Laila Halaby is the author of two novels, West of the Jordan and Once in a Promised Land, as well as a two collections of poetry, my name on his tongue and why an author writes to a guy holding a fish.
She was the recipient of a Fulbright Scholarship for study of folklore in Jordan, as well as a PEN/Beyond Margins Award. She lives in Tucson, Arizona with her family.
Please visit Laila Halaby’s website: www.lailahalaby.net
As for Yusif, he had a small farm on the outskirts of the village where he lived with his family. He was a hard worker, but the rains were not plentiful and one year they did not come at all. His crops dried up and the trees died. Finally, when there was no food left and he feared they would all starve, Yusif went to the village to find his brother to ask him for money.
Yusif walked down the long path that led to his brother’s villa and saw his brother sitting with some other men on the patio, smoking tobacco from a hookah.
“As-salaamu-alaykum,” greeted Yusif, bowing his head slightly as he went around to each man and shook his hand.
“And peace be upon you,” they all replied, except for Omar.
“Well, well,” said Omar. “If it isn’t the farmer. How are your crops?” And his corpulent body shook as he laughed at his brother.
A servant poured Yusif a coffee. Yusif set it on the ground in front of where he was sitting and began to speak:
“Omar, I have never asked anything of you, but it is God’s will that I come to you seeking help. The rains have not come at all this year and my farm is nothing but weeds and skeletons of what once were healthy trees. I have a wife and children and I cannot provide food for them. I come to you asking for a loan, just enough money so we can make it until the next harvest.”
All of the men turned to look at Omar whose eyes were lowered. He raised them slowly and looked at his brother.
“Yusif, what do you see before you? These are men. They have all worked very hard and they have prospered because of their efforts. We all have families and children for whom we can provide. Surely you don’t expect me to give money away to a lazy beggar.”
Yusif got up to leave, his head bowed with the sting of his brother’s words, when Omar said,
“Wait, Yusif. I don’t want you to say that your brother didn’t give you anything. Take this loaf of bread and see what you can do with it.”
Yusif left, leaving his coffee undrunk and carrying the tiny loaf of bread.
“And don’t ever show your face here again,” cried Omar after him.
He walked down the road, wondering at his brother’s cruelty, when he came upon an old sheikh walking slowly along the road.
“Peace upon you,” greeted Yusif.
“And may peace be upon you,” replied the sheikh. He stopped and looked at Yusif. “Please, young man, could I have a piece of bread? I haven’t eaten in days.”
Yusif tore the small loaf of bread in half and said, “Here, Uncle. Take this half and eat it in good health. I must save the other half for my wife and children.”
The old man smiled and said to Yusif, “God praise you, my son. Actually, I don’t need food. I was testing you. I am moved by your generosity and I feel that there is courage behind it.” The old man put his hand in his pocket and said, “I am giving you this because I think you will use it well.” He took his hand out of his pocket and opened it, revealing a large, glassy jewel that reflected all of the colors of the rainbow in the sun.
“This, my son, is a magical jewel that will give you whatever you want. But be careful to use it with wisdom and moderation.” The old man put the jewel in Yusif’s hand and said, “As-salaamu alaykum.”
“And to you,” said Yusif quietly, watching the old man walk away. He turned in the direction of his house and walked slowly because he was so enchanted by the glittering of the jewel. When he reached his house, he was greeted by his wife and children who dug in his pockets, hoping to find money or food, but all they found was a half loaf of bread.
“Daddy, haven’t you brought us anything?” asked his eldest daughter.
Yusif smiled and said, “What I have brought you is better than food!” He told them everything that had happened to him from the time he left the house until his return.
“Thank God for your safe return,” said his wife.
“May God keep all of you safe,” replied Yusif.
They walked into their small house in silent anticipation of what would happen. Yusif held the magical jewel in his hand and closing his eyes said, “Oh magical jewel, I wish that your powers would fill all the poor houses of this village with bread and food.”
No sooner had he said this than their kitchen filled with bread and fruits. They looked around in wonder and when his daughter and opened the refrigerator, they found it filled with meats and other food.
Yusif put the jewel in his pocket and the family began eating, the first good meal they had eaten in months.
Yusif and his family became aware of other villagers and it seemed that his wish had worked.
The next day, Yusif held the jewel in his palm and said, “Magical jewel, I wish that your powers would make the land green again.”
From all ends of the village there was rejoicing. Life had been returned to the land and joy returned to the households.
While no one ever said exactly how it had happened, all the villagers knew that in some way Yusif had been responsible for their good fortune. Household by household, they came by bringing gifts of thanks for what he had done.
Rumors reached Yusif’s brother Omar, who became very jealous and decided to see for himself what his brother was up to. That night he sneaked into the village and peered in his brother’s window. Yusif stood in the middle of the room with the jewel in his hand. “Magical jewel, I wish that your powers would heal our neighbor’s young daughter.” He then put the jewel in his pocket and went to bed.
“Naïve fool,” said Omar. “He doesn’t even know to hide this magic he possesses.” Omar snuck into the house and reached his hand in his brother’s pocket, removing the magic jewel and running out and to his boat. He rowed out to sea and when he was in the spot from where he usually fished, he said, “Magical Jewel, I wish that your powers would allow me to catch enough fish that I am the only fish trader and I am the one who controls all the fish trade in this area. Soon there will be no other fishermen and I will raise the prices. I will make lots of money. I will make so much money that I will be the richest man in the village.” He hadn’t finished speaking when the sky began raining fish. Hundreds and hundreds of fish fell out of the sky and into his boat. He cried with joy at the quantity of fish that lay before him and didn’t notice that the boat was sinking deeper in to the water with the weight of the fish. When he realized what was happening, he screamed for help. “Magical Jewel, help me! This is enough. Help!” But it was too late and the sea swallowed Omar and his boat.
The villagers who saw what happened ran through the village with the news. The next day, people came to Yusif with condolences for his brother.
When the elders of the village also came to pay their respects, Yusif said, “May God forgive him. It was enough for us to have our land green again and have our work to do, but poor Omar did not find it so. May God keep his soul.”
Folktale collected when I worked with Palestinian schoolgirls while in Jordan on a Fulbright in the late 80’s. Laila Halaby
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Prose in this post: © Laila Halaby
Photo by Shelley Welander
Published with the permission of Laila Halaby