“There is, of course, the tale of the man who built a horse of ebony that flew through the air with its rider—”
“We’ve heard that one already. What about the tale of the three Sufi Qalandars who were each the sons of kings and also each blind in one eye?”
“That one was as old as a dried date when my father was a boy. If you want to hear a truly wondrous story, listen to me recount the tale of the rich man who bought a mermaid as his concubine only to discover—”
“No, I’ll tell the tale of the fisherman who caught a jinni in his net!”
“What about the tale of the Sultan, his Son, his Concubine, and the Seven Wise Viziers?”
“The tale of the man whose wife tricked him into sifting dirt!”
“No, the tale of how a drop of honey destroyed two great empires!“
Arram talked over all the others: “What about a story of Haroun al-Rashid?”
Everyone looked at him. Arram turned red at the scrutiny. He buried his face in his wine bowl, but the others wouldn’t let him back out now.
“You know a story about Haroun al-Rashid?” said the man sitting across from him, a merchant with a great black beard and an eye patch.
“Haroun al-Rashid, ruler of the city of Baghdad, Caliph of the Empire and Defender of the Faithful, May He Live for a Thousand Years, that Haroun al-Rashid?” said their host, a bald man who had once been a mamluk.
“Is there any other Haroun al-Rashid?” said Arram.
Everyone laughed, and Arram laughed loudest. He was not used to drinking strong wines, and he was not used to keeping the company of strangers late at night, but this was a special night, a night to celebrate, because after all, tonight he was in Baghdad, the shining jewel of all cities. Weeks ago, on his birthday, he decided that it was time to make his own way in the world, so he hid among the cargo of a slave ship bound for Tartus and there he escaped and joined a caravan traveling to Baghdad, City of Wonders. He’d arrived only hours ago and spent all day wandering the streets, staring at the great mosques with their soaring arches and jeweled minarets, at the crowds of exotic people crowding its spacious streets with their strange clothes and strange accents, and at the mighty waters of the flowing Tigris, once called the Idigna and the Palavi.
As night came on he fell in with this lot of travelers and traders whom the mamluk invited to his home to share food and wine. It was Ramadan, the holy month, and the Moslems of the city had abstained from repast all day. “It is only fitting,” said the mamluk, “that just as we fast during the day we should enjoy good food and good wine and good company that much more of the night.” So they sat in the belvedere of the mamluk’s home, relaxing on embroidered rugs and drinking spiced wine and telling stories. Arram, giddy from his day of adventures, wanted to tell a story of his own, but he felt shy in the midst of these older, more worldly men. Now that the wine had gone to his head he’d finally spoken up.
“Well,” he said, “my family line is Assyrian, but really I’m from Sicily, and even in Sicily we hear stories of the great caliph of Baghdad—”
“Do you hear that?” said the mamluk. “Even in Sicily they tell stories of our beloved caliph! Even in Sicily!”
The others muttered that yes, they had heard it, and the mamluk grinned as though he’d told them first. Arram continued:
“They say that on nights just like this the caliph disguises himself as a common man and walks among the people, talking to them and learning about them and finding wrongs to right.”
“That’s what they say in Sicily?” said the man on Arram’s right, a mercenary of some kind.
“Hogwash!” said the man on his left, a noted traveling physician. “The caliph would never leave the safety of the palac.”
“The caliph will do whatever he pleases,” said the merchant with the eye patch. “What would you know about his comings and goings?”
“I know that if I were the caliph, I would certainly never leave the palace,” said the doctor, and the others muttered their assent. “What if he were run over by a cart, or killed in a street brawl? Where would we be then, with our caliph dead in a gutter and no one even knows it, because which of us would even know the caliph if we saw him? I’ve only ever seen his face on coins or in murals, and that’s nothing to go by.”
“Well,” said the man with the eye patch, “the boy didn’t say that it was true, he said that it was a story, and I myself have heard such stories many times. For example, one night our beloved caliph, Haroun al-Rashid, Defender of the Faithful, May He Live For a Thousand Years, was traveling in disguise through the market along with his bodyguard, Masrur, and heard the tale of how a misunderstanding over a mere apple caused a man to most unjustly murder his wife…”
The man told his story and everyone ignored Arram, which was a relief. Then he saw the mamluk give him a signal, and he slipped away from the belvedere while the others were distracted with the merchant’s story. Following the instructions whispered to him by the mamluk when they first arrived, Arram went down the adjoining hall to the room with the silk curtain over the doorway cleared his throat twice. A lovely round arm with a hand dyed in henna parted the curtain and beckoned him in.
