The Dream of a Baghdad Night

Abdelfattah Kilito

Artwork by Shay Xie

We are such stuff as dreams are made on,
and our little life is rounded with a sleep.
—Shakespeare, The Tempest

One of the shortest stories from One Thousand and One Nights is titled “Ḥikāyatu iflāsi rajulin min baḡdād” (literally, “The Story of a Baghdad Man’s Ruin”). The title varies depending on the translator, so it seems as if each of them strove to invent their own, and, in the process, to emphasize one or another element of the story.

A man from Baghdad loses all his wealth. One night, a voice in his dreams reveals to him that his fortune is in Cairo and bids him to go there. Upon reaching Cairo, he decides to spend the night in a mosque.

“A house was nearby, and the Almighty had decided that a group of thieves would enter it by means of the mosque.”

Awakened, the inhabitants of the house raise the alarm. The governor arrives with his men and, the thieves having already fled, seizes the Baghdadi, beats him, and throws him in prison. Three days later, he summons the man and questions him about what had brought him to Cairo. When the Baghdadi tells him about his dream, adding that the only thing he found was a beating, the governor bursts out laughing. “Poor old fool,” he says. “Not once but thrice I saw someone in a dream who told me that in a certain neighborhood in Baghdad there was a certain house built in a certain way with a courtyard and a little garden at the end of which there was a fountain, and buried beneath this fountain was a considerable fortune: I only had to travel there and take it.”

Then, he gives the man some money and sends him back to his country. The Baghdadi realizes his luck.

“The house described by the governor was the very one in which he lived. He dug beneath the fountain and discovered a fortune that allowed him, by the grace of God, to live well.”



Like many of the stories from One Thousand and One Nights, this one begins with the evocation of a man who has lost the wealth he once possessed. This character, a man from Baghdad, gets a call (or an order) in his sleep, addressed to him by a voice from the night. Whose voice? That’s not specified—the story only mentions a “speaker” (qā’il). Is it “the one who does not sleep”? Is it a simple messenger? But in that case, who told the messenger to deliver the message? Let’s not forget, either, that a dream can be of demonic origin, although, in our story, it clearly is not: The story’s conclusion attributes the dreamer’s newfound wealth to divine intervention.

The designation of a speaker varies according to the version. In Lane, it is “a person”; in Richard Burton, “a speaker”; in Gustav Weil, jemand, “someone”; in Borges, “a soaking wet man who took a piece of gold from his mouth”; in Bencheikh and Miquel, une forme, “a form,” in the first dream, and in the second, quelqu’un, “someone”; finally, in Marina Warner, “a form.” Whatever the identity of the speaker might be, a promise is made to the ruined man from Baghdad that he will find a fortune in Cairo. He leaves for Egypt without asking any questions; he has confidence in the voice, but he doesn’t tell anyone else about it—the dream he has received is a secret he has no intention of sharing, and we can bet on the fact that, after finding the treasure, he will keep it all to himself. Treasures aren’t shared: That’s what many stories teach us.

Is the Baghdadi’s discretion due to his conviction that he has been chosen, that he will benefit from divine grace? In that case, his silence would serve to guard against vainglory and immoderation. Or his attitude could rather be explained by a fear of exposing himself to mockery and disdain. Don’t forget that during his first sally, Don Quixote, who took chivalric novels to be real, did not inform anyone about his intention to become a knight-errant. He left through the back door of his yard . . . But perhaps it is a fear of envy that compels the Baghdadi to keep quiet. This recalls the story of Joseph: Upon telling his father about his dream (“I saw in a dream eleven planets and the sun and the moon, I saw them prostrating themselves unto me.”), the latter asks him not to speak of it, “Tell not thy brethren of thy vision, lest they plot a plot against thee” (Quran, XII, “Joseph,” 4–5).

The dreamer of Baghdad will remain alone with the voice until his encounter with the governor. That’s when, as we read in Borges’s version, he “chose to tell the truth,” a detail found neither in the Arabic-language text nor in any other version. In all likelihood, there was no longer any reason to fear envy: His dream has fallen into ruin and he acknowledges, not without humor, that instead of a fortune, he’s only received a beating. He probably imagines himself to be the victim of a false promise.

We could, indeed, assume that the speaker deceived him; we could even think that the whisperer was wrong, that the voice didn’t know where the treasure was . . . You’ll protest that the speaker seemed to have no doubts when addressing the Cairo dreamer: Didn’t that dreamer learn of the exact location of the treasure in the Baghdadi’s house? In any case, the speaker’s ambiguity leaves us perplexed: telling lies to one dreamer and the truth to the other, misleading the credulous one and offering up a wealth of details to the incredulous one. What could explain such behavior?

