This story is at least a thousand years old. Its complete title is “The Tale of Mahliya and Mauhub and the White-Footed Gazelle: It Contains Strange and Marvelous Things.” A single copy, probably produced in Egypt or Syria, survives in Istanbul; the first English translation appeared in 2015.
This is not the right way to start a fairy tale, but it’s better than sitting here in silence waiting for Mahliya, who takes forever to get ready. She’s upstairs staining her cheeks with antimony, her lips with a lipstick called Black Sauce. Vainest crone in Cairo.
She leaves her window open for the birds to fly in and out. If you listen closely, you’ll hear the bigger ones thump their wings against the sash. The most famous, of course, is the flying featherless ostrich. A monstrous creature, like something boiled. Mahliya adores it. She lets it eat out of her mouth.
• • • •
While we’re waiting, why don’t I tell you the Tale of the White-Footed Gazelle? I’m only a retainer, but I do know all the stories, for that’s the definition of a servant, especially one in my position, the head servant, and indeed, in these lean times, the only one. Once I presided over a staff of hundreds; now instead of directing many people, I direct many things: I purchase shoes and bedding, I keep up with all the fashions, with advances in medicine, tax laws, satellite TV. If your purpose, as you say, is to produce a monograph on the newly translated Tales of the Marvelous and News of the Strange, including versions of the stories as told by people who experienced them, why not begin with me? I am perfectly familiar with the Tale of the White-Footed Gazelle, which lies enclosed in the Tale of Mahliya and Mauhub. You will be familiar with this narrative structure from A Thousand and One Nights, a collection of tales whose fate has been very different from that of Mahliya’s story. One might ask: Why? Why should A Thousand and One Nights rise to such prominence, performed on stages in Japan and animated by Disney, while the very similar collection containing the Tale of Mahliya and Mauhub has moldered in a library for centuries? Well! No doubt all that is about to change. Just close the window for me, if you would; my bald head feels every draft. When I was a younger man—but that’s not the story you came to hear! Listen, then, and I shall spin you a marvelous tale.
The Tale Of The White-Footed Gazelle
I have condensed it for you because you are a researcher. In this story you will find:
- Haifa’, daughter of a Persian king, also a gazelle
- The White-Footed Gazelle, also a prince of the jinn
- Ostrich King
- Snake King
- Crow Queen
A love story. Haifa’ and the White-Footed Gazelle fall in love, then separate, then move toward each other again, then apart, as if in a cosmic dance. We learn that the Ostrich King unites hearts while the Crow Queen divides lovers. These movements of attraction and repulsion also characterize the Tale of Mahliya and Mauhub.
An animal story. A prince of the jinn takes the form of a white-footed gazelle to follow Haifa’ into her secluded garden. When he abandons her due to a misunderstanding (he thinks she’s divulged his true nature), she tracks him through a country of marvelous beasts. In a wild green valley, ostriches graze in the shadow of the Obsidian Mountain, which marks the border of the land of the jinn. The Ostrich King herds his flock with a palm branch, flicking their tails with the spikes. That night, as Haifa’ takes shelter with him, the Snake King passes with his retinue. A noisy party, jostling and laughing, quaffing great goblets of smoke. They ride upon snakes and wear snakes coiled round their heads like turbans. “Have you seen the White-Footed Gazelle?” Haifa’ asks. “No,” says the Snake King, flames flashing up in his mouth. “Ask the Queen of the Crows.”
To reach the Crow Queen, Haifa’ flies on a smooth-skinned, featherless ostrich, which covers a two-year journey in a single night. The Crow Queen is a scowling old woman with ten jeweled bracelets on each arm, ten anklets on each leg, and ten rings on each finger. She wears a golden crown studded with gems, carries an emerald scepter, spits on the floor, and has never shown pity to anyone. Fortunately, Haifa’ bears a letter from the Ostrich King, and the Crow Queen owes him a debt. She reunites Haifa’ with her beloved.
The story doesn’t end there. Haifa’ pines for her own country, and her new husband agrees to a visit as long as they both go as gazelles. Unfortunately, they are captured: Haifa’ the Gazelle by Mauhub, and the White-Footed Gazelle by Mahliya. When we meet Haifa’, she’s just been turned back into a woman by a priest of Baal. Weeping, she tells Mauhub her story. Mauhub is astounded, but not as much as you might think. He’s an animal intimate himself: As a child, he was suckled by a lion.
