The Khalif El-Mamoun was sitting one day in his palace, surrounded by his grandees and officers of state, and there were present also before him all his poets and minions, amongst the rest one named Mohammed of Bassora. Presently, the Khalif turned to the latter and said to him, 'O Mohammed, I wish thee to tell me something that I have never before heard.' 'O Commander of the Faithful,' answered Mohammed, 'shall I tell thee a thing that I have heard with my ears of a thing that I have seen with my eyes?' 'Tell me whichever is the rarer,' said El Mamoun.

'Know then, O Commander of the Faithful,' began Mohammed, 'that there lived once a wealthy man, who was a native of Yemen; but he left his native land and came to this city of Baghdad, whose sojourn so pleased him that he transported hither his family and possessions. Now he had six slave-girls, the first fair, the second dark, the third fat, the fourth thin, the fifth yellow and the sixth black, all fair of face and perfectly accomplished and skilled in the arts of singing and playing upon instruments of music. One day he sent for them all and called for meat and drink; and they ate and drank and made merry. Then he filled the cup and taking it in his hand, said to the blonde, "O new-moon-face, let us hear somewhat pleasing." So she took the lute and tuning it, made music thereon with such melodious trills and modulations that the place danced to the rhythm; after which she played a lively measure and sang the following verses:

      I have a friend, whose form is mirrored in mine eye, And deep within my breast, his name doth buried lie.
      Whenas I call him back to mind, I am all heart, And when on him I gaze, all eyes indeed am I.
      "Forswear the love of him," my censor says; and I, "That which is not to be, how shall it be?" reply.
      "Go forth from me," quoth I, "and leave me, censor mine: Feign not that eath and light, that's grievous to aby."

At this their master was moved to mirth and drinking off his cup, gave the damsels to drink, after which he said to the brunette, "O light of the brasier (35) and delight of souls, let us hear thy lovely voice, wherewith all that hearken are ravished." So she took the lute and trilled upon it, till the place was moved to mirth; then, taking all hearts with her graceful bendings, she sang the following verses:

      As thy face liveth, none but thee I'll love nor cherish e'er, Till death, nor ever to thy love will I be false, I swear.
      O full moon, shrouded, as it were a veil, with loveliness, All lovely ones on earth that be beneath thy banners fare.
      Thou, that in pleasantness and grace excellest all the fair, May God, the Lord of heaven and earth, be with thee everywhere!

The man was pleased and drank off his cup; after which he filled again and taking the goblet in his hand, beckoned to the plump girl and bade her sing and play. So she took the lute and striking a grief-dispelling measure, sang as follows:

      If but thy consent be assured, O thou who art all my desire, Be all the folk angered 'gainst me; I set not a whit by their ire.
      And if thou but show me thy face, thy brilliant and beautiful face, I reck not if all the kings of the earth from my vision retire.
      Thy favour, O thou unto whom all beauty must needs be referred, Of the goods and the sweets of the world is all that I seek and require.

The man was charmed and emptying his cup, gave the girls to drink. Then he beckoned to the slender girl and said to her, "O houri of Paradise, feed thou our ears with sweet sounds." So she took the lute and tuning it, preluded and sang the following verses:

      Is it not martyrdom that I for thine estrangement dree, Seeing, indeed, I cannot live, if thou depart from me?
      Is there no judge, in Love its law, to judge betwixt us twain, to do me justice on thy head and take my wreak of thee?

Their lord rejoiced and emptying the cup, gave the girls to drink. Then he signed to the yellow girl and said to her, "O sun of the day, let us hear some pleasant verses." So she took the lute and preluding after the goodliest fashion, sang as follows:

      I have a lover, whenas I draw him nigh, He bares upon me a sword from either eye.
      May God avenge me some whit of him! For lo, He doth oppress me, whose heart in 's hand doth lie.
      Oft though, "Renounce him, my heart," I say, yet it Will to none other than him itself apply.
      He's all I ask for, of all created things; Yet jealous Fortune doth him to me deny.

