Monday, May 23, 2022 | Shawwal 21, 1443 H
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Ali Cogia is my classical discovery of the year

Have you heard of Ali Cogia before? Well, I haven’t until a few weeks back, while browsing children’s books for my niece. Assuming that the story was of Persian origins because of the name Cogia, I was surprised to discover that it was part of a series that included other well-known tales from Arab heritage such as Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves, Sindbad and Aladdin.

Out of sheer curiosity, I decided to buy the book and read it before gifting it to the little one. Ali Cogia was a merchant in Baghdad at the time of Harun al Rashid the Abbasid Caliph.

Cogia decided to go to Haj and hid his one thousand pieces of gold at the bottom of a jar that he filled with olives, before passing it to his neighbour for safe keeping.

One day — after seven years of being away — the neighbour was craving olives and remembered Cogia’s jar. Assuming Cogia’s demise, the neighbour opened the jar and found the olives on the top had moulded.

He decided to dig deeper to check if the rest of the olives were still in a good condition, to recover the hidden gold instead. He kept the gold and filled the jar with fresh olives he bought from the market.

A month later, Ali Cogia returned from Haj and retrieved his jar to find it filled with olives and no sign of the gold. To his shock, the neighbour denied any knowledge of the gold which angered Cogia, who went straight to the judge to report the incident.

Unfortunately, due to lack of evidence, the neighbour was not charged with theft and was set free. Cogia decided then to raise his complain to Harun al Rashid the wise Caliph, and his bailiff asked him to return the next day.

That evening — as was his custom — the Caliph went out in disguise to check on his people and respond personally to their needs. He found a group of three children re-acting the story of Ali Cogia as it was the famous case of the year. The Caliph watched in fascination as the boys played Ali Cogia, the neighbour and the judge roles respectively with a difference: the boys came out with a smart solution that the judge had never considered.

The following day, the boy who played the judge role was summoned to attend Cogia’s trial.

After listening to Cogia side of the story, the Caliph asked the neighbour to speak. He was about to swear his innocence when the boy interrupted and asked him to present Cogia’s olive jar.

The jar was passed to the Caliph and a few olive merchants present who confirmed that the olives were fresh, most probably this year’s harvest, hence it wasn’t the olives that Cogia had filled his jar with seven years back. The neighbour confessed his crime and gave back Cogia’s gold.

He was free to go and so was the boy, who was awarded a bag of gold coins from Cogia for his cleverness. The story of course has other versions, where in one the case was cracked by the judge himself and not by the Caliph.

In another, the story has specific details of Cogia’s itinerary that includes a trip to Persia which delayed him for seven years.

The story is claimed to be part of One Thousand and One nights, as well as being narrated by other famous writers such as the American William Dean Howells (1837-1920) and the Scot Andrew Lang (1844-1912) in his famous book Arabian Nights Entertainment. Without doubt, Ali Cogia is my classical discovery of the year.

(The writer is a certified skills trainer and an author)

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