Thousand and One Nights
The sprawling, untidy collection of stories known
throughout the Arab-speaking world as theThousand and One Nights (and in
English long called The Arabian Nights) evolved over a long period of time,
and it is impossible to say just when a particular story was written. Because the collection reached its more or less definitive
form in the 16th century we have chosen to place this example here. Such tales of magic as
"Aladdin and the Wonderful Lamp" and "Ali Baba and the Forty
Thieves" are actually quite unrepresentative of the bulk of the Nights. Most are
decidedly adult tales of scandal and treachery, often involving faithless women. It is an irony
that cultures which depict women as irrepressibly sexual (including European culture, with its
Decameron and other story collections), simultaneously tend to portray them as highly
intelligent; for in a repressive patriarchal society it takes a good deal of cleverness to break the
rules successfully. This story stands out in depicting sympathetically a heroine who manages
to cleverly make fools of her would-be lovers by developing her own unique defense against
In what sense can this adulterous woman be called faithful?
A woman of the merchant class was married to a man who was a great traveler. Once he set
out for a far country and was absent so long that his wife, out of sheer boredom, fell in love
with a handsome young man, and they loved each other exceedingly. One day, the youth
quarreled with another man, who lodged a complaint against him with the Chief of Police,
and he cast him into prison. When the news came to the merchant's wife, she nearly lost her
mind. Then she arose and--putting on her richest clothes--went to the house of the Chief of
Police. She Greeted him and presented him with a petition which read, "The man you
have imprisoned is my brother So-and-So, who had a fight with someone; but those who
testified against him lied. He has been wrongfully imprisoned, and I have no one else to live
with or to support me; therefore I beg you graciously to release him."
When the Chief had read the petition, he looked at her and immediately fell in love with
her; so he said to her, "Go into my house, till I bring him out; then I will send for you
and you may take him away."
"O, my lord," she replied, "I have no one to protect me except almighty
God. I cannot enter any strange man's home."
The Chief said, "I will not let him go unless you come to my home and let me do what I
will with you."
She answered, "If it must be, you must come to my home and sleep through the
afternoon and evening there."
"And where is your home?" he asked; and she answered, "At
such-and-such a place," and arranged a time for him to come.
Then she left him, who had entirely fallen in love with her, and went to the Cadi of the city,
to whom she said, "O, our lord the Cadi!"
He said, "Yes?" and she continued, "Examine my case and you will be
He said, "Who has wronged you?" and she replied, "O my lord, I have a
brother, my only brother, and it is on his behalf that I come to you, because the Chief has
imprisoned him as a criminal and men have borne false witness against him, claiming that he
is an evil man, and I beg you to intercede for him with the Chief of Police."
When the Cadi gazed at her, he immediately fell in love with her and said, "Go into the
house and rest awhile with the women in my harm while I send to the Chief to release your
brother. If I knew how much his fine was, I would pay it myself out of my own purse sot that I
could enjoy you, for your sweet speech greatly pleases me.:
She said, "If you, O my lord, are to behave in this way, we would not be able to blame
Said he, "If you will not come in, go away."
Then she said, "If you insist, O our lord, it will be better and more private at my place
than in yours, for here there are slave-girls and eunuchs and people coming and going; and
indeed I am not this sort of woman, but I see that I must give in."
The Cadi asked, "And where is your house?" and she answered, "In
such-and-such a place, and set for him the same day and time as the Chief of Police.
Then she went from him to the Vizier, to whom she offered her petition for the release from
prison of her brother, who was absolutely necessary to her; but he also demanded she give
herself to him, saying "Allow me to do what I will with you and I will set your brother
She said, "If you insist, let it be in my house, for there we shall both have more privacy.
It is not far away, and you I will wash and dress myself properly for you.
He asked, "Where is your house."
"In such-and-such a place," she answered, and set the same time for as for the two
Then she left him to go to the King and told him her story and sought her brother's release.
"Who imprisoned him?" he asked; and she replied, "It was the Chief of
Police." When the King heard her speech, it pierced his heart with arrows of love, and
he asked her to enter this private chamber with him so that he might send to the Cadi to have
her brother released.
But she said, "O King, everything is easy for you, whether I agree or not; and if the King
indeed wants me, I am fortunate; but if he will come to my house he will do me more honor
by entering it, as the poet says: "O my friends, have you seen or have you heard of his
visit whose virtues I hold so high?"
The King said, "I do not disagree." So she set for him the same time as the three
others and told him where her house was.
Then she left him and sought out a carpenter, and told him "I want you to make me a
cabinet with four compartments, one above the other, each with a door that can be locked. Let
me know how much it will cost and I will pay it."
