THE STUPID MERCHANT
SYAIR SAUDAGAR BODOH
The Stupid Merchant is an example of popular Malay literature in the nineteenth century. It is written in the simple ballad style known as syair, in rhymed quatrains. Ballads in this style were immensely popular in the days when stories were meant to be read aloud. It is supposed that there was a craze for this kind of literature in the nineteenth century, but there are good reasons to believe that this popular genre has a much longer pedigree.
It is interesting that the more popular ballads of the nineteenth century have strong women as their protagonists. The Stupid Merchant shares this trait. This is in very marked contrast to the feudal and courtly cast of most Malay literature, in which the obligatory beautiful princess is no more than the swooning plaything of powerful and handsome men. The more popular ballads seem to envisage a rather different kind of society: not so court-centred, and not so patriarchal.
I do not think this is because ballads were in some senses women’s literature. It is true that ballads were not highly regarded by the intellectuals of the day, who were male courtiers. Ballads were colourful, but were not the kind of improving literature that would benefit a man of reason. Ballads indulged the emotions and revelled in personal relationships. These were the characteristics of weak-minded women. But of course, the same characteristics were the sources of the ballad’s popular appeal. And the popularity of ballad verses was a problem itself: they were also the vehicle of potent political satire. This too made the genre morally dangerous.
So the depiction of strong women in popular ballad literature seems to stem from a more popular vision of society, and also one that could be a little subversive.
This makes it particularly interesting that The Stupid Merchant was written by a court lady. Contemporary sources attribute the ballad to Raja Kalzum, a princess of the royal house of Riau. She was the daughter of the famous intellectual and writer, Raja Ali Haji. At the time she authored this ballad, the Riau court was becoming more self-consciously Muslim. These circumstances explain the moral tone adopted throughout Raja Kalzum’s ballad. It is about as close as one can imagine a narrative ballad coming to ‘improving literature’. Raja Kalzum seems to have tapped into the prevailing popular genre to convey a moral message.
In other ballads depicting strong women, a contrast is drawn between two visions of the women’s role. The ineffectual husband has two wives. One he gains in an arranged marriage; she is beautifully vapid and no help at all to him when he is in danger. The other he meets and marries for her virtues; she is brave and enterprising and rescues him from certain death. Raja Kalzum keeps the idea of contrasting two wives, but infoduces a new morality. The second strong wife still rescues her stupid husband. She is the epitome of womanly virtue. Her virtues and attractions are methodically enumerated. By contrast, the merchant’s first wife is epitome of womanly immorality. She is wanton, extravagant, vain, proud and dishonest. Her execution is graphically described. For women in the audience, this is a warning; for men and women alike, it validates the physical chastisement of women. There is an undercurrent of sadistic pleasure in this scene. Raja Kalzum might not have been a very nice person.
In the end, this moralistic ballad is a slight thing. It is rather short, competent but not stylish, fast moving and somewhat ingenious (with uncanny echoes of The Merchant of Venice). I hope it will instruct as well as amuse. These were Raja Kalzum’s aims too.
Ballad of the Stupid Merchant
Listen, sirs, to this tale I recount –
It concerns a man of shining reputation,
a famous merchant of great account
with wealth beyond all estimation.
He lived in the city of Damascus
with his hundreds of slaves
and his dozens of ingots of gold
in abundant prosperity.
With seven storehouses full of treasure –
gold, silver, jewels and gems –
he lived in wealth and comfort,
and he was blessed with an only child.
This child was a son
of peerless beauty,
of dusky skin and noble mien,
no less handsome than a prince.
The merchant loved him dearly.
He cossetted his only son,
meeting his every whim
and asking nothing of him.
The son was a good-for-nothing,
just lazing away enjoying himself.
His every wish was catered to
until his initiative and intelligence withered away.
Because he was a rich man’s son
he never exerted himself.
Day and night he partied on
squandering pounds and dollars.
His father was immensely rich
with seven cutters to his name;
the whole town made it their business
to be at his beck and call.
This old merchant had an adopted brother
in the town of Muscat.
According to reports he captained ships
trading large consignments for fellow merchants.
Malik Hasani he was by name.
He took his vessel from port to port,
full of initiative, adventurous
and faithful to his Lord on high.
As for the wealthy merchant of Damascus,
his mansion was lavishly fitted out
with walls and floor of shining gold,
with a roof of thatched silver.
The house had forty rooms
with carved wood panels and finely-chiselled window screens,
with gateways and window frames all inlaid with gold,
and with a courtyard paved with fine-glazed tiles.
There were four great house-pillars
hollowed out with locked compartments
filled with diamonds, jewels and gems,
pearls and gems beyond estimation.
Emeralds and diamonds, diamond dust and mother-of-pearl,
philosopher’s stones of great price,
and fine gold plate
were stored within those pillars.
Every merchant in the land
knew of this hoard,
and speculated on its value.
Then one day
the merchant fell seriously ill,
and upon his deathbed vouchsafed
some wise instruction to his son:
“O my son, my dearest son,
your father now approaches death.
My wealth amounts to thousands of pounds,
so you will need to act sensibly.
You alone will inherit
my fortune, whole and complete,
for I have no other children
but you alone.
If you wish to take a wife
seek a modest maiden;
don’t chase stylish ladies
who break hearts every day.
This is your father’s advice:
look for maiden without experience.
