Preferred Citation: Muhawi, Ibrahim, and Sharif Kanaana. Speak, Bird, Speak Again: Palestinian Arab Folktales. Berkeley:  University of California Press,  c1989 1989.




The Woman Who Fell into the Well

Once there were some men who had been out selling, you might say, charcoal and were on their way home.[1] As they were traveling, one of them said, "God forsake you![2] By Allah, we're hungry!"

"O So-and-So!" they said. "Stop by and ask for something for us."

Stopping by a house to ask for something, he found a woman at home.[3]

"I entreat you in Allah's name, sister," he said, "if you have a couple of loaves of bread, let me have them for these cameleers. We're on the road from faraway places, and we're hungry."

"Of course," she said, and reached for the bread, giving him what Allah put within her means to give—a loaf, maybe two.

And, by Allah, on his way out of the house, he stumbled over a dog tied to a tree. Startled,[4] the man fell backwards, and behold! he ended up in a well that happened to be there. It was a dry well and held no water at all.[5]

"There is no power and no strength except in Allah!" exclaimed the woman.[6]

"O sister," the man cried out, "lower the rope and pull me out!"

Throwing him the rope, the woman started to pull him out but when he almost reached the mouth of the well her strength failed her. His weight grew too heavy for her, and she fell into the well with him.

"There is no power and no strength except in Allah!" exclaimed the man. "But don't worry, sister. By Allah's book, you're my sister!"[7] And they sat together for a while.

[1] For traveling salesmen, see Tale 4, n. 3.

[2] 'Alia yiqta`kumliterally , "May Allah cut you off, or abandon you [on the road]!" This is more an expletive than a curse.

[3] It is an accepted practice for merchant-salesmen traveling in remote villages to ask for food at private homes; people would distinguish between them and beggars.

The woman here is by herself, without male "protectors." As we have seen from Tales 10 and 35, this situation has considerable potential for complication. Cf. Tale

[4] As we find out later on in the tale, the man is startled by the dog charging him.

[5] On wells, see Tale 3, n. 4.

[6] This exclamation, la hawla wa-la quwwata illa b-illah , is used frequently, especially in situations that are beyond individual control. It is usually abbreviated, as here, to la hawla wa-la ("There is no strength and no ...").

[7] `Inti uxti fi ktab alga is a binding declaration of honorable intention, carrying the moral weight of an oath (for which, see Tale 13, n. 7; and cf. Tale 20, n.5).


Now, her brothers were seven, and with their plowman they were eight, and they were all out plowing the fields.[8] In a while the plowman showed up.

"Hey, So-and-So!" he called out. "Hey, So-and-So!" But she did not answer.

After a while, she called out from the well, "Pull me out!"

When he had pulled her and the man out, she said, "Such and such is the story, and please protect my reputation. By Allah, this man is like my brother. Protect me, and don't tell my brothers. They'll kill me. And come harvest time, when my brothers pay your wages, I'll add two measures to your share. Just don't tell on me!"

"Fine," said the plowman.

A day went and a day came, and they harvested the grain and threshed it. He took his wages, and the sister gave him extra.

"What did you do this year," asked his wife, "that So-and-So's household gave you extra?"

"By Allah," replied the man, "he who protects another's reputation, Allah will protect his reputation in turn."

"Impossible!" she insisted. "You must tell me what happened, or else you'll worship one God and I another!"

"By Allah," he said, "there was a girl who had fallen into a well with a man, and I pulled her out."

Now the wife, when she sat together with the other women, used to say, "Did you know? So-and-So—my husband pulled her out of the well, and she had a man with her!"

This woman told that one, and so on, until her brothers got hold of the news.

"We must kill her," they said.[9]

The girl, catching on to their intentions, ran away at night. Eventually she came to a tent, and lo! there was a young man in this tent, living together with his mother. They let her stay with them, and the mother would bring food in to her.[10]

Now, the man was a bachelor, and his mother said, "Son, by Allah,

[8] On plowing, see Tale 26, n. 6.

[9] See Tale 28, n. 3.

[10] A Bedouin tent (šaq ) is usually divided by a curtain separating the women's quarters from the men's. The curtain can be lifted when there are no strangers around. See Jaussen, Moab : 75.


this girl has filled my eye. She's very nice, and I'd like to approach her for you."[11]

"Yes, mother," he said. "If you want me to marry her, speak with her."

"O So-and-So!" said the mother. "What do you think? My son—I

have no one but him. What do you say to my marrying you to him?"

"I'll marry him," the girl replied.

She married him. After that, she became pregnant and gave birth to a boy whom she called Maktub. Then she became pregnant again and delivered, giving birth to a girl whom she called Kutbe. Again she became pregnant and delivered, giving birth to a boy whom she cared Mqaddar.[12]

Meanwhile, her brothers were roaming the countryside looking for her. One day, coming by where she was, they said, "By Allah, it's getting late, and we'd like to take shelter with you for the night." (See how destiny works!) After they came in and sat down, their host prepared them the dinner which Allah placed within his means, and they ate. The father kept saying, "Come here, Maktub! Go over there, Kutbe!" The whole time it was like that, "Kutbe this, Maktub that, and Mqaddar this!"[13]

As they were sitting after dinner, they said, "Let us tell of our adventures."[14] Then they said, "The first tale's on the host."

"All right," he said. "I'd like to tell you about what happened to me in my time. Where are you folks from?"

"By Allah," they answered, "you might say we're from the hills around Hebron."

"By Allah," he said, "I had an adventure when I was a young man of twenty."

"Please proceed!" they said.[15]

"By Allah," he began his tale, "we were salesmen, traveling in your

[11] This detail clearly illustrates the mother's role in the marriage of her son. See Tale 21, n. 13.

[12] We note (as in Tales 10, 22, 32, and 35) the ratio of two males to one female. The children's names, Maktub, Kutbe, and Mqaddar, are all variations on the theme of fate, and are not used in actuality. The first means "that which is written"; the second refers to the writing itself (fate); and the third means "that which is decreed." See Tale 7, n. 9.

[13] The father here is obviously proud of his children and intent on showing them off to his guests.

[14] The word translated here as "adventure," xurrafiyye , could also mean "folktale," but the setting and the host's tale make it obvious that the narration of stories of personal adventure, or memorates (nahfat, nawadir, sawlif, xararif ), is intended.

[15] For "Please proceed!" (tfaddal ), see Tale 17, n. 8.


part of the country. One day we were hungry. 'So-and-So!' said my companions, 'Stop off and beg a few loaves for us.' By Allah, I stopped by this girl—May Allah protect her reputation! 'For the sake of Allah, sister,' I begged, 'if you can spare us a couple of loaves of bread! We're camel drivers, and we're traveling.' By Allah, reaching for some loaves of bread, that noble woman[16] handed them to me and said, 'Brother, make sure to sidestep the trunk of that tree. There's a dog tied to it, and it might charge you. Take care not to fall into the well.' And by Allah, folks, she hadn't even finished her words of warning, when the dog rushed at me. And he no sooner attacked than I was startled and fell into the well."

Now the plowman, who was traveling with them, said, "I must go out. I have to peel"

"No!" her brothers responded. "Don't go out until the host finishes his tale."

"By Allah," continued their host, "when I fell into the well, a girl looked in and said, 'There is no power and no strength except in Allah. There's no one here who can pull you out.' Her brothers were seven and with the plowman they were eight, and they were all out in the fields. 'For the sake of Allah, sister,' I begged her, 'lower the rope and pull me up!' And, by Allah, that decent woman—May Allah protect her honor!—dangled a rope down and started to pull me up, but when I was almost to the mouth of the well my weight was too much for her and she fell into the well with me."