Thus far we have assumed that both dreams were visited by a single speaker. But is it the same voice that addresses both men? What if there were two different speakers? And what if, more generally, each individual had his own supernatural speaker or demon guide? Just think of the Arab poets of the Archaic period: According to common belief at the time, each one of them was inhabited by a demon (šaiṭān) who would whisper their verses to them. These whispering demons even had names: Mishal for the poet Al-A’sha, ‘Amr for the poet Al-Farazdaq. It, therefore, took two to compose a poem, and it takes two, we could add, to make a dream, and two to find a treasure. In this context, the two night-speakers appear as instigating spirits, as dream whisperers—one unpredictable and crafty, the other credible and trustworthy. (It goes without saying that in a disenchanted world, we would be averse to demons and would bring it all back to the unconscious. At most, we’d play around with a thesis on the theme of the double.)

But aren’t we discrediting the first whisperer by assuming the sleeping Baghdadi was duped? Wasn’t it, rather, a way of putting him to the test, of proving his faith? And here we’re gradually drawn into another dream, another test of faith: Abraham receiving the order to sacrifice his son. We recall the last-minute reversal and the speech addressed to Abraham in the Quran: “O Abraham! Thou hast already fulfilled the vision. Lo! thus do We reward the good. Lo! that verily was a clear test.” (Quran, XXXVII, “The Rangers,” 104–106). For having believed in his vision, the Baghdadi will also receive a reward; thus, the whisperer did not lie to him but led him to the treasure—admittedly via a detour, the encounter with the governor of Cairo. The man of faith wins in the end. Of all the knights, it is Percival, the naive, who discovers the Holy Grail.

The Baghdad dreamer was, nonetheless, called a poor old fool, literally “a man with little reason” (qalīl al-‘aql), by the Cairo dreamer. Authoritarian and harsh, he seems, initially, largely unsympathetic—but upon reflection, he appears in a new light. Isn’t he the man who laughs, who laughs at dreams? He moves in a world where dreams have, to his eyes, no value. They are simple illusions to be cast off with no further ado. He won’t be had, no dream will trouble him. After all, he refused to heed the night voice and go to Baghdad. He is, nonetheless, the loser in this story and, as such, deserves some compassion. For all that, he’s not really to be pitied. His fortune is in Cairo, where he lives well, unlike the Baghdadi, who is ruined and in need.

In the end, what makes him such a poignant figure is that he doesn’t know and never will know how the story—his story—ends. His whisperer knows, the Baghdadi ends up finding out, and the reader, in turn, will be filled in. He doesn’t know because he is incapable of surpassing himself, of journeying, of going beyond himself. He neither leaves himself nor his home. And no one can do anything for him, from the night whisperer, who persists in trying to govern him even as he is determined to stand on his own two feet, to be his own governor (wāli)—which he is, in fact, by profession. The night whisperer—it is worth mentioning—seems to have a soft spot for him, returning to him, insisting, knocking thrice at his door. In vain: He refuses to answer and firmly refuses to believe the message, just like the Quran’s nonbelievers who persist in their blindness. He doesn’t think: What if I’m mistaken! He is, we could say, a man who categorically rejects Pascal’s wager.

Let’s say he sinned out of ignorance. Or that, in his ignorance, he paradoxically benefited from knowledge. Consciously, he doesn’t know; unconsciously he knows: Didn’t he receive the true dream, the vision that turns out to be correct? Strangely, at the very moment when he affirms the dream was false and the treasure merely a chimera, he reveals the exact place where it is, in fact, buried. Isn’t he the one, after all, who describes it to the Baghdadi? In commanding him to renounce his dream, to retrace his steps, to return home, doesn’t he, himself, become a truthful whisperer and an infallible guide? Scornful but charitable, he gives him some money, provisions for his journey home, an advance on his future fortune. In the end, he has given him the gift of a treasure, his own treasure.



Now, what to make of the episode with the thieves? How is it relevant—important, even—in the story? At first glance, if it were deleted, the story’s structure would not be seriously affected. The two dreamers’ encounter could have another incitation, as in Romanian writer Nicolae Davidescu’s retelling of the story, in which he places the scene in a barber shop. That said, this episode, which seems incidental, is nonetheless decisive, and for several reasons. By passing through the mosque, the place of divine communication, and digging through the wall of the neighboring house, the thieves coveted goods that belonged to others. They too, in their own way, were in search of treasure. What voice inspired them? That remains undefined. Yet, the story attributes their presence in the mosque to a divine decree. But that’s not all: The episode imperceptibly brings us back to another story, that of Joseph.

What guided me here was an expression used by the second dreamer to contemptuously refer to the first man’s dream: adḡāṯu ahlāmin. Lane renders it as “confused dreams,” Bencheikh and Miquel as vision, chimère, (“vision, chimera”). In his Arabic-French dictionary, Kazimirski translated it this way: “A heap of incoherent and confused dreams that are difficult to follow or explain.” It should be mentioned that this expression is used twice in the Quran (I don’t recall encountering it in Pre-Islamic or Revelation poetry). It is mentioned in the surah “The Prophets,” in a passage in which the nonbelievers turn from the message sent by the Prophet, mocking him. “Nay, say they, these are but muddled dreams (adḡāṯu ahlāmin); nay, he hath but invented it; nay, he is but a poet,” (Quran, XXI, “The Prophets,” 5). In the surah “Joseph,” adḡāṯu ahlāmin is the response given by the great men of Egypt to the king’s vision of seven fat and seven lean cows. Let’s not forget that although Joseph must, at Jacob’s request, keep quiet about his dream, the king of Egypt proclaims and publishes his. When he asks them to “expound for me my vision, if ye can interpret dreams,” they reply, “Jumbled dreams! And we are not knowing in the interpretation of dreams” (Quran, XII, 44).

