Habra with the lion

In a future post I’ll introduce you to an extraordinary storyteller (alas, no longer with us) I met in Paris years ago. His name was Mohammed bel Halfaoui. He had lived in Paris many years as a professor of Arabic literature.

He gave me two collections of his folktales, in Arabic and French. I translated and published one of the stories before his death. “Man With No Brain” appears in Margaret MacDonald’s Peace Tales: World Folktales to Talk about.

“Habra and the lion” is one of my favorite of Mohammed’s stories, even though North American audiences often find it troubling. Outside North America there seems to be less insistence on happy endings.

The version below retains the story line but eliminates Mohammed’s longer embellishments. Perhaps one day his stories can appear in their entirety. They would be best in Arabic, with their poetry and imagery intact.

Mohammed began the story this way: “Mama Zohra loved this story and enjoyed telling it to us. And as always, the lesson to draw from it was of most importance to her: ‘You must take care not to hurt people’s feelings because the offenses are impossible to forget.’ And that’s why I ask you to listen to the adventure of Habra with the lion.”

When a couple quarrels

Book and wedding ring

Quarrels can mar any marriage (photo courtesy of Photos8.com)

When a woman quarrels with her husband, she tells him she wants to visit her parents. As a matter of courtesy, he agrees. He accompanies his wife and brings a gift for her parents.

The mother asks the husband to let the young woman spend several days with her. And, of course, he agrees again.

After two or three days, the husband expects his wife to come home. She wants to teach him a lesson and to make him more circumspect next time.

Soon the husband relents. He sends “go-betweens”, prominent, older people who are respected in the community. He sends gifts.

Most often, that’s all the wife was waiting for. Didn’t God say in the Sacred Book, “Reconciliation is preferable”?

Only, in our story, the woman had neither father nor mother, not even an older brother. How could she teach her insolent husband a lesson?

Hospitality in the forest

African lion Tanzania

The lion was lying before his den (African lion Tanzania courtesy of Photo8.com)

Her servant, Habra, found the solution. “Mistress, let’s go to the lion, king of the forest. He is know for his generosity and discretion.”

The wife wrapped herself in her cloak, as did her servant, and they went to the lion.

When he heard their request for hospitality, he replied, “Marhaba! (Welcome!) You do me honor. Come in! My house is yours.”

They moved into the den of the hospitable lion. Every day he went hunting and brought them choice game. He placed it before the entry, then withdrew. He watched over them and protected his guests.

The husband sends a go-between

The husband wanted his wife to return. As go-between he chose the Taleb, the person who knows the Koran by heart.

The Taleb said, “It is no use being proud. Your wife deserves this effort. Have you thought of gifts?”

“Yes, here is a length of silk for a robe and also something for the servant, for she is loyal to her mistress. My wife will understand that I truly desire the reconciliation recommended by God.”

The Taleb promised to do whatever was necessary as go-between. Gifts in his arms, he walked toward the forest.

The Taleb intercedes

Lion Tanzania

The lion greeted the Taleb (photo courtesy of Photos8.com)

He greeted the lion, who lay before the entry. “God’s guest, your lordship.”

“You are welcome, marhaba. What may I do for you?”

“It is not for me but for the husband of the woman you have so generously received, as well as her servant. The husband is desperate because his wife seems in no hurry to return. Because she is under your protection, he wishes to convince you of his good intentions and, above all, of his remorse. He promises that nothing of the sort will happen again, in cha-allah!”

“Honorable Taleb, your intercession is a great honor, but my guest must decide, on her own, at her leisure. For if it is my duty to desire the reconciliation of spouses, my duty of hospitality is equally sacred.”

The young wife returns

The young wife had been waiting for her husband’s first gesture. She wanted to return to him as quickly as possible. She thanked the lion for his gracious reception and the respect and consideration he had had for her and her servant. She covered herself with her veil, as did her servant.

When they came out, the Taleb, bowing his head, gave her the gifts and signaled that he would walk ahead of them to her husband’s house.

They said farewell to the lion, and the three of them walked cheerfully toward the house where the husband waited, with as much impatience as you can imagine.

A cloud over the celebration

Such a celebration! A whole roast sheep and a marvelous couscous—a feast—for the wife, the husband, and even the neighbors.

After the couscous and the barbecue came mint tea and cakes. The conversation was lively and happy. The wife praised the virtues of the lion, his discretion and the respect he always showed his guests.

She didn’t know King Lion was listening behind the tent. He wanted to savor the compliments he was sure his dear guests would shower on him.

But it was not an unclouded joy. The servant had a few reservations.

“May God reward him a hundredfold. He was so magnificent, so good, so respectful. If only, how shall I say this…He gives off such a terrible odor one has to hold one’s breath. On top of that, sometimes he breaks wind, a little as if someone had broken a dozen rotten eggs a few steps way. Of course, there’s nothing he can do about it. It’s his nature, and nothing will make us forget his kindness!”

The lion’s difficult request

The lion was wounded. He returned home reeling from the shock.

The next day he met Habra in the forest. She had come to cut wood, as usual.

“Oh, good day, Your Majesty! What a joy to see you again and to thank you once more!”

Lion on the path

"Habra, has my wound healed?" (Photo courtesy of Photos8.com)

“Good day, Habra! What are you holding in your hand?”

“Well, Your Majesty, it’s the hatchet for cutting wood!”

“Ah, yes. Then I would like for you to give me a little blow between the eyes.”

“After all your kindnesses, Sidi [a term of respect]? You must be joking?”

“Oh, no, Habra, I am completely serious. There, right between the eyes, a good little blow. I would like to see the blood flowing!”

“Forgive me. I couldn’t.”

“Habra! It is an order! Go ahead, strike me! If you don’t…” His flashing eyes made the poor girl shiver. “Quickly, Habra! I am in a hurry! And your masters await you return. Go ahead, it will be quickly done, quickly forgotten!”

Deeply distressed, she slowly raised her hachet…and gave…oh, just a little blow, there, between the eyes, as his majesty has insisted.

When she tried to wipe away the blood, he gently pushed her away. “No, no, it’s all right. You may go cut your wood.”

When the spirit is wounded

They parted, but from that day on, the lion met Habra from time to time, as if by chance, and asked, “Has my little wound healed?”

“Oh, no, Sidi. I would like to see the earth open beneath my feet, so that I might no longer blush to see the mark of my ingratitude!”

“Oh, no, it’s nothing. Goodbye, Habra.”

For several weeks Habra’s trial continued. The lion lay in wait, and he always asked the same question, “Has my wound healed?”

“Oh, Sidi, not yet.”

“It’s nothing. You’ll see. It will heal.”

“That is my dearest wish.”

“There now, don’t worry so about me. Go about your business.”

One day the lion met Habra as usual, “Has my wound healed?”

“Oh, at last! Yes, Sidi, I am so happy! It has completely healed over.”

“Ah, yes, Habra, you see! Everything can heal, when it is a question of the body. But wounds to the heart never heal, even though no one sees them.”

And he pounced on her and devoured her.

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Mary - July 26, 2010

What a deep story! Thanks so much for sharing it.

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Rebecca - August 3, 2010

Ahhh… Words sent out, unaccompanied, unattended yet overheard. In such times, my karma has always seemed to bring them back around on me. Ooof. Thanks for sharing this and for your warmth introducing us to another teller we otherwise would never meet.

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