'The Sultan’s Figs' | Circle Round 96

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(Sabina Hahn for WBUR)
(Sabina Hahn for WBUR)

When you need advice, what kind of advisor do you turn to?

Someone who’s honest? Trustworthy? Supportive?

In today’s story, we’ll meet an advisor who’s none of these things. And the person he’s advising — a wealthy, powerful sultan — has no idea!

Our story is called “The Sultan’s Figs.” Versions of this tale originally come from North Africa and the Middle East.

Voices in this episode include Mike DelGaudio, Shazad Latif and Anthony Rapp. Grown-ups, you can see Shazad and Anthony on the CBS All-Access series, Star Trek. You can also check out Shazad Latif in three Netflix shows — Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance, Penny Dreadful and Toast of London — plus the upcoming indie film, Falling For Figaro. Anthony Rapp has starred in dozens of Broadway plays and musicals, including Rent and If/Then, opposite Idina Menzel. He’s the author of the book, Without You: A Memoir of Love, Loss, and the Musical Rent.

Coloring Page

(Sabina Hahn for WBUR)
(Sabina Hahn for WBUR)

ADULTS! PRINT THIS so everyone can color while listening. We’re also keeping an album so share your picture on FacebookTwitterInstagram, and tag it with #CircleRound. We'd love to see it! To access all the coloring pages for past episodes click HERE. Our resident artist is Sabina Hahn and you can learn more about her HERE.

Things To Think About After Listening

The sultan was grateful to receive the basketweaver’s figs - even if it was just one fig at a time. Then, in the end, the sultan was grateful for the basketweaver himself!

What are some things or people in your life that you are grateful for?

Find a big piece of paper or posterboard, and make your very own Gratitude Quilt. First, get something to write with, and divide the paper into as many squares as you’d like — just like on a real quilt! Keep the paper somewhere handy in your home. Then, once a day, fill in a square with a picture of something or someone you’re grateful for.

Once your gratitude quilt is complete, hang it in your home, in a place where you’ll always see it. Anytime you’re feeling blue, sneak a glance at your gratitude quilt, and you’ll remember all the things you have to be thankful for.

Musical Spotlight: Oud

(Eric Shimelonis for WBUR)
(Eric Shimelonis for WBUR)

With 11 or 13 strings running up and down its short, fretless neck and gourd-shaped body, the oud is believed to have originated in Persia more than 3,500 years ago. The Arabic word “oud” translates to “stick” or “from wood”; appropriately, oud-makers use rounded strips of wood to craft the backside of the instrument, and one flat sheet of wood to create the front. Traditionally, oud players have plucked or strummed the oud’s strings with a ‘plectrum’: a long, flat pick that resembles a nail file. You can also hear Eric Shimelonis playing the oud in our season-2 story, “The Unwelcome Guest”!


NARRATOR: There once was a sultan with a fondness… for figs.

That’s right: figs!

SULTAN: Ohhhh, is there anything quite like a ripe fig...?!? So plump and sweet and juicy...?!? Mmm-mmm-mmm!!!

NARRATOR: But here’s the thing about figs. In the sultan’s part of the world, figs only ripened once a year, in the summertime. So all through the fall, winter and spring, the great ruler counted the days, hours, minutes and seconds until he could once again gobble up the luscious, succulent fruit.

One afternoon, in the cold of winter, the sultan’s guards were riding through the countryside when they came across a tiny, ramshackle hut with a fenced-in yard. Peeping out over the fence were the branches... of a fig tree. And, to the guards’ astonishment, those branches were bursting with plump, ripe figs!

The guards galloped back to the palace and told the sultan what they saw.

SULTAN: Is it true? You found a fig tree that’s actually bearing fruit? In the middle of winter? (beat) Return to that hut and come back with the person who lives there. And tell whoever it is to bring me some figs!

NARRATOR: The person who lived in the tiny ramshackle hut with the fenced-in yard was a poor basketweaver. The basketweaver was a kind, generous man who was every bit as sweet as the figs that magically grew from his tree all year long.

When the guards brought the basketweaver to the palace, the modest man pulled a plump, ripe fig from his satchel and presented it to the sultan on his throne.

BASKETWEAVER: I hope my humble fruit is to your liking, Your Highness!

NARRATOR: The sultan took the fig and gazed at it with hungry eyes. Then he popped the entire thing into his mouth.

SULTAN: (eating the fig) Ohhhh, my good fellow! This fig is delicious! Delectable! The best I’ve ever tasted! (beat) Surely you have some more…?

NARRATOR: The basketweaver blushed.

