In “Story 16” in “Padeshahan,” or “Kings,” the first chapter of Sa’di’s Golestan—the stories are simply numbered; they are not given titles—the protagonist is having a hard time earning enough money to support his family. He has become so poor, in fact, that he’s begun to think about trying to find work in another country, where no one would know him and he could take whatever job might along, no matter how shameful the work might be. Before taking that last step, however, he asks the story’s narrator, who has royal connections–he is a fictionalized version of Sa’di–to get him a job in the king’s palace.
“Listen,” the narrator replies, “working for the king is a mixed blessing at best.” On the one hand, he goes on, “You will earn more money than you could otherwise hope for. On the other hand, the politics of the royal palace can cost you your life.” The risk, he concludes, is not worth the money.
What follows is a debate between the two friends about who will win out in a place like the king’s palace, someone with a clear conscience, who does his or her work honestly and with integrity, or the enemies and competitors the person with a clear conscience doesn’t yet know she or he has, the schemers who are waiting to sabotage anyone who threatens their standing even before that person starts doing her or his job.
The protagonist thinks the narrator’s cynicism is unwarranted. He says,
If you want to see your enemies embarrassed
by every slur they’ve tried to taint you with,
wear the mantle of your office modestly
and carry out your duties pure of heart.
Do this and you’ll have nothing to fear when you leave.
The king’s launderers beat against stones
only his most deeply stained garments.
In response, the narrator tells “the story of the fox who, when people asked him why he was running away from the palace, explained, “I have heard that camels are being forced into the king’s service.”
“Don’t be foolish!” they replied. “You are not a camel; you don’t look anything like a camel; how could anyone possibly mistake you for a camel?”
“Shh! Keep your voices down!” The fox looked warily from side to side, as if he might have been followed. “If my enemies tell the king’s guard that I am a camel, and the king’s guard catches me, who will dare to speak in my defense? Which guard will have the courage to trust his own eyes an release me? I would be like the man who was bitten by a cobra, waiting, while the poison worked through him, for the antidote to come from Iraq. I’d die before it reached me.”
“Stop thinking about a career in government,” the narrator concludes. “You’re better off accepting your situation as it is.”
The protagonist rejects the narrator’s advice and, as you might expect, in the end, things transpire just as the narrator predicted. One of the protagonist’s enemies accuses him of treason before the king, who does not order an investigation because he chooses to believe the accusation. Once the king’s position becomes clear, everyone who had supported the protagonist turns their backs on him and he is left even more destitute than he was when the story started.
I doubt that anyone reading this works in a royal palace, but I have no doubt that we all recognize the workplace politics that Sa’di describes. As well, I am sure we all work with people who are more like the fox than the protagonist, that we all have colleagues who could be any one of the enemies mentioned in this story, and that we’ve all had bosses like the king whose capriciousness ended the protagonist’s career. The past few years at my own job have been trying ones for a whole range of reasons, but each one would seem to bear out Sa’di’s cynicism when it comes to workplace politics. Nonetheless, despite evidence to the contrary that I have seen with my own eyes, I remain, like Sa’di’s protagonist, an optimist, though I admit this optimism might come more easily to me than to others, given that I am a tenured full-professor.
At the end of the story, Sa’di’s narrator says, basically, I told you so. “You should have listened to me when I compared working for the king to traveling the ocean [in search of treasure]. Each is simultaneously profitable and dangerous.”
Either you’ll walk to the shore with gold-filled hands
or the waves will deposit you there, dead as gold.
The protagonist took that risk and lost. What about you? Do you share his optimism? Are you a risk-taker at work? Why? Why not? Under what circumstances?