Historical Tales and Anecdotes of the Time of the Early Khalifahs/The History of the Slave-girl Zhalfa

The History of the Slave Girl ZhalfaEdit

ABU-SUWAID says: Abu-Zeid, el-Azdy, related to me the following tale.[1]

I went into the presence of Sulaiman-ibn-'Abd-el-Malik, who was seated in the hall paved with red marble, and carpeted with green damask, in the middle of the enclosed garden. Verily, the trees were in full bearing, and the fruit was ripe. And behind him stood female slaves each one of whom was more beautiful than her neighbour. And the sun was sinking, and winged creatures were humming around, and the winds were whispering among the trees, and rustling the leaves, and bowing the branches. And I said, " Peace be upon thee, O Prince ! and the mercy of God and His blessing ! " And he was 4ost in thought ; but he raised his head on hearing my voice, and remarked, " O Abu-Zeid ! art thou come at such a time as this to make thy peace with us?"

So I exclaimed, " God save the Prince ! Has the Day of Resurrection arrived that thou art so preoccupied?"

He replied, "Yes, for those who love." Then he looked down, and was silent awhile.

Presently he raised his head, and asked, " O Abu-Zeid! what would improve such an existence as this?"

"May Allah strengthen the Prince!" I cried. "Red wine in white cups, served by one slender as a reed, but with rounded limbs. I would drink it from the palm of her hand, and wipe my lips on her cheek."

At this, Sulaim^n turned away his head, and uttered no sound nor gave any response, but silent tears stole from his eyes. And when the slave-girls saw this, they retired to a distance. Then he raised his head and said, "O Abu-Zeid! thou hast reached the day of thy death, and the conclusion of thy term, and the end of thy life ! For, by A114h ! I will sever thy neck unless thou inform me how this picture has been impressed upon thy heart.**

"Willingly, O Prince!" I replied. "I was sitting before the door of thy brother Sa'ad-ibn-*Abd-el- Mdlik,* when lo! I beheld a damsel escaping from the palace gate like a gazelle fleeing from, the snare of the hunter. She wore a flowing Alexandrian robe, through which appeared the whiteness of her bosom, and the roundness of her form, and the embroidery of her belt. Her feet were shod in silk^ and verily the whiteness of her instep gleamed brilliantly against the redness of her shoes. Two long tresses reached down to her hips, and her temples resembled two nuns,^ Her eyebrows were indeed arched above her eyes ; and her eyes were full of enchantment Her nose was like a crystal reed, and her mouth like a

  • This is 'an instance of the carelessness and inaccuracy of Arab writers with regard to names ^ whereby the labour of searching out historical facts belonging to those remote times is

much increased. It is very possible that one of 'Abd-el-MdliVs sixteen sons may have been named Sa'ad ; but it is evident from the sequel that Sulaimin's predecessor in the Khalifate is here intended ; and his name was el-Walid, not Sa'ad.

t The Arabic N, which is thus formed ^,


wound with the blood welling therein. And she cried, ' Slaves of AllAh 1 who will bring me medicine for one that cannot be consoled", and a remedy for one that may not be named ?. Long has been the parting, and the traveller has tarried. But the heart takes wing, and the mind is absent,^ and the soul is troubled, and the spirit stolen, and sleep is- imprisoned. All&hVpity be uport. those who live in suffering and die in sorrow! Had there been either strength to bear, or a road to consolation, it had^ been truly an excellent thing.*

Then she was silent for a space with drooping head. When she raised it, I said, ' O thou maiden ! art thou of men or of genii ? a heavenly being or an earthly ? For of a truth the ardour of thy mind has astonished me, and the. beauty of thy language has turned, my head.'

"Then she hid her face in her sleeve as though she had not perceived me, but presently said, 'Pardon its inadequacy, O Speaker ! but what is more help- less than an. arm deprived of its fellow, and who more injured than a forsaken. lover V

" Then she turned- and departed. And by AUih ! God save the Prince! I have not since then eaten

202 'ILAM'EN'NAs.

heartily without being choked by the remembrance of her ; nor have I looked upon beauty without its appearing hideous in my eyes because of her beauty." Then said Sulaimin, " O Abu-Zeid ! the sadness of what I have heard has wellnigh moved me to folly, and passion has taken possession of me, and judg- ment has fled from me. Know, O Abu-Zeid ! that this girl whom thou sawest is Zhalfcl, of whom it has been said,

Zhalfi resembles nought save a ruby Produced from the purse of a merchant

She cost my brother ten hundred thousand dirhems ; and she was in love with him who sold her. By Alldh ! if he be dead, it can only be through love of her, and ne must have entered his grave solely by grief on her account, and from lacking consolation for her loss, and through fearfully anticipating death. Rise, O Abu-Zeid ! All&h have thee in His keeping. Ho, slave ! lade him with a Iddrahr*

So I took the present and departed.

