Oom Medjool, the Fisherman’s Widow

Greetings brothers and sisters, and thank you for your loyalty to me, turning up rain or shine, shivering or sweating, to listen to my stories in such numbers every Friday under the wild oak.

A theme of the day is percentage. It has always saddened me that although in our country, half the population is female_ you didn’t know that, did you?_ when we would expect fifty percent of my audience to be of the fair sex, we can count their number on the fingers of our one hand. Which makes you specially welcome, dear ladies. I know that all over the world women are forced to play a minor role, and discouraged from appearing in public, and it is not just in Muslim lands.

But did not the prophet_ on whom be peace_ consult his wives and daughters in all things? Did not Bibi Aisha rode side by side with him when he took arms to defend Islam against its early enemies. Did he not say that heaven lies at the feet of mothers? Does the Quran not clearly say that women are the equal of men? Did not the prophet_ on whom be peace_ say that a woman have the same right to divorce a bad husband as a man? Have they not the right to inherit property? So why are women so underprivileged. One would expect fifty percent of the richest merchants in Baghdad to be women, but where are they?

I beg your pardon for behaving as a campaigning politician and not as a hukkawati. We often lose control of our tongues and let them pour forth unwelcome words.

Obviously I know what I am doing. A little rebuke to the bad practices of our people is not uncalled for. If you read our classics, like we were made to by Quayyum bin Quayyum our mentor, Ibn Khaldun, Masudi, Jahiz among others, you can always find a moral somewhere. Even the more light-hearted Arabian Nights is full of wisdom. But obviously our primary aim is to entertain and not to educate.

But my dear listeners, I will ask you one question, and let you answer it yourselves, then I promise that I will stick to my narration: Why are stories you hear about Caliphs, princes, viziers, merchants, doctors, soldiers? Always men? Do ordinary people, tailors, fishermen, clerks not have stories? What happened to women, the other fifty percent? And when do you hear a story with a Nubian hero? Do they not have feelings such as the rest of us? Hath not a Nubian hands, organs, dimensions, senses, affections, passions? Fed with the same food, hurt with the same weapons, subject to the same diseases, healed by the same means, warmed and cooled by the same winter and summer, as us? If you prick them, do they not bleed? If you tickle them, do they not laugh?

Our mentor advised us that quoting from appropriate sources can enhance a story, but he also said, these people are ignoramuses, if you can refrain from telling them it’s a quote, your prestige will only increase.

Dear friends this last bit was from the greatest English dramatist, Shakespeare. Although it has been suggested that he was in fact a Baghdadi, originally named Shaikh Asbeer.

Maybe as thinking citizens of the most civilised city on earth this has worried you; if so you will welcome today’s story . It is about a woman. And what a woman!

Kamaria the fisherman’s widow. Also known to children as Oom Medjool. I will reveal the reason for this name by and by.

A Nubian, living in ELHejaz in the Nubian village in the south on the banks of the Tigris.

I can see they are dubious. She’s not only a woman, but a Nubian. People are always telling you all Muslims are brothers and sisters, but few of us will drink from the same cup as a Nubian.

Remember good friends, our prophet’s closest companion was none other than Bilal the Nubian, the first muezzin of Islam, who never left his side, who he loved like his own son, but do people practice what he preached?

Enough of this preaching, they’re beginning to feel restless.

Kamaria was born in the Nubian village on the bank of the Tigris, south of Baghdad, in the poor district then called El Hejaz, as I said before. Her father was a fisherman, but as almost everybody fished for their living, the competition being severe, it was not an easy life. But they were an easy-going people. When they walk, you’ve seen them, it is always as if they’re just about to start dancing. They are always laughing, so she cannot be said to have been unhappy. She was a tall, long-legged, high cheek-boned girl, with dark crystalline eyes and a face shaped like an egg, characterised by her pointed chin. All the young swains in the village would have liked to marry her, but at fifteen she married the son of her father’s friend, Tambal. I will tell you the truth, I will not embroider, it was not not a great romance, they had grown up together and had always been friends, and friendship has the great quality of metamorphosing into love, does it not? Tambal was a good-natured easygoing young fellow, and they lived in the small hut the village had helped him erect, with their babies. After five years of marriage she had given birth to four children, two of each sex.

