Zuleja and the Evil Djinn
by Dave Potter
Exclusively for the ‘Tales of the Veils’ website
The following story was inspired by one of my favourite English folk tunes, ‘An Outlandish Knight’. Although most famously recorded by Shirley and Dolly Collins in 1970, the song is in fact one of great antiquity, being a variant of the Legend of Lady Isabel and the Elf Knight, a folk tale which is to be found across Europe and is thought by some scholars to have come originally from 2000 year old Mongolian folk ballads having travelling across to Europe by the Magyars who later became today’s Hungarians. Taking all this into account, it is not improper I feel, to introduce today, a veiling version of the tale.
For those interested, I reproduce here the lyrics of the 1970 Collins version which inspired me. It should be noted however, that whilst the protagonist is merely an ‘Outlandish Knight’ here, he is generally seen as some sort of evil supernatural being, (hence the title ‘Elf Knight’).
|An outlandish knight from the north lands came,
He come a-courting me;
And he promised he’d take me into the north lands,
And there would marry me.
|“Go fetch me some of your father’s gold,
Some of your mother’s fee,
And the two best horses that are in your yard,
Where there stands thirty and three.”
|So she rode away on their milk-white steed,
He on the dapple grey,
And they rode till they come to the banks of the sea,
Three hours before it was day.
|“Unlight, unlight, my pretty little girl,
Deliver that gold to me.
For six pretty maidens I have drownded here
And the seventh one you shall be.”
|“But first take off your gown of silk,
Deliver it unto me,
For I think that it is too fine and too gay
To rot with you in the salt sea.”
|“Turn around, turn around, you false young man,
Turn your face to the tree,
For it isn’t fit that a villain like you
A naked lady should see.”
|So as he turned himself around,
Turning his face to the tree,
She’s grabbed him by the middle so small
And flung him into the sea.
|“Lie there, lie there you false young man,
Lie there instead of me,
For if six pretty maidens you have drownded here
Then the seventh one has drowned thee.”
|So she mounted on the lily-white horse,
Leading the dapple grey,
And she rode till she come to her father’s own door,
An hour before it was day.
|Now the parrot being up in the window so high,
And hearing his mistress, did say,
“I’m afraid some ruffian had led you astray,
You tarried so long away.”
|“Don’t prittle, don’t prattle my pretty Polly,
Nor tell no tales of me,
And your cage shall be of the glittering gold
And your perch of the best ivory.”
|Now her father being up in his bedroom so high,
And hearing the parrot, did say,
“What’s the matter with you, my pretty Polly,
You’re prattling so long before day?”
|“There come an old cat on the top of my cage,
To take my sweet life away,
And I was just calling for my young mistress
To chase that old puss away.”
Of all the men in the land, few can be said to be as blessed by Allah as Sheikh Younes was. He was a handsome man, rich, with a fine Kasbah in the desert, a stable full of pure-bred horses, a beautiful and faithful wife and the widest smile in the kingdom. Indeed, the only thing that one could say had averted him was plentiful offspring and in particular sons, for his good wife had only born him one child and that was a girl. However, even this misfortune the good sheikh did not curse, for instead he loved his daughter more than Heaven itself and thanked the Almighty for her everyday during his prayers.
The sheikh’s daughter was called Zuleja and she was truly a maiden to behold with genial charm, wise mien, and features as radiant as the moon. She had an elegant figure, the scent of ambergris, sugared lips, Babylonian eyes, with eyebrows as arched as a pair of bent bows, and a face whose radiance put the shining sun to shame, for she was like a great star soaring in the heavens, or a dome of gold, or an unveiled bride, or a splendid fish swimming in a fountain, or a morsel of luscious fat in a bowl of milk soup. Indeed, it was no surprise that the sheikh doted on her so, but it was also a great misfortune that he did for in doing so he let her get away with things that young girls should not be allowed to get away with. Whilst the other maidens in the land all piously veiled their hair and faces, she strode around the house without even a cloth to cover her hair and when she ventured forth from her father’s Kasbah, she wore only the loosest of scarves so that her lustrous black locks could be seen by all who passed causing many an innocent man to descend into a sinful state of fitna. Countless times did her mother, a pious and humble lady, implore her to cover herself as a good muslimah should, but beautiful Zuleja, who wished only to be as free as a boy and who loved the admiring glances of the menfolk would merely pout and sob at which her father would declare that she could dress as she liked and so it went on.
