Friday, August 20, 2010

The Two Sons of Sindbad the Sailor

Gate of Emir Fakhreddin's Palace
Gate of Emir Fakhreddin's Palace, Beiteddine, Lebanon, 2003

During the time Maymun ibn al-Rashid was Caliph, there lived in Baghdad a merchant named Sindbad. In his youth, he had made seven great voyages, suffered great misfortunes, and come into great wealth. When his thirst for adventure was finally slaked, he had returned to his native city, invested the treasure he brought from his voyages wisely, and settled into a life of ease and comfort. He was no less blessed in arranging a suitable match for himself, and had many strong sons and beautiful daughters. He was fortunate indeed, ever thanking the One from whom all blessings flow for his good fortune, giving freely to the poor and opening his home to men of good character and rich in wisdom.

Of Sindbad's many sons, two were more dear to him than others. Their names were Abu Bahr and Abu Jabal. Abu Bahr was the elder of the two, in many ways like his father. Abu Jabal was the younger, and more like his mother Soria, Sindbad's favorite wife. Abu Bahr always had his eye on the horizon, hearing the call of the open sea, ever looking for new trade routes to open, and new captains for his father's ships sailing out from Basra. Abu Jabal was drawn to the great caravan routes to China and to Rome, as well as the streets, markets, and alleys of Baghdad itself. Yet both sons shared amply in their father's good character, ever remembering the source of all blessings and the place where they would once return.

As the years went by, Abu Bahr grew to become ever more like his father, and Abu Jabal like his mother. Sindbad grew to think of Abu Bahr more as a brother than a son, while Abu Jabal remained in his eyes a child. Even so, being a just and fair man as well as a wise one, Sindbad did his best to treat the two equally, giving them more responsibilities in managing his house's affairs. But when Abu Jabal would come to him and speak of the dangers of the Seven Seas and the opportunities of trade with Samarkand or Constantinople, Sindbad would smile and listen, and think in his heart that Abu Jabal spoke from childish timidity and lack of understanding. So Sindbad gave him a trading-house in Basra to manage, so he himself could see off the sea-captains and trade with the Indian merchants there, that he would give up his dreams of caravan-trade.

Abu Jabal was a dutiful son, and did his father's bidding. Yet he was not happy seeing off the ships to India and Sarandib, to Africa and even far-away China. "Why must we keep only to the sea-trade? Our father nearly lost his life seven times over in his youth. Even now, pirates and storms can ruin all our fortunes, no matter how diligently we labor," he thought. Yet when he spoke of these things with his father, Sindbad only smiled. "We are sea-traders, Abu Jabal, my son, not caravan-masters," he said, and told him to return to his trading-house in Basra.

It so happened that there came a great storm on the Indian Ocean, and three of Sindbad's ships were lost. Even for one as blessed by fortune as Sindbad, this was a great loss. "Look, Father," Abu Jabal said, "we must not invest all our fortune in the sea-trade! What if another storm should come? We would be ruined!" But Sindbad smiled and said, "We are sea-traders, not caravan-masters. What God gives, He takes away. Take this gold, go back to Basra, and send off three more ships to Sarandib."

Abu Jabal returned to his trading-house in Basra, and made preparations to send off the ships as his father bade. Then a thought occurred to him. "My father is foolish to always listen to my brother Abu Bahr, who only tells him what he wants to hear. What harm is there if I send but two ships, and use the rest of the gold to buy into a caravan bound for China?" he thought. "Once the caravan returns laden with riches, surely even my father will see that we should not trust to the sea-trade alone." So he took two of his younger brothers into his confidence and gave them gold to take to the Persian merchants in Tabriz, indicating that his father's trading house wished to invest in one of their caravans.

"When the river knows a secret, the desert will soon know it too," it is said, and thus it came to pass that before setting out, one of the younger brothers spoke of Abu Jabal's plan to his wife, and she spoke of it to her friend. As is the wont of such things, the whispers became ever stranger as they were passed from mouth to ear. "Abu Jabal says that his father is in his dotage and can no longer be trusted to manage his fortunes," one said. "Sindbad has promised his fortune to Abu Jabal, making the other brothers his servants," said another. "Sindbad's trading house is in dire straits after a storm sunk their entire fleet, that is why he has asked his son Abu Jabal to borrow gold and invest it in a Persian caravan," said yet another.

Thus it was that the whispers reached Abu Bahr, the elder brother. For a long while, he held his peace, but as the whispering grew ever louder, he could do so no more. He went to his brother and asked, "Abu Jabal, my brother, is it true that you are doing business with the Persian merchants of Tabriz without our father's leave?" "It is true, Elder Brother," Abu Jabal answered. "Can you not see what it is doing to our father's honor?" Abu Bahr asked. "People are whispering that he is in his dotage, that his trading house is no longer to be trusted, that we are ruined." "We will be ruined," Abu Jabal answered, "if we only engage in the sea-trade and not the caravan-trade."

So Abu Bahr held his peace for a while longer, until he could hold his peace no more, and went to his father. "Father," he said, "my brother Abu Jabal is trading with the merchants of Tabriz without your leave, using the gold you gave him to send three ships to Sarandib. There is dissension among my brothers, and our business partners are whispering that you are in your dotage and that our house is ruined."

Hearing this, Sindbad called his son Abu Jabal to him, and they spoke together for a long time. What passed between them, only the One who sees all and knows the hearts of men and djinn knows, but when Abu Jabal came out from his father's chambers, he was pale as a ghost. "I am betrayed by my brother and my father. I am my father's son no longer," he said to all that would hear, and left the home of his birth carrying nothing but the clothes on his back, with the two younger brothers he had sent to Tabriz, and their wives and children, going with him. Whither he went I do not know. Perhaps he joined the merchants of Tabriz and traveled to China with them to seek his fortune.

And that is the story of how the house of Sindbad was almost ruined by a dispute over caravan-trade and sea-trade, only it was not about caravan-trade or sea-trade at all. Perhaps one day Abu Jabal will return, as caravan-trader or sea-trader. And me? I'm just a little old monkey, something Abu Bahr brought home from his travels to amuse the children and women-folk. Pass me the pistachios, would you?

This is not a very original story, perhaps, but it is a true one. True for someone, in any case.

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