The Desolate Island

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This parable from the Middle East has a mysterious and spiritual tone, and is also rather intriguing. It's about a slave who asks his master for his freedom. A series of adventures bring him great good fortune, but fortune can always be reversed again.

Read by Natasha. Adapted for Storynory by Bertie. Duration 15.41.
Proofread by Claire Deakin.

In ancient times, in the city of Tyre, there lived a merchant, who had amassed a great fortune trading in silks, carpets and dyes. He owned over 150 slaves, some of whom served in his magnificent mansion, and others in his warehouses by the docks. Most of his slaves worked hard, but only if they were being watched. If the master was not there, they would laze around or steal, for there is no great incentive for a slave to make an effort unless it is to avoid punishment.

There were some exceptional slaves, of course, and one of them was called Ziad. Ziad did his best for his master no matter whether he was being watched or not. He was intelligent, diligent, and above all honest. Over the years the merchant began to rely on Ziad to keep his accounts and to oversee the goods being loaded and unloaded onto his ships. He rewarded him with tasty food, comfortable quarters, and smart uniforms. If you had met Ziad for the first time, it is unlikely that you would have taken him for a slave.

After Ziad had served his master faithfully for twenty years of his adult life, he came to him in his office and requested his freedom.

When the merchant heard the word “freedom” on the lips of his most trusted slave, he was dismayed, because he knew how difficult it would be to find another as reliable as this one.

“Ziad! Ziad!” He exclaimed, “My dear dear Ziad, have I not treated you like my own son? Are you not satisfied with your privileges? Ask me for anything, but not your freedom, for it would grieve me too greatly to lose you. What is it you require? Fine clothes? A carriage and horses? Your own house? Just say the word, and it shall be yours.”

Ziad bowed his head respectfully, and replied, “No master. I do not wish for any of these things from you.”

For a moment the merchant was mystified. He pondered at what more he could offer. He thought, “The fellow bargains well. He’s holding out for something really costly.” Then he had an idea. He stood up from his chair, and walked round to the front of his desk where Ziad was standing. He put his arm around the slave’s shoulder and said, "Come come. There is no need to be shy. I see now what it is that you desire. You have all that you need in my service except for your own family. Do not trouble yourself a moment longer, for there is no problem that a little money can’t solve. Come with me in the morning to the market place, and let us choose a beautiful wife for you."

At this, the faithful slave became agitated and said, “Master I thank you from the bottom of my heart for your kind treatment and generosity. But I did not come here to ask you for anything but my freedom. I lack for nothing but this one thing. I ask you for this, no more and no less. If I have served you faithfully all these years, if I have ever helped your enterprises to prosper, if I have never asked for anything else from you, grant me this one request, for my life can have no meaning unless I am a free man.”

The merchant was baffled. He banged his fist on the desk and exclaimed, "Freedom? What use is freedom to you? You can’t spend it. You can’t eat it. You can’t wear it. Freedom, I tell you, will bring you nothing but struggle and stress. A free man has worries and responsibilities. Take it from me, it’s far, far better to be a slave in the service of a good master, and to have all your needs taken care of."

But Ziad replied, "Sir, you are indeed a good master. The best a slave could hope for; you provide all my material needs and much more. What use are possessions or a family to me, if I am not a free man? My children will be born into slavery. I long for the thrill of freedom, to succeed or fail in life, and either way, to be the only one who can take the credit or the blame."

The merchant thought his slave had taken leave of his senses, and he dismissed him from his office at the top of his voice. He worried that the high standard of Ziad’s work would fall off, and when the merchant next went to the temple, he thought he could hear the voice of the Goddess of Wealth telling him that he had had been ungrateful to his faithful slave, and would suffer accordingly. That evening he called Ziad to him, and gave him not only his freedom, but an entire ship that was already loaded with silks and merchandise. He thanked him for his good service, and told him he could set sail with the ship in the morning and keep all the proceeds of the trade.

