A bedtime story
|THE MAN WHO 'STOLE' THE MOON
A fairy tale
This story is dedicated to Arielle and Felix, with love.
Once upon a time, long long ago, O dearly beloved, there was a city named Samara on the banks of the Tigris river, ruled by a kind and much-loved elderly Sultan, whose name was Haroon al-Jaafari. and whose realm extended as far as the eye could see from the top of the tower of the place of worship.
Haroon was a happy ruler with a long white beard, which he was in the habit of stroking with his right hand, but he was happiest when emissaries came from foreign lands laden with gifts of gold, silver and precious jewels. And because he was happy his people were happy too. He left the administration of the city in the hands of the Judge, who officiated over disputes in accordance with the laws of the land, and the Preacher, who tended to the spiritual needs of the people by reading passages from the Book of the Rules and explaining to the congregation their meanings.
Both the Judge and the Preacher could recite by heart all the sentences in the Book of Rules and interpret them in accordance with their intended meanings and this was sufficient to maintain peace and happiness among the faithful. All other knowledge was deemed redundant because it was believed that the original Judges who wrote the laws and the rules, knew everything worth knowing and if something was not mentioned in the Book then surely it was not worth bothering with. And when occasionally one or another of the faithful asked strange things, like what caused earthquakes, the Preacher would tell them that God, the most glorious and most merciful, deposits all farts in a deep well and sometimes the walls of the well give way and the force of the escaping farts shake the earth.
In the large and always bustling market place where people went to buy provisions and to meet friends, or to spend their free time drinking sweet tea from small glasses, or play 'Shesh-Besh' (which we call backgammon), or to crouch on the ground in front of the blind story teller (who could always tell the difference between a good and a bad coin tossed into his begging bowl) and listen to his tales, life in Samara was as sweet as the ripe melons sold by Hassan the melon grower, or the dates, large as camels' eyes, sold by Ahmed the dates gatherer.
And It so happened, O dearly beloved, that on the day after the full moon, a stranger with burning green eyes and wearing a black cloak arrived on a white stallion to deliver offerings to the Sultan.
And the stranger was accompanied by six slaves with shaven heads who had bejewelled scimitars in their belts and each slave was leading a mule laden with sacks full of treasure.
The Sultan received the stranger, whose name was Tzu Ping-Pong, with appropriate hospitality, as befits a wealthy visitor.
Tzu Ping-Pong told the Sultan that he came from a far away country called Madeinchina, and that he had to cross many mountains and many rivers on his way, and that the purpose of his visit was to deliver to the Sultan gifts the likes of which no ruler had ever seen. Than he clapped his hands three times and his slaves emptied the sacks at the feet of the Sultan and then they fell on their knees and bowed down until their foreheads touched the richly embroidered carpet on the floor.
Can you imagine, O dearly beloved, how excited the Sultan was when he saw the many sparkling sapphires, rubies and emeralds on the floor, piled high up to his knees, and the marvellous items of crafted gold and silver objects the likes of which defied imagination. Best of all he liked a golden box shaped like a large bird's nest, with a key at the back for winding a hidden spring, and when one turned the key a window opened on the front of the nest and a bejewelled bird popped out and chirped, "Cuckoo, Cuckoo".
The Sultan was so enamoured with this wonderful bird's nest that he wouldn't let it go out of his hand. And in his ecstasy he turned to the stranger from the land of Madeinchina and said to him, "Mr Tzu Ping-Pong, you have made me very happy. You can have from me anything you desire, anything at all, My favourite camel if you like, or any of my hand woven silk rugs, or anything which is in my power to give."
"O wisest of all Sultans who rules between here and as far as the eye can see," said Tzu Ping-Pong. "There is only one thing that would please this most humble servant of yours."
"Name it," said the Sultan, "and it is yours."
"The only thing that would please my heart is the hand of your daughter Princess Badriya, whose beauty is known to all people from here to the edge of the world regardless of which direction one goes."
O dearly beloved reader, there are two things you should know. One, that Princess Badriya was the most beautiful of all Princesses who ever walked on earth, and that her beauty was known to everyone except the very ignorant. And two, that her name, 'Badriya' translated into English means 'Full Moon'.
When the Sultan heard what the stranger with the burning green eyes wanted he was so shocked that he inadvertently let go of the golden nest he was holding and it fell onto the floor and its door burst open and the bejewelled bird popped out and chirped, "Cuckoo, Cuckoo."
"Is that your answer?" asked Tzu Ping-Pong in a voice barely able to hide his disappointment and anger.
"No," said the Sultan. "That was the bird you gifted me. Before I can answer your request, I must consult with my trusted Councillors, the Judge and the Preacher, because they know the correct answers to every question. In the meantime, you will have to wait in the adjoining playroom and to be patient while I confer with my counsellors. It is a very serious matter and it may take us a while to reach a decision. If you get bored while waiting, you may play with my golden solitaire."