The plowman again said, "I want to go pee," but her brothers answered, "Sit!"

"By Allah," the host went on, "who should show up but the plowman? 'Here I am!' she said, after he had called to her. Lowering a rope, he pulled her out. 'Brother,' she pleaded with him, 'such and such is the story.' "

Now she herself was listening. Where? In the tent she sat, listening to her husband's tale.

"I have to go take a shit!" said the plowman.

"Sit!" the brothers said. "Wait till the host tells his tale!"

"By Allah, friends," continued the host, "the man pulled us out, and I came this way."

[16] Bint il-halal , for which see Tale 14, n. 2.


No sooner had he said that than she burst out with a ululation[17] from behind the divider in the tent, and then came in to where they were sitting and said, "You're my brother, and you're my brother."

"You," exclaimed the brothers, "are here!"

"Here I am," she answered, "and I've called my children Maktub, Kutbe, and Mqaddar."

The bird has flown, and a good night to all!

The Rich Man and the Poor Man

Once upon a time there were two sisters, married to two brothers, one very, very rich, and the other very, very poor.[1] One day the sister married to the poor one went to visit the wife of the rich one and found her preparing stuffed cabbage leaves for dinner. She sat on the doorstep, but her rich sister did not say to her, "Come in, sister, and sit down inside."[2] When she brought the cabbage out of the boiling water, the rich sister gave the ribs of the leaves to her children but did not say, "Here, sister,

[17] Ululation (zagrute ; pl., zagarit ) is a high-pitched, euphonious trilling sound made by Arab women on joyous occasions.

[1] This combination of sisters married to brothers is fairly common and highly desired, especially among first cousins, the assumption being that two first cousins are better than one. Frequently, in-laws decide they like the first sister and decide to bring a younger sister into the family as well by marrying her to another son. Sometimes a woman marries the eldest son and, if her mother-in-law is dead, may take charge of the family and bring in her sister; or, if the father-in-law is dead, she may prevail on her husband to wed his younger brother to her sister in order to avoid having a stranger for a sister-in-law (silfe ; pl., salafat ). For a discussion of the relationship among the wives of brothers, and for comments relevant to this tale, see the section on salafat in the Introduction ("The Tales and the Culture").

Concerning the hostility that is presumed to exist among salafat , Granqvist quotes the following ditty, which lumps sisters-in-law together with co-wives: lelt is-silfe, asbahit mixtilfe / lelt iz-zurra, asbahit minzarra ("The morning after the sister-in-law [came into the house], I woke up feeling out of sorts / The morning after the co-wife [came into the house], I woke up feeling harmed"); see Marriage II: 186-187.

On rivalry and jealousy between sisters, see afterword to Group 1, "Siblings"; and Tale 12, n. 6. The situation here is exacerbated by the wealth of the one sister and the poverty of the other.

[2] The teller is concerned to show the cruelty of the rich sister, who does not invite her own sister in, even though Palestinian custom requires that food be shared with a pregnant woman in a state of craving. See nn. 4, 5, below.


take some and eat them." Putting her head in her hands, the poor one sank deep into thought.

"What are you doing, sister?" she asked.

"My husband has brought me cabbage and meat," replied the sister, "and I'm going to stuff the cabbage leaves for the children to eat."[3]

Now the wife of the poor brother had recently become pregnant, and she craved the food. When she smelled the cabbage, she sighed.[4] "Alas!" she thought in her heart. "Would that I had even one of those cabbage ribs to eat!"[5] But she was ashamed to say anything to her sister. She sat and sat, and then prepared to leave, but the other did not say, for example, "Stay, sister, until the cabbage leaves are done so you can have some"; or, "Stay and have lunch with us." She did not say anything.

The wife of the poor man went straight home to her husband. "My man," she said, "we must buy some cabbage and make stuffed cabbage leaves for the children. And, by Allah, I too have a craving for it. I was visiting my sister, and she didn't say to me, 'Take this and eat it, even if it is only a rib of cabbage.'"

Her husband was employed by the vizier. "Very well," he said. "I'11 save my wages for the whole week, and we'll buy cabbage and meat. You prepare the meal, and we'll invite the vizier to have dinner with us."

He saved his money for a week and bought a kilogram and a half of

[3] Stuffed cabbage (malfuf ) is one of the most popular of Palestinian dishes. The description of its preparation is abbreviated in the tale. The cabbages are first boiled and then separated into leaves from which the ribs are removed. The boiled ribs are popular as snacks for the children while the meal is being cooked, or they may be inserted under or among the rolled leaves in the saucepan. The stuffing consists of minced lamb, rice, ghee, and condiments (salt, black pepper, and turmeric and/or cumin), and whole doves of peeled garlic are added among the stuffed leaves. Stuffed cabbage, when cooking, has a characteristic aroma.

[4] Granqvist discusses cravings in Birth : 38-43. Regarding smell, she says, "The same woman had once cooked something which gave a very strong smell and then a woman relative said to her, 'Do not forget! In the next house dwells such and such a woman and she is in a certain condition thou must give her some of the food!' She at once took some down to her" (p. 42). See Tale 2, n. 2; and Footnote Index, s.v. "Craving."

[5] "In general," says Granqvist, "if a person cannot satisfy his desire for a special food this harms him. If he can see the food, it is also harmed and in that way they who eat of it. People are afraid to eat food which another has longed for. They say that his soul is in it" (Birth : 43). So also, Canaan: "Bis zum heutigen Tage zeigt der weitverbreitete Sprachge-brauch die selbständige Wirkung der bösen Seele; manfus = er ist beseelt; nafsuh fiha = seine Seele ist darin (= er wünscht es)" ("Dämonenglaube": 43). Cf. our note on the evil eye, Tale 19, n. 4.


meat, a kilogram and a half of rice, and some cabbages. She stuffed the cabbage leaves and cooked them, and dinner was ready. Because they were inviting the vizier, they borrowed a mattress from one neighbor, a cushion from another, and plates and cutlery from others.[6]

When the vizier arrived in their hut, they seated him on the mattress, while the husband sat next to him on a straw mat and she sat in front of them, serving the stuffed cabbage leaves. Before she was aware of what she had done, and in spite of herself, she farted.[7] "Yee!" she cried out, "may my reputation be ruined! And I had to do this in front of the vizier. Earth, open up and swallow me!" The earth, so the story goes, opened up and swallowed her.

Down under the surface of the earth she went, and where did she find herself but in a souk bustling with shops and people. It was a whole world, just like the souk in Acre or even a little bigger.[8] Now, her husband and the vizier did not know where she had gone. They waited and waited, but when she did not come back, they served the stuffed cabbages and ate them. Then the vizier went home.

Meanwhile, the wife went around the marketplace. "Has anyone seen my fart?" she asked. "Tell me the truth, brother! Haven't you seen my fart?"

"What fart, sister?" people answered. "Folks must be crazy where you come from." A group gathered around her, and she told them what had happened, from the beginning to the end. "By Allah, dear aunt," they said, "you are right to be looking for it," and they all, the police and the townspeople, went searching around with her. "Who has seen the fart?" they cried out. "Who has seen the fart?"

"Here I am!" he answered, surprising them. And how did they find

[6] The reciprocity described here is typical of life in Palestinian villages. People often borrow mattresses and bedding, particularly when they have an important guest; frequently the donors come and offer their help without being asked, as in Tale 35 (see n. 7).

