Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves, or Morgiana the Clever
As told by Mary Grace Ketner
San Antonio, Texas
As in the story "Tam Lin" – what about Janet? – I've often thought this story should be named after the clever woman who actually and finally outwitted all forty of those thieves!
One day a poor man by the name of Ali Baba was out gathering wood, as he did every day to support his wife and children. He had gathered enough to burden his three donkeys when he saw a great cloud of dust, which seemed to be approaching him. Thinking it might be bandits, he hid his donkeys and their cargo behind a great rock, then climbed a tree and hid in its branches.
The troop, which was well mounted and well armed, came to the rock just beneath the tree, and as they dismounted and tied their horses, Ali Baba counted and found there were forty of them, thieves, by the look of them. Each took his portmanteau, which appeared to be full of gold and silver by the weight, to a place right beneath the tree in which Ali Baba was hiding, and the apparent captain of the company stepped toward the rock and spoke, distinctly, the words "Open, Sesame." At that, a door opened in the face of the rock, and the men stepped inside. Ali Baba heard the captain's voice again, saying "Close, Sesame," and the door closed.
Ali Baba was afraid to move, so he waited in the tree until at last the captain came out, and when all the men had passed by him, he pronounced "Close, Sesame." They all mounted their horses and rode away.
After the thieves were long gone, Ali Baba climbed down from the tree and did the very thing you might do: he faced the rock and pronounced the words "Open, Sesame," and the door in the rock opened. Walking inside, Ali Baba saw that this was no dark and dismal cavern, but a great, bright cave, lit by an opening at the top of the rock, heaped with gold and silver and great bags laid one upon the other. Ali Baba did not waste any time with the silver but carried out as much of the gold as he thought his donkeys could carry. He made several trips to load them down, then covered their burdens with green boughs, and, pronouncing the words "Close, Sesame," he headed home.
His wife was dazzled by the sight, and at first thought her husband had become a thief, but she rejoiced upon hearing the true story. There was too much gold to count, but in order to get an estimate, they decided to weigh it, so his wife went to borrow a measure from Ali Baba's brother Cassim, himself quite wealthy, having married well. When Cassim's wife went to fetch the measure, she wondered what kind of grain her poor brother-in-law might have to measure, and out of curiosity, she placed a bit of suet at the bottom of the measure.
And so it was, that, before burying the gold, Ali Baba and his wife measured it, and while he covered over the gold, she hurriedly returned the borrowed measure without noticing that a gold coin had stuck to the suet in the bottom. But Cassim noticed! When he realized that his brother had come upon so much gold that he could not even count it but had to measure it, he conceived a mortal jealousy and could not sleep all that night for it.
The next day he went to Ali Baba's house and confronted him with the gold and the story, and threatened to turn him in as a thief if he did not tell all. Now Ali Baba would have told his brother anyway, so he did; he even told him the words that were used to open the rock. Cassim returned home and gathered up boxes and crates and ten mules loaded with chests, and the next day set out early along the way Ali Baba had told him. At the rock, he pronounced the words "Open, Sesame," and went inside and shut the rock behind him. "Close, Sesame," he said.
He could have spent the whole day just admiring the riches, feasting his eyes, but so covetous was he that he began to lay bags of gold at the door, and when at last he thought he had all his ten mules could carry, he quit. Then, he said, "Open, Barley."
But the door remained closed.
"Open, Oats," he said. "Open, Buckwheat! Open, Coriander!" But the door did not budge, and the more Cassim tried to remember the word, the more his memory was confounded. And then, from outside the cave, he heard horses!
It was the sound of horses--many horses! Then he heard the sounds of men's voices--angry men's voices! And then he heard one of the last sounds he would ever hear; it was the voice of the king of the thieves saying "Open, Sesame!"
And when the door opened, Cassim was run through with forty sabers, and to secure their riches, the thieves cut Cassim's body into four parts and hung the quarters just inside the door. Then they mounted their horses and went out again to attack whatever caravans they should meet.
All night long, Cassim's wife waited, and when he did not return, she ran to Ali Baba in a terrible fright, repenting that her own curiosity may have been responsible for whatever ill had befallen him and cursing her desire to penetrate into the affairs of her relatives.
Fearing the worst, Ali Baba took his three donkeys and went to the rock, and, seeing some blood spilt by the door, he called out "Open, Sesame." And what should he see? He surmised what had happened. He loaded one donkey with the parts of his brother's body (and the other two with gold), then covered everything over with green wood and, waiting until dark, returned to his yard. There his wife unloaded the gold, while he took his brother's body home.