The mamluk didn’t just invite strangers into his home to entertain them with wine and stories during Ramadan; he also did it because he was the owner of the most beautiful slave girl in the entire city of Baghdad, maybe in the entire world (or so he said), and for a price he would sell her company for a night—because of course, being a mamluk he was also a eunuch, so her charms were wasted on him. Arram suspected that what he was paying for the privilege (nearly every dinar he had) was more than the mamluk would normally charge, but he didn’t care. The women of the shining city were as famous as its mosques and its rivers and its wines and its caliph, and Arram was not about to leave Baghdad without seeing for himself.
The room he came into was small and dark, but furnished with soft cushions and thick rugs, and it smelled of incense and perfumes that made his wine-addled head swim. A woman with great dark eyes behind a transparent gold veil sat him down on the softest cushion in the room. She looked at the floor when she addressed him, the picture of demure virtue, but then she looked into his eyes in a way that made Arram feel like he’d been struck by a thunderbolt. She said she was Dalila, and that for tonight she was his, and would be as loyal and steadfast as the caliph’s own concubine, at least until tomorrow morning. Arram was not sure this really made sense, but he wasn’t going to argue the point.
He said that, if she was his, then the first order of business was to remove her veil. “As you desire, oh prince of my life,” Dalila said, casting her veil aside and smiling. Arram’s breath left him.
“I hope my humble features are pleasant enough for you, protector of my heart. But if not, perhaps I can make up for my deficiency in other ways?”
Arram was about to say that she was the most beautiful woman he’d ever seen, but he stopped himself when he wondered what she meant by making it up to him. Laying him back on the cushions, she anointed his temples with sweet-smelling oils and fed him sharbats of rose and sandalwood and sang with a sweet, mild voice while he admired her body. Somehow, and Arram was really not sure how, it ended up that Dalila was positioned between his legs, with her henna-colored hands splayed on his thighs.
“Is there anything else I can do for you, my sweet lord?” she said.
Arram’s tongue seemed to have stopped working. Dalila smiled wider.
“There’s no need to be embarrassed, beloved sovereign of my affections. You are the defender of my virtues as surely as you are the champion of my heart. I am certain that nothing you could will me to do would be inappropriate. Surely the only inappropriate thing would be for me to leave your just and proper desires unfulfilled? Sit back, oh sultan of my soul, and allow me to satisfy all of your wishes, those spoken both overtly and clandestinely.”
And with that she kissed him with honeyed lips while at the same time her hands slid up the inside of his thigh and cupped him, grinding her palm against his crotch. He gasped and his eyes widened. Dalila combed her fingers through his hair and painted his lips with sweet kisses, one after another. Arram could only lay back, slightly stunned, and then she began kissing his earlobes and neck. Whenever he gasped she giggled and flushed. Meanwhile, her hands were very, very busy, running up and down his body, her touch as light as feathers. He ended up shirtless without noticing, and the feeling of her warm, hennaed fingertips on his bare skin made him pant.
“You are a most miraculous man, oh dynast of my destiny,” she said.
“Um,” said Arram.
“There’s no need to talk, my incomparable inamorato,” she said. “Our hearts say more than our tongues ever could. Let us abandon these clumsy overtures and speak the true language we were both born to.”
And then, suddenly, she was half-naked, the flickering candlelight reflecting off of her full, rosy breasts, which she offered to Arram by arching her back and sitting up higher. He reached out, cupping them and squeezing, finding them soft and warm. Dalila gasped and her eyes rolled back.
“You are so gentle, sweet arbiter of my ardor. Your merest touch inflames in me a desire which I am too modest to speak.”
“Um,” said Arram, again.
“Please, oh heavenly lord, if you would not have this poor girl die of longing for you, grant me but the smallest kiss on each of my fair breasts, so that I will know something of paradise while still an inhabitant of this meager earth.”
