The Penalty

In the city of Cairo, a jewellery merchant was once a mere youth. His customers were primarily women, and he was terrified of falling victim to their guile. He avoided even looking at women; everybody thought he was very virtuous.

One day a Negro slave girl came to his shop and asked him, “Does this shop belong to so-and-so? Are you the owner?” Then she secretly slipped a note into his hand. When the merchant read the message, he was both surprised and angry. The letter contained a love poem by a girl who put her name in the last stanza.

The jeweller tore up the poem in indignation. He abused the slave girl for bringing such a message and drove her out of his shop. Those who witnessed this scene praised him for his moral sense.

Two or three years went by. The jeweller’s attitude to women changed slightly. He now wanted to find a nice girl for a wife. So he began to observe his women customers closely to see if they had the three qualities of beauty, grace and wisdom.

One day he found a lovely girl entering his shop accompanied by five or six white enslaved people. “Can you show me some nice ornaments? The girl asked him. She wanted him to show her some golden anklets. But seeing that the girl had very tiny feet, the jeweller said, “I’m sorry, madam. The smallest anklet I have will be too loose for your foot.”

“You don’t say!” the girl said as if surprised. “But I am told that my feet are like an elephant’s”.

“They lie, madam,” said the jeweller in indignation. “Your feet are tiny, like tiny doves!”

“Well, show me some bangles,” the girl asked him. But when the enslaved people moved up the girl’s sleeves and showed him her hands, the jeweller was amazed at their small size.

“Madam,” he said in admiration and helplessness. “I’ve not even a single pair of bangles small enough for your tiny hands.”

“Sir, you flatter me,” the girl said coldly. “I am told that my hands rival the elephants’ trunks, and my fingers are like plantains.”

“Utter lies, madam,” the jeweller protested. “You are wonderful, the most beautiful woman on earth. If only you consent to marry me, I shall be the happiest of men!” He knelt at her feet and began to weep.

The girl smiled. “My father is quite prejudiced about me. He tells me I have coarse hair, an ugly face full of pockmarks and irregular teeth. He tells me that none will marry me! I am thrilled to learn from you that I am not ugly,” she said.

“Madam,” said the jeweller, “your father must be mad. Tell me who he is, and I will swear to him that I shall marry you.” “He is Shaik al-Islam. He is pretty famous among the merchants of this city. If you propose to marry me, he will not readily consent. He will try to frighten you with descriptions of my ugliness. It would be best if you told him that you are willing to marry me despite all he says,” the girl told him.

“When shall I see him?” the jeweller asked the girl.

“At ten tomorrow,” said the girl. Then she departed with her slaves.

The next day, the jeweller went to see Shaik al-Islam at ten o’clock.

“You don’t appear to know my daughter, my boy,” al-Islam said after hearing the jeweller. “She is unfortunate, ugly enough to haunt your dreams.” Then he went on to describe how ugly his daughter was. But the jeweller kept saying, “I don’t mind it in the least!”

When the aged merchant finished describing his daughter, he consented to give her in marriage to the jeweller. The young man drew up a declaration of marriage which was duly witnessed. The statement said that the bridegroom was ready to accept the bride with all her defects and deformities, and if he wanted to divorce her, he had to pay alimony of twenty thousand dinars of gold.

“The bride is bedridden,” said all-Islam. “She cannot be moved. The marriage shall take place here at my house.”

After the marriage, the jeweller anxiously went to his wife’s bedchamber and removed the veil from her face. Then he stood petrified because the bride was ugly. She was not at all the girl who had come to his shop.

The poor fellow could not imagine why such a calamity had to befall him. Without another look at his bride, he returned home. The following day, as he was sitting, sadly brooding over his fate, the beautiful girl again came to his shop and said, “Hail to the Bridegroom! May Allah bless his marriage!”

Then the jeweller began to curse her heartily. The girl pretended to be surprised. “Have you forgotten my poem and my negro slave whom you have insulted?” Then she got up to go away. But the young man fell at her feet and said, “I was a fool. Please get me out of this mess!”

She took pity on him and told him a plan. Then the jeweller made arrangements along her indicated and went to his father-in-law’s house.

He sat with the older man on the veranda when the main gate was flown open, and many nasty people entered the compound. All the scum of Cairo appeared to be there beating drums, whistling, doing acrobatics, and performing with monkeys and bears. The din they made was insufferable.

Al-Islam stood up and shouted, “Stop that noise! What’s all this?” But those fellows did not stop their din until the jeweller gave them the signal.

“My dear father-in-law,” he said to al-Islam, “these are my relatives and relatives. They have come to celebrate and rejoice after learning that I got married.”

“These your relatives!” said al-Islam turning pale. “If I knew it, I would not have given my daughter to you!”

“Had you asked me, I would have told you,” the jeweller said.

“You should have told me about it without my asking,” al-Islam said. “Your declaration is null and void. I shall not consider it as valid.”

“Oh, no!” said the jeweller. “I shall not give up, my dear wife. I shall see how you can separate us.”

Now al-Islam began to beg the jeweller. “My dear boy, consider my reputation. Divorce my daughter, and Allah will bless you!”

Thus the unfortunate jeweller managed to get out of his thoughtless marriage. Later he married the girl whom he loved. His joy knew no bounds when he learnt that his wife was closely related to the Sultan of Cairo.

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