A THIEF OF BAGHDAD
by ELLIOTT CAPON
By the beard of the Prophet, tis true, my friend, that were a large man to spread his fingers as wide as possible, and touch the tips of
his thumbs together, his hands would then just about cover the body and legs of one of the spiders.
This, the beautiful city of Baghdad , at a time about a thousand years after the death of the Christians’ Savior, was a truly wondrous
place indeed. Baghdad could have been said to be the center of the universe, because the sun revolves around the Earth and the
Earth revolves around Baghdad . Commerce flowed through the city like sand running down the side of a tall dune. Spices, jewels,
clothing, slaves, animals, salt, fragrances, dyes, foodstuffs...all that was desirable and worthy passed through Baghdad on its way to the
rest of the world. Ten times a hundred merchants had estates--palaces--in the city, and a hundred times that number had small shops
or stalls where they sold rugs and roast lamb and pistachios and poisons and daggers and seemingly ten times ten thousand other items.
But it were the spiders who were the backbone, the basis, of Baghdad ’s economy.
Truly, not the spiders themselves, but their webs.
Dim memories and incomplete records merely relate that the spiders were a gift to some unnamed and unremembered Caliph about
four hundred years ago from somewhere to the south, from the lands of Nubia, those unexplored, impenetrable lands about which men
still say, with a shrug, that if there are indeed monsters living there, then Allah bless them and keep them...there. Now of course the
spiders were the property of His Most Serene Magnificence, the Caliph Selim ibn Hassan, and were Allah to truly listen to the pleas of
men, He would have no time to do anything at all during the day and night but to repeatedly bless these spiders.
The spiders were mostly dark brown and green, with occasional mottlings of black. Scholars generally agreed that they must have
originally been tree spiders, camouflaged to hide amidst the vegetation of their original jungle habitat. Natural philosophers would have
loved to have dissected them, but they were needed for business. For their webs...ah, their webs!
The spiders spun, and spun and spun and spun. Because of their size, and because of some peculiarity of their biology (which no one
was permitted to study; when one of them died a natural death, dissection was not permitted: a dead spider was buried with the honors
accorded a member of the royal family) their webs were extraordinary. The silk at the middle of each web was of a fineness and a
softness to make the best Cathay silk seem like the grittiest burlap. This was used, of course, to make clothing and draperies. The web
at the anchor, where the spiders attached it to the walls of their enclosure, was of such thickness and toughness that not weavers but
blacksmiths were utilized to cut and work the material. These lines, stronger than any iron or brass known and yet more flexible than
hemp, was used to make sailcloth, ships’ lines, fishing nets, tent ropes, even tethers for elephants and camels. The web strands from
the middle were used for as many tasks as the fertile minds of men could devise.
Traders came from all over the world to Baghdad to buy or trade for this webstuff. From India and Cathay and Nippon traders came
bearing obscure spices and beautifully crafted robes and statuary; from Crete and Mykonos came teachers bartering a year of their life
in service to a noble family for ten measures of the websilk; from southern España they brought wines and olives; from the frozen
North they traded weapons and the furs of bizarre animals; from the Afric coast came slaves and wild cats and other exotic animals.
Caliph Selim owned the spiders. They were kept in what was called an enclosure, essentially a giant square brick pit, twenty feet deep
and a hundred feet on each side, topped with a dome constructed of petrified wood and--predominately, albeit ironically enough--spider
web. There were tall walls around the pit, built of rare, imported Asiatic bamboo. Each day the spiders spun their webs across the
enclosure, from side to side or “ceiling” to floor. Each evening they were fed--lamb, goat, oryx, camel (for when Allah reveals the
spider of any species that is a vegetarian, blessed be us for it will truly be the end of the world!)--and then they slept...or were at least in
a state of sated torpidity. It was then that the bravest men in Baghdad --and, tis true, the best-paid--would stealthily enter the enclosure
and remove the days’ production of web. How this was done safely was quite the state secret, honed over many years of trial and error,
and widow-pensions. This new-cut web went right into the Caliph’s storehouse, where it was graded, cut and weighed. The next day--
each and every day--the most important merchants of Baghdad would come in and buy the web, or at least portions thereof, from the
Caliph’s treasurer, and then do with it as they would. The price that the Caliph got for the web was so great that taxes in Baghdad were
negligible, almost nil. The merchants made so much money by selling processed web to the rest of the world, that they were able to pay
the Caliph enormous sums, and he--Selim--being a most prudent and wise man, shunning ostentation--was able to run the Calpihenate
on little more than what the merchants’ fees brought into the public treasury.
