Adapted by Bertie.
Read by Elizabeth.
Proofread & Edited by Jana Elizabeth.
Picture by Virginia Frances Sterrett (1900–1931)
You may say that I am prone to make the same mistake over and over again. I return from a trip, happy just to be alive and to see my loved ones. I settle into my old ways of feasting and comfort. Then, as time goes by, my memory plays a cruel trick on me. It reminds me of the thrill of travel and business, and forgets the cruel string of suffering. So it happened a fifth time that I set out on a voyage.
At the port of Basrah I walked along the quay looking for a ship that was tall and in good shape. I found one that was pleasing to my eye.
As I was already a rich man, I was able to buy it. Next I hired a captain and crew. The men loaded my goods onto the ship and other merchants paid me to use the space that was left over. In this way, I was guaranteed to make a good sum of money even before I set sail.
We sailed over Allah’s pond, from city to city, from island to island, from sea to sea. All the way we were in good cheer, rejoicing in the profits that we were making. There is no greater sport than haggling in the marketplace and striking a good bargain. Both sides argue furiously over the price, joshing and pleading, throwing up their hands, begging and accusing, pretending to have hurt feelings, and at the end they laugh and smile and make the exchange, each convinced that they have the better side of the deal. Goods and money change hands everywhere that people can count on their fingers.
And so our journey prospered, until one day we reached a small island floating in the sea.
I did not have any particular interest in this deserted place, and I remained below deck. Some of the merchants were curious to investigate an unusual rock on the shore. It lay half buried in the sand, the top half forming a great white dome. When they ran their hands over its smooth surface, it felt to them like an egg. They bashed it with stones until it cracked open and water gushed out. Inside they found a giant chick which soon made a fine dinner. The smell of the roast meat met my nostrils as I lay in my bunk, and I heard the merry merchants as they made a party of it. I got to my feet and waded ashore, keen to join the feast. When I saw the broken eggshells and the giant roast chick I fell down on my knees and cried:
“In the name of Allah the merciful and the great, we are doomed. Do you not realise what you have done? You have killed the young of a roque - a monstrous bird who will soon return and reap vengeance for this folly.”
We splashed through the surf, reboarded our ship, and set out for the open sea. We had not got far before we saw the silhouette of a giant bird that held a great boulder in its talons. He dropped this load so that it landed by the side of our ship. The waters opened to reveal the bottom of the sea and down we slid into the great trough before being tossed up again onto the foaming summit of a mountainous wave. Our ship was not sunk until a second, larger bird dropped a stone that cut through the deck and now we were ruined. I swam for my life among the surging surf and grabbed hold of a piece of wreckage. A while later, by permission of The Most High, I was washed ashore, half drowned, on the beach of another island.
I found myself in a kind of paradise, home to sweet smelling flowers, delicious low hanging fruit, and birds singing the praises of the one who is eternal. A mossy bank was my pillow for the night, by the side of a stream. In the morning when I awoke I saw, sitting not far from me, an old man dressed in a skirt of palm leaves. He made signs, as if begging me to pick him up on my shoulders and carry him across the water. I thought to myself:
“I may profit in Heaven if I help this old man,” and I did as he asked, and let him climb onto my shoulders. I waded across the water and knelt down to let him clamber back onto the ground. But he did not leave my shoulders. Instead he wrapped his leathery legs around my neck, half strangling me. I was finding it hard to breath, and for a moment the world went black to me and I lost consciousness. I came round a few moments later, and felt the old man, still on my shoulders, now kicking my sides. The pain forced me to rise again to my feet. Then he pointed for me to take him among the fruit trees, so that he could reach up and grab whatever he wanted to take and eat. If ever I refused to do his bidding, he beat or strangled me into submission.
For some days, I carried my burden around the island. At night I slept with him, still entwined around my neck. There was nothing I could do to shake him off, try as I might. I was growing weaker by the day. I began to curse my own kindness.
“By Allah! As long as I live I shall never do a free favour for another man again! My only thought was to help this fellow, and he has repaid me with suffering.”
Soon I was begging the Most High that he bring an end to my stress and weariness, and let me die. But he who is Glorious and Merciful had a different plan for me.
It happened one day that we came to a part of the island where the ground was covered by gourds. These were large fruits with hard outer skins. An idea came to me to relieve my pain. I broke open a number of these gourds and scooped out the flesh of the fruit to make them into cups. Then I gathered some grapes that grew nearby and placed them inside the gourds, and pulverised them with a rock. After leaving these vessels in the sun for a few days, they fermented and turned into strong wine. One evening I drank from them. My pain lessened and I lost my reason. I began to sing, clap my hands, and jig around from one foot to the other with the old man on my back. The old man tapped me on the shoulder. Understanding what he wanted, I handed a gourd of wine up to him. He too drank from it and began to get merry. Soon he demanded another, and another, and I obliged until eventually the wine got the better of him and he fell asleep. For the first time in weeks, I felt that the grip of his legs around my neck had loosened. Taking my chance, I tossed the devil off my shoulders and onto the ground. The first use I made of my freedom was to find a great rock and use it to kill him while he slept. No Mercy of Allah be upon him!
I then returned to the shore with a heart full of happiness and relief, reciting praise to the Almighty who, in due course, brought a ship into sight. I signalled furiously to the sailors and was soon saved from that accursed paradise of an island. When I told the captain the story of all that had happened there, he said:
“He who rode on your shoulders is called Shaykh al-Bahir, the Old Man of the Sea, and none who has ever felt his legs on their neck has come away alive. He has eaten all who died below him. Praise be to Allah for your safety!”
The captain transported me freely to the next Island where the capital is known as the City of the Apes. Here, even the strong walls of the city do not protect the people from an uncomfortable fate. Every evening when it grows dark, apes come down from the trees and invade the city. To avoid them, the people have no choice but to leave their houses and sleep in boats. It was my good fortune to fall in with some business minded folk who showed me how they made the best of this ill luck. Every day they collected pebbles on the beach, and then stepped a little way into the forest and pelted the apes who lived in the trees. The apes responded by throwing back coconuts. This battle of stone and coconut took place every day, but the trade was fair, because the people picked up the nets and took them to trade in the market. I joined in this amusing but dangerous sport, and Allah permitted me to make a fair profit, day after day, until I had massed a good sum of money. When I was once again well off, I hired a passage on a passing ship. While travelling on my way back I traded my gold for pearls, and made an even greater profit.
By the time I reached the welcome port of Basrah I had amassed a fifth fortune to add to my others.
And that was the fifth voyage of Sinbad. Bertie says that the Old Man of the Sea crops up in myths from all over the world. For instance, in Greek mythology he is a slippery character. If you catch hold of him, he can answer any question you ask, but he is difficult to catch because he keeps changing his shape into forms like a serpent, a lion, a tree or even water.
There are seven voyages of Sinbad in all, and I will be back very soon to tell you what happened next.