The Sultan and Sultana of Morocco died as they lived: together and in love. Their children found their bodies in bed, their faces serene and resplendent even in death. They held hands, as if in their final moments, they sought the reassurance of each other’s touch. In their other hand, they each held a small square of cloth, a silken handkerchief woven so it showed a rose set against a forest. The story of those handkerchiefs is known throughout the land. It speaks of the Sultana’s cleverness and the Sultan’s devotion to his wife.
In her youth, Zakia, the sultana was as spirited as she was beautiful. Daughter of the Abdalla the Grand Vizier, she also easily distinguished herself as a woman of uncommon wisdom. Her father rarely ever took a decision without her input, even in matters on which he advised the sultan. Abdalla often spoke of his daughter to the sultan, and so the lord of the land knew of this beautiful and wise young woman and was determined to make her his daughter-in-law.
“Heed my words,” the sultan told his son Nasir. “When you are ready to marry, we will ask for the hand of Zakia, Abdalla’s daughter. You have seen her, you know she is beautiful. But her beauty is only a shadow of her wisdom. Marry her and when you become sultan, you will have the benefit of both a man and woman as your prime minister. This will be of great benefit to you. The people call the grand vizier Abdalla the Wise but they really should call him Father of the Wise.”
Nasir heeded his father’s advice. He, too, had heard of Zakia’s beauty and wisdom, and was already determined to make her his wife. When his father, the sultan died and Nasir became sultan, he asked the Abdalla for Zakia’s hand in marriage and the grand vizier accepted wholeheartedly. He loved the Sultan’s son as much as he loved his own children and he knew the young man to be kind, fair and generous. But for the first time ever, the minister did not ask his daughter’s opinion before deciding on the matter.
“I will not marry a man I neither know nor love,” Zakia told her father firmly. “Why did you accept his offer before asking me?”
“Forgive me, daughter,” Abdalla pleaded. “In my joy, I forgot the most important thing. But you must accept the sultan’s proposal. No one refuses the sultan. If you don’t, I may lose my head!”
Moved her father’s distress, Zakia conceded. “I will accept on one condition. The sultan must learn a trade. Times are uncertain. If he ever loses the throne I would not be married to a penniless miser.”
When the grand vizier fearfully relayed his daughter’s message to Nasir, the sultan’s reaction was not what he thought it would be.
“I’ll admit I was surprised when you readily accepted my request without consulting your daughter, Abdalla,” Nasir laughed. “I expected her to refuse!”
“My Zakia is very spirited,” Abdalla agreed, relieved the young sultan was not offended by his daughter’s demand.
“Spirited and wise,” Nasir mused. “She is right. I should learn a trade. Fate is fickle. I might one day find myself in need of skills beyond what being a sultan requires.”
Determined to win Zakia’s respect, Nasir summoned representatives from all the trades and asked them to tell him about their work. He met with teachers of the Koran and talked business with merchants. He went sailing with ship captains and smelted with blacksmiths. He met with potters, cobblers, tanners, farmers, armorers, weavers and shepherds. He talked with doctors and artists. The palace’s chief cook taught him how to make a chicken and vegetable tangine so delicious, the man declared the young sultan a better cook than he was. After months of experimenting, Nasir made his decision.
“I shall become a weaver,” he declared. “Out of all the trades, weaving pleased me the most.”
So decided, he launched himself into learning the art of weaving. He woke up early to finish his business as sultan before going to his weaving room to practice. With his hands busy, Nasir’s mind wandered over the many conversations he’d had with the various people he’d met. He realized he understood the hopes and dreams of the people whose work made his sultanate function even better. He was filled with even more admiration for Zakia for even if that was not what she’d intended, her request was already making him a better ruler. His admiration poured out through his fingers and he made an exquisitely woven handkerchief which showed a red rose against the backdrop of a lush green forest.
Zakia was thrilled when she received the handkerchief from Nasir.
“Yes,” she murmured, fingering the soft material. “Yes, I will marry him.”
She did not love him just yet. That would come later as she got to know him better. But as far as she saw it, a man who could set his mind to learn a trade and create something so beautiful was a man she could trust to treat her with the same deliberate attention. They married not long after and Zakia’s suspicions proved correct. Nasir was a devoted husband and caring ruler. He sought her advice often, spending hours debating the merits and demerits of different decisions with her and her father. With Zakia’s encouragement, the sultan spent more time among his people. He dressed in ordinary clothes and went into the city to meet them in the crucibles of their lives. The people did not know he was the sultan but he was pleased to see that they treated him with kindness and courtesy all the same. Along with the grand vizier and a chamberlain, he walked through the markets, befriending the people and visiting them in their homes. He prayed with them in the mosques and sat down in the cafes to drink coffee and talk politics. Sometimes Zakia went with him dressed in ordinary clothes and riding her favorite black mare. But most of the time, she eagerly awaited her husband’s return from his adventures so they could talk about the things he’d seen and the people he met. This continued for months until one night, the sultan and his companions did not return.
