False Friend

In the city of Alexandria, there was a dyer called Abu Keer. He was a good workman, but at the same time, he was very lazy and deceitful. If anyone gave him clothes for dying, he sold them and spent the money on food. After evading the customers as long as he could, he told them that his shop was looted.

Over time, several people realised what sort of man Abu Keer was. If still, some strangers entrusted him with cloth for dying, Abu Keer continued to deceive them. At last, he stopped opening his shop every day. Instead, he sat in the barber’s shop opposite all the time and watched the people who came to his shop. If they were old customers who came for their cloth, he allowed them to see that the shop was closed and go away. If they were new customers who brought material for dying, he went out of the barber’s shop, took the cloth, sold it, and bought all the food he could with the money.

This could not go on forever. One day Abu Keer saw from the barber’s shop that the Government officials sealed the shop because his creditors brought attachment to his property.

The barber was a gentle and good-natured man called Abu Seer. “How long can you run your trade through swindling?” Abu Seer told Abu Keer. “Why can’t you be content with what Allah is willing to give?”

“What can I do?” Abu Keer said. “I work all day and still cannot make enough to have a good meal. You make enough money in your profession. So you can afford to be honest.”

“You are quite mistaken,” said Abu Seer. “I make very little money. We can live better if we leave this city and go somewhere else.”

The dyer agreed to do this. They both swore they should support each other if one of them were unemployed and share their earnings equally if one earned more and the other less.

The following day they went to the river and got into a boat. The little food they took with them was soon spent, and the barber went among the passengers, shaved them and accepted food from them in payment. A few people gave him both food and money.

Abu Seer was the only barber on the boat, and the captain heard about him and sent for him. After getting shaved, the captain offered the barber money. But Abu Seer refused it and told him their story.

“That is all right,” said the captain. “You and your friend can dine with me. Come to my room with him when it is time for dinner.”

Abu Seer thanked the captain and, making a bundle of all the food he got from the other passengers, went to the dyer, who lay down and slept the moment he got on to the boat. He woke up only to eat. When the barber woke him, the dyer said, “Do not mistake me, brother. I am so giddy that I cannot even stand up.” He then began to gobble up the food brought by the barber.

“Why do you eat this food? The captain of the boat has invited both of us for a feast. It is almost dinner hour now,” said the barber.

“Ah, how can I come?” said the dyer. “I cannot even stand up.” He went on eating till he was full.

“But where is your friend?” the captain asked the barber when he went alone to dine with him.

“My friend is suffering from an attack of seasickness,” replied the barber. When they had their meal, the captain heaped a lot of foodstuff on a plate and sent them along with the barber for his friend.

The dyer woke up, ate all the stuff sent to him by the captain and again went to sleep. After sailing the open sea for three weeks, the boat reached a city.

Both the friends got out of the boat and went into the city. They hired for themselves a room at a serai, and promptly, the dyer lay down to sleep. He went on sleeping night and day, only waking up to eat.

On the other hand, the barber went out every day, plied his trade and came home with vegetables and other foodstuffs. He prepared a meal for himself and his friend, woke him up and fed him. He never once accused his friend of being lazy. The barber used to go out often to see the sights of the city, and at such times he used to tell his friend, “I am going out. You had better rest properly.”

Forty days went by, and then the barber fell ill. He gave some money to the watchman of the serai and requested him to get some food from outside. Abu Keer continued to sleep and eat.

On the fifth day, the barber was unconscious with a high fever and could not send the watchman for food. Abu Keer began to feel the pangs of hunger. He got up and searched Abu Seer’s shirt in the pockets of which he found some money. Abu Keer took it and slipped out into the city like a thief.

It was a wonderful city, but Abu Keer saw a strange thing. The people in the streets wore either white clothes or blue clothes. No other colour was to be seen. Abu Keer went into a dying shop to find out why and asked that his kerchief be dyed. “What colour will you give me? What will you charge me?” he asked the shopman.

“I shall dye it blue, of course,” said the shopman. “It will cost you twenty silver pieces.”

Abu Keer engaged the man in conversation and found out several things. The blue dye was abundantly available in the town and was dead cheap. All the dyers used only blue. They knew no other shade. There were only forty dyers in the city, but they were so well united that they made it impossible for anyone else to start a dying shop or compete with them.

