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Saturday, 3 May, 2008, 1:15 ( 23:15 GMT )
The Fifty-first Wife
A Retelling of a Libyan Folktale (3)
5/1/2008 13:13:00
by: Sondos Elqutait
Storyteller: Have you prayed the evening prayer?
Audience: we have all prayed
Storyteller: I’ll tell you a tale that drags up the sea
Whoever is a scaredy-cat get out
And whoever wants to prosper bless the Prophet
Audience: God's blessings and peace be upon him
Far away there is a vast and rich kingdom you've never heard of and will never see, and it had been ruled by the same family for a thousand years. In the time of our story Zamzar was king; he was very proud of being the descendent of men as wise as they were brave, as merciful as they were just, and ruled according to the pattern they had set.
Now in that country a King had fifty wives, but not one of Zamazar's wives had given him a child. He was desperate to have an heir: not because the state was in danger, for he had many brothers; and not because he distrusted his brothers, for they were all very able and honest men, and a great help in administering a vast territory. He just didn't want to be the one to disrupt an unbroken line of succession from father to son.
Aside from this worry the King Zamzar lived fairly happily, as did his wives and his subjects, and his realm prospered - until one day he went out hunting with his nobles, and they chased a gazelle that would bring about his destruction and suffering to many others: listen and I will tell you how this came about.
This gazelle was no ordinary animal, its dappled coat was the colour of the midday sun that shone above the hunting party, its hooves were gold and gave off sparks like miniature lightning as it lead them up hills, down valleys and across streams. The chase continued for many hours, and more and more of the hunting party were left behind or dropped out, but Zamzar insisted on catching this magical creature, which always remained tantalizingly within sight.
As the sun set only he and his royal guard were left to see the marvellous transformation as the gazelle became as fiery red as the dusk slipping behind the mountains in front of them, and then reflected the soft purples of the sky approaching twilight. When the full moon rose in the sky they had reached the edges of the desert, and the chameleon-like gazelle was a luminous shape that lit their way. The horses, exhausted from the unrelenting pace, floundered in the sand, and one by one royal guards fell back.
Accompanied only by Sawad, his stallion, who seemed as caught up in the chase as his royal master, Zamzar continued to follow the gazelle. He was too intent on his prey to notice that he was being led to the ruins of an ancient fortress; it was at this very place, exactly a thousand years ago, that his ancestor had won the kingdom.
The other nobles had invited this ancestor to lead a revolt against a brutal ruler, who was finally besieged with his remaining forces in this well-fortified castle. The story goes that it was the princess who had revealed secret entrances to the army outside, which was led by a man to whom she had been engaged.
However once the battle was over, the triumphant new King had made it clear that he was not ready to jeopardise the position he had won by a marriage that would antagonise his subjects. According to legend the girl had appeared as he prepared to return to the capital with his troops, and before their astonished eyes turned into a marble statue whose lips moved to pronounce three words before becoming forever still: "I wait here".
Although he achieved his ambitions, the founder of the dynasty was said never to have known rest, and the priests of that country declared the fortress a cursed place to be avoided by all.
However the centuries had stripped this warning of its significance, and given it the status of a tale to tell around a kanoun (clay brazier) on winter nights; so when Zamzar saw the gazelle actually enter through the crumbling gateway, he hesitated for a few minutes, but followed it in.
Once inside the ruins he could not see the gazelle, but picking his way through the maze of broken pillars and half collapsed walls he reached the central courtyard, crossing it he heard a sound behind him and whirling round with his spear raised in expectation of the gazelle he found himself facing a woman instead. Her hair was golden as the sun at high noon, her lips were red as a the sky at sunset, her eyes were the colour of the horizon at twilight and her face shone like the full moon that now hung low in the sky.
Zamzar lowered his spear, the woman walked up to his horse wordlessly and he helped her up behind him then rode back to his palace.
When he returned a royal wedding was celebrated, and life went on as before for a few months; but then one day his new wife came to complain: one of her co-wives was insulting her, mocking the woman come out of the desert with no people and no name. The King ordered his guards to take that woman to the dungeons beneath his palace and build a wall to bury her in alive within four walls, then he told everyone that she had suddenly fallen ill and died.
Some weeks later she came with another story, how another of the wives was plotting to poison him, and again Zamzar sent the accused to the same dungeon, the wall was partly broken, she was shoved in and then it was rebuilt behind her.
