A story "roughly" in the tradition of the Arabian Nights.
The Lost Tale of Shaharazad
James W. Aubuchon
Know then, oh auspicious King, that long ago there was a Sultan named Ibn Ilah who was seeking a new Wazir. He brought two of his most trustworthy servants before him, and said, “One of you will be appointed my new Wazir, but you must show me that you are worthy of this noble office. The one who serves me well will be rewarded. The one who does not will have his head struck from his shoulders by my executioner.”
The first servant, named Zalimun, said to him, “Oh Sultan, I am delighted to serve you. I will go and do as you request. I will show you that I am indeed the worthy one. I will bring great glory to your name.”
But the second servant named Muhsin did not like what the Sultan had said. He replied, “Oh Sultan. I cannot do this. I do not wish Zalimun to lose his head, nor do I desire to lose my own.”
The Sultan replied, “You know my will. Go and do it, and we will see who deserves to be my Wazir, and who deserves to lose his head.”
Muhsin decided that he would not serve the Sultan, so he left the Sultans palace and went into business in the marketplace selling fish. One day, Muhsin was at his fish stand when a crippled old man hobbled up to his cart. “I have no money,” said the old man, “and I am starving. Will you, in the name of the Sultan, give me something to eat?”
Muhsin replied, “I will do nothing for you in the name of the Sultan. He is a cruel and unjust man. I doubt that he would give you any food if you asked him for it.”
“I know nothing of these things,” said the old man. “I only know that I am too old and crippled to work.”
Muhsin had compassion on the old man. “Here are two fish. I do not wish for you to starve.” The old man was very pleased and went his way rejoicing.
Meanwhile, Zalimun decided that he could do great things for the Sultan if he learned medicine. He found a teacher, and began to study the healing arts. He studied very hard.
One day, a woman approached him as he was reading, and said, “My daughter is very sick. In the name of the Sultan, please come and heal her.”
Zalimun said to her, “I am too busy studying to do this right now. After I have learned all I need to know to be a doctor, I will come and help your daughter.”
The woman replied “My daughter is very sick. If you do not come now, she may not last the night.”
He said, “There are people dying every day. If I take time out to help all of them, I will never learn what I need to know to be a doctor. I cannot come now.”
Zalimun spent many years studying to be a doctor, and when he had learned all there was to know, he set out to serve the Sultan. While he was studying, though, a brilliant idea came to him. If he taught others medicine, then even more glory could be brought to the Sultans name. He could send out doctors all over the land to help the sick and dying, and the people would think that the Sultan was very compassionate.
He went into the marketplace, and spoke to the people, “Here me, O people. The Sultan, being a wise and compassionate ruler, desires that those who are in need receive help. He has appointed me to fulfill his will. Anyone who is willing may come to me and learn medicine, so that they can help the sick and the suffering.”
Many people responded to Zalimun. In fact, so many wanted to be doctors, that Zalimun had to build a school and charge for his teaching to pay for it. He dedicated his school to Ibn Ilah.
One day, a poor beggar in rags showed up at the door of the school. “In the name of the Sultan, please give me some money to buy food for my family,” he asked.
Zalimun told the beggar, “I have barely enough money to keep this school running. However, once I have trained enough doctors, they will go out and provide their services for a charge. When they have made their money, they will be able to give some of it away to poor people such as you.”
As for Muhsin, he worked at his fish market for many years. He was very generous, and always tried to help those in need. One day, the Sultans guards rode through the marketplace and destroyed his fish stand. He was ruined. He decided to get as far away from the Sultan as possible, so he set off for another town on the other side of the kingdom. “The further away from the Sultan, the better”, he thought.
As he was travelling to the other town, he came upon a merchant on the road. Thieves had stripped the merchant of his clothes, tied him up, and were going through the things on his cart. The merchant saw Muhsin and cried out, “In the name of the Sultan, help me!”
Muhsin hesitated. He did not want to help servants of the Sultan at all. He replied, “I will do nothing in the name of the Sultan. He is not a just man. If he were here, he would probably cut off your head and leave you dead on the road.” However, Muhsin pulled out his sword, and attacked the thieves, driving them off.
The merchant thanked Muhsin for his kindness. As a reward for saving him, the merchant gave him a small ornate bottle that looked like it contained perfume. “I am sure that you can get a good price for this in town. Peace be with you.”
Muhsin bid farewell to the merchant, and continued on his way. He arrived at the town, and opened another fish stand. He kept the bottle safe in case he ever needed to sell it for money.
One day, however, he became curious about the bottle and decided to open it to see what was inside. When he did, a black smoke began to issue from it. The smoke poured out onto the ground, and soon solidified into an enormous Ifrit.
