Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Omani Folktales: Myth of the Abu Thail

                  Long, long ago in the area of Dhofar in the land of Oman and extending past that into all the land that was then of Yemen, before the reign of the Queen known as Saba {Sheba}, there was a man who was known as a braggart. He bragged about the deeds of his youth, about the size of his farm, and he bragged about his daughter.

                "She is the greatest beauty in all the Kingdom," he said to all those who would listen. "Her eyes are as green as the mountains in mist, her skin as pale as the mist itself. Her hair is as red as the flame in the light. The Angels themselves would be jealous. She deserves all the dowry of silver that a man can afford."
                One day a group of men travelling on the road came upon the house of the braggart, and he welcomed them to stay overnight, overjoyed to have an audience to speak to, as foolish as he was.
                He told them all there was to tell of his life and his family and when even that--- as embellished as it was---was not enough to impress them, he spoke of how no other had a daughter as lovely as his own.
               All this, to strangers.

                He made no impression on them, for unbeknownst to him, they came from the house of the King of their land. The King was surrounded by many beautiful women.  He had no need of women or beauty or charm. And men of deeds he had, heroes and warriors aplenty.
                The warriors of the King, for then they made themselves known, told the girl's father as much. They had come to this land to buy a camel that was rumored to be the finest, fastest, reddest and most beautiful, and only that, had the King and themselves vested interest in.
                But not to be outdone, the man said to them, "But does he have such women as this daughter of mine, who can outrun any horse or camel or beast? For she is the swiftest on foot, so quick the eye can naught behold her!"
                The men were dubious of such a boast, but it remained in their minds, long after they had left the braggart's house in the early morn, and had made their way back to the King with the red camel.
                Now the King was content with his camel, until he heard one of his men joking with another man-at-arms that there might be a woman in Dhofar, the daughter of a farmer, that could outrun it.
                "The man is a liar!" The King raged to the men, when he had heard the full tale recounted. "Nothing but a braggart or fool."
                "Indeed," those who had been guests in that house and overheard tall tales assented in unison.
                "But did any of you see the man's daughter?" The King asked them.
                They had not.
                "I WILL NOT have it said that any man possesses a beast superior to my own," the King decided. "So send for this man and his daughter. If she really is so talented and beautiful, tell him she might make a fine wife for me."
                The warriors made the journey and attended the house of the farmer who fancied himself stronger than all of them put together, and ten times as brave. They gave him the news that the King had heard how beautiful and talented his daughter was, and he would like to see her for himself, for maybe he would like to marry her.
                Of course the braggart jumped at the chance to boast an audience with a King about a betrothal to his famed daughter, so daughter and father went to the hall of the King.
                Once they were there, it was seen by the King, that although no woman could truly be as beautiful as the green of the Earth, the girl was indeed beautiful, with light eyes, and skin almost transparent in its whiteness, and with the light red hair that is common only in Arab women of that part of the South between the mountains.
                But that alone was not what the King sought in a wife to bear his sons and carry the blood of his kingdom. He began to speak:
                "I will not have it said that any man possesses that which is superior to my red camel, unless what he speaks is the truth, so your daughter will race my camel and lightest boy tomorrow at sunset. If she wins, she will be my wife... and Queen."
                The braggart was dumbly delighted, as if the King made some kind of joke.
                "...But if she loses..." the King waved his arms as a signal for the warriors to seize the girl's father. "... then your tongue will be cut out for lying and you put to death for the insult you have made to be so brazenly deceitful. As if you could make an easy fool of a King who had the fathers that I had!"
                The girl was at a loss to see her father dragged away and locked up.
                "So my girl," the King came to her, "will you race my camel to save the health and honour of your father at the next day's burning set?"
                She didn't know what to do but be brave so she nodded mutely in assent.
                "If he was not telling the truth as we all know well he could not have been, then you are free to leave this place," the King allowed her. "There will be no dishonour or blame upon you for what your father has spoken if you admit his lie. The gates and every door of this place is open to you to stay or to go. I feel for your situation. But my pride cannot allow your father any mercy for he has mocked a King in the face before his men." With that he left her.
                She ran from that hall, out the gates, and towards a cliff near the sea, tempted to throw herself in to avoid witnessing or knowing the inevitable.
                For all that her father was a liar and a braggart, he'd always been good to her, and the girl loved him too much, so she could neither run away from the place nor throw herself in.
                She sat there and cried all the night.
                She knew to stay and do her best was for naught but she could not abandon her father.
                In those days, the people were mushrikeen {pagans}, and she tore off her gold bracelet and hurled it into the sea, praying the spirits of the place, or all the idols of the land, would help her save her father tomorrow.