My friend…Allah, in His infinite wisdom, saw fit to create the dung beetle, which is in the habit of actually stealing the balls of that
product so carefully crafted by one of his peers; this was a propensity that He instilled, in magnified form, in His greatest creation,
Man. For surely there were thieves in Baghdad .
To say that these webs were priceless was not to exaggerate too far. Ten pounds of anchor-web, sold to the right people, could let a
man live comfortably for the rest of his life. And so there were many who attempted, under cover of darkness, to sneak into the
enclosure and help themselves to a portion of the spiders’ product. There were no guards at the spider enclosure, not by day nor by
night. Caliph Selim was a fiscally conservative man, not willing to have people on the payroll who were not needed, merely for the sake
of show. The spiders were their own guards.
Thieves are rarely philosophers. They think not about the consequences of their crime to the victim, but only of their own needs.
They do not think in the abstract, only in the definite: they think of picking specific locks, not of how the lock was invented. They
knew that the spider webs were valuable: they sought to possess them. But they never thought: why do the spiders spin these webs in
the first place? The spiders were pampered and well fed; they had no need to hunt or trap their own food. But nonetheless, despite
the excellent catering they received, they spun webs--they spun traps--because that is what spiders do. Because once the web is spun, it
is spun for a reason--to catch food. And food, when caught, is by definition--by being “food”--eaten. Eight legs with uncountable years
of hunting instinct behind it is faster and more efficient than two legs controlled by a panic that wants to send them in three different
directions. So common was it to find newly-picked human bones at the bottom of the enclosure in the morning, that note was duly and
calmly made in the ledger books, and nothing more.
Caliph Selim, though not a cruel man, would attempt to dissuade such activity by publicly throwing a truly heinous criminal--a child-
killer, say--into the enclosure once or twice a year, amid a great deal of publicity. The citizens of Baghdad were not compelled to
watch, but those that did were horrified enough to never want to try and steal any webbing.
There was a man in Baghdad , named Ali, who did want to get his hands on some of that magnificent web. He was not named Ali ibn
someone, because his father could have been any one of a hundred merchants, caravan workers, soldiers, or shipbuilders. The last he
had seen of his mother she was riding off in the company of a Moroccan prince who was delighted that this young virgin had fallen for
his charms. Ali had been eight at the time.
Baghdad was a very large city, a virtual maze of alleys, tents; structures that were there one day and gone the next. A rat, a lizard, a
beetle, a quick-witted child could live there for years, eating and sleeping and thriving without a scrap of possession to call his own. As
Ali grew older, he changed his habits, if not his morals. Ali was as light-fingered as he was brazen, as smart as he was bold, as clever as
he was conscience-free. While he still did a little pay-you-never shopping, he mostly made his way by trickery and conniving. Baghdad
, as I said, was a very, very large city, with a constantly-shifting population and layout. Ali would grow a beard, steal some upper-class
clothing, and “buy” goods from a visiting merchant on consignment, or with a false promissory note. He would then take the goods, sell
them to someone for coin or gold, shave his beard, put on a workingman’s clothing, and live comfortably for a few weeks. He would
repeat the process as often as necessary, sometimes masquerading as a prince, sometimes as one of those barbarous Latin speakers
from the west, sometimes as a doctor, sometimes as a wizard. A thousand years later, Ali and his ilk would be called “con artist” or
“flim-flam man,” but the Arabic word for “thief” fitted him truly enough in his own time.
Unfortunately, Ali was growing old. He was twenty-five--to all intents and purposes, middle-aged. He realized he couldn’t keep up this
life of constant artifice forever, that one day he would wear the same disguise and the same persona in presenting himself to a former,
forgotten, victim, who would then have his head on a silver platter. Literally. At twenty-five, it was time to settle down, to go into a
legitimate business, to buy a house and some wives and live in relative calmness.
Doubly unfortunately, Ali owned very little. What he got, he spent. Over the past several years, he had eaten very well and lodged
lavishly (if temporarily) and had known the company of many women (also, praise Allah! temporarily). While he wasn’t exactly
corpulent, the years had been good to Ali, and he was in no condition to sneak in through a window and make off with a chest of
jewels, as he might have had in the weeks after his mother left. Nor could he, in one of his little “dramas,” as he liked to call them,
earn enough to retire on; no, he needed one more big “drama,” one more bold (yes, say it) robbery and then he could retire to a life of
Where else in Baghdad --or indeed, the world--was there such an opportunity but in the enclosure of the giant spiders? What other
commodity was worth so many tons of gold, except for tons of gold?