And then she threw her arms around his neck and pushed her bosom into his face with such enthusiasm that Arram thought he might smother. His lips opened around one rosy nipple and he touched the tip of his tongue to it. Dalila was mounting him now, pinning him between her thighs. From elsewhere in the house he heard laughter and loud voices, but the heavy, ragged panting of the woman on his lap drowned most of it out.
Her hand was inside his pants and she grabbed hold of his throbbing, erect organ.
“Please forgive me for being so forward, overseer of my obeisance.”
“That’s okay,” said Arram, voice cracking.
“Perhaps you have heard of one particular delight, known only to a few women of this great city, one which in fact was taught to me by the caliph’s third wife and fourth favorite concubine, and which I would be happy to perform on you now?”
“What’s that?” said Arram.
Dalila licked her red lips slowly. “I dare not speak it out loud, but if you will permit me to demonstrate…”
She slithered down the front of him until her head was in his lap, and she untied his pants and began to pull them down, and her mouth crept closer and closer until finally—
The man with the eye patch fell through the curtain, crashing to the floor. A second later the mamluk rushed in with a sword in his hand. Dalila jumped up and screamed. The merchant rolled over, tangled in the fallen curtain, helpless. The mamluk raised his sword, face livid, screaming “Infidel! Scum!” Arram, dazed, uncertain whether anything he was seeing was real, realized that if he didn’t do something the mamluk would cut the other man’s head off in less than a second. Without realizing what he was doing, Arram grabbed a censer and threw it; burning ash filled the room and the mamluk screamed, blinded.
“What are you doing, you ass?” said Dalila.
Arram was not sure who in the room she was talking to—really it was a good question all the way around. But he had no time to ponder the matter as the mamluk, red with rage, raised his sword again and now leveled it at Arram. The merchant jumped up, pushed the mamluk down, and shouted, “Run!”Arram managed to pull up his pants and grab his shirt before making his getaway. The two of them ran back to the belvedere, where the man with the eye patch went to the railing and said, “Jump!”
“What?” said Arram.
“It’s jump or stay here,” the merchant said as the mamluk charged in. The merchant jumped and, after hesitating for only a second, Arram jumped too.
He tried to land on his feet but, realizing that would only break his legs, he turned on his side instead. The landing pushed the air out of his body, as if he was being pressed by a giant hand. For a moment the world went red and black and the prospect of losing consciousness was not entirely unattractive, but the merchant hauled him up and pulled him along. They ran so fast Arram swore his feet didn’t touch the ground.
After a while they stopped in an alleyway, and Arram looked himself over. Nothing broken or lost, it seemed. The only other people in the alley were a strange old sheikh leading a white llama on a chain, and another man of similar character leading a white dog. They regarded Arram with suspicion as they passed. The merchant removed his turban and wiped the sweat from his brow.
“Well,” he said, “that was a close call. If he had jumped too, I don’t think we’d have escaped.”
“What was that all about?” said Arram.
“Our host and I had a spat,” said the merchant, grinning. “I told a story about the caliph and he did not believe me that it was true. He called me a liar and I called him a dog, and things went downhill from there.”
“Is there any story worth getting killed over?” said Arram.
“Yes,” said the merchant, “a true one. But if not for you I certainly would have died for the truth. You saved my life.”
“It was nothing,” said Arram, though he actually thought it was quite a bit more than nothing.
“If I were an ordinary man, perhaps that would be true,” said the merchant. “But you haven’t just saved me, you’ve saved the entire city and all of the faithful.”
To Arram’s surprise, the merchant removed his eye patch and threw it away, revealing a perfectly healthy eye underneath. His beard, too, was false, and he disposed of it in some rubbish.
“What do you mean?” said Arram. “Who are you?”
“Haven’t you guessed?” said the merchant, standing tall and winking. “I am Haroun al-Rashid.”
Arram’s jaw dropped. “You’re Haroun al-Rashid? Ruler of the city of Baghdad?”
“Is there any other Haroun al-Rashid?” the man said, and laughed.
“But that’s impossible!” said Arram.