Having learnt these facts, Abu Keer went to the king and told him that he could dye clothes in all colours. He requested to be permitted to open a dying shop in the city.

The king was surprised that anyone could dye clothes in all colours. He not only granted permission to Abu Keer to open a dying shop, but he even advanced him five thousand gold pieces for this purpose and made a further gift of some enslaved people to work for him. A house was set apart for this purpose.

Abu Keer bought what was necessary to start a first-class dying establishment and set himself up as a master dyer. To begin with, the king sent him several pieces of cloth. Abu Keer dyed them in various colours and displayed them on his shop front. Crowds gathered to see this wonder, and Abu Keer had all the publicity he wanted.

The king was delighted with Abu Keer’s efforts, and the gates of fortune opened wide for the new master dyer. All the nobles and officials of the court had their clothes dyed by him and paid him very well. In a short time, Abu Keer was a rich man and a powerful man in the city.

Meanwhile, at the serai, Abu Seer lay unconscious for three days. The watchman wondered why he was not sent for all these days and came to see him on the fourth day. Abu Seer, who was now conscious, requested the watchman to take some money from his shirt pocket and bring him something to drink.

But the shirt pocket was empty. The watchman said that he did not know what happened to Abu Keer. It was clear that Abu Keer swindled his friend and went away. Abu Seer began to shed tears. The watchman consoled him and prepared some hot gruel for him. He went on nursing Abu Seer at his own cost till one day, the sick man had profuse perspiration all over his body and was rid of the disease. He thanked the watchman for his help and bade him goodbye, saying that he would repay him when Allah should decide to help him.

The barber did not go very far along the street when he came across a vast dying factory with festoons of cloth dyed in several colours in front of it and a large crowd of people admiring them. He was pleased when he learnt that the establishment belonged to Abu Keer. He was sure Abu Keer did not come to see him due to the work pressure.

Abu Seer peeped inside the shop and saw his friend surrounded by a lot of glory and luxury. But Abu Keer did not jump with joy on seeing the barber. On the other hand, he shouted in rage, “You are again here, you wretch? How often did I tell you not to show your face here, you robber?”

The next moment some enslaved people came and caught hold of the unfortunate barber, and Abu Keer came out and thrashed Abu Seer with his stick as though he were a dog. “Never dare to show your face here again,” he warned Abu Seer, “Or I shall report to the king and get you beheaded.”

Abu Seer did not know what to make of this except that Allah was putting him to the test. He had only one strong desire, to have a good bath. He wandered all over the city for hours and hours but saw not even one hammam.

“Good friend,” Abu Seer said to a passerby, “Can you show me the way to the nearest hammam?”

“Hammam?” said the man puzzled. “What is a hammam?”

“It is a public bathing house where people can have a clean and fresh bath,” the barber said.

“Whether it is the king or the people, if anyone wants a bath, he must go only to the sea,” the other said.

It was clear to Abu Seer that the people of this city never knew the luxury of a clean and fresh bath. He went to the king and said, “This is such a fine city, but it is a great pity that there are no hammams in it.”

When he explained how a hammam is organised and run, the king said, “Fine! I shall give you as much money as you want. Choose your place and build a good hammam. Run it yourself, and I shall see if it will be as good as you describe it.”

With the king’s support, Abu Seer built a lovely hammam in the centre of the town. He made arrangements for storing water and heating it. He arranged a beautiful fountain in the centre of the hammam. The king made him a gift to some enslaved people, and the barber taught them how to massage and attend to the bathers.

On an opening day, the king, the other nobles and officers of the court came to bathe. Abu Seer had the bathing water scented with rose water. All the bathers were massaged well and had their bodies rubbed and cleaned. They never knew that bathing could be such a luxury.

The king paid Abu Seer a thousand gold pieces and the rest of the bathers a hundred each. On the very first day, Abu Seer made a small fortune.

From the next day onwards, the baths were open to the public. People flocked to the hammam to have a nice natural bath. Abu Seer took whatever the bathers paid since he wanted even the poorest people to afford a bath at his hammam.