And this was the way things continued, sometimes every few days and sometimes at intervals of weeks or even months a queen would be declared dead, there would be a funeral and that would be the last anyone heard of her. Of course people were suspicious, but not even the most powerful families dared accuse the King without proof, and there was none except the King, his new queen and the guards who knew their fate.
In fact they only thought they knew, because not even the guards knew that the first woman was, by God's will, still alive when they brought the last, the fiftieth wife, to meet the same end.
Together the King's wives suffered the pain of starvation, if not its effects. In fact in their prison they all became round as watermelons, because they all became pregnant.
When the first woman gave birth, and found she had twins she told the others that they should eat one of her children and she should keep the other, as long as they agreed to do the same for her. The women agreed and as each of them gave birth to twins the same rule applied, so each woman would keep one child and sacrifice the other. However the fiftieth wife, and the last to find herself pregnant, never ate her share; but she was afraid, because as God says those who do evil want those around them to slide into sin too. So she would pretend to eat and hide the meat in the folds of her r'da, until she was sure they were all safely asleep, and then she’d bury it near the wall.
So this was how things went until this woman, too, gave birth, and she did not have twins. The other women said "we have all lost a child, and you received your share so, twin or no twin, we are going to eat your son". But she went to her hiding place and, giving each mother her piece, she said "here are your children, leave me mine". At this all the women began crying and lamenting their own cruelty.
However only a few days went by before they agreed to start devouring the rest of their children; being older they lasted longer than their infant siblings had done, in fact each was as filling as a newborn lamb. But soon there were no more children to eat.
The mother of the baby who was now a toddler was afraid they would eat him while she was asleep. One morning she woke up and didn't find him next to her, and straightaway she stared accusing the others, who of course all denied having touched him. While they were arguing the little boy crawled in through a hole in the corner of the wall which had been rebuilt 50 times, and after him he dragged a basketful of bread.
The women all ate their fill before thinking to ask where he had got it, but when they questioned him he simply said that he had gone out and walked till he found himself in a busy street, where the smell of freshly baked bread lead him to a bakery, and he got the basket just by telling the man he was hungry. From that day onward the boy was sent to the shops to buy food with the women's jewelry, and you may be sure they all praised his mother and wished they had done as she did, and had their children around them.
After seeing the same strange little boy come in alone every morning, the baker decided to satisfy his curiosity by asking some questions - and this time his love of gossip would have a useful purpose.
"Who is your father little boy, who never comes in here with you, not even to buy you k’ak and zlabya on feast days?"
"Zamzar the King is my father" said the Prince Hadiar "and I have never seen him"
"And where do you live then, in the palace?" said the man, laughing
"Oh no! I live in a room with my father's fifty wives, and every morning I crawl out of a hole in the wall."
Now the baker thought this a funny story, and he repeated it as a joke to his many customers; so the Judge who sent his clerk for a snack got to hear it as he munched lugmit kadhi, the servants carrying an order of pies and pastries to the merchants' meeting house brought it to their masters' ears, and the Wazir's wife was told by a maidservant who had gone for some qatayef - "my own hand's making" she'd tell the neighbors at the lama (women's gathering) as she handed it round.
That same night all the important families in the city held a secret meeting and determined to find out if the boy was telling the truth, if their daughters were really alive. The next morning a trusted servant waited for him in front of the bakery, and when he appeared asked him to show him his home.
When he reported back to the assembled notables they gathered their men and marched to the dungeons, calling on the people to join them. The palace was stormed, and the king and his golden-haired consort were killed, then the women were set free from the dungeons. They were reunited with their families, and were told how the mysterious woman who instigated their suffering had not become a corpse when stabbed, but crumbled into marble fragments.
Prince Hadiar became King at a very young age, so his father's fear of breaking a horizontal line of descent were not realised. With the advice of his uncles and his mother he soon restored the country to its former glory, regaining lost territories and, more importantly, his subjects trust. The dynasty survived for another ten centuries, but his reign was the most brilliant in the whole two thousand years of the families rule; the one the poets celebrated in their poems, the one storytellers set their tales of chivalry, heroism and magic in - and that is the highest praise of all as the Khalifa Harun al-Rashid would tell you.
Storyteller: That's the end of this tale and mercy on it's grandfather
Other Parts:
Part 1: Sabe'a Sabaya
Part 2: Hedaidan
Part 3: The Fifty-first Wife
Part 4: Patience-Stone and Patience-Knife
Part 5: The Bedouin and the Jiniya
Part 6: Bo Yenan
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