An excerpt from Pearls on a Branch: Tales from the Arab World Told by Women (Archipelago Books)
There was or there was not
In olden days that time has lost…
O you who like stories and talk
No story can be pleasing and beautiful,
Without invoking the Almighty, the Merciful.
THERE WAS A KING – there is no sovereign but God – and this king had a daughter. She was his only child and he liked to please her. So when the month for the pilgrimage to Mecca drew near, the king asked his daughter:
Tell me what do you want me to bring you from the Hajj?” She said:
“I want you to travel in safety and come home safely.” Whenever he saw her he said:
“Speak, child, what do you want me to bring you from the Hajj?”
And her answer always was:
“Your health and safety are all I want, Father.” Her nurse began to scold her:
“What is the matter with you? Ask for something you wish for! Tell him, ‘I want Pearls on a Branch.’”
The girl wrote the nurse’s words on piece of paper, put the paper in a box, and gave the box to her father so he wouldn’t forget her request. The King kissed her goodbye and, taking his vizier with him, he set out on the Hajj.
When the two men had completed the rituals of the pilgrimage and were ready for the return home, their camels would not move but remained parked on their knees as if frozen in place. The men thought:
“Maybe the camels are thirsty and that is why they won’t budge.”
The animals were watered but they continued on their knees. The vizier said:
“Is there some errand that you have forgotten, your Majesty? Maybe that is why the camels are unwilling to travel.”
When he heard this, the King remembered his daughter’s request. He retraced his steps to buy his daughter’s gift. At the first store he came to he asked:
“Do you have pearls on a branch?”
“Ask my neighbor,” said the storekeeper.
He asked the neighbor and the neighbor said: “Ask my neighbor.”
So from store to store and neighbor to neighbor he went, asking the same question and receiving the same answer. The king was puzzled. There was an old man sitting by the side of the road and to him he recounted all that had happened and asked:
“What am I to do? My daughter is an only child! The camels won’t move! Where can I buy pearls on a branch?”
The old man said:
“Pearls on a branch cannot be bought or sold! But may I show you how to get there? If I point to the place with my hand it will be cut off. If I signal with my eye it will be torn out. If we talk about it my tongue will be cut off.”
“So what can we do?” asked the king. The old man said:
“Buy me a water jar. I will walk ahead and you and your friend will follow me. When I reach the right gate I’ll stumble and the jar will break. That is where you will find pearls on a branch.”
The King bought the jar and he and the vizier walked behind the old man until he fell and the jar broke at the gate of a magnificent palace. The king and the vizier entered the gardens and knocked at the door. A serving man opened and the king said,
“I have come looking for pearls on a branch.”
The servant left them and returned with a good-looking young man, who asked the king what he wanted. The king told him about his daughter’s wish, explaining what had happened each time he asked where he might buy pearls on a branch. He handed his daughter’s box to the young man. Now this handsome youth was the owner of the palace and a king in his own right. He opened the box and saw that his name was written on the paper inside. But he did not reveal to the king or the vizier that he himself was Pearls on a Branch, Lulu Bighsunu. Instead, he asked the king,
“What is your daughter called?”
“Her name is Husun Kamil, Loveliness Perfected.”
“Is your daughter beautiful?” asked the youth and the father replied,
“She is loveliness perfected.”
The young king, who owned the palace, ordered seven veiled girls, their faces completely covered, to be brought to him. He began to lift the veils, one by one, and as he uncovered the first beautiful face he asked:
“Is your daughter as beautiful as this?”
“No, she is more beautiful,” the father answered.
The young man unveiled a second and a third face until he had shown all seven girls. The father repeated his answer each time: that his daughter was more beautiful, until he had seen all seven girls. Then the youth gave back the box to his guest after writing a note, which he placed inside. The father took the box and rejoined the pilgrim caravan with his camels that now were standing, and willing to move.
On the journey home the king asked the vizier:
“Tell me, my vizier, what do you think is in this box that the youth gave back to me?”
“Guessing will not reveal its contents, your Majesty,” said the vizier.
“Then we will have to open it,” said the king.