“Is it?” said the man (caliph?). “You said yourself that the caliph often disguises as an ordinary man and walks the streets. Even in Sicily they say so, yes?”
“But where is Masrur, your bodyguard?”
“This being Ramadan, Masrur is busy at prayer. I thought that I could get into no particular trouble if I went out alone; and let’s just see if I ever do that again.”
Arram must have looked skeptical, because the alleged caliph now produced a fat purse and overturned it, spilling dinars into the street. “You see?” he said. “If I were not the caliph, would I have dinars in such abundance? Or would I have this ring, which is set with a ruby stolen from the heart of a rukh’s egg I got from a jinni? Or perhaps this brooch, that once belonged to an ancient pharaoh of the Nile and contains a portion of his soul, will convince you? Could any man but the caliph cast such treasures at your feet, and think nothing of it?”
Arram was scrambling around collecting up the gold and jewels. As he turned over a dinar it occurred to him that there was a certain resemblance between the face engraved on the coin and that of the merchant. Arram looked back and forth between them. The man winked again. And it was very convenient that Arram was already on his knees, as it was a very convenient position for bowing before Haroun al-Rashid.
“Enough, enough!” said the caliph. “Tonight, I should bow to you; if not for you I’d be a caliph no more. Stand up, stand up.”
Arram stood, knees shaking. He could be killed for talking to the caliph the way he had, or imprisoned for visiting a prostitute, but Haroun al-Rashid only clapped him on the shoulder and crammed more gold and jewels into hands.
“Take it all, take as much as you can carry. And now boy, how would you like a real reward?” said the caliph.
“You mean more than this?” said Arram.
“The best rewards are more precious than gold and jewels,” said the caliph. “Come, walk with me, see my city, and tell me what brings you here all the way from Sicily.”
They walked and talked, and the streets were bustling, for although it was the middle of the night Baghdad was known as the Night City, and it being Ramadan the faithful were eager to conduct certain business before the sun rose and the day’s fasting began again. There were so many lights burning that the surface of the Tigris seemed ablaze with sorcerer’s fire, and the stars in the sky were outnumbered by the countless lamps of Baghdad. Everywhere there were crowds of merchants, traders, porters, soldiers, scholars, guards, slaves, mamluks, holy men, faqirs, sheiks, ladies, thieves, Moslems, Jews, Christians, and Indoos.
And everywhere they went people were telling stories: the Tale of the Adulterous Wife and the Talking Parrot, the Tale of Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves, the Tale of the Thief and the Guardsman of Alexandria, even the Tale of Ali of Cairo, which Arram had once heard from his father on the condition that he never repeat it in the presence of his mother. Arram wanted to stop and listen to every story, but he had to hurry to keep up with the caliph.
“Tell me boy, do you like my city?” said the caliph.
“It’s amazing!” said Arram. “It’s everything I dreamed of, just like in all the stories.” He paused, trying to eavesdrop on a dispute between two merchants both laying claim to a single shipment of silk, one alleging that it was the very same silk he had lost when shipwrecked on an island of man-eating giants and another claiming that it was the one stolen from him by the wicked sultan of a decadent city in the east.
“You like stories of Baghdad, don’t you?” said the caliph. “Why don’t you tell me one?”
Arram would much rather have asked where they were going, but he wasn’t about to gainsay the caliph. “Well, there is the tale of the hunchback and how seven different people confessed to murdering him, although in truth he wasn’t even dead.”
“Seven?” said the caliph. “When I heard the story it was only four. Tell me how the story goes in Sicily.”
So Arram told the story and the caliph listened, and they made their way through the Night City together. Soon they came to a place where there were so many lanterns that the sky was almost as bright as day, and Arram saw a palace with a domed roof all of gold.
“You have never see the Palace of the Faithful, have you boy?”
Arram shook his head.
“Well, you’re about to see much more of it than most men ever do.”
Haroun al-Rashid led Arram to an entrance far away from the main gates. Two strapping mamluks guarded this portal, but the caliph waved them aside simply by saying, “I am Haroun al-Rashid; let me through.”
