And, on the thousand and second night, after the king Shahryar had had his way with her, and Dunyazad her sister begged her for a story to pass the hours of darkness, Shahrazad said:
Once upon a time, in the lands beyond Asia and China, there dwelt a young man named Ala-ad-Din, or Aladdin, as it is pronounced in those parts.
Now this Aladdin was not one of those young men who make the hearts of fair maidens beat faster, and their eyes drop demurely under their veils. He was a rough, tough young man, quite illiterate, and little more than a street urchin – someone whose widowed mother had long since given up all hope of ever having him come to anything, and had shut herself away in her little shop, where she wove tapestries to make both ends meet.
Meanwhile, Aladdin roamed the marketplaces and wharfs all day, and what he saw and he liked, he stole. He was quite a good thief, and so seldom did he get caught that he had not even made the register of the local police force. All the same, he did not earn enough from his thieving to do more than keep body and soul together. His clothes were rags, His teeth were rotten. He stank like a sewer. Despite all this, though, Aladdin had not given up hope of the stroke of fortune which would set him up for life and let him even provide for his mother so that, unless she wanted, she didn’t have to work. However, the years were passing, his youth was fleeting by, and there was no sign that the stroke of fortune was anywhere at hand.
One day, Aladdin was lounging in the marketplace, watching the people go by. He had already turned down two offers of employment as a porter that day, because hauling loads was not a job for a man with a future like him, and was wondering if he could manage to sneak a bag of dried fruit from the stall opposite while the owner’s back was turned. But the owner knew Aladdin well enough to keep a wary eye on him, and hadn’t shown any signs of relaxed vigilance. Aladdin, though, wanted dry fruit. He wanted dry fruit to the extent that his salivary glands ached at the thought of a sweet date on his tongue. So he looked at the stall and licked his lips and waited for a chance that he hoped might come.
“If you want some of that fruit so badly,” a female voice said, a voice so sweet that it might cause the bees to gather in search of honey. “If you want that fruit so badly, why don’t you just buy a bag?”
Starting, Aladdin turned, to see a woman standing beside him. Though her face was covered in a discreet veil, her hands were achingly lovely, like deer in the moonlight – and, more to the point, her wrists and fingers dripped with bracelets and rings of gold, studded with jewels. Aladdin’s eyes glinted as bright as the jewels in the sunlight, but his voice was cool and neutral when he replied.
“What makes you imagine I desire any of that old fruit, my lady?” he asked. “It is not of good enough quality to touch my fancy; for, indeed, I am used to far more luxurious viands.”
“Oh, talk!” the woman scoffed. “I’ve been watching how you’re drooling at those sticky dates and chunks of dried coconut. Well, then, young man, why don’t you just buy some? No money, I will warrant?”
“Money!” Aladdin said. “Now, I could lower my station to the extent of trading in that misbegotten thing, but –“
“As I thought, you possess no money, not even a miserable dinar to buy a bag of dates. And I’ll bet you don’t want to soil your hands with honest work, either. Am I right?”
Aladdin shook his head. “I could say that you were right – or not right, lady. But in truth I am engaged in so secret a mission for our lord, the Sultan, that I could not mention it where it might reach hostile ears.”
“You tell an intriguing tale, young man.” Turning her back to the stall opposite, and to the dry-fruit merchant who was now watching her with open curiosity, the woman twitched up her veil for an instant. “Will you come along with me? I would speak more with you on this.”
If Aladdin had been merely trying to drive up his status with her in order to boost his own ego, his breath seemed to fail when he saw the vision of beauty that she revealed with the momentary lift of her veil, for not even in the harīm of Sulaiman the Magnificent could one find such beauty, and indeed even the hurīs of Jannat would find it difficult to provide her equal.
“Why, of course, lady,” he said, when he felt able to speak. “Of course I shall go with you.”
He followed her through the marketplace and up a street and down another, and then several more, until even he, who had roamed the alleys of the town since he had been a child could no longer recognise where he was. Then, at last, the woman stopped before a pair of high gates set in a wall, and clapped her hands, whereupon a slave ran out and threw the portals open wide.