He replied, "My price is four dinars; but, sweet lady, if you will grant me your favors, I
will charge you nothing."
She answered, "If it is absolutely necessary, I will agree; but in that case make five
compartments with their padlocks," and she told him to bring it exactly on the day
He said, "This is well; sit down, O my lady, and I will make it for you immediately, and
then will come with you." So she sat down by him while he began working on the
cabinet; and when he had finished it she asked to have it carried home at once and set up in
her sitting-room. Then she took four gowns and carried them to the dyer, who dyed each of
them a different color; after which she prepared meat and drink, fruits, flowers, and perfumes.
Now when the appointed day came, she put on her costliest dress and adorned herself and
scented herself, then spread the sitting-room with various kinds of rich carpets and sat down
to await who should come.
The Cadi was the first to appear; and when she saw him, she rose to her feet and kissed the
ground before him. Then, taking him by the hand, made him sit down by her on the couch
and lay with him and fell to joking and toying with him. Soon he wanted to fulfill his desires
with her, but she said, "O my lord, take off your clothes and turban and put on this
yellow robe and bonnet(1), while I bring you food and drink, and then you shall do what you
will." So saying, she took his clothes and turban and dressed him in the robe and bonnet;
but hardly had she done this when there was a knocking at the door.
He asked, "Who is that knocking at the door?" and she answered, "My
"What shall I do? Where shall I go?" the Cadi said.
"Have no fear," she replied;" I will hide you in this cabinet;" and he
answered, "Do whatever you think necessary." So she took him by the hand, and
pushing him into the lowest compartment, locked he door on him. Then she went to the door
of the house, where she found the Chief; so she kissed the ground before him, and taking his
hand, brought him into the sitting-room and said to him, "O my lord, make this house
your own, this place you place, and I will be your servant. You shall spend all days with me; so
take off your clothes and put on this red sleeping gown." So she took away his clothes
and made him put on the red gown and set on his head an old patched rag she happened to
have; after which she sat by him on the divan and they toyed with each other until he reached
to touch her intimately, whereupon she said to him, "O our lord, this is your day, and no
one will share it with us; but first, if you will be so kind and generous, write me an order for
my brother's release from jail so that my heart can rest easy."
He said, "I hear and obey, by my head and eyes!" and wrote a letter to his treasurer
saying, "As soon as this communication reaches you, set So-and-so free, without delay.
Do not even wait to give the messenger an answer." Then he sealed it and she took it
from him, after which she began to toy with him on the divan again when someone suddenly
knocked at the door.
"Who is that?" he asked; and she answered, "My husband."
"What shall I do?" he asked, and she replied, "Enter this cabinet, till is end
him away and return to you."
So she set him up in the second compartment from the bottom and padlocked the door; and
meanwhile the Cadi heard everything they said. Then she went to the house door and opened
it, and in entered the Vizier. She kissed the ground before him and received him with all
honor, saying "O my lord, you flatter us by coming to our house; may God never deprive
us of the light of your countenance!"
Then she seated him on the divan and said to him, "O my lord, take off your heavy
clothes and turban and put on these lighter garments." So he took off his clothes and
turban and she dressed him in a blue shirt and a tall red bonnet, and said to him, "Those
were your official robes; so leave them be for their own time and put on this light gown which
is more suitable for carousing and making merry and sleep." Then they began to play
with each other, and he was just about to take her when she put him off by saying, "We
will get to that."
As they were talking there came a knock at the door, and the Vizier asked her, "Who is
that?" to which she replied, "My husband." "What is to be done?"
he said; and she answered, "Hide in this cabinet until I can get rid of him and come back
to you; don't be afraid." So she put him in the third compartment and locked the door
on him, after which she went out and opened the house door, and in came the King.
As soon as she saw him she kissed the ground before him, and taking him by the hand, led
him into the sitting-room and seated him on the divan at the far end. Then she said to him,
"Truly, O King, you honor us highly, and whatever we might give you of all the world
contains would not be worth a single one of your steps toward us." And when he had sat
down on the divan she said, "Permit me to say one thing."
"Whatever you wish," he answered; and she said, "O my lord, relax and take
off your robe and turban." His clothes were worth a thousand dinars; but when he took
them off she dressed him in a patched gown worth ten dirhams at the very most, and began
talking and joking with him. All this time the men in the cabinet heard everything that went
on but did not dare to say a word. Soon the King placed his hand on her breast and sought to
fulfill his desire for her; but she said "We will do this soon, but first I promised myself
that I would entertain you properly in this room, and I have something to please you."
