(Masterpieces of British Fiction)

Hajji Baba was the son of a successful barber of Ispahan. By the time he was sixteen, he had learned the barber’s trade as well as a store of bazaar tales and quotations from the Persian poets. With these, he entertained the customers who came to his father’s shop, among them a wealthy Turkish merchant named Osman Agha, who was on his way to Meshed to buy goatskins of Bokhara. This merchant was so impressed with Hajji Baba that he begged the young man to accompany him on the journey. With his father’s blessing and a case of razors, Hajji Baba set out with his new patron.

Before the caravan had been many days on its way, it was attacked by a band of Turcoman robbers. Osman Agha had prudently sewed fifty gold ducats in the skullcap under his turban, but when the caravan was captured, he was stripped of his finery, and the skullcap was tossed in a corner of the robber chief’s tent. The robbers spared Hajji Baba’s life when they learned he was a skilled barber, and he became a favorite of the wife of the chief. One day he persuaded the foolish woman to let him borrow Osman Agha’s cap. He ripped the gold pieces from the lining and hid them, awaiting the time when he might escape from his captors. Osman Agha had been sold to some camel herders.

Hajji Baba traveled with the robbers on their raids throughout the region. One of these raids was on Ispahan itself, from which the robbers carried away a rich booty; but at the division of the spoils, Hajji Baba got only promises and praise.

One day the robbers encountered the armed escort of a Persian prince. When the others fled, Hajji Baba gladly allowed himself to be taken prisoner by the prince’s men. They mistook him for a Turcoman, however, and cruelly mistreated him, stripping him of his clothes and his hidden gold. When he complained to the prince, the nobleman sent for the guilty ones, took the money from them, and then kept the gold himself.

Hajji Baba went with the prince and his train to Meshed, where he became a water vendor, carrying a leather bag filled with dirty water which he sold to pilgrims with assurances that it was holy water blessed by the prophet. With money so earned, he bought some tobacco which he blended with dung and then peddled through the streets of the holy city. His best customer, Dervish Sefer, introduced him to other dervishes. They applauded Hajji Baba’s shrewdness and enterprise and invited him to become one of their number. One day, however, a complaint was lodged against him because of the bad tobacco he sold, and the authorities beat his bare feet until he lost consciousness. Having in the meantime saved a small amount of money, he decided to leave Meshed, which seemed to him an ill-omened city.

He set out on his way to Teheran. On the road, a courier overtook him and asked him to read some letters the messenger was carrying. One was a letter from a famous court poet, commending the bearer to officials high at court. Hajji Baba waited until the courier was fast asleep, took the messenger’s horse, and rode away to deliver the courier’s letters. Through these stolen credentials, he was able to obtain a position of confidence with the court physician.

Hajji Baba remained with the physician, even though his post brought him no pay. He soon found favor with Zeenab, the physician’s slave, and sought her company whenever he could do so without danger of being caught. Then the shah himself visited the physician’s establishment and received Zeenab...

(The entire section is 1434 words.)