The king opened the box. He was expecting to find a gift for his only daughter. Instead there was a piece of paper and written on it:
Husun Kamil, Loveliness Perfected, you may drive a nail through your heart
Lulu Bighsunu, Pearls on a Branch, will not be coming to sit at your hearth.
In a flash the king understood and realized that the handsome youth himself was Pearls on a Branch. That was his name. Now he saw what his daughter was after and muttered to himself:
“She brazenly sent me to bring her a bridegroom! She wanted me to lead him to her with my own hand!”
He raged at the impropriety and his anger was terrible. He sent a messenger to his kingdom with the order that his daughter was to be locked up immediately in the palace of isolation. He did not wish to see her face on his return.
The messenger arrived with the king’s instructions and both mother and daughter were confused. They tried to understand what was wrong but could not guess. The news spread throughout the kingdom. It was the talk on every tongue: “The King has locked up Husun Kamil, his only daughter.”
Finally the king returned with his vizier and the people crowded round to congratulate him on completing the Hajj and on his safe return. He handed out right and left, the usual gifts of dates and henna and sandalwood and incense.
When all the well-wishers had departed, the king’s wife asked:
“What is troubling you, dear husband? How can you lock up your only daughter for no good reason? You brought presents for everyone but not one gift for her?”
“Here is her present,” said the king, “I will not hand it to her myself!” In the heat of his fury, he threw the box on the ground. He told his wife that he was on his way to order the executioner to cut off his daughter’s head. Crazed with terror, she begged him to explain the reason for his anger. He reported what had happened to him on his journey and that Pearls on a Branch was the name of a young man whom their daughter wanted as her bridegroom. His wife made light of the cause for his agitation and persuaded him not to harm the girl. Then she took the box and went to Husun Kamil and repeated all that she had heard. The girl was astonished and thought:
“How can this make sense? Would I ever ask my father to bring me a bridegroom and lead him to me with his own hand?”
Then she opened her present and saw the message inside the box. So what her father had said was true! She read aloud:
Husun Kamil, Loveliness Perfected,
you may drive a nail through your heart
Lulu Bighsunu, Pearls on a Branch, will
not be coming to sit by your hearth.
“How dare he write such words!” she said and decided that she had to respond, she had to provoke him in return. She told her mother:
“I can’t sit idly here. I have to go.”
Her mother tried to talk her into staying, telling her to listen and calm down.
“No! I want to leave right away!” the girl said again.
The mother insisted “No!” and the daughter insisted, “Yes!” In the end the girl said that she was leaving right away but promised to return. Her mother found comfort in the promise.
So Husun Kamil got ready: she picked out a set of her father’s clothes and packed a saddlebag filled with money, then mounted her horse and rode off to find Lulu Bighsunu. It was a long journey before she reached his city. There she saw an old woman and asked whether she might lodge with her. The old woman took her in. Husun Kamil lived in her house and cared for the horse as well. Next she asked the old woman where the slave market was and where the palace of King Lulu Bighsunu was. She stained her face to darken it and went to the slave market and told the merchant there that she wanted to be sold to the palace as a serving girl.
“You may keep for yourself whatever price I bring,” she said. The merchant took her to the palace and offered her to Lulu
“God willing, you will be lucky with this new girl,” he said.
“This one is better looking than any of the girls you have brought me so far!” said the sister and led Husun Kamil to join the other servants.
It was the custom in that palace that every night a different serving girl carried supper up to the king. That evening, because she was new, Husun Kamil was chosen for the task. With the supper tray in her hands she entered Lulu Bighsunu’s chamber. He saw her standing in the doorway and every bone in his body melted. He told the girl to sit at the table and dine with him.
“Come sit and share my supper,” he said. She said:
“It is neither proper nor permitted for servants to eat at table with their masters.”
He asked her to sit by his side at least. So she sat down. He chatted with her for a while then invited her to stay so they could play a game of chess after he had eaten. She agreed on one condition:
“Whoever of us wins will be allowed to tie the hands of the loser. What do you say?”
The king agreed, thinking to amuse himself. They played. She won. She tied his hands together and he spent the night like that, falling asleep with his hands cuffed.
