The Story of the Blind Baba-Abdalla
I was born, Your Majesty, in Baghdad, and was left an orphan when I was a very young man, for my parents died within a few days of each other. I had inherited from them a small fortune, which I worked hard night and day to increase, till at last I found myself the owner of eighty camels. These I hired out to traveling merchants, whom I frequently accompanied on their various journeys, and always returned with large profits.
One day I was coming back from Basra, where I had taken a supply of goods, intended for India, and stopped at noon in a lonely place, which had good grass for my camels. I was resting in the shade under a tree, when a holy man, going on foot towards Basra, sat down by my side. I asked where he had come from and where he was going. We soon made friends, and after we had asked each other the usual questions, we produced the food we had with us, and ate together.
While we were eating, the holy man happened to mention that in a place only a little way off from where we were sitting, there was hidden a treasure so great that if my eighty camels were loaded till they could carry no more, the hiding place would seem as full as if it had never been touched.
At this news I became excited with joy and greed, and I exclaimed, “Good man, I see plainly that the riches of this world are nothing to you, therefore what use is the knowledge of this treasure to you? Alone and on foot, you could carry away a mere handful. But tell me where it is, and I will load my eighty camels with it, and give you one of them as a sign of my gratitude.”
Certainly my offer does not sound very generous, but it was great to me, for at his words a wave of greed had swept over my heart.
The holy man saw quite well what I was thinking, but he did not show what he thought of my suggestion.
“My brother,” he answered quietly, “you know as well as I do, that you are behaving unfairly. I could have kept my secret and the treasure for myself. But the fact that I have told you of its existence shows that I had confidence in you, and that I hoped to earn your gratitude for ever, by making your fortune as well as mine. But before I reveal to you the secret of the treasure, you must swear that, after we have loaded the camels with as much as they can carry, you will give half to me, and let us go our own ways. I think you will see that this is fair, for if you present me with forty camels, I on my side will give you the means of buying a thousand more.”
I could not of course deny that what the holy man said was perfectly reasonable, but, in spite of that, the thought that the man would be as rich as I was unbearable to me. Still there was no use in discussing the matter, and I had to accept his conditions or regret to the end of my life the loss of great wealth. So I collected my camels and we set out together. After walking some time, we reached what looked like a valley, but with such a narrow entrance that my camels could only pass one by one. The little valley was between two mountains, whose sides were formed of straight cliffs, which no human being could climb.
When we were exactly between these mountains the holy man stopped.
“Make your camels lie down in this open space,” he said, “so that we can easily load them, and then we will go to the treasure.”
I did what I was told, and rejoined the holy man, whom I found trying to start a fire out of some dry wood. As soon as it was alight, he threw on it a handful of perfumes, and pronounced a few words that I did not understand, and immediately a thick column of smoke rose high into the air. He separated the smoke into two columns, and then I saw a rock, which stood like a pillar between the two mountains, slowly open, and a splendid palace appear within.
But, Your Majesty, the love of gold had taken such possession of my heart, that I could not even stop to examine the riches, but fell upon the first pile of gold within my reach and began to heap it into a sack that I had brought with me.
The holy man also set to work, but I soon noticed that he only collected precious stones, and I felt I should be wise to follow his example. At length the camels were loaded with as much as they could carry, and nothing remained but to seal up the treasure, and go our ways.
Before, however, this was done, the holy man went up to a great golden vase, beautifully decorated, and took from it a small wooden box, which he hid in his robe, merely saying that it contained a special kind of ointment. Then he once more started the fire, threw on the perfume, and murmured the unknown spell, and the rock closed, and stood whole as before.
The next thing was to divide the camels, , after which we each took our own and marched out of the valley, till we reached the place in the high road where the road split, and then we parted, the holy man going towards Basra, and I to Baghdad. We embraced each other, and I expressed my gratitude for the honour he had done me, and having said a fond farewell we turned our backs, and hurried after our camels.
I had hardly come up with mine when envy filled my soul. “What does a holy man want with riches like that?” I said to myself. “He alone has the secret of the treasure, and can always get as much as he wants,” and I stopped my camels by the roadside, and ran back after him.
I was a quick runner, and it did not take me very long to come up with him. “My brother,” I exclaimed, as soon as I could speak, “a thought occurred to me, which is perhaps new to you. You are a holy man, and live a very quiet life, only caring to do good, and uninterested in the things of this world. You do not realize the burden that you lay upon yourself, when you gather into your hands such great wealth. Besides, the fact is that anyone, who is not used to camels from his birth, can ever manage the stubborn beasts. If you are wise, you will not bother yourself with more than thirty, and you will find those trouble enough.”
“You are right,” replied the holy man, who understood me quite well, but did not wish to argue the matter. “I admit I had not thought about it. Choose any ten you like, and take them with you.”
I selected ten of the best camels, and we carried along the road, to rejoin those I had left behind. I had got what I wanted, but I had found the holy man so easy to deal with, that I rather regretted I had not asked for ten more. I looked back. He had only gone a few paces, and I called after him.