Ali had seen, on several occasions, the devouring of criminals in the spider pit. As a child, he had laughed; as an adult, he had
shuddered. There was no way that this round belly of his was going to get into that enclosure, cut a hundredweight of web and escape.
Nor could he hire anyone, even among his acquaintances, to do the work for him: anyone crazy enough to try and steal web was going
to do it all for himself, not on the behest of another.
But yet, that web was like a crown of precious jewels sitting on an island surrounded by quicksand: inviting, glimmering, shining, worthy
of the literal king’s ransom, the answer to any man’s prayers...but just out of reach.
Ali thought long and hard about his dilemma, and reached, after much reflection, the only possible solution: getting the web was
Therefore, he had to somehow gain possession of the spiders.
Again, Ali spent a lot of time in rumination. Any plan to get the spiders would need accomplices; he certainly couldn’t do it by himself.
That was easily done. While Ali had himself never so much as unsheathed his dagger in a show of bravado, many of the people he
sold...acquired...items to had associates and business partners who would as soon cut a throat as a purse. When the time came, it would
be but a matter of a few inquiries and the exchange of a few pieces of gold to get him the men needed to storm the palace and hold the
Caliph for ransom, if that’s what he wanted. So that was a consideration, put aside, for later.
There were, in his experience, three basic ways to taking possession of something that was not, at the moment, legally his. The
foremost and simplest thing to do was merely to go one night, with his hypothetical accomplices, and merely steal the spiders. He
rejected this out of hand. Not even the bravest cutthroat or mercenary soldier would go along with a plan to herd however many
overly large, carnivorous spiders into the back of a cart. A procession of carts or other vehicles carrying these spiders through the
streets of Baghdad would surely be noted, even in the middle of the night, even assuming that no one was aroused in the first place by
the tumult of untrained spider-handlers screaming as they were devoured by the very creatures they were endeavoring to abscond with!
No; it took no thought whatsoever for Ali to reject the premise of merely stealing the spiders.
There were two other methods for getting hold of something he wanted, both of which he had used successfully in his career. One was
mere sleight of hand, substituting a chunk of colored glass for the jewel he desired, or a cheap clay statue for the luxurious ivory figure
he wanted. This took a bit of study, as he had to duplicate the original well enough to fool the owner until such time as he had left the
premises and shed his current disguise. Obviously, this method too was untenable in the present circumstances. Besides being unable
to substitute duplicate spiders for the real ones (if he had similar spiders, why would he need the Caliph’s?) there was still the question
of making off with the beasts--which could not be done without a lot of people knowing about it.
The third tool in his bag of tricks was one of which he was most proud. Several times in his career as an acquirer of items, he had
actually tricked the owner into giving him the item or items in question. Ali fondly remembered one ‘drama,’ wherein he found out that
a certain merchant had received a shipment of cinnamon from far-off Indus. His being the only caravan to evade the ubiquitous
bandits and reach Baghdad with the stuff for more than six months, the value of the spice was enormous. Posing as another wealthy
merchant--an Egyptian, if Ali remembered correctly--Ali went to the merchant’s warehouse to examine the three hundredsweight of the
aromatic spice. He gave the performance of his life as he wrinkled his nose and cursed the beard of the merchant’s grandfather for his
daring to offer such inferior, spoiled, rotten goods. The merchant, of course, saw nothing wrong with the cinnamon and was deeply
offended and wounded that the Egyptian (who had been presented to him as one of the Continent’s leading spice dealers) would find
his goods so unpalatable. The screaming and cursing went on from both ends for a long time, with Ali’s superior histrionics putting
doubt in the merchant’s mind. “If you don’t believe me, ask someone else!” Ali finally stormed, and dragged the merchant out into the
street, where he grabbed at the first well-dressed passerby and begged him to come in. As the passerby went into the warehouse, he
made a face and said, “What died in here? Or are you fermenting camel dung?” In the face of this evidence, the merchant--begging
Ali not to spread the word of his trying to sell bad spices, else he be ruined--ordered his slaves to take the offending product to the
communal dump and may the Prophet damn it to hell!
Later that night, Ali and the well-dressed passerby went by the dump and retrieved three hundredweight of perfectly good cinnamon.
Good Roman gold was exchanged, the passerby bid Ali a long and happy life, and they parted ways. Ali found a real Egyptian spice
merchant and was able to live for months on his profit from the sale of that delicious cinnamon.
