Darling, every week I open my window and peek out to see if perhaps now I might continue on with the dispensing of excellent advice, but alas, this week (as that last few weeks) the news is discouraging and people are suffering. This is a time to survive (and keep up with basic personal hygiene so as not to alarm roommates), not to improve one’s charm. Just get through with least harm done, that’s the mantra. So onwards to the world of fairy tales until such times as we can again revisit how to properly pick up a cup of tea, serve artichokes, outmaneuver evil bosses and use a glitter gun. Courage, ma amie, always courage. (illustration by Eleanor Fortescue-Brickdale)
Once upon a time there was a beautiful girl with long 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 peace and quietness and for cool rivers that flowed like her long hair when she shook it out at night. But this would never happen, she would marry a copper-smith, like her sisters and cousins and she would live forever with the fires and pounding and metal that gleamed with a dull glow but was never soft or smooth.
Then one day the djinn of the palace came to inspect the workshops with the vizar who was going to order new objets d’art for the palace and wanted to see which coppersmith did the best work. Now vizars are (underneath a lot of pride and fuss) generally good-hearted, but they do get used to the role, to everyone curtseying and backing away. They aren’t good in crowded conditions as they are used to huge palace rooms and everyone making way for them.
So this vizar, as he was looking at the bowls being hammered by a master coppersmith, happened to hit one of the fire irons with his elbow, which happened to fall onto a little girl, the master’s daughter, who was walking by.
Her hair caught on fire, and in horror at this accident, the djinn quickly scooped her up in his arms, the pain stopped and the burn healed, but of course everyone had seen her pulled up into the air so there was nothing to be done.
When she reached 18, she was given the most beautiful copper bowl in all the souq and escorted to the city gates. She walked a little ways away from the city as she knew she had to, but when the hinged doors closed at sunset, she ran back to the city wall and, shivering from fright, pressed herself against it.
She had no wish to see a djinn, much less be the wife of one. She liked people and people-things like soap that smelled of flowers, pretty silk scarves, embroidered slippers with little bells and sweet, small tangerines. She had no wish for gold plates and castles or elephants to carry her. There were no scars from the burn and she did not remember what happened, but all the older people remembered and told her endlessly. Many girls in the souq tried to be her friend thinking the future djinn-wife was something glamorous but stopped talking to her when they realized she was very ordinary. When she was almost 18, some girls tried again to be friends, knowing that she would marry a djinn and there might be a benefit for them, but they stopped talking to her when they realized she was still very ordinary. She wanted to talk about clothes and new recipes and daily things like how to clean carpets and making a good, rose-scented face masque. When she was brought to the gates, several girls cried, but it was only for show to make themselves look tender-hearted.
As she huddled next to the city wall, pressing against the stones, wishing they would open and let her back into Ashtaran, there was a meeting of djinn nearby (actually above her head and in djinn-speak so she heard nothing but a whisper of wind).
The djinn of the palace was in especially bad spirits because it was his fault, but he didn’t want to take responsibility for her.
“You broke it, you bought it,” said the djinn of the buildings who always took the worst possible point of view.
“She’s not broken at all,” said the djinn of wisdom placidly.
“Not broken, but not attractive and not faut il comme for the palace,” said the djinn of the palace dejectedly.
“Get down there,” said Kalfan, “she’s afraid and”
“Yes, yes, I will go, I was just wondering if anyone, I mean if”
“If anyone will agree to take her off your hands,” said the djinn of the souq.
“There is,” the djinn of the wells began.
“Yes, she is the sturdy sort who,” continued the djinn of the plants.
“She likes Ashtaran,” said the djinn of wisdom sternly.
“It would only be for a few months, until we found someone proper, and,”
“Being stuck in a tiny oasis, taking care of your well and your date palm trees would so alter her looks, when she was brought back here, no one would recognize her,” said Kalfan, who worked so much with animals he was used to plain speech.
“I would take care of her, she would come to no harm,” said the djinn of wells stiffly.
“And you would be in debt to her,” said the djinn of wisdom, “and you also,” nodding to the djinn of the palace.
There was a silence of agreement, and Khalfan changed himself into a small cat who crept close to Balquis. His purring calmed her and his tiny body gave off so much heat, she was quickly warm and fell asleep.