When you find a girl like this
make her your wife.”
Hearing his father’s admonition,
the young merchant,
was deeply touched
and wept with becoming dignity.
A moment after the old merchant had finished speaking
his soul departed.
His death was greeted with
tumultuous weeping and wailing.
After the merchant’s death
the son buried his dad with all due ceremony
and stepped into his shoes,
now in control of hundreds of thousands of pounds.
He followed his father’s advice,
sought a modest maiden,
proposed, married her,
and brought her to his mansion.
But then he thought to himself,
“What did my father’s advice really mean?
I have married the kind of maiden he advised,
putting his advice into action;
but now I have made this maiden my wife
nothing much seems to have come of it.”
So he hit upon on another plan
which beggars the imagination.
After a space of ten days, no more,
he divorced his wife
and went in pursuit of others
who were also no sooner married than divorced.
That is how he spent his days
and thousands of pounds of his money.
How many hundreds
had lined up for his engagement gifts!
Of them he had married a hundred,
daughters of the townsfolk,
but three days after the marriage
he would find some reason to pronounce the divorce.
He just couldn’t win somehow.
He spent tens of thousands of dollars
but still didn’t get a wife he liked,
and here he was still suffering the pangs of bachelorhood.
So again he sent out to scour the land
for daughters of townsfolk,
and daughters of foreigners,
lavishing expenses on them.
There was one girl
living in the foreign quarter,
of unknown parents,
now both dead.
She boarded with people
and fell in with common habits
that are forbidden to maidens
for she lacked the support of a family.
She had taken a lover,
having compromised herself with a stranger,
for without parents
she was prey to her instincts.
She was beautiful to behold,
with a glowing fair complexion, good bearing,
slender waist and ample breasts,
with long thick hair.
The young merchant proposed,
providing rich presents for the wedding expenses,
and once he had married her
the noble young merchant conveyed her to his home.
The young merchant loved her intensely.
He committed all his wealth to her
– handed over* his keys to her
– and kept the house in fine order for her.
Once she had become a merchant’s wife
she became arrogant and haughty in words and deeds,
ill-mannered in speech,
and regarded herself as high and mighty.
She spent all day trying on clothes
of satin and of silk with gold threads,
while drinking and eating spring lamb.
Her conceit and arrogance were indescribable.
Even her bathing cloth was of silk,
or satin threaded with gold and silver!
Her feet, in slippers chased with diamond glitter,
never deigned to touch the ground.
When someone came to visit,
she pretended not to see them
and just went on attending to her hair
intent on combing and oiling it.
Her eyes were always rimmed with kohl.
None of her clothes were cheap.
Her fingers were covered in rings.
She sat in state on carpet.
But come nightfall
she acted as a thief.
She took any treasure she fancied
and had it taken to her lover.
Night after night it was the same:
the merchant’s goods were carried off.
She had an accomplice in this
who hauled off goods by the ton.
What more is there to say?
The keys were always carefully put back
but of course all the wealth
had been passed over to her lover.
The young merchant was very doleful
to see his wealth depleted.
Though he did not know who the thief was
the money ran out just the same.
Now he had no goods to trade,
and could only mourn his former wealth.
His seven storehouses were completely emptied;
his inheritance no longer amply provided.
He sold off all his slaves and servants,
his gold and silver was all pawned,
but his wife exhausted it all,
making it very hard to survive.
All the furnishings were gone
along with the servants young and old.
Only the house itself remained.
The young merchant was crushed.
His damnable wife!
All his property was gone
only this empty house remaining, like a skeleton,
with its seven roofs, his last remaining patrimony.
The young merchant became very depressed
over the loss of his wealth.
He lost weight and sank into misery
– what more is there to say?
He was unable to think straight,
and his manners and decorum vanished.
All because of his wife’s cupidity,
his fortune was totally destroyed.
The young merchant had been plunged in doleful gloom
for about a year
when who should arrive but his father’s adopted brother,
sailing into the harbour with four ships.
The ships anchored off the customs house
and the captain came ashore
heading straight for his brother’s house
which he found in a desolate compound.
Malik Hasani was astonished.
What was the cause of this?
Where had his brother merchant gone?
There was no-one to be seen here.
The young merchant heard a voice
and hastened outside
where he beheld his uncle
with unbounded joy.
Quickly approaching, exchanging greetings,
he grasped his hand and kissed his fingers.
They wept together more than I can tell
as memories of the brave old merchant came flooding back.
“When did you arrive, uncle?
Please come in and sit down.
Following my father’s passing,
now I find myself in dire straits.”
Malik Hasani was astonished
to see his nephew in this state
and wept with pity
as he took his seat.
He spoke despondently,
“Alas, my boy,
What is the cause of this?
Where has your wealth gone?
There were hundreds of thousands in treasure and goods –
what has caused such ruin
that they have gone without trace
plunging you into poverty and pain?”
The young merchant heard these words
with bowed head and flowing tears,
and then related how
his father’s advice had brought him down.
He told the whole story,
Malik was amazed, and fell silent
– what more is there to say?
Then he said, “My poor dear boy,
are you willing to follow my advice?
Come, sail with me.
I will take you back to my country.
Put your house here up for auction.
Don’t fret over the property you have lost.
I will take you home with me, my boy.
I am so sorry this has happened to you.
