No one was more delighted with the stories of Mohammed bel Halfaoui than the storyteller himself. He had learned them from his mother, in the rhyming phrases of Arabic folktales. He would recite them in Arabic, then in French. Though the stories delighted me in the language I could understand, Mohammed always rued how much they lost in translation.
Still, the stories are layered and rich, even in English. This one seems sadly appropriate for the week after a crazed gunman in Arizona opened fire on Congresswoman Gabrielle Griffins. As I type, she lies in a hospital, a bullet hole through her head. Six others died.
It’s the day of their memorial service. Sarah Palin is accusing her opponents of “blood libel” for objecting to her placing shooting targets, aka crosshairs, on a map of Democrats (including Giffords) who voted for health care. President Obama is flying to Tucson to attend the service. His 2008 election unleashed a flood of racism and rhetoric that heightened the pervasive fear broken open by the attacks of September 2011.
The tragic shooting is leading to a lot of soul searching in a nation where bombast has replaced rational discussion in all too many arenas. Mainstream and independent media are filled with discussions about mental health, gun control, political discourse, social justice, and the need for civility.
The simple tale of a mouse and a kitten is ostensibly about two creatures who are predator and prey by nature. Their coming to that realization is normal, in the scheme of things. However, folktales are never about the surface story. Children are not born knowing who is predator and prey. They are not born recognizing The Other as enemy. This little story points out the problem, not the solution, but perhaps it can lead to some open discussion about tolerance and accepting differences.
One day, a little mouse said to his mother, “I’m big now. Let me go outside and play on my own. It’s not fair to keep me cooped up in this hole.”
The mouse’s mother had always watched over him carefully. She feared the dangers that threaten small mice. Most of all, she feared the cat, who would pounce on her child and eat him.
But at last, seeing how much her son had grown and how keen he was to explore the outside world, she agreed. “Very well, but don’t stay outside too long, and, above all, beware of the cat. He is our greatest enemy.”
The little mouse was thrilled. At last his dream was coming true. He was going outside alone, with no parents to scold him.
He ran outside, cheerful and proud. He felt like a grown-up mouse. He could go anywhere he wished, all by himself. He scurried around. Sometimes he stopped and raised his head, looking to the left, then to the right. Then he ran back and forth, delirious with happiness.
He was full of his new-found joy when he saw a little cat. “Oh, hooray,” he said to himself. “I can have a nice friend if this pretty little creature will play with me.”
The kitten was also out on his own for the very first time. As soon as he saw the little mouse, he said to himself, “What a pretty, sweet little creature. If only he wants to play with me!” He approached the little mouse as softly as he could.
The little mouse was delighted. “Do you want to play with me?”
The cat replied, “Yes, I do!”
The two young animals began to play tag. They wrestled and rolled on the ground. They boxed with their paws. They bit each other’s ears. They ran around in circles, chasing each other’s tails, but always gently, delighted with their game.
They forgot everything else until the sun began to set. The little mouse said to the kitten, “That’s enough for now. I’m afraid Mama will scold me. Goodbye.”
The kitten replied, “I’m sorry we have to stop. Goodbye. But tomorrow morning we’ll meet again and play like we did today.”
The little ones returned to their homes. When the mouse saw her son, she was relieved.
“Where were you, my child? I was so afraid for you. You were gone the whole day. I was very worried. I was afraid the cat had devoured you. Never stay outside such a long time! It’s not safe.”
But the little mouse was full of the day’s fun. He was impatient with his mother’s warnings. Finally he interrupted, “Oh, if I told you everything… I made a friend. We played together all day long. Oh, Mother, if you could see how cute he is, how handsome, how friendly. I’m sure you would like him. From now on, when I go outside, I won’t be alone. Now I have a friend to play with, from morning till night.”
His mother grew thoughtful. “Yes, my son, that’s good. That’s good. But tell me a little about your friend. Can you describe him to me?”
“Oh, Mama, if you only saw him! It’s true he’s a little bigger than I am but not too much. And his head is a little large and round. And his fur is as soft as silk, so nice to stroke. And he is yellow, and his tail is about that long and thick. And he doesn’t talk the way we do. It’s so pretty to hear him. He says, ‘Me…ow! Me…ow! Me…ow!’ Or he says, ‘Me…ew! Me…ew! Me…ew!’”
Mother Mouse was no longer listening. She had nearly fainted. What she had dreaded most had happened. It was a miracle her child was still alive.
“My dear child, your little friend is a cat! Creatures like that eat mice. He must still be very small and not yet know that mice are his daily food. But beware. His parents will tell him. Don’t go near him again.”
The little mouse didn’t understand a thing his mother said. How could such a sweet little friend ever think of eating him? He turned to his father.
