Fairy Tales for Quarantine – The Coppersmith’s Daughter, part 1

Darling, you simply must be careful with yourself in quarantine. Eschew romantic comedies, for those without partners, they are simply too, too depressing and if you have one, you will only end up wanting to kill the person you are quarantining with who won’t stop watching the news or refuses to watch the news, wants to eat the wrong things, puts dishes back wrong, folds laundry wrong, breathes wrong…

Thrillers are fun as they make the time pass but watching too much action only makes you feel more stuck and unable to move.

Kids movies are helpful, the film equivalent of mac and cheese or a soft boiled egg with soldiers: Shrek (really annoying people can turn out to be useful, maybe even friends) and Trolls (never stop trying!)

And read! But what to read in quarantine? Books in which everything is upset and at odds, then comes back into place again, which means mysteries and fairy tales. Yes, fairy tales! If you always wanted to learn Japanese, read Japanese fairy tales, you will pick up a few words and get cultural insights while forgetting that you haven’t been outside for a week. Fairy tales have a lot to teach you. And to get you started, here is the beginning of my favorites…

The Coppersmith’s Daughter with Long Hair

Once upon a time there was a beautiful girl with short curly hair. Her father was a coppersmith in the grand bazaar in Ashtaran so her whole childhood was spent among the hot coals of the blacksmith fires, the cool metal and the hammering of bowls – she longed for beauty, peace and quietness but what she wanted most was to have long hair that flowed like a river, but coppersmith’s children were never allowed to grow their hair.

A long time before Noor was born, there was another little girl whose father was a coppersmith. She had long hair and one day as she was running past the coals, a small spark jumped out and fell into her hair; her hair and then her dress caught on fire. The djinn of the souk appeared above the frightened girl and brought her close to him, the fire died immediately, but then the girl had to marry the djinn when she was older.

When the girl turned eighteen, her parents dressed her in beautiful clothes and put a fine copper bowl in her hand. Her mother, not wanting to say goodbye, went to a neighbor’s house and her father walked, weeping, to the main city gate with his daughter following him. As the evening call to prayer sounded, the tall, strong doors of the city were closed, with the girl left outside. She was told to walk towards the empty desert, even if the djinn did not come or even if she survived, she was never to return to Ashtaran again.

Noor was told this story every time she asked to grow her hair long and every time she asked what happened to the girl? What was her name? Did she ever return? Her mother told her to shush and grind coffee beans for her father’s nightly coffee. Noor shushed and ground the coffee beans but still she wondered and thought:  if I covered my hair and promised never to go into the workshop with the hot coals, I could grow my hair.

So she started to wear a rose-red scarf over her hair and never left the small apartment, not even to go downstairs to the store to bring mint tea for her father. When her mother handed her the tray, she gave it to a younger sister and continued to sit by the window.

After many years, when she was of the age to marry, she had a reputation across the whole souq, the coppersmith’s girl who did not cut her hair. It was said she was very pretty, the most beautiful girl in the souq but no one was certain. Her mother could not say she was pretty, for that would have been heard by the djinn of the souq who was always looking for another pretty wife.

The wives of the other coppersmiths all said she was nothing special but everyone believed they only said that because they were jealous. “Her skin and teeth must be as white as the clouds, as she has never been outside and her lips must be rosy red as her head scarf,” everyone said. But the truth was she was rather ordinary, except that she was lazy, sitting in the window seat all day combing her long hair.

One night, as her father drank his coffee, he told her mother that he had decided that Noor would marry the son of his friend. Noor heard this and went to the window to sit and think. She did not want to live her life with the hot coals of the blacksmith fires, the cool metal and the hammering of bowls.

She knew her father would not listen to her or change his mind; if she married the son of his friend, it would be a small wedding and he would not have to spend much money, only for the bread, rice and meat for the wedding feast and the new clothes. Noor thought carefully.

If she said, “My father, if you marry me to a baker, you will have the bread for the wedding feast for free.” Then she might marry a baker, but her life would be with the hot ovens, sacks of dusty flour and the sound of knives cutting loaves of bread which sickened her. She would never be clean and she might be forced to help sell the bread.

If she said, “My father, if you marry me to the rice merchant, you will have rice for the wedding for free.” Then she might marry a rice-seller, but her life would be with the chaff flying through the air, the sounds of men haggling over the price down to the smallest brass coin and the heavy smell of the woven rice sacks which sickened her. She would never be clean and maybe she might be forced to help sell the rice.

If she said, “My father, if you marry me to the butcher, you will have meat for the wedding for free.” Then she might marry a butcher, but her life would be the smell of the blood, the lowing of the beasts, and the sound of the knives cutting flesh which sickened her. She would never be clean, and maybe she might be forced to help sell the meat.