When he knocked at the door, it was answered by a cunning and artful slave named Morgiana, whom he knew to be so fruitful in her inventions that she would succeed in the most difficult undertaking. He sent her to fetch his sister-in-law and bade her listen as well as he told the tale, which must remain a secret. Then he said to his brother's wife:
"If anything can comfort you, I offer to put that little which Allah hath sent me to what you have, and marry you; assuring you that my wife will not be jealous, and that we shall live happily together, and my son shall operate Cassim's shop. If this proposal is agreeable to you, we must think of acting in such a way that my brother should appear to have died a natural death, and I think Morgiana can manage that undertaking."
Well, what could she do? The widow accepted this proposal, which seemed a reasonable comfort, and Morgiana began devising a scheme.
At first, she went to an apothecary and asked him for a sort of lozenge which was very efficacious in the most dangerous distempers. As he prepared them, he asked who was sick--her master? And she replied that indeed he was, that they knew not what his distemper was, but he could neither eat nor speak--which was perfectly true.
Next morning, she went again to the apothecary and, with tears in her eyes, asked for an essence which could be used to rub sick people when all else had failed. "Alas," she said, as she took it, "I fear that this remedy will have no better effect than the lozenges!"
All day long, Ali Baba and his wife could be seen walking back and forth between Cassim's house and their own, wearing melancholy expressions, and when evening fell, nobody was much surprised to hear the lamentable shrieks and cries of Cassim's wife or to see Morgiana going about telling everyone that her master was dead.
Next morning at daybreak, she went to see an old cobbler who always opened his stall early. She put a piece of gold into his hand, and he asked merrily what he must do to earn it?
"Baba Mustapha," said Morgiana, you must gather your sewing tackle and come with me to a certain place to which I will lead you." He boggled at the words, but Morgiana put another piece of gold in his hand and assured him that she should not ask of him anything that was contrary to his honor. Then she bound his eyes with a handkerchief and led him along the streets to Cassim's own home and into the room where her master lay. There, she bade him make haste and sew these quarters together and promised him another piece of gold when he finished. When all had been accomplished, she blindfolded him again and led him back to his stall.
Then she warmed some water to wash the body, and Ali Baba came with perfumes and incense to embalm it. They put Cassim's body in a coffin and nailed it closed, then went to the mosque to tell the imam that they were ready. (They told the people at the mosque whose business it was to wash the dead and who offered to perform their duty that it was done already.)
Then came the imam and the other ministers to their home. Four neighbors carried the coffin on their shoulders, followed by the iman, reciting prayers, then Morgiana, as slave, beating her breast and tearing her hair, then Ali Baba and other neighbors, who walked two by two, often relieving one another in carrying the corpse. Cassim's wife stayed at home to mourn and receive visits from her neighbors as was the custom, and in this way was the murder concealed so well that nobody had the least suspicion of it.
Three or four days later, Ali Baba removed his wife and his son and all his goods to his brother's fine house, and the news was blown about, and, at this point, let us leave Ali Baba to enjoy the beginning of his good fortune.
When the thieves returned to their retreat and found Cassim's body removed together with some of their gold, they were certain they had been discovered and would be undone if they did not take care and apply some remedy. The captain said, "What I think of this loss which we have sustained is that the thief whom we surprised and came upon as he was coming out knew the secret. But his body being removed and more money missing shows that he has an accomplice, so another besides the one we caught also knows the secret, and we must look narrowly after him. What say you to it, my lads?"
All the thieves approved, and set all other enterprises aside to follow this closely and not to depart from it until they had succeeded. One of them volunteered to dress like a traveler and stranger to enter into the town and listen for any news of one who had been barbarously murdered and massacred and then to endeavor to find out the house where he lived.
That thief, the spy, entered into town just at daybreak and walked up and down until he came to an open stall, the first to open each day, which was that of Baba Mustapha.
"Honest man," he said. "You begin work very early. Is it possible that one of your age can see so well? I question, if it was somewhat lighter, whether I myself could see to stitch."
"Certainly you must be a stranger," replied Baba Mustapha. "Otherwise you would know that, old as I am, I have extraordinary good eyes. Perhaps you will not believe me when I tell you that I sewed a dead body together in a place where I had not so much light as I have now!"
The thief was overjoyed to think that he had addressed himself so soon to the very person who could give him the intelligence he wanted. But to make him say more, the spy replied, "A dead body! You mean you sewed up a winding sheet."
"No, no," answered Baba Mustapha. "I know what I say, and you want to have me speak out, but you shall know no more."
The thief put his hand into his pocket and pulled out a piece of gold and placed it into Baba Mustapha's hand, saying, "I do not want to know your secret, though I can assure you I would not divulge it if you trusted me with it. I only want you to do me the favor of showing me the house where you stitched up the dead body."
"That I cannot do," said Baba Mustapha. "I assure you that I was led to the room under a blindfold and brought back in the same way."
"Well," said the thief. "Come let me blindfold you and perhaps you may remember some part of the way and turnings, and as everybody ought to be paid for their trouble, there is another piece of gold in it for you."