You had better throw your wife out:
evil people are best left alone.
Sell up your house and all your effects;
I’ll replace them later on.”
The young merchant was very glad.
His heart swelled with happiness
to hear his uncle’s plan.
He scraped up some food to serve him dinner.
When that was all done with,
Malik summoned his own shipwright
and had him prise off the all gleaming gold
of the walls and floors during the night.
He had the floor replaced with brick
brushed all over with gold-dust.
The jewels stored in the house-posts
all still seemed to be there.
This was all completed
without the young merchant suspecting a thing
– to Malik’s delight.
This was the patrimony.
It was all gathered up
and carried that night on board ship.
Not a soul knew about it;
it was taken down in complete secrecy.
With the house thus completely transformed
he felt very pleased.
Now it was just a matter of waiting for the auction,
and already merchants were coming to inspect it.
It was after Malik Hasani had been
in the country for seven days
that certain well-connected merchants arrived
in eight ships, equally well-appointed.
These eight merchants were very rich,
disposing of gold by the gallon.
They came to hear the news
that the house of a great merchant was up for auction.
They got together
and went to meet the noble young merchant.
Carpets were spread, the windows were opened,
and the eight merchants took their seats.
The first merchant then spoke:
“I have heard reports, my friend,
that you wish to auction your house,
and that is why I have come.”
Malik Hasani then said,
“Yes, the reports are correct.
I wish to auction my nephew’s house
along with all its contents.”
One clever merchant was overjoyed
as he thought to himself,
‘I’ll make an incalculable profit
on the gems in the house-posts.
The floor and walls are all gold too.
How much should I offer?’
The more he thought the happier he became,
and so it was with the other seven.
When it came down to fixing a price
the eight merchants formed a huddle
and discussed amongst themselves
what they could bid for the house:
eight hundred thousand for the house posts,
nine hundred thousand for the rest of the property.
The eight merchants came to an agreement
that they would jointly
buy the peerless merchant’s house
and signed an agreement to that effect.
The ministers and the king
of the country were informed
and issued them the title.
And that concluded the merchants’ dealings.
Malik Hasani then gave a reception
for all the merchants.
slaughtering three buffaloes.
They ate and drank and made merry.
After they had done with these amusements,
with the proceeds of the auction now in hand
Malik Hasani and the young merchant
set sail together.
They were well at sea,
before the merchants came around
to begin demolishing the house,
and ordered the house-posts to be pulled up.
Then they saw
that the house-posts were empty,
and that the floor was but brick
brushed over with gold leaf.
The eight merchants
shook their heads one by one:
“We’ve been struck by a disaster!
We’ll never be able to get our money back.”
Anger raged in each heart.
The young merchant has cheated us in a big way.
He took the contents of the house-posts
and took our money as well.
Then one merchant spoke up,
“I am amazed beyond belief
that Malik Hasani should do something like this –
but it does seem he has deceived us.
But even if we were to pursue him,
he has been sailing now for seven days
and who knows where his home base is.
We’ve lost a fortune.”
Another merchant chipped in,
“The young merchant was somebody special.
We can rule out deceit on his part.
Maybe he suffered at another’s hands.
He was indeed famous for his wealth
and everyone looked up to him.
His house surely did once gleam with gold
and its house-posts were once filled with gems.
It was because of his wife, a wretched person:
she stole all her husband’s wealth,
and carried off the contents of the house-posts too
without her husband suspecting a thing.
The young merchant, in difficulties,
seeing that his treasure was no more,
sold what gold he had
and relined the floors and walls with tinsel.
So where do we go from here?
We are all in this together, brothers.
We’ll retaliate directly against that woman.
Report her to the king.
There is nothing else for it –
we will destroy that woman.
She is the one who exhausted his wealth
so she is the one we’ll settle with.”
The other seven heard him out
with rising approval and enthusiasm.
Here was a clear course of action.
They all went off together
and seized the young merchant’s wife
and hauled her before the ruler.
They reported all that she had done
and begged his majesty for retribution.
Hearing the eminent merchants’ submission
the noble king commanded:
“As you wish.
Have her staked out in the sun.
Expose her in the palace forecourt,
continuously day after day
without food or drink.
That will repay this evil person.”
On hearing this decision, the merchants
They immediately dragged the woman off
and flogged her in the forecourt.
They fastened shackles to her feet
and chained her round the waist,
and exposed her to the full heat of the sun
in this very public place.
She cried day in day out,
suffering indescribable torture,
heat of the sun beating
over every inch of her body.
She remained a month like this,
tormented by the merchants
as recompense for many tons of treasure,
and like this, too, she died.
Now we move on with this tale,
of how the young merchant, boarding ship,
made for Muscat under sail
taking only provisions for the trip.
He settled then in Muscat,
where Malik was to take care of him,
treating him as his own son
and gratifying his every wish.
Now Malik Hasani had a daughter
of great beauty
discretion and loyalty
who could recite the Quran by heart
and who was soft-spoken
and had the seven marks of virtue,
with a face as beautiful as a painting,
and who was devoted to religious duties.
One day it came to pass
that Malik Hasani was in discussion
with the dashing young trader
about how he would find a wife for him:
“My boy, young merchant,
perchance you wish to take a wife.
If it would please you
perhaps I could look on your behalf.
Whoever it is that you desire,
allow me to arrange the betrothal
and meet the wedding expenses.