BASKETWEAVER: Actually, Your Majesty… I only brought one. (beat) You see, I may be a poor peasant who doesn’t have much... but I’m always meeting people who have even less than I do! Hungry, weary beggars often wander the countryside, and come knocking at my door, asking for food. All I can give them is one of my baskets, loaded up with figs from my tree. (beat) With all due respect, Your Excellency… I need to save my fruit for the people who truly need it.

NARRATOR: The sultan was disappointed to receive just one fig. But he was impressed by the basketweaver’s selfless generosity.

SULTAN: I tell you what, my friend. In exchange for the beautiful fig you brought me today, I will send you home with a reward. (beat) Ali!

NARRATOR: The sultan snapped his fingers, and his highest-ranking advisor came scurrying over.

ALI: Yes, Your Majesty?

SULTAN: Please go to the Royal Treasury and fetch this gentleman one bag of gold. Then bring it back here to the throne room.

NARRATOR: Ali could hardly believe his ears. The sultan wanted to give the basketweaver an entire bag of gold? For just one silly little fig?

ALI: (super-obsequious) Forgive me if I’m speaking out of turn, Your Highness… as your chief advisor I’m always happy to carry out your royal bidding… But surely a great leader like yourself deserves more than just one fig! This gentleman here has an entire tree full of figs! Why be satisfied with just one?

NARRATOR: The sultan scratched his chin. Then he gave the basketweaver a nod.

SULTAN: Ali is right. My friend… I wish to taste more of your figs, but I don’t wish to be selfish. So please, come back to the palace tomorrow, and bring me just one more fig. In exchange, I’ll send you home with one more bag of gold. Come back the next day with just one more fig, and I’ll send you home with one more bag of gold. We’ll continue on that way every single day until summer comes, and the fig trees in my royal orchard start to bear their own fruit. (beat) Ali? Get this fellow his bag of gold!

NARRATOR: Ali gritted his teeth, then grumbled off to the tower that housed the Royal Treasury.

ALI: Uch! This is preposterous! The sultan plans on giving this shabby peasant an entire bag of gold, every single day, until the summer?!! (beat) You know who deserves a bag of gold every single day? An upstanding, hard-working advisor like myself, that’s who! Not some random country bumpkin!

NARRATOR: But Ali did as the sultan requested. He fetched one bag of gold from the Royal Treasury, then handed it to the basketweaver.

ALI: (grudging) Here you go.

NARRATOR: The next day, as promised, the basketweaver brought the sultan one more fig. And, as promised, Ali handed him one more bag of gold.

ALI: (even more grudging, clenched teeth, etc.) Here you go.

NARRATOR: The next day, the basketweaver brought the sultan one more fig. And, again, Ali handed him one more bag of gold.

ALI: (even more grudging) Here you go.

NARRATOR: As time went on, the basketweaver was no longer a poor peasant — he was a rich gentleman! He was also very friendly with the sultan. Sometimes the sultan asked him to stay for tea, and sit with him in his private dining room.

Ali burned with jealousy.

ALI: Thanks to those ridiculous figs, the basketweaver is living the high life! Not only that, but look how buddy-buddy he is with the sultan! How many times has the sultan asked me to sip tea in his private dining room? I’ll tell you how many times! Zero! (beat) I must find a way to get rid of this basketweaver… to make him fall out of the sultan’s favor. And when I do… ohhhh… it’ll be sweeter than any fig. Much sweeter!

NARRATOR: What do you think Ali will do next?

We’ll find out what happens, after a quick break.


NARRATOR: Welcome back to Circle Round. I’m Rebecca Sheir. Today our story is called “The Sultan’s Figs.”

NARRATOR: Before the break, we met a kind basketweaver who had a magic tree that produced ripe figs all year long. The sultan was wild about figs, so he asked the basketweaver to bring him one fig in exchange for one bag of gold, every single day until the summer, when the figs on the sultan’s own trees would be ready to eat.

The sultan’s chief advisor was an arrogant, selfish man named Ali. And as Ali watched the basketweaver grow richer and richer… not to mention friendlier and friendlier with the sultan… the advisor became greener and greener with envy.

So he cooked up a plan.

One spring morning, as the basketweaver left the palace with yet another bag of gold, Ali came running after him.

ALI: (hatching his plan, laying it on thick) My dear fellow! Wait! Before you go, I must tell you how thankful I am for those beautiful figs of yours! Ever since that cold winter day when you brought the sultan one ripe fig from your tree, His Majesty has been very pleased — very pleased, indeed! (beat) There’s just one… problem.


NARRATOR: The basketweaver cocked his head.