Baba Mustapha looked at the two pieces of gold in his hand for a long time, and they were great temptations. At last he pulled out his purse and put them in. The thief tied a handkerchief over his eyes and walked by him as he turned and walked, walked and turned, until he stopped directly in front of Cassim's house, where Ali Baba now lived. There the thief marked the gate with a white piece of chalk and left him to return to his stall, while he went back to the forest to tell of his success.
A little while later, Morgiana went out to the market, and when she returned, she noticed the white chalk mark beside the gate and thought that whatever its meaning, it intended no good. As a fence against the worst, she went and fetched a piece of white chalk and marked two or three gates on either side of their own without saying a word to anyone.
When the thief told the others what he had learned and what he had done, they listened with utmost satisfaction, and the captain laid the plan. "Let us all arm ourselves and go into the town--by twos and threes that we may not give any suspicion. I and my comrade here (indicating the spy) will find the house, and then we will all rendezvous in the great square and consult what is best to be done."
And that is what they did, but when the captain and the spy came to the neighborhood where the gate had been marked, they found not one but five houses chalked. "Well, which is it?" asked the captain, but the spy was so confounded that he could not answer. They returned to the square, and the captain led them all back to their cave where the spy was put to death.
The consequences of failure notwithstanding, another bandit volunteered to go into the town. He followed the same plan, corrupting Baba Mustapha, and he, too, marked the house with chalk, red chalk, in a less conspicuous place.
But nothing escaped Morgiana's eyes. She saw the mark and chalked the neighbors' houses in the same way. And for the second time, the thieves came into town and went, and again the author of the plan paid for the error with his life.
Having now lost two men and not wishing to diminish the troop any further, the captain went into town himself and played the same ruse on Baba Mustapha, but he did not mark the house at all, only observed it carefully by passing back and forth in front of it often enough that he could recognize it by its own features without mistake.
Certain of his ability, he returned to the cave and plotted the revenge, of which the thieves all approved. He ordered them to go into the towns and villages thereabouts and buy nineteen mules and thirty-eight large copper jars and fill one of them with oil.
When all had been gathered, the captain put his whole troop into the jars, all 37 of them that were left, and, leaving holes for them to breathe, he loaded the jars onto the mules; the one with oil and the others containing thieves. Posed as driver, he set out with them and got to the town at dusk, as he intended, and led them through the streets until he came to Ali Baba's house.
He found Ali Baba sitting outside and said to him, "I have brought some oil to sell at tomorrow's market, and it is now so late I do not know where to lodge."
Although Ali Baba had seen the captain of the thieves and heard him speak, the man was now so well disguised that he did not recognize him and invited him to stay at his own home, opening his gates to let the mules into the yard. He ordered Morgiana to prepare a hot supper for his guest and make him a good bed. Ali Baba and the captain supped together and entertained each other with a great many things, then Ali Baba took his leave and went into the kitchen to give Morgiana orders for the next morning.
Under the pretext of looking after his mules, the driver went into the yard and there gave the order to his men. Beginning at the first jar, then to each up to the last, he said, "As soon as I throw some stones out of the chamber window, cut the jar open with your knife and be ready for me to lead you." Then he returned to the house, and Morgiana showed him to his room.
As she went about preparing for the morrow, her lamp went out. She searched for candles and oil but found none. Then she remembered that their guest had brought many jars of oil and would surely be glad to contribute some to the household.
She took her oil pot out to the yard, and when she came to the first jar, the thief within it said softly, "Is it time?"
Any other slave so surprised would have set about making a great noise, but Morgiana apprehended immediately the danger they were in and the necessity of applying a speedy remedy. She answered, "Not yet," and being asked at each of the other jars gave the same answer, until she came to the jar of oil. She made what haste she could to fill her pot, then returned to the kitchen and set it on the fire to boil. As soon as it did, she went back out to the yard and poured boiling oil into every jar to stifle and destroy the thief within. Then she returned to the kitchen and waited quietly.
It was no more than a quarter of an hour before the captain went to his window and noting all was quiet, gave the signal, throwing stones at the copper jars. His companions did not stir. Again he gave the signal, then again. Alarmed, he went down to the yard and going to the first jar and smelling the hot oil and seeing the steam, he knew that his plot was discovered. Examining all the jars, he found that all his gang were dead, and there was oil missing from the oil jar. Enraged and in despair, he forced the lock of the gate and made his escape.
Morgiana did not awaken her master to tell him what she had done and what had happened, for there was no need of his assistance. It was not until next morning when he returned from the baths and saw the oil jars still in his yard that he asked her and she told him all that had passed the night before and also about the house being chalked twice a few days earlier.
