The Story of Aboulcasem of Bassora

ALL historians agree that the Caliph Haroun-al-Raschid would have been the most perfect, as he was the most powerful, prince of his century if he had not been a little too much inclined to anger, and insupportably vain. He was continually saying that there was no prince in the world so generous as he.

Giafar, his grand vizir, grieved that he should thus praise himself, took the liberty of saying to him one day, ‘Oh, my sovereign master, monarch of the earth, pardon your slave if he dares repre­sent to you that you ought not to praise yourself. Leave your praises to be sung by your subjects and the crowd of strangers that are seen at your court. Content yourself with the knowledge that the former thank Heaven that they were born in your dominions, and that the latter congratu­late themselves upon having left their native country to come and live here under your jurisdiction.’

Haroun was hurt at these words. He gazed proudly upon his vizir, and asked him whether he knew anyone to be compared to him in generosity.

‘Yes, my lord,’ replied Giafar; ‘there lives in the town of Bassora a young man called Aboulcasem. Although a private person, he lives with more than royal magnificence; and, not excepting your majesty, no prince in the world is more generous than he.’

The caliph flushed at this speech, his eyes sparkled with rage. ‘Do you know,’ he said, ‘that a subject who has the audacity to lie to his master deserves death?’

‘I advance nothing but what is true,’ replied the vizir. ‘On the last journey I made to Bassora, I saw this Aboulcasem. I went to his house. My eyes, although accustomed to your treasures, were surprised at his riches, and I was charmed with his generous ways.’

At these words the impetuous Haroun could not restrain his anger. ‘You are very insolent,’ he cried, ‘to compare a private individual with me. Your impudence shall not remain unpunished.’ Saying this, he made a sign to the captain of his guards to approach, and com­manded him to arrest the vizir Giafar. Then he entered the apartment of the Princess Zobeide his wife, who turned pale with fright at seeing his irritated expression.

‘What, my lord,’ she said to him, ‘can have caused the trouble which agitates you?’

He informed her of what had passed and he complained of his vizir in terms which made Zobeide realise how enraged he was against the minister.

But this wise princess represented to him that he ought to suspend his resentment and send someone to Bassora to verify the matter; that if it turned out to be false the vizir should be punished, but that if on the contrary it were true, which she could not suppose, it was not just to treat him as a criminal.

This speech calmed the fury of the caliph.

‘I approve of this advice, madam,’ he said to Zobeide, ‘and I must admit that I owe this justice to a minister such as Giafar. I will do more; as the person entrusted with this errand might, from aversion to my vizir, bring me an unfaithful report, I shall go to Bassora and myself discover the truth. I shall make the acquaintance of this young man whose generosity is praised to me. If I have been told the truth I shall load Giafar with favours and bear him no grudge because of his frankness, but I swear it will cost him his life if he has told me a falsehood.’

As soon as Haroun had taken this resolution he thought only of carrying it out. He left his palace secretly one night, mounted his horse, and set out on his way without allowing anyone to accompany him, in spite of all Zobeide could say to prevent his departing alone.

Having arrived at Bassora he alighted at the first caravanserai that he found on entering the town, the landlord of which was a worthy old man.

‘My father,’ said Haroun to him, ‘is it true that there is in this town a young man called Aboul­casem who surpasses kings in magnificence and generosity?’

‘Yes, my lord,’ replied the landlord, ‘had I a hundred mouths and in each a hundred tongues I could not relate to you all the generous actions he has done.’

As the caliph had need of rest, he retired to bed after having taken some nourishment.

He rose early the next morning and went for a walk in the town till sunrise. Then, approaching a tailor’s shop, he asked for the residence of Aboulcasem.

‘What country do you come from?’ said the tailor. ‘You can never have been in Bassora, since you do not know where the lord Aboulcasem lives. His house is better known than the king’s palace.’

