The League of Beggars – Norman A. Rubin
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It is related that there was, in the passage of the ages way back in time, a story that told of a beggar who came to the town of Basra al-Ajam, a pleasant market town in the Caliphate of Sharkastan who was fated to turn a crabby old miser to the charitable ways of the faithful. The wondrous tale began with the sight of the beggar on the byways of that ancient town.
The mendicant, scruffy in a beggarly robe and cast-off slippers, at first simply plodded the fair streets with the palm of one hand raised upwards. The good people of the town dropped a coin or too upon the flesh when they the saw the miserable plight of a beggar etched on his drawn bearded face.
But, when the derelict chap drifted along he was lucky to meet a foursome of other equals in the same profession and they showed him real friendship. All were similar in shabby dress, and with the same features aged in beggarly years.
The leader of the mendicants informed their newly found associate that they had formed a league of their profession and they welcomed the panhandler to join the group, which he most gratefully accepted. No names were introduced to one another. They addressed each other with a simple call of ‘hey there ‘or ‘good man of the faith’, which sufficed amongst themselves.
“But!” said the leader of the pack in the guttural slang of his tongue, ‘we have an agreement amongst ourselves. We had mapped out the town, that in each individual area one can put out his hand or ask a friendly housewife or shop keeper, for a copper dirham or two. Then at the end of the day we pool our generous collections. The largesse will be split evenly among ourselves, except for a tenth part – to pass to our unfortunate friends who are a wee bit too sick to go out and cadge for a mite of charity. “
“My dear brother of the faith you can come along with me and the worthies and we will show you your rounds!” Upon those words the leader beckoned him to follow them. As they trekked along the streets, they stopped at a number of houses and shops collecting a copper here and a couple of dirhams there; and their upturned palms together with a whining call earned an additional coin or two.
Then, as they neared an imposing structure the newcomer hopefully thought that here, surely, that would be given a fine silver or gold dinar and, possibly, a decent meal from the cook. Picture his surprise when they simply passed without going to the entrance at the back and giving their spiel in their request for a bit of charity. The leader of the association simply passed the house without giving a second glance.
“What is the matter my dear friends?’ the newly ordained beggar exclaimed, “Why aren’t we stopping here?”
“Well, my dear companion I will give you an earful of an answer,” explained the headman. “The owner of that finely looking house is very far from being fine indeed, but only a lonely old skinflint. A mighty rich man he is, but it is sad to say he being the meanest man around the goodly town and beyond. He can squeeze a silver dinar till the metal burns in his hands. Sure, he gives his tithe to the imams of the faith but that would be all. Never a dirham or two for charity, never! Let us show our long faces near or around his sumptuous dwelling and he will inform the wazir’s men at arms. ”
“You probably don’t know how to deal with such a fellow.’ exclaimed the new associate. “I have never met such a fine upstanding man as he who is as mean as you say. I’ll bet you my last bent dirham that I will able to change his ways, upon my word.”
Off course his words brought laughter to them. When they all gathered together at the end day his funny statement was repeated amongst them and echoed with bursts of laughter. In fact, they were so thoroughly amused by his words that they accepted his challenge. Then they crowned him with the words “King of the Beggars” and promised that they will give half of their daily take on the following week if he would actually succeed in his promise to extract charity from that miser.
Well, the newcomer was glad of the compliment and was ready for the challenge. “I have one condition to make where I need your help. For the coming day or two wherever you go begging for alms just drop a hint that a visiting beggar told them in confidence he is not what he appears to be; that he has come to the town with a rare green gem, large and bright as a new moon, that was found buried in a cave in the nearby hills. And if they ask you for more information, just shrug your shoulders and say that’s all you know.”
The loyal members of the league agreed, and, as they knocked on the doors of their so-called regular customers and they dutifully told the tale that had been suggested. In no time the rumor spread through the town of Basra al-Ajam and the cadgers of the association felt its benefits immediately, for they were rewarded for their wailing for alms with a dinar or two instead of a bent dirham; and, in some cases, the cook, under instruction from a curious householder, would invite the mendicant inside for a bite so he could tell a bit more about the secret to the treasure. Even the miser heard of the rumor to the strange beggar in possession of a large green gem, which tempted him that his eyes opened wide in avarice.
The time had come when the to the newcomer to the league began to put his plan in action. At the town’s haman he made his ablution, shaved his scraggly beard and cut his stringy graying hair. Then he dressed in a clean well-worn robe and carefully mended sandals in order to make himself presentable to the sight of the skinflint. He decided that right time to go to the home of the miser was before the call of the muezzin for the Friday prayers.
Thus he found himself walking the path towards his sainted mission. He respectfully went to the kitchen entrance to the grand edifice and knocked upon the door, which was answered by a stout manservant. The retainer took one look at the beggarly chap at the portals and gave a shout, “Go away! We do not like being bother by people of your kind that wails out for alms.”
“But it is close to the Friday prayer, and I have nowhere to go and prepare myself in the bound duties of the faithful. I am a stranger to the town.
“This fine palace is not a hotel,” the servant continued, and was about to close the door on him when the miser, hearing the commotion at the rear entrance, came forward. The beggar saw the miser, equally dressed in a worn robed and mended sandals, and he bowed in servile homage.