The man rejoiced and drank and gave the girls to drink; then he filled the cup and taking it in his hand, signed to the black girl, saying, "O apple of the eye, let us have a taste of thy fashion, though it be but two words." So she took the lute and preluded in various modes, then returned to the first and sang the following verses to a lively air:

      O eyes, be large with tears and pour them forth amain, For, lo, for very love my senses fail and wane.
      All manner of desire I suffer for his sake I cherish, and my foes make merry at my pain.
      My enviers me forbid the roses of a cheek; And yet I have a heart that is to roses fain.
      Ay, once the cups went round with joyance and delight And to the smitten lutes, the goblets did we drain,
      What time my love kept troth and I was mad for him And in faith's heaven, the star of happiness did reign.
      But lo, he turned away from me, sans fault of mine! Is there a bitterer thing than distance and disdain?
      Upon his cheeks there bloom a pair of roses red, Blown ready to be plucked; ah God, those roses twain!
      Were't lawful to prostrate oneself to any else Than God, I'd sure prostrate myself upon the swain.

Then rose the six girls and kissing the ground before their lord, said to him, "Judge thou between us, O our lord!" He looked at their beauty and grace and the difference of their colours and praised God the Most High and glorified Him: then said he, "There is none of you but has read the Koran and learnt to sing and is versed in the chronicles of the ancients and the doings of past peoples; so it is my desire that each of you rise and pointing to her opposite, praise herself and dispraise her rival; that is to say, let the blonde point to the black, the plump to the slender and the yellow to the brunette; and after, the latter shall, each in turn, do the like with the former; and be this illustrated with citations from the Holy Koran and somewhat of anecdotes and verse, so as to show forth your culture and elegance of discourse." Quoth they, "We hear and obey."

So the blonde rose first and pointing at the black, said to her, "Out on thee, blackamoor! It is told that whiteness saith, 'I am the shining light, I am the rising full moon.' My colour is patent and my forehead is resplendent, and of my beauty quoth the poet:

      A blonde with smooth and polished cheeks, right delicate and fair, As if a pearl in beauty hid, as in a shell, she were.
      Her shape a splendid Alif (36) is, her smile a medial Mim (37) And over it her eyebrows make inverted Nouns, (38) a pair.
      Yes, and the glances of her eyes are arrows, and her brows A bow that therewithal is horned with death and with despair.
      If to her cheeks and shape thou pass, her cheeks are roses red, Sweet basil, ay, and eglantine and myrtles rich and rare.
      'Tis of the saplings' wont, to be implanted in the meads But, in the saplings of thy shape, how many meads are there!

My colour is like the wholesome day and the newly-gathered orange-blossom and the sparkling star; and indeed quoth God the Most High, in His precious book, to His prophet Moses (on whom be peace), 'Put thy hand into thy bosom and it shall come forth white without hurt.' (39) And again He saith, 'As for those whose faces are made white, they are in the mercy of God and dwell for ever therein.' (40) My colour is a miracle and my grace an extreme and my beauty a term. It is in the like of me that clothes show fair and to the like of me that hearts incline. Moreover, in whiteness are many excellences; for instance, the snow falls white from heaven, and it is traditional that white is the most beautiful of colours. The Muslims also glory in white turbans; but I should be tedious, were I to repeat all that may be said in praise of white; little and enough is better than too much. So now I will begin with thy dispraise, O black, O colour of ink and blacksmith's dust, thou whose face is like the crow that brings about lovers' parting! Verily, the poet saith in praise of white and dispraise of black:

      Seest not that for their milky hue white pearls in price excel And charcoal for a groat a load the folk do buy and sell?
      And eke white faces, 'tis well known, do enter Paradise, Whilst faces black appointed are to fill the halls of Hell.