[7] Breaking wind in public is extremely embarrassing, for both men and women. If a man were to do it in a public gathering, he would subsequently avoid the place where it happened and the people who were then present. This subject seems to be popular for gossip and humorous entertainment. A popular tale has it that a king once broke wind in assembly. Mortified, he left the country—but on returning forty years later, he discovered that people still remembered the incident.

[8] Acre, formerly the administrative and commercial center of the northern district, is, like Jerusalem, a walled town, with meandering souks inside it. For more detail, see Tale 23, n. 4; Tale 24, n. 2.


him but sitting in a care with his legs crossed like an effendi, all bathed and wearing a cashmere suit with a fez on his head.[9] Gathering around him, they started to blame him for what he had done. "How could you have done what you did to this poor woman?" they said. "You escaped against her will, and embarrassed her in front of the vizier."

"I was pressed tight inside her, utterly uncomfortable," he defended himself. "Now that I've escaped, I've bathed and dressed up, and I'm having a great time. Why not?"

"All right," they said, "now that you've done what you did and blackened this woman's name, how will you compensate her?"

"Her reward," he answered, "will be that every time she opens her mouth to say something, a piece of gold will fall from it. And you, sister," he added, "just say, 'Let the earth open and bring me up!' and it will happen."

"Let the earth open and bring me up!" she said, and behold! gold fell from her mouth, and the earth opened and brought her back up. It was early evening, and her husband was sitting at home. "What happened to you, dear wife? Where did you go? What did you do?" As she was telling her story, pieces of gold were falling from her lips.

She went and bought a rosary and recited prayers of praise to Allah. Gold was falling from her mouth the whole time. They became very, very rich.

"Right now," she said to her husband, "this very moment, you must buy us a house like a king's, complete with servants, slaves, and furniture!"

Before twenty-four hours had passed, her husband had already bought her a mansion to vie with the king's palace, all furnished and with servants. It is said she put on clothes just like those of the king's wife, living in her mansion with servants all around her.

[9] Fezzes were a common headdress for men during the time of the Ottoman empire, especially in cities among the upper and professional classes. The more familiar Palestinian headdress, the hatta (kuffiyya ) and the i`gal , came into prominence during the revolution of 1936, with the rise of Palestinian nationalism.

Cashmere (gabani ) is a cloth woven with "silk and woolen thread. It has a white background, with gold, black, red, and yellow threads running through it. it was popular at the beginning of this century for the manufacture of abas and headdresses (`imam )." See Kanaana et al., Al-Malabis : 330.

The "suit" referred to here is not a Western-style suit, with trousers and a jacket, but rather formal village dress, which consisted of the flowing robe (qumbaz ), worn over long cotton pantaloons (sirwal ), gathered in at the middle with a leather belt, and covered with the (cashmere) aba.


When a few days had passed, the rich brother's wife remembered her sister. "Yee!" she said, "my poor sister was craving food and came to visit, and I didn't offer her even one bite of the stuffed cabbage. There are still some scrapings left at the bottom of the pot, and, by Allah, I'm going to take them to her myself." Scraping the bottom of the pot, she put what she found on a plate. When she arrived at her sister's old shack, she found someone else living there. She asked about her sister, and they said to her, "Where have you been? You sister has bought a house fit for a king, and now she's living in it."

Taking the plate of scraps over to the new house, she knocked on the door. A servant and some slaves appeared. "What do you want?" they asked.

"I want to see my sister," she answered.

"Wait till we ask our mistress," they said.

"By Allah, dear sister," she said when she came in, "I forgot to invite you to eat when you were visiting us, and now I've brought you a plateful of stuffed cabbage."

"No! No!" replied the other sister, "take the food home with you. Thank you very much, and may Allah increase your blessings!" She called her servants and said, "Fill silver plates full of every kind of food in the kitchen, put them on a large silver platter, and send it home with her. Take it over yourselves!"

"For the sake of Allah," the visitor asked, "what did you do to get all this?"

"Such and such happened to me," replied her sister.

As soon as she arrived home, the wife of the rich man told her husband the story she had just heard. "Right now," she said, "immediately, you will invite the vizier and bring the ingredients for stuffed cabbage, and I'll do as my sister did."

"Listen, wife!" said the husband, "Allah has blessed us with more than we need. We are content in our life, and we don't need anything more. Your sister was a poor woman, may God help her! Why don't you just forget about all this?"

"No!" insisted the wife. "You must invite the vizier."

So he went and bought the makings for stuffed cabbage leaves and invited the vizier. The vizier came to dinner, and she sat in front of them to serve the food. She pressed and squeezed in order to fart, putting so much pressure on herself that she forced out a little fart. "Let the earth


open up and swallow me!" she exclaimed, and the earth opened and swallowed her.

She went down below, only to find it nighttime, with rain falling and the streetlamps all out. How miserable it was all around!

"Yee!" she thought, "may my reputation be ruined! What have I done?" She walked around the streets, reeling in the darkness and the rain. People meeting her would ask, "What's the matter with you, aunty? Where are you going, aunty?"

"I'm looking for the fart," she would answer.

"What fart, aunty?" they asked, and she said, "Such and such happened to me." She told them her story.

As before, they all went asking about, until they heard him. "Here I am!" he squeaked. They found him, you might say, taking shelter from the rain in a dank animal pen, all wrapped up in a piece of coarse cloth and shivering from the cold. "Who wants me?" he asked. "What do you want from me?"

"Such and such you did to this poor woman!" they blamed him. "Why did you embarrass her in front of the vizier?"

"I was sitting inside her, warm and happy," he answered, "and she kept pressing and squeezing till she forced me out against my will, to fend for myself in this cold darkness."

"Very well. How then are you going to compensate her?"

"Her reward," he replied, "will be that every time she opens her mouth to say something, snakes and scorpions will spring from it and bite her."

No sooner had she said, "Let the earth open and take me back up!" than snakes and scorpions sprang from her mouth and bit her. When she was by her husband's side, he asked, "Well, what did you do?"

"I neither did nor found anything," she answered. She was telling her take while snakes and scorpions fell from her mouth and bit her until she died.

"You got what you deserved," said her husband then. "May you never rise again!"

He went and married another woman, happy to be rid of his first wife.


Ma`ruf the Shoemaker

Once there was a shoemaker—a poor man with his wife and children, just like the son of Yusif il-Xatib, who is new to the craft.[1] All day he mended shoes—save the listeners!—so he could make two or three piasters and buy bread for his children.[2] I mean, he was making ends meet. One day his wife said to him, "You know, husband, I have a strong craving for knafe .[3] It's a long time since we've had it, and we want you to bring us a platter full of knafe with honey."[4]

"Wife," he asked, "how are we going to do that?"

"I don't know how," she answered, "but get it you must!"

Every day the poor man saved a piaster or two until in a week or two he had saved thirty, forty piasters and gone to the market, where he bought her a platter of knafe . Carrying it along, he brought it home and gave it to her. But when she tasted it and found it was made with sugar rather than honey, she took hold of the platter and tossed the knafe out.

"I told you I wanted a platter of knafe with honey, not with sugar syrup!" she complained.

Now, Ma`ruf, he was short-tempered, and he became furious. Reaching for the stick, he set to beating her, turning her this way and that until the stick was broken. Out she came running, and she went straight to the cadi to bring her case against her husband. The cadi sent after Ma`ruf, and he came and found her there.[5]

"Why, my son," asked the judge, "do you beat your wife and insult her? And why don't you satisfy her needs?"