Yes, for once the percentage was right.

When she was young people just called her Kamaria, but because my tale spans her whole life, I will refer to her as Oom Medjool, which is what people called her when her once beautiful thick silky mane turned grey. It was children who gave her the name of Oom Medjool.

Kamaria worried a lot about the children, and hated to see them in rags, always asking for more bread. It was not Tambal’s fault, for he did the best he could, but the fisher folk used to say: Ya Allah, if only people wanted to buy toads and tadpoles which flourished in the Tigris! As far as the fish was concerned, the competition was too great. The young mother decided that one way of helping would be to raise chicken and sell their eggs to the rich folks in Al-Mansoor, and that helped a little. When Tambal took a day off because of bad weather, or because he had no strength left in his arms and needed a rest, she would go out in the boat which she was very skillfull at rowing. In El Hejaz, children learnt to row before they could walk!

She was pregnant with her fifth child when Tambal got drowned, after being bitten by a gar, the alligator fish, leaving her and the children without resources. You may have seen the gar in fish markets, but if you have not, I will tell you that it is a huge terrifying beast, like a small alligator, with vicious teeth, weighing up to thirty kilograms. Not that its flesh is all that tasty, but it is nourishment. And the people are hungry, and the Nubian fisherfolk rejoiced when they caught one. It made a change from catfish and sea bream and spiky eels. Or the minuscular anchovies.

Yes, Tambal was happily pulling in a huge gar, and the moment it landed on the floor of the boat, it snapped at Tambal’s arm and he lost his balance and fell overboard. As he was bleeding profusely and was writhing in pain, he could do nothing to save himself from going down. His fellow fishermen were powerless to help as it all happened so very quickly, and he drowned.

Kamaria and the children, and the whole village mourned the loss of one of their dearest sons, but it was Allah’s will.

The children did not starve as the Nubian community was very close-knit, but they were themselves very stretched, and though they helped, the children were always hungry.

The widow often went hungry so she could feed them.

It was a situation which could not last.

She wracked her brains in an attempt to find a solution. She had Tambal’s little boat, which she was perfectly capable of steering, four hens and a rooster, Tambal’s rags and sandals. A village elder suggested that she began by selling the boat. This, she thought might feed the family for three or four weeks. What happens afterwards? she asked herself. The chickens? Same thing. She kept Tambal’s clothes, with the intention of fashioning them into things for the little ones to wear.

There has to be another way.

And Jibril came to her in a dream and told her that she should not sell the boat, that it was her biggest asset.

In the morning she checked that she had six eggs, and thought that she would sell them for bread, but an idea occurred to her. She went round the village where the women had also been raising chickens, and asked if they had eggs they wanted sold, and was pleased when she got about twenty. “I will sell them for you in Al-Mansoor, and we will share the profits,” she promised. Another idea hit her as she passed under the prolific date palms. Although they were Medjools, the most prized of Allah’s gift to humans, to the villagers of El Hejaz, they were nothing special., as they prospered in the rich sandy soil even without a lot of work. Of course they ate them, they were better than air when you are hungry. She wondered whether the rich people of Al Mansoor might not give good money for them. She got her cousin Abderrahmane to do the climbing and bring down two clusters of them oozing thick dark sweet juice. Who knows? If I cannot sell them, at least the children will eat them when they are hungry. She left her children in the care of their grandmother and rowed away towards the more prosperous parts of the city.

The people were not always welcoming to our darker brothers and sisters in Islam, but without thinking she gave a Medjool date each to the three or four children who were gaping at her. This made the ladies less aggressive. Then they saw the eggs, and thought that they could get them for a bargain. They haggled quibbled and wrangled, but Kamaria read their intentions, for she had sound business sense. In the end they gave her more or less what she had hoped for.

In El Hejaz, the villagers were happy with the returns, and she knew that she had struck gold. No more will her children starve or go in rags.