Just say the word, don’t hold back.”
The young merchant considered this
and smiled as he replied,
“I am not yet so inclined.
Women have low intellects.
I’ve had enough of being married.
Among a hundred daughters of townsfolk
I found not one of splendid character.
A woman is liable to become a thief.
I’d rather just be left a bachelor for now.
With all my wealth and fortune destroyed
I haven’t the strength to take another wife,
not after suffering a loss of hundreds of thousands.”
Malik Hasani chuckled:
“This boy of mine is stupid.
What is there to be afraid of in getting married?
One can’t be scared of women.
It’s normal for healthy young men
to look for a smart wife.
They set their sails to scour the region
looking for women far and wide.
If one wishes to take a wife
the prudent woman is the one to look for.
Of course there are women of all sorts,
so there may be women who are thieves.
There is in fact an art to choosing women:
they should be complete with the four qualities.
If you find one like that
she will be as perfect as her nature.”
Then the young merchant said,
“All right then, uncle, tell me the whole story.
Where could a woman like this be found?.
If there is one, then I am willing.
And what are these qualities you speak of?
What are these four perfections called?
Teach me the laws of this science
so that I may apply them.”
Malik the merchant chuckled,
“A good principle is this:
Look for a pretty woman
and closely examine her qualities.
A woman with perfect qualities
has four whites
complete with four blacks,
four longs, and four shorts.”
The young merchant said,
“These ‘fours’: what do they mean?
Give me a clear and full account
of all these various lots of four.”
And Malik Hasani did so, saying:
“A woman who has these qualities
first has a fair white skin
and second a pure white heart;
the third white
is her sparkling eyes
the fourth her twenty nails;
– those are the four whites.
There are four blacks too:
first her jet black hair,
then her deep black eyes;
the third black is the rims of her eyes;
the fourth is her black eye-brows and
her hairline, which is clean-cut as if it has been trimmed.
This ends the list of qualities
in which yearning and desire are located.
I’m advising you as best I can
while keeping it as brief as possible.
I’ll explain the longs next:
they are qualities which can stir up passion.
The first is long hair;
then a long slender figure;
third is a broad mind and long view;
and the fourth is long fingers.
Now to detail the shorts,
which make up the nature of a wise and loyal wife.
If we find them
we have fulfilled our aim.
First is demure, that is short of gaze,
restrained, or short of gait,
discrete, or short of voice,
and last discerning, or short of hearing.
If these are all present
the woman truly has refined characteristics:
she is be worth dying for
or bearing any hardship.”
When the young merchant heard
the wise words of old Malik
his soul rejoiced
and he kissed his uncle’s hand
saying, “Thanks and praise to God.
Your formula must be right, uncle.
If Allah should ever be so generous,
I would indeed marry such a woman.”
Malik laughed as he said,
“There is indeed a woman like that.
With your approval, my son,
I will marry her to you.”
The old man was thinking to himself,
‘I will give my own daughter
to my nephew,
earning his undying gratitude.’
“I have a certain amount of wealth
and, as your uncle, I can give you a little capital to set you up.
So now the pair of you
will become my children in the truest sense.”
The high-born merchant was very pleased
to get a rich wife,
not from some dubious family,
but his uncle’s daughter, and beautiful, and rich.
Following this discussion
Malik Hasani got to work straight away
assembling his relatives
and providing all kinds of amusement.
They enjoyed themselves for days on end,
celebrating without respite
as they held receptions for the townsfolk,
lavishing them with food and drink.
At the conclusion of seven days
he personally gave away his daughter Siti,
uniting her with the splendid merchant
... a wonderfully well-matched couple.
The merchant now set about coaxing his new wife
(Siti Zainah was her name)
but she refused to be intimate with her husband,
just crying day by day.
She refused to sleep with him,
so that now, two months after the marriage,
the merchant’s yearning was deepening
as he lusted after his beautiful Siti.
Her parents were very troubled,
and felt ashamed before their son-in-law.
Her mother continually coaxed her daughter,
while Malik Hasani wanted to beat her.
But the young merchant would not allow this,
“Do not rage against your daughter,
just let things be for now.
I’ll take it day by day.”
But day by day it was the same:
his wife would not come around
although he gave her many kinds of clothes
and tried to cheer her up her with fun and games.
She avoided her husband
how ever much he decorated the bed chamber.
She would not look him in the eye
but just kept silent with downcast eyes.
The young merchant became more troubled
as passion surged within his breast.
He coaxed and flirted in every way,
but she never uttered a word in response.
When it got too late at night
he would lock himself in the bedroom
and sleep all alone.
This was his practice for many, many days.
Siti’s mother was very troubled
to see her daughter behave in this way:
while her husband was doing everything right
she behaved with such ill grace.
Malik Hasani then said,
“Maybe our daughter feels shy
living under the same roof with us
and that is what makes her reluctant to talk.”
So Malik had another house built
set in its own grounds,
a building of exquisite craftsmanship
with walls and doors of silver and gold,
complete with gardens and a pool
crossed by a bridge of gold alloy
and planted around with all kinds of flowers
of peerless beauty.
When this had been built,
the young merchant moved in
and once a week his father would visit
to enquire after his daughter’s behaviour.
Whereupon the splendid merchant would reply,
“I am totally flummoxed:
it’s worse by the day:
she won’t allow me anywhere near her.