"Your excellency," answered Ma`ruf, "may Allah give you long life! I'm a poor man. My condition's such and such, and my occupation's such

[1] Yusif il-Xatib is a shoemaker in the village. When addressed directly, a young person with no children is usually referred to by has or her first name. in third person reference, however, it is common to use the kunya form, "son of ..." (ibin ) or "daughter of ..." (bint ). In either case, circumstances determine whether the name of the father or that of the mother is used, but use of the former is more frequent for both genders.

[2] "... shoes—save the listeners!" (heša s-sam`in )—for which, see Tale 15, n. 8.

[3] Knafe is a famous Palestinian dessert made from sheep's milk cheese (see Tale 13, n. 2), over which finely shredded dough is placed. After baking, sugar syrup (or honey) is poured over the still-hot dough, and the dessert is served warm.

[4] For honey, see Tale 1, n. 5.

[5] The judge here (qadi , anglicized as "cadi") is a magistrate who interprets Islamic law (šari`a ) and renders judgment according to it. Cf. Tale 14, n. 3. The term qadi also refers to civil court judges.


and such. She asked for a platter of knafe , and for two weeks I scrimped until I was able to save its price. I went to the market, bought it for her, and brought it home, but when she tasted it and found it was made with sugar she said she didn't want it. So she took it and threw it out."

"It's all right, son," said the cadi. "Here's half a pound! Go buy her a platter of knafe , and make peace between you!"

The judge made peace between them, giving them the half-pound, and they went to the market and Ma`ruf bought his wife the platter of knafe . Giving it to her to carry, he said, "Go!" She went home, and he stayed behind.

"By Allah!" he swore, "no longer am I even going to stay in the same country where this woman is to be found?

He stayed away till sunset, then found a ruined house where he leaned against a wall and waited for daylight so he could run away. And, by Allah, while he was inside the house, toward morning he felt a giant come upon him before he even knew what it was.

"What are you doing here?" asked the giant.

"By Allah," answered Ma`ruf, "I'm running away from my wife, and I want to get as far away as possible."

"Where do you want to go?"

"I want to go to Egypt."

Reaching for him, the giant, who was from the jinn, picked him up and set him down in Egypt. Earlier he was in Damascus, but before day broke he was in Egypt. Now, he used to have a neighbor in Damascus called `All who had since moved to Egypt, where Allah had blessed him and he was now a big merchant. As Ma`ruf was wandering about early in the morning, people saw him. He was a stranger, they could tell.

"Where arc you from, uncle?"

"From Damascus."

"When did you leave Damascus?"

"I left this morning," he answered, "and I arrived this morning."

"Crazy man, crazy man, crazy man!" they shouted, gathering behind him and clapping. "Crazy man, crazy man!" they taunted him, following him around, until they passed in front of the merchant `Ali's. Looking carefully at Ma`ruf, `Ali recognized him. He chased away the boys following him and called him over.

"Come here!" he said, although Ma`ruf had not yet recognized his old neighbor. "Where are you from?"


"I'm from Damascus."

"When did you come from Damascus?"

"I left this morning."

"What!" exclaimed `Ali, "You left Damascus this morning, and you're now here in Egypt! Are you crazy? By Allah, those boys were right to follow you around. Don't you recognize me?"


"Do you remember you used to have a neighbor in Damascus called `Ali?"


"I'm your neighbor `Ali."

"You're `Ali!"

"Yes, I'm `Ali. Come with me."

He went and bought Ma`ruf a suit of clothes, a fez, and (saving your honors!) a pair of shoes. He also bought him socks and fitted him out properly. It was as if Ma`ruf had taken a different shape. He was quite a sight now! And on top of all that, `Ali gave him a hundred pounds.[6]

"Take this hundred pounds," he said, "and spend from it until you're able to find some kind of work. And if anyone should ask you, don't say, 'I left Damascus this morning and arrived here this morning.' Say you're a merchant, and you came ahead of your merchandise, which is following you by sea." He wanted to make Ma`ruf look important. Giving him the hundred pounds, he said, "Take this, and go in Allah's safe keeping!"

Ma`ruf went on his way. Upon meeting Šafi`, he would give him some money.[7] When he met another person, he would give him some money. "Where are you from, uncle?" people would ask.

"I'm from Damascus."

"What are you doing here in Egypt?"

"By Allah," he would answer, "I'm a merchant, and I arrived ahead of my merchandise, which is following me by sea."

"What's this?" people wondered, seeing him squander his money. "We've never seen anything on this scale before. What a generous man! If he weren't really an important merchant, he wouldn't be throwing money around like this!"

His reputation spread, and when he had used up the hundred pounds

[6] For "pound" (lera ), see Tale 5, n. 16. On neighbors, see Tale 34, n. 7; and on mutual cooperation, see Tale 35, n. 7; Tale 43, n. 6.

[7] For Šafi`, the raconteur, see Introduction ("The Tellers").


he came to another merchant and borrowed two thousand, saying, "I'll pay you back when my merchandise arrives."

Again he went around, casting his money like seeds, distributing it among the poor. Whomever he met, he would just reach in and give him a handful, until the money was gone. He then went to another merchant and borrowed four thousand, distributing it the same way. What a reputation he achieved! Whichever way he turned, people said, "The merchant Ma`ruf! The merchant Ma`ruf! What a merchant this is, Who just appeared in our country! We've never seen, we've never heard of anyone so great."

Who heard about him? The king. And the king had a daughter—you should see that daughter!

"Councillor!" he called.

"What do you want, O Ruler of the Age?" asked the vizier.

"A merchant has arrived in our country, the like of whom we've never heard of or seen. He's made the city rich with the money he's distributed, and his merchandise has yet to arrive. He's come here ahead of his goods. I want to send after him and invite him to dinner, and I want to marry my daughter to him. This way we'll gain him and his merchandise. What do you think?"

"Yes, O Ruler of the Age!" answered the vizier. "This is your business. Who am I to raise objections?"

"Go see him," said the king, "and say to him, 'You're invited, and you must have dinner with the king.'"

The vizier went, searched for him, and found him.

"Mr. Merchant Ma`ruf!" he said.


"The king sends you his greetings, and says your dinner tonight will be with him."

"Of course," answered Ma`ruf. "Why not? Am I too good for the king?"

Pulling himself together, he went to the king, who had prepared him a table—brother, what a spread! They turned their attention to it and ate dinner. Everything was just fine.[8] They brought desserts. Anyway, they ate till they had had enough. After they had finished, washed, and sat down, the king said, "You know, Merchant Ma`ruf."

[8] W-ib-aman illah —literally, "They were in the peace of mind (or contentment) provided by Allah."


"Yes?" answered Ma`ruf.

"I want you to be my son-in-law," said the king. "I want to give you my daughter in marriage. What do you say?"

Ma`ruf mused over this, then he said, "O Ruler of the Age, would anyone hate to be the king's son-in-law?"

"Councillor," said the king. "Call the official here!"[9]

The vizier called the cadi. A marriage contract for the king's daughter was drawn up, and the king prepared a feast for them.[10] He bought her a handsome trousseau, vacated one of his palaces, and brought Ma`ruf in to her. After they had been together as man and wife, the king said to his son-in-law, "This is the treasure chest of the kingdom, you can take what you want. And this money lying outside the chest is for you to spend as you like. You can replace it when your merchandise arrives." And so saying, he handed him the key to the treasury.

Now, brothers, every morning Ma`ruf would visit with the king, stay awhile, then go up and fill his pockets with money, which he distributed in the city before coming back home. This went on for ten, fifteen, twenty days, till the money outside the chest was gone. Reaching for the treasury then, Ma`ruf opened it and gave away from that money too.

