One of the best-known tales of street-wise tricksters in popular literature, the story of Ali al-Zeibaq, or Ali the Mercury Man, unfolds in the ninth or tenth century, but may have been written in the thirteenth century.
The scholar Farouq Khorshid believes that it was perhaps the latest of all the oral history biographies handed down to us. Although many events are portrayed as having taken place at the time of the Abbasid Khalif Haroun al-Rashid and Egyptian ruler Ahmad Ibn Touloun, who lived two decades apart in the ninth century, there is recurring references to the thirteenth century Mamluk Sultan al-Naser Mohammad, which betrays a much later rendition of the story.
The story begins when a wily woman named Dalila manages through intrigue to expel from Baghdad both Ali’s father, Hasan Ras al-Ghoul and Ahmad al-Denif, the police chief of Baghdad. Al-Denif goes to Alexandria, whereas Hasan goes to Cairo, marries a woman called Fatemah, and begets Ali.
Fatemah, who becomes a central figure in the tale, is the daughter of Shiekh Noureddin, a judge in al-Fayyoum.
Then the Cairo police chief, Salaheddin al-Kalbi, uses trickery to kill Hasan on the same night that Fatemah gives birth to Ali. The boy grows up determined to take revenge on al-Kalbi. And he is endowed with just the right skills: the keen mind of his father and the steely determination of his mother.
At one point, the horsemen of al-Kalbi try to kill the child but his mother, Fatemah, is too vigilant to allow that to happen. From then on we see Ali in perilous positions, performing difficult tasks, fighting intrepid enemies, getting himself out of sticky situations and even recovering treasure from outlandish places.
When Ali’s two elder brothers are given a difficult task they botch it, but Ali steps in and gets the job done. He makes it clear as he grows up that his main purpose in life is to become the police chief of Baghdad.
Ali has all it takes to survive a life of intrigue and trickery. His main adversary is the wily Dalila, who manages to manipulate a succession of Baghdad police chiefs. The struggle between Ali and Dalila is devilishly underhanded, and the tricks they pull on each other are called “mala’ib,” meaning “schemes” or “plots,” or perhaps “sleights of hand.”
Fatemah is forever watching over her son, travelling long distances to save him, disguising herself and committing violent acts to protect him. Fatemah is apparently a master sorcerer, experienced in the use of narcotics, and is fierce in battle. She is lovingly called a ‘lioness’.
Ali earns the nickname Zeibaq or “mercury” due to his ability to escape from tight spots and outsmart his opponents.
The tale gets a mention in Arabian Nights, and many of its events take place in the two richest cities in the Islamic world at the time: Baghdad and Cairo.
Ali inhabits a world of tricksters, where a man’s ability for intrigue is a much-coveted asset, often enough to propel one to greatness either as a villain or a police chief, two jobs that are interchangeable at times. The whole setting implies an inherent distrust of authority, the perception among the common people is that power can only be gained through devious means.
There are elements in Ali’s story that resonate in various Arabian Nights tales, such as the Aladdin story (Arabian Nights: the nights 286-313); Alai Shar and Zomorroda (Arabian Nights: the nights 345-364), and Bent al-Leila and Noaman (Arabian Nights: the night 178).
compiled by Abdel Hamid Yunes and Ibrahim Abdel Hafez
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