The next evening he sent word that he wanted Husun Kamil to be the serving girl to bring him his supper. So she carried the tray and sat with him and did as he asked. He wanted her to peel him an apple, which she did. But when she halved it she placed it on the palm of his hand and cut his skin as well as the apple with the knife. She begged forgiveness and quickly bound the wound with her kerchief.
He spent the night like that, falling asleep with the bandage around his hand. As for Husun Kamil, she fled to the old woman’s house under cover of darkness, saddled her horse, and rode back to her own country.
Next morning, Lulu Bighsunu woke up to find Husun Kamil gone. He searched for her high and low, asking after her everywhere he went, but she was nowhere to be found. He breathed in her scent on the kerchief round his hand and kissed the bandage. As he did so, he heard the crackle of paper in the folded cloth. When he loosened the handkerchief and spread it out there was a letter hidden inside. He read:
Lulu Bighsunu will not be coming to sit at
Husun Kamil’s hearth?
The first night with her belt she tied your hands
And let you sleep as if on firebrands. The second night she cut your palm and
made it bleed
You’ll never be the one that Husun Kamil needs.
“Oh, what a trick!” he thought to himself, “But now I will show her!”
He went to the jeweler who worked in gold and commissioned him to sculpt a jeweled hen with all her chicks around her. He waited for the piece to be finished, then saddled up for travel and rode to Husun Kamil’s country, taking with him the golden hen. Upon arriving in Husun Kamil’s city, he made inquiries and learned that Husun Kamil was prisoner in the palace of isolation, living apart with only one woman, her nurse, to serve her.
Next morning, just as the sun was rising, Lulu Bighsunu stood below Husun Kamil’s window, disguised as a peddler. He set down the jeweled hen where it would catch the sunlight.
“A jeweled hen, with all her chicks, for sale!” he called, “A
hen of solid gold for sale!”
Husun Kamil’s nurse looked out and saw something glittering in the sun.
“Mistress, come quickly! Come take a look!” she said.
The girl came running and saw the sunlight glancing off the gold. When the peddler turned a key, the jeweled hen moved, pecking and clucking. She looked again and recognized Lulu Bigshunu. She told the nurse:
“Ask how much he wants for his hen.”
“How much does your hen cost?” asked the nurse.
“It cannot be bought for silver or for gold! My price is one night in your mistress’s chamber,” said the peddler.
“What? May fevers boil and burn you! How dare you even think about my mistress for a night?”
The nursemaid reported back to Husun Kamil what he had said. To her surprise, her mistress instructed her to tell him “yes.” But on condition that it would be in the dark, in silence, in the room below the stairs. The maid went down to explain her mistress’s conditions and the peddler accepted willingly. So the maid was able to bring the golden hen with all her chicks to Husun Kamil.
The plan was for the maid, and not her mistress, to be with Lulu Bighsunu in the room below the stairs. So Husun Kamil set to work on her nurse with kohl and powder, perfumes and essences. She warned her not to utter a single word to Lulu Bighsunu and gave her a letter to drop into his pocket before he left.
“Not a whisper, not a word!” she reminded her.
The maid went down to the room below the stairs and snuffed out the light. Lulu Bighsunu entered in darkness and spent the night below stairs thinking he was with Husun Kamil.
In the morning, feeling triumphant and happy, he left to travel back to his own parts. There, while he was changing his clothes, the letter fell out of his pocket. He read:
“Lulu Bighsunu you can drive a nail through your heart
Husun Kamil will not be coming to your
hearth. The first night with her belt she tied
your hands And let you sleep as if on firebrands.
The second night she cut your palm and made it bleed
You’ll never be the one that Husun Kamil needs. Now she owns your golden hen with chicks around
It was the slave girl with whom you slept so sound.”
Stung and furious, Lulu Bighsunu resolved to take his revenge. He sent a messenger to her father asking for Husun Kamil’s hand in marriage.
The father said:
“This requires deliberation. Let us think it over tonight and decide.”
Since he was not talking to his daughter, her mother went to speak with her. The girl was willing and prepared herself for the journey to her husband’s house. She asked her mother for three suits of her father’s clothes, which her mother brought her along with two diamond pins, a gift from her father on this occasion. Husun Kamil packed the three sets of men’s clothes, stuck the two diamond pins in her hair, and took the golden hen with her chicks and also a bag filled with small beads, both white and black. Then she set out for Lulu Bigsunu’s palace to be wed.
