Seven Daughters and Seven Sons by Barbara Cohen with Bahija Lovejoy is a lovely retelling of a traditional Arabic tale in which a young woman named Buran is one among seven daughters in an impoverished family. Her father’s brother, on the other hand, has seven sons—and is as rich as Buran’s family is poor. In the first part of the narrative (from Buran’s point of view), determined to do something for her family, Buran disguises herself as a man and renames herself Nasir. And Nasir, now a boy, rides the camel caravan to the city of Tyre, in modern-day Lebanon.
There, in the second part of the book, she (now he) meets the son of the Wali of Tyre, Prince Mahmud (whose point of view this section is written from). Nasir makes much money—and more than that, makes a wonderful friend, Mahmud. But when Mahmud almost realizes that Nasir is a girl, Nasir has no choice but to leave as a rich lady.
In the third part of the novel, from Buran’s point of view again, Buran becomes herself once more and goes back to her family in Baghdad. On the way, though, she stops at seven different cities—in each of which, one of her seven cousins had been sent to open outlets of Buran’s uncle’s main shop, in Baghdad. None of the cousins have been able to succesfully set up shop and keep the business going, so Buran decides to take advantage of the poor boys. She gives them either 100, 150, or even 200 gold dinars (depending from person to person), in exchange for each one tattooing the letter B for “Buran” on their heart. Then, when Buran finally returns to her family, she sees that thanks to her, her family is actually richer than her uncle! She is then told to marry her eldest cousin, so she says she will do it—but she wants that he have no mark or tattoo, no brand to show his faithfulness to anyone else. When her father goes to inspect the cousin, the cousin refuses—because he has the letter B on his chest! The uncle, who doesn’t care about who Buran marries and only wants the money, tells the father to inspect another cousin. But of course, all seven sons have B‘s on their hearts! So in this way, Buran manages to show her cousins and uncle that they’re no better than she or her family.
But Buran still longs for that good friend she had met, Prince Mahmud. Will she ever see him again? And if so, what will happen then?
For this hilarious and heartwarming piece, I chose to write a short story. In Seven Daughters and Seven Sons, Nasir and Prince Mahmud walk down the pier by the bay at night almost every day, and most of the time, Nasir tells Mahmud tales—tales to teach Mahmud some morals. So I have imagined one such tale here, that could be included in the actual story:
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Nasir and Mahmud were walking down the pier by the bay, and, as usual, Nasir was telling a the prince a tale. He had heard this tale from the merchants in the camel caravan who had traveled far and wide. It was:
The Tale of Yasifat the Kindhearted
Once there was a king named King Tariq with one son, named Prince Yasifat. Overtime, the prince grew—and the king finally decided it was time to see if his son were ready to be a good king. So he decided to test him. He asked his Grand Vizier if he knew of a reliable way to test his son. The Grand Vizier, in turn, asked a Jinn [Genie] to test the prince. The Jinn replied, “Your Honor, I shall certainly see if our young Prince Yasifat is fit to be the ruler of this kingdom.”
So, at dawn one day, Prince Yasifat was told by his father to go out into the world and have adventures and only return at dusk.
So the Prince set off on his horse. He went along the road for some while before he reached a wide river. As he was resting for a minute, a shepherd came out of the forest. He was clothed in a thin garb, with a hunched back and frail old cane. The shepherd said, “Alsalamu alaykum. Peace be with you, mawlana! Please, help a poor old shepherd to get across this river. My home is on the other side, and I have no way of getting back because I was hurt on my leg after I had crossed the river.” He looked very pitiful, showing a wound on his knee.
The prince knew that he would have to wade across the river if he agreed to take the shepherd with him because the horse was not big enough or strong enough to support both men; whereas, if he ignored the peasant he could ride horseback and stay dry. However, the kind-hearted prince agreed. He placed the shepherd onto his horse’s back, and waded across leading the horse.
Then the soggy prince rode on a little longer until he reached an apple tree right in the middle of the trail. The tree was so wide that it was blocking the entire pathway! There was no way for the prince to pass. However, instead of feeling angry that the apple tree had sprouted up and blocked his way, he cheerfully called out, “Peace be with you, my dear tree! How is life for you today?”
The apple tree lamented, “Oh, my prince, it is nothing, merely a quotidian thing. However, I am not sprouting any apples because of some large obstacle below my roots.”
The prince immediately jumped off his horse and knelt down before the tree. “Why didn’t you say so? I will dig it out.” With his bare hands, he dug down, spraying mud onto himself but not seeming to care. He found a heavy rock blocking the roots!
The prince removed it and placed it out of everyone’s way. The tree, in gratitude, moved aside to let the prince pass. The now wet and muddy prince then continued on his way until the path tapered out and ended near a white cottage. The prince knocked on the door, and a seemingly kindly old woman opened it. She had hideous long teeth, observed the prince. “Peace be with you,” squeaked the old lady. “Mawlana! Why have you come to my humble home?!”
The prince explained he was on an adventure. “Well, sit down, and I will prepare a meal for you, my lord!” cried the lady.
The prince did so. After a while, he decided to see what was taking her so long. He saw, much to his horror, that she was sharpening her teeth and preparing a meatless soup—because the meat, he realized, would be him! He ran away from the witch’s kitchen, but the witch heard him. She followed him as he darted away and galloped back the way he had come. The witch’s legs seemed to move extraordinarily fast as she untiringly sprinted on her own two feet towards him. The prince then reached the tree. “Save me, my friend!” he cried. “There is an old witch behind me trying to catch and eat me!”
“O, my lord, because you helped me, I will help you. You may enter the hollow inside my otherwise impenetrable trunk.” And then, much to the surprise of the prince, the tree trunk opened, allowing the prince to step inside, and then shut firmly behind him. He saw, through a crack in the bark, that the witch had looked around, then given up. He opened the tree and left, calling out, “I have more to thank you than I ever dreamed, my friend. I shall never forget you.”
Then he reached the river again where he had helped the shepherd cross. He saw with dismay that the wide water had grown high and frothy. Then, he saw the shepherd walking by again. “Mawlana! Alsalamu alaykum.” exclaimed the shepherd. “What can I do for you?”
“Oh, my shepherd, if only I could find a way to get across.”
“Oh, but mawlana, there is!” The shepherd pointed up, and, there, the prince saw a pulley and carriage above the river for people to cross in times like these!
The prince thought: I don’t remember this pulley system ever being here before! Where was it when I had to get wet in the river? Why didn’t the shepherd use it himself? But he still gratefully thanked the shepherd and then crossed the river making his way home.
Then, as he had almost reached the exit of the forest and undergrowth, he saw a Jinn rise up in front of him (the same Jinn that was employed by the king and Grand Vizier)!
“Prince Yasifat Mustafa, son of Tariq, King of Arabia!” boomed the loud, jolly voice. “I have been watching and testing you. There is no witch, apple tree, shepherd, or pulley-and-carriage. It was all my magic. And I also proclaim that you have passed the tests! You are worthy to be the heir to the throne!”
And King Yasifat-bin-Mustafa-bin-Tariq-bin-Ali-Muhammad reigned for eighty-seven peaceful years and was the best king ever in the entire Arabian Peninsula. And to this date the people tell his story.
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Nasir concluded the story with a laugh, “So you see, mawlana, it was all thanks to the prince’s kindness that he became what he became.”
“Yes,” agreed Mahmud. “But what are you trying to hint at, my friend? That I, too, should be like this prince?” He laughed. And the two friends walked off into the darkness.