Juleidah of the Leather Skins
The king has decided to remarry! The news spread across the land, faster than a summer wildfire. Long had he grieved his wife, the fair queen, incomparable in her beauty and kindness. Long had he sat at her tomb, his head bowed in grief. Long had he roamed the place holding the anklet the queen gave him on her death bed as she made him promise to only marry a woman who the anklet would fit. Long had he despaired of finding such a woman. His despair had become a shadow, trailing his steps, twisting his words into sharp barbs which struck everyone he spoke to. Where once he’d been gracious and just, he was now cruel, condemning to death anyone who displeased him, even for the smallest offence.
His daughter, Zahra, often walked with him, grieving her mother just as deeply. Tall as a cypress, with a face like rose in bloom, she was as beautiful as her mother and even kinder. Her father could barely look at her, so much she reminded him of his dear wife. The princess had watched her father’s descent into grief-spun madness, helpless to do anything to assuage his despair. She was overjoyed when she heard he’d finally decided to marry again.
“I will not enter womanhood with my mother by my side,” she thought to herself, “but my dear father will be happy again and for that I am glad.”
The king gave the queen’s anklet to the matchmakers, wise old women who know the people and the ways of the land.
“It does not matter if the woman is rich or poor, humble or well-born,” he told them. “If this anklet fits her, I will marry her. That is what my dear wife wished for and none was wiser than her.”
The wise women took the anklet and searched through the land, going from household to household. Woman after woman tried the anklet but it never fit. It was always too small, or too big.
“We must find a queen!” they thought among themselves. “We must or the king will kill us all with the madness and cruelty of his grief.”
They searched the land again, asking all women to line up to try on the anklet. Still, it fit none of them. Frustrated and frightened, they returned to the palace.
“What shall we do?” they wondered.
“There is one woman who we have not tested,” one of them said. “The princess.”
“You mean the king’s own daughter?” the others asked, bewildered.
“Yes!” she nodded. “She is fair and kind like her mother. Why can’t he marry her?”
The other women were not convinced.
“One does not marry his own daughter, even if he is the king!” they protested.
“We are out of options!” the old woman countered. “And why should he give her to someone else?”
And so they took the anklet to the princess.
“Your father has asked us to give this to you,” they told her. “It was your mother’s and he wishes for you to have it.”
“Isn’t that the anklet he must use to find his new wife?” Zahra asked.
“Yes, indeed it is,” the old women replied. “But we can find no one who it fits so he wants you to have it.”
Her heart breaking for her poor father, the princess took the anklet and slipped it on. It fit perfectly. The other matrons present murmured in discomfort but a delirious shine lit the eyes of the woman who’d initially suggested they try the princess. She hurried to the king.
“We searched the whole kingdom, my lord, and found no one who the anklet fits. But as fate would have it, we asked your daughter to try the anklet and it fit her perfectly so she it is who you must marry!”
The king should have known this was wrong but by then, he was too far lost in his grief. He nodded enthusiastically and called the qadi to prepare the marriage papers. The judges asked no questions. All people in the land longed to be free of the king’s poisonous grief.
When Zahra was told she was to be wed, she, too, asked no questions. She let herself be swept into the marriage preparations. She met with the jewelers, the clothiers and the furnishers and they whipped up a storm around her, measuring her for robes in jewel toned silks, marking her hands with henna, pining her hair up, painting her eyes and lips. They whispered among themselves as they worked. Sometimes their eyes met the princess’s but they looked away quickly. Their secretiveness made the princess start to wonder about her husband. Who was he? What was he like? Would he be kind and fair? Would he love her as her father loved her mother? Would she love him?
“Why are you frowning?” asked one of her attendants, a minister’s daughter. She sat next to the princess and caressed her face gently. “You should be happy to be marrying, Zahra! And to the king, no less! You are bringing us good fortune!”
Zahra stared at her, confused. “What do you mean?” she asked.
“Give me your gold bracelet and I will tell you!” the girl whispered. When the princess slipped the bracelet off and handed it over, she continued. “The matrons searched the whole land but found no one who could wear your mother’s anklet. You are the only one who it would fit so you are to marry the king.”
“But he’s my father!” the princess cried, horrified.
“The qadi have already written the papers,” the other girl shrugged. “Don’t you see? It is destined. And you look so much like your mother too!”
Zahra was aghast. She couldn’t marry her father! But she knew from the feverish pace of the preparations around her that the people had already accepted the plan. They would not stop. She needed to escape immediately. Her heart pounding in her chest, she rose to her feet.
“Leave, all of you! I need a moment to myself!”