And so it was, that Ziad’s life was transformed overnight. By noon the following day, the former slave was a free man at sea in charge of his own cargo. Below deck, the galley slaves leaned into their oars and pulled the ship away from the city of Tyre where he had been born and had lived all his life in the service of the merchant. The ship followed the coast northwards, and he watched the little rocky coves, the sandy beaches, the sparkling cliffs and the Cyprus trees as they glided by. Eventually, when night fell, a cabin boy rolled out his bedding for him on the deck, and he slept under the stars. When he awoke the next morning, the coast had disappeared from view. All he could see was sky and blue-green water. He stood up, and went over to where the crew were eating their breakfast. He thought that the captain gave him rather a strange look, and he was right – because later that morning, as he was standing by the rail looking out to sea, three sailors came up behind him and tipped him overboard. The captain was now a rich man.

Ziad, the free man of Tyre, was rising and falling below the waves and gulping sea water into his lungs. But the goddess of Tyre was watching over her newest merchant, and she did not wish to see him drown. She sent a smiling dolphin to his aid. Ziad clung to the dolphin’s neck, and it lifted him up on its back and carried him to an island. When they were not far from shore, some fishermen who were mending their nets on the beach, spotted the man riding on the dolphin and they came out in their boats to fetch him.

Freedom had still more surprises in store for the former slave. As the fishermen brought him to dry land, a crowd of people came down on to the beach to greet him. They lifted him up on to their shoulders and carried him to the gates of a great city, where he was met by still more people who hailed and cheered him on the way. He was placed in a carriage, and driven to a palace where slaves bathed him and dressed him in fine robes, placed a crown on his head, and led him to a throne of gold. Cymbals clashed, drums thundered, soldiers saluted, nobles and courtiers threw themselves prostrate on the ground, and priests sprinkled scented water over him.

King Ziad – because that was who he had become – served his people as faithfully as he had served his master. He passed wise laws and judgements, he made advantageous treaties, he stamped out corruption, and he upheld the island’s religion. One day at the temple, when he no longer needed an interpreter to speak to the island people, he had a confidential conversation with the high priest. He asked him how it was that the people had chosen him, a wretched wanderer washed up on these shores, as their king.

The high priest answered, in a low voice so that nobody else could hear, “Sire, every seven years the island spirits send a poor wandering soul to our island. It is our custom to elevate this sea-tramp to the thrown, and for him rule in splendour for seven years, and to enjoy all the luxuries of kingship. But at the end of his term, he is stripped of his royal garments, put aboard a ship, and deposited on a bare and desolate island, where he will live out the remains of his life as naked, wretched and miserable as the day that he was washed up on our shores.”

The former slave was greatly disturbed to learn that that there was a fixed term to his good fortune, and that he must end it all in misery. He was filled with thoughts of dark foreboding for the future, and his courtiers noticed that there were dark shadows under their king’s eyes, and that his forehead was knotted with strain.

After a week of sleepless nights, King Ziad returned to the temple, and prayed to the spirits of the island for wisdom and guidance.

A voice spoke to him thus; “At present thou art king, and mayest do as pleaseth thee; therefore, send workmen to this island, let them build houses, till the ground, and beautify the surroundings. The barren soil will be changed into fruitful fields, people will journey thither to live, and thou wilt have established a new kingdom for thyself, with subjects to welcome thee in gladness when thou shalt have lost thy power here.”

The king heard these words, and saw their wisdom. He decreed for people and materials to travel to the desolate island, and for its transformation to begin. For the remaining years of his reign, he prepared for the years that would follow it. The desolate island blossomed and prospered into a veritable paradise, and gradually more and more people went to live there. At last its beauty and wealth far outshone even his present kingdom.

At the end of seven years, just as the priest had warned, his own guards stripped him of his royal robes and he was led naked to a ship, and transported to the desolate island where he was deposited on the beach on the spot where all the previous tramp kings who had preceded him had also been marooned. But in his case, people came to greet him and to clothe him, and to hail him as their prince, and Ziad lived out his days on the once desolate island in even greater comfort and splendour than he had ever known before.

And that’s the story of The Desolate Island. I have been wondering what the meaning of it all is and this is what Bertie told me: He says that if you like, you can see the story this way... The former slave arrives on the first island helpless and unclothed, just like a baby is born into the world. He lives his life on the island free to do as he pleases, but there is a fixed term to his time there – just as we all must live and then die. As he is wise, he makes preparations for the next world and stores up good things to make the desolate island into a paradise. When he is forced to leave the first island, it is as if he has died, but because he has thought of the next world, he arrives in a heavenly place.

Anyway you can often read lots of different things into stories.

Text Copyright Hugh Fraser 2010