There’s a story in the Arabian Nights in which two men are being interrogated in the office of the police chief. One of the men had snatched the bag of the other but, when the victim called for help, the thief claimed the bag belonged to him. Both men claiming ownership of the bag, and calling the other man thief and liar, the police must determine the truth of the matter.
The Chief towers over the two men and says: “If the bag really belongs to you, you’ll be able to tell me what’s inside!” And he turns to the Thief and says: “You first! You tell me what’s inside the bag.”
The Thief is a small and thin man, and his eyes glisten and mouth waters as he stares at the bag, as if seeing through its material and eyeing the contents he hopes to make his own. He begins:
“Inside are many purses of gold, and gems scattered loosely about, and a suit of fine clothes for myself, and more clothes for my wife and children, and a chicken that will lay many eggs for us.”
The Merchant, his victim, snorts in disgust at the brazen lies of the Thief. “Such modesty!” he scoffs. “Why stop there? You know that the bag also contains a fine palace built of white stone, and many guards for the palace, a drinking fountain and a row of pleasant houses, and a wide valley that is pleasant to look down over as the sun sets.”
The Thief appears not to notice the sarcasm in the Merchant’s voice and is spurred on, speaking again as his hungry eyes once more seem to pierce the bag: “Inside this bag is a mountain, beneath which lies a secret treasure. And there are many servants, coming down the mountain in a great procession, who will attend to my wife and children’s every need. There are still more clothes, and a wide river in which to wash them. And there are many comfortable beds, so that my family and I will sleep peacefully every night, free from care.”
By now the Chief is twitching with rage. “Silence, both of you! What is this, some trick to make a fool of me? One of you must know what is inside this bag, unless you are both either thieves or comedians!”
“Oh yes!” shouts the Merchant, in a frenzy of his own. “I know what is inside the bag. It contains the sun and the moon, and all the seasons, a river of gold and a sky full of emeralds. It contains a vast city filled with people who never work, but sing and dance all day and hold me in high esteem as their blessed ruler. And I give it all to you, Thief!”
And so saying he leaps up, grabs the bag from the desk and hurls it down at the Thief’s feet. He turns and storms out of the room. The Chief hesitates a moment and then follows his suspect into the corridor, to urge him to return and remind him he’s in police custody. The contents of the bag have spilled out onto the ground. Three loaves of bread and a handful of olives.
It’s more than the Thief could have hoped for. He stuffs everything back into the bag and climbs quietly out of the window.
(I’ve been reading Malcolm C. Lyons’ translation of The Arabian Nights: Tales of 1001 Nights. The story I’ve told here is a retelling of the story told on Nights 295 and 296.)
A touch of the judgment of Solomon here? Although this ‘Solomon’ appears not so wise and clever. It also has a feeling of a modern comedy sketch (I can see Rowan Atkinson acting this), perhaps writers in the last sixty or so years have drawn their ideas from such sources? Not quite sure on the moral of the story since the Thief gets the bag!
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Well, the thief gets the bag in my version. I figured his need was greater than the merchant’s, who’s happy to throw the bag away to make a point.
Yes, I’m certain the Thousand and One Nights has been an endless source of inspiration for centuries.
Thanks for reading!
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