And inside, before Aladdin’s amazed eyes, was revealed a garden like unto that of Paradise, with broad paths amongst grassy lawns, and tinkling fountains surrounded by date trees. The woman led Aladdin to a marble summerhouse. There when they had seated themselves, music played gently, and slave girls, clad in silks so gorgeous that they might have been the envy of a princess, brought forth basins of scented rosewater for the guest to wash his face and hands.
“Lady,” said Aladdin, “I must tell you that I have never seen such wonderful –“
“Hush,” said the woman, and clapped her hands, on which the slave girls entered again, bearing platters of gold laden food so rich that the guest had never even imagined the existence of such in his life before, and silver goblets of wine which lay with such fragrance on the tongue as to transport the drinker, even in the heat of summer, instantly as if to gardens by the distant snow-clad mountains, where the air felt cool to the brow and the aroma of roses floated on the breeze. But Aladdin had no such sophistication, and he fell to with gusto, eating and drinking until he could eat and drink no more. The woman touched not a morsel herself, but watched him eat with evident satisfaction.
“Now,” said she, after the guest had eaten and drunk until he could eat and drink no more, and had belched loudly, not out of politeness – for he knew nothing of good manners – but simply because he had eaten and drunk to bursting; “now, my excellent young man, I would like to tell you why I have brought you here.”
“Ask, my lady,” Aladdin, whose brain was quite inflamed with the vast quantities of wine he had imbibed, replied. “Ask of me anything you want, for I have given you my heart, and wish nothing more than to be your devoted slave.”
At this the young woman fell to weeping bitterly, and, between sobs, told her heart-rending tale.
“Know then, young man, that I am not really a human woman, but a Jinniyah; for my father Ahirman is a Jinn, one of those who stayed true when the rest rebelled against the noble rule of Sulaiman the Magnificent. And my mother is a Jinniyah from over the hills of Persia, who left me soon after I was born and returned to her native land. And I was perforce brought up by my father alone, who loved me very much, for I was all he had. And I am, as you see, not too ugly to look upon.” So saying, she threw back her veil, and if her beauty had seemed to equal that of the hurīs of Jannat earlier, it surpassed them now as the full moon surpasses its refection on the water.
“Alas, it so happened that my beauty was no blessing, for it drew upon me the lust of an evil sorcerer from a far and distant land. This accursed magician decided that I should be his bride, and made representations to my father for my hand; but my father, Ahirman, knowing well that his daughter would not and could not be happy in the company of so vile a sorcerer, firmly refused all his blandishments. And when the magician finally realised that I should not be his, he flew into a rage, and made arcane spells that spelt doom for my happiness, for it locked my father in chains of iron, and buried him in a fortress of bronze under the sands of the desert where he remains to this day. And the sorcerer, meanwhile, plots and plans to find ways to inveigle himself into my affections, so that he can trick me into marrying him. I am much afraid that he will succeed. Therefore, I am pledged to stay unwed and virgin my entire life, lest I make the mistake of delivering myself into his power.”
“This is a very sad tale, my lady,” said Aladdin, weeping too. “If there is any way I could help you, you but have to ask.”
“I cannot ask that of you,” said the Jinniyah. “I only brought you here so that I could share my sad tale with someone else, apart from my slaves, who know it all and are quite powerless to help me in any fashion; and, besides, I wished to give as much happiness as I could to whom I might, for my own life is quite drained of anything approaching pleasure – I have no hope, and nothing means anything to me.
“If it were only possible to free my father from his prison in the bronze fortress under the desert, he would be sure to wreck the plans of the foul sorcerer, for nobody knows more of them than he; but, alas, he lies there bound in chains of iron, and must doubtless lie there for all eternity. Iron, as you know, is as poison to us Jinn folk.”
“But can you not understand,” Aladdin said, his mind still raging with the wine, “that I have decided to obey you and serve you in every way I can; that your happiness is now mine? I am from this moment onwards bound over to you, to command as you see fit. Tell me, if you will, how I may set your father free, if at all I can.”