Zakia wasn’t worried at first. “They must have decided to stay at one of the inns in the city,” she thought to herself.
But when neither the sultan, the chamberlain nor her father returned the next day, she grew alarmed and called the captain of the palace guard into a private meeting.
“The sultan and my father have not returned from their trip into the city,” she told him. “They have not sent me any messages either. Take some of your men and quietly search the city.”
The guards quietly turned the city inside out but found no trace of the sultan or his companions. As time passed, Zakia grew more worried for her husband, her father and the chamberlain who the sultan considered a friend. On the second day of the sultan’s disappearance, a delegate arrived from a nearby kingdom to see him but met with Zakia instead.
“My husband, the sultan, begs your pardon,” she told the man. “He is not well. I will relay your messages to him.”
Later that day, Zakia summoned the ministers and told them of the disturbing news.
“What shall we do?” They murmured among themselves. “The people don’t know he’s the sultan, dressed as he does in ordinary clothes. What if he’s been attacked and murdered by robbers?”
Some cast accusing looks at Zakia. It was well known that it was on her advice that the sultan roamed the city in disguise. Others looked at her speculatively. The prince, her son Mohammed, was still very young. Had the sultana arranged for her husband’s murder with the intention to seize power until the boy was of age?
In the confusion, no one noticed the tall, thin man with shifty eyes slip into the meeting room and inch closer to the sultana.
“My lady,” the man said when he was within ear shot. “Forgive me for interrupting your meeting. I hear you are a woman of refined taste and I believe I have something you might be interested in.”
Zakia looked over at the man distractedly and gasped softly when she saw what he was holding out for her examination. It was an exquisitely woven handkerchief showing a rose with a forest in the background.
“It’s beautiful indeed,” she said quietly, reaching out to touch the piece of cloth. “Wherever did you find something so beautiful?“
“I just employed one of the best weavers in Rabat, my lady!” The man said proudly. “Soon I will have more like this. He’s a very hard worker!”
“Is he now?” The sultana murmured, her fury rising as she understood what had happened. “That is good to hear because I like this very much. I will buy it and I want everything this weaver of yours makes. Come back to me tomorrow with more.”
Smiling smugly, the man left the palace. He didn’t see the two barracan clad guards trailing him. One of the guards returned an hour later.
“Your suspicions were correct my lady,” the guard reported. “That man is holding the sultan, his chamberlain, and your father captive.”
Zakia wasted no time. She rallied a troop of guards and rode to where the other guard waited near a small cafe.
“They are in there, underground,” the guard said. “We heard them talking.”
The guards quietly surrounded the building and then invaded. Zakia listened to the sound of fighting with her heart in her throat. She breathed a sigh of relief when the guards emerged, with the sultan, the chamberlain and her father.
“Ab!” she cried, running first to her father then to her husband. “I am so glad you are safe!”
“Zakia, my beloved wife!” The sultan murmured, holding her close. “I knew you would understand my message and come! Thank you for insisting I learn a trade! We would be dead otherwise.”
What happened? How had they ended up captives? The three men had entered the cafe hoping for some food and drink. No sooner had they stepped into the establishment than did they find themselves in a dungeon. The floor of the room was a trap. Their captor, the man who’d sought Zakia out, had meant to kill them and serve their flesh as food in his restaurant. The sultan convinced him to let them live, informing the man that they were weavers who wove the finest cloth in the land. Cloth fine enough for the sultana. Why kill them, he reasoned, when they could make enough cloth to sell and their captor would never be poor again in his life?
The greedy man had given the sultan a loom and asked him to weave something immediately. The sultan made the handkerchief and instructed him to take it to the places and offer it to the sultana. His ruse worked. Their captor was immediately beheaded and his cafe burned to the ground.
The sultan and sultana rode back to the palace together and they story of the handkerchiefs spread throughout the land. The couple lived their lives together and even more in love, until their old age. The sultana took ill first and the sultan refused to leave her side, tending to her himself. When he also took ill, he lay down by her side and let their children and the doctors take care of them both. They talked about the early days of their marriage, all the adventures they’d had since then and how proud they were of their children. They were buried together. Roses bloom on their graves.
This is a Folktale from Morocco, 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!