"There is just one thing I must warn you about," said Tzu Ping-Pong before closing the door of the playroom, "I have come a long way, have climbed many mountains and crossed many rivers to get here and I am determined to have Badriya even if I have to steal her. And if I can't have her, I will steal the other badriya - the moon." And he was so angry that he slammed the door, which was a very rude thing to do.
The Sultan summoned the Judge and the Preacher and ordered them to give him wise advice.
The Judge said the princess should not be given away because the stranger was not a believer in the Book of Laws and the people would be very angry. "They may even stop paying taxes," he added.
"But I've given my word to the stranger that he can have anything he wanted," said the Sultan.
"That doesn't matter," replied the Judge. "The Book of Laws says that lying to a non-believer of our laws is permitted."
Then the Preacher said, "Lets hide Badriya in the fort where the army is based and let her be surrounded and protected by one-hundred of our bravest and most manly soldiers."
"Would that be safe?" asked the Sultan.
The Preacher thought for a while then said, "Perhaps not. But let's hide her some other place."
"But what if the stranger really meant what he said and will steal the moon instead?" asked the Sultan.
"There is no danger of that," said the Preacher. "Not even the tallest ladder in the land can reach even the top of the tower of the place of worship, and the moon is even higher than that."
Whilst they were wondering how to solve the problem posed by the stranger's request, the Preacher suddenly exclaimed, "I've got it! Why didn't I think of it before? There is a very simple solution to our problem. Let's cut off the stranger's head."
"Would that be legal?" asked the Sultan.
"Perfectly!" said the Judge. "Killing a non-believer is. permitted by the Book of Laws."
Unbeknown to the Sultan and his two advisers,Tzu Pin-Pong was listening through the keyhole to what was being said and on hearing about the plan to cut his head off, he climbed out of the window, made his way to the stable where his stallion was, mounted it, dug his heels into the horse's flanks and rode away as fast as the horse could gallop. It was getting dark and the cloudless sky above was beginning to sparkle with little stars and the silvery white moon was shining like a thousand lanterns, illuminating his escape route.
When the Sultan and his advisers realized that Tzu Ping-Pong had escaped through the window of the playroom, they immediately went to ascertain that Princes Badriya was safe and next they went to the stable to see if stranger's stallion was still there. And when they discovered that the stallion was gone, they surmised that the visitor from that far off country beyond the distant mountains was gone. They rejoiced and praised the almighty for delivering them from the stranger of the burning green eyes.
But no sooner had they decided that in the morning they will declare a public holiday, their joy was turned into grief because looking up at the sky they noticed that part of the moon was missing. First the Sultan was very angry with the Preacher for saying that the moon was too high to be stolen. But next he summoned the Grand Vizier who was in charge of the army and the police and ordered him to bring forth the bravest and most able of his hussars.
The Grand Vizier sent for his most trusted lieutenant whose name was Abdul-Aziz the Brave.
The Sultan instructed Abdul-Aziz to go and find the stranger and to bring him back dead or alive, together with the stolen part of the moon. And he offered Abdul-Aziz a reward of a thousand gold dinars if he succeeded with his mission.
And no sooner had the valiant lieutenant rode out of city into the darkening night when the Sultan and his advisers noticed that more of the moon was now missing and that it was shrinking before their very eyes until there was only a crescent showing and even that soon disappeared and the people came out onto the streets wailing and howling because of the loss of the moon.
The Judge said to the Sultan that it was the Preacher's fault for giving bad advice and that no good will come of this because the people will stop paying taxes and perhaps it would have been better to give Badriya to the stranger.
While the crying and howling was going on in the streets of the city, Abdul-Aziz was trying hard to find and follow the hoof marks of the stranger's horse. But without the light of the moon it soon became clear to him that he will never be able to find the stranger and he turned round and slowly and sadly, with his head bent low looking at the ground, he made his way back to the city.
And while the Judge and the Preacher were busy blaming each other for the disaster, and the old Sultan crying out "O Dear Me, O Dear me," they noticed that a sliver of the moon reappeared, first as a very thin crescent then getting larger, and the people in the streets were crying with joy and making a hell of a din by banging their plates with spoons, and praising Abdul-Aziz for having managed to retrieve the moon, oblivious of the fact that he was on his way back empty handed.
When Abdul-Aziz reached the vicinity of Samara, he was puzzled by the joyous noises coming from the city and when he entered through the gates of the city the people pulled him off his horse and carried him on their shoulders to the palace, praising him all the way and he soon noticed that people and trees had shadows and when he looked at the sky he saw that the moon was back where it belonged.
The Sultan greeted Abdul-Aziz at the gate of the palace, kissed him on both cheeks, pinned a medal on his chest and promoted him to the rank of general. Then he handed him a sackful of gold coins but instead of one-thousand dinars the sack contained one-thousand and fifty dinars - "The fifty extra dinars are a bonus," said the Sultan, and all agreed that Abdul-Aziz deserved every piastre of it.
And all of the people of Samara lived happily forever after.
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