BASKETWEAVER: What kind of problem?

ALI: Well... His Highness couldn’t bring himself to tell you in person, but… it’s your breath.

BASKETWEAVER: My breath?!?

NARRATOR: The basketweaver brought his palm to his nose, breathed into it, then took a whiff.

BASKETWEAVER: My breath doesn’t smell so bad to me!

ALI: Well, the sultan says it’s atrocious. Like a skunk! Like old garbage! (beat) His Majesty wishes you would do something about it... but he doesn’t wish to embarrass you.

NARRATOR: The basketweaver felt his cheeks flush.

BASKETWEAVER: I’m afraid I’m already embarrassed! (beat, getting an idea) How about if I change my diet? And I could start brushing my teeth more...?

ALI: (continuing plan, relishing this) Oh, that definitely would help… but it wouldn’t solve the problem! I suggest that when you deliver another fig tomorrow, you tie a kerchief around your face. Then, when you breathe out, you won’t offend His Majesty’s delicate nose!

NARRATOR: So the next day, when the basketweaver returned to deliver his single fig to the sultan, he wore a linen kerchief over his nose and mouth. Though the sultan was perplexed, he chose not to ask any questions.

But the moment the basketweaver left the palace, the esteemed ruler pulled his chief advisor aside.

SULTAN: Ali! When the basketweaver came in just now… why was he wearing a kerchief over his face? I found it most peculiar!

NARRATOR: Ali felt his heart flutter. His plan was working!

ALI: (laying it on thick, moving his plan forward) Well, great minds must think alike, Your Majesty, because I was thinking the very same thing! That kerchief was bizarre! (beat, continuing his plan) How about if I catch up with the basketweaver and ask him what’s what? He couldn’t have gotten far!

NARRATOR: So Ali scurried out of the palace, as if he were about to chase after the basketweaver’s carriage.

But do you think that’s what he actually did?

No way!

Instead, Ali dove behind a bush in the royal garden… and waited. After some time, he got up from his hiding place and returned to the sultan’s throne room, with a disturbed look on his face.

SULTAN: Ali! What’s wrong? Did you find the basketweaver and ask him about the kerchief?

ALI: I did, Your Majesty. But I don’t think you’re going to like what he had to say.

SULTAN: Oh, come now. How bad could it be?

NARRATOR: Ali smiled to himself. He couldn’t believe how beautifully his plan was working out!

ALI: Well, Your Greatness… The basketweaver says he is forever honored by your generosity, and your friendship. (beat) There’s just one… problem.

SULTAN: Oh...?

NARRATOR: The sultan tilted his head.

SULTAN: What sort of problem?

ALI: Well... the poor fellow couldn’t bring himself to tell you in person, but… it’s your breath.

SULTAN: My breath?!?

NARRATOR: The sultan lifted his palm to his nose, exhaled through his mouth, and took a sniff.

SULTAN: My breath smells just fine! Like the mint tea I had after lunch!

ALI: Oh, I know that, sir! But the basketweaver insists your breath is terrible. Like a farmyard! Like a sewer! He wears the kerchief over his nose and mouth so that he doesn’t have to smell you. He says without it, he would faint dead away every time you exhale!

NARRATOR: This was the moment Ali had been waiting for. Surely, the sultan would be so offended that he’d clench his royal fists, flare his royal nostrils, and banish the basketweaver from the palace… or from the entire empire!

But that’s not what happened.

Instead, the sultan was quiet for a moment. Then... instead of flying into a rage... he smiled!

SULTAN: (smiling, hatching his own plan) Oh, Ali! I am so glad we had this talk! Thanks to the basketweaver, now I know the truth. Tomorrow, when that fellow returns, I will show him my gratitude with an extra-special reward!

NARRATOR: Ali was confused.

ALI: But Your Majesty… Think about what the basketweaver said about you! Do you really want to give him a reward?

NARRATOR: The sultan’s eyes twinkled.

SULTAN: Yes! I do! (beat) And trust me, Ali — it will be a reward that he will never forget!

NARRATOR: The next morning, when the basketweaver returned with his single fig… and his white kerchief… the sultan gobbled up the fruit with more gusto than ever.

SULTAN: (eating) Incredible, my friend! It’s your finest fig yet!

NARRATOR: Ali was about to hand the basketweaver his usual bag of gold... when the sultan held up his hand.

SULTAN: No gold today, Ali. Instead, we’re going to give our friend here something extra-special!

NARRATOR: The sultan reached into his robe and pulled out a tightly-rolled scroll; it was closed with the sultan’s official seal. He handed it to the basketweaver.