He had worked similar schemes before and after that, but that had been his best. He sighed as he came to the conclusion that there
was no way, after four hundred years of productivity, the Caliph and his advisors would suddenly think that the spiders were no good
and be willing to find someone to take them off their hands.
Ali sipped tea at a favored eating establishment and pondered. There was no way under the benevolent gaze of Allah that he could
abscond with the spiders. However. However. However...
He felt a thought like an itch at the back of his head. He sat perfectly still, lest he twitch and shake the thought off like a dog scratches
away a flea. Something was growing at the back of his mind, where lay hidden his talents and abilities, rushing forward when the need
He sat perfectly still, waiting for the thought...waiting...waiting.
He needn’t make impossible efforts to capture and transport the full-grown spiders. All he need do was acquire a sac of their eggs.
And then he could essentially go into business for himself.
The destination was in sight; the end of the journey was clear. All that remained was to pave the road.
And that was Ali’s greatest talent.
A few weeks later, one of the Caliph’s many servants approached him during Public Session and told him that there was an infidel
come to beg a favor.
“What could an infidel possibly want from me?” the Caliph asked.
“He claims to be a scholar,” the servant said.
The Caliph, as do so many in the Arab world, respected and admired scholars whether infidel, barbarian, or believer, so he bade the
servant show this man in. In moments, there appeared before the Caliph a bizarre figure, swathed in furs, pasty of face, bereft of
beard, wearing under those hot, smelly animal skins not a cool robe but those ludicrous tights favored by the Europates. The man
bowed to the Caliph, arms swinging wide to endorse the entire court, and said, “Hispestus ramus thalmus corobundinum questo faccio.”
“I can’t understand a word this creature is saying!” the Caliph spluttered.
“Ah, forgive me, most honored ruler,” Ali said in wretched Arabic. For indeed, it was Ali, in one of his disguises; while the Honored
Caliph and his court may have been fooled, I know, friend, that you knew all along that this was our good thief!
“Forgive me, a thousand pardons,” Ali continued, deliberately butchering his native language. “I meant to thank you for granting me
“What is your name, stranger, and your business?” Caliph Selim asked.
“My name, sire, is--” carefully rehearsed, so as not to inadvertently reveal his true name!--”Bono Fortunata, of Grenada .” He could
have said “Bowl of Feces,” for all anyone at the court understood Latin--after all, no one studies the barking of dogs or the bleating of
sheep, do they?
“I am a Professor of Natural History at the University of Blabborundum ,” Ali continued. “I have studied your language--badly, I fear--
The Caliph raised a deprecating hand. “Well enough that I can appreciate your making the effort.” A kind man, he always looked for
the best in people. Ali bowed at the compliment.
“You are most gracious, my good lord,” he said to the floor. “If I may, lord, I have studied your language with the express hope of
being able to come to the beautiful city of Baghdad to study your amazing spiders. Their webs are truly the talk of the world. I beg
your leave to be able to observe them.”
The Caliph uttered a short laugh, dutifully echoed by his courtiers. “My friend,” he said, “you are welcome, but I have to warn you
that they object to having their reflexes or their pulses checked.”
This got a legitimate, if brief, laugh from those assembled. Ali almost cracked a smile too, then remembered that his command of
Arabic was not that good. He thought for a few seconds, and then got what the Caliph had said. He smiled and bowed. “Yes, my lord,
I know their reputation. If, however, you would permit me just to watch, to, eh, oh, sulumbundum, what’s the word? ah, to remain by
their, eh, wherever you keep them, by day and night, for a few weeks, that I might watch them in their activities, I would like to write a
book in praise and in
Again Caliph Selim raised a hand. “Granted, granted, my friend! You may cease destroying my language. You are welcome to watch
my spiders at work--from outside the enclosure. I shall pass word to the attendants that you are permitted to be by the enclosure at
any time of the day or night, and that you may watch the feeding and web harvesting and any other activities. Have you a place to
Ali had a sudden stab of fear: what if the Caliph, who was known for his kindness, would invite the visiting scholar to live at the
palace? He couldn’t maintain this charade, close up, for more than a few moments! But Ali did not live to middle age and earn his
admirable girth by being slow-witted. “Yes, my lord,” he responded. “I am staying with one of my colleagues, the estimable teacher--”
tiny pause! did anybody realize it?--”Konstantinos Dimopolous, late of Athens , now residing in your beautiful city.”
The Caliph frowned. “I’m afraid I don’t know a scholar of that name,” he said.
