Once there was and once there wasn’t, when the sieve was in the straw, when the camel was a town crier and the cock was a barber, when Allah had many creatures but it was a sin to talk too much…
From our encampment near the shore of this famous lake [Lake Urmia] to the city or Mârâgâ [Maragheh] is eighteen miles: we made this march at night. Moollâh Adeenah, the story-teller of his majesty, was one of our party. The Elchee [ambassador] asked him to beguile the weariness of our road with a tale.
‘How many farsekhs* long do you wish it?’ was his reply.
‘At least five,’ was the answer.
‘I can exactly suit you,’ said the Moollâh; ‘you shall have Ahmed the cobbler.’
I could not help laughing at this mode of measuring a tale; but I was assured it was a common custom, arising out of the calculation professed story-tellers were compelled to make of the leisure of their hearers. All further remarks upon this usage were put an end to, by Moollâh Adeenah desiring us to be silent and attentive; his wish being complied with, he commenced as follows:
‘In the great city of Isfahan lived Ahmed the cobbler, an honest and industrious man…’ [the retelling of the story takes 19 pages ]”.
* 1 farsekh = c. 3 miles = 5 kilometres
He was male and female, seducer and seduced. He was glutton, he was cuckold, he was weary traveller. He would claw his lizard-feet sideways, then freeze and cock his head. He would lift his lower lid to cover the iris, and flick out his lizard-tongue. He puffed his neck into goitres of rage; and at last, when it was time for him to die, he writhed and wriggled, his movements growing fainter and fainter like the Dying Swan’s.
Then his jaw locked, and that was the end.
The man in blue waved towards the hill and, with the triumphant cadence of someone who has told the best of all possible stories, shouted: ‘That … that is where he is!’
The performance had lasted not more than three minutes.