The interior corridor was all of marble set with lapis lazuli tiles, and burning censers lined the walls, emitting sweet-smelling smoke. Arram couldn’t believe he was really in the palace, and his amazement grew when they came to the next room: Here was a chamber that seemed to be made of silks, with curtains and cushions and rugs and couches and beds and divans all in red and gold and purple. Reclining on each of these was a beautiful woman, each so graceful and refined that they made Dalila, who only an hour ago Arram would have called the most beautiful woman in the world, look like a common drudge.
These women wore translucent veils that shimmered like moonshine, and among them where were dark-eyed Persian girls, Indoo women with lips like coral, women from the Far East with skins of ivory, and beautiful women from the lands beyond the desert whose complexions were as dark as a moonless night. Arram thought for a moment that the mamluk must have killed him after all, because surely this could be no place other than paradise? But if Arram was in paradise then the caliph must be there too, because every woman in the room bowed at his feet, and when he bade them stand they all fawned over him, taking him to the most comfortable cushions and reclining with him, feeding him dates and telling him that they were honored by his visit and asking if there was anything, anything in the world, that he wanted?
The caliph clapped his hands and commanded that Arram be treated as an honored guest, and now women with henna-dyed hands and captivating smiles sat him next to the caliph and stroked his thighs and bare arms, remarking what a handsome young man their master’s guest was. The caliph called for entertainment, and a eunuch with a harp arrived and sang songs so beautiful they brought tears to Arram’s eyes even while he dallied with the harem women.
The caliph singled out three women. “Zoreh, Lien, Chione, this is Arram. Tonight I want you to tend to his every need and desire. I trust you understand me?”
The concubines giggled and led Arram to a small chamber almost completely filled by a great feather bed with soft sheets. They traced their lacquered nails over his arms and pulled at his shirt. Lien ran her fingers through his hair, massaging his scalp, while Zoreh and Chione dappled kisses on his bare chest.
“The caliph says you’re a hero,” said Zoreh, who was a Persian girl with large, dark eyes.
“Well, it was nothing really,” said Arram.
“It can’t be nothing, because no one is ever admitted to the harem for nothing,” said Lien, a girl from the Far East with supple fingers.
“In fact, no one but the caliph has ever been admitted to the harem at all,” said Chione, who was of the people of the Nile. “I think it may even be a sin.”
“The caliph is the Defender of the Faithful,” said Zoreh, laying on Arram’s chest and kissing him with honeyed lips. “We’ll let him worry about what is a sin and what isn’t.” She batted her dark eyes at him.
Zoreh kissed his lips, and Chione ran her hands up his thighs, and Lien kissed his earlobes and murmured things in her own language, which he did not understand but still seemed very sweet. Zoreh’s lips and tongue danced over his bare chest. Chione untied his pants and tossed them aside, and Lien kissed him on the mouth, her tongue darting against his.
All three women removed their veils and undid their robes, and one at a time they presented their full, sweet breasts to Arram, who kissed them tentatively at first but, at their encouragement, soon with greater enthusiasm. Chione moaned when his teeth nipped the hot, soft flesh of her bare breast.
“I wonder what new pleasures we can show this brave young man?” Zoreh’s fingertips traced a line on his chest.
“He’s so young, I’m sure they’re all new pleasures to him,” said Chione, kissing his fingertip and licking it with the tip of her tongue. Arram sat up a little.
“I may be young,“ he said, “but this certainly isn’t the first time I’ve been with a woman.” Which was true. He’d been with Dalila a few hours ago. That counted for something, right?
“Well then, what can we do to please and delight you?” said Zoreh.
Arram swallowed. “Um,” he said, “there is of course the one particular delight, known only to women of this city, among them the caliph’s third wife and fourth favorite concubine…”
Zoreh’s eyebrows arched. “I think I may know the one you’re talking about.” And then she trailed kisses down his body until she was between his thighs. To his amazement, she took his throbbing organ into her mouth, sliding it past her soft lips and wrapping her tongue around the shaft of it.
His eyes went wide and his whole body tensed up. The other women laughed. Chione and Lien lay on either side of him, cradling their naked figures against his and kissing his ears and neck while all three of them watched Zoreh.
She slid up and down him, her mouth sucking tight, tongue lolling. Her eyes were closed and her brow was knit in concentration. He felt himself swell more, and she raised up a little to still contain him between her lips, drawing him in and out. She made a little moan and the hum vibrated up and through him.
