Palestinian Folktale: Pomegranate Seeds

There are a lot of ghoul stories in Palestinian folklore. Here’s one of them. It’s called Pomegranate Seeds. It begins with a woman who had an only child, a daughter. This was in the olden days when there were no schools…

The girl was sent to the sheikh for her lessons. Every day she would hasten there to learn, for she loved learning, in her slippers embroidered with gold. One morning she came to the sheikh’s house earlier than usual. What she saw stood her hairs on end!

Inside was the old sheikh and he was skinning and devouring a little boy! The sheikh was a monster, a cannibal, a ghoul!

The girl was terrified but still kept her wits about her. She fled, but not home for she knew her mother would only send her back to the sheikh.

As she fled, one of her slippers came off at the threshold.

She ran until she came to neighbouring village and met a shopkeeper.

“O uncle!” she cried. “I am a stranger in this town. Please let me stay the night in your store?” The shopkeeper could see no reason to refuse her…

After he left, she settled in for the night. But soon she heard the voice of the Sheikh in the store!

Tell me, Pomegranate Seeds! [in other words, “Sweetie”]
What strange sights did you see,
When by the doorstep of the master
you forgot your golden slipper?

“I saw him praying and fasting,
The eternal Lord worshiping,” she said.

The sheikh flew into a rage. He rampaged around the shop pulling and tearing all of the beautiful cloth, bringing it all down into one big heap.

As soon as the merchant saw his store he cried out. “Help! O my son! [an exclamation of despair] People, help!”

When the townsfolk saw what had happened, they passed a tray around and collected money to compensate him for his losses.

The merchant was still beside himself. He began to beat the girl but the townsfolk stopped him saying “have pity! Clearly she could not have done this. Why are you beating her?”

The girl made her escape to another town, still seeking safety from the ghoul.

This time she found sanctuary with a grocer. But again the sheikh found her, saying:

“Tell me, Pomegranate Seeds!
What strange sights did you see,
When by the doorstep of the master
you forgot your golden slipper?”

She replied:

“I saw him praying and fasting,
The eternal Lord worshipping.”

Again he flew into a rage, mixing the various oils together with the ghee, rice, and sugar, ruining all.

Once again the townsfolk passed a tray around to collect money to compensate the poor grocer. The girl fled once again, this time to the wilderness. She found a tree and climbed into it to spend the night. She was so beautiful, like the full moon as she slept in her tree.

Meanwhile, a prince happened by and was struck by her beauty. “Young woman!” he cried out to her. “Are you human or djinn?”

“By God, I’m human,” she answered. And so he invited her to come down and ride behind him back to the palace. She was hungry, so she came down to him.

“Mother, I have brought home a treasure!” he said. “If you love me, you must love her.” The queen soon came to feel fond of the young woman and before long, the girl married the prince.

When she gave birth to her first child, she heard it again… the voice of the sheikh!

“Tell me, Pomegranate Seeds!
What strange sights did you see,
When by the doorstep of the master
you forgot your golden slipper?”

“I saw him praying and fasting,
the eternal Lord worshipping.”

The sheikh snatched her son from her.

He smeared her hands and face with blood and vanished. In the morning the servants were beside themselves. “She’s all bloody!” No one could believe what had happened… Had she really eaten her own child? The prince refused to believe it.

Twice more the girl gave birth and twice more the sheikh took the children, until finally, even the prince had to believe… she was really a ghoul after all!

He divorced her, kept her locked away in a separate house so she could do no further harm.

The prince, for his part, came to her each day to bring meals for her. One day he told her he was going on the haj, the pilgrimage to Mecca. “What do you want from the Hijaz?” he asked.

“I only want a box of myrrh, and seven pomegranate switches.” she said.

The prince brought them back for her. Soon after, he prepared to remarry. The girl took the pomegranate switches and whipped the box of myrrh. As she did so, she cried out:

O box of myrrh, give me patience [myrrh and patience are homophones in Arabic]!

“To his school I went and found him
devouring a boy. I ran away,
Dropped my slipper there–
O box of myrrh, give me patience!
Then I climbed the tree,
and the prince married me.
I gave birth to the first ones–
O box of myrrh, give me patience!
Then I gave birth to the girl.

And they told him I was a ghouleh–
O box of myrrh, give me patience!”

At that moment, the wall opened and there stood her children alive and well!

“Go to your father. If anyone tries to stop you, tell them “this is our father’s house. And you, the strangers, are going to kick us out?”

And so they did. Their father marveled and demanded to know who their father was.

“We’re the children of she who lives in the house of desertion,” they said.

“Tell me the truth!” he demanded, and they repeated their words. The marriage was called off, but the celebration became one of reconciliation.

This story was adapted from Speak, Bird, Speak Again: Palestinian Arab Folktales by Ibrahim Muhawi and Sharif Kanaana.

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