(Illustration: Aladdin by Errol le Cain, 1981)
The third child was the last straw for Abdullah – he had slept with his wife as a husband sleeps with his wife only once. And that was years ago. He had tried a few more times but had been chased out of Noor’s bedroom by her snores and farts. How could she produce two more children? He decided he must take action.
He decided to consult the sheikh at the mosque after the prayer on Friday. As soon as Abdullah thought of this, Khalfan knew he had to prevent that meeting – Abdullah would surely ask if the two daughters could be his, the sheikh would say no and then there would be the sort of useless, loud fuss that human men excelled at. But to stop the meeting, Khalfan had to be in the mosque, to appear to be the sheikh and give the needed answers while the real sheikh slept. And to get in the mosque meant a bit of hard work.
There were, of course, strict prohibitions against djinn going in to mosques and, of course, some loop-holes. If humans were not going to be careful of themselves, then djinns should not be denied the fun of messing with them is how the djinns thought of it, but it didn’t happen often as it was a bit of a bother to get it all organized.
The easiest loop-hole was the simplest – a djinn could enter a mosque if he entered after three impious men. The sinful men had to enter in a line, with no good man between them and the djinn had to come directly behind, touching the robe of the last sinful man. And the men could not be garden-variety corrupt, small errant acts of over-charging and forgetting to do the dawn prayers weren’t sufficient. They had to be men who were often and consciously cruel – men who chased women and then went home to beat their wives, habitual drunkards, cheating which led to the deaths of innocent men.
Ashtaran didn’t have very many men who were in that classification of awful, and only three who attended the grand mosque: Nasseh, Raris, and Mamil. Nasseh was a drunkard, attempting to conceal his consumption with peppermint tea and selling his wife’s gold when he was out of wine in the days before he received his salary. His misconduct was all the more glaring as he was a school teacher, but no one could fire him as he was the brother of a high official. Raris was a woman chaser, screaming at his wives at any perceived mistake such as a big toe showing from under their long robes, but conducting endless affairs at night.
Mamil was the most evil. He sold rice, usually in a fair way, but if a caravan was leaving, he would arrange a terrible trick. Caravans would always leave in the late afternoon, travel only a few hours and then bed down for the night to test the ropes and loads. That first night, everyone was busy adjusting to life on the road, then they would get up early and begin the real journey the next morning.
Mamil would disguise himself, wearing poor clothes and a dark hood, and drive an old cart pulled by a horse to the caravan’s first stopping place and, in the cool dark of the morning, he would call “Protection for your journey, take one more small bag of rice. There are dried vegetables in it, very healthy,” and he would explain that the small black sacks were specially sewn to protect the rice on long journeys. The nervous travelers would pick one up, and finding the weight to be correct, would buy, too busy and preoccupied to demand the sacks be opened. Mamil would return to town, changing his clothes and leaving the cart and horse in a small stable outside of the gates.
Most travelers never noticed the difference in the sacks. Most travelers, when they finally opened the sacks, to find rotten rice mixed with sheep’s wool, were angry but had forgotten where they had bought the counterfeit bags or were too far away to make a fuss. But a few travelers, lost or unable to travel because of dust storms, opened the bags, sure that they contained their salvation and stared in horror when they realized that their death would come at the hands of a fraudulent rice-seller.
“He must have soaked the rice and wool in water to make the correct weight, and let it stay in an underground chamber so it became ice; you see the fabric, the cold and water would not go out easily, he sold it to us in the morning, the ice melted and the water disappeared while we were traveling and we did not notice,” said one old man to his three daughters as they huddled next to an out-cropping of rocks. He had given the last of his food to his grandson; the boy’s mother and her sisters had pressed the last of their food on the boy as their parched throats told him the stories of their family.
They prayed the storm would end soon, which it did, and that the boy, Suheil, would live, which he did. The crows who ate their bodies spread the news to all the nearest djinn and the story reached the ears of the djinn of the souq of Ashtaran, but it was neither his responsibility nor inclination to punish Mamil which would come in the vastness of time, but for now Mamil would be useful in helping Khalfan get into the grand mosque.
All the djinn knew of the three evil men and Khalfan’s relationship with Noor, and, in the way of supporting the home team, lined the alleys of the souq on Friday to see if Khalfan could pull it off.
Now as a dog to make one hurry, now as a snake to make one stop, now as a rat to make one decide to take another alley, now as nightingale to make one pause, Khalfan shape-shifted back and forth so that the three scoundrels kept apace. All the animals of the souq, or at least those who wanted to stay in his good graces, sent reports and obeyed instructions.
There are few things that can kill a djinn and after the first few hundred years, there is not much new to see, so the djinn appreciated the spectacle – as the three miscreants finally emerged from the covered souq into the open square before the mosque, the djinn sat along the roof-line cheering him on. The djinn of wisdom, in her red dress, kicked her heels and laughed with the djinns of the wells, even the djinn of the palace abandoned his normal reserve and haughtiness to come enjoy the scene.
Now as a fly, now as a pigeon, now as a flea, now as butterfly, Khalfan hurried one, slowed one down, shifted one to the left, one to the right. In her ivory-colored dress, the djinn of the wind spun out little dust tornados in the corners of the grand square and sent the fabric of the shelters of the flying.
The djinn of the souq officially, of course, took no part, but happened to be talking about an important matter with the djinn of the main well so they happened to see everything. The djinn of the buildings, who was always old-fashioned and a bit tough, dropped stones off roof balustrades a few times to try to hinder or slow the men but a djinn of buildings will never be as fast as a djinn of animals and Khalfan triumphed in the end.
Nasseh, Raris, and Mamil walked into the grand mosque one after the other, with Khalfan as a flea on Mamil’s coat. As soon as he was inside, he changed to a mouse and scuttled to the sheikh’s office, eased the sheikh into a large wooden chest, with the lid cracked enough so he could breath. Then he assumed his shape and gave good and wise council to everyone who came after prayers with questions. When Abdullah came and asked, with lots of stumbling and hesitations, about the birth of his daughters, Khalfan asserted that it was all logical and correct, but warned Abdullah that he was now an old man, he should stop thinking of his wife and concentrate properly on his shop.
Abdullah left the mosque still confused and unhappy but what could he do? There was no one else to speak to about his questions except the ruler of Ashtaran and how could he dare to speak to the ruler? He must accept his fate and put his energy into the store and, in time, getting husbands for his daughters who would help him in the shop.
(Aladdin by Errol le Cain, 1981)