Moving into a separate residence
has made your daughter even more oblivious to me.
Nothing I can say is any use.
I feel inadequate.”
Hearing these words, Malik Hasani
became increasingly anxious.
His shame deepened and his anger rose
for his daughter ignored his advice.
So he came to confront his daughter,
“Zainah, what’s the reason
you are ignoring your husband?
You haven’t heeded my advice
and you’ve developed a bad attitude.
People are saying I’m a party to this.
All this while and you still haven’t come to your senses!
Where are you going to find
a dashing young husband
of such rare elegance
and rich in diamonds and gems as well,
with manners and breeding rarely found,
enlightened and forbearing by nature,
indifferent to praise or criticism,
so perfectly dashing and sprightly?”
As Siti Zainah listened
to her father’s praise of her husband,
a smile crept over her noble face
and she gently gave this answer:
“O father, please hear me out.
It is not that your daughter intends to bring shame upon you
but the young merchant is so very stupid
he doesn’t know whether he is coming or going.
He may be splendid, elegant and noble,
of uncommon dash and sprightliness,
but he is also unspeakably stupid
and can’t begin to fend for himself.
True, he is rich and comfortably off,
disposing of hundredweights of gold,
but if he lacks any good sense
all this will come to nought.
If he is sincere but dim-witted
his wealth will suffer accordingly.
If he is incapable of thinking things through
he’ll be left with nothing but the clothes he stand in.
Just send him off first to try his luck
as a trader in a foreign land.
Give him forty camels, father,
loaded up with all kinds of merchandise.
Once he has discovered how to make his way
and learnt the meaning of success and failure,
then I’m ready to be intimate with him
and obey him in all things.”
Malik Hasani heard these words
of his clear-minded daughter
and rejoiced in his heart
as he summoned his son-in-law before him.
When the young merchant came in,
Malik Hasani addressed him:
“Just do what your uncle tells you now.
You have to learn to shift for yourself. There’s no other way.
Here are forty camels laden with goods
which are all the property of your wife,
and take whatever else you will.
The saddle-bags contain diamonds and gems.
Take this merchandise to Yemen,
where there are many worthy traders.
Take a hundred slaves and companions
and all this varied merchandise.”
Hearing this, the young merchant
was exceedingly happy.
All the merchandise was fetched
and his uncle provided the forty camels.
When all had been readied
he took leave of his uncle and wife,
appointing his wife as his agent
to see to matters on the home front.
He spoke to his wife,
“Stay here, my darling one.
When I have achieved success
I will rendezvous with you again.
Pray every day
that your husband will meet success
and I will speedily return here
to rejoin my splendid Siti.”
As Siti Zainah listened to this speech
her heart melted, with mixed emotions
as she thought, ‘Hopes may not be so easy to fulfil;
intentions do not guarantee results.’
Then the peerless merchant set out,
accompanied by his entourage,
taking the forty camels loaded with merchandise,
journeying from the city.
He travelled on day after day
until, on the seventh day,
the dashing young merchant reached
the city of Muscat, and entered it.
He went directly to the merchants’ quarter,
the place where merchants congregate to barter.
The markets and bazaar were bustling;
this was a place where major deals were being brokered.
A merchant came up to him
as he approached the bazaar
and caught hold of one camel’s ear
and said straight away,
“O merchants of this caravan, may I ask
how much a camel’s going for?
Tell me straight
and I’ll take the lot including merchandise.”
The young merchant then replied,
“A thousand dinar is the price.
The saddlebags contain fine satin,
with some of diamonds.”
The young merchant assumed
that it was a question of a single camel,
else why would the Yemeni have acted thus
asking about the price of a camel?
When the price was fixed
the Yemeni merchant accompanied him
with all the camels in train.
The Yemeni was merchant very pleased.
When they had gone some way into the bazaar
the young merchant asked in a gentle voice,
“Where is the money, sir.
I have come directly for it.”
The Yemeni merchant heard out these words
with, “Just take a seat beside me here,
and I’ll pay the price, no nonsense:
one thousand dinar for the camels.”
After some more patter
the Yemeni merchant played a nasty trick
by paying him the price of one single camel
with, “Here, take the price of the camels.”
When the young merchant realised
that there was only a thousand dinar in his hand
he sprang up, his heart in his mouth.
“Why do you pay me only this much, sir?
The price of my merchandise
is one thousand per camel:
for forty camel loads
that’s clearly forty thousand.”
Hearing this, the Yemeni merchant
pretended to scowl,
“What are you on about!
We made an agreement.
As I grasped the ear of the first camel
I asked about the price of them all.
‘A thousand for the lot’, that was the deal,
I offered it and you accepted.
There are many witnesses:
I asked for the price of ’the lot’
and you said the price was one thousand
and that was the reason I proceeded.”
When the merchant heard this statement
his heart began to beat faster and faster
as he exclaimed “God forbid!
What disaster could be greater?”
The dispute was taken
before a notable of the town.
The young merchant in distress
and suffering beyond imagination.
The Yemeni merchant was awarded the verdict
because bystanders backed him up.
The young merchant was struck dumb:
who could he turn to?
He was unable to speak
as tears streamed from his eyes.
He trustingly took his case
as far as a learned Judge,
but not one person championed his cause,
all giving credit to the Yemeni merchant.
