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Tuesday, 23 August, 2011, 2:19 ( 0:19 GMT )
Sabe'a Sabaya
A Retelling of a Libyan Folktale (1)
15/11/2007 13:13:00
by: Sondos Elqutait
There were (oh the things there were!) in a time long past…two brothers who married two sisters.

The elder brother Zaid's wife Nafisa was a wise and clever woman, who looked like most women do. His younger brother Zeyad married Jamila, who was what her name meant (a beauty). She was tall and slender as a palm tree; she had skin as delicate as jasmine, hair as dark and glossy as roub (date syrup) and the eyes of a gazelle. Her husband was as handsome as she was beautiful, and they were suited in character too, for one was as stupid and greedy as the other.

When the brothers' father died and his debts were paid only two small farms were left. The brothers and their wives worked hard, but though they were never very poor they were never very rich.
One day Zaid decided to go to the ghawals' palace and bring home some of their food and treasure. He told his wife of his plan, knowing that she would know how to help him.
"Elsabah rabah" (profit is in the morning) she said, "I'll tell you what to do tomorrow.

"Next morning Nafisa was awake long before dawn. First she took a gas'a to the storeroom and filled it with wheat.

Then she picked the juiciest cucumbers from the farm and the biggest eggs from the henhouse. In the kitchen she ground some of the wheat into flour, and then she started making sfinz. Sfinz, as we all know, is better than wedding drums at waking up lazy lie abeds. And true enough when the aroma of his favourite breakfast reached him Zaid jumped out of bed and - without even washing his face - he rushed to the kitchen.
"Good morning" he said cheerfully.

"A morning of carnation and jasmine" Nafisa replied, "you had better hurry if you don't want to miss dawn prayer at the mosque"
But, remembering that this wasn't a day like any other, Zaid looked at his smiling wife in consternation; how could she sing at her tahouna and make sfinz when he was going on a quest as dangerous as any feat 'Antar ibn Shadad had performed?"
"You've forgotten what I told you yesterday…" he protested indignantly, but before he could really begin to grumble he was interrupted by the first Adhan and had to hurry away.

Nafisa finished frying the sfinz and wrapped them in a cloth to keep warm while she prayed. Then she made date paste balls stuffed with almonds, cooked them in olive oil and put them into a leather pouch. Half the sfinz she sprinkled with salt and wrapped into a parcel, and this she packed into a gufa with hard-boiled eggs and cucumbers.

She was filling a second gufa with wheat kernels when a slightly shamefaced Zaid came back, but Nafisa was too prudent a woman to warm up cooling arguments, and they sat down to breakfast.

While they were eating sfinz with honey and sipping sage tea Nafisa gave her husband the advice he had asked for, and this is what she said:

"I'll give you a gufa of wheat to mark your trail, because the ghawals' magic will mislead you, and a pouch of date balls to eat on the journey, so you're not hungry when you reach the palace.

There's a giant fig tree in their garden, you must climb up as soon as you arrive, and stay there all day and all night. The ghawal will shake it on their way in and out but if you do as I say God will keep you safe. At dawn the ghawal will set out on their hunt: eat the food in the gufa I will give you and then climb down and enter the palace from the back door. You will pass through six rooms, but you must not touch anything in them. Each room will have a table laid as if for a Sultan's banquet, but you must not taste the food. Each room will be full of jewels and fine clothes, but you must not try them on. Each room will contain a mirror, but you must not see your reflection in it. From the seventh room you may take what you want, but remember the ghawal will come back at sunset."

He promised to follow her instructions, and she gave him a water skin and the two gfaf, making a hole in the one full of wheat. So before the sun had had time to warm the world, Zaid set off towards the ghawals' palace. Although he could see it far off their spells confused him and he found he was walking in circles, but he never took the same path twice because the wheat marked where he had been.

He reached the palace some time after noon and climbed into the fig tree, taking with him his two gfaf and his waterskin. He stayed in the tree all day, munching the rest of his dates. At sunset the ghawal came home, singing:
Sabe'a sabaya fi gesbaya
Sa'ad elghulah takelhen
(Seven girls, in a bowl
Happy the ghulah that eats them)

Before they went into their palace, each ghulah took hold of the tree and shook it, but Zaid was ready for them: he held on and did not fall.

Next morning, the ghawal got up early, and came out of the palace at first light. Again, each ghulah shook the tree, but Zaid held on and did not fall.

When they had gone, Zaid ate some sfinz with the eggs and cucumber his wife had packed in the gufa; then he climbed down, walked around to the back and entered the palace.

He walked quickly through the first six rooms despite the tantalizing smells and glittering sights, and when he reached the seventh he put down his two empty gfaf, and with his knife made an opening in the waterskin.

First he filled the water skin with rubies and emeralds and sapphires; with amethysts and turquoise and coral and strings of pearls…. and when it was full he tied it securely and strapped it on.

