Pseudo Khalifa

In the ancient city of Baghdad, there was a wealthy merchant who traded in diamonds and other precious stones. He had numberless mansions, shops, yards, sites and orchards besides hundreds of enslaved people. When the merchant died, all this enormous wealth came into the possession of his son, Mohammad Ali.

One day, as Mahammad Ali was doing business in his leading shop, a lady of rare grace and beauty entered the shop, accompanied by several maids. She wanted to see some necklaces.

Muhammad Ali, who fell in love with this lady when he saw her, displayed a hundred beautiful necklaces of excellent designs and artistry before her.

“Have you nothing better than these?” the lady asked him.

Ali’s father had once bought a very rare necklace, paying a price of a hundred thousand dinars. Unhesitatingly Ali brought it forth and showed it to the beautiful customer.

“This is lovely,” the lady said, overjoyed. “I am ready to pay whatever you ask for it.”

“Madam,” said Ali, “it is useless to me. Accept it as my gift, and I am paid.”

However, the lady insisted on paying a lakh dinars and five thousand more as interest. She requested Ali to go to her house and collect the money.

They reached her quarters, and she permitted Ali to fix the necklace around her neck with his hands. She looked even more lovely with the chain, and Ali fell on his knees and implored her, “Madam, the necklace is yours. So am I! Accept both of us and make me happy.”

The lady smiled. “My friend,” she said, “I am equally in love with you. The necklace was only a pretext. What I wanted was to see you and talk to you. But I am not a common woman. My brother is Jafar, the well-known Vazir of the Khalifa. So, you cannot make confessions of love to me till we are married.”

Ali’s face fell when he learnt that she was the sister of the Vazir. Marriage between them was not in the realm of possibility.
The lady smiled at his disappointment. “Because I am highly placed,” she said, “don’t think I am not free or independent.” That very minute she sent for the Kadi, who performed their marriage at once.

A month went by. During this time, Ali lived in his wife’s house, feasting and listening to music and never away from his wife for a minute. Not even once did he think of his home or his shop.

Then, one morning, while Ali’s wife was in her bath, an older woman came and told Ali that Zubeda, the wife of the Khalifa, wanted to see him. Ali was reluctant to go without telling his wife, who would feel his separation even for a short time. On the other hand, it would not be proper to disobey Khalifa’s wife!

Ali decided to follow the older woman and see Zubeda. He could explain things to his wife later. He did not know that Zubeda was the mortal enemy of his wife!

Zubeda received him with warmth and said, “I wanted to see for myself what sort of man our Vazir’s sister fell in love with. You are a match for her.” he permitted him to return to his wife.

On his return, Ali found his wife raging and fuming like a tigress.

“How dare you leave me, you wretch, to see that hag, Zubeda! Having gone, why did you come back?” she shouted. Then she clapped her hands, and a tall man entered bearing a giant sword. “Cut off his head!” the mistress ordered him.

Ali was saved from instantaneous death by the requests of the house servants, who liked and respected him. So, the indignant mistress contented herself with having her husband whipped severely. Then Ali was thrown out of the house.

Having paid for his unequal marriage thus, Ali somehow managed to reach home. He was in bed for two months before his wounds healed. Then he went to his shop, sold everything for whatever he could, and got a lot of cash.

With this money, Ali started to spend his time in a particular manner that he thought would help heal the wounds his mind sustained. He began by buying 400 enslaved people and dressed all of them gorgeously. He selected one who resembled Jafar, the Vazir and another who resembled Masrur, the Khalifa’s Sword-bearer. He got himself a dress identical to the Khalifa and engaged a boat. Every night Ali would sit in the ship dressed like the Khalifa, with the pseudo-Jafar and the pseudo-Masrur on either side and go down the Tigris. As the illuminated boat. Went along, Ali’s slaves shouted, “Make way for the Khalifa’s boat! Make way!”

