THE LOVERS OF BASSORA.
The Khalif Haroun er Reshid was sleepless one night; so he sent for El Asmai and Hussein el Khelia (62) and said to them, 'Tell me a story and do thou begin, O Hussein.' It is well, O Commander of the Faithful,' answered Hussein. 'Some years ago, I went down to Bassora, to present to Mohammed ben Suleiman er Rebiy (63) an ode I had composed in his honour; and he accepted it and bade me abide [at his court]. One day, I went out to El Mirbed, (64) by way of El Muhalliyeh, (65) and being oppressed by the great heat, went up to a great door, to ask for drink, when I was aware of a damsel, as she were a swaying willow-wand, with languishing eyes, eyebrows arched and finely pencilled and smooth and polished cheeks. She was clad in a shift the colour of a pomegranate-flower, and a vest of Senaa (66) work; but the whiteness of her body overcame the redness of her shift, through which glittered two breasts like twin pomegranates and a belly, as it were a roll of fine Egyptian linen, with creases like scrolls of pure white paper, filled with musk. Round her neck she wore a [chain and] amulet of red gold, that fell down between her breasts, and on the table of her forehead were browlocks like jet. Her eyebrows joined one another and her eyes were like lakes; she had an aquiline nose and thereunder teeth like pearls. In fine, pleasantness prevailed in every part of her; but she seemed dejected and distracted and came and went in the vestibule, walking upon the hearts of her lovers, whilst her legs made mute the voices of their ankle-rings; and indeed she was as saith the poet:Each member of her charms so sweet and good Hath given rise to its similitude.
I was smitten with awe of her, O Commander of the Faithful, and drew near to salute her, and behold, the house and vestibule and street were fragrant with music.
So I saluted her and she returned my greeting with a dejected voice and a grieving heart, consumed with the ardour of passion. Then said I to her, "O my lady, I am an old man and a stranger, and sore opprest of thirst. Wilt thou order me a draught of water, and God will requite thee?" "Away, O old man!" answered she. "I am distracted from [all thoughts of] meat and drink." " By what ailment, O my lady?" asked I. Quoth she, "I love one who dealeth not justly by me and desire one who will none of me. Wherefore I am afflicted with the wakefulness of those who watch the stars." "O my lady," said I, "is there on the face of the earth one to whom thou hast mind and who hath no mind to thee?" " Yes," answered she; "and this by reason of the perfection of beauty and amorous grace with which he is endowed." "And why standest thou in this porch? "asked I. " This is his road," answered she, "and the hour of his passing by." "O my lady," said I, "have ye ever foregathered and had such commerce as might cause this passion?" At this she heaved a deep sigh; the tears rained down upon her cheeks, as they were dew falling upon roses, and she recited these verses?Even as two cassia boughs entwined above a mead we were; We drank the fragrance of delights in all life has of fair.
Quoth I, "And what betideth thee of thy love for this youth?" She answered, "I see the sun upon the walls of his people and I think that it is he; or haply I catch sight of him unexpectedly and am confounded and the blood and the life flee from my body and I abide without reason for weeks." "Excuse me," said I; "for I also have suffered for love-longing, that which is upon thee of distraction of soul and wasting of body and loss of strength; and I see in thee pallor and emaciation, such as testify of the fever-fits of passion. But how shouldst thou be unsmitten of passion, and thou a sojourner in the land of Bassora?" " By Allah," said she, "before I became enamoured of this youth, I was endowed with the uttermost of amorous grace and was resplendent with beauty and perfection and ravished all the princes of Bassora, till he fell in love with me!" "And who parted you?" asked I. "The vicissitudes of fortune," answered she; "but the manner of our separation was a strange one; and it was on this wise.
