Palestinian Folktale: A Promise Kept

Today, I’m sharing a folktale from Gaza. It’s about a promise kept, a story within a story, a riddle, sworn brothers, and the king of the fishes!

There was and there was not a fisherman named Abu Hamdan who had no luck in catching fish. For days he went out and brought back nothing. So his wife said “why not cast the nets in our son’s name?” And so he did, crying “bring me good luck, Hasan!”

He pulled in the heavy nets and what was inside but one huge fish. It was by far the largest he had ever caught. “Stay here and guard it,” said Abu Hamdan. “I will fetch the cart. Whatever you do, do not let it escape!”

As Hasan was guarding the fish, he heard it say “Help me! I have so many children. I just get back to them; it is my job to protect them from larger fish than they!” “I can’t,” said Hasan. “If I let you go, my father will be very angry. He might even throw me out!”

“I just need a push and I will do the rest! I promise, if you help me, I will make you rich all the days of your life!” Hasan truly felt sorry for the fish, and so he gave it a push and off it swam back to sea.

When his father returned, he was livid. Not listening to a word of excuse from Hasan, he threw him out of the house telling him to make his own way in the world. Hasan wandered the shore, unsure of what to do until he found another boy his own age.

“My name is Omar,” said the boy. “My father threw me out.” “Mine too!” said Hasan. “How strange…” “Let’s become brothers,” said Omar. “And we can share everything and take care of each other!” And so they became brothers.

The two became inseparable, sharing what little food and money they could get from their labours. When one was sick, the other would tend to him. They were happy until one day they found themselves in the big city looking for work.

Everywhere they went they heard proclamations promising the hand of the princess to whoever could make her speak. “I am going to the palace to try my luck!” said Omar.

“Brother, please don’t!” said Hasan. “We are happy the way we are, and they say whoever fails to make the princess speak will be executed on the spot!” “Still, I am determined,” said Omar.

Omar was shown to the princess by the king’s chief vizier. “Let me tell you a story,” said Omar. “You’re not here to tell me stories,” said the vizier. “It will only take a minute,” said Omar.

“Once there was a carpenter, a painter, and a hermit camping together in the woods. Fearing robbers and beasts, one of them stayed up to guard the others, taking turns through the night. The first guard was the carpenter.”

“‘If I don’t do something, I will fall asleep!’ he said. Seeing a large log, the carpenter decided to work the wood to keep himself awake. He fashioned it into the form of a young woman. When his turn was over, he went to sleep.”

“The next up was the painter. Likewise, he found himself falling sleep. Seeing the statue, he decided to paint it. He made it very beautiful before his turn was over and he too went to sleep, leaving the hermit to guard the camp.”

“When the hermit saw the statue, he fell to his knees in awe and love. ‘What can I do but pray that God will make you a real woman?’ And so he prayed, fervently, reverently all through the night. In the morning, the camp woke to a beautiful woman in their midst!”

“The three began to argue over who should marry the young woman. ‘I made her’ said the carpenter. ‘I perfected her,’ said the painter. ‘But I loved her,’ said the hermit.” Directing his words to the vizier Omar continued. “Tell me, which of these should marry her?”

“The hermit,” said the princess. The vizier immediately ran to tell the king that the princess had spoke. When the king arrived, the princess said nothing and so he insisted that he witness her speak himself.

“I will make signs,” said Omar. “And you tell me what is the meaning of them.” Omar then pointed to the king, to the vizier, and to himself in turn. “What is the meaning?”

“I am the king, he is the Grand Vizier, and you are the peasant,” said the king. “No, that’s not right,” said Omar. “He rules, I execute his orders, and you obey,” said the vizier. “No,” said Omar.

The princess said: “My father is like the carpenter- he formed me. The vizier is like the painter- he educated me. And you are like the hermit for you seek my heart.” The king was overjoyed. But no sooner had he turned around but Omar ran out of the palace.

“Brother!” said Omar. “Congratulations! You will be marrying the princess! I took care of everything.” “What?” said Hasan. “But you were the one who rose to the challenge.” “I did, but it was just to fulfill my promise. I am the fish you helped, Hasan.”

“I am the King of the Fishes. If they take me to the bath house to prepare for the wedding, I will turn into a fish again. Besides, we look almost like twins. Goodbye, Hasan. I love you very much but I must return to my children in the sea.”

And so Hasan married the princess. The two fell in love and lived happily except for one thing. The princess often found it peculiar that her husband would never eat fish. The End.

This story is adapted from A Promise Fulfilled from An Illustrated Treasury of Palestinian Folktales by Najwa Kawar Farah.

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