As she had expected, the children, beneficiary of her Medjool, had earned her a stock of goodwill, and dishing out one plump Medjool to each child became a tradition. The children began calling her Oom Medjool. The moment they caught sight of her craft approaching, they ran to their mothers urging them to buy more dates. For you know, dear listeners, that one is never satisfied with one mouthful of something good. Young lovers never stop after one kiss. And sadly a drunk needs another cup of wine after imbibing the last one. That strategy worked wonders and her clientele and reputation swelled beyond her wildest dreams.

Now Kamaria had long bony fingers and had the reputation of having blessed fingertips. As a young mother, she had to look after her small children, and of course they often fell ill, catching colds, feeling pains in their necks or their stomach, and the simplest thing was to give them local concoctions, many of which were often completely ineffective, but happily also harmless. Hadn’t our own famous Arab father of medicine Abu Sinna said, in his Qanun fi at Tab that the best medicine is inside one’s own body? Kamaria would often massage the heads of her children when they complained of headaches, and their tummies when they felt a sore there, and they would walk away with a smile on their face after a few minutes. Same thing when one complained of a pain in her neck, in their feet. When the villagers got of hear of this, they carried their own children over to her when they complained of a pain, and Kamaria gladly used her magic fingertips on them, and they too went away, their pains gone. When they offered gifts in lieu of payment, she angrily refused. I don’t need your money or anything, she said. Allah already gave me that greatest gift of all, that of making pains disappear. But obviously she earned the goodwill of the whole community, and her fame grew.

On a visit to the money-changer’s wife one day, the lady told her that her daughter Safia had been very poorly, complaining of pains in her body, of lack of sleep, loss of appetite. She complains of a pain in her stomach, she told the Nubian, and the tabib cannot find what’s wrong. Whatever medicine he makes her take, either she throws up, or in any case has no effect upon her. Kamaria suggested that she took a look at the girl, and the lady gratefully led her to the child who was in bed whimpering restlessly, her hands on her stomach, where the ache was. It must be said that she had a certain aura about her which children found reassuring. The moment she sat on the floor holding the child’s hands, the latter stopped moaning and looked at her. She asked the child where the pain was, and what sort of pain it was, and to her mother’s amazement, she responded, whereupon the Nubian widow flashed open her hands, allowing her long fingers to sprout, and she gently approached the little girl’s tummy, spreading them over the area without touching it. She moved her hands in small circles, humming a soothing tuneless air, ending up by the touching it this time. The slightest of touches, which tickled the tummy ever so gently. She kept doing this a few times, until the girl closed her eyes and started snoring. The mother stared at the Nubian with wonder and admiration. This is the first time in days that my daughter is sleeping so peacefully, how did you do this? At this Kamaria shook her head. No madam, I did nothing, it was Allah’s doing. The lady wanted to reward her with a bag of rice, but she refused. No madam, I cannot accept any sort of payment. Allah gave me the gift, I want none other.

One day, a few weeks later, she found herself at Safia’s house again, and was very pleased to learn that the little girl had recovered completely. Her mother called her and said, Say thank you to the kind lady who cured you, and Safia beamed a smile at her and lisped, Thank you Oom Medjool. Suddenly she grabbed Kamaria by her skirt and entreated her, Please, I hear you can tell stories, tell me one, please, please. The lady demurred. Maybe she did not like the idea of a stranger attracting the affection of her daughter, or maybe she did not wish the working woman to lose her time. I’ll tell you a story, but later, habibi, she told Safia, whereupon she made a sour face at her. Mother, she said, your stories are boring, and you get mixed up. I want Oom Medjool. The lady smiled and shrugged.

As a child Kamaria had loved her granny’s stories of peris and elves, of princes and shepherdesswes, princesses and hunters, shepherds and fisherfolk, and she used to tell them to the kids in the village whenever she had a story for her own children. Although she was keen to continue her work, she decided to humour the child. All right, she said, I will. Do you know the story of Brokki? Mother never told me that one, she said. Kamaria knew that telling a story to just one child could be difficult. Can you call the children from next door as well, she asked the lady of the house, for like all hukkawatis, she liked an audience.

As I well know. The bigger the crowd, the better my story flows.