Her stern words stopped all activity around her. The people in the room shifted around uncomfortably but she glared at them defiantly until, one by one, they left. Giving herself no time to hesitate, Zahra grabbed a purse full of gold coins, dragged down some curtains, and ran out to her balcony. She wound the voluminous pieces of cloth into a rope and threw it over the palace wall before clambering down to the other side. She landed in a tanner’s yard and hid among some old skins. She heard the commotion in the palace when the servants returned to her rooms and found her gone. She heard the shouts and the pounding of running feet as soldiers poured from the palace looking for her. They searched everywhere, even the tanner’s yard, but the skins hid her well. Later that night, she crept out from under the skins and knocked on the tanner’s door. The old man’s eyes bulged with fear when he saw the princess everyone had been trying to find but she begged him to be quiet. She told him the truth of her father’s intentions and, because he was good and pious, the old man agreed to help her.
“I hid under the old skins in your yard all day,” she told him. “They hid me well so I have an idea. Can you make me a suit of leather before dawn? It must cover me from head to heels, showing nothing but my eyes.”
The old man agreed and she pressed a handful of gold coins into his hands. The disguise was ready before the sun’s rays touched the horizon. Outfitted in her disguise, Zahra left the tanner’s house, slowly making her way through the city, away from the palace. She was stopped and questioned several times by soldiers still looking for her but each time she would sing in a low gruff voice:
My name is Juleidah for my coat of skins, My eyes are weak, my sight is dim, My ears are deaf, I cannot hear. I care for no one, far or near.
Appalled by the strange, shuffling creature and her song, the soldiers let her go. Soon she was outside the city’s gate. She waited until dusk and then in the shadow of night, ran away from the city as fast as she could.
Seven months later...
The whole palace was abuzz with the news of the mysterious woman who had come to the night of entertainment the sultan organized for his harem the previous night. She was tall and graceful as a cypress! They whispered in awe. Her face was like a rose in bloom, and her jewels glittered like stars in the night. Her smile lit up the room and she was gentle and kind. Everyone wanted to meet the newcomer and people could not stop talking about her. Just a few months ago, tongues had been wagging just as busily about the strange woman who’d shown up in the sultan’s harem. She was covered in leather skins and walked with a slow shuffling gait. Out of pity for the poor thing, the sultana had taken her in. She helped around the kitchen and entertained the queen with her quaint responses to questions. She was a peculiar sight, this leather clad creature, as she shuffled around the kitchens, feeding the fires, raking out the ashes. She didn’t say much when questioned, her only reply was a song:
My name is Juleidah for my coat of skins, My eyes are weak, my sight is dim, My ears are deaf, I cannot hear. I care for no one, far or near.
This excitement was all too much for Ashraf, the sultan’s son. He wanted only to ride his horses and spend time with his teachers. But he was soon to marry and his mother was determined to find out who the beautiful mysterious woman from the party was, so he could marry her.
“Oh Ash…” the sultana sighed. “I wish you had been there to see her! Such a face! Such a neck! Such form! She must be the daughter of someone greater than a king or a sultan! Truly she was beautiful!”
She waved over a servant to pour them cups of the rich cardamom-scented coffee he preferred. Soon, the scent filled the brightly lit room in which they sat.
“She sounds like a djinn, mother!” the prince joked, picking up his cup and sipping. “Am I to marry a djinn then? She will spirit me away and I will never see you again!”
“She was no djinn!” his mother huffed over her own cup of coffee. “But even if she is, she would make the best bride for you. Not only was she beautiful and graceful, but she was also kind and gentle. Even your aunt Menna was taken by her and you know how she is.”
The prince sipped his drink again and chuckled softly to himself. He had to admit he was intrigued. Anyone who could charm his cranky and hard to please aunt was sure to be an angel in disguise.
“It has not been boring around here recently, that’s for sure,” Ashraf mused. “First came Juleidah and now this mysterious woman.”
The sultana’s face softened into a smile when her son mentioned Juleidah. What a sweet girl, despite her strange clothing and manners. But her thoughts quickly returned to the woman from the previous night. “I wish I’d had time to talk to her more but she left so suddenly,” she sighed. “I hope she comes again tonight. And you must come too so you can see for yourself.”
“Oh I will come!” the prince murmured, reaching over to grab a handful of grapes from the table. “I must meet this wonder of a woman, especially since she must become my bride.”
Ashraf knew exactly when the mysterious woman arrived because a hush fell over the room. He watched, entranced like everyone else, as she moved among the people. His mother’s words had not done her justice. She was more than beautiful. She was radiant like a full moon, on a starry night, and her manners were just as enchanting. All who left her presence seemed bespelled by her beauty and grace. He watched her all night, his heart aflame with a growing, glowing love. Yes, he thought to himself. Yes, she would do as a wife. He waited until she was about to leave and cornered her by the doors as she tried to slip out.
