THE GREEN BIRD
A Persian tale
The Grand Vizier Mughabedzin summoned his viziers and said to them: “The more I observe our governing the more I see how stupid it is.”
Everybody froze. No one dared to argue.
“What are we doing?” the Grand Vizier continued. “We punish evil deeds. What can be more stupid?”
The viziers were amazed but did not dare object.
“When they weed a vegetable garden the weeds are pulled out together with the roots. As for us, we just mow the weeds when we see them and it makes them grow even lusher. We punish the deeds. But where are they rooted? In people’s minds. So we should know what is going on in their minds in order to prevent further wrongdoing. Only when we know people’s thoughts will we be able to know who is a good person and who a bad one, and what to expect from each of them. Thus we shall be able to punish vices and reward virtues. Meanwhile we are just cutting the grass but leaving the roots in the ground and letting the grass grow thicker.”
The viziers exchanged anxious glances.
“People’s thoughts are hidden in their heads,” said one of them who was braver than the others. “And a head is such a box made of bones that when it cracks the thoughts fly away.”
“Human thought is a restless thing and so Allah himself provided an outlet for it – the mouth,” the Grand Vizier countered. “It’s unthinkable that if a person has a thought he would keep it to himself and not divulge it to anyone. We ought to know people’s innermost thoughts, those they only share with those closest to them, when they are not afraid of being eavesdropped on.”
Then the viziers happily exclaimed in chorus: “We must multiply the number of spies!”
The Grand Vizier only sneered at that.
“One man has wealth while another has to work. Now take someone who has no wealth and does not work while he eats as well as may Allah grant to anyone. Everybody will immediately guess he is a spy and should be avoided. We have plenty of spies as it is, but all to no avail. To increase their number is to deplete our treasury to no purpose.”
The viziers felt perplexed.
“I give you a week to think it over.” Mughabedzin announced. “Either you come back in a week and tell me how to read other people’s thoughts or you are dismissed. Remember, it’s a matter of your positions. Go now!”
Six days passed. The viziers only shrugged their shoulders when they met.
“Do you have an idea?”
“There is nothing better than spies. Do you have any other idea?”
“Nothing better than spies.”
At the court of the Grand Vizier there was also a certain young man called Abl-Eddin, a trickster and banterer. He was forever idle, in the sense that he was never doing anything useful. He just played all sorts of tricks on honorable people.
However, since his victims were people of low rank and his jokes were enjoyed by those of higher rank, Abl-Eddin got away with practically anything. So it was to him that the viziers went for advice.
“Instead of making up your stupid jokes why don’t you think of something clever for a change.”
“That will be more difficult,” said Abl-Eddin and named such a high price that the viziers were impressed.
“Oh, this man has brains.”
They pooled their money and after Abl-Eddin received his fee he told them: “You will be saved. Don’t ask me how. It makes no difference to the drowning man how he is pulled out of the water – by the hair or by the hand.”
Abl-Eddin went to the Grand Vizier and said: “I am the one who can solve your problem.”
Mughabedzin asked: “How?”
“When you order peaches from your gardener you don’t ask him how he is going to grow them, right? He will fertilize the peach tree with dung and that will make the peaches sweet. It is the same with the affairs of the state. There is no need for you to know how I am going to do it as long as you get the fruit of my work.”
Mughabedzin asked him: “What do you need to get the job done?”
Abl-Eddin answered: “Just one thing: I should have your permission for anything I do, no matter how silly it may seem. Even if you fear that you and I might be put in a mad house.”
To this Mughabedzin retorted: “I am going to stay where I am in any case, but you may be impaled.”
Abl-Eddin agreed: “Let it be as you wish. And one more condition – barley is sown in the fall and reaped the next summer. You should give me the time from the coming full moon, when I’ll sow, till the next full moon, when you’ll reap.”
“I agree,” said Mughabedzin. “But remember you will pay with your head.”
Abl-Eddin laughed at this: “You are going to impale me but you talk about me paying with my head.”
He held out a paper to the Grand Vizier which was ready for a signature. Having read the paper the Grand Vizier clutched his head in consternation: “You must be in a hurry to be put on a stake!”
But true to his word he signed the paper. However, at the same time he told the vizier in charge of justice to sharpen a good sturdy stake for the trickster.
The next morning, to the sound of trumpets and drums, the heralds were announcing the following decree in all the streets and squares of Teheran: “Residents of Teheran, rejoice! Our most wise Emperor, the Ruler of all rulers, who is brave as a lion and bright as the sun, entrusted the government of you all into the caring hands of Mughabedzin, may Allah prolong his days to the end of times.
