By Abu ‘Ali al-Muhassin al-Tanukhi; translated and introduced by Melanie Magidow
This early detective tale is included in two story collections by the medieval theologian, judge, and writer al-Tanukhi (327–84 AH /939–94 CE) who lived in Basra and Baghdad: Al-Faraj ba‘d al-shidda (Delivery after Hardship) and Nishwar al-Muhadara (Table-Talk). Scholar Andras Hamori refers to this tale as “what must be the strangest story in all of Tanukhi.” This translation relies on the text in Nishwar, with reference to the text in Al-Faraj.
Cast of Characters
Abu l-Mughira – Storyteller, from Baghdad in the Nishwar version and Basra in the Faraj
Narrator – A traveler who arrives in Ramla at night
Qadi’s Daughter – A young beautiful and clever woman
Qadi – A religious scholar, judge, town leader
Abu l-Mughira Spins a Tale
Muhammad ibn Ya‘qub ibn Yusuf Abu l-Mughira, a poet of the Asadi clan, told us:
Abu Musa ‘Isa ibn ‘Ubayd Allah al-Baghdadi told me:
A friend told me (the following story):
I was alone on my way to Ramla. When I arrived at night, everyone had gone to bed, so I headed to the cemetery. I entered a few mausoleums that were above the graves, cast down a leather shield I had with me, and sheathed my sword. I wanted to sleep and enter the city by day. But the place made me feel uneasy, and I could not sleep.
After a long bout of insomnia, I sensed a movement, and I thought, It’s thieves going by. If I go after them, I won’t overcome them. They could be a group, and then I wouldn’t be any match for them. So I stayed put, not moving. In great fear, I poked my head a little out of the doors of the mausoleum. I saw a beast like a bear moving, so I hid myself. It was advancing toward the mausoleum across from me, close to me. The animal continued circling and circling it, walking around it for a while, and then entered.
I was suspicious of it, disapproving of its action, and my soul waited to see what it was doing. It entered the mausoleum, and came out with no hesitation, quickly entering and exiting with energy. The next time it entered, I kept my eye on it. It hit one of the graves in the mausoleum, and started to dig. So I said to myself: Grave robber, no doubt about it.
It was digging with its hands, and I could see that it was using a metal tool. I let it be, in order to be certain. Time passed, and it dug a great deal, so I got my sword and my shield, walking on the tips of my toes until I entered the mausoleum. It sensed my presence and faced me, standing like a human. It made to strike me, so I cut its hand with my sword, and it flew off. He shouted, “Ahh! You’ve destroyed me—Goddamn you!”
He sped in front of me, and I sped behind him in the moonlit night. He entered the city, with me behind him. I didn’t catch him, although he was within my sight, meandering through many passages. In this way, I learned the streets. When he came to the door of a house, he pushed it, entered, and closed it, while I watched and took note of the door. Then I retraced the path and the landmarks I had noticed on the way, until I arrived at the mausoleum in which the grave robber had been.
I looked for the hand, found it, and took it out in the moonlight. After some effort, I extricated the severed hand from the iron digging glove. It was a perfect hand, decorated with henna and two gold rings. When I realized that she was a woman, I was distressed, and I contemplated the hand. It was the loveliest hand in the world, in its delicacy, moistness, plumpness, and gracefulness. I wiped away the blood from it and slept in the mausoleum.
The next day, I entered the city, following the landmarks until I reached the door. There I asked, “Whose is this house?”
They said, “It belongs to the local qadi.” A group of people gathered there, and a handsome old man came out. He prayed the noon prayer with the people, and sat in the mosque talking.
The situation impressed me even more, and I asked some of those present, “Who is this qadi?”
They said he was So-and-so. I asked about him until I learned that he had a daughter and a wife. I had no doubt that the grave robber was his daughter. I approached him and said, “I have something to tell the qadi—God help him—in private.”
He stood and went farther into the masjid, alone with me, and said “Tell me.”
I took out the hand and showed it to him. “Do you recognize this?”
He looked it over a long time, and said, “As for the hand, no, but the two rings are my daughter’s. So what’s the news?” I told him the whole story.
He said, “Come with me,” took me to his house, and closed the door behind us. He called for a dish of food, and his wife.
The servant said to him, “She says, how am I supposed to come out when you have a strange man with you?”
He said, “She must come and eat with us. This is not a man we need to be shy around.” She refused, and he swore he would divorce her if she didn’t come out, so she came out crying and sat with us. He said to her, “Bring out your daughter.”
She replied, “What is this? You’ve gone crazy. What happened to you? You’ve
shamed me, a grown woman, but how can you disgrace a young girl just reaching her prime?” He swore he would divorce her if she didn’t bring her out, so the girl came out.
He said, “Eat with us.” I saw a girl like a newly-minted coin. I had never seen anyone as beautiful as her, although her skin was very yellow, as if she were ill. I knew that was due to loss of blood from her hand. She began to eat with her right hand, her left hand hidden. He said, “Uncover your left hand.”
She said, “A big boil has developed on it, and it’s infected.” He insisted that she uncover it.
His wife said, “Man, protect yourself and your daughter. By God—” and she swore by many oaths—“not one bad thing has ever befallen this girl until yesterday. She came to me in the middle of the night, and woke me saying, ‘Mom, come with me if you love me.’
“I asked her, ‘What’s wrong?’
“She said, ‘I’ve cut my hand, and I’m gushing blood. I’m going to die soon—treat me!’ And she showed me her cut hand. I began lamenting. She said, ‘Mom, don’t shame me and yourself by shouting in front of Dad and the neighbors. Treat me!’
“I said, ‘I don’t know what to treat you with.’