The Jinniyah regarded him with eyes still brimming with tears. “I cannot ask it of you,” she said. “It is beyond the ability even of a Jinn to achieve, for I have tried myself, and despite my youth and appearance, my own powers are not of the meanest order. It would be foolish of you to risk your life and safety on a hopeless errand.”
“Where a Jinn has failed,” Aladdin declared, “a mere human may yet succeed. Please tell me how I can reach the fortress and set your father free.”
When the Jinniyah understood that her guest was fixed on his purpose and would not be denied, she took him by the hand and led him through the garden to a dome of white sandstone which stood amongst a grove of date trees; and there, inside the dome, she slipped a ring on to his finger.
“This ring,” she said, “will help you overcome certain obstacles. All you have to do is rub it three times. But do not use it unless you really need its help, lest it cause you harm instead. And once you enter the fortress of bronze, do not listen to anything you may be told, no matter who tells you it, or what they tell you; for they mean nothing but to frustrate and defeat you, and nothing they say is true. Also do not believe all you may see, for that place is full of magic and artifice.”
Then, turning to a niche in the wall of the dome, she clapped her hands, and instantly the floor trembled, a trap door sprung open, and a Jinn appeared, so huge and dreadful of aspect that even the heart of Aladdin quailed in his breast. The titanic Jinn, however, ignored him and turned to his lovely companion.
“And how may I be of service, mistress?” he asked.
The Jinniyah indicated Aladdin. “You are to take this young man to the spot in the ancient desert where my father lies buried under the sand, and to the gates of the bronze fortress which is his prison. For this man wishes to help me, and he is determined to set my father free.”
The giant Jinn laughed with a sound like distant thunder. “What can a mere human achieve, that I, Bahram, the mightiest Jinn in all the realms, could not? But, mistress, I hear and obey.” Taking Aladdin on his back, he sped up into the air and flew over city and sea and mountains, until day and night became one, and at last they came to the desert where the fortress of bronze lay buried.
It was a terrible desert, a flat and barren expanse of stone and sand stretching to the distant horizon, under a sky which had never known a cloud, and where nothing grew, not even a single speck of green. In the middle of the desert was a jumbled pile of rock, marking the position of the fortress; beside this Bahram the Jinn set Aladdin down on the sand.
“Stand back,” he ordered, and with one blow of his mighty fist, he clove one of the rocks in twain, revealing a passage leading down into the ground. “There lies the way to the bronze fortress,” he said. “I go no further for now; but remember, human, you are attempting what no Jinn has succeeded in doing; and if you know what is good for you, you should give up now. Say the word and I will convey you to your own country, for I am sure you are quivering with fear at the thought of the task that lies before you.”
Meanwhile, Aladdin had quite shaken off the effects of the wine he had imbibed, and terror had seized his soul. But he remembered the Jinniyah’s beauty, and the tears in her eyes, and resolve entered him once more. Without answering Bahram’s taunt, he seized his courage in both hands and started down the passage that led to the fortress of bronze where the Jinn lay imprisoned.
So saying, Shahrazad paused, and little Dunyazad, pressing close to the bed, begged to know what happened next. But Shahrazad only smiled and said: “It grows light, little one, and if our gracious sovereign will only permit, I will continue the tale tomorrow night.” And the king Shahryar heard, and thought that it would be well to wait until the morrow to hear the rest of this marvellous story.
And on the thousand and third night, Shahrazad said:
Aladdin had only gone a part of the way down the passage, far enough to see the first gleam of the great bronze doors, when he heard a rustling noise, and great birds rushed upon him from every side, their wings beating at him and pecking at him with their cruel sharp beaks. But Aladdin remembered what the Jinniyah had said, and walked on without paying them any heed; so that their wings and beaks turned to air, and they vanished in puffs of shadow.