“Well, then, lord, perhaps he is only estimable to us Latin-speakers,” Ali said, earning, as he hoped, a quick chuckle from all present and
defusing further inquiry by instantly denigrating everyone who was not an Arab. Smiling, the Caliph waved a hand and bid Ali a good
day. Bowing profusely, Ali backed out of the room and made his escape.
He was rarely as thankful for anything in his life as he was to get home and get those thrice-be-damned furs off his back!
Now came the part of his plan that was least-formed in his mind. He had to observe the spiders in their daily--and nightly--activities.
Then...what? He did not know. That all depended on what he saw. How long did he have to observe? He did not know. He would
have to study the spiders until such time as he saw whatever it was that he had to see. And then formulate a plan. “Ahimé!” he sighed,
a word he’d picked up from a Sicilian smuggler, and that tickled his palate. But, as twas truly said, Allah helps those who help
themselves. The following day he got to work.
The Caliph’s palace was located in one corner of an enormous walled compound. The main gate, which led palace itself, was so large
that fifty men could walk abreast through it, and it remained open all day and all night. A few guards stood by it, but they were
ceremonious, for Baghdad was at peace and the Caliph was a well-liked ruler: all were welcome, beggar and scholar and merchant alike.
Polite servants--not armed guards--steered the mendicants this way, (around the side), dignitaries that way (under the shaded canopies)
and others as their station and business dictated.
Were one to walk past the palace itself and wander through the grounds, one would find the stables, the menagerie of exotic and not-so-
exotic animals, barracks for the ceremonial guardsmen, tremendous storehouses for the trade goods belonging to the Caliphenate, an
actual flower garden, tended by (by all estimates) the twelfth generation of one particular family, no member of which had ever done
anything but tend to that particular garden, and other sundry buildings and set-asides necessary to the running end enjoyment of the
most important city on God’s earth.
At the exact center of the grounds, equidistant from the four corners of the tall walls that surrounded the compound was the previously-
described pit that contained the spiders.
It was in here that they lived and did their work. Several attendants--remember, my friend, no guards--lived in a small barrack near the
enclosure and worked with--shall I say for--the spiders, collecting the web and distributing food and removing bones and whatever
waste the spiders themselves left behind. These attendants were all young men, for they started working in the enclosure at about the
age of twelve, and should they serve ten years and live to tell about it (about half did), they were retired with a generous pension. White-
haired, perhaps; nervous; starting at every shadow or scrape, but able to retire in economic comfort nonetheless.
It was to the enclosure that Ali made his way every day and most nights. The attendants soon got used to his ubiquitous form in its
garish costume, standing and watching. There were always a few curious who received permission to watch for a while, but none had
ever before been so ever-present. As young men are never to shy to brag, they were more than pleased to answer his never-ending
There were doors set into the bamboo wall, allowing the men access to the inside of the enclosure. Ali took note that no man ever
entered one of these doors without being sure that the spiders were being distracted on the other side--usually by the deposit of a goat
or sheep carcass for them to feed on. And that no man actually went onto the floor of the pit (no man that ever came out other than
bones, that is): all retrieval of detritus was done by ingenious and extremely long poles made of this same bamboo, to the ends of some
of which had been attached the sharpest of blades, to others, hooks; to yet others, grabbing claws moved by taut strands of web on
small pulley or lever systems. It was painstaking and nerve-racking work, trying to hook a human skull with a twenty-foot long, bending
pole with a hook on the end, but the men were extraordinarily judicious in their caution and there were never less than three watching
from the top of the wall while one of their fellows was working on the edge of the pit. At night, the little doors were locked tight and
the men retired to whatever business they had to attend: there was no need to stand guard.
By his questioning, Ali determined that of the twelve spiders currently in residence, six were male and six female; that twelve was
considered a good number, manageable in terms of feeding and containment, producing enough web to keep the Caliphenate in humus
and falafel, preventing the stresses of overcrowding and cannibalism. The spiders generally reproduced once a year. Each spider had a
name, more for bookkeeping purposes than affection, and as each egg sac was produced the overseer of the pit (another hereditary
position) would consult his records and determine that, say, Fatima was eight years old and probably at the end of her web-spinning
career. Therefore, when the eggs released their new batch of spiders, Fatima was reverently killed by men with twenty-foot-long knives
and one newly-hatched female allowed to take her place. The rest of the progeny would be killed when they were still small, so as not
to overburden their small home.
And may it please you sir, the funny Latin scholar asked one day, when is next the time the spiders are expecting their eggs to produce?
