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Harvard Classics

July 5 – Thousand and One Nights: The Tailor

A Tailor Entertains a King
Here is another of those fanciful Oriental stories that proclaims the democracy of Eastern despotism. A tailor might talk with a king and receive either a death sentence or the office of Grand Vizier as a reward.
Read from THE THOUSAND AND ONE NIGHTS Vol. 16, pp. 149-162

One Thousand and One Nights is a collection of Middle Eastern folk tales compiled in Arabic during the Islamic Golden Age. It is often known in English as the Arabian Nights, from the first English-language edition, which rendered the title as The Arabian Nights’ Entertainment.

The main frame story concerns Shahryār (Persian: شهريار‎, from Middle Persian: šahr-dār, ‘holder of realm’), whom the narrator calls a “Sasanian king” ruling in “India and China.” Shahryār is shocked to learn that his brother’s wife is unfaithful. Discovering that his own wife’s infidelity has been even more flagrant, he has her killed. In his bitterness and grief, he decides that all women are the same. Shahryār begins to marry a succession of virgins only to execute each one the next morning, before she has a chance to dishonor him.

Eventually the Vizier (Wazir), whose duty it is to provide them, cannot find any more virgins. Scheherazade (Persian: شهْرزاد‎, Shahrazād, from Middle Persian: شهر‎, čehr, ‘lineage’ + ازاد‎, āzād, ‘noble’), the vizier’s daughter, offers herself as the next bride and her father reluctantly agrees. On the night of their marriage, Scheherazade begins to tell the king a tale, but does not end it. The king, curious about how the story ends, is thus forced to postpone her execution in order to hear the conclusion. The next night, as soon as she finishes the tale, she begins another one, and the king, eager to hear the conclusion of that tale as well, postpones her execution once again. This goes on for one thousand and one nights, hence the name.

The tailor tells this story to the king of China.

The day before meeting the hunchback, he attended an early morning banquet. One of the guests, a lame man, refused to enter when he recognized a barber in the group. The man blamed the barber for his lameness and other misfortunes that had caused him to leave his native Baghdad. Guests begged to hear the story.

In Baghdad the young man fell in love with a woman he saw in a window. His desire made him ill. An old woman noticed his distress and convinced the young woman, a judge’s daughter locked in her chamber, to let him visit. The young woman reluctantly allowed the young man to enter in secret on Friday before the noon prayer.

Friday came, and the man eagerly prepared for their meeting. First he summoned a barber to shave his head. Instead of cutting the man’s hair, the barber took out an astrolabe—an instrument used to calculate the positions of the stars and planets. He claimed the heavenly conditions were unlucky for meeting another person. The barber then bragged about his skills in medicine, scholarship, Muslim doctrine, and other fields. He praised his own discretion, saying his nickname was “the Silent One.” Impatient, the young man insisted the barber just cut his hair. But the barber kept bragging and only shaved a few hairs at a time. Certain the man was in danger, the barber wouldn’t let him leave.

At noon the man sneaked off to his meeting with the woman, unaware the barber was following him. When the barber heard a scream from inside the house, he mistakenly thought the man was being murdered and caused a commotion in the streets. The man was forced to escape in a chest. He broke his leg jumping from the chest, then ran away. The barber ran after him, claiming he had saved the man’s life. Certain the barber wouldn’t leave him alone otherwise, the man sold his goods and moved to a new country.

After hearing the story, the guests at the banquet asked the barber if it was true. The barber maintained his actions had saved the man’s life. He said he’s the wisest of his six brothers and would tell a story to prove his good character.

The lame man is one of several characters whose unrequited love, or separation from his beloved, renders him physically ill. Most of the love poems in The Arabian Nights combine love and sorrow. This love affair seems like it may lead to disaster; the reader already knows the lame man didn’t get a happy ending. What’s more, the judge’s daughter seems to have no interest in him.

However, the story takes an unusual turn and becomes an over-the-top comedy. It resembles a burlesque—a comic treatment of a serious subject—by sidelining the dramatic, earnest love story for the barber’s antics. The contrast between the barber’s incompetence and his pride, and between his constant chatter and his image of himself as “The Silent One,” provide humor. His misadventures were turned into an 1858 comic opera by German composer Peter Cornelius (1824–74) called The Barber of Baghdad.

In medieval times barbers were often multidisciplinary professionals. European barbers didn’t only cut hair. They also functioned as both surgeons and bloodletters. This barber, on the other hand, doesn’t do much professionally other than read the signs of the stars.

The comedy escalates with the time constraints—the haircut has to happen before noon. Days in medieval Islamic countries were structured around the five daily calls to prayer.

As the plot descends into comic chaos, the barber reveals the story’s central situational irony. He insists God sent him to save the lame man from the destruction the barber caused himself. Nevertheless, the lame man still attributes the chain of events to divine foresight, believing God planned to ruin his life in the city by sending the barber.

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