“Therefore Mughabedzin commands that in order to make the life of each Persian brighter and merrier everyone must keep a parrot in his house as a pet. This bird brings much fun for adults and children alike and is a fine adornment to any house. The richest Indian rajahs keep these birds in their houses for entertainment. May each Persian house be adorned the same way as the richest rajah’s palace. Moreover, each Persian must remember that the famous ‘peacock’ throne of the Ruler of rulers, which his ancestors won over in the victorious war with the Great Moguls, is decorated with a parrot carved from a huge single emerald. Therefore at the sight of this emerald-colored bird everyone will be reminded of the peacock throne and the Ruler of rulers sitting on it. The solicitous Mughabedzin appoints Abl-Eddin in charge of the supply of parrots to our good Persian people who will buy them from him at a set price. This decree must be fulfilled before the onset of the new moon.
“Residents of Teheran, rejoice!”
The residents of Teheran were perplexed. The viziers argued quietly among themselves who is madder – Abl-Eddin, who wrote such a decree, or Mughabedzin, who signed it. Abl-Eddin imported a huge supply of parrots from India, and since he sold them at double the price he made a very good profit on the deal.
Now parrots perched on their cages in every house. The vizier in charge of justice sharpened the stake and conscientiously plated it with tin.
Abl-Eddin was full of cheer.
The time from one full moon to the next was over. The sparkling moon rose over Teheran. The Grand Vizier summoned Abl-Eddin and said: “Well, my friend, time for you to sit on the stake.”
“Perhaps you you’ll want to give me a more honorable seat,” answered Abl-Eddin. “The harvest is ripe, go and reap it. Go and read people’s thoughts.”
With much pomp, on a white Arabian steed, accompanied by torch-bearers, Abl-Eddin and all the viziers, Mughabedzin set out to Teheran.
“Where would you like to go first?” Abl-Eddin asked.
“Let it be this house here,” the Grand Vizier pointed to the nearest house.
The owner of the house became rooted to the ground at the sight of such magnificent guests.
The Grand Vizier nodded graciously to him and Abl-Eddin said: “Rejoice, good man! Our solicitous Grand Vizier called on you to find out how you live and whether the green bird gives you joy.”
The master of the house bowed and said: “Since the time our most wise Lord and Master commanded us to keep this green bird, joy does not leave our house. I and my wife and our children and our friends have great fun with the bird. Praise be to the Grand Vizier who brought so much joy to our house.”
“Fine, fine!” said Abl-Eddin. “Bring the bird here.”
The man brought the cage and put it before the Grand Vizier. Abl-Eddin produced some pistachio nuts from his pocket and started pouring them from one hand to the other. Seeing the nuts the parrot tried to reach them, inclined its head to one side, looked at them with one eye and suddenly screamed: “The Grand Vizier is a fool! The Grand Vizier is a fool! Fool! Fool!”
The Grand Vizier jumped up as if he was stung. “The wretched bird!” Enraged he turned to Abl-Eddin: “To the stake with him! This scoundrel must be impaled immediately! How dare you to put me to such shame?”
But Abl-Eddin bowed calmly and said: “The bird could not have possibly have thought of it itself. Obviously it heard it said many times in this house. This is what the master of the house says when he thinks that no stranger could overhear him. He sings praises of your wisdom to your face, but behind your back…”
Meanwhile the bird, reaching for the nuts, kept screaming: “The Grand Vizier is a fool! Abl-Eddin is a thief! Abl-Eddin is a thief!”
“Now you can hear this man’s secret thoughts.”
The Grand Vizier turned to the master of the house: “Is this true?”
The man stood there as pale as if he was already dead.
And the parrot kept on screaming: “The Grand Vizier is a fool!”
“Shut the bloody bird up!” cried Mughabedzin. “And impale the man!”
Abl-Eddin twisted the bird’s neck.
Then the Grand Vizier addressed Abl-Eddin thus: “Get on my horse. Come on! And I shall lead it by the bridle. I want all the people to see that I do not only punish evil thoughts but also reward wise thoughts.”
From that time on Mughabedzin, in his own words, “Could see through other people’s minds better than his own.”
