hastening to the market; with lovers seeking their beloveds; with women purchasing commodities; with muleteers, and craftsmen, and butchers, and courtezans, and widows, and the pious, and the clean and the unclean who had confided themselves to the engines of the Afrit. There was but one thing certain in all the machinations of the Afrit - that he had taken the money of the true believers, and that he had cheated them all every one. Then the Caliph returned to his palace and bathed and refreshed himself, and repaired to the Lady Zobeide, his wife, and told her all that story. And she said: 'O my Lord, I conjure thee to chastise the Afrit with a heavy chastisement.' And the Caliph said: 'He is an Afrit. How may a creature of Allah chastise a son of fire?' Then the Lady Zobeide recited the following verses:
'At the end and the beginning of all events permitted upon the Footstool of God sits either a Man or a Woman.And the Caliph took counsel with the Lady Zobeide and together they devised an excellent device.
Know, O masters and noble persons, that the first of the twelve merchants of Bagdad who had associated themselves with the Afrit for the sake of gain was called Ali, son of Abu Bakr, and he was wealthy and he loaned money to the Afrit and took usury therefor. His stall was in the market, but his house where he received his friends was in the rich quarter of the city of Bagdad.
Upon a day appointed, when he was making merry with his friends, there came to Ali a messenger with a message, written upon pale paper, and the message said:
'Peace be unto thee, O Ali, son of Abu Bakr. I am a man with red hair, the father of three sons and two daughters. Also my income is sufficient for my needs. I am delayed an hour upon my journey by the faithlessness of one of thy brazen engines, and I tell thee this for the love I bear thee.'And Ali said: 'Whose is this shamelessness? I am no more than an overseer of the partnership with the Afrit. What have I to do with brazen engines?'br>
Then came a second messenger with a second message and it said:
'May we never be made sad by thy loss, O Ali, son of Abu Bakr. I am a widow lame of one leg, and I bear a little black bag. Moreover, it rains and I am cold. One of thy brazen engines has experienced a contraction of the interior, whereby it has ceased to proceed. Send hither an implement for its repair, if thou lovest me.'And the skin of Ali's forehead wrinkled, and he cursed the widow and her forefathers, and said: 'By Allah, am I the refuge of the destitute? Bring no more such messages to this house, O messengers, but take them to my stall in the market that the clerks may receive them. This house is the house of my rest.'
And the messengers said: 'Little rest for thee, O son of Abu Bakr, for there walks an host behind us bearing messages which are not to thy clerks, but to thee! Doubtless thou hast relieved a city by stealth, which is only now known to the grateful.'
And there came a third messenger with a package, intricately corded, demanding a price and receipt, and in its heart was a huge stone delicately wrapped, and on the wrapping was this message:
'Allah preserve thee, O chief of the Directors of the brazen engines! I am the son of a barber newly affianced to be wed. It is reported to me in the city of Krahidin that one of thy brazen engines has not arrived upon the hour appointed. I myself use not thy brazen engines, preferring mules when there is any haste; but I have found upon the roadside this large stone which, it may be, falling upon the iron road, has delayed thy engine. I send it thee for a love-gift, worthy of acceptation.'Then the moisture ceased in the mouth of Ali, son of Abu Bakr, and his eyes manifested anxiety, and he said: 'What is this calamity which has come upon me from associating with Afrits? May Allah confound all red-haired men, with all lame widows and the affianced sons of barbers!'
Then entered Fatima his wife, and her countenance was dark, and she bit her lips and said: 'What dost thou know of Cypress-Branch, O man of impure associates?' And he said: 'I am in no humour to jest. Begone!' And she exhibited a message upon pale paper which the messengers had delivered to her, and she read it aloud, and it said:
'To the Lady Fatima, wife of Ali, Greeting! Kiss thy husband for me. I am slender as an Oriental willow-shoot, and of unequalled gait. Ali has caused me to be delayed in the city of Tabriziz because of the unveracity of his brazen engines. Wherefore I am unable to bestow upon him the kiss of affection, and supplicate thee to be my substitute.'And the message was signed 'Cypress-Branch.'
