[Part 3 (first tale) of the author's "Gendering Tales: A Feminist Reading of Seven Wonder Tales"]
Once there was a girl called Khoullal El Khadra . Her mother was dead, and she lived with her father and her stepmother. She was very pretty, so her stepmother was jealous of her fine looks and she resolved to get rid of her. One day, she told her:
"My dear daughter, let's visit your late mother's brothers, they must miss you a lot. Make some msimmnett to take them with us."
Khoullal Elkhadra prepared delicious msimmnett and set out with her stepmother and their dog to her uncles' douar .
Once in the forest, the stepmother feigned weariness. She told her stepdaughter:
"Let us rest for a while. Come, my dear, let me delouse your hair." Khoullal Elkhadra put her head on her stepmother's lap and, pleased by the latter's smoothing of her hair, fell into a deep sleep. Then the stepmother gently removed her knee and ran back to the tent, thinking she had gotten rid of her.
Fortunately for the girl, the dog awakened her and brought her back home. When she reached the tent, she cried at her stepmother:
"Why did you leave me alone in the forest? If the dog had not been with me, I would have been lost!"
The evil woman mumbled:
"I remembered that I did not tidy up the kitchen , but I was coming back to fetch you anyway!"
The following day, she urged the girl to prepare msimmnett again. This time, she tied the dog before leaving, and once again, in the forest, induced her into a deep sleep by gently delousing her hair.
That time, when Khoullal Elkhadra woke up, she was completely alone, and the sun was already down. She tried to find her way back, only to go deeper into the forest. Suddenly, she distinguished a dim light far away. She walked to it and discerned a tent inhabited by seven young men, probably hunters, as the delicious smell of roasted game suggested. She hid in the bushes surrounding their tent and waited.
The seven men, who were indeed brothers on a hunting trip, ate half of the roasted game and left the rest for the following day's lunch, then slept. Khoullal Elkhadra, at that moment, crept to the tent and ate the leftovers, for she was ravenous. At dawn, the brothers were surprised; they thought a little animal had stolen the meat and gone back to the forest again. The girl took the opportunity to dig a hole inside the bushes, in which she hid herself during the day, and from which she crawled to the tent at night to eat leftover roasted game.
On the seventh day, the brothers were utterly furious about that unknown animal which stole their meat every night. The eldest, a bald, frightening tall man, decided to trap it:
"Let me watch over the tent tonight, make me a plate of roasted wheat, and another of pebbles , lest I sleep. I'll catch our thief tonight."
Even so, he fell asleep, until he heard the sound of munching. His surprise was extreme when he realized that the thief was a beautiful young girl. Yet he was not sure she was human, because of the darkness and her beauty. What if she was a Djinnia or some supernatural being? So he sewed his clothes with hers while she was busy eating, and woke up yelling:
"I caught the thief!"
Khoullal Elkhadra tried to escape but she was tied, so she started crying and apologizing to the seven brothers, telling them her sad story. But they were not listening to her; they were all so dazzled by her beauty.
They proposed to marry her; all she had to do was choose. But how could she pick up one without offending the others? So she decided to carry out a stratagem:
"I will dye your hands with henna at night, and the one who gets the best colour in the morning will be mine."
She collected fresh cow dung that looked like henna mixture from the forest, which she mixed in one bowl, and prepared another bowl of real henna. At night, she dyed the youngest and most handsome brother's hands with real henna, while the other men had their hands soiled with the other muck.
Naturally, the following morning, the youngest brother displayed nicely dyed hands and took her back to his douar, where a great wedding took place. Indeed, the brothers turned out to be very wealthy; Khoullal Elkhadra led with her husband a very comfortable life, and became famous for her generosity and fastidious way of life.
Meanwhile, her stepmother was rejoicing for her stepdaughter's death, for she thought she had been slain by a wild beast. On a fateful day, an a'ttar was passing by her douar. The stepmother went to buy some items from him, and offered to pay him with a plateful of barley. The trader scornfully reacted:
"What a wretchedly famished woman you are: your mistress and lady Khoullal Elkhadra pays me with platefuls of gold!"
She could not believe her ears: Khoullal Elkhadra, alive and rich? The vile woman quickly answered:
"But that's my stepdaughter! Please take me to her, or at least let me send her a present with you." She went back to the tent and came with a beautiful ring. "This ring is very precious, tell her to keep it in her finger, and if she wants to take a bath, tell her to put it in her mouth so it won't slip out of her finger."
The a'ttar thus delivered the ring to Khoullal Elkhadra, who credulously thought her stepmother loved her and meant to please her. She kept the ring in her hand and, when she wanted to take a bath, put it in her mouth. She collapsed instantly: the ring was poisoned. Her husband, in utter despair, shouted to a green camel to carry her to a doctor:
"Green camel, how long can you bear your mistress?"
The green camel replied:
"I can bear her for a month."
He then turned to a red camel:
"Red camel, how long can you bear your mistress?"
"I can bear her for two months," answered the red camel. Then he went to a black camel:
"Black camel, how long can you bear your mistress?"
The black camel said:
"I can bear her for a year."
The husband was losing hope when Esshaan'ila sprang from nowhere; he ran to it:
"Esshaan'ila, how long can your bear your mistress?"
"I can bear her through the years and never tire."
Therefore, the husband placed his wife's body on Esshaan'ila's back, and the latter sprinted like lightning through the forest. In panic, the whole douar pursued her:
"Esshaan'ila, have some barley! Esshaan'ila, have some water," but the camel would not stop; she kept on running through the forest until she became invisible to the douar's people. After a long time, it reached an isolated hut in which lived its mistress, a wise old woman. She retrieved Khoullal Elkhadra, opened her mouth, introduced her little finger inside her throat and gently removed the ring. Khoullal Elkhadra woke up at once. She thanked the old woman for saving her life, and came back to her husband's douar on Esshaan'ila's back again.
Astounding. Echoes of stories resonated in my ears. Stories in other languages and yet beating the same drums. Was Snow White mimicking Khoullal ElKhadra? Or rather the contrary? Were those two girls twin sisters split up by a sea and primeval hatreds?
But there were no birds in her tale. So where did the birds in her carpet come from? The signs did not fit. I needed birds and girls woven by threads of flaming colours. So my grandmother bed me:
"Now let me tell you about the woman who became a dove."
Last modified: 14 December 2001