Then the beggar lifted his head and faced the skinflint, “I have heard that you are a man of the faith inscribed with a golden heart. You surely would not turn away a stranger before the Friday prayers. I am burdened with a secret that must be revealed to a true believer. You have most likely heard about the beggar who found a treasure. Well, my esteemed friend I am that man who has had that fortunate turn of fate.”
The miser was delighted when he heard the words; he rubbed his hand in glee as he thought. “Surely this beggar intended to sell him that precious gem that everyone was talking about in town. After all, who else in this town had enough dinars to make such a worthy purchase?”
“Come in, friend. It is close to the Friday prayers; no time to discuss anything that will disturb the holy hour,” exclaimed the miser, “you will be my guest for the evening. Then after a repast we will talk about the secret of your burden in a peaceful mood.”
Then the miser ordered his manservant to robe the stranger in a fine robe, satin curved slippers and a fine-jeweled turban. The faithful retainer, after a search through locked trunks, returned with the required apparel. Lo and behold the beggar, dressed in such finery, bore regally his new but true appearance.
Afterwards the two made their way to the mosque to offer their benedictions and prayers to the Most High. As they made their way, the good people of the town of Basra al-Ajam remarked about the golden heart of a prince walking together with a poor man in the path of faith.
The miser actually found himself enjoying that pleasant Friday evening, as he had not ever dreamed of it being so upon the return to palatial dwelling. He opened the pleasantries of the evening with a rare warm hospitality. His visitor proved to be a most interesting person to chat and listen to in all manners of conversation. He imagined that his guest had apparently done a great deal of traveling, probably to the great cities of the Caliphate and beyond.
The hour was late when the miser turned to the mendicant and inquired, “Now my good and worthy friend, show me the that fine green gem that you have brought. Let’s get down to business and see if there would be a possibility for a deal.”
“What gem? I have no gem!” replied the finely dressed beggar.
“This no time to fool me with jokes,” said the irate miser.
“You are quite mistaken. I did not utter one word about a gem. I simply told you that I am the man whom the rumors going around the town is directed; the one about a stranger who found a treasure. And indeed, I did find a valuable store of wealth, a rare one at that. That treasure has been allowed to gather dust and become sadly neglected, but its worth is far above gold or silver. Take my hand and I will take you on a journey to a near and yet far beyond to your world of unending treasure.
The astonished miser did as he was told and grasped the beggar’s hand. The mendicant then whirled on his toes and uttered the secret yet sacred incantation of Abu-al-Qasim. Suddenly the miser found himself skirting the air above the town of Basra al-Ajam with the princely beggar leading by the hold of his hand. The skinflint held tight to the beggar’s hand as they flew through the blow of the winds and the heat of the sun..
They traveled far and wide, over dry deserts and watered oasises till they reached high peaks of the high mountains of Baibar in a land far beyond the Great Sea. There the beggar blindfolded the miserly chap and conducted him through a secret passage to a vast cavern which had no other entrance. After walking him around and about, the beggar took him to a large ornate hall far below the level of the earth.
Here the miser was allowed to take off his bandage and dazzle his eyes in the radiance of the opulence of a grand chamber. All around the richly decorated hall there nothing but emptiness, devoid of the sweet note of sound. Then he found himself alone, all alone in that opulent chamber, no beggarly companion beside him.
Then by a bright light he saw in the center a pool of white alabaster, one hundred feet in circumference, which was filled entirely with silver dirhams and gold dinars. He dashed to mirrored water and plunged his hands within; then he grasped handfuls of precious coins. Then lifted joyfully his filled hands, dance about the pool and gleefully exclaimed, “Gold, silver, gold, silver dinars. His voiced echoed throughout the chamber but only his ears was able to catch the sound; gold and silver abounded but he had no one to share his fortune.
Disappointment was etched on his features and the veil of sadness covered him; the gold and silver coins trickled from his gnarled hands and fell to the decorated tiles without a sound. Suddenly a bright light flashed before him, which forced him to divert his eyes to the alabaster wall of the pool. Around the white stone were words inscribed in gold, “He who sows good shall gather good from the earth. For every harvest savors of its birth.”
The miser read the engraved inscription and his niggardly soul burned in the heat of the words. He then knew that with all his miserly wealthy he was a lonely and unhappy man. As soon as he managed to regain his speech, he called out to the heavens above saying, “I have indeed been blind to the world about me. Thank you, my good friend wherever you are, for opening my eyes to my own ‘buried treasure’ that I have forgotten they existed. I am truly grateful to you for re-discovering the buried treasure in my heart; for that discovery you will always been an honored guest in my house. I now know of the charitable offerings and in the future I will share my fortune, which I have been blessed.”
Then, as quick as he uttered the words, the miser found himself in the center of his palatial home. There was no sign of the strange beggar; only his presence was felt in the house. But all around was a strange yet peaceful aura; the rhythmic beat of his heart drummed a note of a life of reborn faith.
From that day forward and for a long time the people talked about the treasure that the beggar surely had brought with him. When they looked at the former miser, now a man of honor dressed in a splendid robe and shoed in fine curved satin slippers, they noticed the content look on his face. Upon that sight, they decided that he must have attained a good profit on the exchange of trade.
And when the worthies of Basra al-Ajam asked the charitable man of the faith if he really struck a bargain, he smilingly replied, “The finest bargain I ever made!”
Norman A. Rubin