Chione leaned over and kissed Lien once, on the lips, then turned her attentions to Arram. She straddled him, removing the last of her garments and revealing the softly folded flesh of her sex. She offered this to him, and, trembling a little, he leaned forward, putting his lips to those and kissing them. He wondered if this was a common practice among Nile people or just something the harem girls enjoyed. He darted his tongue out, licking her once, finding her hot and wet.
Zoreh increased her pace and, encouraged, Arram did the same, licking inside of Chione’s sex while she moaned and massaged her own breasts, bouncing herself up and down on her heels while crouched over him. Lien, meanwhile, lay at his side, running her fingers up the muscles of his arm, then guiding his hand to her breasts, which he found petite but firm, with sensitive dark nipples that made her cry out when pinched.
Zoreh now had him all the way at the back of her throat, and the muscles there rippled and massaged him when she swallowed. Arram was buffeted by sensations as soft silk and softer flesh surrounded him and a sea of lithe, caressing limbs pulled him in every direction. Just as Arram thought he wouldn’t be able to hold out much longer, Lien stood and playfully pushed Zoreh aside. There was a small popping noise as she pulled him out of her mouth.
“Now don’t go taking it all for yourself,” said Lien, swinging her legs over Arram’s body and settling herself down on top. Zoreh gave her a playful push back, and then one to Chione.
“Well, if I have to move, so does she.”
Chione’s only response was to moan, roll her eyes, and push herself harder against Arram’s lips, where his tongue continued to lap at her sex. They disputed amongst each other for a minute and finally it ended up that Zoreh opened her thighs to Arram’s mouth while Lien prepared to mount him and Chione, pouting a little, lay on the sidelines, watching them and absently stroking Arram’s body, which was now sweat-covered and panting like a winded horse.
“Poor thing,” she said, “I hope this isn’t more than he can handle.”
“He’s young and virile,” said Zoreh, grabbing two handfuls of his hair and pushing his head down against her. “He’ll recuperate.”
“Besides,” said Lien, “there’s our needs to think about too. It’s been so long since anyone visited us, I thought I would die of loneliness.”
As she spoke she sat down, and Arram slid inside the tight confines of her body. His moan was smothered by Zoreh. Lien rocked up and down on him and his organ surged inside of her as hers clutched tight. He felt wetness dribble down him, and Zoreh’s fingers massaged his scalp as his tongue flicked up to her hot, tender nub.
His hips bucked against Lien’s insistent riding, and Chione pulled a handful of his hair hard enough to jerk his head back, then kissed him and, when Zoreh objected, kissed her wet sex too. Arram seized the opportunity to take a breath. Lien was riding with such enthusiasm that she fell forward, propping herself up against Zoreh’s back. Her petite hands slipped around the other woman’s body, cupping her breasts. Zoreh turned back to kiss her, and all the while Lien’s pale white thighs were working up and down, up and down.
Chione cradled his head, whispering to him, occasionally kissing his mouth. “Do you feel yourself about to burst?” she said.
“Yes!” said Arram.
“Ooh,” said Zoreh.
Lien only moaned.
“No fair keeping it all for yourself,” said Chione.
“He’s young,” said Zoreh, “he’ll have enough for everyone.”
Arram was less sure, as he already felt that his body might break in half under the strain they were putting on him, but it was too late to do anything about it now, as he was already swelling and spurting inside of Lien. The concubine was wracked by convulsions and Zoreh moved out of the way, allowing her to fall across Arram, clawing his bare chest. His mouth was open but no sound would come out, and he was momentarily breathless.
They afforded him a few minutes to recuperate. Chione straddled him, insisting she was next. Zoreh stroked his hair, and Lien half-dozed beside them. Arram counted the tiles of the ceiling and waited for his head to stop throbbing.
“Zoreh?” he said.
“What did Lien mean when she said it had been a long time since anyone visited you? Does the caliph not come to the harem often?”
“We are not his only harem,” said Zoreh. “ Indeed, this is the furthest wing, and His Worship rarely comes here. This is only the second time I have ever seen him with my own eyes.”
“And my first,” said Chione.