By the time the king had realized his mistake the treasury was nearly empty, and the money outside it had already vanished.

"My vizier," said the king, "save me!"

"The owner saves his own property, O Ruler of the Age!" replied the vizier. "What happened?"

"This man has squandered all the spare money outside the treasury, and now even it is nearly empty. It's already been two months, and we haven't seen his merchandise or anything else. We're afraid he's a liar. What have we gotten ourselves into?"

"By Allah, it's not my fault," said the vizier.

"And now, what are we to do?" insisted the king.

"By Allah, O Ruler of the Age," answered the vizier, "no one can expose a man better than his wife. To your daughter, then!"

Sending for her, the king said, "Daughter, the situation is such and

[9] The official referred to here is the ma'zun , whom the qadi (see n. 5. above) authorizes to oversee the legal aspect of the marriage ceremony, such as the signing of the contract. See n. 10, below.

[10] For a discussion of the marriage contract, see Granqvist, Marriage II:23-29; and for the wedding feast, ibid. 14-23. Jaussen gives a brief description of the complete wedding ceremony in Naplouse : 67-84.


such, and we're afraid your husband may be a liar. Why don't you sound him out and see if he really does have goods coming or not, then send me word?"

"Fine," she said, and went home.

That evening, after visiting with the king, Ma`ruf went home. His wife became coy with him, teasing him with questions: "By Allah, cousin, when's your merchandise arriving?" and "What's become of it?" and "How ..." She kept up this coyness until he fell for her trick and chuckled.

"What's the matter?" she asked.

"By Allah," he answered, "I don't have any merchandise or anything else. I'm a poor man whose life story is such and such," and he told her his story.

"What" she exclaimed.

"By Allah," he replied, "I've told it to you as it is."

"What can I say to you?" she answered. "We've been together as man and wife, and it would be a shame for me to betray you. But if my father were to find out, what might he not do to you? You tricked him, took his daughter, and spent his money. And even if my father doesn't kill you, those merchants whose money you took will do so. So, better get up! Let's go!"

Going down to the stable, she made a horse ready for him, putting provisions in the saddlebags. "Take care," she added, "not to stay in this country, where someone may bring up your name. Wherever they hear of you, they'll want to kill you. If my father asks me in the morning, I'll say, 'He got news of his merchandise and had to go see about it.' As for you, run as fast as you can! Beware of staying in this country!"

What was Ma`ruf to do? Mounting the horse, he sped out of there. Brother, he stayed here one day and there another until he had been going for Allah knows how long. One day his provisions ran out, and hunger pricked him. Traveling on a road by a village, he saw a farmer planting the fields below the village and parallel to the road.[11] As he passed by him, he greeted him, "Hello!"

"Welcome!" answered the farmer.

"O uncle," he asked, "would you happen to have a loaf of bread for

[11] The setting described here fits the villages discussed in Tale 5, n. 14; Tale 17, n. 7; Tale 26, n. 11. On plows and plowmen, see Tale 26, n. 6; Tale 40, n. 1.


me to eat?" Ma`ruf was something to look at! Seeing a man with royal robes, a horse, and a saddle—it was like another world to the farmer, and he said, "Yes, brother. Stop by and honor me with your presence."[12]

When Ma`ruf joined him, the plowman halted his team, took his rough cloak,[13] spread it on a rock, and said, "Sit down here until I go bring you some food. My house is right over there." Going up to his house, he said to his wife, "Woman, such and such is the story. Make us a bit of lentil soup and crumble some bread into it!" Ah! What was he to do? That was all he had.[14] His wife was lively, and she made the food quickly.

Meanwhile, Ma`ruf said to himself, "This poor man—I've held up his work. I might as well get up and help him out with the team until he comes back with the food." Taking hold of the plow, he shouted at the animals. He plowed a furrow, and in the course of the second the plow hit against something. He prodded the animals with the goad, and they pulled against the root that snagged the plow. And behold! it gave way to a door leading to a tunnel. Stopping the team, Ma`ruf went down into the tunnel. And what, my dears, did he find but sealed pots full of money! Seeing a ring by the mouth of one of the jars, he took it up. Now, the ring was dirty and covered with dust, and he wanted to wipe it off, but no sooner had he done like this with it than a being shook himself up.

"Your servant, master!" he said. "Order and wish, and it will be done!"

This being was the jinni residing in the ring.

"I want all this treasure outside," said Ma`ruf, "loaded on mules and camels."

No sooner had he said this than it was all outside, loaded on camels and mules.

"I want a hundred camels loaded with cloth," continued Ma`ruf. "I want a hundred mules loaded with sugar. I want this, I want that. I want gold, I want precious stones. I want soldiers. I want, and I want ..."

Now, that poor plowman—he had barely come down with the food

[12] On the verb tfaddal ("stop by and honor me with your presence"), see Tale 17, n. 8.

[13] The bišt resembles an aba in shape and general structure, except that it is made of hand-spun wool thread. Formerly worn by poor people, by fellahin at work, and by shepherds during the winter season, it is no longer in use. See Kanaana et al., Al-Malabis : 214, 303.

[14] The raconteur, Šsafi`, who is himself a farmer like the one described here, apologizes for the man because lentil soup is humble fare and would not be offered to guests if other food were available; cf. Tale 26, n. 12.


when he looked, and behold! he saw a king with his army. It was as if all hell had broken loose. Eh! Eh! He took one step back and one forward, but Ma`ruf, seeing him, called him over. "Come, come!" he said, "Bring me that tray!" Putting the tray in front of him, he ate the food, then he scooped handfuls of gold into the tray until he had filled it. After that he turned around and marched in front of his merchandise, dear brothers, till he reached his father-in-law's territory.

In the morning, the king sent for his daughter.

"So, daughter?" he asked.

"By Allah, father," she answered, "the other night while we were sleeping word came that the merchandise was on its way, and he went to pick it up."

Eh! How pleased was the king! The poor daughter, on the other hand, was only trying to let her husband escape so no one could catch and kill him.

Meanwhile, Ma`ruf, as he approached his father-in-law's domain, sent a messenger out to let the king know his son-in-law was on his way with the goods.

Gathering the army and his cabinet, the king came out to receive his son-in-law. And behold! What a shipment it was, my dears! Look, it was like asking for what you want with your own tongue. Whatever you could possibly want was to be found there.

Coming into the city, Ma`ruf paid back four thousand pounds to those from whom he had taken two, and eight thousand to those who had given him four. The rest he sent away for keeping in his father-in-law's storehouses—the gold in one room, the jewelry in another, the rice here, the sugar there, the goods, the cloth ... It was like the end of the world! He filled the whole place with goods.

"See, my vizier!" said the king. "Didn't I tell you!"

The vizier was a shrewd man; nothing was lost on him.[15] "This couldn't be mere merchandise," he thought. "So many diamonds, and so much gold! Something isn't right here!" Now, in the course of his evening visits with the king and his son-in-law, the vizier spied the ring and recognized what it was.

"O Ruler of the Age!" he said, "By Allah, we're bored, and we'd like to have a party in the orchard, just for me and you and the merchant

[15] "Shrewd man," ibin haram , is literally "illegitimate son" (hence, "bastard"), the opposite of ibin halal (cf. Tale 14, n. 2). For the vizier, see Tale 5, n. 9.


Ma`ruf, your son-in-law. Let's take food and drink with us, and have a good time entertaining ourselves together."

"Yes, my vizier," responded the king, "why not?"

The next day the king spoke with his son-in-law. What was he to say? He accepted. But his wife, the king's daughter, saw the ring and recognized it. "Why don't you give me this ting?" she asked. "Leave it here with me."

