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Fifty Famous People by  James Baldwin

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THE CALIPH AND THE POET

ONCE upon a time there was a famous Arab whose name was Al Mansur. He was the ruler of all the Arabs, and was therefore called the caliph.

Al Mansur loved poetry and was fond of hearing poets repeat their own verses. Sometimes, if a poem was very pleasing, he gave the poet a prize.

One day a poet whose name was Thalibi came to the caliph and recited a long poem. When he had finished, he bowed, and waited, hoping that he would be rewarded.

"Which would you rather have," asked the caliph, [30] "three hundred pieces of gold, or three wise sayings from my lips?"

The poet wished very much to please the caliph. So he said, "Oh, my master, everybody should choose wisdom rather than wealth."

The caliph smiled, and said, "Very well, then, listen to my first wise saying: When your coat is worn out, don't sew on a new patch; it will look ugly."

"Oh, dear!" moaned the poet. "There go a hundred gold pieces all at once."

The caliph smiled again. Then he said, "Listen now to my second word of wisdom. It is this: When you oil your beard, don't oil it too much, lest it soil your clothing."

"Worse and worse!" groaned the poor poet. "There go the second hundred. What shall I do?"

"Wait, and I will tell you," said the caliph; and he smiled again. "My third wise saying is—"

"O caliph, have mercy!" cried the poet. "Keep the third piece of wisdom for your own use, and let me have the gold."

The caliph laughed outright, and so did every one that heard him. Then he ordered his treasurer to pay [31] the poet five hundred pieces of gold; for, indeed, the poem which he had recited was wonderfully fine.

The caliph, Al Mansur, lived nearly twelve hundred years ago. He was the builder of a famous and beautiful city called Bagdad.


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