Then the djinn of the well carefully carried her many miles into the desert where there was a small oasis. She awoke in a tiny hut made of palm fronds with narrow shelves full of bread, cheese, rice, spices and coffee beans, some bowls, knives and a green pottery bowl full of fruit. There was a narrow bed with quilts, a table and chair and a lamp with oil. There was a small wooden chest with the holy book, and some books of stories and glass bottles full of perfume. The oasis had a well and 27 date palms.
Within a week Balquis had given each palm a name, and within a month she had read all the stories, as she was a younger daughter and not needed for housework, her mother let her go to her aunt to learn how to read. She longed for people, but then again, this was better than being a djinn’s wife – she sharpened the knives, cut the dead fronds off the trees, pulled up buckets of water to give to the trees and learned all the stars in the sky.
For a while she was afraid that someone might come, but when someone did – it was at night; they only dropped off more supplies and left again without waking her. So her life was lonely but peaceful, busy but dull. When sand storms came, she draped the quilts over her bed and slept under the bed, pretending she was in a cave. She leaved to weave dead palm fronds together and to always check her slippers for scorpions before she put them on.
Then one day she woke up and five camels were sitting next to the well. They still had saddles on, richly decorated with precious stones. She gave them water and hoped that they did not belong to the vizar who would show up to take the camels and fall in love with her. She didn’t want to marry a vizar anymore than she wanted to marry a djinn. Some people long for adventure and some people long for a nice cup of tea with a nice fruit salad and someone to talk about the weather with.
One of the sons of the djinn of the wells had misbehaved, so he was going to take over the oasis and it had been three years, long enough for Balquis to be forgotten (yes, it’s sad to be forgotten but her father had 14 children, and is it worse to be forgotten or to be remembered but with hate? Besides, her disappearance meant improved safety standards for the area of the of the coppersmiths).
So a small wind was whipped up, some camels from a caravan were led astray and brought to Balquis’ oasis. Later that day, two camel boys came looking for the camels and she told them a story of being separated from a caravan. They were the right kind of camel boys and led her back to their caravan without harm and she was brought to Ashtaran.
As was the custom, she was brought to the Grand Mosque and given to the sheikh, who handed her over to his wife. Balquis knew that she should not say who she really was, so she invented a story of coming from a far town.
That night the Imam and his wife debated who among the righteous men would be suitable and, as was the custom, over the next few days the wife of the sheikh invited several women for tea to see the girl and help decide her fate. None of the women wanted her for their sons; Balquis was a little too plain, a little too quiet. She had neither sparkling conversation nor sparkling eyes.
The sheikh’s wife was becoming a little worried, if no man could be found, then her husband would have to marry her. A second wife would be fine, it would be nice to have someone help her sweep the carpets and clean the teapots, but Balquis was so very plain.
Then, of all things, Abdulahmed, the fabric-seller, came to visit. “I heard there was a girl under the protection of the mosque and I want to see her.”
Everyone knew Abdulahmed. He was honest in selling and religious, but not a generous man. He would not beat Balquis, but he would not be kind. But then again Balquis was alone in the world and needed to be married quickly. Against all propriety as her husband was in his study, the sheikh’s wife called the girl to bring tea, and she, Abdulahmed and Balquis had tea together.
After the second cup, he asked, “So, will you have me? I will not beat you and you can have some money every Thursday to buy as you wish.”
The sheikh’s wife almost choked, there were ways to do things, and this was not the way but before she could object, Balquis said, “I agree, but one night a week you will bring supper from a restaurant so I don’t have to cook and I will have new clothes every Eid.” So for the first time in Ashtaran, a man and woman made their own contract, although the sheikh lied to everyone and said that he made the contract.
The first Thursday they were married, Abdulahmed gave Balquis several large silver coins and said she had an hour to shop as she pleased, but each Thursday he gave her fewer coins and less time, and every week he ‘forgot’ to bring supper from a restaurant so she had to cook every day.
Her life was better than the oasis, but it was not very much of a life. Stuck in the upstairs apartment with the orange trees in blue and white pots and having to keep clean all the time. The only thing she had to look forward to was the monthly visit of Amr, the canvas-maker. Abdulahmed did not want to leave his shop to make the monthly purchase of canvas to wrap the sold pieces of fabrics, so Amr came to him. But of course they were always interrupted so Amr sat alone on the balcony upstairs while Abdulahmed ran down to help customers in the shop.
As a good wife, Balquis should have sat silently in the room with the door closed, but during his first visit, she didn’t realize that her husband had gone downstairs when she brought the tea out. Then it didn’t seem right to leave Amr alone, so she poured the tea and sat with him.