And indeed it is told in certain histories, related on the authority of devout men, that Noah (on whom be peace) was sleeping one day, with his sons Ham and Shem seated at his head, when a wind sprang up and lifting his clothes, uncovered his nakedness; whereat Ham laughed and did not cover him; but Shem rose and covered him. Presently, Noah awoke and learning what had passed, blessed Shem and cursed Ham. So Shem's face was whitened and from him sprang the prophets and the orthodox Khalifs and Kings; whilst Ham's face was blackened and he fled forth to the land of Ethiopia, and of his lineage came the blacks. All people are of a mind in affirming the lack of understanding of the blacks, even as saith the adage, 'How shall one find a black having understanding?'"

Quoth her master, "It sufficeth; sit down, thou hast been prodigal." And he signed to the negress, who rose, and pointing at the blonde, said, "Doth thou not know that, in the Koran sent down to His prophet and apostle, is transmitted the saying of God the Most High, 'By the night, when it veileth [the world with darkness], and by the day, when it appeareth in all its glory!' (41) If the night were not more illustrious than the day, why should God swear by it and give it precedence of the day? And indeed those of sense and understanding accept this. Knowst now that black [hair] is the ornament of youth and that, when whiteness descends upon the head, delights pass away and the hour of death draws nigh? Were not black the most illustrious of things, God had not set it in the kernel of the heart and the apple of the eye; and how excellent is the saying of the poet:

      An if I cherish the dusky maids, this is the reason why; They have the hue of the core of the heart and the apple of the eye
      And youth; nor in error I eschew the whiteness of the blondes; For 'tis the colour of hoary hair and shrouds in them shun I.

And that of another:

      The brown, not the white, are first in my love And worthiest eke to be loved of me,
      For the colour of damask lips have they, Whilst the white have the hue of leprosy.

And of a third:

      Black women, white of deeds, are like indeed to eyne That, though jet- black they be, with peerless splendours shine.
      If I go mad for her, be not amazed; for black The source of madness is, when in the feminine. (42)       'Tis as my colour were the middle dark of night; For all no moon it be, yet brings it light, in fine.

Moreover, is the companying together of lovers good but in the night? Let this quality and excellence suffice thee. What protects lovers from spies and censors like the blackness of the shadows? And nought gives them cause to fear discovery like the whiteness of the dawn. So, how many claims to honour are there not in blackness and how excellent is the saying of the poet:

      I visit them, and the mirk of night doth help me to my will And seconds me, but the white of dawn is hostile to me still.

And that of another:

      How many a night in joy I've passed with the beloved one, What while the darkness curtained us about with tresses dun!
      Whenas the light of morn appeared, it struck me with affright, And I to him, 'The Magians lie, who worship fire and sun.'

And saith a third:

      He came forth to visit me, shrouding himself in the cloak of the night, And hastened his steps, as he wended, for caution and fear and affright.
      Then rose I and laid in his pathway my cheek, as a carpet it were, For abjection, and trailed o'er my traces my skirts, to efface them from sight.
      But lo, the new moon rose and shone, like a nail-paring cleft from the nail, And all but discovered our loves with the gleam of her meddlesome light.
      And then there betided between us what I'll not discover, i' faith: So question no more of the matter and deem not of ill or unright.

And a fourth:

      Foregather with thy lover, whilst night your loves may screen; For that the sun's a telltale, the moon a go-between.

And a fifth:

      I love not white women, with fat blown out and overlaid; The girl of all girls for me is the slender dusky maid.
      Let others the elephant mount, if it like them; as for me, I'll ride but the fine-trained colt on the day of the cavalcade.

And a sixth:

      My loved one came to me by night And we did clip and interlace
      And lay together through the dark; But, lo, the morning broke apace.
      To God, my Lord, I pray that He Will reunite us of His grace
      And make night last to me, what while I hold my love in my embrace.