• • • •
A few more interesting points about this story:
The White-Footed Gazelle is named for his feet and also seems to have a foot fetish. When he first transforms himself into a man in front of Haifa’, he declares his love and immediately kisses her feet. In between kisses, he speaks to her in a pure and elegant language, more delicious than honey and softer than clarified butter. “He said I was like a shoot of sweet basil. He kissed my feet and sucked them and by God I felt my heart fly into my throat.”
The gazelle shivers and turns into a woman. She tells the story of the White-Footed Gazelle, which shivered and turned into a man. A weird sort of shudder seems to precede transformation. The strangest thing, though, is the seizure suffered by our heroine’s father. This happens early in the story, when Haifa’ is living with her lover in an exquisite idyll: He’s her pet gazelle by day, her lover in a locked room at night. Then one night Haifa’ wakes to a cry of alarm: “The king! The king!” Terrified for her father, she rushes out half-dressed, leaving the door open. The White-Footed Gazelle doesn’t wake up—perhaps he’s a heavy sleeper, or perhaps, being a jinni, he’s deaf to human sorrow. Whatever the reason, he only wakes at dawn. Finding himself alone, the door open, he thinks Haifa’ has betrayed him and exposed their secret.
Out the window he goes on mist-white feet. Haifa’ will come back soon, having left her father sleeping peacefully. She’ll cry out over the empty bed. She’ll dash out into the garden, slapping her face in her grief. She will begin her quest.
How strange that the source of the error that parts these lovers should be a seizure. An excess of trembling.
To shiver is to move rapidly from one place to another and back. From prince of the jinn to white-footed gazelle, from beloved to enemy. I think of this whole story as a long shudder.
I did say there was a lion, didn’t I! Haifa’ the Gazelle meets him shortly before she’s captured by Mauhub. The lion has scraped out a hole in the ground, and he’s squatting in it and crying. “Dark-eyed gazelle, fair as the moon, I, the red lion, have suffered a great sorrow . . .” The story sort of drops him there. Later, of course, he’ll turn out to be the long-lost mate of the lioness who suckled Mauhub. This fact won’t redeem the lion, who remains throughout the story the same dirty, sniveling creature we meet in this scene. Forget about him. He’s an asshole.
I think I hear Mahliya’s feet on the stairs. It’s either that or the shuffling and crowding of the birds on the perches in her bedroom. Mahliya’s feet are so light they sound like wings. You’ll notice, in a few moments, how graceful and regal she is, an incredible thing at her age. Even I, who have attended her for more years than I care to remember, and have therefore had many occasions to be annoyed with her tricks, admit this. Her queenly poise never shatters. During the revolution, while others cowered indoors, she watched the crowds from her balcony, smoking a water pipe.
Really, it’s too bad that a foreign researcher like yourself, the first to visit her, should be kept waiting so long! If you like, I can tell you a version of her story myself. Just keep in mind that Mahliya will tell it differently.
The Tale of Mahliya and Mauhub
My story begins with a portrait. The Egyptian princess Mahliya fell in love with a portrait of Mauhub that was painted on the wall of a church in Jerusalem, as was customary for princes of Mauhub’s line. The painting was fresh, the oil still gleaming; it was adorned with red gold, and its eyes were a pair of topazes. Beside it glimmered a picture of a lioness suckling the infant Mauhub. A crystal candle filled with jasmine oil illuminated both paintings. Mahliya was enchanted. She embarked at once on a love affair conducted entirely under the sign of the portrait.
Portrait One: Mahliya as a Young Man
When Mahliya first met Mauhub, she was disguised as a young man. She introduced herself as Mukhadi’, Mahliya’s vizier. We must suppose she did this in order to increase Mauhub’s interest in the real Mahliya, who was sending him gifts and letters at the same time. A frantic existence: by day, hunting trips and conversation with her beloved, seizing each chance to give him a brotherly punch in the arm; by night, tender yet formal letters, the preparation of splendid packages, sighs, poetry, fainting spells, and tears. You will have noticed the shudder in this story, the same trembling motion that shapes the Tale of the White-Footed Gazelle. Back and forth, back and forth. Incidentally, it’s a wonder Mauhub didn’t suspect Mahliya’s pretty young vizier. Mukhadi’ means Impostor.