The caliph replied, ‘I am a stranger. I do not know anyone in this town, and you will oblige me if you will have me conducted to the house of this lord.’

The tailor immediately ordered one of his boys to conduct him to the house of Aboulcasem. It was a large mansion built of stone, the door of which was of jasper. The prince entered the court, where there was a crowd of domestics, as many slaves as freemen, who were amusing themselves whilst awaiting their master’s orders. He approached one of them and said, ‘Brother, I should be much obliged if you would take the trouble to go and tell the lord Aboulcasem that a stranger wishes to speak to him.’

The servant judged from Haroun’s appearance that he was not an ordinary man. He ran to inform his master, who came out into the courtyard to receive the stranger, whom he took by the hand and conducted into a very beautiful apartment.

There the caliph told the young man that he had heard him so favourably spoken of that he had not been able to resist the desire to see him.

Aboulcasem replied very modestly to the com­pliment; and after having made him seat himself on a sofa, asked him of what country and profes­sion he was, and where he lodged at Bassora.

‘I am a merchant of Bagdad,’ replied the emperor, ‘and I am lodging in the first caravan­serai that I found on arriving.’

After a few moments’ conversation twelve white pages entered the room laden with vases of agate and rock crystal, enriched with rubies, and full of exquisite liquors. They were followed by twelve very beautiful slaves, some of whom bore bowls of porcelain filled with fruits and flowers, and others gold boxes in which were preserves of delicious flavour.

The pages poured out their different liquors to present to the caliph. He tasted them, and although accustomed to the most delicious beverages in all the East, he declared that he had never drunk better. The dinner hour having arrived, Aboulcasem conducted his guest into another saloon where they found a table covered with the most delicate dishes and served in massive gold plates. The repast over, the young man took the caliph by the hand and led him into a third saloon more richly furnished than the other two, where they brought a prodigious quantity of gold vases, enriched with precious stones and full of all sorts of wines, with dishes of porcelain filled with dried preserves. Whilst the host and his guest drank the most excellent wines, there entered singers and musicians, who commenced a concert which charmed Haroun. ‘I have,’ he said to him­self, ‘admirable voices in my palace, but I must admit that they are not to be compared with these. I cannot understand how a private individual can have wealth enough to live so magnificently.’

Whilst the prince was listening with particular attention to a voice the sweetness of which enchanted him, Aboulcasem left the saloon and returned a minute later, holding in one hand a rod and in the other a little tree, the stem of which was of silver, the branches and the leaves of emeralds, and the fruit of rubies. On the top of the tree appeared a peacock of finely wrought gold, the body of which was full of amber, spirit of aloes, and other perfumes. He placed this tree at the emperor’s feet, then tapping the peacock’s head with the rod, the peacock spread its wings and tail, and began to revolve with great speed, and as it turned the perfumes with which it was filled came out on all sides and scented the whole saloon.

The caliph could not tire of gazing at the tree and the peacock, and he was still testifying to his admiration when Aboulcasem took them and carried them off very abruptly.

Haroun was surprised at this action and said to himself, ‘What does this mean? This young man seems to me not to do things as well as I thought. He takes this tree and the peacock away from me when he sees me absorbed in contemplation of them. Is he afraid I shall ask him to make me a present of them? I fear that Giafar has inappro­priately applied to him the title of a generous man.’

This thought was present in his mind when Aboulcasem returned, accompanied by a little page as beautiful as the sun. This engaging child wore a robe of gold brocade, adorned with pearls and diamonds. He held in his hand a cup made of a single ruby and filled with a purple-coloured wine. He approached the caliph, prostrated him­self to the ground before him, and presented the cup to him. The prince put out his hand to take it, and having done so, he put it to his lips; but, to his amazement, after having drunk, he perceived, on returning it to the page, that it was still quite full. He immediately took it back again, and having put it to his lips, he drained it to the last drop. He then gave it back to the page, and instantly he saw that it filled again without anyone pouring into it.