The merchant was helpless
his fortune dashed by trickery.
He said to his companions,
“You had better all go back.
As for me, I don’t know,
if I am in luck I’ll go back later.
“I feel deeply ashamed.
You had better go on ahead
and let my uncle know
that I am in a mess.
“Give him my greetings and respects:
and tell him I’m not sure when I’ll get back.
Ask him to pray for God’s mercy upon me.
I will return once I get back on my feet.
Take back the whole of the thousand dinars.
Also tell my wife
that I have suffered a mishap
and ask her to pray unceasingly.”
Once he had said this to his companions
they took leave of one another,
and then they all went back
leaving him all alone.
He stayed in Yemen
without a fixed abode
like someone in a daze,
his loss had robbed him of his faith.
As he was now living in a foreign land
where he had no connections,
his hardships were exceptional
as he had to find employment with strangers.
Wherever he turned he was unsuccessful,
so he took jobs as a casual labourer hoeing fields.
If he worked too slow he was abused and reviled,
cursed to kingdom come.
He was ordered to pound rice,
he was ordered to dig up taro roots,
and if he slackened his pace of work
he was beaten as if he were a slave.
But because he needed to earn a livelihood
he took up any kind of work,
bearing the curses and abuse
for what could he say in reply?
So, poor and wretched,
with patched clothes,
he moved from place to place in misery,
his body completely wasted away.
Both legs of his trousers were torn away.
he took odd jobs wherever he could
living from day to day.
His poverty was extreme;
he was nothing but a bag of bones
clad more in patches than in clothes,
any vestige of his good looks gone.
This was how it was
now he lived in Yemen,
with no idea where to turn.
Let us now take up the sad narration
of a loyal wife condemned to wait
day after day in growing desperation
lacking news of her dear husband’s fate.
His friends had told her
that her husband stayed behind in Yemen.
This left Siti’s heart uneasy
In lonely hours
she wondered about her husband’s fate.
Who knows where he might have moved on to.
She only knew that he had not returned home.
‘His father was so kind’, she mused.
‘He was like a father to my father,
caring for my father as his own son,
and providing him with plenty of capital.
My father owes his wealth
to my husband’s father,
and now it has come to pass that
my husband suffers in a foreign land.
If I don’t go in search of him
my name will be ruined.
Given that I am his wife
I will suffer disgrace throughout the land.’
With these thoughts
she wept alone,
then went into her bedroom
Putting on men’s clothes
she dressed like a priest
complete with gown and turban
with a Quran and commentaries under her arm.
Having done this,
she set off alone,
leaving the city on horseback
turning left at the fork.
She was heading for Yemen
in search of her husband.
Despondent she travelled
and arrived without delay.
She went into the city,
seeking out the mosque
where she met the splendid Judge
and greeted him as a colleague.
The Judge returned her† greeting
shaking her hand as he inquired
“Sir, whence come you?
and with what intent?”
Siti smiled as she replied,
“I am known as the Junior Deacon
and hail from Muscat
with the intention of paying my respects to you, good sir.”
Whereupon he invited her in,
and lead her up into his cloisters,
where the best carpets were laid out
and food and drink were served.
The old Judge was most pleased
to observe the countenance of the Junior Deacon,
whose fine visage and noble bearing
warmed his heart.
They would sit together in deep discussion
day in day out, quoting scripture chapter and verse.
The Junior Deacon was adept at formulating issues
and impressed with her wisdom.
Whatever form the problem took
the Junior Deacon was always right, never in error,
concurring with the Judge
in pronouncements which were beyond challenge.
She stopped in the Judge’s house
intending to wait for her husband,
remaining in the cloisters and performing good works
under the protection of the Judge, as was fitting.
Then one day
as the Junior Deacon was in discussion
with the eminent Judge,
his many pupils sitting to right and left,
the young merchant happened by.
He was cradling a load of fodder
in his arms
when the Junior Deacon saw him.
The Junior Deacon said
to one of those sitting in attendance,
“Call that man over for me.
I feel pity for him.”
The fellow went over straight away
to fetch the merchant from the market place,
calling out loudly after him,
“Hey, poor man, come over here.
You have been summoned by the Junior Deacon
in the cloisters.”
To which the young merchant replied,
“Don’t joke, sir.
What possible reason could he have
for summoning a poor wretch like me.
I am covered with shame
in these motley clothes.
What’s more I need to hurry on.
I’m on a job for a shopkeeper
who says if I dawdle about
he will beat me black and blue.”
The messenger responded,
“Just come with me first.”
and led him away by the arm,
the grass he was carrying trailing behind.
When they arrived at the cloisters
the Deacon cast an eye over him:
a nondescript poor wretch
in dreadfully tatty clothes.
But scrutinising him more closely
she perceived, by his bearing and character,
that it was evidently the young merchant –
she saw his wretched state as a token of his faithfulness.
She was very touched
to see the state her husband had been reduced to
because of his dim-wittedness
– for that was indeed the cause.
Gently she spoke,
as tears streamed down her cheeks,
“Poor old fellow, let me introduce myself,
a learned stranger, recently arrived.”
When the young merchant heard
the Junior Deacon’s words,
he paid his respects and said,
“Sir, don’t make fun of me.
I am a poor and humble wretch
who would not dream of addressing you,
though you have deigned to greet me:
that is the lot of the lowly.