The overseer didn’t have to check any records. “Within a fortnight, four weeks at the most, my learnèd friend,” he replied.
Many, many people who started out at the age of eight in Ali’s predicament had long since starved to death on the street or died in
prison or wore the leg-chains of the slave. But Ali had a superior intellect and imagination. He called upon it now.
A friend of an acquaintance of an occasional partner of Ali’s was named Rashid the Lion. He was called so not so much for his fierce
demeanor, but for the way he wore his hair, surrounding his head like a mane. In Baghdad ’s subculture of law-avoidance, everyone
knew or at least knew of everyone else, and so Ali and Rashid knew each other by sight, by name, and by reputation, even if they had
never dined together. Rashid made his living by stealing and distributing big things.
Not the palmed jewel or the contents of a slit purse for Rashid! He had a compound to rival the Caliph’s about ten miles from
Baghdad proper, in the rocky desert where no one would wander about for mere sightseeing. There, Rashid had elephants and camels,
man-sized urns of salt and spices, cloth not by the yard but by the ton, and, to his everlasting frustration, only mere yards of fishing-net-
thick giant spider web. If he had goods on his property that, at fair and open market value would sell for five million dinars, oh,
believe me, my friend, he had acquired them for a cost of only ten thousand. An embezzler, a thief showing up with an entire
misdirected caravan cannot dicker and threaten to take his business elsewhere. People came to Rashid because they knew he would
pay well-minted gold and then forget he’d ever met you. And what merchant, finding cinnamon at twenty dinars to the pound in the
heart of the city would not go to Rashid and buy the same weight at ten dinars?
And so Ali contacted his occasional partner who contacted his acquaintance who talked to his friend who spoke to Rashid, and one
evening Ali and Rashid met over cups of spiced coffee in a Baghdad inn that catered to the less than respectable members of society.
Rashid was accompanied by a huge Nubian who remained silent; Ali was reveling in being able to wear “real” clothes instead of his
ludicrous Christian disguise.
There were niceties and politenesses and all manner of small talk and chat between the two men as they sipped their drinks and nibbled
on pistachio and almond pasties. They were gentlemen, businessmen, and as such did not rush into the boring details of commerce.
After some time, Ali said, “My most honored friend Rashid, what would you do with an unlimited supply of web?” He did not have to
say anything more than ‘web.’ Anyone in the world with half a brain knew what was meant by ‘web.’
Rashid uttered a short barking laugh, coughing pastry crumbs onto his robe. “Unlimited web, friend Ali?” he repeated. “My son, I
would buy the Caliph and use him for the sole purpose of wiping me clean after I have relieved myself!”
Both men shared a laugh. “No, Rashid,” Ali continued when they had calmed down. “Seriously. If, say, I could deliver to you, to your
magnificent zoo out there in the desert, some spiders, what would it be worth to you?”
“‘Spiders’?” Rashid repeated, as if he had never heard the word before. “You mean, the spiders?”
Ali nodded. “Perhaps not the named ones that are now making the Caliph rich, but their progeny.”
Rashid thought long and hard. While Ali was a master at beguiling and fooling one person at a time, Rashid’s talents ran to big, major
undertakings. “I’d need a pit, of course, and men to feed them and gather the web...Hmmm...I know of several men who have retired
from the spider-service who find themselves needing more than their pensions provide...And selling the stuff...let me see, if I set up a
trading post along the Al-Kassar road, and one on the Himalaya-Ankara road, I could actually intercept business before it reaches
Baghdad...” Even though Rashid spoke aloud, he only said a fraction of what was going on in his mind. He was, I cannot state it too
often, a genius at undertaking major projects. Ali sat patiently while Rashid pondered, sometimes aloud, sometimes silently. In about
ten minutes, Rashid had, in his head, created a massive business empire based on undercutting the Caliphenate in the selling of giant
He suddenly reached out and grasped Ali by the upper arm. “Tis done, my friend,” he said. “When can you make delivery?”
“Doubtless within four to six weeks,” Ali answered.
“Good! That will give me time to make the arrangements. And our own arrangement, my friend,” he continued. “Will you take a
partnership, or gold?”
“Gold,” Ali said without hesitation. He did not want a partnership--this entire project was about retirement, after all. “Or silver. In
any event, coin: Roman, Greek, Egyptian. “
Rashid nodded. “It can be done. And a figure? I was thinking two million dinars’ worth.”
Ali hid his surprise. That was precisely the figure he had fixed in his mind, and had been prepared for a long haggling session. “Agreed,
my friend,” he said.
