Part 6 (tale 4) of the author's "Gendering Tales: A Feminist Reading of Seven Wonder Tales"
Once there was a man who had three wives. The first two had no children; the third had six daughters, and was pregnant. The first two wives hated their third co-wife; they convinced their husband that her belly was only good at delivering girls, that she was to give birth to a seventh one again, that he must get rid of her as she did not bring him a male child. So he went to her and declared:
"We are leaving for the valley soon; you will not come with us until you give birth. If the child is male, follow us. If it is female, consider yourself repudiated."
The unfortunate woman broke down. Her daughters tried to comfort her:
"Don't worry, we'll leave a track of bran and another of cinder for you. If you give birth to a boy, follow the first. If it's another girl, follow the second. In both cases, we'll be waiting for you."
Thus she watched the whole household depart in tears, and remained alone in the dark. At night, she felt the first contractions; she searched in the dark for a light to go to but could only perceive the dim shape of a house. She hurried to what she found out was the mausoleum of a saint. Once there, the convulsions became unbearable, indicating that the time of delivery had come. Suddenly, two Houris materialized in front of her. They told her:
"Close your eyes and unfold your hands. If you ever gave something in your worldly existence, you will recover it."
The woman obeyed, but she was only given a black hedma and a stick of tar. These were the only things she ever gave as charity. The Houris scolded her:
"You should have been more charitable; now these are the only items we shall help you with."
Thus they assisted her until she gave birth to a boy. They healed her with the tar and wrapped the baby in the black cloth. Moreover, before leaving, they endowed him with a ruby on his forehead and a ruby on his gums.
Meanwhile, her husband started feeling remorseful; he sent a slave to fetch the forsaken wife, and hours later the slave was running back with the good news: the baby was male! At last! The husband's joy could only match the other wives' fury. He saddled the mule, invited the Fantasia men, bought dresses and jewellery for his daughters and set off to bring back the blessed wife. Back home, he gave orders for a great feast and covered the baby and his mother with multiple presents.
The evil co-wives were boiling with rage. They sent for a famous Oumme'gouz, who willingly agreed to trap the unlucky mother. At night, the old woman sneaked to the mother's bed, cut the baby's little finger and, with his blood, stained his mother's mouth and face, then kidnapped him and flew away at once. The following morning, the mother was woken up with the screaming of her co-wives:
"She ate her child! Look at the monstrous mother who ate her child!"
The husband, who believed only what he saw, immediately threw her out. All her nice clothes and jewels were taken away; she was clothed with camel's skin, her head was covered by a camel's stomach, a hut was built up for her, and she was assigned the shepherding of camels.
From that day onwards, her daughters watched her, powerless before their mother's disgrace. Their father hid their mother's clothes and gold in a big chest he owned, and locked it to never reopen it. Besides all these humiliations, the co-wives invented a daily torment for her; every morning, they would yell at her to destroy her hut to let the camel herd pass by, as if camels could be frightened by a mere hut. She would comply then rebuild her hut, only to demolish it again in the evening when the herd was returning to its pen, and restore it to sleep. It even became a saying nowadays: "Rip down the hut to let the camels pass by!" this is said in a situation where there is an absurd order given to torment a helpless person.
In the meantime, the Oumme'gouz took the little boy to her tribe and sold it to a barren woman who was very wealthy and dearly loved the baby. She raised him like a lord, with a horse and a slougui, and let him lead a life of pleasure and amusement. He was already a young man when, one day, as he was racing with his friends, he inadvertently fell on the Oumme'gouz's hut and ruined it. The old woman insulted him:
"Be damned, lost, son of the lost, and who does not even know his tribe's whereabouts!"
The young man was shocked. The old woman's words were enigmatic, but they meant he was a stranger to that tribe. He was determined to discover the truth, so he went back to his foster mother's tent and complained of heartaches:
"I don't feel good, mother, please cook me a good thick tchicha , but bring it hot, I want to warm my body up."