Were I to set forth all the praise of blackness, I should be tedious; but little and enough is better than great plenty and too much. As for thee, O blonde, thy colour is that of leprosy and thine embrace is suffocation; and it is of report that frost and intense cold (43) are in Hell for the torment of the wicked. Again, of black things is ink, wherewith is written the word of God; and were is not for black ambergris and black musk, there would be no perfumes to carry to kings. How many glories are there not in blackness and how well saith the poet:

      Dost thou not see that musk, indeed, is worth its weight in gold, Whilst for a dirhem and no more a load of lime is sold?
      Black eyes cast arrows at men's hearts; but whiteness of the eyes, In man, is judged of all to be unsightly to behold."

"It sufficeth," said her master. "Sit down." So she sat down and he signed to the fat girl, who rose and pointing at the slim girl, uncovered her arms and legs and bared her stomach, showing its creases and the roundness of her navel. Then she donned a shift of fine stuff, that showed her whole body, and said, "Praised be God who created me, for that He beautified my face and made me fat and fair and likened me to branches laden with fruit and bestowed upon me abounding beauty and brightness; and praised be He no less, for that He hath given me the precedence and honoured me, when He speaks of me in His holy book! Quoth the Most High, 'And he brought a fat calf.' (44) And indeed He hath made me like unto an orchard, full of peaches and pomegranates. Verily, the townsfolk long for fat birds and eat of them and love not lean birds; so do the sons of Adam desire fat meat and eat of it. How many precious attributes are there not in fatness, and how well saith the poet:

      Take leave of thy love, for the caravan, indeed, is on the start. O man, canst thou bear to say farewell and thus from her to part?
      'Tis as her going were, I trow, but to her neighbour's house, The faultless gait of a fat fair maid, that never tires the heart.

Sawst thou ever one stop at a butcher's stall, but sought fat meat of him? The wise say, 'Pleasure is in three things, eating flesh and riding on flesh and the thrusting of flesh into flesh.' As for thee, O thin one, thy legs are like sparrow's legs or pokers, and thou art like a cruciform plank or a piece of poor meat; there is nought in thee to gladden the heart; even as saith of thee the poet:

      Now God forfend that aught enforce me take for bedfellow A woman like a foot-rasp, wrapt in palm-fibres and tow!
      In every limb she has a horn, that butts me in my sleep, So that at day- break, bruised and sore, I rise from her and go."

"It is enough," quoth her master. "Sit down." So she sat down and he signed to the slender girl, who rose, as she were a willow-wand or a bamboo-shoot or a plant of sweet basil, and said, "Praised be God who created me and beautified me and made my embraces the end of all desire and likened me to the branch, to which all hearts incline. If I rise, I rise lightly; if I sit, I sit with grace; I am nimble-witted at a jest and sweeter- souled than cheerfulness [itself]. Never heard I one describe his mistress, saying, 'My beloved is the bigness of an elephant or like a long wide mountain;' but rather, 'My lady hath a slender waist and a slim shape.'

A little food contents me and a little water stays my thirst; my sport is nimble and my habit elegant; for I am sprightlier than the sparrow and lighter-footed than the starling. My favours are the desire of the longing and the delight of the seeker; for I am goodly of shape, sweet of smile and graceful as the willow-wand or the bamboo-cane of the basil-plant; nor is there any can compare with me in grace, even as saith one of me:

      Thy shape unto the sapling liken I And set my hope to win thee or to die.
      Distraught, I follow thee, and sore afraid, Lest any look on thee with evil eye.

