I, Pascal Chisom Okechukwu, have been reading the Book of the Thousand and One Nights. The first two hundred Nights actually, and came upon this wonderful piece set in the ancient times of old Arabia.
A whimsical story is told of a King, who denied to Poets those rewards to which usage had almost given them a claim. This king, whose name is not recorded, had the faculty of retaining in his memory an Ode after having only once heard it; and he had a Memlook who could repeat an ode that he had twice heard, and a female slave who could repeat one that she had heard thrice.
Whenever a poet came to compliment him with a panegyrical ode, the King used to promise him that, if he found his verses to be his original composition, he would give him a sum of money equal in weight to what they were written upon.
The poet, consenting, would recite his ode; and the King would say,
“It is not new; for I have known it some years;”
and would repeat it as he had heard it; after which he would add,
“And this memlook also retains it in his memory;”
and would order the memlook to repeat it; which, having heard it twice, from the poet and the king, he would do. The King would then say to the poet,
“I have also a female slave who can repeat it;”
and on his ordering her to do so, stationed behind the curtains, she would repeat what she had thus thrice heard: so the poet would go away empty-handed.
The famous poet El-Aṣma’ee, having heard of this proceeding, and guessing the trick, determined upon outwitting the King; and accordingly composed an ode made up of very difficult words; but this was not his only preparative measure; another will be presently explained; and a third was, to assume the dress of a Bedawee, that he might not be known, covering his face, the eyes only excepted, with a lithám (a piece of drapery) in accordance with a custom of Arabs of the desert. Thus disguised, he went to the palace, and, having asked permission, entered, and saluted the King, who said to him,
“Whence art thou, O brother of the Arabs, and what dost thou desire?”
The poet answered,
“May God increase the power of the King! I am a poet of such a tribe, and have composed an ode in praise of our lord the Sulṭán.”
— “O brother of the Arabs,”
said the King,
“hast thou heard of our condition?”
answered the poet;
“and what is it, O King of the age?”
—”It is,” replied the King,
“that if the ode be not thine, we give thee no reward; and if it be thine, we give thee the weight in money of what it is written upon.”
—”How,” said El-Aṣma’ee,
“should I assume to myself that which belongs to another, and knowing, too, that lying before kings is one of the basest of actions? But I agree to this condition, O our lord the Sulṭán.”
So he repeated his ode. The King, perplexed, and unable to remember any of it, made a sign to the memlook—but he had retained nothing; and called to the female slave, but she also was unable to repeat a word.
“O brother of the Arabs,”
“thou hast spoken truth, and the ode is thine without doubt: I have never heard it before: produce, therefore, what it is written upon, and we will give thee its weight in money, as we have promised.”
—”Wilt thou,” said the poet,
“send one of the attendants to carry it?”
—”To carry what?” asked the King;
“is it not upon a paper here in thy possession?”
—”No, O our lord the Sulṭán,” replied the poet;
“at the time I composed it I could not procure a piece of paper upon which to write it, and could find nothing but a fragment of a marble column left me by my father; so I engraved it upon this; and it lies in the court of the palace.”
He had brought it, wrapped up, on the back of a camel. The King, to fulfil his promise, was obliged to exhaust his treasury; and to prevent a repetition of this trick (of which he afterwards discovered El-Aṣma’ee to have been the author), in future rewarded the poets according to the usual custom of kings.
– an Arabian Nights Entertainment.
Note: the photo inset is a depiction of old King David of Israel in a particular scene. But the King talked about in the Story isn’t David, but a certain king of old Arabia.