And when Sulaimdn succeeded to the Khalifate, Zhalfa also became his. And he ordered tents, and

  • A sum of from one thousand to ten thousand dirhems,

according to different writers.


went out to the Ghautah plain,* and pitched in a green and luxuriant garden. It was a beautifully bright garden : the ground was covered with divers kinds of flowers, clear yellow, brilliant red, and pure white..

And Sulaimcin had a musician named Sincin, whom he had admitted to his friendship, and in whom he confided. And Sulaimdn had ordered him to pitch his tent beside his own. And Zhalfci also had accom- panied Sulaimdn to his pleasure-ground. And he continued eating and drinking and amusing himself with perfect enjoyment, until the night was far spent, when he retired to his tent, and Sinin did likewise;

And a number of friends came to Sindn, and said to him, " Alldh preserve thee ? We want a feast."

" How would you feast V he asked.

And they replied, " With eating and drinking and music."

" As for eating and drinking," said he, " that is

permitted you ; but with regard to music, verily ye

know the jealousy of the Commander of the Faithful,

and his prohibition of that excepting in his presence."

♦ The name given to the cultivated countpf axouxi'^'^^ssczksic.^as..

204 *ILAM'EN'NAs.

But they persisted, " We do not want thy food and thy drink if thou wilt not let us hear thee sing."

So he said, " Then choose a song, and I will sing it to you."

" Sing us such-and-such a song," said they.

So he began singing these lines :

The hidden one^heard my voice, and it brought her unrest, At the end of the night when awakens the dawn. When the moon is full, her companion knows not If 'tis her face beside him or the face of the moon. Nor guardian nor bolt can shut out a voice, And her tears overflow when at night it visits her. Could it be so, her feet to my side would bring her. But such is her tenderness, walking would wound them.

The narrator proceeds : And Zhalfa heard Sindn's voice, and she went out into the court of the tent. And so it was, that when she heard mention of this beauty of person and elegance, she fancied that it referred entirely to her and her appearance. Then that which had been at rest in her heart was troubled, and her eyes filled with tears, and her sobs were audible.

And Sulaimdn awoke; and when he found her absent, he also went out into the court of the tent, and there he saw her in this condition. So he cried, " What means this, O Zhalfd ?"


She replied :

A person may inspire admiration, yet be ugly — May be deformed in feature and base by birth. Thou mayst be struck with delight at his voice, Yet may he doubly trace his birth to slaves.

" Have done with thy nonsense ! " cried Sulaimin. " By Allih 1 he seems to have taken possession of thy heart. Here, slave ! bring Sinin to me."

Then Zhalfi called her servant, and said to him, "If thou canst reach Sincin and give him warning before the messenger of the Commander of the Faithful, ten thousand dirhems are thine, and thou art free to do the will of AlUh."

So the two messengers set off, but lie bearing the message of the Commander of the Faithful arrived first. And when he had returned with Sinin, Sulai- mdn asked, "O Sinin! have I not forbidden thee from thus acting.?"

" O Commander of the Faithful ! '* he replied, " numbers overcame me, and I am the slave of the Commander of the Faithful, and the plant grown by his favour ; therefore if it seems well unto the Com- mander of the Faithful to pardon me, let him do it."

So Sulaimdn said, "Verily, I havefot^VN^w ^i^^^:

but, nevertheless, hast thou not learnt that if the horse neighs the mare will come to him, and if the he-camel brays the she-camel will follow him ? And if a man sings the heart of a woman is drawn to him. Beware of a repetition of thy fault, or thy regret will ! • he. lasting."

  1. I think that d-Wajth Abu-'Abd-Allih Muhammad-ibn 'Aly ibn-Abi-Tilib, generally known by the name of Ibn (not Abu) Suwaid, must be meant here. He was a merchant of Takrit, a place on the Tigris, north of Baghdad, in lat. 34° 53' N., long. 43° 40' E. I have been unable to discover anything further concerning Abu-Zeid, and cannot therefore explain the allusion to some quarrel or disagreement with the Khalifah contained in his address.