“My brother,” I said, “I am unwilling to part from you without pointing out what I think you scarcely understand, that large experience of camel-driving is necessary to anybody who intends to keep together a troop of thirty. In your own interest, I feel sure you would be much happier if you entrusted ten more of them to me, for with my practice it is all the same to me if I take two or a hundred.”
As before, the holy man made no difficulties, and I drove off my ten camels, only leaving him with twenty for his share. I had now sixty, and anyone might have imagined that I should be content.
But, Your Majesty, there is a proverb that says, “the more one has, the more one wants.” So it was with me. I could not rest as long as one single camel remained with the holy man and returning to him, I redoubled my efforts, and promises of gratitude, till the last twenty were in my hands.
“Make a good use of them, my brother,” said the holy man. “Remember riches sometimes have wings if we keep them for ourselves, and the poor are there so that we may help them.”
My eyes were so blinded by gold that I paid no attention to his wise advice, and only looked about for something else to grasp. Suddenly I remembered the little box of ointment that the holy man had hidden, and which most likely contained a treasure more precious than all the rest. I said, “What are you going to do with that little box of ointment? It seems hardly worth taking with you; you might as well let me have it. And really, a holy man who has given up the world has no need of ointment!”
Oh, if he had only refused my request! But then, supposing he had, I should have taken it by force, so great was the madness that had hold of me. However, far from refusing it, the holy man at once held it out, saying gracefully, “Take it, my friend, and if there is anything else I can do to make you happy you must let me know.”
Directly the box was in my hands I ripped off the cover. “As you are so kind,” I said, “Tell me, what the benefits of this ointment are?”
“They are most curious and interesting,” replied the holy man. “If you apply a little of it to your left eye you will see in an instant all the treasures hidden in the earth. But beware, if you touch your right eye with it, your sight will be destroyed for ever.”
His words excited my curiosity. “Let me try, I beg you,” I cried, holding out the box to the holy man. “You will know how to do it better than I! I am burning with impatience to test its magic.”
The holy man took the box I had extended to him, and, telling me shut my left eye, touched it gently with the ointment. When I opened it again I saw spread out, as it were before me, treasures of every kind and without number. But as all this time I had to keep my right eye closed, which was very tiring, I begged the holy man to apply the ointment to that eye also.
“If you insist I will do it,” answered the holy man, “But you must remember what I told you just now, that if it touches your right eye you will become blind on the spot.”
Unluckily, I was firmly convinced that he was now keeping hidden from me some hidden and precious magic of the ointment. So I refused to listen to what he said.
“My brother,” I replied smiling, “I see you are joking. It is not natural that the same ointment should have two such exactly opposite effects.”
“It is true all the same,” answered the holy man, “and it would be better for you if you believed my word.”
But I would not believe, and, dazzled by my greed, I thought that if one eye could show me riches, the other might teach me how to get possession of them. And I continued to urge the holy man to put the ointment on my right eye, but this he refused to do.
“After having given so much to you,” said he, “I will not do you such evil. Think what it is to be blind, and do not force me to do what you will regret as long as you live.”
It was of no use. “My brother,” I said firmly, “Say no more, but do what I ask. You have most generously granted my wishes so far; do not spoil my memory of you for such a little thing. I will take responsibility for what happens to me and not blame you.”
“Since you are so determined,” he answered with a sigh, “There is no use talking,” and taking the ointment he laid some on my right eye, which was tight shut. When I tried to open it heavy clouds of darkness floated before me. I was as blind as you see me now!
“Miserable holy man!” I shrieked, “So it is true after all! Into what hell has my greed for gold sent me? Ah, now that my eyes are closed they are really opened. I know that all my sufferings are caused by myself alone! But, good brothers, you, who are so kind and generous, and know the secrets of so many things, have you nothing that will give me back my sight?”
“Unhappy man,” replied the holy man “It is not my fault that this has happened to you, but it is a fair punishment. The blindness of your heart has caused the blindness of your body. Yes, I have secrets; that you have seen in the short time that we have known each other. But I have none that will give you back your sight. You have proved yourself unworthy of the riches that were given you. Now they have passed into my hands, where they will be given into the hands of others less greedy and ungrateful than you.”
The holy man said no more and left me speechless with shame and confusion, and so wretched that I stood rooted to the spot, while he collected the eighty camels and proceeded on his way to Basra. It was in vain that I begged him not to leave me, but at least to take me within reach of the first passing caravan. He was deaf to my prayers and cries, and I should soon have been dead of hunger and misery if some merchants had not come along the track the following day and kindly brought me back to Baghdad.
From a rich man I had in one moment become a beggar, and up to this time I have lived solely on the coins that I have begged. But, in order to pay for the sin of greed, which was my undoing, I ask each passer-by to give me a blow.
This, Your Majesty, is my story.
When the blind man had ended the Caliph addressed him: “Baba-Abdalla, truly your sin is great, but you have suffered enough. Henceforth repent in private, for I will see that enough money is given you day by day for all your wants.”
At these words Baba-Abdalla flung himself at the Caliph’s feet, and prayed that honour and happiness might be his for ever.