                "I will give you anything!" the girl promised them. "Anything at all! If you would just help me to save my father. If I would be Queen, I would have more then to give you. I would accept that, to pay you back. Just please! Please spare my father!"
                "Anything?" a voice came from behind her. "Anything at all?"
                Behind the girl stood a witch. She appeared sometimes as a beautiful woman with shining eyes and skirts of yellow saffron flower dye and a dyed leather apron stained with purple indigo and a belt of cowrie shells but if one stared too long the woman seemed dreadfully old and deformed. Then one would blink, and the glamour of a beautiful woman would return again to the mind's eye.
                The girl stepped back, frightened. "Anything," she gulped. "But how can you help me?"
                "Me?" the witch laughed.  "I can work magic of course. All I need is a promise from you."
                Hope mixed with dread ran through the girl's blood. "I have no choice," the braggart's daughter assented dumbly. "All that you ask for, I must give, for I have no other way."
                "There is always a choice, my dear girl," the witch cackled, taking her arm, and pulling her back from the cliff. "I need you to give me something even I cannot make by magic. I need you to promise me your firstborn child."
                The girl agreed, and did not ask to what purpose, because having children seemed then so far away from that night and the deed she had to tomorrow preform.
                "Now give me your shoes," the witch instructed the girl, and the braggart's daughter slipped them off and handed them to the witch. "I am going to make them quicker than any hoof, with a heart of their own. Keep them with you always and do not put them on until the sun bleeds red. Wear them, and you will outrun anything and anyone... but me.
                So remember well your promise."
                The King was surprised to see the girl returned to his house in the morning.
                She came in barefoot and haunted, clutching a pair of velvet slippers to her chest. She held them very tightly and spoke a word to no one even as the track was set, and her father and the King's red camel brought out.
                She waited for the sky to turn red with the sun's setting as per the witch's instruction. Everyone was seated to watch a fragile girl attempt to race the King's finest beast. When she saw the sky bleed, she took a deep breath and slipped the shoes on.
                Her father hung his head for shame, humbled for the first, for all he knew was possible, his daughter had to fail and this was cruel to her.
   The King, he admired the shy girl, for trying.
                The red camel brayed fiercely, and a call was sounded, and its hoofs beat the earth at a thundering pace that struck up a cloud of dust that was almost blinding. 
                But to the astoundment of all those gathered, the girl moved like a blur of mercury, and she finished ahead of the camel. When the dust parted she stood without a vein of sweat upon her brow, while the beast was lathered in foam.
                Her father could not believe his eyes, and made a vow then and there, that he would never brag or boast or even mention his daughter's name to another man ever again, for even the true good and ordinary things she was capable of. Later his daughter would tell him, how she accomplished the feat, to his horror, about the Witch and all.
                Unknowing all of that, the King jumped up from his carpeted and cushioned place, and sought her out from the silent and amazed crowd.
                "I see no other woman, who could keep pace with you," he laughed out loud but for shock. "I beg your forgiveness that I could be so wrong, and maybe if I married you and made you a Queen, you would see I made some repair to your father for that?"
                Seeing her father alright, was all the girl had care of, but knowing him to be a proud man, she said yes to the King.
                "But with one condition," she told the Ruler.
                "Anything," the King smiled, for no man would ever have a wife such as his, no other King a Queen of the like.
                "Never brag about me, or tell another soul about my talent or face."
                The King agreed, and they were married, she became a Queen, and for many happy years, the desperate promise was not taken to account. When the girl became pregnant, a worry came over her, so she sought news as anyone could bring of the witch. She heard the witch was very old, and could hardly move, so the girl's fears were abated.
                Until one day, a King from another land had an audience with her husband, and they were boasting of their men and deeds and holdings as Kings are wont to do.
                The other King bragged of his ships and wives and their beauty, and was delighted to find he had more wives than this King and more children by them.
                Not one who tolerated to be thought of as less than by others, the King forgot the word he had given as dower to his wife, and laughed at this other King.
                "All your wives are NOTHING in compare to my one Queen! She has beauty. And she is pregnant also. Not one of them could stand by her." He knew it was the truth and was content with it, but spoke anyways in disregard of the happiness he had found.
                "How so?" the other King scoffed.
                "Can any one of your wives outrun your best stallion?"
                "Of course, none of mine can," the other King set his golden cup of drink aside. "Can your one own?" He challenged with a laugh.
                So a race was set between the King's wife the Queen, and other King's stallion.
                "How could you do this to me!" the Queen challenged her husband before the race. "And I, pregnant besides! How could you break your promise?"
                "Can you not win it still?" the King regretted his wife having to run with the burden of motherhood, and worried she would not be able to do so.
                The race was run, and won by the Witch's magic shoes, but the pangs of labour were brought on early by the effort of the race, and the woman's first born child was born.
                From then on, the Queen, nor her husband, nor any of her servants, could take the shoes from her feet. It was as if they were of her skin.