They toasted each other’s long lives and parted, each to see to his own end of the endeavor.
The attendants at the spider enclosure were mildly amused to see the change that had come over their Latin-speaking scholar. Whereas
before he had been curious and a never-ending fount of questions, he now seemed impatient: sighing, pacing up and down, staring at
the spiders as if willing them to do something--tricks, perhaps? sit up? retrieve a ball? For three weeks the scholar walked around and
around the bamboo wall, sometimes atop the parapet that let the attendants look down into the pit, sometimes pushing past the men as
they opened the doors to go about their business. He’d stretch his neck to the breaking point trying to see into each corner of the
enclosure, and then sigh, as if disappointed. A few of the attendants passed semi-witty remarks between themselves and toward him,
but eventually they came to ignore this new facet of their ubiquitous guest’s behavior.
Three weeks and three days after Ali’s conference with Rashid, he accompanied the attendants on their morning visit to the pit in order
to remove the carcasses of last night’s dinner--two ewes and a massive he-goat who had put up quite a fight. Despite his years of self-
training and experience, Ali could not resist drawing in a sharp intake of breath.
In corner Aleph (the pit was marked by an imaginary grid, known to the attendants, in order to facilitate the removal of carcasses and
the harvesting of web), hanging from some relatively thin strands of web, was a sac containing perhaps fifty tan-colored spheres, each
perhaps the size of a co-co nut. There was Ali’s treasure. There was Ali’s future. There was Ali’s life of luxury and relaxation.
The impatience seemed to gush out of him like a spring flood. He felt himself coiled, panther-like, ready to spring into action. Tonight.
That afternoon Ali went to a less-desirable section of Baghdad and paid some coins to a man he knew as “No Names.” He had hired
this man several times, but the first time he had done so the man had said, “Ah ah! No names!” He told No Names to meet him by
the enclosure with a horse-drawn cart and several yards of cheap cloth.
He then went to an even less-desirable part of the city. Naked, filthy children frolicked in mud and animal droppings, eating scraps
stolen from the communal refuse dump. This was the street in which Ali himself had once lived, had thrived, and from which had
eventually escaped. It felt fitting to be back here, on the eve of his greatest act of defiance and thievery against the very city that had
let him become a success by forcing him to break its laws.
He surveyed the situation and called a boy of about ten over to him. The urchin had long ragged hair and wore nothing but a dirty
breech clout. Ali showed him a copper coin and asked if he wanted it. The boy retrieved his jaw from the ground and said, “Yes, my
lord. What do you want me to do?”
Ali tossed the coin--which was probably more money than the boy’s family (if he indeed had one) saw in a month--which vanished out
of the air as if by magic. “Do you know where the spider enclosure is?” he asked.
The boy thought twice about spluttering his derision to such a stupid question. “Of course,” he said.
“Meet me there at the midnight hour,” Ali told him, “and there’s four more of these coins for you.”
Ah, my friend! If Adam, the first man, could be tempted by something as mere as a piece of fruit, can you imagine this lad who had
never owned a shirt in his life turning down the offer of real coin? He would have gone there that very minute had Ali not grabbed
him and repeated, “The midnight hour.”
It was nothing for No Names to drive the cart into the Caliph’s compound before sunset and then just hide himself somewhere.
Likewise the child. Ali entered the massive gates shortly after sundown, as was his wont, and, too, lost himself amid the imported trees
and statuary. There he doffed once and for all his ludicrous Latin furs and changed into a simple black caftan.
At midnight , everything was very quiet. Ali knew full well that the attendants were all abed by the eleventh hour, and the spider
enclosure was far enough away from everything else so that there would be no idle passersby. He approached: ah, he was pleased!
There was No Names, sitting in the cart. Over there, in sight but far enough away to flee if necessary, was the street urchin. Ali gave
No Names some more coin and bid him vanish. He opened one of the man-sized doors and peered into the pit. The spiders were
quiet, unmoving; they too, it seemed, rested between the midnight hour and dawn...unless disturbed.
Ali quietly called the boy over to him and walked him around the enclosure, to the door at the Gamma corner, diagonally opposite
Aleph. He tried to keep the excitement and tension off his face and out of his voice. He had never killed anyone before. He had
associated with murderers, had witnessed second-hand the activities of murderers, had benefited from the actions of killers, but he
himself had never joined that brotherhood. Alas, he thought, offering up a silent prayer to God, I would that there were some other
way, but there isn’t.
