(published Dec 2021 in ArabLit Quarterly: FOLK issue).
By Sonia Sulaiman
A young woman sat in front of the prince and said: “When my grandparents were married, I was invited to their wedding.” The room rustled with velvet dresses making way for the storyteller, as if her words needed space to grow– they were so audacious. Sunlight penetrated the latticed windows, stretching their dark wooden frames to arched ceilings where they gave way to expertly cut marble. Along the far walls hung thick tapestries of hunts and romantic abductions by moonlight.
The stoic prince’s eyes searched the young woman’s face—and her wide smile, the largest he had ever seen. Her face was glowing with borrowed sunlight, a ripe date. Braids hung down either side of her face like tassels. And the prince smiled back, just a little, for the first time that evening. He sat straight-backed but at ease on the brocaded divan. The cold neutrality faded from his eyes as softness grew in its place.
“My lord,” cried one of the courtly ladies draped in embroidered regalia. “Where did this one come from, off the streets? She keeps pestering the company with her prattling. The prince is engaged in important business; he is choosing the partner of his life and you barge in here with your lies, and to his face as well! By God, that’s shameful!” To punctuate her speech, the dark lady spun away from the pair as if her very eyes were scorched from looking at the improper scene.
Marriage: a Sword of Damocles. The prince’s sister would caress her husband, laughing into her young brother’s face and say: “Oh, when you are older, and it’s your time, you will understand. You will sport with your love as do all.” Marriage, for Prince Nour, was a threat held over him. How many times did his kingly father, however gently, pursue him with the issue? Pressing constantly for some sign, some hope for the future. It would be a future the prince could not envision, one that filled him with a peculiar terror that struck steel into his bones.
Some weeks prior, his father had approached him with one of his many, many conversations with Nour on the topic of marriage. “Why don’t you marry one of the princesses in our kingdom?” his father said. “There are several your age. I could arrange a nice match for you.”
“I don’t want to marry a princess,” said the prince.
“Well, there are many rich ladies,” said the king. “Or you could marry a beauty, even without wealth or titles. It would be suitable, dear one.”
“The woman of my dreams,” said the prince bitterly. “Tells stories that are lies from beginning to end.”
“When you were a boy, you looked up from studying the scriptures and said to me that you wanted to be celibate when you grew up,” said his father anxiously.
Noor spread his hands. “Father, it’s much more than that. But I…whenever I try to put it into words it feels like the right ones do not exist.”
“I am proud of your self-control, my son, but you must learn to be moderate and to acknowledge human nature in yourself. You are neither a child nor one of the mechanical men the alchemists create with their arts. You are, after all, flesh and blood.”
Nour had studied the classics and much of history. Just that morning, his tutor had presented him with the text of Euripdes’ Hippolytus to parse. His own exegesis was met with a dry cough from the scholar. “It was not for his misogyny, Hippolytus was punished,” she said, “quite rightly, as he who denied the human passions, preferring the asexual life of a devotee of the goddess. That is why he was torn apart when his horses dashed his chariot on the rocks: he was a monster.”
“On my Faith,” said the prince. “I have waited all these many years for a woman who would tell me a tale all lies from beginning to end; searched for her from the river to the sea, from Safed to Beersheba.” He reached out his hand to the smiling woman. “Please, tell on.”
The storyteller inclined her head graciously. “My grandparents gave me an egg as a present for attending their wedding. It was as big as a watermelon. I played with it as I walked home, tossing it back and forth, like this—-“ A current ran through the prince’s spine. His breath caught. To none but him, a wisp of blue light bright as the glint on the moon wreathed the storyteller’s hands and formed itself into a ball which she tossed gingerly on the tips of her fingers.
“Ah! It fell and split in two halves!” she cried and the ball dissolved into a spray of dazzling sparks. She lifted her hand and deftly drew a writhing sigil in the air with the remnant. It flew across the room to the long tapestries and infused into them. The figures on the tapestries began to shift and transform as the storyteller continued, narrating in tableaux the words as they fell from her mouth.
“And out of the egg a rooster as big as a horse came out! I thought, well, so long as it’s as big as a horse, I could ride it, couldn’t I? And, so, I did!
“My rooster got saddle sores, the poor beast. I went to an apothecary to get medicine for it. He told me to grind up a stone from a ripe date and to lay the resulting paste on the rooster’s back during a full moon, and you shall see what you shall see.
“The next day what happened was a date palm tree had grown on the back of my rooster! I threw stones up at the fruit and ate oh so many delicious dates! But then, I thought, it was curious that the stones I threw did not come down again.
“I climbed the tree and at the very top I found the largest fertile land I had ever seen! ‘Wow!’ I cried. ‘This is my land on top of the tree which grew from my rooster which hatched from my egg!’ I decided to grow sesame seeds on my land. I grew thousands of kilos!