It is also a question, in the story of Joseph, of a theft, that of the silver cup . . . Besides, Joseph’s brothers consider themselves the victims of their father’s unequally divided love. Joseph, to their eyes, has cornered the paternal attention; in short, they consider him a thief of love. As for the Baghdadi, he was falsely taken for a thief. The thief of Baghdad . . . Unjustly accused, he is thrown in prison, just like Joseph was, although for a different reason. In addition, one tells his dream to the governor of Cairo, the other tells his to the king of Egypt; the dream and its interpretation are at the heart of both stories. Finally, the treasure falls due to the Baghdadi, and to Joseph, the stewardship of Egypt’s warehouses. Because they never doubted, both are rewarded.

In the end, the thief of Baghdad isn’t one. He didn’t take goods belonging to another man; the treasure was in his own house. And yet, he’s not totally innocent because, in a certain way, he made off with something else: the governor’s dream. A thief of dreams, that’s what he is. The thief of Baghdad made off with a dream, a vision. Besides, he received his punishment from the governor in advance. There are cases—though they must be quite rare—where the punishment precedes the misdeed.



In his version of the story, Borges inverts the trajectory traveled by the first dreamer. No longer from the East to the West, but from the West to the East. In his story, there is a man from Cairo who is ordered by a voice to go to Isfahan, in Persia, a bit further than Baghdad. Another remarkable fact is that Borges adds the name of a narrator in the introduction to his version: “The historian Al-Ixaqui related this event […].” How can we not suspect that by evoking Al-Ishāqī (who lived during the reign of Al-Ma’mun), the Argentinian author had another Arab historian—Cide Hamete Benengeli, the alleged author of Don Quixote—in mind?

While the two dreamers are anonymous in the Arabic-language text, in Borges’s version, the first man is given a name: Mohammed el Maghrebi. The second man remains anonymous, which, in a certain sense, reduces his role and makes him into a secondary character. Why did Borges choose that name, so unusual in the Nights? Was he hoping to accentuate the premonitory or prophetic nature of the dream? Was he thinking of the story of Mi’rāj, the night journey and the ascension of the Prophet Muhammad? In any case, the simple fact of saying “el Maghrebi” emphasizes the opposition of Maghreb/Mashreq, West/East. Perhaps Borges was echoing an old representation, illustrated in several of the stories from the Nights, of the Maghreb as a land of magicians and buried treasures.

But what remains enigmatic in Borges is his description of the whisperer. The first dreamer saw in a dream “a soaking wet man who took a piece of gold from his mouth and told him: Your fortune is in Persia [ . . . ].” According to Évanghélia Stead, it is a foreshadowing of the treasure that will be found beneath the fountain. It’s worth noting that this man with a golden mouth doesn’t appear in the second dreamer’s dream. Also remarkable is that the latter, in Borges’s version, doesn’t hear a single word—he sees an image, a mute scene, the location of the treasure in the first dreamer’s house.

Speaking of his house, Borges adds a detail that is not explicitly mentioned in the Arabic-language text, namely that the first dreamer, who is ruined, has lost all his riches “except for his father’s house.” Yet, upon returning home—to what is, in some way, actually his father’s house—he discovers the treasure. It is a double return: on the one hand, to the paternal house, and on the other, to the wealth he had previously enjoyed. In Marina Warner’s version, just for good measure, the house was his mother’s.

The house, one’s home . . . Sinbad, having squandered his riches, remembers the words of his father that drove him to travel and make his fortune. “I was stricken with dismay and confusion, and bethought me of a saying of our lord Solomon [ . . . ], which I had heard aforetime from my father, ‘Three things are better than other three: the day of death is better than the day of birth, a live dog is better than a dead lion, and the grave is better than want.’” A voice on both occasions: that of the dead father in Sinbad’s case, that of an unknown speaker in the dream of the man from Baghdad.

A treasure is never where you think it is: We always begin by trusting in a dream or a manuscript and digging in the wrong place. The Gold-Bug by Edgar Allan Poe, Treasure Island by Robert Louis Stevenson . . . And how could we not think of the decisive example of Captain Archibald Haddock, who leaves in search of Red Rackham’s treasure and who, after having searched the sands of islands and the depths of the sea, returns home stuttering and confused? Where? To Marlinspike Hall, to the ancestral manor built by Sir Francis Haddock, where, in the cellar, he and Tintin find the pirate’s treasure.

translated from the French by Hodna Bentali Gharsallah Nuernberg

“Le songe d’une nuit de bagdad” by Abdelfattah Kilito is from Celui qu’on cherche habite à côté : Dix contes (Éditions la Croisée des Chemins : Casablanca, 2017).