When he had suspicions about someone he demanded that his parrot be brought to him. Some pistachio nuts were placed before the parrot and watching them with one eye the bird blurted out its owner’s innermost thoughts – what it heard more often in family conversations – how they cursed the Grand Vizier and damned Abl-Eddin. The vizier in charge of justice sharpened one stake after another. Mughabedzin weeded his vegetable garden with such zeal that soon there would not be any vegetables left in it.
Then the most distinguished and wealthy people of Teheran came to Abl-Eddin, bowed to him and said: “You invented the bird and so you should invent the cat for it. What is to be done now?”
Abl-Eddin chuckled and said: “It’s not easy to help fools. However, if you think of something clever by morning I’ll think of something for you.”
The next morning when Abl-Eddin came out into his reception room its entire floor was covered with banknotes and the merchants bowed to him.
“That’s smart of you,” said Abl-Eddin. “I’m surprised that this simple idea did not enter your heads – you should kill your parrots, buy new ones from me and teach them to say ‘Long live the Grand Vizier! Abl-Eddin is the benefactor of the Persian people!’ That is all you need to do.”
The Persians looked with regret at their money strewn all over the floor and left.
Meanwhile envy and spite took their toll. Mughabedzin dismissed his numerous spies.
“Why should I feed the spies when people of Teheran feed their own spies right in their homes.” The Grand Vizier was amused.
So the spies, who were left without means of subsistence, started spreading evil rumors about Abl-Eddin. These rumors reached Mughabedzin.
“The whole of Teheran curses Abl-Eddin and, because of him, the Grand Vizier too: ‘We have nothing to eat ourselves and now we have to feed these birds.’”
These rumors fell on fertile soil. A government officer is like a meal – when we are hungry we like its smell, and after we have eaten we are nauseated by its sight. It’s the same with government officers. After he has performed his duty he becomes a burden. Mughabedzin came to be tired of Abl-Eddin eventually.
“Haven’t I perhaps showered too many distinctions on this upstart? He’s become too full of himself. Such a simple idea can easily come to my own head.”
Rumors about people’s discontent reached Mughabedzin in good time and he summoned Abl-Eddin.
“You did me a bad turn. I hoped you would suggest an effective plan, but you did more harm than good. You let me down. Because of you people grumble, popular discontent is growing. And it is your fault. You are a traitor!”
Abl-Eddin bowed and said: “You can execute me but you should grant me a fair trial. You can impale me, but let us first ask the people if they really grumble, if they are really discontented. You have the means to do so. I myself gave you these means. You can turn them against me now.”
The next day Mughabedzin, accompanied by Abl-Eddin and all his viziers, rode along the streets of Teheran in order to listen to the voice of the people. The day was hot and sunny and the parrots’ cages were placed on windowsills. At the sight of the magnificent procession the green birds came to life and screamed:
“Long live the Grand Vizier! Abl-Eddin is the benefactor of the Persian people!”
Thus they rode through the whole city.
“These are the innermost thoughts of the Persians. This is what they say among themselves when they know no one is eavesdropping,” said Abl-Eddin. “You heard it with your own ears.”
Mughabedzin was so moved that tears welled in his eyes.
He alighted from his horse, embraced Abl-Eddin and said: “I am guilty before you. I listened to slanderers. They will be seated on stakes. And you must be seated on my horse. I’ll lead it through the city by the bridle. Come on! It’s an order.”
From that time on Abl-Eddin remained in the Grand Vizier’s favor forever.
He was granted a great honor – already during his lifetime there was a beautiful fountain erected in his name, bearing the inscription: “To Abl-Eddin, the benefactor of the Persian people!”
The Grand Vizier Mughabedzin lived and died in complete confidence that he had done away with popular discontent and inculcated good intentions in the Persian people.
As for Abl-Eddin, his parrot business thrived and he made a lot of money. In his diary, from which this story was borrowed, he wrote: “Thus parrots’ voices are often taken for the voice of the people.”
VLAS DOROSHEVICH (1864 – 1922) was a highly successful writer, journalist and drama critic in pre-revolutionary Russia. The subjects of his books ranged from Russian refugees escaping the German invasion in World War I and his observations of a penal colony on the island of Sakhalin to works set in Palestine, China and other Asian locations. In 2012 Glas New Russian Writing published an English translation of a collection of Doroshevich’s eastern fables titled What the Emperor Cannot Do: Tales and Legends of the Orient, which The Green Bird is included in.
About the Translator:
NATHALIE ROY is a Russian to English translator based in Moscow.
Read more about Vlas Doroshevich at Glas New Russian Writing