“I filled sack after sack with seeds but after counting them all I found that one of the seeds was missing. Where could it be? I looked around and saw an ant running away with it. I grabbed the seed but the ant was holding on and so I pulled harder. We had a tug of war over it.
“Until finally the seed broke and sesame oil flowed out of it. I had not one but two harvests after all! I decided to grow watermelons next. In one day they were ripe, and among them was a huge, blue, square melon. I thought it must be the best one.
“I took out my 20-meter sword and cut the melon. After tasting some, I realized there was actually something else peculiar about this melon. There was a staircase in it! I decided to investigate. I followed it down into a souk.
“I wandered the souk marvelling at all of the people buying and selling until I came to an old man who looked sad. I asked him what was wrong and he pointed to his donkey. Now, this donkey was reclining on the ground, smoking a hookah. The man had deliveries to make.
“I offered to help and so the two of us pulled on the donkey but he wouldn’t budge! I pulled and pulled until the donkey’s tail came off in my hand! The old man cried out for justice and I was sent to jail.
‘Let’s banish the stranger!’ said the judge.
“I was pushed into a canon and shot high into the sky. I heard the crowds cheer as I flew past the birds. I rode on a rainbow and saw mountains and lands beneath me, with people tiny as ants. I flew and flew until I landed here at the prince’s party!”
The light faded from the great tapestries. The figures on them reformed into their hunting scenes and courtships. All was as it once was. The prince was on his feet. “Storyteller, you have stirred my soul—-”
“Prince Nour,” she gracefully bowed her head. “Please, call me ‘Zain.”
“Come walk with me, Zain,” he said placing his hand over his heart. She followed where the prince led, away from the crowd, the velvets and embroideries, into a courtyard ringed with fountains of white stone, and green spires of cypress trees.
“I have never heard such a tale, by God,” said Nour. “Where did you learn to tell such stories?”
“I just made up what appealed to me, my lord,” said Zain. “It came out of my heart.”
A flush came into the prince’s face. “That sensitive heart that is within you now. And will you stay to walk beside me?” he asked. Zain looked expectant.
“Certainly,” said Zain and she placed her hand over her heart, the wellspring of story. The sword hanging over the prince shifted, it moved and the ground beneath his feet moved. He was on the brink of something that changed everything he had ever known. There was no way across this chasm except to go through it.
“My father wishes me to take a wife,” said the prince. “You know that’s the reason so many courtly ladies are being entertained at once in the palace?” Zain nodded, leaving space for the prince to continue. “All my life I have dreamed of a woman like you, a woman who could tell stories that are all lies from beginning to end. You have touched me like no one else.”
The storyteller looked at the flowering jasmine, watched the bee carefully picking its way over the petals. The scent was heavy in the air, as was a mugginess from the sun shining on the fountains. “You don’t want to marry,” said Zain. “It is your father’s wish.”
Nour followed the storyteller’s gaze. It helped bringing the words to his mouth. “And yet, I want you to always be with me,” said the prince. “As we are now…”
“But you don’t want to have a simple friend, or to hire me as a court storyteller. No, it’s something between a friend and a bride, isn’t that right?” She reached out and the tips of her fingers touched the prince’s silken robe.
“I do not want a lover,” the prince looked at the gesture, but her hand stayed on his arm. Gradually he could feel the heat of her hand passing through the cool fabric. “Besides,” he continued. “What you want counts as much as my own wishes.”
“I think you misunderstand me when I say ‘something between a friend and a bride.’ There are no stories about what I do mean, so we must make our own.” Her hand slipped down, fingers nesting into curve of fingers. He cradled her hand naturally and loosely.
He frowned and looked down at her, so small by his side. “Are you familiar with the stories of the Greeks?” She nodded. “Hippolytus… he was devoted to the goddess Artemis. I am not consecrated to any god, and yet… I have always felt a…”
“A sympathy; just so.”
“I want to sleep next to you,” she said, “but that’s all I want to do. I want to walk next to you, to caress you. I want to know your thoughts, for you to know mine. I want to dance with you. And that’s all.”
Nour found the words harder to press out. “Ah, how shrewd! Instead of negotiating a bride-price you negotiate… the word is ‘intimacy.’ And what you are describing is a sexless marriage. I— it thrills me, but the kingdom— my father—”
“And what is so wrong about a sexless marriage, if they two of us approve? The life of a husband and wife is a private matter, the king has no say in it. With the two of us agreeing, who can say no to us?” said Zain. The prince’s eyes widened. “Is that so strange?” The storyteller was smiling again, that brilliant, expansive smile that transformed her face.
He searched that dear face and laughed softly. “I had never thought—we are like the anemone who loves the sun.”
“Is that a story?” asked Zain. “I’ve never heard it.”
“It could be, a story of our own making.”
“Mn,” said Zain as she leaned toward him, reaching up so that her forehead pressed gently against his. “I’m listening.”