                In her dreams, the Queen heard the Witch's voice while she tossed and turned.
                "Remember well your promise, girl. Time has come to make good on it." And she would see the witch's face in her dreams, no longer beautiful but horrible and wretched, and old. And she would hug her baby, a daughter, close, and pray to be forgiven for what she had long ago said.
                Then one night the old Witch appeared, horrible and gnarled, in the bedchamber of the King and Queen, more real than a nightmare, for both parents awoke to find the accursed woman reaching for their sleeping infant heir.
                "Get ye gone from here you old hag!" The King, jumped up, and made hold of his sword, to threaten the old woman, but the blade turned hot in his hand so that he dropped it, and the old woman cackled.
                "No blade or arrow tipped with bronze will avail you against me! For your wife made a promise of that baby girl to me. And I will take what is promised me."
                The Witch made to take the sleeping baby in her arms but the Queen in her magic shoes was quick and she grabbed hold of the babe and the witch's leather apron of indigo besides and ran from there.
                To the King's horror, the Witch disappeared also.
                "Where are you going girl?" the Witch's voice cackled before her as far as the young Queen got from the place where the promise had been made. "Every footstep you make I will see. Those shoes cannot outrun me, I told you."
                And to the sound of the witch's laughter, the power of the shoes was gone, but that they could tell the Witch exactly where the Queen was no matter how far or how well she hid. And she could not take them off.  So even though her heart could give out, for love of her daughter, she could not stop running even a minute.
                That was the curse of them. And though the Witch herself was weak with age, she had made spells to make many young men fall into a craze of love with her, and for her they sought the hills and could see the Queen's footsteps, as if they were fire, and by the Witch's magic, took the Queen for an animal, and hunted her with arrows.
                She would have to run until either she or the Witch died, whichever came first. It seemed she would be the first though, since her heart was heavy with exhaustion. Who knew then what fate would become her daughter?
                All the while the King had learned from his wife's father about her promise to the Witch and the price to be paid and the curse of the shoes and how her footsteps would always be seen.
                So he and her father disguised themselves as these crazed men, and pretended as if they were in love with the Witch, to learn of where the girls they both cherished dearly were, in order to help the mother and her daughter.
                When the King came upon his wife in the disguise of the Witch's men hunting the hills, she was in terror, but he threw it off, and urged her to follow him to where her father was.
                Since her footsteps, no matter where they fell would be seen, and the shoes could never be removed, her father devised a plan to blot out the imprint the cursed shoes made.
                The Witch's leather apron was cut and attached to back of the Queen's fine velvet dress, so that it dragged behind her, heavy, but erasing the marks of her presence as they were made.
                The Witch's men befuddled already by magic, grew confused as the trail had vanished, and returned empty-handed to the enraged Witch.
                The wicked woman had seen all that had befallen, but in her ancient state could do nothing more against them all than curse.
                "I curse you, Abu Thail!" {Abu Thail: Arabic words meaning "Father of the Tail"} "Indeed, I curse you, Abu Thail!" the Witch went on manically as age and death came close to wait at her side. "Even if you never speak your daughters' names, and veil their beauty, and THAT becomes a point of pride for you, wicked men will always haunt their footsteps for what was denied me!"
                And then she died.        
                The King and Queen returned safely with their daughter and they had many more children besides, and not even the King or the sons of his Grandchildren or their male descendants ever boasted about the women of their family ever again.
                Whether the Witch's magic had abandoned her then or not, not one person living today knows. But to this day you will see the women of Dhofar, and in parts of Yemen and Southern-Most Saudi Arabia wearing long tailed dresses trailing over the footsteps left behind them to cover over the ways they have walked.
[Note: This is actually not a Dhofari Omani folktale. It is three individual fragmented tales combined from the Hadhramout. The traditional dress of Southern Oman, the 'abu thail' is rumoured to have originally been made of leather to 'blot out' a woman's footsteps so that men could not follow the women as the tended their sheep. The story I have related is actually a folktale from Southern Saudi Arabia about magic shoes and why their dresses are long there too;) which is similar to an old Yemeni story. Since Yemen, Southern KSA in areas such as Taif and the Asir  Plateau, as well as Dhofar share the same long trailing garment, I thought to combine the stories to what ***may*** have been the original tale of the "father of the tail".]

5 comments:

HijabRockers said...

Wow. Speechless (Cricket sounds in the background)

Rana Rashid Raza said...

OMani Princess, Omani princess, I really love your b log. I like to see a new post from you. u r great. Masha'Allah x Rana x

Anonymous said...

wow! me & my kids love the story. Thank you.

36Nanistra said...

... "Rumplestiltskin"? The original tale is better than that.

A Tarkabarka Hölgy said...

Just found this blog, and I love it! :) And I am enchanted by the story. I am a professional storyteller always looking for new tales to tell. I also love folklore research. I was wondering if you could help me find the sources you used? I am especially interested in the fact that she is red haired.
Thank you so much!

@TarkabarkaHolgy from
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