Then Aladdin arrived at the mighty portals of the fortress, which towered far above him, studded and spiked so that he could barely reach the gates themselves at the full stretch of his arm, let alone even think of pushing them open. But he was an experienced thief, and could climb well. So, using the spikes for handholds and footrests, he clambered quickly up the face of the great gates, until he was perched on the wall above them, and could look down into the fortress itself.
And down below, he saw a maze of passages, lit dimly by flickering torches – passages in which demons with fanged snouts stood sentry, clad in armour and bearing swords, pikes and clubs. But from atop the gates, it was a simple matter for him to creep on to the walls of the maze, and above the demon guards, who, fearsome as they were, did not suspect his presence and did not look up.
Thus Aladdin crept above the heads of the demons towards the dark citadel which reared its head in the centre of the fortress, an edifice so forbidding that even the demon guards did not dare look over their shoulders in its direction; and despite the memory of the loveliness of the Jinniyah, the heart of the young man trembled as with an ague as he contemplated his destination.
At length he arrived at the citadel, and was glad of the poor light, for it hid the worst of its horrors from his eyes; but the little he saw was enough to send terror chilling his soul, and his knees were as turned to water. But, having come so far, there was no way he could turn back now, and he walked up the great staircase which led to the door of the citadel and pushed it open.
Inside was a brightly-lit room, and in it, working at a tapestry, her hands bloody with the pricks of the needle, was his old mother. She looked up at him from her work, her eyes bright with tears.
“Aladdin, my son,” she exclaimed, opening her arms to him. “So long have I waited for you, but in vain. My heart grows as weary as my eyes grow weak, and I feel my time is growing short. My son, I have been waiting to see you again, just one more time, before Allah calls me to Him. Come home to me, my son.”
Aladdin had been about to throw himself into her arms, but at the last moment, he paused. “If you are truly my mother,” he said, slowly, “tell me the names of my friends from my childhood days.”
At that the figure of his mother seemed to melt and change; her eyes grew yellow and malevolent, her face sprouted warts, and an ancient and hideous hag appeared for a moment before vanishing in a puff of smoke. And beyond her was another doorway, through which Aladdin walked.
And here was another room, which had no floor; instead, in the centre was a pit of fire, whose glow reflected red off the walls and ceiling. But Aladdin remembered what the Jinniyah had said, and descended into the fire, which proved to be not hot at all, or even really fire, and he walked across it quite unharmed, and through the door on the far side.
And here it was, in the centre of a vast room, so vast that he could only with difficulty see the far side, that he found the Jinniyah’s father. The Jinn Ahirman was a fearsome figure, with a horned head and sharply jutting teeth, but he lay buried in the stone floor up to his chest, and his great arms were wrapped around with iron chains secured by two locks as large as chariot wheels. He regarded Aladdin with curiosity.
“Who are you?” he asked. “And whence come you here?”
“My name is Aladdin, and I come to set you free.”
“That is quite impossible,” the Jinn declared. “I have been here long enough to be aware that there is no escape from my imprisonment; and I warn you to flee, before the guardians of this fortress grow aware of your presence, and have you torn limb from limb.”
“In that case,” said Aladdin, “I have no time to waste.” Bending, he put his hands on either side of the locks, and pressed – and they, being rusted almost through, fell apart as though made of rotting wood. “It is as I thought,” he said. “You are also bound by this magic to mislead and frustrate me. Please rise up out of the floor, for now that I have removed the iron, I am sure you can.” And, with scarcely a pause now that he was free of his iron chains, the Jinn rose.
“Wait!” a voice called, and Aladdin turned to see the Jinnyah running across the chamber towards him. “That is not my father,” she said. “It is only a chimera, a creation of the foul magician, meant to impede your search. My father lies elsewhere, deeper inside the citadel.”
Aladdin stared at her. “My lady,” he said at last, “how are you here? Did you not tell me that your powers were not great enough for you to enter this place?”
“Never mind that,” the Jinniyah said. “This...thing...is not my father. He lies elsewhere, imprisoned and weeping. Come, I will lead you to him.”