It is for the like of me that lovers run mad and that the longing are distracted. If my lover be minded to draw me to him, I am drawn to him, and if he would have me incline to him, I incline to him and not against him. But as for thee, O fat of body, thine eating is as that of an elephant, and neither much not little contents thee. When thou liest with a man, he hath no ease of thee, nor can he find a way to take his pleasure of thee; for the bigness of thy belly holds him off from clipping thee and the grossness of thy thighs hinders him from coming at thy kaze. What comeliness is there in thy grossness and what pleasantness or courtesy in thy coarse nature? Fat meat is fit for nought but slaughter, nor is there aught therein that calls for praise. If one joke with thee, thou art angry; if one sport with thee, thou art sulky; if thou sleep, thou snorest; if thou walk, thou pantest; if thou eat, thou art never satisfied. Thou art heavier than mountains and fouler than corruption and sin. Thou hast in thee nor movement nor blessing nor thinkest of aught but to eat and sleep. If thou make water, thou scatterest; if thou void, thou gruntest like a bursten wine-skin or a surly elephant. If thou go to the draught-house, thou needest one to wash out thy privy parts and pluck out the hairs; and this is the extreme of laziness and the sign of stupidity. In fine, there is no good thing in thee, and indeed the poet saith of thee:

      Heavy and swollen with fat, like a blown-out water-skin, With thighs like the pillars of stone that buttress a mountain's head,
      Lo, if she walk in the West, so cumbrous her corpulence is The Eastern hemisphere hears the sound of her heavy tread."

Quoth her master, "It is enough: sit down." So she sat down and he signed to the yellow girl, who rose to her feet and praised God and magnified His name, calling down peace and blessing on the best of His creatures; (45) after which she pointed at the brunette and said to her, "I am praised in the Koran, and the Compassionate One hath described my colour and its excellence over all others in His manifest Book, where He saith, 'A yellow [heifer], pure yellow, whose colour rejoices the beholders.' (46) Wherefore my colour is a portent and my grace an extreme and my beauty a term; for that my colour is the colour of a dinar and of the planets and moons and of apples. My fashion is the fashion of the fair, and the colour of saffron outvies all other colours; so my fashion is rare and my colour wonderful. I am soft of body, and of great price, comprising all attributes of beauty. My colour, in that which exists, is precious as virgin gold, and how many glorious qualities are there not in me! Of the like of me quoth the poet:

      Yellow she is, as is the sun that shineth in the sky, And like to golden dinars, eke, to see, her beauties are.
      Nor with her brightness, anywise, can saffron hold compare, And even the very moon herself her charms outvie by far.

And now I will begin in thy dispraise, O brown of favour! Thy colour is that of the buffalo, and all souls shudder at thy sight. If thy colour be in aught, it is blamed; if it be in food, it is poisoned; for thy colour is that of flies and is a mark of ugliness in dogs. It is, among colours, one which strikes with amazement and is of the signs of mourning. Never heard I of brown gold or brown pearls or brown jewels. If thou enter the wardrobe, thy colour changes, and when thou comest out, thou addest a new ugliness to thine ugliness. Thou art neither black, that thou mayst be known, nor white, that thou mayst be described; and there is no good quality in thee, even as saith of thee the poet:

      As a complexion unto her, the hue of soot doth serve; Her mirky colour is as dust on couriers' feet upcast.
      No sooner fall mine eyes on her, thou but a moment's space, Than troubles and misgivings straight beset me thick and fast."

"Enough," said her master. "Sit down." So she sat down and he signed to the brunette. Now she was endowed with grace and beauty and symmetry and perfection, delicate of body, with coal-back hair, slender shape, rosy, oval cheeks, liquid black eyes, fair face, eloquent tongue, slim waist and heavy buttocks. So she rose and said, "Praised be God who hath created me neither blameably fat nor lankily slender, neither white like leprosy nor yellow like colic nor black like coal, but hath made my colour to be beloved of men of wit; for all the poets praise brunettes in every tongue and exalt their colour over all others. Brown of hue, praiseworthy of qualities; and God bless him who saith:

      In the brunettes a meaning is, couldst read its writ aright, Thine eyes would never again look on others, red or white.
      Free-flowing speech and amorous looks would teach Harout (47) himself The arts of sorcery and spells of magic and of might.