The Ifrit cried, “I am a servant of the great Sultan, Ibn Ilah. I have been trapped in this bottle for many years. Thank you for releasing me from this prison. May the Sultan reward you, his servant.”
“I am no servant of the Sultan”, Muhsin replied. “He is a cruel and merciless ruler. I would not be surprised if he is the one who put you into that bottle.”
At this the Ifrit grew to a very large size, filling the sky. “How dare you speak about the Sultan in that way,” he bellowed. “For your insolence, I am sending you to the dark forest, where you can lament that you ever dared to say such things about my master.” He clapped his hands, and Muhsin disappeared.
Meanwhile, Zalimun’s school was very successful, so he decided to open up more schools in towns all over the land. He soon became very wealthy. He wanted to magnify the Sultans name even more, so he decided to build a magnificent mosque, and dedicate it to Ibn Ilah. In this way, everyone would be able to see how good and merciful the Sultan was. Also, the new mosque would be able to minister to many people, and he would be assured of becoming the Sultans new Wazir.
The new mosque took many years to build, and was the most magnificent ever built in all the land. Its dome reached to the sky. People came from all over to see this wondrous sight that Zalimun had built. Zalimun left teaching at his medical school, and went to the mosque to oversee its work. He told the people that the Sultan desired that he meet the needs of those who were poor and helpless. He asked them if they would donate money to support the building of mosques in the Sultans name all over the land, and also help fund his medical schools. He told them that if they did this he would be able to provide for the poor.
The people gave generously to Zalimun, and he became even wealthier. However, the building of mosques was very expensive, and clerics had to be trained to serve in the mosques, so there was no money left over for the poor.
One day, an old Sufi holy man came to Zalimun at the mosque, and asked if he could have some food to take to some prisoners in the mines. Zalimun bowed before the holy man, and blessed him, but told him that he did not have any food to give. He told him that after the mosques were built, and clerics were trained, they would be able to provide food for the prisoners. The holy man said nothing. He only bowed and went his way.
Muhsin came to, and found himself in almost pitch-blackness. As his eyes adjusted, he could make out that he was in a forest of old, twisted trees that were so big and thick, that they blocked out virtually all sunlight. Muhsin bemoaned his condition. It was all the Sultans doing. It was no wonder to him that the Sultan had taken up with accursed Ifrits. He shook his hand in the air and cried, “This is all your fault, Sultan! I will never serve you, no matter how much you punish me.”
Muhsin had no food or drink. All that he had were his clothes, and a few coins in his pocket. He set out to look for water. Soon, he came upon a small brook, and was able to scoop some water into his mouth. There were some berries growing beside the brook, and Muhsin sat and ate them.
As he sat there, he heard a strange noise in the distance. At first, he couldn’t make out what it was. As he crouched and listened, it became more familiar. It sounded like someone wailing. He slowly approached the place where the sound came from. He peered around a tree trunk, and saw a dirty, emasculated man chained to a post. The man had only rags for clothing, and lay at the foot of the post crying.
Muhsin went up to him. The man pleaded with him. “Please. In the Sultan’s name release me from these chains, and give me some water, or I will perish!”
“Who placed you here?” Muhsin asked.
“The Sultan did,” replied the man.
“That figures,” said Muhsin. “The Sultan is the most cruel and ruthless ruler in the world. He cares for no one, and only desires to punish people who do not perform as he pleases. I will do nothing in the Sultan’s name, but I will release you.”
Muhsin found a rock and used it to break the chain holding the man to the post. He took the man over to the brook, and gave him some berries and water. The man was almost dead, and it took Muhsin a long time to nurse him back to health. Finally, when the man was strong enough to walk, he led him out of the forest, and returned the man to his family, who were overjoyed to have him back safe. Muhsin gave the man the few coins that he had with him in order to help him get back on his feet. He then set out for home.
Muhsin had been gone for weeks, and when he arrived at the town he found that everything he owned was gone. He had had enough of the Sultan. He was going to move to another kingdom far away.
In order to get to the other kingdom, he had to journey through a vast desert. He took plenty of food and water, and set out, journeying for many days. In the middle of the desert, a fierce sandstorm erupted. It was so bad that Muhsin became lost. When the storm was over, he had no idea where he was.
He had dropped everything in the storm except for a small jug of water. He knew he didn’t have enough water to make it out of the desert. He walked for many days, and used all of his water until he had only one gulp remaining.
Then something caught Muhsin’s eye off in the distance. He walked closer, and found a man lying face down in the sand. He went over to him and turned him over. He was alive, but just barely. The desert heat had burned his skin, and the man was dying of thirst. He was just able to say through his parched lips, “In the name of the Sultan, please give me a drink.”
“How did you end up here?” Muhsin asked
“The Sultan sent me here.”
