The Sharazad Project: Week 15

Trigger warning: ableist language

Welcome back to night twenty four and the end of Ja’far’s sojourn as a truly terrible detective. He’s much better suited to court advocate, if today is any indicator, because not only does his story about the al-Din family prove remarkable enough to win Ja’far’s slave a pardon, it also guarantees the young man a monthly allowance and access to one of the sultan’s own concubines. Given how the slave’s slander of a woman recently led to her violent murder, that seemly hideously inappropriate. I’m very glad we’re done with this entire cycle now.

Actually, spoke too soon. Straight away we’re plunged into a new story, the tale of ‘the tailor, the hunchback, the Jew, the inspector and the Christian’. I am so apprehensive.

This one begins in China. ‘The city of China’, according to this translation, so I’m not sure if they mean a random city in the country of China or a city elsewhere that happens to be called China too. Anyway, living there is a tailor and his wife, both fun-loving types who are coming home after an evening’s entertainment when they encounter a hunchback. I wish I didn’t have to use that word, but he’s not given a name. Hell, he’s not given any dignity either. The couple think he is hilariously ugly and invite him home for dinner, an invitation he accepts. During the meal, the tailor’s wife pushes a large piece of fish into her guest’s mouth and as a cruel joke, orders that he must swallow it without chewing. As she’s holding his jaw shut, he’s given no choice but to obey. Unknown to both, there is a large bone in that piece of fish. It lodges in the poor man’s throat, and he dies.

This story is already awful.

It gets worse, because though the tailor spares a couple of minutes to feel bad about his guest’s untimely death, his wife wastes no time covering up her crime. Covering up the dead man’s body with a silk cloth, she has her husband carry him out of the house. She flutters over the obscured corpse, pretending it is a child sick with smallpox. In this way they reach the house of a Jewish doctor without drawing questions or negative attention. The slave girl who answers the door is given a quarter dinar, told the smallpox story and asked to bring the doctor down for a consultation. As soon as she’s gone the tailor and his wife dump the body at the top of the stairs and leg it.

There is a concerningly unnecessary reference to the doctor’s delight at advance payment. He opens his door, but it’s dark and he stumbles over the corpse. It tumbles downstairs and the doctor panics, believing he’s caused the man’s death. His first priority is getting the body out of the house. His wife suggests they carry it to the roof and from there, drop the dead man into their neighbour’s house. They live next door to an inspector – not a detective inspector, it should be said, he’s in charge of the king’s kitchen and stray animals gather around his place to steal meat. The doctor’s wife expects the body will be dragged off by street dogs.

She expects wrong – the inspector arrives home just after the doctor and his wife drop their burden. By the light of his candle, all the inspector can see is a man’s silhouette and assumes he’s looking at a thief. He proceeds to whack the corpse with a hammer. That probably would have killed him, if he had not already been dead; the intent was definitely there. The inspector then compounds his violence by insulting the dead man. “Wasn’t it enough for you to be a hunchback,” he exclaims, “that you had to become a thief and steal meat and fat?” This man is horrible. Like everyone else, he hoists up the corpse and dumps it elsewhere, this time in an alley on the edge of a marketplace.

By now the night is almost over. The next person to stumble on the unfortunate and much-travelled body is the Christian from the story’s intro, the king’s broker and currently very drunk. He’s en route to the baths. Stopping in the alley to urinate – no public toilets back then, I know, but it’s still disgusting – he sees the shape of a man in the dark and takes him for a thief. He knocks over the corpse with a blow to the neck and shouts for the watchman, which is somewhat counter-intuitive given that he then goes on to throttle the dead man. “He wanted to steal my turban!” is his defence when the watchman runs up. Finding the accused man very definitely dead, the watchman does the sensible thing, ties up the broker and marches him off to see the wali (that is, the local governor). The death sentence is quickly proclaimed.

As the broker stands upon the gallows, the inspector pushes his way through the crowd of observers to confess to the crime. “Is it not enough for me to have killed a Muslim,” he declares, “that I should kill a Christian as well?” He makes it sound like murder bingo. The wali agrees to the switchover, but no sooner has the noose been slipped around the inspector’s neck than the doctor arrives, shouting his own confession. When he ascends the gallows, proceedings are disrupted all over again by the tailor, who gives the true story of the hunchback’s death and takes the doctor’s place.

The executioner is beginning to feel ridiculous.

What none of them know is that the dead man was the king’s fool. When his absence is noted, the king makes enquiries, learning of the man’s sudden death and the farcical drama playing out in consequence. His chamberlain arrives in time to prevent the tailor being hanged. Everybody involved, from the tailor to the wali to the much-abused corpse, are brought back to the palace to repeat the whole story to the king. He shows just how much he cared about his fool’s life by enjoying it all thoroughly and ordering it be written down. He then asks if anyone knows a more remarkable tale.

The broker steps forward to say yes, he does. Next Tuesday, we’ll find out if he’s right.

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