When she arrived she was surprised to see the celebrations already underway. What was this? What did this mean? They told her:
“Lulu Bighsunu is celebrating the signing of the contract for his marriage to his first cousin, his paternal uncle’s daughter.”
Husun Kamil realized that Lulu Bighsunu’s offer and his intention had been to take her as his second wife, as co-wife to his first cousin.
In the evening Lulu Bighsunu summoned his Nubian serving man, Saiid, who loved him and served him loyally. Pointing to Husun Kamil he ordered him:
“You are to take Lady Husun tonight, Saiid. Take her and spend the night with her.”
So on that first night it was Saiid who entered Husun Kamil’s rooms. Husun Kamil meanwhile took out the bag of tiny black and white beads that she had brought with her and jumbled them. Then she said:
“Come, Saiid, sort out these beads. Separate the black beads from the white and when you are done, I’ll be waiting for you inside.”
She went into the inner room and Saiid sat, putting one black bead on this side, then one white bead on that. Long before the task was finished, he had fallen asleep.
Next day Husun Kamil called him, bid him good morning and said,
“Where were you, Saiid? I waited for you all night. But, come, take this suit of clothes with you to your master’s bathhouse, have a wash, and put it on.”
Lulu Bighsunu was in the bathhouse when Saiid entered. He asked:
“How was your night, Saiid?”
“As God is my witness, my Master, between black and white, I was up all night!”
“I wish you good health, Saiid! You have earned your keep.” On the second day Lulu Bighsunu again instructed Saiid to spend the night with Husun Kamil. What she did was break the lock on her door so it was impossible to repair. When it was evening, Saiid came in wanting to sleep. She said, “First lock the door, Saiid. When you are done, come; I’ll be waiting for you.” So Saiid spent the night trying to mend the lock: pulling the hasp and pushing in the key, pulling and pushing without success. He tried and tried, but sleep overcame him before the job was done.
In the morning Husun Kamil called him:
“Good morning, Saiid. Where were you? I waited all night for you. But, here, take this suit and go to your master’s bathhouse, wash yourself, and dress.”
Saiid went to the bathhouse where Lulu Bighsunu was taking his bath. The king asked:
“How was your night, Saiid?”
“By God, it was push and pull, push and pull, hour after hour, my Master.”
“Good work, Saiid! God grant you the best of health!”
On the third day, when Saiid came to Husun Kamil in the evening, she told him:
“This is the third and last night, Saiid. If you don’t come to me this time, you will have to go back and sleep with the other servants.”
During the day she had drilled holes in the bottom of the jar that held the drinking water. She said:
“Take this jar down to the well and fill it to the brim. When it is full, come to me; I’ll be waiting.”
So Saiid spent the night filling the bucket from the well and emptying it into the jar that had holes in the bottom. Again and again he’d fill the bucket with well water and empty it into the jar. When dawn broke, he was fast asleep and the water jar was still empty.
In the morning Husun Kamil called him, complaining: “Really, Saiid! Was it right, the way you left me on my own waiting for you all night?” He excused himself,
“I was busy, my Mistress, filling and emptying, filling and emptying.”
“Take this suit and go bathe in your master’s bathhouse.” Saiid went to the bathhouse and when his master asked him about his night with Husun Kamil, he answered:
“By God, I had to keep at it, emptying and filling, emptying and filling, through the night.”
“Bravo, Saiid! You have worked hard for your pay!” said the king.
That same morning Husun Kamil placed the golden hen with her chicks in the sunlight where Lulu Bighsunu’s wife, his first cousin, could not miss it. She turned the key and the woman was delighted to see how the golden hen glittered and moved. The first cousin said:
“O wife of Saiid, will you let me have this treasure?”
“This is valuable jewelry, my Mistress, how can I give it to you?”
“What does it cost?” said the woman, “Tell me and I will manage it.”
“It cannot be bought for silver or for gold,” said Husun Kamil, “My price is a night with your husband the king. I will sleep one night with the king and you can sleep with Saiid.”
“But what shall I tell my husband?” asked the woman.