As they were speaking, someone knocked at the door and he asked her, "Who is that?
"My husband," she answered; and he said, "Make him go away voluntarily,
or I will go out and force him to go away."
She replied, "No, O my lord, be patient while I send him away using my
cleverness." "And what shall I do?" asked the King; whereupon she took
him by the hand and, making him enter the fourth compartment of the cabinet, locked it
Then she went out and opened the house door to the carpenter, who entered and greeted her.
She said, "What kind of a cabinet is this you've made me?" "What's wrong
with it, O my lady?" he asked; and she answered, "The top compartment is too
narrow." He replied, "No it isn't," and she answered, "Get in yourself
and see; you cannot fit in it."
He answered, "it is wise enough for four," and entered the fifth compartment,
whereupon she locked the door on him.
Then she took the letter of the Chief of Police and carried it to the treasurer who, having read
and understood it, kissed it and delivered her lover to her. She told him all she had done and
he said, "But what shall we do now?" She answered, "We will move away to
another city, for after all this we cannot remain here." So the two of them packed up
what possessions they had and, loading them on camels, set out immediately for another
Meanwhile, the five men remained each in his compartment of the cabinet without eating or
drinking for three whole days, during which time they held their water, until at last the
carpenter couldn't hold back any longer, so he pissed on the King's head, and the King pissed
on the Vizier's head, and the Vizier pissed on the Chief, and the Chief pissed on the Cadi,
whereupon the Cadi shouted, "What filth is this? Isn't it bad enough that we are trapped
like this that you have to piss all over us?"
The Chief of Police recognized the Cadi's voice and answered, "May God reward you, O
Cadi!" And when the Cadi heard him, he knew it was the Chief. Then the Chief shouted,
"What's the meaning of this filth?" and the Vizier replied, "May God reward
you, O Chief!" so that he recognized him as the Vizier. Then the Vizier shouted
"What is this nastiness?" But when the King heard his Vizier's voice he
recognized it, so he kept silent to conceal his plight.
Then the vizier said, "May God curse this woman for the way she has dealt with us. She
has brought together here all the chief officials of the state, except the King. Said the King,
"Silence! For I was the first one to be entrapped by this shameless whore."
At this the carpenter cried out, "And what have I done? I made her a cabinet for four
gold pieces, and when I came to get my pay, she tricked me into entering this compartment
and locked the door on me." And they began talking with each other, diverting the King
and reducing his shame.
Soon, however, the neighbors came by the house and noticed it was deserted. They said to one
another, "Only yesterday, our neighbor the wife of So-and-so was home; but no we
cannot hear or see anyone. Let's break down the doors and see what is the matter; or news of
the case may come to the Chief of the King, and we will be thrown into prison to regret that we
had not taken action earlier."
So they broke down the doors and entered the sitting room, where they saw a large wooden
cabinet and heard the men in it groaning with hunger and thirst. Then one of them said,
"Is there a Genie (2) in this cabinet?" and another said, "Let's
pile fuel around it and burn it up."
When the Cadi heard this, he cried out, "Don't!" and they said to each other,
"The Genies pretend they are mortals and speak with the voices of men."
Thereupon the Cadi recited a passage from the Blessed Qur'an, and said to the neighbors,
"Come closer to the cabinet."
So they came closer, and he told him, "I am So-and-so the Cadi, and you are so and so,
and here we are all together." The neighbors said, "Who put you in here?"
And he told them the whole story from beginning to end. They brought a carpenter to open
the five doors and let out the Cadi, the Vizier, the Chief, the King and the carpenter in their
bizarre robes; and each one, when he saw how the others were dressed, began laughing at
them. She had taken away all their clothes; so all of them sent to their homes for fresh
clothing and put it on and went out, shielding themselves from people's eyes.
(1) It was customary for party guests to put on special garments supplied
by the host.
(2) Magic spirit.
Translated by Richard Burton, revised by Paul Brians
This is an excerpt from Reading
About the World, Volume 2, edited by Paul Brians, Michael Blair, Douglas Hughes, Michael Neville, Roger Schlesinger, Alice Spitzer, and Susan Swan and published by HarperCollinsCustomBooks.
The reader was created for use in the World Civilization course at Washington State
University, but material on this page may be used for educational purposes by permission of the editor-in-chief:
Department of English
Washington State University
This is just a sample of Reading About the World, Volume 2.
No copies are available of the first edition; however, we are in the process of editing
the second edition, which will be published in time for Fall, 1996. If,
after examining the table of contents of the complete
volume, you are interested in considering it for use at your own campus, please contact Paul