Portrait Two: Mahliya as Mirror
On their last hunting trip together, Mauhub caught Haifa’ in her gazelle form and Mahliya caught the White-Footed Gazelle. It was Haifa’, restored to human shape, who informed Mauhub that his hunting companion was also the mysterious princess who kept sending him gifts and letters. Mauhub rushed to Mahliya’s tent. They spent one glorious night together before their fathers recalled them to their respective kingdoms. The lovers continued to communicate through gifts, the most magnificent of which was certainly Mahliya’s mirror.
This mirror was enchanted so that when Mauhub looked into it, he saw Mahliya sitting beside him. “Nothing was missing,” the story tells us, “except the lady herself.” Such an odd phrase; if she was missing, surely nothing else mattered.
I see Mauhub contorting himself, one eye on the mirror, embracing a lady who only appears to be there.
When Mahliya heard of the beauty of Haifa’, who was staying with Mauhub, she got so furiously jealous she sent an eagle to snatch the mirror away.
Portrait Three: Mahliya as Anchorite
For the crime of arousing Mahliya’s suspicions, Mauhub had to be punished. Mahliya tortured his messengers, crushed his armies, beguiled him across the sea with a magic bird. At last, worn thin from travel and near starvation, ugly with suffering, he stumbled to a hermitage on swollen feet. An anchorite peered down from the window, radiant in black wool. She made Mauhub swear to serve her, forced him to write the promise on his arm. All this so that when he reached the city, Queen Mahliya, in her true form at last, could yank up his sleeve and expose his inconstancy.
A love story. She forgave him.
An animal story, teeming with life. Mahliya’s army of buffaloes tramples Mauhub’s army of lions. Her army of wildcats destroys his army of elephants. She builds him a fortress in the land of the jinn, a place swarming with snakes and lizards. Above each door of this fortress, a brass falcon whistles in the wind. When the lovers have passed many years in delight, a sorceress transforms Mauhub into a crocodile. Mahliya recognizes him by his pearl earrings. She knows him, although he never recognized her: neither as Mukhadi’ the vizier nor as the beautiful anchorite. He didn’t know. He didn’t know me. Of course it was me, what’s the matter with you? Why are people so stupid? You’re like Mauhub: Rather than the real person in an unexpected shape, you prefer the magic mirror, which gives you the image you wish to see, although it leaves you grasping nothing but air.
The Wonder Curse
Now that we’re being honest, let me ask you something. (A photograph? All right. Here, I’ll blow some smoke. That’s an old movie star trick. It’ll make my mouth a delectable little beak, smooth my wrinkles, and impart an air of nostalgia.) My question is this: Why are you people so hungry for marvels? I mean here you are, braving a twelve-hour journey from JFK, one of the world’s worst airports, plus a taxi ride through the afternoon traffic, only to sit in an elderly woman’s apartment and listen to a story. Really, I felt I had to trick you to make it worth your while! (Hand me my wig, will you? It’s under your chair. You’ll want another photograph now, I suppose!) Of course there’s a venerable tradition of marvel tales here, a tradition that harbors my own story. But lately it seems to me that there is such a thing as a wonder curse, like the literary version of a resource curse. As if, having once tasted the magic of the East, visitors become determined to extract it at any cost.
The link between marvels and money is quite clear. Fabulous tales, astronomical wealth: both are forms of fortune. Perhaps the story is a kind of treasure map. But there is more than one map of the world, my friend. Consider what this tale contains and what it does not.
This Tale Contains:
Yellow silk, red leather, white marble, red onyx, gilded copper, ambergris, topaz, emerald, amber, musk, ebony, gold, carnelian, camphor, Indian aloes, Bactrian camels, pearls, rubies, Chinese steel, silver, sandalwood, slaves.
This Tale Does Not Contain:
Airports, cigarettes, Internet cafés, Chipsy potato chips in tiny packets, pineapple-flavored Fayrouz soft drinks, soap operas based on the works of Naguib Mahfouz, traffic jams, copy shops, subway trains shrieking down long black tunnels, subway trains so crowded you can’t get in, schoolgirls fanning themselves with exercise books, schools, radios, the knife grinder’s cry, wedding parties on barges, street murals of Umm Kulthum with her iconic glasses and handkerchief, the light through the windows of Mari Mina Church at precisely five forty-five p.m., broken china, makeshift tents, outdoor barbers, street musicians, street protests, cell phones, pictures of bruises taken with cell phones, barricades, security police, rooms where the lights are never turned on, tear gas, pamphlets, bullets, peaceful activists shot down on the street, a poet shot down on the street, the poet who wrote of the streets, who trembled, bleeding, her body transformed into something else, but what? There is no gazelle.
