Open Sez Me

“Open sez me,” kids love to say, parodying words from a tale that few of them probably ever hear anymore in its original form. “Open sesame” is the pivotal line in “Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves,” a violent and morally ambiguous tale found in One Thousand and One Arabian Nights, a collection of Middle Eastern folktales. Just say those magic words, and a door opens to hidden treasure.

In the original story, Ali Baba is a poor woodcutter who hides out in a forest from a band of thieves. He overhears them using the incantation to open the entrance to a cave where they hide their loot. After they are gone, the woodcutter gains entrance to the cave himself, making off with some of the gold he finds stashed there. All goes well until his greedy older brother Kassim finds out about the cave and wheedles the magic words out of him. Kassim, who is already a rich man, arrives at the cave with ten pack mules bearing large chests, ready to make a substantial withdrawal. He remembers to say “open sesame” on the way in but is so overwhelmed by greed once he sees the treasure that he cannot remember the words to get out again. The thieves soon find him and cut him into pieces.

When Kassim fails to return home, Ali Baba goes back to the cave and retrieves the body, thereby tipping off the thieves that someone else knows their secret. He spends the rest of the story outwitting bad guys until they are all killed off, with help from Kassim’s faithful slave girl. Ali Baba returns to the cave after a year and finds it has not been disturbed. The story ends this way in the Harvard Classics version: “Some years later he carried his son to the cave and taught him the secret, which he handed down to his posterity, who, using their good fortune with moderation, lived in great honor and splendor till they were visited by the terminator of delights and the separator of companions.”

The moral of the story is as ambiguous as its morality. In Iraq, which is the setting for the story, “Ali Baba” is an epithet applied to thieves and looters, especially to its former leader, Saddam Hussein. It’s true that Ali Baba is less greedy than his brother Kassim, and his descendants use their good fortune with moderation. Still, Ali Baba made his fortune by stealing from thieves, whom he then killed, albeit in self-defense. Perhaps the moral of the story is that one should always exercise greed in moderation.

Hidden treasure is a common theme in folktales, frequently with an element of trickery or deception involved. Think of the many Irish folktales in which leprechauns outwit their human captors to avoid revealing the whereabouts of their precious pot of gold. Often the leprechaun slips away by directing his captor’s attention elsewhere. Even Jesus introduces an element of deception in his parable about a man who finds a treasure in a field, covers it up, then sells all that he has to buy the field. Presumably the treasure by rights belongs to the original owner of the field, since it is on his land. It is certainly doubtful he would have sold the land had he known there was buried treasure there – but then, he does not know because the man who found the treasure covers it up. Strangely enough, this is one of Jesus’ parables about the kingdom of heaven.

The story becomes less morally ambiguous when we realize that the kingdom of heaven that Jesus talked about lies within ourselves. This means that the “hidden treasure” is a treasure we hide from ourselves, often by directing our attention elsewhere. This may be best illustrated by lesser-known tale from the Arabian Nights about a once-wealthy man who is reduced to working as a common laborer. He is instructed in a dream to seek his fortune in Cairo, so he travels there from his home in Baghdad. He arrives and falls asleep in a mosque, where he is mistaken for one of the thieves who broke into a house next door (thieves again!). He is severely beaten and thrown into jail. The chief of police questions him and learns about his dream. The chief scoffs when he hears it and tells the man he has had three such dreams about treasure buried beneath a certain fountain in a certain garden of a house in Baghdad. The man quickly realizes the police chief is describing his own garden and hurries home to dig up his treasure.

Many of us spend our entire lives seeking the spiritual equivalent of a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. We are often aided and abetted in this by priests or gurus who hold up the tantalizing promise of salvation or enlightenment, if only we undertake some arduous spiritual discipline that will exhaust us and enrich them. Jesus warned against false prophets. “The kingdom of God cometh not with observation: Neither shall they say, Lo here! or, lo there! for, behold, the kingdom of God is within you,” he told the Pharisees. If within, then what is the point of looking elsewhere? If it is the kingdom of God we seek, then we must call it forth from ourselves. Thus, perhaps the kids aren’t so far off the mark when they cry, “Open sez me!”

Matthew 13:44
“The Ruined Man Who Became Rich Again Through a Dream,”
One Thousand and One Arabian Nights
Luke 17:20-21

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