“She replied, ‘Take some oil, boil it, and cauterize my hand with it.’ So I did that, and cauterized and wrapped it.
“Then I said, ‘Now tell me what happened.’ She refused. So I said, ‘By God, if you don’t tell me, I’ll tell your father.’
“She said, ‘Two years ago, it occurred to me to dig up graves. I approached the servant girl, and she bought for me a goat skin whose hair had not been cut. I used two iron gloves, and when you were sleeping I would open the door. I would tell her to sleep in the hallway and not to lock the door. I would put on the skin, the two iron hands, and walk on all fours. Anyone who saw me from a rooftop or elsewhere would not doubt that I was a dog.’
“‘Then I would go out to the cemetery. I knew from the daytime who had died of old age, and where they were buried. I would make for the grave, dig it up, take the shroud, put it in the goatskin, and make my way back. When I returned, the door would be unlocked. I would go in and lock it, remove my gloves, and give them to the servant girl, along with what I took. She would hide them in a house you don’t know. There are there three hundred shrouds there, more or less. I don’t know what to do with them. All I know is that getting out and doing this gave me more pleasure, for no purpose at all, than the pain this hand has caused me.’
“‘So when it was night, a man who noticed me overcame me. It was as if he was a caretaker or guard for that grave. When I began to dig it up, he came at me. I stood up to hit his face with my glove to keep him from me long enough to run and save myself. But he distracted me with a sword and struck me. I deflected the blow with my left hand, and thus my hand was severed.’
“I suggested, ‘Say that there is a boil on your hand. Since your skin is yellowish, it will be believable. When some days have passed, we will tell your father that we must cut off your hand to prevent the infection of your whole body. You turn away, he will give us permission to cut it, then we pretend that we cut it recently, and you’re good to go.’ That’s what we did, after she stabilized. She repented, and swore by God never to return to it. I was going to sell this servant, to be taken far away, and keep tabs on this girl. But you have disgraced me, and yourself.”
The qadi asked, “What do you have to say?”
The daughter answered, “Mother is telling the truth, and by God, I won’t do it again,” and she swore.
The qadi said to her, “Your friend here who cut your hand almost perished from worry.” Then he said, “Young man, where are you from?”
I answered, “I come from Iraq.”
He asked, “And why did you come here?”
I replied, “To seek my fortune.”
He said, “You have found it, fortunately. We are well-off, and God has seen fit to bless us with your discretion. I promise you, I had no idea about this.
Why don’t you marry my daughter? I will support you so that you need not rely on anyone else, and you can stay here with us.”
They cleared away the food, and we went out to the masjid. The people had gathered, and were awaiting him. He delivered a sermon, married me off, rose, returned, and ushered me into the house.
Love for the girl rose in my soul, until I almost died with passion for her, and I deflowered her. She lived with me for months, remaining aloof from me. I cried regretfully over her hand, and apologized to her. She seemed to have accepted my apology, but she remained gloomy over her hand.
Then one night, as I was sprawled out in my sleep, I felt a great heaviness on my chest, and I felt uneasy. She was looming over my chest. I held her back with my hand, and there was a knife in her hand. She had fallen upon me to slay me. I got upset, and despaired that deliverance was impossible. I was filled with fear that she would get the best of me, but I calmed down. I said to her, “Talk to me, then do as you like. What drove you to this?”
She said, “Did you think you could disgrace me, cut my hand off, marry me, and get away with it? I don’t think so!”
I said, “Murder has passed you by, but you expect to be capable of injuring me, and you can’t be sure that I will not murder you or flee and expose you. Then I could submit you to the sultan, and expose your first and your second felonies. Your family would disown you, and you would be killed.
She said, “Do what you want. I must kill you. We have each betrayed the other.”
I tried to find an escape, but I saw no way out, and I was afraid she would get to me first. So I said to myself, I’ll outsmart her. I said, “Or maybe not.”
She asked, “What?”
I said, “I could divorce you now, and you would be free of me. I’ll leave the country, and we will never see one another. No gossip or scandal about you will be disclosed in your country. You can marry anyone you please because it will be known that your hand was cut due to an irritated boil, and you can keep this under wraps.”
She said, “You swear you won’t live in this country, and you will never disgrace me?”
I swore by many crude oaths, and I pronounced her divorced. She got off my chest and ran, fearing that I would seize her. She threw the knife away, I know not where, and returned. She started to pretend as if what she had done was just a mood, and began seducing me.
So I said, “Keep away from me. It is no longer permissible for me to touch you. Tomorrow, I’ll leave you.”
She said, “Now I know you’re serious. By God, if you hadn’t kept your word, you would not have been spared from my hand.” She stood up, and came toward me with a bag. She said, “This is one hundred dinars. Take it for your expenses, and write me a letter of divorce. Don’t disgrace me, just get out.” So I left at dawn, after writing to her father that I had divorced her, and that I had left her for good. And to this day, I have not seen them.
Melanie Magidow is the founder of Marhaba Language Expertise, providing Arabic to English translation (specializing in Academic & Literary), English editing, and related Consulting in Arabic language, literature, and culture. She holds a Ph.D. in Middle Eastern Languages and Cultures from the University of Texas at Austin. She has received fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts, the National Endowment for the Humanities, and the Fulbright Commission. She lives in Rhode Island, and has taught Arabic at CUNY and Hunter College in New York, The University of Texas at Austin, Middlebury College, the University of Maryland, and the University of Rhode Island. She is also a co-host of the Goodreads MENA Lit Book Group. For more on her projects, see melaniemagidow.com.
This article was first published in ArabLit Quarterly, a magazine that focuses on translations of Arabic works, medieval and modern. You can learn more about them through their website, and get their issues by signing up to their Patreon.
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