This post is also available in: العربية (Arabic)
Long, long ago and far, far away this story was told, and it has been told ever since, and I tell it to you now. There was, in the city of Basra, when the evening was falling, a rosy glow upon the buildings around the central bazaar. And there was a Little Beggar, famous throughout the city for his japes and jokes and songs. The Tailor and his wife were returning from carousing. They invited the Little Beggar to come home with them to entertain them. And there he was in their house regaling them with a story. And they fed him a piece of white meat from a fish. the Little Beggar choked upon a bone in the meat. He fell backwards from the stool and onto the ground and lay there, motionless.
‘Uhhh! Wife, what have we done? This little man has come to our house as a guest to entertain us and we have murdered him. What will happen to my reputation?’ The Tailor and his wife bundled the Little Beggar into a roll of carpet and they carried him from their house and through the streets of Basra where now it was getting gloomy and dark. ‘Our child is sick, stay away! Our child has scarlet fever!’ The people did not come close, until one woman said, ‘My master is a doctor. Follow me.’ And they followed the woman to a house with steps running all the way up to the front door. It was the house of the Jewish Doctor. They followed her to the top step and left the body of the Little Beggar there. Of course, they took the carpet away with them.
The Doctor came out into the darkness and did not see the body of the little man in front of him, stumbled, and the body was knocked down the steps all the way to the bottom. The Doctor ran down the steps. ‘Uhhh! What have I done? A patient comes to me to be cured and I’ve killed him. What will happen to my reputation?’ The Doctor carried the body into the house. He decided what he must do.
He lowered the body from his balcony into his neighbor’s backyard; his neighbor, the Muslim Steward of the Royal kitchens. There, among the bags of flour and sacks of sugar, was propped the body of the Little Beggar. At that moment, the Muslim Steward of the Royal kitchens came home. ‘What is this noise in the backyard?’ He took a club, went into the backyard and saw a figure leaning there. He’d thought it was rats but this… He struck him hard between the shoulders and the Little Beggar slumped to the ground. ‘Uhhh! What have I done? A beggar comes into my backyard to take a little sugar and flour and I have killed him. Oh, whatever will happen to me for this murder?’
And the Muslim Steward of the kitchen seized the body and went out through the front of the house and into the streets of Basra which were now empty for it was late at night. Along a dark alleyway he went towards the canal where he would dispose of the body. But as he came along, he heard, coming in the opposite direction, the singing of a Christian who was clearly drunk. He propped the body against a corner and went back the way he had come. And now, along came that drunk man, that Christian Moneylender singing at the top of his voice after a night of drinking.
‘What is this here in the shadows? A thief! Oh, you won’t get away with it!’ And he seized the Little Beggar’s body by the shoulders and started dashing his head against the wall… ‘Thief! Thief!’ The Watchmen came running along the alleyway. They seized the Christian. ‘You, Christian Moneylender, have murdered this man in the streets.’ The next morning at dawn, the area in front of the great bazaar in the heart of Basra was thronging with people. Before them sat the Sultan. Next to him, the Governor. And next to them, upon a table, was the body of the Little Beggar. In front of them stood the Christian Moneylender. ‘You,’ said the Governor. ‘You who have often had dealings with the Sultan. You have killed a man in the street for no good reason. What have you to say for yourself?’ The Christian stood. ‘I am guilty. You should punish me.’ The Christian Moneylender was led to the scaffold. A rope was put around his neck. He prepared to die, when a voice came from the crowd: ‘He is innocent. Set him free. You should punish me.’ There stood the Muslim, the Steward. ‘He was already dead when I left him in the alleyway. I killed him. I struck him for he was stealing sugar and flour from my backyard.’ ‘You,’ said the Governor, ‘who have supplied food for the royal kitchens all these years, have murdered a poor beggar? The Steward must be hanged by the neck until dead.’ The Steward was led to the scaffold, the rope now put around his throat. He prepared to die, when there was a cry from the crowd: ‘He is innocent! Set him free! You should punish me.’ There stood the Jew, the Doctor. ‘It was I who killed the Little Beggar. He was already dead when I lowered him into my neighbor’s backyard. I had kicked him down the steps outside my house.’
‘You, the Doctor,’ said the Governor, ‘who have treated and healed the Sultan on many occasions, have murdered one of your patients. The Doctor must be hanged by the neck until dead.’ The Jewish Doctor was taken to the scaffold; the rope was now taken from the Muslim and put around his neck. He prepared to meet his maker when, from the crowd, a cry: ‘He is innocent! Set him free! You should punish me.’ And there stood the Tailor. ‘I killed the Little Beggar. He came to my house to tell me and my wife stories and we choked him with a fish bone. It is our fault that he is dead. We put him at the Doctor’s front door.’
‘The Tailor who has clothed the Sultan all these years! The Tailor must be hanged by the neck until dead.’ And now the Tailor was led to the scaffold, the rope put around his neck, and he prepared to die. The crowd was hushed. At last there would be an execution. But … a cry: ‘He is innocent! Set him free!’ ‘Enough,’ said the Governor. ‘Enough,’ said the Sultan. ‘Somebody must pay. Who is it that speaks?’ Beside them there stood a little wizened old man with a long grey beard. It was the Barber. He stood next to the body of the Little Beggar. ‘There is a mystery to this death, and the mystery is that there is no death. He is still breathing. See?’
And he took a pair of tongs from his leather bag, and he took a pot of ointment and rubbed the ointment onto the throat of the Little Beggar and inserted the tongs and pulled out the fish bone. And the Little Beggar sat up with a cough and a splutter. ‘Oh, thank you. Thank you, one and all for being here to save me. How will I ever repay you? You have tried to save me after I choked on the bone. First of all, you kicked me down steps. And then you knocked me on the back with a club. And then you dashed my head against the wall. And now you have taken that bone from my throat and I am well again.’ ‘Strange,’ said the Sultan. ‘Never have I heard a more remarkable story than this of the Little Beggar. It must be written down on a scroll and kept in the royal library.’
‘I beg to differ, Your Majesty,’ said the Little Beggar. ‘I have far stranger stories that I can tell.’ And with that he thanked all those that had gathered in the streets of Basra by telling them one of his most remarkable stories.