Then Ali took off his turban and cast it upon the floor, and tore his hair, for his wife was old and of an unforgiving disposition, and she ceased not to load him with reproaches for an hour; and she retired into her apartments and wept. Then Ali left her and went out, and he saw a multitude of messengers advancing in their stately procession, or sitting in the court and playing games of chance upon his doorstep, or winking upon his female slaves. In each man's hand was a message upon pale paper, or a packet intricately corded, demanding receipt, and to none might the messages be given except to Ali, son of Abu Bakr. So he dismissed his friends and forsook diversion, and he wrote receipts until evening, and he wept and said: 'By Allah, this life is unendurable!'
Then there came a messenger to him and cried: 'I conjure thee by thy ancestors to hasten to the hall of the merchants, O son of Abu Bakr, for they have called a council and thy attendance is requisite.' And Ali said: 'It is the custom of those who are in partnership with the Afrit to meet but four times a year. Wherefore do they meet now?'
And the messenger said: 'Inconvenience has overtaken them and they are afraid.'
Then Ali put on his turban and washed his face and went to the hall of the merchants, and the first that greeted him cried: 'O son of Abu Bakr, hast thou seen the inscriptions by the roadside where our brazen engines go up and down?'
And Ali said: 'No, I have sufficiency of sorrow in mine own house.'
And they told him that within a night had sprung up intolerable inscriptions over against all the fields through which the brazen engines passed.
Then Ali laughed and said; 'This is the work of a red-haired man and of a woman lame in one leg and of the newly affianced son of a barber.' And they said: 'Allah preserve thy understanding, O Ali! Thou art mad.' And he laughed yet louder and said; 'It is the work of Cypress-Branch.' Upon this the unmarried drew away from him, fearing the excess of his madness, but such as were married embraced him and said: 'Is thy house also darkened by the machinations of Cypress-Branch and Jasmine, and Musk and Almond-Blossom? Verily this is an evil day for the upright.' So Ali's bosom expanded, for he said: 'Fellowship in calamity diminishes the sharpness of sorrow. Shew me the inscriptions.'
The first inscription was white and blue, three-and-thirty times repeated upon high poles to the left and right hand of the iron road to Isbahan, and it said:
'There are no engines like the brazen engines of the Afrit. Let us therefore thank Allah!'The second inscription was blue on white, an hundred times repeated upon painted wood to the left and right hand of the iron road to Krahidin and Tabriziz; and it said only:
'O True Believer, why dost thou not walk?'And the third inscription was red upon black, an hundred and nineteen times repeated on the right and the left hand of the iron road, and it said:
'When the Artificer of all Things created Eternity He foresaw that the brazen engines of the Afrit would require a reasonable time to reach their destination.'This was the nature of the three inscriptions, and they were offensive to all the twelve merchants. Then said Ali, son of Abu Bakr: 'Let us issue a proclamation demanding the heads of those who have caused the intolerable inscriptions to be written, lest we become a mock to the people of Bagdad.' This they did, but there appeared forthwith an officer of the law, and cried: 'I conjure ye by your pure forefathers to declare by what authority ye have issued the proclamation: for I am the servant of a great company of the oppressed, who have hired the ground in the fields whereon those inscriptions stand. May Allah render them salutary to you, O merchants!' And he haled them before the Caliph on account of their proclamation, and the people assembled in multitude like pelicans on a lake and waited on the judgment of the Caliph. Then the Prince of the Faithful took up the first inscription and said: 'What is your complaint, O traffickers with the Afrit; for it is not said whether there be engines worse or better than the engines of the Afrit, but only that there are no engines resembling them? This is no more than extreme laudation: yet if there be doubt, call thy witnesses.' And the twelve merchants scratched with the toe of distress upon the ankle of embarrassment and said nothing, and the Caliph spoke to the people: 'O True Believers, are there any engines like to the engines of the Afrit?' Then there came forward seven-and-fifty men, young and old, and thirty-four women, old and young, and said that were there no engines like to the engines of the Afrit. And he said: 'Do ye thank Allah therefor?' And they said: 'We thank Allah by day and by night.' So he fined the twelve merchants a thousand pieces of gold each. Then he took the second inscription and said: 'Where was this found?' And the merchants said: 'In a field.' And he said: 'Do men walk in a field?' And they said: 'Yes.' And he said: 'Do the brazen engines walk in the field?' And they said: 'No.' Then the Caliph said: 'Where is the offence of this enquiry, seeing that those who go by the brazen engines are not walking, and that those who walk in the fields are not in the brazen engines?' And he fined the twelve merchants two thousand pieces of gold each. And he took up the third inscription, and the veins of his forehead swelled, and he said: 'Do ye deny that Allah created Eternity?' And they said: 'We do not deny.' And he said: 'Do ye deny that the brazen engines require a reasonable time wherein to reach their destination?' And they said: 'We do not deny.' And he said: 'Do ye know for what reason Allah created Eternity?' And they said: 'Who are we to fathom the secrets of Allah?' Then he said: 'What is your complaint?' and he fined them three thousand pieces of gold each, and the people extolled the justice of the Caliph (upon whom be blessing!), but the merchants wept.