Then she thought, if she said, “My father, if you marry me to a fabric-seller, you will have clothes for the wedding for free.” Then she might marry a fabric seller; her life would be the soft whispers of silks talking to each other, the clean smell of a well-swept shop with the dirt held down by judicious scatterings of rosewater, and the gentle sound of small scissors cutting the soft cottons and velvets. She would always be clean and she would never have to sell the fabric. Poor women might come to the baker, the rice merchant or the butcher, but no woman came to the fabric store so no woman ever worked in the fabric stores.

Noor smiled and nodded to herself.

The next morning, she told her mother that she wanted to go pray at the Grand Mosque for she felt a change was coming in her life. Her mother was surprised that after so many years, Noor wanted to leave the apartment, but agreed. They walked through the covered souq to do the noon prayer, then walked slowly back. Noor said that she wanted to buy her mother a present for taking her to the mosque and asked her mother to bring her to the fabric souq. Her mother was surprised but agreed. Noor walked slowly, looking at everything. When she saw the grandest fabric shop, Al Kanz, she smiled a small smile, covered by her veil. The owner was old but he had a young son helping him who was just her age.

When she returned home, she gave her father all the money she had saved from gifts given to her at Ramadan. “Please father, can you go to Al Kanz fabric store and buy three lengths of yellow silk for my mother, I would like to give her a present.” This was the first present Noor had given anyone, so the father was surprised but he agreed.

And somehow, no one knows exactly how, for the first time, the daughter of a coppersmith did not marry a coppersmith; Noor married the richest of all the fabric merchants, who had a lavish apartment above the store with a small enclosed patio with orange trees in pots, a small fountain and a small table and chairs made by the finest furniture craftsmen with inlaid mother-of-pearl.

Noor’s happiness lasted from the moment the engagement was announced until a few hours after the wedding when she sat alone in her new bedroom in her beautiful velvet dress admiring the silk curtains, silk sheets, and silk tablecloths. Then her husband came in. The first thing he said to her when he saw her in her gorgeous velvet wedding dress was. “Put on a simple cotton house dress and take off that velvet wedding dress! The material is very expensive and we can sell it to someone who is not from this town, without telling anyone you wore it.”

The second thing he said to her was. “Put simple cotton sheets on the bed, wash and iron the satin sheets carefully and put them away! The fabric is very expensive and we can sell them.”

The third thing he said to her was when he saw the silk tablecloth she had put on the table for their dinner. “Put a simple cotton tablecloth on the table and wash and iron the silk tablecloth! The fabric is expensive and we can sell it.”

The silk curtains had to be left as a small corner of them could be seen from the street. He wanted everyone in the town to think he had silk everywhere in the house so they would be jealous and buy lots of silk to be as good as he was.

When Noor asked him to sit down for their first dinner together, he said he had been away from the store all day because of the weeding and he wanted to make sure everything was all right. He quickly ate two pieces of bread and four pieces of cheese with a glass of tea and went downstairs.

Noor soon learned that Abdullah and his father had become the richest fabric sellers in the souq because they worked every day and never spent any money. Abdullah was happy to be married to Noor, who was said to be the most beautiful girl in the souq, but business was more important than marriage.

Noor sat at the window and watched through the wooden screen at the people who walked by her husband’s shop. She was clean, the room smelled of rosewater and there was no sound of hammering metal. She was something close to happy, but not exactly happy.

Every night, Abdullah slept in his usual place a small cot, in the back of the store where he would listen for the sounds of mice chewing and could be instantly awake and charging off to protect his merchandise.

Noor slept in the beautiful room next to the courtyard on the roof, but she soon learned that the fountain was only to check if the fabric had been properly dyed, the orange trees were where the wet fabric was draped to dry and the small in-laid mother-of-pearl table was for her husband to sit and discuss prices with merchants who arrived with the caravans.

She learned the three things she must never do: spill food on her clothes, the sofa fabric or the jewel colored soft rungs under her feet, spill coffee on her clothes, the sofa fabric or the jewel colored soft rungs under her feet or to create wrinkles in her clothes, the sofa, or the jewel colored rugs under her feet.

Luckily Abdullah only came to inspect her and the fabrics three times a day – after the fajr prayer of sunrise, when he would ascend the steps and drink a cup of tea with her. He would ascend the stairs again before he would go to the mosque for the dhuhr prayers around noon, asking her what was needed for the house. He would then go to the mosque, do his prayers and then eat a meal of rice and meat quickly at a small, inexpensive restaurant near the souq and buy whatever she had asked for.