And saith another:

      Give me brunettes; the Syrian spears, so limber and so straight, Tell of the slender dusky maids, so lithe and proud of gait.
      Languid of eyelids, with a down like silk upon her cheek, Within her wasting lover's heart she queens it still in state.

And yet another:

      Yea, by my life, such virtues in goodly brownness lie, One spot thereof makes whiteness the shining moons outvie;
      But if the like of whiteness is borrowed, then, for sure, Its beauty were transmuted unto reproach thereby.
      Not with her wine (48) I'm drunken, but with her tresses (49) bright That make all creatures drunken that dwell beneath the sky.
      Each of her charms doth envy the others; yea, and each To be the down so silky upon her cheek doth sigh.

And again:

      Why should I not incline me unto the silken down On the cheeks of a dusky maiden, like the cane straight and brown,
      Seeing the spot of beauty in waterlilies' cups Is of the poets fabled to be all beauty's crown?
      Yea, and I see all lovers the swarthy-coloured mole, Under the ebon pupil, do honour and renown.
      Why, then, do censors blame me for loving one who's all A mole? May Allah rid me of every railing clown!

My form is beautiful and my shape slender; kings desire my colour and all love it, rich and poor. I am pleasant, nimble, handsome, elegant, soft of body and great of price. I am perfect in beauty and breeding and eloquence; my aspect is comely and my tongue fluent, my habit light and my sport graceful. As for thee, [O yellow girl,] thou art like unto a mallow of Bab el Louc, yellow and made all of sulphur. Perdition to thee, O pennyworth of sorrel, O rust of copper, O owl's face and food of the damned! Thy bedfellow, for oppression of spirit, is buried in the tombs, and there is no good thing in thee, even as saith the poet of the like of thee:

      Paleness (50) is sore on her, for all no illness doth her fret; My breast is straitened by its sight; ay, and my head aches yet.
      If thou repent thee not, my soul, to punish thee, I vow, I'll humble thee with a kiss of her face, my teeth on edge shall set."

"Enough," said her master; "sit down." Then he made peace between them and clad them all in sumptuous dresses of honour and handselled them with precious jewels of land and sea. And never, O Commander of the Faithful, in any place or time have I seen fairer than these six fair damsels.'

When the Khalif El Mamoun heard this story from Mohammed of Bassora, he said to him, 'O Mohammed, knowest thou the abiding-place of these damsels and their master, and canst thou make shift to buy them of him for us?' 'O Commander of the Faithful,' answered he, 'I have heard that their master is wrapped up in them and cannot endure to be parted from them.' 'Take threescore thousand dinars,--that is, ten thousand for each girl,--' rejoined the Khalif, 'and go to his house and buy them of him.' So Mohammed took the money and betaking himself to the man of Yemen, acquainted him with the Khalif's wish. He consented to sell them at that price, to pleasure him, and despatched them to El Mamoun, who assigned them an elegant lodging and used to sit with them therein, marvelling at their beauty and grace, no less than at their varied colours and the excellence of their speech.

After awhile, when their former owner could no longer endure separation from them, he sent a letter to the Khalif, complaining of his ardent love for them and containing, amongst the rest, the following verses:

      Six damsels fair and bright have captivated me; My blessing and my peace the six fair maidens greet!
      My life, indeed, are they, my hearing and my sight, Yea, and my very drink, my pleasance and my meat.
      No other love can bring me solace for their charms, And slumber, after them, no more to me is sweet.
      Alas, my long regret, my weeping for their loss! Would I have ne'er been born, to know this sore defeat!
      For eyes, bedecked and fair with brows like bended bows, Have smitten me to death with arrows keen and fleet.

When the letter came to El Mamoun's hands, he clad the six damsels in rich apparel and giving them threescore thousand dinars, sent them back to their master, who rejoiced in them with an exceeding joy,--more by token of the money they brought him,--and abode with them in all delight and pleasance of life, till there came to them the Destroyer of Delights and the Sunderer of Companies.