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.


Ian Proudfoot

Canberra, 2001




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,

envied it,

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,

concealing nothing.

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

were overjoyed.

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,

asking her:

“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,

wretchedly poor

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

and despondent.


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

and dressed.


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?Ӥ


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,

shouting wildly

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,

speaking gently,

“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).