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The Tale of Princess Fatima,
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B+ : enjoyable adventure-stories, with a fascinating main character and interesting conflicts
See our review for fuller assessment.
The complete review's Review:
The Tale of Princess Fatima, Warrior Woman: The Arabic Epic of Dhat al-Himma is an English rendering of eleven episodes from the much, much larger Arabic original. As translator and editor Melanie Magidow notes:
This abridgment consists of nearly a dozen carefully selected episodes out of a total of some 455 episodes in the unabridged version, which in Arabic spans seven volumes and more than six thousand pages.That still makes it, as she also notes: "the most extensive rendition of the epic into English to date", and even if only a sliver of the original, it is certainly a welcome introduction to this work. With nine of the eleven episodes featuring in the first volume of the Arabic original, Magidow's collection focuses on the beginning of the story -- and the titular heroine, Princess Fatima, who plays a more prominent role here than in later volumes. (The full title of the Arabic original is the: Epic of the Commander Dhat al-Himma and her Son, ‘Abdelwahhab, and Magidow points out that: "After volume I, episodes tend to circulate between characters, with many of them focusing more on her son ‘Abdelwahhab, the warrior Al-Battal, and others".) Closing the collection with the final tale from the epic then brings appropriate closure to the collection, too.
If mainly about Princess Fatima, the three (short) first episodes in fact go further back, introducing the generations from the Bani Kilab tribe leading up to Fatima. Only in the fourth do we get to Fatima's birth. Here we find the wives of brothers Zalim and Mazlum both pregnant at the same, and the brothers agreeing that: "He whose wife has a son will become the chief of the clan, with authority over all the Arabs in our region" (with them continuing their shared leadership if both have sons). Zalim's wife gives birth to a son, Walid, but Mazlum's wife gives birth to a girl -- with him so disappointed that he fobs the infant off on a servingwoman to raise in secret and lets everyone think he had a son who died. This sets the stage for what will be a source of constant conflict between the two brothers (and their off-spring).
The young girl is raised away from her parents, but soon shows herself to be extraordinarily talented. When another clan, the Bani Tayy, raids the Bani Kilab lands, the child is among those kidnapped and she is brought back to Bani Tayy territory, handed over as a servant to a troop leader. She learns fighting skills by watching warriors at practice, and quickly picks up these and many other skills; she even become a fighter on behalf of the Bani Tayy -- leading to a direct confrontation with the man she does not realize is her father.
Fatima comes back into the fold and rejoins the Bani Kilab, now acknowledged by Mazlum as being his daughter -- and proving herself to be a great warrior. Unfortunately, she also catches the eye of cousin Walid, whose determination to marry (and subjugate) her then becomes, along with Walid and father Zalim's more general goal of taking complete power and sidelining Mazlum, the driving tension in much of the story.
Fatima loathes the creepy Walid, but beyond that, she has no interest in marriage in general:
I am a woman who does not seek intimacy with men. It seems to me that God does not mean for me to be hidden away or confined. As you see, I like to fight. I am accustomed to swords and spears, not women's quarters. Caliph of the Merciful, my sword is my home. The dust provides my cosmetics. My horse is my family. What would I do with Walid or with any man ?Repeatedly, Walid woos her and tries to force her into marriage, and repeatedly she repels his advances. He's not a good sport, either: under all the pressure Fatima even consents to battle it out with him on the field, the winner getting his or her way, but when she easily defeats him in combat he still presses his suit. She is finally forced into marriage -- but at least ensures that it is essentially one only in name, keeping Walid at a distance from her.