"No," said Ma`ruf.

"Listen to me," she repeated, "and leave the ring with me. Here, give it to me right now, and let me keep it."

"No," he said again, refusing to give it to her.

By Allah, brothers, the following day they prepared themselves, taking servants with them who carried the things down to the orchard and left. Only the king, his son-in-law, and the vizier remained. The vizier acted as their servant. After they had eaten and were content, he served the king and his friend with wine, "Your cup! Your cup!" My dears, he kept pouting wine and giving to them to drink until they fell over. They were both finished—the king and his son-in-law. And no sooner had they fallen over—no sluggard he!—than the vizier snatched the ring from the man's finger and rubbed it.

"Your servant, master! Order and wish, and it will be done!"

"I want you to dump these two behind the mountain called Qaf," ordered the vizier.[16]

Taking them up, the jinni hauled them away. Meanwhile, as soon as he had gotten rid of them, the vizier went home. When did he go? In the evening. And where did he straightaway go? To the palace of the king's daughter. He wanted her. Of course, he wanted to have control of the kingdom and everything else there. But the moment she saw him coming back by himself the girl knew what had happened. She was a clever

one.[17] And when he called on her, she opened for him.

"Where are my father and my husband?" she asked.

"What do you need your father and your husband for?" he replied. "Don't even bring them up! I'm now king, and I'm also your husband."

"Did you really get rid of them?"

"They're indeed gone?

[16] In Islamic cosmology this mountain, the jabal qaf , surrounds the terrestrial universe.

[17] For "clever one" (mal`une ), see Tale 15, n. 12. Interestingly, much harsher terminology is used for the vizier (see n. 15, above).


"I was only looking for the truth," she said. "I want the truth. Will I find anyone better than you? I wanted to be rid of them anyway. Welcome, welcome!"

Brother, she became all-welcoming for him. "One hundred welcomes!" she said again.

"By Allah," he said, "this is the most blessed hour."

Receiving him with more welcomes, she brought out whatever food she had prepared for her husband and her father and served him with her own hands. And brother, how important she made him feel! After they had finished dinner and eaten fruits and desserts, they spent some time chatting with each other and feeling contented. Then it was time for sleep, and the vizier took off his clothes and lay in bed, saying, "Take off your clothes."[18] Removing some of her clothes, but leaving on a nightgown, she lay down next to him, but when he reached out his hand to touch her she jumped up.

"What's the matter?" he asked.

"What's the matter with you?" she replied. "You want to sleep here, but don't you know that a spirit resides in your ring. Take it off right now and leave it on that table over there! Tomorrow morning you can put it back on, but now it would be a shame. It's forbidden."

All that and I don't know what else, until he said, "By Allah, you're right." And going over to the table, he left the ring there and came back to bed, again lying down next to her. But no sooner did he reach for her than up she jumped again.

"What's the matter now?" he asked.

"We forgot to lock the door," she replied. "I want to get up and lock it. Someone might walk in on us."

Then she went straight to the table on her way to the door, took hold of the ring, and rubbed it.

"Your servant, master! Order and wish, and it will be done!"

"Take this dog," she commanded, "tie him up, and throw him over there by the pillar." When that was done, she said, "Bring my husband and my father back from wherever you left them!"

The jinni went and brought them back, and they found the vizier tied up by the pillar. Now, the king—he wasn't asleep, brother!—drew his sword and struck the vizier a blow, and lo! his head was rolling.

[18] The teller here is going beyond what is normally permissible in social discourse. He would certainly not have ventured that far if children were present during the telling.


"Drag this dog away!" he commanded, and it was done. The vizier was thrown over the palace walls, and the king put his son-in-law as vizier in his place. Thereafter he and his son-in-law lived in comfort and bliss, and may Allah make life sweet for all my listeners!

Im `Ali and Abu `Ali

Once, long ago, there was a poor outcast of a man, and no one was willing to give him work. His name was Sparrow, and his wife's name was Locust. One day she started to grumble.

"Don't you fear Allah?"[1] she said. "Your children are dying of hunger. Don't we need to eat? Don't we need to drink? Why don't you find some work?"

"There is no work I can do," he answered.

"In that case," she continued, "come let me sew straps on this pouch, which has a copy of the Qur'an in it (he couldn't read or write), so you can hang it over your shoulder. Every Thursday go to the cemetery,[2] and you're bound to bring home some bread for your children."

"By Allah that's a good suggestion," he said, "except that I don't know how to read."

"And do you think anyone's going to be listening to what you're reading?" she asked. "Just take hold of the Qur'an, open it, and mumble something."[3]

Strapping the Qur'an across his shoulder, he went to the cemetery, opened the book, and stood there, you might say reading from it. Wherever he saw people gathering around a fresh grave, he stood by them and mumbled as if reading.

"Make way for the sheikh!" people shouted. "Let the sheikh have a

[1] Ya welak min alla —literally, "Woe to you from Allah!"

[2] Muslims commemorate the dead on Thursdays, usually observing three Thursdays following the day of death. On the first, the immediate family brings food to the cemetery, and on the second and third Thursdays relatives and friends from other villages may bring food. Cakes, dates, boiled eggs, fresh fruits, bread, meat pies, and other easily portable food items are left at the cemetery as alms for the poor on behalf of the soul of the deceased. See Granqvist, Muslim Death : 155-158.

[3] If someone among those receiving alms is able to read, he may recite something from the Qur'an on behalf of the soul of the deceased, and the relatives will thereupon shower him with gifts of food.


place to sit! Bring fruits over here for the sheikh! Gather the cakes for the sheikh!"

His bag full, he went home and emptied it out for his children. They ate from it from one Thursday to the next.

The following Thursday, as chance would have it, the mother of the king's wife died.

"Go call the sheikh!"

They went and said to him, "Come to the king's wife. Her mother has died, and she wants to give you alms."

Taking the Qur'an with him, he went and mumbled something, swaying from side to side. The king's wife gathered a little from everything she had brought and gave it to the sheikh, saying, "Venerable sheikh, will you come back next Thursday?"

"I'm at your service," he answered.[4]

On the third Thursday he went to see her. Now, the king's wife was in her ninth month and was expecting at any moment.

"Honorable sheikh," she said, "you must divine for me.[5] What am I going to have? A boy? Or a girl?"

"What am I going to do?" he thought. "If I say 'a girl' and she has a boy, the king will cut off my head. And ill say 'a boy' and she has a girl, he'll cut off my head. What a trap this is! What am I going to do? What a mess you've gotten yourself into, Sparrow! May fate let you down, Locust! How did you manage to get Sparrow into this fix?"

"There!" he said to his wife when he went home. "You weren't satisfied until you made me work. What's this mess I've gotten myself into?"

"Is that all?" she answered. "Divine for her, and whatever you feel like saying, say it. And on the day of reckoning, Allah mill help."

When he came to see the king's wife the following day, she asked, "Did you, Allah willing, do the divination?"

"Yes, by Allah," he answered. "I read your fortune in the sand. You're going to have a boy and a girl."

"Will I give birth in the palace upstairs, or downstairs?" she asked.

[4] `Ala rasi —literally, "On my head."

[5] Various kinds of divination were practiced in the old days. The type referred to here is divination by means of sand (fatih b-ir-ramil ): random lines were drawn with the fingers in a pile of sand, and then the future was predicted from the direction and shape of the lines (see Amin, Qamus : 268; Donaldson, Wild Rue : 194). Women still practice divination at social gatherings in Palestinian homes by reading coffee grounds. In this ceremony, an emptied Turkish coffee cup is turned upside down on its saucer and the semiliquid remains are allowed to trickle down the sides; the reader then divines the future from the shapes she sees inside.