Accordingly, she made a thick soup and served him a big bowl of it. He took her hand as if he wanted to kiss it, but instead, plunged it into the boiling soup. She screamed with horror and pain, and entreated him to let go her hand, but he grabbed her firmly and said:
"I won't unless you tell me who my real parents are, and how come I am away from my people."
His foster mother agreed to tell him the truth and, once she recovered her hand from the burning pain, revealed the whole story. He decided to ride at once to his tribe to free his mother from her misery.
On his way, he caught a wolf, and tied it with his slougui. Therefore, wherever he went, people marvelled at the sloughi and wolf being together, as everybody knew these two animals were sworn enemies. And whenever people exclaimed:
"How strange, a sloughi and a wolf together!"
"How strange, a woman ate her child!"
And people would protest that such a thing could never happen.
Thus he went until he reached the forest where his mother was grazing the camel herd. She saw him and wondered:
"How strange, a slougui and a wolf together!"
"How strange, a woman ate her child!"
But then, she sighed:
"Oh, this happened to me!"
He recognized her, but feigned astonishment:
"How come, my aunt, how can a woman eat her child?"
"I don't know, son, but some said I did, while I feel that I could never do that," and narrated the whole story to him. The young man was revolted; he told her:
"What if your son was alive? Would you recognize him?"
"Of course I would! He has a ruby between his eyes and a ruby between his teeth."
At that moment, he unfolded his turban and smiled; the two rubies shone before his mother's unbelieving eyes. They embraced each other and cried heartily. Then he gave her his tunic to wear, and tore a piece of his turban for her to cover her head. As sunset was looming, they set a plan to rehabilitate her, then each one of them took a different direction. Once back home, the co-wives wondered what had made her change, as she was clothed and refused to demolish her hut. But they could not punish her because, right then, her son approached. They hurried to their husband to announce the coming of a stranger. Accordingly, the latter went to his father's tent and asked to be Allah's guest. He was welcomed warmly and orders were given to prepare a nice dinner. His mother, meanwhile, brought the good news to her daughters. Their cheerfulness was almost palpable, and the co-wives became alarmed. At dinner time, when the men gathered around the table, the mother entered the tent and sat right in its centre. Her husband, outraged, yelled at her:
But she did not move. Her son retorted:
"Why are you expelling that woman? What is wrong with her?"
The old man answered:
"Son, that woman is a monster who ate her baby."
"That's impossible, a mother cannot eat her child!" argued the young man. Then, his father told him the same old story. The son pretended disbelief, and asked him:
"What if your son was alive somewhere? How could you recognize him?"
"That would be simple, he has a ruby between his eyes and a ruby between his teeth."
Once again, the two precious stones were revealed and father and son embraced tenderly. Their happiness was as intense as the terror the co-wives felt. The father broke his chest's lock and gave back to his wife the confiscated dresses and jewels. He also offered his daughters presents. Another big feast was organized; and after that, the father asked his wife:
"What punishment do you want your co-wives to endure?"
She chose the torture of the hungry camel and the thirsty camel. Four camels thus were locked up, two without food and the others without water. When they became hungry and thirsty enough, the two co-wives' arms were tied to the hungry camels, while their feet were tied to the thirsty ones. Then a slave tempted the hungry camels with food, whereas another attracted the thirsty ones with water. Each two ran in a different direction and the two women were torn apart. And therefore the mother was definitely rid of their evil.
I gulped my buttermilk.
A heap of firewood, piled up on the oven's side, was waiting for its turn to perish. That day's bread was to wear a eucalyptus scent, with a hint of lemon and olive, were I to judge from the wood gathered. I was pleased and tense with various expectations.
"You promised to tell me about Maghoula while cooking bread."
"It's too hot here, wait until I'm over with this."
"No I won't! You promised!"
"It seems I won't have peace today!"
The first bread loaf was overturned on a wooden plate, drilled twice by an olive stick and deposited inside the oven on a wooden platter, on the left of flaming logs. Slowly, surely, the bread rose, flushed, its crust hardened, its creamy colour gradually turned into a brownish gold. The baby analogy was looming in my mind.
Last modified: 14 December 2001