The Lion’s Tale
There is, however, a lion. There’s always a lion. This is his story: The lion weeping in the dust was reunited with his mate, Mauhub’s wet nurse. He promised to be faithful to her, as Mauhub had promised Mahliya. But just as Mauhub betrayed Mahliya by swearing to serve the lovely anchorite, even going so far as to write her name on his arm, the lion betrayed the lioness. Tempted by some delicious roasted game, he agreed that if the old woman cooking it would give him a taste, he would marry her daughter. For the sin of inconstancy he was turned over to devils in human shape, who docked his tail and cauterized the stump with fire. His nose and ears were cut off, his whiskers shaved, his body smeared with dung, his neck encircled by an iron ring. Fairy tales are inexorable, their ferocity divine. When the lion returned to his mate, he was so hideously deformed she wouldn’t have him. His howls of anguish curl about the story, creating a beautiful border, a frame for Mauhub and Mahliya’s wedding portrait.
Yes, it was Mahliya—that is, it was I—who sent the old woman to tempt the lion. You may suppose I did so in order to spare my beloved, to transfer his crime onto another body through which I could then enjoy, without suffering myself, all the pleasures of vengeance. Think what you like. Somebody has to pay. There’s always an animal, a wonderfully absorbent material, capable of sopping up an ocean of cruelty. Go visit the Alexandria Zoo sometime—you’ll see lions panting in a concrete hole, surrounded by mounds of trash.
The Crow Queen’s Tale
Things don’t always work out in life. Somebody has to pay. This is my song.
Oh, come. You must have known I was also the Crow Queen. Didn’t you read the story? Look how Mahliya holds back from Mauhub, hides from him, tricks him, fights him. She is the Queen of the Crows, who separates lovers.
In the end, it’s true, I stayed with him. He died quietly in my arms. He had grown so small by the end, so shriveled, I could carry him like a child. The day before he died, I flew with him over the tombs of Giza. He was half-blinded by cataracts, but he loved the air.
Sometimes I still can’t believe I cast my lot with human beings. It’s humiliating. Of Mahliya the story says: “Iblis captured her heart.” It’s true, I was captured and I was defeated. I can save a man who has been turned into a crocodile, but not a man who is growing old.
“Are you near or far, living or dead?” sings Mahliya in the story. “Oh that I were a cross hung around his neck, that I might taste his scent.” She sings that she wants to cover his mouth with hers, trace the gaps between his teeth with her tongue. “Oh that I were a sacrifice, mingled with his spit.” A love story, an animal story. All these animals in love. I understand the White-Footed Gazelle’s desire for his beloved’s feet. There is a place where we are all animal, even you. We flicker in and out of it. We can be terribly hurt there, but also comforted.
The Queen of the Crows falls from her window at dusk. She catches the air. An old woman, languid. She glides down Ramses Street toward Masarra. She doubles back toward the river. Masr al-’Adima. Everything’s pink. In the gardens of Maadi they are hosing down the paths.
I am the spirit of ruined utopias and unrequited love. It’s not my fault. You didn’t recognize me—do you think I recognize myself? No! That face in the mirror: that’s not me. I see myself only in motion, smoking, gripping my windowsill in the instant before flight. I only recognize the wings that flap. God, I loved Mauhub so much. He was a descendant of Nebuchadnezzar, you know—the king who lost his mind and ate grass like an ox, whose hair grew long like an eagle’s feathers and his nails like an eagle’s claws.
It’s growing late. The Crow Queen always feels restless at this hour. She longs for flight. Tonight, however, she has a guest, a foreign researcher. The Crow Queen squawks like an impresario, preens before the camera. The photographs will show a bald old lady with snapping kohl-rimmed eyes.
I have cast my lot with human beings, even knowing what I know: that things don’t always work out, that somebody has to pay.
I’ll rise or fall with them. Dear beasts! Instead of scribbling down notes, why don’t you let me fly you over the square tonight? You can ride the featherless ostrich if you prefer, though I warn you he’s very slow these days, his belly scarred by rubber bullets. We’ll weave through the ghostly lights around the Mugamma al-Tahrir and watch the city flicker like a broken bulb. In that stuttering glow the square is like a dirty yellow mirror, a magic mirror reflecting even the ones who are missing. Yes, even the lions. I call it my palace, for these beasts are my true subjects. Look at me: I can’t stop shaking.
Spread the word!