SULTAN: (continuing his plan) After you leave my throne room, I want you to take this sealed letter to the Royal Treasury. Make sure the Royal Treasurer opens it, and reads it, and then... enjoy the reward!

NARRATOR: As the surprised basketweaver rushed off to the Royal Treasury, Ali was more befuddled than ever. Was the sultan actually rewarding the basketweaver with even more riches?

Well not if he got to those riches first!

Ali dashed out of the throne room and caught up to the basketweaver.

ALI: (running to catch up) Wait, my friend! Wait! That letter the sultan gave you! You must give it to me!

NARRATOR: The basketweaver whirled around, scroll in hand.

BASKETWEAVER: (confused) Give it to you...? Why?

ALI: Well…

NARRATOR: Ali’s mind raced.

ALI: (making up as he goes along) You see… given how close I am with the sultan, I happen to know exactly what that letter says! It’s an order for the Royal Treasurer to reward you with many, many riches — far more riches than your usual bag of gold! Far more!

BASKETWEAVER: That’s amazing!

ALI: (continuing his plan) Yes! It is! And I’m sorry to spoil the surprise, but I’m just thinking about your safety! Do you really want to ride your carriage all the way home with so many precious riches on board? What if someone tries to steal them? (beat) Listen. I will bring this letter to the Royal Treasury on your behalf, then I will personally deliver the sultan’s reward to your house.

NARRATOR: The basketweaver agreed, and rode his carriage back home. Meanwhile, Ali brought the sealed scroll to the Royal Treasury and handed it over with trembling hands.

The Royal Treasurer unsealed the scroll and silently began to read. Immediately, her eyes grew wide. She raised a finger, and two of the sultan’s burly guards came barreling over. They grabbed Ali by the scruff of his neck and escorted him out of the building!

ALI: Hey! What’s going on? What’s happening? Where’s my reward?

NARRATOR: Next thing Ali knew, the guards loaded him into the back of a carriage. The guards steered the carriage away from the palace, across the countryside, and all the way to a desolate mountain range at the very edge of the empire. Then they dumped Ali onto the rocky ground, and rode away.

The next morning, the basketweaver donned his linen kerchief and returned to the palace to deliver that day’s fig. When the sultan saw the basketweaver enter the room, his royal jaw dropped.

SULTAN: What are you doing here, you scoundrel?! I thought I wrote an order banishing you from the empire!!!

NARRATOR: Now it was the basketweaver’s jaw that dropped.

BASKETWEAVER: What do you mean, Your Majesty?

SULTAN: That letter I gave you! It was an order to have you banished from the empire! Immediately! The Royal Treasurer was supposed to summon the guards and have them drive you far, far away! (beat) And yet, here you are!

NARRATOR: The Sultan began looking around the throne room.

SULTAN: Where’s my chief advisor? Where’s Ali? Perhaps he knows what’s going on! Ali? Ali!

NARRATOR: The basketweaver shrugged.

BASKETWEAVER: (clueless) The last time I saw Ali, Your Majesty, he was taking your letter to the Royal Treasury for me! He was so worried about someone stealing all the riches I was getting, that he offered to pick them up himself, then personally deliver them to my house! He hasn’t delivered anything yet, but I know how busy he is, being your chief advisor and all. Right…?

NARRATOR: The sultan didn’t respond. He just stared at the basketweaver with ever-widening eyes.

BASKETWEAVER: (still clueless) Anyway, I thought that was really kind of him. And speaking of kind... it was also Ali who did me the service of finally saying something about my breath! And how bad you think it is! He even suggested I wear this kerchief, so as not to offend Your Majesty’s delicate nose!

NARRATOR: The sultan sat frozen on his throne. Suddenly, he understood everything.

This man standing before him wasn’t a “scoundrel”!


The true scoundrel was the sultan’s very own advisor! Ali!

The great ruler thought about how jealous Ali had been of the basketweaver… how much he’d coveted everything the basketweaver had. And now, the envious advisor had actually taken the basketweaver’s place! And been banished from the empire!

So... what else could the sultan do but make the swap complete? He invited the basketweaver to take Ali’s place in the palace, and become his new chief advisor! And the generous, humble man provided the fig-loving sultan with years and years of very helpful — and very fruitful — advice.


This episode was adapted for Circle Round by Rebecca Sheir. It was edited by Circle Round’s executive producer, Katherine Brewer. Original music and sound design is by Eric Shimelonis. Our artist is Sabina Hahn.

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Rebecca Sheir Host, Circle Round
Rebecca Sheir is the host "Circle Round," WBUR's kids storytelling podcast.



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