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El Hejjaj And The Three Young Men
by [?]

El Hejjaj and the Three Young Men*

[NOTE *: Breslau Text, vol. vi. pp. 188-9, Night ccccxxxiv.]

They tell that El Hejjaj[70] once commanded the Master of Police [of Bassora] to go round about [the city] by night, and whomsoever he found [abroad] after nightfall, that he should strike off his head. So he went round one night of the nights and came upon three youths staggering from side to side, and on them signs of [intoxication with] wine. So the officers laid hold of them and the captain of the watch said to them, “Who are ye that ye transgress the commandment of the [lieutenant of the] Commander of the Faithful and come abroad at this hour?” Quoth one of the youths, “I am the son of him to whom [all] necks[71] abase themselves, alike the nose-pierced[72] of them and the [bone-]breaker;[73] they come to him in their own despite, abject and submissive, and he taketh of their wealth[74] and of their blood.”

[Footnote 70] El Hejjaj ben Yousuf eth Thekefi, a famous statesman and soldier of the seventh and eighth centuries. He was governor of Chaldaea (Irak Arabi), under the fifth and sixth Khalifs of the Ommiade dynasty, and was renowned for his cruelty, but appears to have been a prudent and capable administrator, who used no more rigour than was necessary to restrain the proverbially turbulent populations of Bassora and Cufa, Most of the anecdotes of his brutality and tyranny, which abound in Arab authors, are, in all probability, apocryphal.

[Footnote 71] Used, by synecdoche, for “heads.”

[Footnote 72] i.e. the governed, to wit, he who is led by a halter attached (metaphorically of course) to a ring passed through his nose, as with a camel.

[Footnote 73] i.e. the governor or he who is high of rank.

[Footnote 74] i.e. their hair, which may be considered the wealth of the head. This whole passage is a description a double-entente of a barber-surgeon.

The master of police held his hand from him, saying, “Belike he is of the kinsmen of the Commander of the Faithful,” and said to the second, “Who art thou?” Quoth he, “I am the son of him whose rank[75] time abaseth not, and if it descend[76] one day, it will assuredly return [to its former height]; thou seest the folk [crowd] in troops to the light of his fire, some standing around it and some sitting.” So the master of the police refrained from slaying him and said to the third, “Who art thou?” Quoth he, “I am the son of him who plungeth through the ranks[77] with his might and correcteth[78] them with the sword,[79] so that they stand straight;[80] his feet are not loosed from the stirrup,[81] whenas the horsemen on the day of battle are weary.” So the master of police held his hand from him also, saying, “Belike, he is the son of a champion of the Arabs.”

[Footnote 75] Syn. cooking-pot.

[Footnote 76] Syn. be lowered. This passage is a similar description of an itinerant hot bean-seller.

[Footnote 77] The rows of threads on a weaver’s loom.

[Footnote 78] Syn. levelleth.

[Footnote 79] i.e. that of wood used by the Oriental weaver to govern the warp and weft.

[Footnote 80] Syn. behave aright.

[Footnote 81] The loop of thread so called in which the weaver’s foot rests.

Then he kept them under guard, and when the morning morrowed, he referred their case to El Hejjaj, who caused bring them before him and enquiring into their affair, found that the first was the son of a barber-surgeon, the second of a [hot] bean-seller and the third of a weaver. So he marvelled at their readiness of speech[82] and said to his session-mates, “Teach your sons deportment;[83] for, by Allah, but for their ready wit, I had smitten off their heads!”

[Footnote 82] Syn. eloquence.

[Footnote 83] Adeb, one of the terribly comprehensive words which abound in Arabic literature for the confusion of translators. It signifies generally all kinds of education and means of mental and moral discipline and seems here to mean more particularly readiness of wit and speech or presence of mind.