The lady thought it was a good idea, and said, Only if Kamaria can spare the time. In less than a minutes a dozen neighbouring children in a high state of excitement filed in and the lady calmed them down and seated them on the carpet opposite the story-teller.

Once upon a time, she began, there was a tailor and his wife whose greatest desire was to have a child, but after three years of marriage, Allah had not blessed them with one. They prayed, offered sacrifices, gave alms, paid holy men to pray for them, and still the lady’s tummy stayed flat. One day they were returning from a visit to the shrine of Imam Ali at Najaf, when they met an old beggar. They stopped to give him some alms, and he asked them why they were so sad. And they told him.

And what you want is a child.

Yes, any child, the wife said.

Boy or girl, the tailor added.

He does not have to be beautiful, the wife added.

He can be small or big, we will love him just as much.

Even if he is small as a cat.

Or a mouse…

Since you are so undemanding, the mystic man said, Allah will grant you your wish, trust me.

Look at them shaking their head, they obviously know the story.

What was that you said sir? An old story, you know it. Indeed it is the well-known tale of Tom Thumb, but no sir, it is not the Brothers Grimm. This is a famous Nubian story, and the Grimm brothers did what they do best. Borrow from other sources.

But I am not gonna tell you that well-known tale of the little boy who was no bigger than a thumb- well, a big thumb_ and his extraordinary adventures. You’ve known it since you were children. What’s that? You want to hear it again. Well, Insha Allah, I will revisit it for you some day, but rigfht now I was only narrating how Oom Medjool told the tale. I did not mean to finish it off.

So the children listened to the boatwoman in great excitement, for to them, it was a new story to them. And she left them in a state of wonderment.

If only I could produce that effect on you my audience. As a hukkawati, we value that wonderment in one’s audience more than the coins my story brings.

If only I could achieve this degree of satisfaction in you, dear friends.

This soon became a tradition.She was happy to row her boat to places where she had her customers, but was always ready to excise aches and pains and suffering from those in their throes, with her massages. And never did she refuse to tell children stories of princes and thieves, of magicians and heroes, of lions and eagles, of the tomfoolery of monkeys and the quick-witted hare.

And to the children, the Medjool she gave them were the sweetest, the most succulent of dates.

Now we all know that Nubians are famous for their skills in weaving and embroidery, and in Kamaria’s village there were some highly talented weavers

and embroiderers, so Kamaria decided to enlarge the scope of her trade. She encouraged the girls of the village to weave and embroider, and as they were penniless, she bought the material for them, thread, wool, textiles, indigo and ochres, and they were able to produce a wide variety of goods which the woman would put in her boat and row to the richer parts of the city, and realise handsome profits which benefited the whole community.

It must be said that she had a good head for business. Although she had no schooling, she did all her accountancy in her head, remembered who had bought on credit and owed her money_ which I must say it was not always easy to claim afterwards_ and she ended up by becoming a quite respected figure. And also quite prosperous.

Now dear friends, listen carefully, be quiet and listen to the silence. Do you hear it? That’s the sound of time passing. Yes, yes, time is passing. Days, weeks, months.

Years.

Her reputation as a trader, a healer and a hukkawati grew and she became famous along the shores of the Tigris. And no need to tell you that although she never accepted payment for her healing services, she prospered because people readily parted with their money to buy her eggs, her embroidery and weaving, and many other things that she had gradually added to her sales repertory. Brass plates and wood carvings, knitted woollen shawls and coats, all with the traditional motif of the Nubian goat, Which brought prosperity to the village, who could never produce enough to satisfy demand.

As a result of their mother’s hard work and enterprise, the children had an easy life, and they prospered. When the time came, following the example of their mother, they learnt trades. For example the eldest girl became one of the first female teachers in the whole of Baghdad. The youngest boy had inherited his mother’s business acumen, and became a grain merchant. A prosperous one. One boy went to Tehran to study medicine at the Dar ol Fonoon. Perhaps I should add that he was born after his father Tambal’s drowning. The fifth child that she was pregnant with. They all married and produced grand-children for Kamaria, who with her white hair, her healing gifts and her talent for story-telling was a much respected matriarch. At seventy-five she was still in good shape and was still rowing her boat_ her seventh one, _ and plying her trade. I might need to stress that she did not need to do this, but she was used to a life of hard work, and she enjoyed it.