One New Year's day I had invited the damsels of Bassora and amongst them a girl belonging to Siran, who had bought her out of Oman for fourscore thousand dirhems. She was madly in love with me and when she entered, she threw herself upon me and well-nigh tore me in pieces with bites and pinches. Then we withdrew apart, to drink wine at our ease, till our meat was ready and our delight was complete, and she toyed with me and I with her, and now I was upon her and now she upon me. Presently, the fumes of the wine moved her to strike her hand on the ribbon of my trousers, whereby it became loosed, unknown of either of us, and my trousers fell down in our play. At this moment, he came in, unobserved, and seeing me thus, was wroth and made off, as doth the Arab filly, when she hears the tinkle of her bridle. This, O elder, was three years ago, and since that time I have never ceased to excuse myself to him and entreat him with soft words and implore his indulgence, but he will neither cast a look at me nor write me a word nor speak to me by a messenger nor hear aught from me." Quoth I, "Is he an Arab or a foreigner?" And she, "Out on thee! He is of the princes of Bassora." "Is he old or young?" asked I. She looked at me laughingly and said, "Thou art certainly a fool! He is like the moon at its full, smooth-cheeked and beardless, nor is there any defect in him except his aversion to me." "What is his name?" asked I, and she, "What wilt thou do with him?" "I will do my endeavour to come at him," answered I, "that I may bring about reunion between you." Quoth she, "I will tell thee, on condition that thou carry him a letter." And I said, "I have no objection to that." Then said she, "His name is Zemreh ben el Mughaireh, hight Aboussekhaa, and his palace is at El Mirbed."
Therewith she called to those within for inkhorn and paper and tucking up her sleeves, showed two wrists like bracelets of silver. She headed her letter with "In the name of God etc.;" then wrote as follows, "O my lord, the forbearance of an invocation at the head of this my letter proclaimeth my insufficiency, and know that if my prayer had been answered, thou wouldst not have left me; for how often have I prayed that thou shouldest not leave me, and yet thou didst leave me! Were it not that distress with me transcends the bounds of restraint, that which thy servant hath forced herself to do in writing this letter were succourable to her, for all her despair of thee, of her knowledge of thee that thou wilt forbear to answer. Do thou fulfil her desire, O my lord, of a sight of thee from the porch, as thou passest in the street, wherewith thou wilt revive the dead soul in her. Or better still, do thou write her a letter with thine own hand (which God endow with all excellence!) and appoint it in requital of the privities that were between us in the nights of time past, whereof thou knowest. O my lord, was I not to thee a lover wasted with passion? If thou answer my prayer, I will give thee thanks and to God praise; and so peace be on thee!"
Then she gave me the letter and I went away. Next morning I repaired to the Viceroy's door, where I found an assembly of the notables of Bassora, and amongst them a youth who adorned the place and surpassed in grace and majesty all who were there; and indeed the Amir Mohammed set him above himself. I asked who he was and behold, it was Zemreh himself: so I said to myself, "Verily, there hath betided yonder unhappy one that which hath betided her!" (67) Then I betook myself to El Mirbed and waited at the door of his house, till he came riding up in state, when I accosted him and invoking lavish blessings on him, gave him the letter. When he read it, he said to me, "O old man, we have taken another in her stead. Wilt thou see the substitute?" And I answered, "Yes." Whereupon he called out a woman's name, and there came forth a damsel who put to shame the sun and moon, swelling-breasted, walking the gait of one who hastens without fear, to whom he gave the letter, saying, "Do thou answer it." When she read it, she turned pale and said to me, "O old man, ask pardon of God for this that thou hast brought." So I went out, dragging my feet, and returned to her. When she saw me, she said, "What is behind thee?" I answered, "Evil and despair." And she said, "Have thou no concern of him. Where are God and Providence?" Then she ordered me five hundred dinars and I took them and went away.
Some days after I passed by the place and saw there horsemen and footmen. So I went in and lo, these were the companions of Zemreh, who were begging her to return to him; but she said, "No, by Allah, I will not look him in the face!" And she prostrated herself in gratitude to God and exultation over Zemreh. Then I drew near her, and she pulled out to me a letter, wherein was written, after the invocation of the Deity, the following: "O my lady, but for my forbearance towards thee, [may God prolong thy life!] I would relate somewhat of what betided from thee and set out my excuse, in that thou transgressedst against me, whenas thou wast manifestly a sinner against thyself and me in breach of vows and lack of faith and preference of another to me; for, by Allah, on whom we call for help against that which was of thy free-will, thou didst transgress against the love of me; and so peace be on thee!" Then she showed me the presents and things of price he had sent her, which were of the value of thirty thousand diners. I saw her again after this, and Zemreh had married her.'
Quoth Er Reshid, 'Had not Zemreh been beforehand with us, I had certainly had to do with her myself'