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Invitation to World Literature

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The Arabian Nights
The Story of the Porter and the Three Ladies

I heard, O happy king, that there once lived in the city of Baghdad a bachelor who worked as a porter. One day he was standing in the market, leaning on his basket, when a woman approached him. She wore a Mosul cloak, a silk veil, a fine kerchief embroidered with gold, and a pair of leggings tied with fluttering laces. When she lifted her veil, she revealed a pair of beautiful dark eyes graced with long lashes and a tender expression, like those celebrated by the poets.

An illustration from a 1920 publication of The Arabian Nights

Then with a soft voice and a sweet tone, she said to him, "Porter, take your basket and follow me." Hardly believing his ears, the porter took his basket and hurried behind her, saying, "O lucky day, O happy day." She walked before him until she stopped at the door of a house, and when she knocked, an old Christian came down, received a dinar from her and handed her an olive green jug of wine. She placed the jug in the basket and said, "Porter, take your basket and follow me." Saying, "Very well, O auspicious day, O lucky day, O happy day," the porter lifted the basket and followed her until she stopped at the fruit vendor's, where she bought yellow and red apples, Hebron peaches and Turkish quinces, and seacoast lemons and royal oranges, as well as baby cucumbers. She also bought Aleppo jasmine and Damascus lilies, myrtle berries and mignonettes, daisies and gillyflowers, lilies of the valley and irises, narcissus and daffodils, violets and anemones, as well as pomegranate blossoms. She placed everything in the porter's basket and asked him to follow her.

Then she stopped at the butcher's and said, "Cut me off ten pounds of fresh mutton." She paid him, and he cut off the pieces she desired, wrapped them, and handed them to her. She placed them in the basket, together with some charcoal, and said, "Porter, take your basket and follow me." The porter, wondering at all these purchases, placed the basket on his head and followed her until she came to the grocer's, where she bought whatever she needed of condiments, such as olives of all kinds, pitted, salted, and pickled, tarragon, cream cheese, Syrian cheese, and sweet as well as sour pickles. She placed the container in the basket and said, "Porter, take your basket and follow me." The porter carried his basket and followed her until she came to the dry grocer's, where she bought all sorts of dried fruits and nuts: Aleppo raisins, Iraqi sugar canes, pressed Ba'albak figs, roasted chick-peas, as well as shelled pistachios, almonds, and hazelnuts. She placed everything in the porter's basket, turned to him, and said, "Porter, take your basket and follow me."

The porter carried the basket and followed her until she came to the confectioner's, where she bought a whole tray full of every kind of pastry and sweet in the shop, such as sour barley rolls, sweet rolls, date rolls, Cairo rolls, Turkish rolls, and open-worked Balkan rolls, as well as cookies, stuffed and musk-scented kataifs, amber combs, ladyfingers, widow's bread, Kadi's tidbits, eat-and-thanks, and almond pudding. When she placed the tray in the basket, the porter said to her, "Mistress, if you had let me know, I would have brought with me a nag or a camel to carry all these purchases." She smiled and walked ahead until she came to the druggist's, where she bought ten bottles of scented waters, lilywater, rosewater scented with musk, and the like, as well as ambergris, musk, aloewood, and rosemary. She also bought two loaves of sugar and candles and torches. The she put everything in the basket, turned to the porter, and said, "Porter, take your basket and follow me." The porter carried the basket and walked behind her until she came to a spacious courtyard facing a tall, stately mansion with massive pillars and a double door inlaid with ivory and shining gold. The girl stopped at the door and knocked gently.

But morning overtook Shahrazad, and she lapsed into silence. Then her sister said, "Sister, what a lovely and entertaining story!" Shahrazad replied, "What is this compared with what I shall tell you tomorrow night if the king spares me and lets me live! May God grant him long life."

"It will be sufficient to break off a branch and carry it to plant in your own garden." Maxfield Parrish illustration

The Twenty-Ninth Night

The following night Dinarzad said to her sister Shahrazad, "Sister, if you are not sleepy, tell us one of your little tales to while away the night." Shahrazad replied, "I hear and obey":

I hear, O wise and happy King, that as the porter stood with the basket, at the door, behind the girl, marveling at her beauty, her charm, and her elegant, eloquent, and liberal ways, the door was unlocked, and the two leaves swung open. The porter, looking to see who opened the door, saw a full-bosomed girl, about five feet tall. She was all charm, beauty, and perfect grace, with a forehead like the new moon, eyes like those of a deer or wild heifer, eyebrows like the crescent in the mouth of Sha'ban, cheeks like red anemones, mouth like the seal of Solomon, lips like red carnelian, teeth like a row of pearls set in coral, neck like a cake for a king, bosom like a fountain, breasts like a pair of big pomegranates resembling a rabbit with uplifted ears, and a belly with a navel like a cup that holds a pound of benzoin ointment. She was like her of whom the poet aptly said:

On stately sun and full moon cast your sight; Savor the flowers and lavender's delight. Your eyes have never seen such white in black, Such radiant face with hair so deeply dark. With rosy cheeks, Beauty proclaimed her name, To those who had not yet received her fame. Her swaying heavy hips I joyed to see, But her sweet, slender waist brought tears to me.

When the porter saw her, he lost his senses and his wits, and the basket nearly fell from his head, as he exclaimed, "Never in my life have I seen a more blessed day then this!" Then the girl who had opened the door said to the girl who had done the shopping, "Sister, what are you waiting for? Come in and relieve this poor man of his heavy burden." The shopper and the porter went in, and the doorkeeper locked the door and followed them until they came to a spacious, well-appointed, and splendid hall. It had arched compartments and niches with carved woodwork; it had a booth hung with drapes; and it had closets and cupboards covered with curtains. In the middle stood a large pool full of water, with a fountain in the center, and at the far end stood a couch of black juniper wood, covered with white silk and set with gems and pearls as big as hazelnuts or bigger. The curtain was unfastened, and a dazzling girl emerged, with genial charm, wise mien, and features as radiant as the moon. She had an elegant figure, the scent of ambergris, sugared lips, Babylonian eyes, with eyebrows as arched as a pair of bent bows, and a face whose radiance put the shining sun to shame, for she was like a great star soaring in the heavens, or a dome of gold, or an unveiled bride, or a splendid fish swimming in a fountain, or a morsel of luscious fat in a bowl of milk soup. She was like her of whom the poet said:

Her smile reveals twin rows of pearls Or white daisies or pearly hail. Her forelock like the night unfurls; Before her light the sun is pale.

The third girl rose from the couch and strutted slowly until she joined her sisters in the middle of the hall, saying, "Why are you standing? Lift the load off this poor man." The doorkeeper stood in front of the porter, and the shopper stood behind him, and with the help of the third girl, they lifted the basket down and emptied its contents, stacking up the fruits and pickles on one side and the flowers and fresh herbs on the other. When everything was arranged, they gave the porter one dinar and said…

But morning overtook Shahrazad, and she lapsed into silence. Then Dinarzad said to her sister Shahrazad, "What an amazing and entertaining story!" Shahrazad replied, "If I am alive tomorrow night, I shall tell you something stranger and more amazing than this."

The Three Ladies and the Porter

The Arabian Nights

Translated by Husain Haddawy,
W. W. Norton & Company, 1990