When they had returned to their hall. Ali, son of Abu Bakr, said: 'By Allah, O my masters, we have fallen into grievous calamity, and I see no method of delivery from the inscriptions wherewith we are tormented, except we expedite these accursed engines.' And the merchants said: 'It is impossible, for it hath never been.' Then Ali recited the following verses:
'We are as those who have ascended a blossoming mulberry-tree, from which there is access neither to Heaven nor to Earth.So they took counsel with the Afrit, and by the Permission of Allah, to Whom nought is impossible of accomplishment, the merchants caused one brazen engine to arrive in the caravanserai upon the hour appointed. And they swooned with amazement. And when they were recovered they went, some to the baths, and some to the wine-sellers, and some to the inner apartments. About second cockcrow Ali, son of Abu Bakr, was washing himself in the baths and there came a messenger from the Caliph mounted upon a white camel, bearing a dress of honour, and he cast it upon Ali wet from the bath and constrained him by the wrist and said: 'This is the reward of diligence.' And Ali said: 'I conjure thee by Allah, O interpreter of the way, compliment me with no more compliments, for I am sick of compliments, but fetch me the towels.' And the messenger said: 'I am but the mouth of the Prince of the Faithful, who hath need of thee!' And Ali groaned and wept and said: 'Am I not already sufficiently afflicted?' And the messenger said; 'Doubt not there are companions!' And he sat him upon a high white camel of unbridled disposition, and led him before the Caliph. And there were gathered in the courtyard of the palace the eleven his companions, each upon a white camel of a lofty nature, and each attired in a dress of honour; and they were speechless because of the honour that had been done them. At the hour that men can distinguish a black thread from a white, the Prince of the Faithful appeared at an upper window and he said: 'O persons of integrity, it is reported to me that a brazen engine has arrived upon the hour appointed,' and he ceased not to extol their wisdom and diligence, their perspicacity and their zeal, until the hour of second prayer, in the presence of the city of Bagdad. And when the sun was high and men had eaten-all except Ali, son of Abu Bakr, and those eleven his mates upon the camels, he said: 'O True Believers, I conjure ye by the benefits that ye have received from the Afrit that ye do not let these men of pure countenances at any time go unrewarded for their endeavours. If, therefore, one of their delectable brazen engines arrive upon the hour appointed, acquaint me of the circumstance that I may honour them in this fashion, and in others, upon whatever hour of the day or the night that that brazen engine may arrive.' And the people said:'Upon the head and the eye.'
Then he gave the merchants permission to depart and they returned to their houses. But the people of Bagdad sat by their doorsteps waiting for word of the arrival of yet another brazen engine upon the hour appointed. So the merchants within ate in haste and drank expeditiously and denied themselves to their wives, and remained far from their stalls in the market, and forsook the company of musicians. When a second brazen engine arrived upon the hour appointed, the people of Bagdad broke in upon them with salutations, and set them all upon tall camels of unbridled dispositions, and the messengers of the Caliph cast upon them dresses of honour, and they were borne to the very presence of the Caliph, who in all respects entreated them as before, for a very long while. But when that second engine arrived the Caliph (may his mercy be requited!) excused Ali, son of Abu Bakr, from the attendance; and when the third engine arrived he excused Hussein of the Fishmarkets from the attendance; and so with the other engines as they arrived, for he said: 'If I make this honour common how shall it be prized? Verily punctuality is an unheard-of virtue, rarer than the egg of the Roc, but we must also remember the infirmities of mankind.'