“Say you want to try the Hammam of the Plants, the bathhouse that restores to wives their maidenhood. And tell him also that after such a bath women have to spend the night in silence without talking. Your husband has to know that too.”
The cousin ran to her husband, Lulu Bighsunu, and said, “O King of our Time, there is a botanical bathhouse that will give back to women their maidenhood. What do you think? Should I go and bathe there?”
“Go! Of course! Go today; don’t wait ’til tomorrow.”
“But after such a bath,” continued his wife, “I have to spend the whole night in silence without speaking a word to you.”
Lulu Bighsunu agreed and waited for night to fall. That evening the king’s wife went to spend the night with Saiid. He was happy – as happy as his name, “Saiid,” which means “happy.” There were no beads to sort, no mending of locks or filling of jars with well water. Meanwhile Husun Kamil went quietly into Lulu Bighsunu’s room. It was pitch dark, she spoke not a word and he did not know that she was not his wife.
“I have a present for you,” he said and slipped a gold bracelet onto her wrist. He told her that she was right, that indeed there was something different about the Hammam of the Plants and that he liked the effect. He encouraged her to use that bathhouse every day. After that they both fell asleep.
Before daybreak the next morning, Husun Kamil crept out of Lulu Bighsunu’s bed and ran to Saiid’s room where the king’s wife was sleeping soundly, her arms around the serving man’s neck.
“Wake up, O Cursed One,” she said. “Wake up! Go back to your own house!”
It was the will of the Almighty that after this night both women should carry: the first wife, a child fathered by Saiid, and Husun Kamil a child by Lulu Bighsunu.
Then war broke out, and the king was forced to join in the fighting. Five years passed before the battle ended and he was able to return to his kingdom and his family. In his absence his wife had given birth to a boy who resembled Saiid and Husun Kamil to a boy who looked like himself. Ahead of the army’s return, the king sent a messenger announcing the day of his arrival so that his people could prepare a welcome. He ordered them to have his son greet him on horseback with Saiid’s son standing by, holding the horse’s reins.
On the day of the soldiers’ return, Husun Kamil put on the gold bracelet that the King had given her during the night. She took the two diamond pins, her father’s gift, and fastened one in the hair of her son, who was holding the horse’s reins, and the other in her own hair.
The king arrived with his army to welcoming crowds of people. When he saw the two boys, one on horseback and the other holding the reins, he assumed that his orders had been disobeyed. Annoyed by this, he demanded:
“Why did you switch the boys?” He was told:
“God keep you, O King of our Time! The one on horseback is your son and the other is Saiid’s.”
The King was surprised by their words but he yielded to persuasion, remembering the saying, “Anger begins with madness and ends in regret.”
One day, Lulu Bighsunu noticed among his wife’s possessions the golden hen with all her chicks. He asked:
“How did you get this treasure?”
“Will you grant me immunity if I speak, your Majesty,” she pleaded.
The king assented so she told him how she had slept that night with Saiid while Husun Kamil had slept with the king: That had been the price of the treasure. The king said nothing. He did not know whether to be angered or delighted. But he hurried to Husun Kamil to ask for her side of the story. He said that his wife had confessed openly to what had taken place. So Husun Kamil told him all that had happened to her from the beginning to the end. Then she smiled and said,
“God keep you and grant you a long life, O King of our Time! Who ever heard of a Hammam of the Plants that can change women back to being maidens?”
And so Lulu Bighsunu married Husun Kamil. The wed- ding was celebrated and, having found each other, Pearls on a Branch and Loveliness Perfected lived happily to the end of their days.
The bird has
flown, It’s time to
Najla Jraissaty Khoury was born in Beirut. In the 1970s, she taught at adult literacy programs and later trained pre-school teachers. Her work has been influenced by her experience in education and her interest in folk tales and children’s literature. Najla Khoury founded and directed a puppet troupe and has developed several educational toys. In 1997, she helped found the NGO Assabil Libraries, which focuses on establishing public libraries throughout Lebanon.
Inea Bushnaq is a Palestinian-American writer and translator born in Jerusalem, educated in England, and now living in New York. She edited and translated the collection, Arab Folktales, published by Pantheon.