May I wish you, my dear audience to find pleasure in the work you do, for if you do, you get two important things: a salary, and job satisfaction,

Her reputation had spread to the whole of Baghdad, and even the Caliph had heard about her.

Now, for a few months, the Caliph had been suffering from a stiff neck, which made it difficult for him to sleep. This turned him into a bad-tempered man, and his behaviour became increasingly erratic. He had begun by getting his wives to give him a massage, but this brought no relief. The court physicians tried remedies galore. Liniments from China, pomades from India, herbal remedies from Samarkand, nothing had the slightest effect on the ailment. His Chief Vizier Jaffar suggested they sent for Kamaria, as everything else had proved ineffective. There would be no harm trying the Nubian lady, he suggested to the Caliph, whereupon they despatched some guards to the Nubian village on the river, with orders to bring her along.

When they reached the village, they found Kamaria on the point of stepping into her boat, and informed her of the Caliph’s command. She said that it was a great honour to be asked, and that she would wend her way to the palace first thing tomorrow.

The messengers could not believe what they heard.

‘Black woman,’ they said, ‘did you not hear the Caliph’s order? He said to bring you to the palace instantly. Just come along.’

Now Kamaria was a determined lady. She had always led a righteous life, she did not owe anybody money, she had never, as far as she knew told a single lie in her life, she had never spoken ill of anybody, and more no one had ever had anything to say against her, and she was afraid of no one.

‘No, I am unable to attend to the Caliph now, I have another engagement, but tomorrow first thing after the fajr prayers I will get into my boat and row to the palace. Please inform the Caliph and give him my respectful salutations.’

The messengers were caught unawares. As palace guards, they had the power to arrest and imprison anybody, beat them to a pulp if they felt like it, and in case of anyone dying, all they feared was a gentle rap on their fingers, and a rebuke from Jaffar. But they were unable to react to her words, and just gaped as she hopped into her boat lithely and began rowing away. Helplessly they watched her disappear into the Tigris mist, and their tails between their legs they made their way back to the palace.

They were met by Jaffar the Chief Vizier, who could not believe his ears when he heard about Kamaria’s refusal to obey the Caliph’s order.

Jaffar made up his mind there and then. The woman needed to be punished for a gross lèse-majesté. The Caliph, he said was Allah’s representative on earth, and any act of disobedience against his person is tantamount to breaking one of Allah’s sacred laws.

Yes. There was only one punishment. Beheading.

He gave orders to the palace guards that when the widow arrived, early next morning, she should be arrested, put in chains and thrown in the dungeons, waiting for further instructions.

Of course, dear listeners, she had not disobeyed the Caliph Al-Mahdi’s orders. She had every intention of going to the palace in the morning.

The Caliph had been unable to shut his eyes the whole night, and as a result he was _ the expression in those days was “like a Caliph with a sore neck”. He growled at everybody, even his favourite wife, his servants, his children. All except his youngest boy, Haroon. One look at the boy and his sour heart melted.

Sour heart melted? I’m unsure of this turn of phrase, but they don’t seem to mind.

His icy heart melted in the warmth of Haroon’s glow. Jaffar loved nothing more than a public beheading, and was in high spirits. On these occasions, he always wore his finest, and today he was sporting a large tunic in blue silk with gold buttons. He was loudly giving orders to his minions, to make sure that the event went on without a hitch. He had already arranged for the beheading of Oom Kamaria, and was giving orders to the executioner, who after sharpening his sword, started brandishing it in the air with a flourish, making it reflect the morning sunlight. Everything was ready, while they waited for Al-Mahdi who was having breakfast. Oom Medjool, in chains, and gagged so she could not scream or even talk, was dragged from her dungeon to the forecourt of the palace where dozens of people were impatiently waiting. A public execution was not a common occurrence, and although the people were not specially bloodthirsty, they wouldn’t miss the spectacle if it was there for the viewing. Jaffar, who was ambitious and bloodthirsty, and who had his eyes on the caliphate thought that this spectacle would gild his coat of arms in the eyes of the public.