Arram sat up a little. “Do you mean to say that the caliph has servants who have never seen him?”
“Oh yes,” said Zoreh.
Arram remembered the guards at the gate. “But then how do you know—”
There was a great commotion outside, with shouting and crashing and women screaming. Arram stuck his head through the curtains and a huge slave with a drawn sword grabbed him. The concubines all gasped and covered themselves. Arram looked up and couldn’t believe what he was seeing; armed slaves were dragging the caliph away!
“How dare you!” cried Haroun al-Rashid. “Don’t you know who I am?”
A thin man whom Arram did not recognize to be in charge. “Up to your old tricks again, Abu al-Hassan?” said the thin man. “I showed you mercy last time, but now you leave me no choice.”
Arram struggled in the grip of the slave and said, “Do you have any idea who that is?”
The stranger looked at him. “Yes; do you?”
“He is Haroun al-Rashid!”
“You are mistaken,” said the thin man. “I am Haroun al-Rashid. That man is an imposter.” He narrowed his eyes. “And I don’t know who you are.”
Icy sweat drenched Arram. Before he could reply the slave put a sack over his head, and he was dragged away.
His heart sank. He had no idea what was going on, but he was sure he knew what was going to happen next. He consoled himself that at least he wouldn’t have to live for very long after they cut his manhood off, as they would almost certainly chop his head off too.
The slave pushed him and they walked, Arram sometimes stumbling because he couldn’t see his own feet. After a while the bag was removed , and he blinked and looked around. He expected to see a dungeon or a torture chamber, but instead he was in a lavish banquet hall. The table in front of him overflowed with savory foods, and the true caliph sat eating a stuffed hen. He pointed to an empty chair.
“Have a seat, boy. Eat something.”
Arram paused, unsure what to do, then sat down and began grabbing everything he could reach. After all, he reasoned, there’d be no good eating where he was going next. The caliph watched, seemingly amused, as Arram stuffed his mouth full of candied plums and then tried to eat an entire lamb kebab in two bites.
“When you’re finished trying to swallow the empire, perhaps you would do your caliph the honor of telling him who you are, and how you came to be in his private harem, in the middle of the night, during the holy month of Ramadan?”
Arram swallowed. The caliph seemed to look through him, and he squirmed. Wiping his mouth and fingers on a cloth, Arram began to tell the story, haltingly at first, of everything that had happened since leaving home. Haroun al-Rashid watched him, saying nothing, now and then nibbling a bite of something. When he was finished the caliph did not say anything for some time. All he did was glare, and Arram wished that they would get on with his execution, because he hated all this waiting.
Then he saw the caliph’s face twitch. His mouth drew up in a small smile. His shoulders began to shake, and then he was roaring with laughter. Arram sat back, stunned.
“Marvelous!” said the caliph. “Simply marvelous. I would never believe it had I not seen the issue of your misadventures with my own eyes.”
And he laughed and laughed, and soon Arram was laughing too, mostly from relief. The caliph called for a scribe and had Arram repeat his story so that it could be recorded, and he and Arram talked and ate and drank and told stories the rest of the night through.
As dawn approached the caliph looked out the window at the city. He rubbed the rings on his fingers, as though unused to the feeling of them. “Well Arram, the morning is almost here. In truth, I should have you put to death; the law says that I should. But it is Ramadan, and a higher law commands that I be merciful. So as payment for your wonderful story, I will set you free at dawn.”
Arram’s heart soared.
“And since it is the holy month I will even give you a gift. What do you want more than anything in the world, Arram of Sicily? Tell me, and it’s yours.”
Arram cleared his throat. “Begging your pardon, your worship…”
“Yes?” The caliph looked at him, unblinking.
“In truth, all I really want is to hear another story. I would like to know, who was that man who impersonated you, and how is it that he can enter your sacred palace with such ease?”
The caliph looked pained and Arram feared that his fortunes were about to change yet again, but then the caliph sat, and sighed, and began to speak:
“Know this, young Arram; that though I am renowned throughout the world for my wisdom, even I, Haroun-al Rashid, can be quite foolish. Three years ago, during the holy month, I was out walking the night in disguise, and I met a simple weaver named Abu al-Hassan. I talked with this man and heard him exclaim that if he could live for but three days as the caliph lives that he could enter paradise without regrets, knowing that he had tasted the best of this life.