Before he went to the mosque for the mughrib prayer at sunset, he would again ascend and examine the fabrics and her, then leave the things she had asked for. After the isha prayer, he would spend one hour in a small cafe near his shop and speak with other fabric-sellers about the prices, the caravans and the weather.

Once a month, during the first week, her father brought her mother for a visit; once a month, during the second week, Abdullah escorted Noor after the Friday noon prayer to visit her mother, and once a month during the third week, he escorted her between the sunset and the last prayer around the top of the parapet of the wall surrounding the city; the time when married couples were allowed to walk together. All the other couples talked softly together during this time, but Noor and Abdullah stayed silent. Abdullah was thinking of his fabric, wondering if a mouse was in the shop chewing away at one of the bolts of silk. Noor was looking out at the desert, wondering if the djinn of the souq was there, watching her. She wondered if the coppersmith’s daughter who the djinn had rescued was now old, and maybe the djinn was thinking of taking another coppersmith’s daughter. She wondered what it would be like to be the wife of a djinn.

Noor was still a girl as Abdullah kept putting off making her his wife – he hated the thought of making the sheets dirty and thought of a child who would make the sheets and rugs and tablecloths dirty. Every month he put off his responsibility as a husband because he was trying to convince Noor to have sex with him on the tiles of the courtyard, then go to stay with her mother and only return to the fabric store when her child was five or six years old, old enough to know to keep clean.

When he had first mentioned his plan to Noor, she said no. He didn’t come to see what she wanted for three days, then asked her again. She said no. She drank water from the fountain and ate small bitter oranges from the tree and would do so for weeks if necessary. She was not going back to the coppersmith souq with the coal and heat and hammering and the noise.

Now, during the fourth week of every month Abdullah would ask again, tempting her with whatever delicacies the latest caravan had brought in: kumquats, Spanish lace, the newest and softest Indian silks, Nejd dates, the most expensive incense, Syrian pistachios, jewel-toned Afghani carpets. Noor would say no.

Abdullah wanted to talk this over with his father, but Abdullah’s mother had died when Abdullah was a child and, from respect, Abdullah’s father would never speak to any of the women in his family, so he had no experience and no recourse as to how to handle a woman. In the fourth week Abdullah would ask, she would say no, nothing would be done and the next month rolled around again.

Noor’s main joy, besides waking up in a clean, quiet room was her maid, or her feather-in-law’s maid. She had appeared a few days after Abdullah’s mother died, saying that she had been hired to take care of Abdullah and his father.

Her name was Balquis, and from respect, she covered her face at all times. Although her back was bent and she walked with a limp, she seemed to have enough energy to cook

and clear, appearing at seven, just as the store opened to make tea and fresh bread. Then she cleaned until ten, when she brought Noor a cup of the most delicious coffee, fresh bread and fruit for her breakfast.

Balquis made something for dinner and left it in a covered pot. Then she cleaned more and left again at four or five, after bringing Noor yet one more cup of delicious coffee. It was a great mystery how this woman made the coffee; she would allow no one in the kitchen when she ground and roasted the bean and boiled the coffee.

“It is cinnamon,” said the wife of another fabric seller.

“No, it is ginger,” said a second.

“It is cardamom,” said a third.

“We all use cardamom, but ours does not taste like this.”

“It is the sugar, the sweetest, heaviest kind from the African traders.”

“No, I have seen her buy it myself-only the purest white grains from the Red Sea.”

“No, the secret is Chinese tea leaves, just a few.”

No one could find out and, except Noor, the only time they could drink it was on Eids, when Balquis would make three large carafes of the coffee and whoever came at exactly the right time would have a cup.

Although the custom in the souq was you were always given as many cups as you wanted, Balquis would only pour out one cup per person. Even if the sheikh of the largest tribe yelled at her, she would pour him no more than one cup. And once the three carafes were empty, she would not make any more until the next Eid.

But Noor could have two or three, even four cups every day to drink in the quiet of the pretty roof courtyard with the fountain playing and the gentle scent of orange blossoms, even if the fountain was full of fabric and the trees were draped with fabric.

One day, as she was drinking the coffee, a handsome man appeared. He stood in the doorway of her bedroom and held out his hand towards her. Noor was startled, she looked at his tall figure, his short beard which appeared now black, now dark brown, now deep red, his long elegant cloak which appeared now dark blue, now black and now the dark green of coconut palm fronds and she thought he must be the djinn of the souq.

The Coppersmith’s Daughter, part 2 (The Pearl Cloth)

The Coppersmith’s Daughter, part 3 (The Shapeshifter)

The Coppersmith’s Daughter, part 4 (The Well)

The Coppersmith’s Daughter, part 5 (Balquis)

Tales from the Souq – Yusef the Thief  and Mubarak the Cook

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(illustration by Warwick Goble)