They talked about the weather for fifteen minutes. Every detail of sunrise, sunset, clouds, wind, heat, and sand storms were gone through in such detail that even the flies dive-bombing the sugar pot fell asleep as Amr and Balquis fell into something not so different than love.
When he came the next month, she was pregnant with Abdulahmed’s baby but their half hour together was the highlight of her month. Then Eid came and Abdulahmed did not buy her any clothes although owning a store full of fabric. So Balquis considered herself divorced as he broke their marriage contract and, interspersed with remarks about the weather, conveyed this to Amr the next time she saw him.
Now Amr, gruff, rough and ill-favored, never thought of acquiring a wife, much less a married woman propositioning him, but Balquis was a solid woman, no-nonsense and not a woman to stand on ceremony. It was decided in less time than it took Abdulahmed to sell three lengths of apricot silk and wrap it in a small piece of Amr’s best canvas. After the baby was born, Balquis would marry Amr, but would come back every morning to take care of the baby.
And thus it came to be, five days after Abdullah was born, Balquis arranged for an afternoon nurse and a night nurse and left the house while Abdulahmed was at Friday prayers. She went to the well by the Grand Mosque where Amr was waiting. They said the prayer of marriage to each other and he brought her home, saying, “A cousin from Loumsel,” to his surprised neighbors.
Then, wearing a dark veil and speaking low, she presented herself at Abdulahmed’s house on Saturday morning saying the Balquis had hired her before Balquis died to watch Abdullah. Abdulahmed, unsure if he should be in grief for a dead wife or glad that she managed to die away from the house so that there were no funeral expenses, agreed and thus Balquis went from wife to servant. She cuddled and played with Abdullah but it was clear he was his father’s son. He never laughed or smiled – he sat stolidly and only wanted to play with the small coins on the hem of Balquis’ scarf.
The morning of the first Friday after Balquis and Amr were married, she found a small wooden box full of spices in the kitchen. She added one spoonful to the coffee and when he came back from the mosque, he declared it was the best coffee he ever had and asked her from where she had the spices.
Oh those questions at the beginning of a marriage – the questions that can make peace or unhappiness for years to come. Should Balquis say that she was the coppersmith’s daughter who lived in a magical oasis and this was a wedding present from a djinn or should she keep quiet? For a woman who liked to talk about the weather, she had lived a pretty exciting life so far and, well, it was enough excitement. She said it was her secret recipe.
She made him one cup every day, but the box never emptied. No matter how many times she opened it, the amount of spices were the same. And she brought three carafes of coffee to Abdulahmed every Eid, perhaps the magical coffee could soften him or their son Abdullah. But every morning when Balquis came to play with Abdullah and clean, she saw her son’s eyes watching the corners of the rooms for mice who might chew the fabric. And when he grew up and married Noor, she saw in Noor’s eyes the same sadness she had before she met Amr. When Noor became pregnant, Balquis knew the baby was from a djinn, but said nothing. It was not her story.
She continued to come, until the day Abdullah told her to meet him at the well. She did not know exactly what he meant, but she knew that it was something not good. She did not bother Amr with it, they had a nice dinner which he had brought from a restaurant and then she said that she had to go out. He, gruff but kindly husband, did not ask “to where.”
She put on her largest, blackest shawl and walked swiftly to the well of the souq. Then she sat carefully balanced on the edge and called softly, “I know not what Abdullah, my son, is planning, but I ask for your protection.” She wisely didn’t mention that she felt the djinns owed her something, I mean a magic box of spices was all well and good, but that did not quite make up for being banished from her city (although she did manage to return) and several months at a magical oasis (although it wasn’t that bad). With djinns it is always better to ask for things, not act like they owe you something, especially when they do owe you. She waited a few moments, until she heard the low call of a nightingale which she took as affirmation, then walked home.
The djinn of wisdom, who had been sitting next to Balquis, gave the djinn of the wells a significant look.
“I know, I know,” said the djinn of the wells.
“And I will help,” said the djinn of the plants.
So the next day when Abdullah tossed her in the well, she did not land on the water 50 feet down, she landed on a tuft of rose petals whose heavy scent sent her into a deep sleep and she woke in her own bed. She never saw her former husband or son again, and the box of spices for coffee eventually came into the hands of one of Noor’s daughters, but that is a tale for another time.
(illustration by Eleanor Fortescue-Brickdale)