Trigger warning: references to domestic abuse and murder
Still in night nineteen, we get an unexpected sequel with JA’ FAR, who is my second favourite (Sitt al-Husn holds first place, due to her undying glory). He’s still in the service of the caliph, who is still under the impression he’s egalitarian and in touch with the people. To prove it, he drags Ja’far on a trip into the city, to ask random citizens if they’re satisfied with their governors. I’m not sure what ‘governor’ means in this context, I’m thinking like city councillors?
In the markets they pass an elderly man who is carrying a fishing net and basket, and reciting sad poetry to himself about how wisdom counts for less than hard currency in this mercenary world. “Look at this man and note his verses, which show that he is need,” the caliph tells Ja’far excitedly and approaches the old man to strike up conversation. Turns out he is, unsurprisingly, a fisherman, who has no catch with which to feed his family. Naturally he’s depressed about it.
“Would you go back with us to the Tigris,” the caliph suggests, “stand on the bank and trust in my luck as you cast your net. Whatever comes up I will buy for a hundred dinars.” There’s no need to ask twice. The fisherman casts his net as instructed and pulls up an unexpectedly heavy catch: a large locked chest. The caliph hands over the promised sum and has the chest brought home, where it can be broken open. Within they find a basket of palm leaves, sewn shut; inside that, a carpet rolled around a shawl, and inside the shawl a horrific discovery – the dismembered body of a girl.
The caliph takes out his distress on Ja’far. “Dog of a vizier, are people to be murdered and thrown into the river during my reign, so that I am to be held responsible for them on the Day of Judgement? By God, I must make the murderer pay for this girl’s death and I shall put him to the most cruel of deaths.” Hey, remember that time your own son wanted to decapitate his wife? START YOUR JUSTICE AT HOME.
He doesn’t. Instead he tells his vizier, who has done nothing wrong, that if he can’t produce the murderer within three day not only will he be hanged but forty of his cousins will meet the same fate. Ja’far has no idea where to start and spends the whole allotted time brooding. When the caliph sends for him, all he can offer is indignance. “Am I the monitor of murder victims,” Ja’far cries, “that I should know who killed the girl?” The fact he’s one hundred percent right counts for nothing. A town crier is sent into Baghdad to proclaim the execution. A crowd gathers at the gallows, weeping for the condemned men. One handsome young man pushes to the front of the throng, so that he can speak to Ja’far. “Lord of the emirs and shelterer of the poor, you are saved from this plight. The killer of the murdered girl whom you found in the chest is I, so hand me in retaliation for her death and take revenge for her on me.”
Ja’far seems to doubt the veracity of this claim but is grateful for his rescue. Even as the youth is speaking, however, an old man joins them and claims responsibility too. Ja’far looks bewilderedly from one stubborn suspect to the other, then hands the conundrum over to his boss. “Hang them both,” the caliph decides. WHY IS HE IN CHARGE. “If only one of them killed her, then to hang the other would be unjust,” Ja’far points out. The younger man describes the condition of the body in such detail that surely only the murderer could know. He then offers his full confession.
The girl was his cousin, his wife and mother of his three sons. They were apparently very much in love, but then she fell abruptly, seriously ill and was slow to recover. When she developed a craving for apples her husband searched everywhere, only to return home empty handed – after which she took a turn for the worse. Probably a coincidence. Nevertheless, having asked around the local orchards, the young man learned that the only apples to be had were from the caliph’s own garden at Basra, and at a steep price. He bought them anyway. Sadly they made no difference to his wife, she was too ill to touch them, but after ten days her fever broke and she began to recover.
Shortly afterwards, the young man was shocked to see one of those same apples in the hand of a slave passing in the street. Upon enquiring after its origin, he learned the slave was given it by his girlfriend, who in turn was given it by the husband she was cheating on. The young man went straight home, saw one of his wife’s apples was missing and murdered her without a second thought. He then wrapped the body as the caliph found it and hurled it in the river. Returning home, he found his eldest son in tears. The poor kid had no idea what his father had done; no, he was upset because he took the apple and the slave stole it off him while he was playing with his brothers. The boy was afraid his mother would beat him when she found out. “For God’s sake, father,” the guilty child begged, “don’t say anything to her that may make her ill again.” His father burst into tears. I want to say something viciously sarcastic but feel too nauseous to manage it.
The old man, suspect no.2, came upon the weeping murderer at this point and heard the tale. He joined in the sobfest. For five days they wallowed, like that was any use to the dead woman. “All the blame for this rests on the slave,” the youth tells the caliph, and because he’s a misogynistic tyrant, the caliph agrees. “By God,” he exclaims, “I shall hang no one except this damned slave and I shall do a deed which will cure the sick and please the Glorious King.” (By this, I think he also means God. Add repetitive to his other flaws).
Night twenty begins with the caliph turning on his hapless vizier, tasking him with finding the slave. Ja’far could not be worse at this kind of thing. He locks himself up for the whole three days, since that worked out last time, and as a result is sent straight back to the gallows. Permitted to farewell his family, he hugs his youngest and favourite daughter last. She offers him an apple. A slave in their household called Raihan sold it to her for two dinars. Her timing is flawless.
Delighted at the last minute deliverance, Ja’far calls Raihan into his presence, ascertains the story and drags him along to the appointment with the caliph, who finds the whole thing amusing. I hate this caliph so much. Ja’far unexpectedly insists on his slave being spared in exchange for the tale of vizier Nur al-Din ‘Ali and his brother Shams al-Din Muhammad. Apparently it’s just that remarkable.
We’ll see if that’s true next week.