Next he put gold into a gufa: dinars and bracelets and rings; armbands and necklaces and anklets and earrings …and when it was as heavy as he could manage he covered it with the most magnificent r'da he could find: a cream and pale blue silk, shot with threads of white gold, it had taken two hundred women two hundred nights and two hundred days to weave in Samarkand.
And then he filled the last one with food. There were saffron strands and ginger roots and nutmegs; crystallized Aleppo pistachio and coconut and pine nuts; guava and mangoes and honeydew melons…When this last gufa was packed it was a little before noon.

Zaid put on a suriya of the finest linen and a jard woven from the hair of white camels, and then he picked up his gfaf and waterskin and set off home, following the wheat trail.

Nafisa had been waiting as if on hot coals for her husbands return and welcomed him home with zaghareed. That night they dined better than the Sultan in Turkey, whose cook was in a bad mood.
A few days later Jamila visited her sister. She noticed her wearing six heavy gold bangles and went home with her head full of nothing else. When her husband heard he too wondered how his brother could afford to buy jewelry, especially when he had told him that he was planning to buy more stock for his farm. So Zeyad went to his brother and asked him where this sudden wealth came from.

Now Zaid loved his brother but he knew his faults well, so he did not want him to go to the ghawals' palace. At first he only told him that he had been lucky, and would share his good fortune with his brother. Zeyad however insisted that he should be told were the money came from, and this was how their argument went:
Zaid said: "I'll give you a quarter."
But Zeyad refused
Zaid said: "I'll give you half."
But Zeyad refused
Zaid said: "I'll give you all"
But Zeyad still refused:
"You must tell me where you got all this" he said "so I can get more than you."
So Zaid told him exactly what he had done, and before they parted repeated his instructions to make sure he remembered:
"make a trail, take food with you, stay in the fig tree for a night and a day, hold tight to the tree when the ghawal come, enter the palace from the back, don't touch anything in the first six rooms, don't look into the ghawals' mirror, and don't eat their food when you are in the palace."

Zeyd took a bucket, bored holes in it and filled it with chalk. He did not take any food with him, thinking that his brother was just maliciously complicating his task.

"There is food where I am going," he thought, "why take any with me?" So early next morning he set off, but of course the chalk was difficult to see and he had a hard time reaching the palace as he kept going round in circles. When he finally reached it he went in straight away because it was getting dark and he was hungry.
Ravenous, he saw a feast fit for an Emir ready spread in the first room he entered, so he sat down to eat. The first sip of pomegranate sherbet, the first bite of roast lamb was in his mouth, and he was made mute. Then the fool dressed in rich clothes - the first glance in the mirror to see what he looked like in his new outfit, and he was struck blind. The first word of the ghawals' song in the distance heard while he was still in the palace, and he was deaf.

Terrified he hurried out, found the fig tree and clambered up just as the ghawal came home, singing:
Sabe'a sabaya fi gesbaya
Sa'ad elghulah takelhen
(Seven girls, in a bowl
Happy the ghulah that eats them)

As they passed under the tree, they shook it. Blind, scared, and weighed down with the food he had eaten, Zeyad fell quickly. So the ghawal ate him, except for his head, which they kept.
Next day, worried, his older brother decided to go after him. Nafisa thought for a while, and then sat down and sewed her husband a brightly coloured costume with bells everywhere. When he wore it he looked like the ghoulish jester Bu Sa'adiya, and when he moved he made enough noise to wake the dead. Again, she gave him food for the journey and a gufa of wheat kernels. Early next day, he set off, singing:
Kulma gutlak ya'ebn umi khud rub'aa gutli la
Kulma gutlak ya'ebn umi khud nusa gutli la
Kulma gutlak ya'ebn umi khud kulla gutli la
(Whenever I told you o son of my mother, take quarter- you said no. Whenever I told you o son of my mother, take half - you said no Whenever I told you o son of my mother, take all - you said no)
So he sang, until he reached the palace. The ghawal heard his song and his bells, and as ghawal like Bu Sa'adiya, they welcomed him joyfully. He came closer and saw that they were playing with his brother's head, throwing it from one to the other.
He approached a ghulah and asked her "honoured sister, whose head are you playing with, and how did you get it?"

She replied, "When we came back from our hunt yesterday the first mirror told us of a fool who broke into our palace, drank and ate at our table, and wore our clothes."

"Indeed to act so he must have been as you call him (a fool)."
"So he was, it took us less time to gobble him up than it would take you to think up a new song."

Then all the ghawal invited him to sing and dance for them. In return he asked that they allow him to join their game and, when he had finished his songs, to take the head away with him. They agreed, saying they had no more use for a fool's head. So Zaid sang for the ghawal and they were so pleased with his songs that they sent him off with many precious gifts. When he returned to the village he went to Jamila and gave her his brother's head, and the gifts that came with it.

And that was the end of greed!

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
Part 7: Prince Ali and the Bride of the Sea - Episode One
Part 7: Prince Ali and the Bride of the Sea - Episode Two
Part 8: Buying Wisdom
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