5 A Tailor Entertains a KingThose fanciful Orientals! How droll of God to give them oil!
Here is another of those fanciful Oriental stories that proclaims the democracy of Eastern despotism. A tailor might talk with a king and receive either a death sentence or the office of Grand Vizier as a reward.
Read from THE THOUSAND AND ONE NIGHTS Vol. 16, pp. 149-162
The Harvard Classics people's decisions of what to include in their volumes seems inscrutable to me (speaking of Orientalism), and I have wondered why The Thousand and One Nights should get its own volume, as opposed to just cramming it in "Folktale and Fable" or what have you. And then I realized: They think this is sociology about the Middle East. Like Bernard Lewis, only without the access to the President. Between this and the Old Testament, you're good to go. And you can kind of see it from the perspective of 1908 -- what else do you really need to know about that godforsaken (actually, the Middle East has the opposite problem -- it could use a little forsaking by its gods) part of the world? That was before we knew about the great hide-the-oil joke that, a century later, turns out to be on us.
Speaking of old jokes, this particular tale has one -- of the "shut up shutting up" variety. A guy needs to get his head shaved to impress a girl, so he says, "Go to the market, and bring me a barber, one who is a man of sense, little inclined to impertinence, that he may not make my head ache by his chattering." Nothing can go wrong, right? Well, here he comes, and, first he measures with his astrolabe to make sure it's okay for barbering, and then we get this, which I am reformatting because I think it helps:
"By Allah," I exclaimed, "Thou hast wearied me, and dissipated my mind, and augured against me, when I required thee only to shave my head: arise, then, and shave it; and prolong not thy discourse to me."This is Laurel and Hardy, Bugs and Elmer, Tina Fey and Amy Pohler; it's Young Frankenstein and I-gor; it's a bit so old that, like Webster's Dictionary, it's Morocco-bound. And I find it great.
But he replied, "By Allah, if thou knewest the truth of the case, thou wouldst demand of me a further explication; and I counsel thee to do this day as I direct thee, according to the calculations deduced from the stars: it is thy duty to praise God, and not to oppose me; for I am one who giveth thee good advice, and who regardeth thee with compassion: I would that I were in thy service for a whole year, that thou mightest do me justice; and I desire not any pay from thee for so doing. "
When I heard this, I said to him, "Verily thou art killing me this day, and there is no escape for me."
"O my master," he replied, "I am he whom the people call Es-Samit, [“the Silent,”] on account of the paucity of my speech, by which I am distinguished above my brothers: for my eldest brother is named El Bakbuk; and the second, El-Heddar; and the third, Bakbak 2; and the fourth is named El-Kuz El-Aswani; and the fifth, El-Feshshar; and the sixth is named Shakalik; and the seventh brother is named Es-Samit; and he is myself."
Unfortunately, there's about six pages left after this. Plus a chase scene involving the shaven-head guy jumping out of a trunk -- which is what they'd put in the trailer. But I smile to see this bit ("Verily thou are killing me," indeed) waft from the dusty markets of Baghdad centuries ago, all the way to my house in 21st-century Hollywood. If there's one thing I've learned from this Harvard Classics Project, it's not to be afraid of the obvious.