The Porter’s Tale

The most celebrated storyteller in the world is surely the legendary Scheherazade – a woman and a Muslim – who tamed a tyrant with her tales. Persuaded that all women are faithless the cuckolded king Shahrayar metes out collective punishment to the entire sex, wedding and bedding a different girl each night only to have her killed the following morning. Scheherazade, an educated woman who understands the power of narrative, gambles her own life to stop the slaughter. Offering herself in marriage, she beguiles Shahrayar with her yarns and stops at a cliff-hanger as the sun rises each day in order that he will delay her execution. Eventually her stories cure the king of his rage and his pain and teach him to love once more.

The collection of tales we know as the One thousand and one Nights is first mentioned in Arab histories in the tenth century. Gathered from a long tradition of oral storytelling, adapted, excised or embellished according to the whims of subsequent editors, the stories evolved over the centuries. They have yielded versions as diverse as the saccharine clichés of Disney’s Aladdin and the ‘translation’ penned by the adventurer Sir Richard Burton, whose purple prose and sexual prurience was tailored for Victorian England.

The original stories are both fantastical and firmly rooted in a reality which is conjured in all its sensuous detail. This mingling of the everyday and the magical allows fairy tales to remake the world: the poor, the stupid and the oppressed are granted happy endings and the wicked are punished, conjuring an imaginative alternative to the iniquities of the status quo where this rarely happens. In Husain Haddawy’s translations (Sindbad and other stories from the “Arabian Nights”) those prosaic details have been carefully restored and, like an Old master that has been cleaned of varnish and dirt, the stories shine with new vitality.

“I heard, O happy king, that once there lived in the city of Baghdad a bachelor who worked as a porter . . .” So begins the wily Scheherazade on the twenty-eighth night of her marriage. “One day he was standing in the market when a woman approached him . . . 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. 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.’”

The porter is indeed in luck, for his beautiful guide takes him to the house she shares with her two ravishing half-sisters. On the way they stop off to make some purchases. First she buys a jug of wine from an old Christian. Next she stops at a fruit vendor for “Hebron peaches and Turkish quinces, and seacoast lemons and royal oranges.” In case we should be made dizzy by these exotic titbits we are told that the lady also purchases several pounds of mutton. Aleppo jasmine and Damacus lilies are loaded into the porter’s basket, along with irises, narcissi, daffodils, lilies of the valley and other blooms which had, presumably, been brought to Baghdad from the mountains. She buys olives and tarragon and Syrian cheese, Iraqi sugar canes, “Cairo rolls, Turkish rolls, and open worked Balkan rolls” and other sweetmeats including “ladyfingers, widow’s bread, eat-and-thanks, and almond pudding.” She buys “lilywater, rosewater scented with musk, and the like, as well as ambergris, musk, aloewood and rosemary”. Finally she adds sugar, torches and candles to the porter’s load and leads him to her mansion. Here the fortunate man spends the afternoon carousing naked with the three lovely women, exchanging X-rated banter and caresses before the arrival of some travellers puts an end to his pleasures and leads us away into a new tale.

Erotic and exotic, the story teases and entices us along with the happy porter whilst the veiled lady’s shopping spree gives an insight into the cosmopolitan wares available in medieval Baghdad. The famous Silk Road and routes for the export of spice, incense and perfume had tributaries that passed through Iraq. Baghdad – like its ancient sister Babylon – grew rich on the trade between East and West and from the eighth to the thirteenth century it was the most important commercial city in the world. The hulk of a medieval Caravanserai still stands just north of the Tigris in central Baghdad, the arched windows along its rounded roof like the humps on a camel’s back. Used as a market until the nineteen-thirties, the building was finally dusted down and turned into a fancy restaurant in 1984 but it is easy to imagine the tall tales and exotic goods which were once traded there.

When I last went to Baghdad I, too, met a porter. By then Iraq had been blockaded and cut off from the outside world for nine years. Prior to the 1991 war the Iraqi dinar had a market value of 1.8 dollars. By 1999 one dollar could buy 1,800 dinars. Hyper-inflation had rendered wages worthless and people took carrier bags of banknotes when they went shopping in the markets. Government rations had prevented widespread famine but the monthly allowance, which consisted of basic staples like rice, chickpeas, cooking oil and a few bars of fatty soap, formed a sorry contrast to the abundant delicacies purchased by the beautiful lady of the porter’s tale. One in four Iraqi children was chronically malnourished and gangs of tattered child beggars roamed the streets. Medicines were in chronically short supply and many could only be found on the black market.

I was waiting alone outside a hospital ward when the porter approached me. He was an old man with a wily air about him and, as he sat down next to me, he asked me for money. I felt that instinctive resentment that it is easy to feel when we are asked to give something for nothing. Few emotions are as alienating as pity. I handed him a dollar and he asked for more. I gave him five to make him go away.

A few days later we left Baghdad. I had found the whole trip deeply depressing. Six years earlier my impression had been of the generosity and fortitude of the people I had met. In the streets people had often bought us glasses of tea as we were filming. They had helped us carry our equipment from place to place and gone out of their way to welcome us, as travellers have always been welcomed in that part of the world. Now the streets and their inhabitants looked shabby, impoverished, exhausted. The majority of people we encountered were still unfailingly polite but there were times when we were stared at with a palpable hostility it was all too easy to understand.  Before, perhaps, they had been willing to tell their stories to this stranger in the hope their voices might be heard. Now it seemed that hope had gone and in its place was anger and fear – fear of hunger, fear of sickness, fear of the omniscient secret police.

Three days after my encounter with the porter I sat in a coach outside our hotel waiting to depart the country, eager to leave. While the last of the passengers loaded their bags onto the bus I stared back towards the hotel, lost in thought and disheartened by the feeling that the whole trip had been one wretched compromise after another.

A man selling simple wooden flutes stood outside the main door of the hotel. In his thirties, handsome and bearded, I had noticed him before since he stood vigil in the same spot from dawn to dusk. Now, as I watched him at his weary trade, I idly wondered if he had always done this or if he might have been a teacher or a professional musician driven by the blockade to scrape his living in this way. As I looked on he was approached by a shuffling old man and I recognised the porter who had asked me for money at the hospital. The two stepped aside from the door. The porter fished a small bottle from his pocket. He showed it to the flute-seller and they began to talk – or rather haggle. The flute-seller offered him some money but clearly it was not enough. After a couple of moments the old man put the bottle back into his pocket and walked away. The flute-seller stood for a moment, watching him go. Then, with a gesture of ineffable despair, he turned to the wall, put his hand to his face and sobbed.

The meaning of this little dumb show was clear: the porter had stolen some medicine from the hospital dispensary or used his position to acquire it in some other way. The man selling the flutes needed this medicine for his wife, perhaps, or more likely a child. He needed it desperately but the old man thought he could get a better price elsewhere.

I asked my startled colleague to give me what dollars he had left and took my own from my purse – about a hundred and fifty in all. By now the flute-seller, having allowed himself only a brief moment’s anguish, had returned to his post at the door. I hurried from the bus and walked back towards the hotel. Asking the man for a flute, I handed him the money. My privileges and my voyeurism had, on this occasion, granted me the opportunity to make a simple, human intervention. I could not resist the fragile hope that I might buy us both a happy ending.



Copyright © Miriam Day 2001


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