"You'll give birth upstairs and downstairs," he said.

And so, the following day, behold! a messenger came from the king's wife.

"What news of the king's wife?"

"When she was in the palace downstairs," he reported, "she went into labor. 'Go bring the midwife!' they said, but while waiting for her she gave birth to her first baby. Thinking she had finished, they took her to her room upstairs in the palace, and when the midwife arrived she said there was still another baby inside her, and she gave birth to it upstairs."

Now, she had told the king that the sheikh had divined for her and had said she would give birth to a boy and a girl upstairs and downstairs. When the news reached the king, the good news that his wife had given birth to a boy and a girl, he said to Sparrow, "It's settled! From now on I'm going to let you divine everything that may happen around here." The king then showed him his favor, giving him what fate decreed should be his share.

"Woe to you, Locust!" said Sparrow when he went home. "The king says such and such, and I can't read or write. How can I divine for the king?"

"When the day of reckoning comes," she answered, "Allah will come to the rescue."

One day the king went down to the orchard to take the air and lost track of time. When he came to do his ablutions so he could pray, he took off the royal ring and put it aside. Now, there was a boy roaming the fields and tending a flock of ducks and geese. A one-eyed goose, while pecking around, happened to swallow the ring, and the boy was afraid to tell the king. When he had finished his ablutions and prayed, the king looked around for the ring; not finding it, he sent for the sheikh.

Now we go back to the boy, who went to sit by the gate. "The sheikh will find me out and tell the king," he thought, "and he'll cut off my head." Sitting by the gate, he waited, and when the sheikh came by he said, "I throw myself on Allah's mercy and yours. Such and such is the story, and I was too scared to tell the king for fear he'd cut off my head. I want you not to say anything. I'm afraid if the king knew he'd cut off my head."


"Don't worry," said the sheikh.

Going in to see the king, the sheikh said, "Yes, Your Majesty!"

"Such and such is the story of the ring," the king said.

"Your Majesty," said the sheikh, "do you keep geese and turkeys?"


"Your Majesty," continued the sheikh, "there's among them a one-eyed goose. Send someone to bring that one-eyed goose over here."

They went and searched and found it was true. There was a one-eyed goose. Taking hold of it, the sheikh slaughtered it, slit its gullet, and pulled the ring out before the king and the vizier, who were looking at each other [wondering], "What kind of creature is this, who has this knowledge?" The king accepted the ring and rewarded the sheikh, who gathered himself and went home.

Not many days had gone by when the sultans treasure chest was stolen.

"Send for Abu `Ali!" he said. "Send for Abu `Ali!"

When the sheikh came in, the king said, "You have forty days to divine who stole the treasury."

Again he went to his wife, crying out, "What a misfortune, Locust! You really got me into a mess! Where did the treasure chest disappear to, and how should I know who took it when I don't even know how to count? How am I to know when the forty days are up?"

"Don't worry, my good man," she said. "I'll count out forty pebbles and put them in your pockets. Every day, after you finish evening prayers, throw one of them away until they're all gone. Then you'll know the time's up."

Counting out forty pebbles and stuffing them in his pockets, she said, "After prayer in the evening, just before you eat dinner, throw one of them away."

That evening, after he had finished praying, he threw one of the pebbles away and said "Heh! This if the first of the forty."

Now, the treasury had been robbed by forty thieves.

"If tomorrow the sheikh were to divine in the sand," they whispered among each other, "he'd expose every single one of us. Let's go check up on him."

They sent one of them to check, but no sooner had he reached the door of the sheikh's house than the thief heard him say, "Heh! This is the first of the forty." Back to his mates he ran.


"Listen!" he said, "By Allah, before he even saw or became aware of me he knew who I was, because no sooner did I come near the house than he said, 'Heh! This is the first of the forty.'"

But they did not believe him, and one of them who thought himself clever said, "Tomorrow, I'll go myself."

The following day, just as it was turning dark, the thief headed for the house of the sheikh, who had barely finished evening prayer when, taking a pebble from his pocket, he tossed it out and said, "Heh! This is the second of the forty."

Back the thief went running, as fast as he could, and said to his mates, "Listen! By Allah, he's found us out one by one. It's best for us to knock on his door, go in to see him, and try to negotiate." So four or five, you might say, of the sensible ones among them went to Abu `Ali's shack in the evening. One of them came forward to knock on the door, and 1o! the sheikh was saying, "Heh! This is the third of the forty."

"You see, by Allah," they whispered among themselves, "he knows each and every one of us." Then, going in to see him, they said, "We've come to you, O sheikh, so that you can save our souls."

"Allah is the only savior, my children," he said.

"We know," they continued, "that you've been divining to locate the sultans treasury. We're the ones who stole it."

"Yes," he answered, "I knew all along it was you."

"All right," they said, "we'll bring it back, but we beg you not to tell on us."[6]

"You see that I know all," he said. "If even one para is missing, I will tell.[7] Make absolutely sure not to spend any of it."

"Absolutely not!" they assured him.

"In that case," he replied, "bring it here to me and, for the sake of Allah, I'll let you go free. I won't say anything to the king."

Away they went, took up the chest, and brought it in to the sheikh. No sooner had they left than he went to see the king and said, "Your Majesty, the treasury has turned up."

"In only three days it turned up!" exclaimed the king.


"Where is it?"

[6] For daxilak ("We beg you"), see Tale 17, n. 12.

[7] The para was a very small unit of Ottoman currency; see Tale 5, n. 16.


"At my house. Send someone to fetch it."

When they had gone, gotten the treasure chest, and come back, the king declared, "From now on, I won't even move anything from one place to another without consulting Abu `Ali. And I won't walk from here to there except with Abu `Ali at my side."

"O Ruler of the Age," the vizier broke in, "this man's condition is disgusting. Does someone like him walk with kings?"

"What does it have to do with you?" answered the king.

Now, in a distant country there was a prince whose palace was on an island in the sea, and he wanted to hold a party in it for the other kings, including our king.

"My vizier," said the king, "I want to send for Abu `Ali. Let us take him with us."

"Why Abu `Ali?" complained the vizier. "He doesn't know how to talk, how to sit in company, or even how to eat."

"Impossible," said the king. "I want to take him with me."

"The orders are yours to give," replied the vizier, "and the advice is yours to follow."

Sending for Abu `Ali, they gave him a new suit of clothes with an aba and made him look good, and the king took him along to the palace. But no sooner had they arrived than they saw him leave the assembled kings, go running down the stairs, and sit outside on the sand. "Now my wife will be baking bread," he said to himself, moving his hands as if baking bread. "Now my wife will be cooking," he thought and made cooking motions in the sand with his hands. Meanwhile, the king's eye was on him.

"God knows what's going on," said the king to the vizier. "Abu `Ali's divining something in the sand."

Abu `Ali was now saying to himself, "Heh! Now she's finished cooking. Heh! Now she's serving the food. Come eat, children! Come, come, come!"

"Let's go! Let's go!" said this king to the other kings. "Let's go! Abu `Ali's calling us. God knows what's going on.!"

And down came all the guests, running after the king. (See how the Lord can show his mercy!) No sooner had the guests rushed out of the palace than it came tumbling down. It turned out the ground on which it had been built was loose. Everyone stood, looking at it in amazement.

"See, my vizier," he said, "what would have happened if we hadn't brought Abu `Ali with us?"