“Well the Sultan has sent me here as well. I would not serve him, and now I am going to die. I will not give you anything in the Sultans name, but you may have the last drink from my water jug. Perhaps you will be able to live until someone else arrives.”
Muhsin gave the man his last drink of water, and then fell down in the sand, unconscious.
Zalimun was now one of the most wealthy and powerful men in the land. He had done so much for the Sultan, that he decided to reward himself by building an enormous house. He adorned this house with every luxury, and hired numerous servants to take care of his every need. He also was able to acquire his own harem.
Zalimun wanted the Sultan to be impressed with his great service. He decided that if he went out and defeated all of the Sultans foes, he would be so impressed that he could not deny him the office of Wazir. He gathered together all of his followers, and went to war with many neighboring kingdoms. He slaughtered many enemies, and proclaimed the Sultans name in every land that he conquered.
One day an emissary from a neighboring kingdom arrived at Zalimun’s house and pleaded with him in behalf of his king and his people to end the war. The king was willing to offer much gold and even sign a peace treaty. Zalimun refused, and doubled his efforts to overthrow them. He wanted the Sultans name to be proclaimed everywhere. He did not want to fail to be named as the new Wazir.
Zalimun decided that it was finally time to go to the Sultan and claim the office of Wazir. He went to the palace and stood before him. He told the Sultan about everything that he had done, how he had gone to school to study medicine, and then started his own schools in the Sultans name. He boasted about how he had built many mosques dedicated to the Sultan, and had trained many clerics to work in them. He told about how he had gone to war with many of the Sultans enemies, and conquered them in the Sultans name, extending his territory.
The Sultan then said, “Very well. We must now hear what Muhsin has done.”
Zalimun was perplexed. “Muhsin has been very outspoken against you, O wise one. He does not serve you. The last I heard, he went into the desert and was never heard from again.”
“I found him in the desert, and brought him here,” the Sultan said. He turned to his guards. “Bring him in.”
A look of delight appeared on Zalimun’s face. The Sultan had gone out of his way to bring Muhsin back in order to receive his punishment. Zalimun thought the act to be deliciously ruthless.
Muhsin was brought before the Sultan. He was still unconscious, and as he recovered, he realized that he was no longer in the desert, but was in the Palace of the Sultan.
“How did I get here?” Muhsin asked.
“I found you in the desert,” the Sultan replied. “So tell me what you have done to serve me?”
“I have done nothing to serve you, Sultan. I have only spoken against you.” Muhsin said.
Zalimun could not wait to hear the pronouncement of death by the Sultan, but what he heard instead was very odd.
The Sultan said “That is not true.”
“What do you mean?” replied Muhsin.
"One time I came to you disguised as a poor old crippled man, and you gave me two fishes. Another time I pretended to be a merchant under attack by thieves, and you defended me at the risk of your own life. In the dark forest, I disguised myself as an emaciated man chained to a pole, and you freed me, nursed me back to health, and took me home, giving me all of the money that you had in your pocket. I also pretended to be a man dying of thirst in the desert, and you gave me your last drink of water, surrendering your own life, so that I might live. You have served me well.”
“But I did none of those things in your name,” said Muhsin.
“The fact that you did them from a true heart of compassion means that you did indeed do them in my name Muhsin.”
“What about me,” Zalimun chimed in. “Have I not done many marvelous works in your name?”
“You do not know who I am Zalimun. You did nothing in service to me. Everything that you did was in service to yourself. I disguised myself as a woman with a sick child, and you would not come and heal her. I came to you as a poor beggar, and you turned me away from your door. I came to you as a holy man wanting to take some food to prisoners, and you made excuses and sent me away empty. I came as an emissary from a foreign ruler seeking peace, and you refused to show any mercy. You have not served me at all.”
“But what about the schools, the mosques, and the great victories in your name?”
“Your schools took money from people, and then produced more doctors than was needed. They could not find jobs. You told the people that these schools were mine, and they blamed me for it. Then you built your mosques, and dedicated them to me. They took money from the poor, and did not do anything to help them. People began to hate me. They began to think that all I wanted was their money and glory for myself. Your wars were against kingdoms that were not my enemies until you attacked them. Now all of the lands around us speak evil of me. Your wars slaughtered thousands of innocent people, and I am going to hold you responsible for their lives.”
“Executioner. Take him away.”
Muhsin spoke. “O great Sultan, now I see that you are indeed a wise and compassionate ruler. I was a fool to deny you. I will now serve you with all my heart.”
The Sultan rose, and took Muhsin by the hand. “Rise, Wazir. If you wish to serve me, go and serve my people.”
This story, along with two others, can be found in my new book Tales of Inspiration http://www.lulu.com/jwaubuchon