“It being Ramadan, I thought that to grant his wish would be a great gift, so I had my bodyguard, Masrur, follow him to his home, and in the night, as he slept, I had him carried to my palace, very gently, so as not to wake him. He was dressed in my best clothes and put into my bed, and assigned a cadre of slaves and servants and new concubines to attend him.
“When he awoke he was amazed and thought that some jinni must have put him under a spell, for wherever he went in the palace people bowed to him and called him the caliph, as I’d told them to, and all the pleasures and luxuries of the world were at his fingertips.”
“What did he do?” said Arram.
“At first he refused to believe that anything around him was real, but I had anticipated this. I had the servants tell him that he was the victim of a strange sickness that caused him to forget that he was the caliph and to be tormented by false memories of a life that was not his. They told him that if he but went about his business he would soon regain his wits and remember who he really was.
“Well, Abu al-Hassan took a little convincing, but soon he was living a true life of luxury here in my palace, and it gratified me very much to see this simple man made so happy by the things that I sometimes took for granted.”
“But where were you during all of this?”
“I? Why, I disguised myself as a trusted vizier, and helped Abu al-Hassan minister to all matters of state during those three days, to make sure he didn’t get in over his head. And at the end of three days I donned my sovereign attire again and went to Abu al-Hassan and explained to him what I’d done and why, and I was prepared to give him money enough to last many years and bestow on him robes of honor and call him my brother.
“But of course, it turned out there was one problem.”
“He believed he really was the caliph!” cried Arram.
Haroun al-Rashid nodded. “We did our job of convincing him too well. Even today he believes that he is the true caliph and that I am a usurper, and anytime he gets a little money he buys new clothes and some cheap jewels and goes around proclaiming himself to be Haroun a-Rashid. And of course, many believe him, even here in the palace, because so few have ever seen me with their own eyes.”
The caliph stretched a little. The morning sun tinged the windows rosy pink.
“And now you know two marvelous stories, Arram of Sicily, mine and yours. But you cannot recount these stories to anyone, for it is not fit for people to know so much about their supreme ruler. But you are young, and I will soon be old, and someday death, the destroyer of happiness, whom no man, however rich, can bargain away, will come for me, and on that day you will be permitted to tell your story and mine, together, and your story will travel the world and everyone in the empire and beyond will know you. That is my gift to you.”
Then the caliph gave him a sack of dinars, more than Arram had ever seen in one place, and bid him come back that night so that they could feast again, and tell more marvelous stories. But Arram was troubled.
“Begging your pardon, but one thing still bothers me?”
The caliph raised an eyebrow. “Yes?”
“Well, it seems to me that the only reason that Abu al-Hassan can impersonate you so easily is that so few people have ever really met you, and when they do you’re usually in disguise.”
The caliph said nothing.
“And your palace is so great and you have so many servants and slaves that some of them go years without seeing you, even your wives and concubines.”
The caliph played with his ill-fitting rings.
“I guess all that I’m wondering is, how do I know that you’re the real caliph at all? What if you’re Abu al-Hassan, or some other impostor? How could I tell?”
The caliph said nothing, but his brow darkened and Arram thought, one more time, that perhaps he’d talked his way into a trip to the chopping block. But then the caliph smiled, showing all his teeth, and called for a guard.
“Take this boy to the gates of the city,” instructed the caliph, “and expel him. But let him keep this money, and give him a good horse to ride. And tell him that wherever he goes that he should say that he met the caliph of Baghdad.”
He leaned in. “The one, true, caliph of Baghdad.”
And so it was. And with the money that he received that day Arram made his start as a merchant, and soon became quite wealthy. One year, during the holy month, he returned to Baghdad, shining jewel of cities, and there he met Haroun al-Rashid again, but this time the caliph was neither of the men he’d met as a boy, but a third person entirely, and Arram had no idea whether to believe he was the true caliph at all. Perhaps Arram eventually solved the riddle of the caliph’s true identity. But then, perhaps not. That story, and that secret, are not known to us.
And only Allah knows all.