Finally the Caliph appeared, glowering at the people who started cheering him. He believed that in order to be respected by his people he had to make them afraid of him. This might even be true, for when they saw the fire in his eyes, they cheered and applauded him the louder.

He had been informed of the insubordination of the Nubian woman, and when Jaffar had suggested the public beheading, not giving this a thought, he had simply nodded, without saying anything. However, he had to publicly pronounce the death sentence.

The palace courtiers, were pacing up and down the yard also dressed in their finest, determined not to miss a single incident.

When Al-Mahdi was seated in his big Judge’s chair, Jaffar walked towards him with a scroll in which the highest law official had written the indictment_ which he had personally dictated to him.

That the aforesaid Kamaria the Nubian, also known as Oom Medjool, was an evil sorceress.

That she had been summoned to the palace to show that she is a fake practitioner of healing.

That she had been disrespectful to the palace officials.

That this was tantamount to disrespect to the person of the Caliph.

That when questioned she had said that the Caliph was an usurper,

That the Caliph’s wife was a slave from El Yaman.

The list was much longer, dear friends, but I will spare you the lies and the details, as you get the picture.

The Caliph, preoccupied by his neck was hardly listening, and simply nodded as the contents of the scroll was being read to him.

When Jaffar had finished, he rolled the scroll back and handed it over to a clerk. Then he addressed the Caliph.

Oh Caliph of Islam, known for his righteousness and generosity the world over, do not err on the side of indulgence and generosity. You have earned a reputation for justice and fairness, but you must be aware that people often use this as a pretext for wrongdoing, in the belief that you will pardon them their trespasses. So I urge you to pass a sentence which is just, even if it is harsh. Pour l’exemple, as the infidel French say.

The Caliph looked at Jaffar for a few seconds saying nothing. He cleared his throat as one does before committing thought to words, but his young son Haroon suddenly emerged from a small cluster of people.

‘Beloved father’, the eight- year old boy said, ‘my tutor taught me that a person accused of breaking the law must be given the chance to defend himself. Or herself. We have heard nothing from Oom Medjool.’ The Caliph was taken aback, but although he never accepted his authority to be questioned by anybody, his love for Haroon was such that at least he did not fly into a rage at this interruption.

‘Nobody stopped her,’ he said weakly.

‘She is not a sorceress, my father, she cannot speak when her mouth is gagged.’ The Caliph started blinking and was lost for words.

‘Perhaps you should order her gag to be removed, my father. I think that if you did, she would tell you that the reason she did not come immediately to my father’s palace, was because she had promised to visit an old fisherman on the other side of the city who had been in agony over a pain in his stomach that she was going to visit him.’

‘I would not have stopped her, habibi, she could have gone to him after. I am the Caliph, the other fellow was only a fisherman.’

‘But beloved father,’ Haroon said, ‘she had given her word, she had promised that she would go to him instantly. You yourself punished my brother Yusuf Ali because he had promised to make me an arrow, and then he forgot. Do you remember?’

The Caliph remembered. Yusuf Ali had indeed promised to make his younger brother Haroon an arrow for when they were going hunting, and then because he was forgetful he did not deliver. Al-Mahdi had heard about this, and was very angry with the bigger boy. He called him and gave him a lengthy homily on the sacredness of the promise. Then he had condemned him to be shut in a dark room without food for two whole days.

‘I remember word for word what my father said to Yusuf Ali,’ Haroon said. ‘A promise is not made to a person, but to Allah, so that breaking even the most trivial promise is an affront to the Almighty. Does my father not remember?

The Caliph remembered. Yes he had been very harsh to his boy, and sadly he had died of meningitis six months later.

Al-Mahdi was shamed when he remembered all this. Kamaria confirmed Haroon’s account, and she was pardoned.

As she was walking away, Haroon stopped her. You have to soothe the pain on my father’s neck first., he said. And she did.

That was the first mention of the famous Haroon al Rashid in the Chronicles of History.

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San Cassimally

San Cassimally

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Prizewinning playwright. Mathematician. Teacher. Professional Siesta addict.