Now one day Zuleja was out in the walled garden within the Kasbah, dressed in a beautiful gown of green silk, her tresses freely blowing in the wind, when, to her surprise, a strange man revealed himself from behind one of the pillars. Shocked, she was about to scream to the servants that there was an intruder, but he put his finger to his lips and it was then that she noticed that he was the most handsome man she had ever clasped eyes on and within an instant, she was in love. “Sir, you must leave,” she said rather timidly, her voice betraying the fact that his departure was the last thing that she wanted.
“I shall never leave here unless with you!” he declared in a voice as enchanting as his visage.
“What do you mean?” she asked, edging nearer to him.
“I am a stranger from afar and the other day I was in the town when I saw you ride past on your grey mare. Your beauty enchanted me, as too did the sweet sound of your voice which was calling to your father on the white stallion. I knew there and then that you were the lady for me and that we were destined to be together. I sought out your name and home and here I am to claim you as my own.”
“Oh kind sir, I cannot…” she started, but the sentence was never finished for his lips met hers and both were indulging in the most passionate kiss ever entered into.
When it was finished, the stranger spoke. “Let us elope together this night. Take two horses from your stable where I have heard there are thirty and three, and some of your father’s gold and your mother’s fee and we shall ride to my land which is by the sea, hours hence from here.”
Although she knew it to be wrong and sinful and a betrayal of the father who had been so kind and good to her, Zuleja was in love and she merely nodded assent and it was agreed.
That evening, when the sky was lit only by a slither of moon and a myriad of stars, the gate of the Kasbah opened and two figures rode away in secret; the handsome stranger on Sheikh Yousef’s milk white stallion and Zuleja on her dapple grey mare. Across the desert they rode, on and on until, three hours before the sun was due to rise, they halted by the seaside, on top of a mighty cliff, the waves crashing on the rocks hundreds of feet below them.
“Alight, alight, my pretty little miss,” the stranger said, helping Zuleja down from the mare, “and deliver that gold to me!”
“What do you mean?” cried the girl, shocked.
“Six pretty maidens I have drownded here,” declared the stranger, “and the seventh one you shall be!”
“But, I thought that you loved me, truly and deeply; that I had enchanted thee with my eyes and voice.”
“It is true that you could enchant any other man, and that I do find you pleasing, but I am not as other men are. Only gold fulfils my longing and you have plenty of it, so please, deliver it unto me! But first, before you do, take off that fine embroidered silk gown of yours for I do declare that it is too fine to rot with you in the salt sea!”
As you can imagine, Zuleja was both devastated at her mistake and naivety and scared by what fate now had in store for her. She regretted being so hasty and repented of all her many sins. However, whilst she was petrified and angry, Zuleja was also still a woman, and an intelligent one at that and she knew that she had to play smart in order not to die on the jagged rocks below. “You sir are a villain, an evil man! You rob me of my gold and now you wish also to rob me of my dress! Well, you may have them and be damned in the process, but you shall not have my honour, that I also promise!”
“As you wish, it is the gold I desire, not thee!”
“Aye, I can see that! But by my honour, I mean that you shall not even see my naked form, for it is not fit to reveal such a treasure to a villain like you! I shall only remove my gown if you turn away, put your face to that tree and let me at least retain my modesty! Otherwise, I shall leap down with it still on my back!”
“It is a strange request, particularly from one who is infamous for caring less about her modesty than any other girl in the kingdom, but as you want it, I shall obey.”