Walid still pines for her -- and, as her husband, thinks he deserves his due. Unable to even approach her, he has to resort the most pitiful gambit; even when he violates her, he's only able to do so when she is unconscious. Fatima does wind up pregnant from this one-off -- but the child, then named ‘Abdelwahhab, is, surprisingly, Black. This leads Walid to believe that Fatima has dishonored him:
(H)er infidelity is a personal offense. She renounced me for the preposterous reason that she prefers slaves ! Now she has a Black bastard, and she claims it's mine! The kid is as dark as night, and we're both fair. How can this be ?As always, Walid is in the wrong, but even when the matter is adjudicated and the child judged to be his -- sure, the coloring is off: "However, they have the same eyes, bone structure, and hands, even to their fingertips" -- he refuses to accept the truth of the matter and continues to feel wronged, further escalating the conflict between him and his father on one side, and Fatima and hers on the other. Eventually, Walid and Zalim go so far as to abandon their religion and join the 'Rum' ("the Greek Orthodox Christians living within the Byzantine Empire in Anatolia"), with the weaselly, craven Zalim willing to do and say whatever is necessary:
We have come to learn that yours is the true religion. It is my duty to assist you in conquering the lands of Islam, destroying the Kaaba and mosques, and capturing as many people as possible.Fatima, meanwhile, continues nobly and honorably -- impressing even the Byzantine emperor (and doing him a solid when Constantinople is threatened by the king of Portugal, showing her fighting prowess and cleverness).
The action here moves fast, from episode to episode, with back and forths between various local powers and groups. ‘Abdelwahhab grows into a fierce warrior as well, following in his mother's footsteps. There are also examples of enemy forces that are as remarkable as Fatima -- other women warriors and leaders. Honorable behavior among many of the nominally opposed forces is, somewhat surprisingly, the norm, while the most contemptible and ignoble characters are Walid and his father, members of Fatima's own tribe.
The focus on invasion, theft, and kidnapping is somewhat disconcerting; rather than encouraging local economic activity it seems that the way to success is simply to steal the neighbor's animals and manpower -- an odd contrast to the otherwise generally honorable behavior among the different factions even in their conflicts. Ultimately, strength in battle determines success, of course, and in these episodes there is a neat variety of how various more or less military confrontations play out. Throughout, the narrative moves at a very quick pace, so it never bogs down in boring battle-accounts either, making for a consistently engaging -- indeed, at times almost too quick -- read.
A useful Introduction and then Notes make for good (and not overwhelming) supporting material. Much appreciated, for example, is that translator Melanie Magidow notes where in the corresponding original volume (down to the page numbers) each of the episodes is taken from, making clear where sections have been omitted. And, while not affecting the reading, it's good to know the name-changes she made -- as, for example Walid is, in fact named Harith in the original, which she correctly judges might lead to some confusion. (She also changes the name of yet another Harith, Fatima's master, called Ahmed here.)
In A Note on the Translation Magidow makes clear that The Tale of Princess Fatima, Warrior Woman is: "an abridgement and also not a literal translation" (helpfully adding: "It is not intended as an assist to parsing the Arabic", in case anyone was tempted ...). She also helpfully explains the "three main choices" she made in translating the text: that of narrative voice ("I did not add my own stories to the text, but I delivered it in my style, sensitive to the patriarchal and dominant strains in the omniscient narrator that would lose contemporary readers"), the choice to "gently downplay some of the religious phraseology", and: "to remove gratuitous descriptions of violence". As she explains, she has tailored the translation to: "a broad audience reading in English in a contemporary, pluralistic context". Some readers (yours truly ...) may wish for more fidelity to the original, but Magidow has certainly succeeded in presenting an engaging series of stories featuring a number of compelling figures -- above all, and particularly successfully, that of Fatima, who is, in fact, a much more complex character than just that of a woman who is an outstanding fighter.
As a quick glimpse -- almost whirlwind tour -- of this world, as well as simple adventure-tale, The Tale of Princess Fatima, Warrior Woman is a very good and enjoyable little read. Highlighting the sections of the original centered on this fabulous character also makes sense, and makes for a sufficiently cohesive whole. Nevertheless, as a mere sampler, it's also a great argument for why we need a translation of the entire Epic of the Commander Dhat al-Himma and her Son, ‘Abdelwahhab .....
Even just as is, The Tale of Princess Fatima, Warrior Woman is a neat and welcome addition to what early Arabic fiction is available in English.
- M.A.Orthofer, 4 August 2021
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© 2021 the complete review