But as they were standing around looking at the remains of the palace, lo! a bird with a locust in its beak flew into the king's sleeve. The king held it in his sleeve without knowing what it was.

"Abu `Ali," he said, "tell me what's in my sleeve?"

"By Allah, O Ruler of the Age," answered Abu `Ali, "tales and complaints are neverending. If not for Locust, Sparrow wouldn't have been caught!"

The king shook his sleeve open, and behold! a sparrow with a locust in its beak flew out.

"See, my vizier," he said. "Even I didn't know what was in my sleeve."

"Abu `Ali Abu `Ali!" everyone exclaimed as they went home.

"What next, O Ruler of the Age!" said the vizier. "A natural imbecile who speaks whatever comes into his head trusting to Allah's mercy, and what he says just happens to come out right! Just let me give him this one test, and if he passes, I'm convinced. But what if he doesn't pass?"

"You can do with him whatever you like," said the king.

"Good," said the vizier, and he brought together a plate of prickly pear, one of honey, another of yogurt, and a fourth of tar. Covering them all with a platter, he said, "Send for the sheikh."

"Abu `Ali," he said when the sheikh arrived, "you must tell me what's under this platter."

This poor man—how could he know?

"By Allah, Your Excellency," he said, "we've seen days blacker than tar and more bitter than myrrh.[8] But Allah has also blessed us with days whiter than yogurt and sweeter than honey."

"How about it now!" exclaimed the king. "What do you say, my vizier?"

"Nothing," answered the vizier. "I'm convinced."

This is my tale, I've told it, and in your hands I leave it.


Relations in these tales not only go beyond the familial and societal but transcend the physical environment as well. Here the relationship is between the human and the divine, as based on a human being's acceptance

[8] For "more bitter than myrrh" ('amarr min is-sabir ), see Tale 35, n. 15.


of God's will as it is manifested on a day-to-day basis. Wisdom consists precisely in this continual trust in God's ultimate design for the universe.

The major characters in this group exhibit simplicity of heart and lack of guile, qualities that enable them to stay in touch with the workings of destiny. The woman who fell into the well does not hold a grudge against her brothers; she understands the social constraints that force them to behave as they do, yet she does not foolishly expose herself to their harm by remaining passive. Her actions demonstrate a dynamic acceptance of the workings of fate. In "The Rich Man and the Poor Man," this acceptance takes the form of contentment with one's lot in this life. The poor man's wife has a good relationship with her husband and does not aspire to become rich but is rewarded nevertheless, whereas the rich man's wife has a bad relationship with her husband, is not contented with her wealth, and becomes possessed with an all-consuming envy that in the end destroys her. Despite her poverty, the wife of the poor man does not envy her sister. Her craving for food stems from a biological need, and she tries to satisfy it within the limitations of her means. Her behavior exhibits qualifies of generosity and innocence totally lacking in her sister.

In "Ma`ruf the Shoemaker," the title character's innocence is projected as boundless and unselfconscious generosity, which evokes an even more generous response on the part of the unseen powers that reward him. Because this innocence is powerless against evil, as represented by the vizier, it needs outside support to survive—which Ma`ruf's second wife unfailingly provides. And in "Im `Ali and Abu `Ali," the main character is a sort of divine fool who is also a husband and a father. His major worry concerns providing his family with enough food, yet his simple actions in earning his living echo with deep meaning for the perceptive listener. No doubt all four of these tales are moral, or philosophical, tales, but fortunately they are not moralistic. They provoke thought based on simple acceptance of fate at the level of everyday experience.

A word of explanation is necessary at this point. One frequently finds pejorative references to the people of the Middle East as "fatalists," even by prominent scholars. Yet fate has a different meaning in the Islamic and Arab worlds than in the Christian and Western worlds. To the Westerner, the notion of fate implies a blind force that controls everything. Belief in this force would negate the belief in freedom of will that forms the ethical basis for the culture of individualism prevalent in Europe and North America. To Christians in the West, this belief would also negate one's


conviction that God was so graciously disposed toward this world that He was incarnated to "save" it. To a Muslim, in contrast (and to Christian Arabs), fate is not a blind force but simply the will of God, who is the essence of mercy and compassion. Certainly the characters in our tales are not fatalistic. They act, and they reap rich rewards. Action is rewarded, not fatalistic acceptance.

Fate has a different meaning, and it functions differently, in each tale. It is not only a system of belief about the world but also an attitude of acceptance of that which is—even when it appears to be incredible, as in the last tale. There are no random events or coincidences; everything that happens is God's will. The man and the woman in "The Woman Who Fell into the Well" both readily accept what befalls them, exclaiming, "There is no power or strength save in Allah!" upon falling into the well. Whether as a humble shoemaker or the king's son-in-law, Ma`ruf accepts his destiny with equanimity. Like Abu `Ali, he exhibits a quality of trust in Allah that shields him from all harm. His generosity is literally selfless: he has no self to protect. The same holds true for the poor man's wife, whose generosity of spirit does not diminish even after she acquires immense wealth.

In "The Rich Man and the Poor Man" and "Im `Ali and Abu `Ali," fate works like a supernatural force that brings magic into the world; it is the creative power that shapes events, combining the usual with the unusual—or, as in these two tales, transforming the usual into the extraordinary. It is aided in this process by the creative power of language, which is the silent parruer in all literature. The creative role of language in the folktale is made explicit in the last tale, where the pun on the name of the character and his use of imagery at the end serve to bridge the gap between the imaginative and the real.

By shaping events in time, fate also shapes the plots of the tales. Only when the events in time are understood to unfold according to a meaningful sequence does the notion of plot make sense. This process works most clearly in "The Woman Who Fell into the Well," where one action inevitably leads to another and another, until finally the woman is reunited with her brothers. Here again, language helps us to understand how fate works, the names of the children in the tale (Maktub, "that which is written," and Kutbe, "the writing") providing the necessary clues. Although these names would be perfectly acceptable for a boy and a girl, they do not occur in actuality. Their use here exemplifies the


metaphorical significance of writing to indicate the fixity of fate. It is said that one's fate is "written on one's forehead," or of an event, that it was "written," that is, it was bound to happen. Yet even though the order of events is preordained, new combinations—new plots—are continuously brought into being, such as the marriage of the traveling salesman to the woman and the birth of their children. Thus fate works both as a creative and a determinative principle.

Acceptance of fate is wisdom, and wisdom in these tales is ascribed to women as well as to men. The wisdom of men tends to innocence and passivity, whereas that of women tends to thinking and action. The king's daughter is far more skilled in the ways of the world than is Ma`ruf, and it is Im `Ali's drive and her practical advice that help her husband prosper. In "The Rich Man and the Poor Man," the women are the dominant figures, while the husbands are merely passive spectators in their wives' evolving drama. This group of tales, then—which were narrated by both men and women—makes an important statement about the position of women in the society. Indeed, it is clear upon reflection that the tales all along have acknowledged women's centrality in the social structure and their equality (if not superiority) to men in those fields of action in which men are supposed to excel. The tale of the woman who fell into the well exemplifies the whole collection in this regard. The woman in this tale is not passive; her generosity, first in giving the man the bread and then in attempting to pull him out of the well, commits her to a course of action that will change her life. Rather than sitting around, passively waiting for her brothers' vengeance, she runs away at night. She gives the children their names and is—as the teller makes clear from her narrative style—the very center of the family.



Preferred Citation: Muhawi, Ibrahim, and Sharif Kanaana. Speak, Bird, Speak Again: Palestinian Arab Folktales. Berkeley:  University of California Press,  c1989 1989.