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Wednesday, March 9, 2016

The Best Stories in the World: Ali of Persia

I'm calling it right now: "Ali of Persia" is the greatest story in the world...I write that with only a little irony.

In the story Shahrazad tells from nights 294 to 296 of the 1001 Nights, Haroun al-Raschid, protector of the faithful, is bored. He calls for a story, and this is what he gets:

This guy named Ali (he's from Persia, as you've probably figured, but he lives in Baghdad) goes to Cairo. When he arrives, this other guy comes up and grabs his satchel, claiming that he lost it yesterday. The two of them fight over it, and they're taken to the qadi (i.e., a judge). "Tell me what's in the bag," says the qadi, quite sensibly. "Whosoever gets it right is the rightful owner."

The thief goes first. He says (and it's worth quoting directly from Malcolm C. Lyons's translation): "In it there are two silver kohl sticks, together with kohl for my eyes, a hand towel in which placed two gilt cups and two candlesticks. There are two tents, two basins, a cooking pot, two clay jars, a ladle, a pack needle, two provision bags, a cat, two bitches, on large bowl and two large sacks, a gown, two furs, a cow with two calves, one goat, two sheep, a ewe with two lambs, two green pavilions, one male and two female camels, a buffalo, two bulls, a lioness and two lions, a she-bear, two foxes, a mattress, two couches, a palace, two halls, a colonnade, two chairs, a kitchen with two doors and a group of Kurds who will bear witness to the fact that this is my bag."

That having been said, and without batting an eye at the list, the qadir asks Ali what's in the bag. Ali says, "...one little ruined house and another one with no door, a dog kennel and a boys' school, with boys playing dice. It had tents and their ropes, the cities of Basra and Baghdad, the palace of Shaddad ibn 'Ad, a blacksmith's forge, a fishing net, sticks, tent pegs, girls, boys, and a thousand pimps who will testify that the bag is mine."

Then the first guy strengthens his case: "In it are fortresses and castles, cranes, beasts of prey, chess players and chessboards. there is a mare and two foals, a stallion and two horses, together with two long spears. It also has a lion, two hares, a city and two villages, a prostitute with two villainous pimps, a hermaphrodite, two good-for-nothings, one blind man and two who can see, a lame man and two who are paralyzed, a priest, two deacons, a patriarch and two monks, a qadi and two notaries, and these will bear witness that this is my bag."

The qadi gives Ali one last chance to prove it's his bag, and Ali says, "In this bag of mine is a coat of mail, a sword and stores of weapons. there are a thousand butting rams, a sheep-fold, a thousand barking dogs, orchards, vines, flowers, scented herbs, figs, apples, pictures and statues, bottles and drinking cups, beautiful slave girls, singing girls, wedding feasts with noise and tumult, wide open spaces, successful men, dawn raiders with swords, spears, bows and arrows, friends, dear ones companions, comrades, men imprisoned and awaiting punishment, drinking companions, mandolins, flutes, banners and flags, boys, girls, unveiled brides and singing slave girls. There are five girls from Abyssinia, three from India, four from al-Medina, twenty from Rum, fifty Turkish girls and seventy Persians, eighty Kurdish girls and ninety Georgians. The Tigris and the Euphrates are there, together with a fishing net, flint and steel for striking sparks, Iram of the Columns and a thousand good-for-nothings and pimps. there are exercise grounds, stables, mosques, baths, a builder, a carpenter, a plank of wood, a nail, a black slave with a fife, a captain and a groom, cities and towns, a hundred thousand dinars, Kufa and al-Anbar, twenty chests filled with materials, fifty storehouses for food, Gaza, Ascalon, the land from Damietta to Aswan, the palace of Chosroe Anushirwan, the kingdom of Solomon and the land from Wadi Nu'man to Khurasan, as well as Balkh and Isfahan and what lies between India and the land of the Blacks. It also contains--May God prolong the life of our master the qadi--gowns, turban cloth and a thousand sharp razors to shave off the qadi's beard, unless he fears my vengeance and rules that the bag is mine."

Acknowledging the oddity of what he has just heard, the qadi orders the bag opened. In it were a piece of bread, lemons, cheese, and olives.

The caliph Haroun al-Raschid hears this and laughs until he falls over.

This story is often referred to as "The Wonderful Bag," and believe it or not it has been illustrated as a children's book. Also, heaven help us, it was adapted for theater.

So why is this the greatest story in the world? Seriously? Didn't you just read it? What in the world is going on with this story, do you think? Why would someone invent it? There's probably some clue to be found in the escalation of items found in the bag. I don't know. Honestly, my favorite part is that Ali says the bag contains "wide open spaces."

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