No one ever doubted that it was Khalifa’s boat and all other craft used to hug the banks as Ali’s ship went on.

This went on for a year, and then, one night, the Khalifa himself came to the banks of the Tigris accompanied, as always, by Jafar and Masrur. All three of them were disguised as merchants. The Khalifa was in the habit of walking the streets of Baghdad in disguise on such nights as when he could not sleep. On reaching the banks of the Tigris, the Khalifa and his companions found a boat and asked its owner if he would take them on the river for a dinar.

Friends, you appear to be strangers to this city,” the boatman said. “That is why you don’t know that every day the Khalifa’s boat comes along at this time of the night.”

The three men looked at one another. They were sure that the man was lying. But, just at that moment, a boat blazing with lights appeared in the distance and came towards them. They could hear the shouts, “Make way for the Khalifa’s boat!” As it came nearer, they could see a young man dressed like the Khalifa sitting in the middle of the boat and on either side were two men who could be easily mistaken for Jafar and Masrur.

After the boat passed, the three men in disguise offered the boatman ten dinars to take them in his ship and follow the Khalifa’s boat. The boatman agreed after some hesitation.

The illuminated boat went far and then touched the bank with some gardens. The real Khalifa and his companions got out of their ship and entered these gardens. As they went through the gardens, some enslaved people came from behind the trees and surrounded them, asking, “Who are you? Where are you from? Are you invited to the Khalifa’s feast?”

“We are strangers”, said the real Khalifa. “We are also hungry, and if the Khalifa should be kind enough to permit us, we shall be glad to eat and drink with him.”

The enslaved people took the three intruders to Ali, to whom the Khalifa told the same thing.

“Friends,” said Ali, “guests are welcome to the Khalifa’s table. Eat and drink with me.”

The Khalifa himself was astounded at the dining hall’s illumination, splendour, and fare richness. While they were eating and drinking, a girl sang sad and sweet songs of love and separation.

As he heard this singing, Ali became excited. He tore his precious clothes and wept like a madman. The real Khalifa was surprised at the carelessness with which the young man pulled such costly dresses. But he was still more surprised to see numberless scars all over the fair body of the young man.

“Is it not strange,” he whispered to his companions, “that this pseudo-Khalifa bears scars common to prisoners?”

Ali noticed that his guests were whispering among themselves. “Guests should not exclude the host from their intimacies,” he said. “If you want to learn anything, you can ask me.”

“It is nothing of importance,” said the guests. “Seeing the scars on the body of the Khalifa, we were wondering what cruel experience he passed through.”

“Since you are strangers,” said Ali, “I do not hesitate to recount my strange experiences if you would care to listen.” Then he recited his tale.

Having listened to the end, the Khalifa said, “Allah has all powers!” Then he thanked Ali for his hospitality and departed with his companions.

Now, the Khalifa and his Vazir, Jafar, felt that both of them had a share in the responsibility for the painful experiences of the young man since it was the feud between the Khalifa’s wife and Jafar’s sister that was the root cause of Ali’s misery.

The following day, the Khalifa sent for Ali and asked him to recite his tale before the court. Having obtained the Khalifa’s guarantee for his safety, Ali did so.

“After all that you have suffered at your wife’s hands, are you still prepared to take her back?” the Khalifa asked Ali.

“I am willing,” replied Ali, “to receive anything from the Khalifa’s hand.”

“Vazir,” said the Khalifa to Jafar, “call your sister here.”

“Do you know this man?” the Khalifa asked her when she came.

“Why should I know a stranger?” the lady replied.

“Well, his name is Mahammad Ali. He was once your husband. Forget all that has happened because I am thinking of giving you to him for a wife,” the Khalifa said.

“As you wish!” the lady replied.

The Kazi was called for, and the pair was married in the court of the Khalifa. Later, the Khalifa engaged Ali as one of his companions, raising his status considerably. Ali lived happily for a great many years with his wife.

Chandamama September 1955 | M Hamid Ali

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