He opened the Gamma door and said, “Look inside, boy. I dropped a very valuable jeweled ring in there. I need you to retrieve it for
The boy pulled back a little, torn between four copper coins and an act of insanity. “Have you fleas in your head?” he asked, reverting
to the slang of the mud streets.
“Not at all, boy,” Ali hissed. “I leaned in to look at the spiders and it fell from my hand. It is directly below, immediately beneath us.
A quick jump down, a jump up, I grab your hand, you are in and out in five seconds. I swear it by the hem of my dear mother’s robe,
which I kiss in her memory. The beasts sleep; it would take them almost two minutes to reach you. I must have that ring back.”
Four coins. An equivalent temptation would be offering the Caliph himself the entire world and another just like it. “Very well,”
whispered the boy. “Where is it?”
“You must lean over, far, like this to see it,” Ali said, pretending to stretch out. “It is lying in the shadow of that rock, there...”
“That one...?” the boy asked, leaning far out over the edge.
Ali pushed him, and he tumbled in. He slammed the door shut and ran as fast as he could around to the opposite corner.
It did indeed take the spiders two minutes to awaken and locate the boy. Were the pit empty, it still would have taken him ten minutes
to climb the slippery, slopèd walls. Two minutes, and the subsequent horrible moments that followed, were all Ali needed to open the
Aleph door, grab the poles he had secreted there earlier, slice through the web with the knife and then grab the hook-pole to scoop up
the web-net carrying the fifty or so precious eggs. He put the eggs in the cart, threw the cloth over it, and calmly drove away.
The attendants, in their nearby barracks, heard the screams, muttered about a clean-up on the morrow, rolled over and went back to
A wave at the lone man on ceremonial guard duty at the front gate was the total price paid by Ali to leave the Caliph’s compound.
People came and went at all hours; and besides, he wasn’t a guard, he was a decoration.
Ali took the long ride to Rashid’s property at a slow pace, thinking of the money that would soon be his, stopping at a wayside inn for a
meal and attention to the horse. He arrived at midmorning. Rashid himself, accompanied by the silent Nubian, met him at the front
gate (where real guards stood vigilant), hugged him, called him brother, and had the Nubian drive the cart to the enclosure he had had
made for the new spiders. It looked something like the Caliph’s, except that the roof was of timbers: expensive, yes! but not so
expensive as the miles of stout web that covered the roof of the Caliph’s little zoo. There’d be time to replace the roof with web by
and by--plowing profits back into the business, as it were.
Ali stood admiring Rashid’s handiwork as the Nubian lifted the sac of eggs and carefully deposited it in the pit. “Friend Rashid,” Ali
said, “there’s just a few things I have to tell you. First of all--”
He never finished his sentence. Rashid had passed a curved dagger of Turkish origin across his throat, severing his windpipe and
jugular in the same motion. Ali fell dead without further ado.
“Put him in the pit,” Rashid ordered the Nubian. “Let him be their first meal.”
Oh, what a pity, my friend, that Rashid did not let Ali speak his piece! For what our thief was going to say was, “First of all, never, ever
let there be more than twelve spiders in the pit at one time.” He would have gone on for hours about what he had learned as to their
care, feeding, and harvesting, but that first sentence, at least, was of paramount importance.
For, you see, one hundred and four spiders came forth from the egg sac, much to Rashid’s incredible, unlimited delight. He had the
butcher shops of all of Arabia working overtime providing him with ewe and ram and goat meat. And the spiders spun for him, oh,
indeed they did. Soon enough they were eating camel and elephant, as Rashid continued to stockpile web, waiting for the right moment
to flood the world market.
Four hundred years of practice had made it plain to the Caliph’s spider-handlers that a dozen spiders were sufficient for web
production and, more importantly, were all that men could reasonably manage. Rashid’s pit--yea, even though it was one and a half
times the size of the Caliph’s--was not big enough for one hundred and four large, active creatures. Nor could the timber roof
(recognize, please, that we of the desert are not skilled in woodworking) resist the pressure of fifty bodies or sixty, five hundred or
more strong legs, pushing against it, hanging down from it, rubbing against it. One day--nobody remembers exactly what day, but one
day--a section of the roof collapsed, leaving a gaping hole. One spider, two spiders, twenty spiders decided to go out and explore the
world around them.
They found the food plentiful and tasty. They found no natural predators, and the only competent predators (creatures like you and
me) terrified into immobility.
And so they spread. And spread. And spread.
And that, my friend, and this I swear by the beard of the Prophet, is how the world-wide web began.