And with those words, he turned his face to the tree. Spying her chance, Zuleja crept up behind him, grasped him around the waist and with the full force of all her strength, flung the vile stranger over the cliff, down onto the rocks below. “Lie there! Lie there you false young man!” cried Zuleja as she watched his body crack on the rocks and then splash into the sea where it sunk under the surface. “Lie there instead of me! For if you have dronded six pretty maidens here, then the seventh one has killed thee!” Then, exhausted with her efforts, she sunk to the floor.
Sitting there on the cliff head, Zuleja realised that the Almighty had been on her side and saved her that fortuitous day. It had all been due to Him, not her own efforts. It was her behaviour – going around unveiled, talking to strange men, going with a man other than her husband – that had caused her to almost lose her life and only Allah Himself had saved her, giving her the strength to throw her false young man to his doom; a strength that she didn’t normally possess. She looked down at her silk dress. As the stranger had said, it was beautiful and fine, but it had brought her only trouble. Normally she was proud of it; now she wished to hide it – and her own sinful self – away. She spied the stranger’s yellow cloak and turban which he had hung on the tree and draped the cloak over her body, shielding her from the cold night air and shielding the world from her sin. Then she took the white turban, unwrapped it before winding it around her face like a veil, so that only her eyes were free. It was hot and restrictive but she liked it for now no one could see her shameful visage. She was shaking now, with fear, shock and rage at herself, but of the three emotions, the fear was the strongest. Allah had saved her life, but would He also save her honour? Still shaking, she mounted the stallion and leading her mare, rode back to the her father’s Kasbah at full tilt.
It was still a full hour before daybreak when she arrived at the gate and let herself in. No one was awake and Zuleja thought she had escaped notice as she returned the gold and horses when, to her dismay, a loud shriek was heard from her own window. “Mistress, where have you been! “I’m afraid some ruffian had led you astray, you tarried so long away!”
Recovering her senses, Zuleja realised that it was her beloved pet parrot, Polly, a present from her father, that was shrieking away. She ran into the room, up to the bird’s cage, pulled off the hood of the stranger’s cloak so that the bird may know who it was, and whispered, “Don’t prittle, don’t prattle my pretty Polly, nor tell no tales of me and your cage shall be of the glittering gold and your perch of the best ivory.”
The parrot quietened at this, but then she heard footsteps and her father’s voice outside the door. “What’s the matter with you, my pretty Polly, you’re prattling so long before day?”
Zuleja looked at the parrot and the parrot looked at her and then, cocking her head on one side as if to say, ‘Your secret is safe with me’, (for the parrot loved her mistress very much), she squawked, “There come an old cat on the top of my cage to take my sweet life away, and I was just calling for my young mistress to chase that old puss away.”
She heard her father heave a sigh of relief, mutter, “Thank Allah the Almighty for that,” and return to his bed. She was safe, and so was her secret too.
The household of Sheikh Younes was surprised and dismayed the following morning to find the beautiful Zuleja in bed with the highest of fevers following Polly’s nocturnal squawkings. Some thought she had contracted the plague, others that she was being attacked by some djinn; only we know that the real cause was what we would today call a delayed reaction to the trauma she had gone through in the night. For three days she lay unconscious but then on the fourth she opened her eyes and the recovery began and all gave thanks to Allah the Beneficent and Merciful.
As she lay in her bed Zuleja tried to make sense of all that had happened. How come that stranger had managed to entrap her so easily, make her betray all those whom she loved and brought her to the very point of death. And how had that death been averted and how to, through the actions of her beloved Polly had she nearly been discovered and then her secret kept? As she lay there staring at the ceiling, things slowly began to focus and make sense and the truth of it all shocked poor Zuleja to her core.