I live as a casual labourer
taking whatever work there is.
I’m cursed by folk if I’m a little late
so please excuse me now, sir.”
The Junior Deacon smiled as he said,
“I feel very sorry for you.
Let us talk this over, my brother,
and allow me to provide you with some stock-in-trade.
It is most evident that you are poor
and live at everyone’s beck and call.
Do you perform the prayers?
Have you a patron?”§
He bowed his head as he heard these words
and tears flowed down his cheeks
flushed with shame as he plucked up courage to speak
considering the wretched state he was in.
He spoke softly,
“I do not pray, my lord,
because of an unsettled mind
and also because my clothes are improper.
Far from having a patron,
I am just a poor man without a livelihood,
working for starvation wages,
always trying to scrape a living.
How could I pray
with clothes indecently full of holes
and a confused mind besides?
I’ve no fixed abode, always on the move.”
Then the renowned Deacon smiled
and said, “Sir, do not leave just yet,
though it may cause you some difficulty.
Let me conduct you into prayer.
And, sir, may I inquire
from whence you come,
in what city you originally lived.
Answer truthfully and sincerely.
Please inform me, sir,
don’t hold back anything at all.
I am ready to believe you:
just tell me all about it, sir.”
The merchant responded to Siti’s promptings,
“I wanted to speak but did not dare.
No one here could possibly credit
the reason for my present condition.”
The Deacon said, “Praise be to God!
Tell it all, sir, what can be the harm?
Tell it all. I trust you
so long as you have done nothing wrong.”
The young merchant considered this plea,
and then began relating his history from its beginning.
How, in those days he cut a splendid figure
and his father was the richest man in town.
Then came his stay in Muscat
where his uncle became his guardian
and he was given a wife to cement the relationship,
but they had been unable to get on.
“My wife had then ordered
that I be lent some merchandise
and I was bringing that here
when a Yemeni merchant cheated me.
That is why I am like this now.
I would like to go back but I haven’t the nerve.
I fear I will be upbraided by my uncle and wife
so I stay in this city.”
When the splendid Deacon heard this,
her love and pity were indescribable:
her husband’s unbelievable stupidity
had brought his ruin.
She spoke kindly,
“You should follow my advice, sir.
Let me instruct you how to do it,
and you will quickly regain your lost property.
Go to the house
of the merchant who cheated you
and pretend to buy whatever rings
he happens to be wearing.
As you take your seat there, move close to him,
grasp the rings and the fingers they are on,
and enquire what the price might be,
how much the ‘whole lot’ would be.
Once he gives you a definite price
make as if to cut off his fingers, stating:
‘I will buy the rings
and the fingers for your price.’
When he disputes this
bring him directly back here
and let me consider it,
then you will get your money back.”
Hearing these words, the young merchant,
instructed by the peerless Deacon,
felt wonderfully relieved and
joyfully prostrated himself at her feet.
He said, “That is a fine plan:
I’ll do as you instruct.”
The Deacon placed her hand upon his head,
“Brother, don’t prostrate yourself.”
She ordered the young merchant to be bathed
and powdered and perfumed
and clothed in fine garments
and swathed in Egyptian satins.
When the clothes had been put on
his former appearance returned,
his fine, fresh, exalted visage
was flawless in every way.
Because the young noble was naturally handsome
he became rather resplendent when properly dressed,
– very smart and stylish,
the radiance returned to his face.
When he had been fully dressed
he was sent off into the throng
heading off to the merchant’s residence,
swaggering with an striking stride.
When he reached the residence
the Yemeni merchant was there
having brought his friends and colleagues
to eat and drink at his stall.
The young merchant then went in
and took a seat close to the merchant
while flicking his creese against his side
so that its hilt glittered.
The merchant gazed upon him with pleasure:
judging him to be a rich man by his clothes.
He respectfully offered his hand
and introduced himself without hesitation.
He spoke in a jovial manner,
“My brother, what are you after?
There is a great variety of goods here,
buy whatever takes your fancy.”
Thus he spoke, cracking his knuckles,
showing off his rings set with gems:
turquoise on the right, emerald on the left;
it was very, very impressive.
Then the young merchant drew near
and clasped his fingers, saying.
“How much for all this, sir,
these fingers full of rings.
I would like to buy them.
so tell me the price of the lot.
Let’s not mess about,
tell me their true value.”
The Yemeni merchant then said,
“My rings are a hundred dinars.
If you accept that
you may purchase the lot.”
The young merchant, very pleased,
unsheathed his creese and made to cut the fingers off.
The Yemeni merchant was shocked,
laying hold of his own creese.
“Are you mad, sir,
to want to cut off my fingers.
The fingers weren’t for sale,
you just now bought the rings.”
The young merchant then said,
“But just now I said
‘How much for the lot’:
both rings and finger are equally included.
I will not release your fingers.
You fixed the price.
‘For the lot’ was what I said,
so why do you resile from it now?”
The Yemeni merchant was furious,
totally rejecting this,
but unsure which way to turn.
He was red-faced and shaking with anger.
“What on earth gives you this right?
Buying the rings, you sever the fingers!
Maybe you’re on drugs!
This sale is beyond imagination!
God forbid! Amazing!
You’re acting like a madman.
There’s no justification for this:
take it to arbitration – I’ll abide by that.”
