Thursday,20 September, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1184, (13 - 19 February 2014)
Thursday,20 September, 2018
Issue 1184, (13 - 19 February 2014)

Ahram Weekly

Once upon a time - The wooden gazelle

The oral history of Nubia, some of which dates back to hundreds if not thousands of years, resonates with the region’s rich heritage of adventure and romance.

One tale that I particularly like is that of the wooden gazelle. It is recounted by Ibrahim Shaarawi in his book Al-Khorafah Wal Ostura Fi Bilad Al-Nuba, or “Myth and Legend in Nubia”, published in 1984 by the Book General Organisation.

It is a love story between a boy and a girl, him the son of a peasant and her the daughter of the sultan. The boy and the girl meet accidentally and fall in love at first sight. Knowing that their love was doomed, they both become depressed and fall ill. Weeks and months pass, with the lovers separated and languishing, on the verge of death.

Then, one day, an old woman, one experienced in the art of healing, visits the family of the boy.

She sits with the boy, asks him what was wrong with him, and tries to cheer him up with tales of great feats and rare occurrences.

The boy listens to her respectfully and then says, “everything is possible, except one. A peasant will never marry the sultan’s daughter”.

The old woman leaves the boy alone and goes to talk to his mother. Seeing that the mother is crying disconsolately, she says, “crying will not do your boy much good. We have to find a way.”

“I would give my eyes to anyone who would heal my boy.”

“Bless you, no need for that. All we need is a good plan.”

In the corner of the house, there was an old wooden chest, and the old woman points to it and says: “We will need a good carpenter who can refinish this chest in the likeness of a gazelle. Do you know any carpenter who is good and discrete?”

“One of the best carpenters in the country is a relative of mine, and he knows how to keep a secret,” the mother says.

The next day, the mother goes to the carpenter and tells him to refashion the chest into the image of a gazelle, and to work on it in secret and not to tell anyone.

When this is done, the old woman comes back and admires the work. She instructs the mother to bring all her jewellery.

A jeweller is called upon, and he is employed to decorate the gazelle with the gold and precious stones making it a true wonder to the eye. The jeweller, too, is sworn to secrecy.

When this is done, the old woman places the chest on a donkey and takes it to the sultan’s palace.

She is known to the guards, for she has come to the palace in the past to treat the sultan and members of his court.

She is allowed a private audience with the sultan, who is always happy to see her.

“I will be going for pilgrimage and want to leave my gazelle with you till I come back, for it is valuable family heirloom and I cannot think of a place safer than your palace to keep it,” she says.

The two start talking and the sultan mentions that his daughter has been sick for a long time. The old woman suggests that the gazelle is taken to her room, for it might cheer her up, and the sultan agrees.

“This is in fact a charmed gazelle. It has the ability to heal people from their illness. My grandfather lived for many years because he kept it in his room, and so did my grandfather,” the old woman tells the sultan.

The sultan is pleased with this idea and sends the guards with the gazelle to his daughter’s room.

The woman goes to the mother and assures her that everything went to plan and that her son is going to be united with his beloved, for inside the chest she has hid the boy.

At night, when everyone goes to bed and the gates are closed, the boy comes out of the chest.

The princess sees the boy and hardly recognises him, for he has lost so much weight and was pale and frail. He too is shocked by how weak and tired she looks. 

The two are so happy to be together, they stay up all night, eating and drinking, talking and laughing.

At dawn, the boy goes inside the chest to sleep, and the sultan comes to visit his daughter. He is instantly shocked by how high her spirits were and how energetic she has become.

It works like a charm, with the girl getting better every day.

So by the time the old woman comes back, the girl has made a complete recovery. The sultan is beside himself with joy, and tries to offer the woman money for the gazelle. The woman declines to sell it, for it is a sacred family heirloom, as she tells the sultan.

“So how can I reward you? Ask for anything, I will give you half my kingdom if you just say it.”

The old woman sees her chance.

“Do you swear to grant me any request?” she says.

The sultan says she can ask for anything she wants.

“There is this boy whom I love and trust,” the woman says. “And I wish him to marry your daughter, but he is a peasant and the son of a peasant.”

The sultan thinks about it, and although he had wanted his daughter to marry into royalty, decides to grant the old woman her wish.

The woman went to the boy’s house, carrying him inside the chest, on the back of her donkey.

As soon as the door is closed behind them, the boy comes out of the chest, healthy and happy once more. The mother falls into his arms, crying tears of joy.

Not long after that, the sultan arranged for a bid wedding and the festivities lasted for days on end.

Then the boy took his bride and built her a house by the side of the Nile. It wasn’t a big house, but he built it himself. And the princess was happier there than she ever when she lived in the big palace.

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