Father Mouse laughed softly. Finally he said, “My little son, cats are our most dangerous enemies. Listen to your mother. Stay inside, safe from the cat. We’re warning you for your own good.”
That was the scene in the mouse’s home. Now let’s see what happened when the kitten went home. His mother was also upset and asked why he had stayed outside so long.
The kitten said, “Dear Mother, if you’d only seen the little friend I met. He’s so handsome, so cute. We played together all day long. We pretended to fight. He bit me; I bit him. He made me fall down. I made him fall down. I’m so lucky to find a good friend. I’ll never be alone when I go outside to play.”
Mother Cat was delighted to see her child so happy. Finally, she said, “Tell us about your pretty little friend.”
“Oh, Mama, if you saw him! He is little, much smaller than I am. He has a pretty, thin little tail. His little head isn’t round like mine. But he has such a pretty nose, narrow and pointed. His ears are pointed too, and so small. And he doesn’t talk like us. He says softly, ‘squeak, squeak’.”
“Little fool,” said his mother. “And you didn’t eat him? That was a mouse! And mice, you little nitwit, are what we eat. Do you understand? Cats eat mice. Always. And you actually had a mouse between your paws and let it get away and are proud of yourself? I am ashamed to have such a stupid child. Tomorrow, you must look for him. As soon as he is near, pounce. Grab him and gobble him up. Do you understand?”
The kitten could not believe his ears. “Eat him? But why? And then who would I play with?”
His father burst out laughing. “My son, listen to your mother. Cats eat mice and have since the world began. Tomorrow we will see what kind of cat you are. As soon as the little mouse comes near, jump on him and devour him. Show us that you are a real cat.
When morning came, the kitten went outside in search of the little mouse. But there was no trace of the mouse anywhere. Not in the courtyard. Not in the street.
Then the kitten saw a tiny hole. He watched it carefully and recognized the shiny eyes of his little mouse friend, safe inside his home.
In his sweetest, slyest voice, the kitten said, “Hello. Come on out, and we’ll play as we did yesterday.”
But the little mouse cried out, “Never! Everything your father and mother told you yesterday, my father and mother told me.”
And so the story ends, of the mouse who learned about cats and the kitten who learned about mice.
A post script: In an opinion piece in the January 11th issue of the New York Times, Robert Wright has this to say: “The point is that Americans who wildly depict other Americans as dark conspirators, as the enemy, are in fact increasing the chances, however marginally, that those Americans will be attacked.” His piece is aptly titled: “First Comes Fear”.
When I translated this story for Margaret Read MacDonald’s Peace Tales: World Folktales to Talk about, I ended the story here: “if I had any brains at all, I would never have come with my ‘friends.’” Audiences taught me to stop at that point. That’s where they reacted.
Looking at the story again, I see my telling and their reaction were cultural. My audiences and I interpreted the story as an anti-war tale. As Algerian storyteller Mohammed bel Halfaoui told and wrote it (in Arabic, then translated into French), the story has a quite different intent.
How would you interpret it?
In the past, many things happened.
Many things happened in days gone by.
Basil and lily I offer to the Prophet Mohammed. May God bless and honor him.Here is one of the adventures of the renowned Jouha. In Algeria he is called Jha or Ben Sakrane. Farther to the east, he is Nasredin Hodja. He is, in fact, Tyl Eulenspiegel, or Jean le Sot: the fool who sells his wisdom, he who brays like a donkey in order to be heard, and sometimes the most unbeatably cunning.
One day Jha met some friends armed for battle with shields, spears, bows, and quivers full of arrows.
“But where are you going in these disguises?”
“Listen, don’t you know we are soldiers? Obviously we are going to into battle, and it promises to be rough!”
“Good. This is my chance to witness one of these things I’ve heard about but never seen with my own eyes. Let me come with you, at least this once!”
“Well, come on then. You are welcome.”
And there Jha was among the small platoon going to join the rest of the army on the battlefield.
The first arrow struck him in the forehead.
Quick! A surgeon! The doctor arrived, examined the wounded man, nodded, and declared, “It has gone in deeply. To remove it will be easy. But if the tiniest piece of brain comes with it, he will die.”
The wounded man seized the doctor’s hand and kissed it, expressing his “deep gratitude to the Master”. He declared, “Doctor, you can remove the arrow without fear. There won’t be the tiniest atom of brain on it.”
“Hush!” said the doctor. “Let the experts take care of you. How can you tell the arrow hasn’t penetrated your brain?”
“I know only too well,” said Jha, “because if I had any brains at all, I would never have come with my ‘friends.’ I’m not a soldier. I just wanted to watch. I got mixed up with something that didn’t concern me. Punishment was swift.”
The story has tumbled down the hill. I climb back in my boat.
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
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
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
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!”
“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.