The people of Bagdad delighted rapturously to do honour to the remnant of the twelve merchants. When the fifth brazen engine arrived upon the hour appointed, they beat drums and cymbals; and for the sixth engine they closed all the markets; for the seventh engine they lit torches and shouted; and for the eighth they burned fires, red, white, and blue, in all the wards; for the ninth they assembled the Army and exercised them in the exercises of war; for the tenth they invited their friends and acquaintances, in number like netted fish, who came drawn by brazen engines from Isbahan and Lawaz, from Krahidin and Tabriziz; for the eleventh they extended the arm of allurement to all the inhabitants of the earth as far as a brazen engine might travel, nor were the inhabitants undesirous to attend to assist and to admire; for the twelfth, when there was called but one merchant to the presence of the Caliph, they altogether abandoned gravity and delivered themselves in multitudes, together with vast assemblies from other cities, to the dominion of mirth and excess. On that day at one time they beat gongs and the instruments of music. they blew upon horns without ceasing; they burned coloured fires, and they exercised the Army, and they closed the markets, and they waved banners and recited verses in honour of the twelve merchants and their wives and their daughters and their sons unborn, so that for a day's journey round Bagdad the clouds quaked with tumult. And when the merchants had occasion to come forth the inhabitants of Bagdad pursued them with the steeds of unbitted praise, and buried them beneath the blossoms of importunate compliment, so that the merchants covered the face of humility with the hand of modesty.
And Ali, son of Abu Bakr, joined himself to a company of those rejoicing and said: 'I conjure ye by your most remote ancestors, declare to me in what way ye have profited by the laudations wherewith ye have belauded us? For it is brought to my notice that through seven weeks the inhabitants of Bagdad have abandoned the pursuit of all trade and gain, that they may pursue me and my associates with an unmerited honour.'
And the merry-makers said: 'May we never lose thy presence, O son of Abu Bakr!' and they recited the following verses
'Have we wasted a day, or forty days, in unseemly revelry?Then he trembled excessively, and the sweat leaped out upon his forehead like seed-pearls, and he said: 'I hear and I obey and I toil,' and he cast off his garments and bought a leathern apron and a porter's knot and went down to the caravanserai to oversee and to expedite the brazen engines.
But he found in the caravanserai, attired in leathern aprons, adorned with porters' knots, the eleven his companions, and the sweat stood out upon their foreheads also like seed-pearls by reason of the vehemence with which they laboured both to oversee and to expedite the engines. And Ali said: 'I am not alone in affliction.' And they said: 'By Allah, dost thou call this affliction? It is altogether Paradise by the side of the honours to which we have been subjected, and we purpose to endure in it to our lives' end rather than to incur again the attentions of the inhabitants of Bagdad'...And they recited the following verses:
Against all things, except Ridicule, hath Allah fortified the hearts of men; but even the most vicious desire not to be made a butt; and the brazen-faced preserve still a remnant of shame.Allah hath applied a goad to the extremities of our reason. He hath sent a remembrancer into our secret apartments, and an open shame about our feet going forth.
Alas for the days when, free and uncontrolled, we lived among the valleys of Bagdad, merrily, and in no very good fame!'
So, then, these twelve merchants, who were partners with the Afrit, laboured unremittingly for many years in honesty and sobriety and zeal and devotion to expedite the engines of the Afrit; and having, by the Permission of Allah, attained these ends, they were each at the appointed hour overtaken by Death, the separator of companions, the divider of real estate, the terminator of leases, the herdsman of heriots, and the completor of operations.
Extolled be the excellence of Allah-al-Bari Who alone is the contriver of wonderful things; the Artificer of the destinies of the Universe, and the Compeller of the hearts of men!