We left off last week at the end of night thirty with the barber of your second-worst nightmares (he’s not Sweeney Todd level, but will talk until your ears bleed and has stalker tendencies) accusing an important government official of having murdered his master, when in fact the young man in question is upstairs with the official’s daughter, probably wishing he’d never even thought of having a haircut.
The official is both bewildered and angry at the accusation. “Don’t play the sinister old man,” the barber declares. “I know the whole story. Your daughter loves him and he loves her.” He threatens to bring the whole business before a judge. He’s already got a whole crowd behind him, and the official is riled into permitting a search of his house for the young man. Who of course desperately wants not to be found! The best hiding place he can manage at such short notice is a large chest – he shuts himself inside. Because the barber is the human incarnation of Murphy’s Law, he comes upon the very same chest and somehow hoists it up onto his head. And carries it off. Panicked, the young man kicks it open and tumbles out onto the ground, breaking his leg in the process. He then scatters the contents of his purse to distract the crowd while he stumbles off, but just cannot shake the barber off his heels.
“You brought all this on yourself,” the man insists. “If God in His grace had not sent me to you, you would never have escaped from the disaster into which you had fallen, but would have fallen into another…I don’t hold your folly against you, as you are an impatient young man of limited intelligence.” I dislike this protagonist but seriously, nobody deserves to be part of the Barber Show. Out of pure desperation, the young man flees into a market and convinces a weaver to hold the barber at bay while he arranges a more permanent escape. He divides up his money, sells his property and sets off travelling, all to get away – only to run into the barber at a dinner party. No wonder he reacted badly.
All the other guests turn on the barber, demanding to know if the story’s true. The barber swears he acted as he did out of chivalry. “It is lucky for him that it was his leg that was broken and he did not lose his life,” he says, proving he really wasn’t listening. To emphasise his point, he launches into an anecdote from his own life. Segue!
It begins one day when the caliph of Baghdad ordered ten criminals to be brought before him. They are sent off on a boat and the barber, sighting them, mistakes the occasion for a pleasure cruise. Because he genuinely can’t keep his nose out of other people’s business, he weasels his way aboard. Apparently he doesn’t pick up on the fact it’s not a floating feast from the absence of food, drink or fun. Not even when they disembark and guards start putting chains around the prisoners’ necks. Thinking the barber is another criminal, they chain him too. He doesn’t correct them. I haven’t the least idea why.
All the men are led before the caliph, who orders them to be beheaded. Someone lays out the execution mat right then and there – yes, I used the words ‘execution mat’, that is apparently a thing – so they can start chopping off heads under the caliph’s impassive eye. Luckily for the barber, the executioner is a careful man. He knows he was supposed to behead ten men, so he does. The caliph is bad at math and insists the barber is the tenth criminal; a count of bodies proves that to be untrue, so the barber is questioned. “What led you to stay silent at a time like this?” is what the caliph actually says, speaking for all of us. “How did you come to be with these criminals, and what is the reason for this, you being an old man of little brain?”
If you think the barber is going to be cowed at all by authority or the prospect of imminent death, you’d be mistaken. His only explanation, long-winded and repetitive and completely non-informative as it is, is that he was acting out of chivalry. Again. “It was a hugely honourable act on my part to share in their execution,” he says, “but all my days I have been doing favours of this kind to people, in spite of that fact that they repay me in the most brutish of ways.”
The caliph keels over laughing. When he can speak again, he asks if all the barber’s brothers are like…well, like him. The barber bristles and manages to make me dislike him even more by declaring that all his brothers show up their general inadequacy in a variety of physical deformities. The ableist awfulness does not stop there – the barber continues straight into a segue within the segue.
Okay, so the barber’s eldest brother is a tailor with spinal problems. The shop he rents looks out on the street and one day while he was busy sewing he looked up to see one of the stunningly beautiful mystery women who apparently have a secret society in Baghdad. He was besotted from the second he laid eyes on her. Neglecting his work in favour of staring hopefully out the window, he eventually saw her again and this time she saw him too, divining immediately – the way beautiful mystery women do – that he was in love with her. She sent a maid with a bundle of red silk and instructions for the tailor to make her a shift. When that was completed, the maid returned with yellow silk and some mildly flirtatious remarks to pass on. While the tailor was sewing the second garment, the object of his affections sat in the window across the street smiling and waving and generally giving the tailor reason to think his feelings might be returned.
The next time the maid visited, it was to summon the tailor before her master. Because the lady was not only married, she’d told her husband about the tailor and suggested he make a great number of shirts for the household. That does not say romance to me. Even worse, the lady had not paid him for any of the clothes he’d made. The truth is, she was well aware of his feelings and was shamelessly exploiting him with her husband’s approval. So he kept making clothes for them, abandoning his paid work in favour of lovelorn drudgery.
Their next trick beggars belief: they married him off to their maid. On the wedding night the spiteful couple advised him to sleep in the local mill (no explanation for that whatsoever) then fed the miller ugly stories about him, so that the man returned to the mill in a foul temper. He tied a rope around the tailor’s neck, making him turn the wheel in place of a bull, beating him with a whip when he did not move fast enough. When he eventually got home, aching and exhausted, the maid professed shock at his treatment but was really an active participant in her employers’ elaborate cruelties.
At his lodging house the tailor ran into the man who officiated at his marriage. Upon hearing how he spent the night, the official suspected the maid’s involvement and the tailor was angry enough to try and sever contact with his neighbours, but when the woman who originally captured his eye came crying to his door to insist her innocence, he mistook beauty for sincerity and got sucked back in. The maid, now his wife but still playing go-between, claimed that the woman’s husband was to be with friends that evening and it was a great time for a rendevous. Only it was yet another humiliation, because the woman’s husband was lying in wait and dragged him off to the governor to be punished for his attempted infidelity. The tailor was beaten and taken around the city so that people could howl abuse at him, then once that was over, he was banished. The barber took him in and they’ve lived together since.
If you’re wondering what the point of that depressing little anecdote was, a) you are not alone and b) I have dreadful news. The barber has six brothers. He’s going to tell us about ALL OF THEM.