One day the queen sent word that she was coming to have a bath at the hammam. Abu Seer stopped all male bathers and brought enslaved women to attend to the queen and her maids. He arranged special incense and toilet preparations. When the queen came, the enslaved women gave her such a luxurious bath and a good toilet that she was delighted with the hammam.

Another time the captain of the king’s ships came to have a bath. After the bath, he recognised Abu Seer and wanted to pay for it. But Abu Seer refused to take any money from the captain to whom he was already indebted. The captain was so pleased with the barber and his excellent manners that he was anxious to do him a good turn when an opportunity came.

Soon Abu Keer, the dyer, came to hear of the hammam and the barber’s fame. It was a long time since he had a proper bath. So, one day, he came to the hammam, followed by his numberless slaves. Abu Seer came out to receive him in person and embraced him.

“Brother,” said Abu Keer in a very affectionate manner, “we swore that we would stand by each other. Then, why did you not come to see me even once?”

“I did come, brother,” said Abu Seer. “But you received me with a stick and called me a thief.”

“Was it you that I chastised? What a shame!” Abu Keer exclaimed. “A rogue who resembled you came daily to my shop and stole something. After all, he was a poor beggar, and several times, I let him off with warnings. In the end, I was so exasperated that I thrashed him. I never suspected that it was you.”

“No, no! I came to your shop only once, and you had me beaten,” Abu Seer said.

“Good heavens!” said Abu Keer. “Why didn’t you tell me that it was you?”

“Oh, it was fated to happen, and we need not worry about it now,” Abu Seer replied. He told his friend how he came to run the hammam and then gave him an excellent bath.

“The bath is excellent,” said Abu Keer, “but for one defect.”

“What is it?” implored Abu Seer.

“Why did you not provide the bathers with the depilatory paste made of white arsenic and lime?” Abu Keer asked him.

“Ah, my friend!” said Abu Seer. “It slipped my mind. I shall introduce it tomorrow only. Thank you for the suggestion.”

From the hammam, Abu Keer went straight to the king and told him, “Your Highness, it is my duty to warn you of danger. You built an excellent hammam, and it deserves all praise. But the man to whom you have entrusted it means you harm. There is no doubt that he planned this hammam only to poison you. You will know it yourself when you learn his story.

“This man and I once became prisoners of a certain Sultan. I obtained my freedom by pleasing the Sultan with my capacity to dye clothes in various colours. But this barber could not get his freedom or that of his wife and children by any means. In the end, the Sultan set him free on condition that he came to your kingdom, started a hammam and destroyed you with a paste of deadly poison. When he finishes his job, he will be able to get his wife and children freed, and the Sultan will occupy your kingdom.”

“Paste of poison?” said the king. “Abu Seer never applied it to my body.”

“That is why Your Highness is still hale and healthy,” replied Abu Keer. “Someday, he is bound to apply the death paste containing white arsenic. He may say it is a depilatory. I’ve warned Your Highness out of anxiety for your safety. It is better to be on your guard!”

Having poisoned the king’s mind, Abu Keer left. The king’s regard for the barber was turned to seething rage. The very next day, he went to the hammam with his slaves. Abu Seer welcomed him with great respect. He massaged the king himself and then brought some paste to apply to the king’s body. Here was the poison Abu Keer spoke of!

“What is that?” the king asked him sharply.

“It is a depilatory paste,” Abu Seer replied.

The king smelt the paste and found it to contain arsenic poison. He got up in a rage and shouted to his men, “Bind this traitor hand and foot and take him to court.” He put on his clothes and departed from the hammam without having his bath.

When Abu Seer was taken to court, the king talked to the captain of his ships. “Take this scoundrel with you,” the king told the captain, “put him in a gunny sack along with limestone, tie up the sack and throw it into the sea so that he will die a horrible death. Cooked in lime.”

The captain could say nothing except, “Yes, Your Highness.” But while taking Abu Seer home with him, he asked, “What did you do to make the king so angry with you? I thought you were a very good man.”

“I did nothing. But for nothing, the king would not punish me. He loved me a lot,” said Abu Seer.