“Excuse me, kind sir…” she murmured demurely. “You are in my way.”
“Indeed I am, my lady,” the prince said, taking her hands in his. “I am Ashraf, the sultan’s son. I came here today because my mother told me of your beauty. I must know who your father is, and from which land you come for you have kindled a fire in my heart, you who could ask the moon to set so you can shine in its stead.”
To his surprise, the woman’s eyes widened in alarm and she wrested her hands from his.
“I must go!” she said, her voice shaking. The prince grabbed her hand as she started to turn away from him.
“At least tell me where you are from!” he begged but she struggled out of his grasp, pulling his ring off as she pried his hands away from her body. When she broke free, she ran away from him.
“By Allah, tell me where!” he called after her.
“I live in the Land of Paddles and Ladles!” she called back before disappearing into the night.
Ashraf had no idea where the Land of Paddles and Ladles could be but he was determined to find it. He left the palace two days later, riding with his men and some servants.
“We will ask everyone we meet on the way,” he instructed. “The lady spoke in riddles but someone must have heard of this Land of Paddles and Ladles.”
They rode hard and fast all morning and stopped to rest when the sun was high in the sky. The servants quickly set about preparing food and drink. The prince watched as one of them examined and threw away a cake.
“Why did you throw that one away?” he asked. “We do not know how long we will be on the road. We should not waste our food.”
“That creature Juleidah made it,” the servant replied. “It was heavy and lumpy.”
“Bring it to me,” the prince said, his heart suddenly struck with pity for the girl whom his mother loved. “Allah has compassion for all his children and blesses all the works of their hands.”
He took the cake from the puzzled servant. When he bit into it, his teeth met metal.
The Land of Paddles and Ladles.
Ashraf paced the room as he waited for his food. He’d returned to the palace with his confused retinue after finding his ring in the cake Juleidah had supposedly baked. The same ring that the mysterious woman had pulled from his finger during their struggle days before. Surely it couldn’t be? He’d not told anyone about the ring but news of his intention to go looking for the Land of Paddles and Ladles had spread across the palace. Might she have heard from the kitchen – where they kept paddles and ladles – and sent him the ring as a way to clue him in? What might have happened if he’d not stopped the servant from throwing away the cake?
“She can barely see or hear, Ashraf!” the queen protested when he’d insisted that Juleidah serve his dinner. “How do you expect her to serve you?”
But he’d been adamant so she’d relented, even sending two servants to guide the girl to his quarters after she tripped and fell with the first tray of food. He sent the servants away as soon as they helped the girl set the tray down. When he was sure they were gone, he sat down in a chair and asked Juleidah to fill his cup.
“My name is Juleidah for my coat of skins,” the girl began to speak as she leaned over to pour but the prince pulled out his dagger and cut through her leather outfit. She didn’t fight him but let him rip the strips of leather off her and finally, reveal her beauty.
“It is you!” he cried when she finally stood before him.
“Yes, my lord,” she replied with a soft voice, her gaze lowered.
“Tell me who you are!” he demanded. “Why do you wear this strange costume? Who are your people?”
“Mine is a sad, sad story, my lord!” the girl said and told the prince who she was and why she fled from her father’s city.
“It is true that grief, left unchecked, will spawn all kinds of evil,” the prince comforted her after she finished her story. He took her hand and pulled her to sit next to him. “I am sorry your father treated you thus. You are welcome to stay with us as long as you would like. And if you would honor me by becoming my wife, you would make me the happiest man in the world.”
The princess looked into his eyes and smiled.
“Your mother speaks often of you, my lord. I know it is I who would be lucky to be your wife.”
“Please call me Ashraf,” the prince smiled back at her and brushed a tendril of hair away from her face. “Let my ears delight to the sound of my name from your lips. Or you can call me ‘Ash’ just as my mother does.”
Then his eyes widened.
“My mother!” he laughed. “She will not believe that her strange but precious Juleidah is the same woman she could not stop talking about. You must know she is determined for us to marry!”
“That only means our union is twice blessed,” the princess laughed with him.
“I will send for her at once,” the prince said, rising to his feet. “By the way, what is your name?”
“Zahra,” the princess replied. “My name is Zahra.”
Source: Arab Folktales by Inea Bushnaq
This is an Egyptian folktale, retold and contributed by Mythological Africans.
It is a part of our series, Folklore Worldwide. We are currently open to submissions from around the world, and you are welcome to send us your stories!