The honest man (a Middle Eastern folktale)
Once upon a time there lived a young man named Ali who never told a lie. Everyone had heard of Ali, even those who lived in villages and cities far from his. This talent of his was unusual. Most people lied, at least once in a while. Some people told whopping tales, and some people simply told white lies. But Ali swore that he had never once told a lie. When the king learned of Ali’s boast, he wished to see him, of course. He ordered his servants to bring Ali to the palace. “It is impossible that there is a man who has never lied,” the king said. When Ali appeared before him, the king looked him up and down, and he saw only an ordinary man. He had no star upon his forehead. He did not have a faraway look in his eyes. He did not appear to be particularly special in any way. After the king had studied him thoroughly, he said, “Is it true what they say about you?” “I’m not sure I know what you mean,” Ali said, for although he imagined the king was speaking of the fact that he had never lied, he could not be certain. The king was flustered for a moment, but he said, “Your honesty. Is it true what people say about you?” “What do they say?” Ali asked. “Is it true that you have never lied?” the king asked. “This is true,” Ali answered, honestly. “And tell me, son,” the king said. “Do you plan to lie in the future?” “I do not,” said Ali. And once again, he was telling the truth. He had no plans to lie. “You will never lie in your whole life?” the king asked. “I never will,” Ali said. It was true that he had pledged his life never to lie, and in this he was confident he would succeed. The king loved a challenge, and Ali presented just that. “A lie is a tricky thing, Ali,” the king said. “It can slip out of your mouth with ease. You will have to be very careful.” “So I shall,” Ali said. “I plan to be very careful.” “I wish you luck,” the king said, and with those words he bid Ali farewell. A few days passed, but the king could not stop thinking of the man who never lied. It was impossible, he was certain. He was sure he could trick Ali into a lie, and so he thought for a long time and called Ali back to the palace. By now word had spread of Ali’s appearance at the palace, and so a great crowd followed Ali to the palace gates. When the king saw the crowd, he stepped outside. “Ali,” he said, “please follow me to the stable.” And so Ali followed the king, and the crowd followed Ali. In the stable, the king found his horse saddled and ready as he had commanded his servants to prepare it.
He strode to his horse, mounted it and looked down at Ali.
“Ali, I would like you to go to the Royal Garden and tell the queen I am going off to visit my poor old father. Tell her I shall return tomorrow for lunch. Tell her I shall arrive at noon and I want her to prepare a meal. You shall join us at the table.”
Ali bowed to the king. “I am your willing messenger,” he said.
“Off with you, then,” the king said, and so Ali set off for the garden, leaving the king and the crowd behind.
As soon as Ali was out of sight, the king dismounted and burst out laughing. “I shall not go visiting anyone today,” he announced to all who had gathered. “Soon Ali will tell a lie to the queen. He will tell her I have gone to see my father, but as you all are my witnesses, I am standing here and shall not leave the palace grounds. Tomorrow at lunch we shall prove that Ali has indeed told a lie.”
Ali arrived at the garden and found the queen tending her roses. Ali bowed and said, “Your highness, the king asked me to tell you he has gone to visit his father. He has asked me to tell you he shall return tomorrow. If you wish, your highness, you may prepare a meal for noon. But you may wish not to. The king may return tomorrow, but he may not.”
The queen stared at Ali, perplexed. “Explain yourself, young man,” she said impatiently. “Will the king be here tomorrow or won’t he? Do not bother me with riddles.”
“These are no riddles,” Ali answered, honestly. “In truth, I cannot say. I saw the king mount his horse, and he said he was going to see his father. But he may not have done so. He may return tomorrow, or he may not. I cannot tell you with any certainty.”
The queen was impressed with the young man’s honesty, though she did not know what would happen. She understood that she must simply be patient and wait and see, just as Ali must.
The next day everyone in the village followed the king as he walked to the garden where, once again, the queen was tending her roses.
“Good queen!” the king called when he saw her. “The young man who people say never lies told you a lie yesterday.”
The crowd let up a cheer, and the king laughed heartily.
“And what was that lie?” asked the queen.
“He told you I went to see my father and that I would return today,” the king replied.
The queen shook her head. “No,” she said. “He repeated your words, but told me only what he knew to be true, dear husband.”
From that day on, the king and queen and all the villagers understood that an honest man speaks only of what he sees with his own eyes.
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