“In any case, I cannot put you to such a horrible death. Take a net and go to the island in the sea. Stay there fishing till dark. The king’s cook will be coming for fish after dark. Meanwhile, I shall put a log of wood in the sack and throw it into the sea. We can learn the truth later,” the captain told Abu Seer.

The barber took a fishing net and departed for the island, and the captain put a log of wood and two maunds of limestone in a sack and tied it up. He put the bag in a small boat and rowed towards the palace. At the top window, the king was sitting. He waved his hand, indicating that the bag should be thrown into the water. Something flashed in the air when he did so, and he fell into the water.

The captain threw the sack in the water, and hot bubbles and steam rose.

Meanwhile, Abu Seer caught a lot of fish till evening. He was starving, having had nothing to eat since morning. So, he wanted to roast a fish and eat it before starting. He chose a big fish and cut it open with his knife. Inside it, he found something sparkling and took it out. At once, he knew it was the king’s signet ring!

“Allah alone knows all things!” thought Abu Seer. For, it was impossible for him to guess how a fish should swallow the king’s signet ring, then fall into his net and then again be picked up by him for his lunch.

He went to the captain’s house, showed him the ring and said, “This must be restored to the king at once. Without it, he will be badly handicapped. I am going to hand it over to him.”

The captain was frightened because if the king saw Abu Seer, he would know that the captain did not carry out his order.

“Do not worry,” Abu Seer advised the captain, “Allah sees everything. At least I shall know from the king what my fault was.”

The king was amazed to see Abu Seer. “How did you escape from the sack ?” he asked.

Abu Seer told the king all that had happened and handed over the signet ring to him.

The barber’s sense of duty touched the king. “You appear to be a good, faithful man,” the king said. How is it that you attempted to kill me?”

“I never made any such attempt, Your Highness,” Abu Seer replied. “Somebody poisoned your mind against me.”

“It was none other than Abu Keer, the dyer,” the king said. “It appears that some Sultan imprisons your wife and children, and you have undertaken to poison me to get them free. I found out that you put white arsenic in the paste you wanted to apply to my body. Do you deny it?”

Abu Seer was stunned and speechless for some time. Then he said, “I’ve done my best to Abu Keer. I never did him the least harm. Yet he stole my money, had me beaten without reason and then planned to get me to put to death! He came to the hammam like a friend and appreciated all the arrangements except the lack of depilatory paste. He then went to you and complained that I would kill you. What is one to think of such a false friend?”

“You say it is not poison ?” the king asked.

“No, Your Highness. It’s quite harmless. In our country, everyone uses it. Only, it slipped my mind until that man brought it to my notice,” said Abu Seer.

“Tell me all the mischief he did to you so that I can punish him,” the king said.

Abu Seer related to the king what had happened. The king sent for the watchman of the serai and the slaves of the dyer. The watchman recognised Abu Seer and told the king how his friend went away with all the money of Abu Seer when he was unconscious with a fever. Abu Keer’s slaves confessed that they had once thrashed Abu Seer at the command of their master.

The king once ordered the arrest of Abu Keer, who was brought bound hand and foot. On seeing him, the watchman of the serai said, “Yes, this was the fine gentleman who slept all the time and woke up only to have his food and who stole this man’s money when he was laid up with fever.”

Abu Seer’s statement proved true even as Abu Keer’s guilt was fully established.

“Tie up this man in a sack of limestone and throw him in the sea!” the king ordered his servants.

Abu Seer begged the king to pardon his old friend, but the king said, “Even if you forgive him for what he did to you, I am not going to forgive him for what he did to me.”

Abu Keer was tied up in a sack of limestone and thrown into the sea according to the king’s order. He died a horrible but well-deserved death.

Later, when the king sent for Abu Seer and asked him, “What can I do for you?” Abu Seer replied, “Let me go back to my country. I do not feel happy here anymore.”

The king heaped all sorts of gifts upon Abu Seer and arranged a ship for him to go to Alexandria. While going on the boat one day, Abu Seer saw a sack floating on the water. He got it hauled into the boat, opened it and found the remains of his faithless friend Abu Keer. He took the corpse to Alexandria, buried it there and had a handsome tomb built over it. The false friend was still a friend.

Chandamama November 1955 | Devi Dayal Varma

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