“One moment, my lady.” Bending quickly, Aladdin picked up the heavy chain from the floor and threw it over the Jinniyah. She snatched at the chain and threw it down on to the ground.
“What game is this?” she snapped, anger flushing her beautiful face. “Come with me.”
“I don’t think so,” Aladdin said. “If you were really the Jinniyah, would iron not act as poison to you and tie you down?”
There was a moment of silence, and then, with a hiss, the Jinniyah began to change. Shadows chased each other over her countenance, and she began to whirl and merge within them, until there was only a spiral of shadow with a pair of furious red eyes glowing in their midst.
“We must get out of here as quickly as we can,” the Jinn Ahirman said. “That is one of the guardians of the fortress. Alas, I cannot help us escape – until we are out of here, the influence of the magician prohibits me from helping in any way.”
“In that case,” Aladdin said, “this is a time when I really need the ring’s help.” Quickly, he rubbed it three times, and with a crack like thunder, the Jinn Behram appeared inside the chamber. Astonished, he looked at the young man.
“I could never have thought you would get this far,” he said. “What do you wish of me?”
“Get us both out of here,” Aladdin ordered. “Both of us – the master Ahirman and me.”
“Climb on my shoulders,” said Behram, crouching, and the man and the Jinn clambered on. With a great leap, Behram sped through the rooms and out above the astonished demon-guards, who shouted and pointed, but to no avail. He bore them up through the passage and out into the desert air, pausing long enough to kick at the rock pile with one foot. With a rumble, a boulder toppled into place and sealed the passage.
“Now,” Aladdin said, “take us home.”
So Behram bore Ahirman and Aladdin over desert and sea until they arrived at the city where, in the beautiful garden, the Jinniyah awaited their coming eagerly. When Behram set them down, she came rushing up and threw herself into the arms of her father.
“You’re back,” she said, weeping tears of joy. “The foul sorcerer has been sniffing around, and I was much afraid that he would seize and imprison me. But now that you are back, I have no fear.” She turned to Behram. “You can go now,” she said, and then bowed low to Aladdin. “I am in your debt forever, for setting my father free. Did you have much difficulty?”
“Your ring proved our salvation,” Aladdin said. “Without it, we never could have escaped.”
“Oh yes, the ring. Could I have it back?”
“Of course, my lady.” Aladdin slipped it off his finger and held it out to her. She snatched it off his hand and put it on. Instantly, the air seemed to grow cold and dark, and instead of the Jinniyah, a man in a strange robe stood before them, leering.
“The magician!” Ahirman exclaimed. “He was impersonating my daughter!”
“Yes,” said the latter. “And I have the ring. Now, all power is mine!” So saying, he rubbed it thrice. The ground trembled, and Behram appeared.
“Jinn,” the magician ordered, “get rid of these two for me. Destroy them.”
The Jinn Behram looked down at him furiously. “Did you call me to do that?” he thundered. “I am not here to commit acts of evil.” Picking up the magician, he hurled him into the sky. The screaming figure of the magician rose and rose until it could no longer be seen, and as far as anyone but Allah knows, might be rising still.
Then the Jinn Ahirman strode through the garden until he came to a small palace at the far end, which Aladdin had not seen earlier, a palace whose door was secured with a lock of bronze, and Ahirman broke this lock as easily as a man might break a twig. Inside, the Jinniyah lay imprisoned, along with her slaves, and Aladdin and Ahirman quickly set them free. Great was the rejoicing at the return of the Jinn and the magician’s end.
And after the reunion of father and daughter was complete, the Jinniyah and Aladdin spoke together in private, and went together to the Jinn; and they all went that night to a hovel in the city, where an old woman sat weeping bitter tears and weaving tapestries. And there was another reunion, and joy flowed unrestrained.
So it was that Aladdin wed the Jinniyah, and they lived in the small palace in the garden with Aladdin’s old mother, who never shed a tear again. And they all lived happily until the advent of the End of All Things, which awaits us all at the completion of our days.
Copyright B Purkayastha 2012