When she finished, Ali Baba realized he owed his life to his cunning slave, and he gave her her liberty and his promise to do even more for her. He and another slave, Abdallah, undertook to dig a long trench in his garden, wide enough to hold all the thieves, and there buried them. Then he hid the jars, and, one or two at a time, sent the mules off to be sold.
Meanwhile, the captain returned to his cave. "Open, Sesame," he said, and entered therein and lamented the loss of his fine companions, unable even to die with their sabers in their hands. He resolved to take away the life of Ali Baba and thereupon rested at ease that night.
When he awakened, he dressed himself in a way that suited the project he had in his head, and went to town to take lodging at a kahn, or inn. There he asked the host about the local news, and heard many tales which did not interest him in the least. He was waiting for the tale which bespoke the demise of his companions, but Ali Baba had kept this affair secret.
Foiled in that, he next opened a shop selling rich linens and merchandise he brought from his cave. He took a shop opposite to that which was Cassim's, which Ali Baba's son now operated. He called himself Cogia Houssain, and he strove to cultivate friendship with his neighbors, especially when he learned that the one was Ali Baba's son. And that one did he particularly engage, making him small presents, inviting him to dine and sup with him, and generally treating him very handsomely.
Of course, Ali Baba's son did not wish to lie under such obligations without making like return, so he asked his father to serve as host for a visit. They arranged the event, and Ali Baba ordered Morgiana to provide a supper.
The next day, which was Friday, Ali Baba received his guest with a smiling countenance, and thanked him for all the favors he had done his son. At first Houssain refused to eat with them, saying that if they knew the reason they would agree. But Ali Baba prevailed upon him and pressed him until at last Cogia Houssain admitted that he could eat no victuals that have salt in them. That being the only constraint, Ali Baba went to the kitchen and told Morgiana to put no salt in the meat that was to be dressed that night, nor in any of the other victuals for the meal, and he would not be convinced otherwise.
When Morgiana went to serve the meal, she recognized Cogia Houssain at the first sight--captain of the thieves--and she noticed that he had a dagger hidden beneath his garment, too.
She thought to herself, "I am not in the least amazed that this wicked wretch who is my master's greatest enemy will eat no salt, since he intends to assassinate my master, for everyone knows it is a sin to eat salt with one upon whom you have evil designs."
And that is when she made the necessary preparations for executing one of the boldest acts which could be thought of. She took up a plate of fruit for dessert, and set a little table and three glasses of liquor by Ali Baba for the men to drink as they made conversation. When Houssain saw the glasses, he thought to get the father and son drunk, and while they were in that state, he could stab Ali Baba in the heart.
But Morgiana, who penetrated into the intentions of the counterfeit Cogia Houssain, would not give him leave to put his villainous design in execution. She dressed herself as a dancer, girding her waist with a silver belt from which hung a silver dagger. And as Abdallah played the tabor, she danced in a way that would have had the admiration of any man.
After several dances, she drew the dagger and holding it in her hand, danced a dance which was very surprising for the many different figures and fine movements it required. Sometimes she presented the dagger to Ali Baba's breast, sometimes to the son or their guest, and sometimes to her own, and at last, when she was just out of breath, she snatched the tabor from Abdallah and carried it in her left hand and the dagger in her right as she passed before her audience, Ali Baba took out a coin to drop into its hole, and so did his son, and just as Houssain was pulling out his purse to make her a present, with courage and resolution worthy of herself, she plunged the dagger into his heart.
Ali Baba and his son were at first much frightened. "Ah, unhappy wretch, what hast thou done to ruin me and my family?" he cried. But the evidence was at hand, and Morgiana showed him the dagger and the true face of his enemy.
"Remember, too, he would eat no salt with you," she said.
And so Ali Baba was immediately sensible of the new obligation he had to Morgiana for saving his life a second time, and he said to her: "I gave thee thy liberty, and then promised thee that my acknowledgment would not stop there, and now I will give proof of it by making thee my daughter-in-law." And the son, far from showing any dislike, readily consented to the marriage, not only because he would not disobey his father, but also because his inclination prompted him to it. (It may have been the dance.)
A few days later, Ali Baba celebrated the nuptial of his son and Morgiana with great solemnity.
For a long time he forbore going again to the cave for fear of being surprised by the two thieves whom he could not account for but whom he supposed were still alive. When at last he did, seeing no footsteps of man or beast, nor any disturbing of the cave save what the false Cogia Houssain had made, he never disputed but that he was the only person in the world who had the secret of going into the cave and that all the treasure was at his disposal.
Later still, he took his son to the cave, taught him the secret, which was handed down to their posterity, and all their descendants used this good fortune in moderation, lived in great honor and splendor, and served the greatest offices of the city.
In fact, all went well until the story became known and people began to ask "Hey, wait a minute! Why is this story called Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves? Shouldn't it be called Morgiana the Clever" or something like that? But by whatever name it is called, that is the story after all. --Mary Grace