The stranger of course, had been no mere mortal but a djinn, clothed in human form, out to entrap maidens. And that djinn had entrapped her so easily because she had made public her beauty and not guarded her modesty. Indeed, it was only her last minute prayers and petition for modesty that had enabled her to escape with her life. She sat up and looked around her room with its fine carpets and mosaics. Her beautiful eyes rested on the cage by the window, the cage containing her beloved Polly. ‘She comes to no harm,’ thought Zuleja, ‘for she cannot, she is protected by her cage. Yet she still tempts us with her beautiful feathers and voice.’ Her mind wandered over the parrot’s tall tale. A cat had come onto her cage to devour her, just as that evil djinn had tried to devour Zuleja. The cat failed though because the parrot was protected. Zuleja, with no protection, had been ensnared. “I need a cage to protect me!” she declared to herself. She looked at the cage again. The parrot was still a thing of temptation and beauty, her feathers as fine as Zuleja’s green silk gown and her eyes as enchanting as Zuleja’s dark orbs. “The cage can protect from cats and men, but can it guarantee against djinn?” she asked. “I need to stop the temptation; I need a shroud also.” Hearing her mistress’ voice, Polly broke out into a sweet song and Zuleja realised too the power of the voice. “Such a voice can attract djinns and mine is fairer even than Polly’s!” she declared with a cry. She gazed at the parrot within her cage again and thought, ‘Aye, and Polly cannot free herself, but I, with hands and a brain, can do so much more? After all, was it not my lack of character that enabled the djinn to entrap me, not any action of his? What use is a shroud and a cage if one can removed the former and unlock the latter?” The realisation of the lessons that the Almighty had taught her through her encounters with the djinn and the parrot sunk in and the fair Zuleja sunk back on her bed in despair at the realisation of her fate.
The next day Zuleja called her dressmaker to the Kasbah and had a lengthy interview with her alone in her room. Then the woman left and the next day she returned carrying a heavy trunk. This was carried into the young mistress’ room and the doors firmly locked. Several hours later, the dressmaker emerged, followed by a strange and unexpected figure.
The figure was human, but that was all that could be said, for nought could be made of it. It was but a mound of black cloth, the size of a human that shuffled slowly down the corridor. With the dressmaker leading it, it made its way to the room of the sheikh and once before him it knelt in submission, its black cloth head touching the floor in obeisance.
“What is the meaning of this?” asked the sheikh, shocked.
The dressmaker took out a letter and handed it to the sheikh. He took it and read it aloud to the assembled party.
“The figure you see before you is your sinful daughter, Zuleja. My recent illness and revelations received during it have taught me to repent and atone for my evil, sinful ways. In the past I tempted men and disgraced myself and my family in the process. I shall do so no longer. The dressmaker has adorned me in the clothes that shall be mine from now on. As you can see, they are all in black, so that I may attract the least attention. Not an inch of my skin can be seen nor ever shall be, nor too the tempting curves of my figure. They are to be hidden as the Prophet himself commands. I am unseen and, I am unseeing, these veils only allowing enough sight so that I may move around in daylight, sensing large objects but never making out items of temptation. Hidden too is my voice; it is silenced my a large protrusion that I shall only ever remove for meals when alone in my room. My hands are gloved in thick mittens and attached to my belt so that they are useless and I may not be tempted to remove my garments whilst my feet are linked by a short chain so that I may not run from my fate. I praise Allah the Almighty for showing me wisdom and granting me this path to a holy life.”
The sheikh finished reading with tears flowing down his cheeks; tears of joy at his beloved daughter’s repentance yet tears of sorrow at the fact that he may never hear or see his darling again. “Is this truly your wish?” The mound of cloth nodded, and the sheikh returned the nod. “It is as God wills,” he decreed, and from that day forth no djinn ever tempted fair Zuleja again for on that day the fair Zuleja ceased to exist and was replaced by a faceless, mute, blind black ghost condemned to shuffle through the corridors of the Kasbah in silence tempting none and being tempted by none.
Copyright © 2011, Dave Potter