Then the young merchant said,
“Yes, let’s just see where the rights do lie.
I’ll take you to court, sir,
before the Junior Deacon.”
All the onlookers
were left speechless,
thinking to themselves,
‘This man is clearly mad.’
The two merchants went off smartly
to bring the case before the Judge,
the young merchant all the time clasping the fingers
holding on regardless.
He never let go of that hand
as they wrangled all along the road,
and attracting a curious crowd.
Reaching the ancient Judge’s quarters,
the young merchant went in.
The Junior Deacon had taken up position there,
and many folk were in attendance.
The two merchants took their places,
paying respects to the ancient Judge.
The Junior Deacon chuckled with amusement,
“So what do you two merchants want?”
The Yemeni merchant then said,
“Judge, sir, advise me.
The merchant has been deceitful
in trying to buy my rings.”
He related the whole affair:
how the rings alone were sold
but he would cut of my fingers too.
How could I let him do that?”
The Judge was amazed, wondering
‘What kind of merchant,
buying rings, would take the fingers too
in his eagerness to seize someone’s wealth?’
The Judge said, “How can that be?
There is no precedent for this.
Only the rings were sold,
how can you want to sever the fingers too?”
But then the noble Deacon spoke,
“Reverend sir, you have decided honourably,
but one should not decide without the full facts.
This young man is in the right.
At the outset he inquired,
as he held the fingers
with their rings, ‘How much for these?’
and the Yemeni merchant gave the price.”
The Yemeni was crushed to hear this ruling.
Uproar broke out in the cloisters.
The Judge was astounded
as the Junior Deacon took the other side.
The old Judge had found for
the Yemeni merchant
while the Junior Deacon
had found for the young merchant.
The Judge said, “You are on the wrong track.
That is not the way things are done here.
You are mistaken, Junior Deacon.
The rules are in the law books.
My decision stands,
but perhaps first
I need to inquire into the circumstances
for some explanation as to how this came about.”
Then the noble Deacon said,
“The Yemeni merchant is in the wrong.
Having ascertained the price of one camel
he asserted that was the price for the whole lot.
Whereupon the young merchant said,
‘Eh, how come, sir?
That was the price for one.
The others weren’t involved.’
To which the Yemeni merchant replied,
‘Why are you on about, young merchant?
Right from the start I made it clear;
that was the price; and I have paid.’
The young merchant was at his wits’ end
and, unable to see a way out of this,
he subsided in agony
feeling mentally crippled.
Then when I heard
how the young merchant had been in the right,
I instructed the him
on how to redress the wrong with the present action.”
The eminent Judge spoke again,
“This is a very clear case.
You should return all the camels
lest the king be informed.”
This possibility struck terror
into the Yemeni merchant’s heart.
He returned to his residence
and handed over everything.
Once the camels had been returned
the young merchant felt happy again,
while the Junior Deacon was thinking,
‘It seems my husband has been very stupid.’
When all was finalised,
The Junior Deacon decided to depart,
taking leave of the old Judge
and the brave young merchant.
She travelled out of the city
back to her own country.
After a journey of several days
she arrived back in her home town.
Directly Siti came to her house
she changed clothes
and stayed at home
awaiting her husband’s arrival.
When he arrived back in the country
he wended his way to their residence
and, taking his place beside his wife,
related all that had happened.
She replied to her husband,
“The Junior Deacon who judged your case
– that was me who sought you out.”
The merchant, digesting his wife’s words,
drew her close, put her on his lap, and kissed her.
“It seems you really love me.”
and showered praise upon her.
As night drew on
the merchant led the fair Siti inside,
and, as desire stirred in his heart,
lay down on the bed.
As they discovered their mutual affection,
the couple found contentment.
As they fondled and caressed behind the mosquito net,
the bee tasted honey.
Then when it was almost dawn,
Siti arose with a radiant face.
The young merchant adored her.
After bathing she prayed.
Her parents were greatly relieved
to see their daughter getting on with her husband.
Now the couple shared affections,
they were on a secure footing.
You modern folk should pause to ponder this,
and take good care to understand.
Haughtiness and pleasure should be put aside
in favour of forbearance and thanks to God.
Spite and treachery are evil indeed:
never to be contemplated.
Who ever engages in them
will feel the wrath of God.
Here is the end of this short romance;
I have scribbled it down in a swoon.
My artistic endeavour has no more chance
than ‘an owl who yearns for the moon’.
* In fact, ‘returned’ the keys: the expectation being that they will be held by the woman of the house.
† In what follows, him and he might be more apt, for here she is in male guise and is treated as a man. Malay pronouns do not differentiate gender.
§ She actually asks ‘Are you in debt to any one?’. Being in debt is desirable because it gives one security, in contrast to a labourer on casual wages. He replies unhappily that he is not in debt.
The translation is based on the manuscript Kl. 164 in the University of Leiden Library. The Malay text was transcribed from Arabic script and contributed to the Malay Concordance Project by my colleague Jan van der Putten. The manuscript was collected in Riau by H.C. Klinkert in the 1860s. He was told the ballad was the work of Raja Kalzum. It was probably written about 1861.
Ph.S. van Ronkel, Supplement-Catalogus der Maleische en Minangkabaushe Handschriften in de Leidsche Universiteits-Biblioteek, Leiden: Brill, 1921: no.172 (pp.72-73).