This story is paired with “The Story of King Shahrayar and Shahrazad” from 1001 Arabian Nights. For best experience, download the LithoReader for your iPhone or iPad and get NonBinary Review for free.
Evenings at Sitti Aziza’s house were almost always spent in cozy circles in her perfectly square living room. Our family sat on thin mattresses encircling the large cast iron furnace-like planets around the sun. It was these moments that made the nostalgia just as equally warm, when they all threw their heads back, smiling and praising Allah at the past times. “Do you remember that time?” they would ask before contriving a specific memory, before reliving it, and wondering about the devious passage of time.
The TV was on as always, though no one was paying it any attention. The reporter droned about an event transpiring somewhere across the globe, something of no importance to the Arab world. Coffee simmered on the stove, the scent of the bitter liquid coaxing the men and women to stand and pour. So they stood and poured only a bit at the bottom of the cup. Baba made sure I had this rule down. “You pour a little because it’s too thick and gritty. More than that and you’ll make me look like a fool.”
When the news story changed, a familiar flag filled the screen, Red, green, white, and black, silence fell upon the room. I could almost feel the tension, like the heat from the stove, radiating and ominous if unchanged.
The image on the screen changed. Men hidden behind black and white checkered scarves, were tossing rocks at soldiers armed with smoking weapons. Rock against fire. The screen was a mixture of colors, grey smoke, tall orange flames, and crimson blood. The speakers filled the room with shouts, screeches, and explosions. Women wailed and children cried only inches away.
It seemed like the whole room was trying to reach out to the injured and killed. Brothers and sisters. They cried. Why are you not helping us? Why are you unfazed by our plight?
Sitti Aziza flipped over her coffee cup which she’d left aside to dry. She gazed inside it for a long time, turning it this way and that as if trying to make sense of the dry coffee grit that marked the sides like a painting.
Upon asking her what her focus was on, she inched the cup toward me, pointing to the shapes on the walls of the small porcelain thing.
“There’s a story in here.” she pointed out, “Paths and people from the past and the future.”
I took a second glance, but all I could see was grit, so I asked her, “What does the story tell?”
She smiled and said, “Ya Sitti, ya habibi. Have I ever told you how Palestine had come to be a country of restlessness?”
The family quiets, and turns away from the television.
All eyes are on Sitti, their ears pricking up at her melodic voice.
“Well, listen carefully and tell me what you think of this hadoota. It is said that when the gods of the earth, the sun, and the moon finished creating the world they inspected it inch by inch, venturing its perfectness and removing its flaws for the humans to populate.”
I looked at Baba, and noticing his attentive gaze, I suspected that this was his first time hearing the tale.
Sitti continued, “During their trek, they came upon a strip of land at the meeting point of two continents where life seemed impossible. This land was Palestine. An arid desert then and at its midst, beside a single well and some shrubs, a lonely man had pitched his tent. The gods wondered why such a person would want to live in such a place and approached his tent. But before they called to him, they transformed themselves into three old beggars with skin so tight it stuck to their bones and clothes tattered by the sand dunes. They wore long beards that dragged across the ground and used cow thigh bones for canes. They looked pitiful. It was a trick to gain the stranger’s sympathy, you see.”
At this point, Sitti’s pitch changed. It trembled and shook like that of an ill person, “Oh kind desert dweller, would you find it in your heart to come out and help us poor beggars.” cried the moon god in a voice choked by thirst. “A drop of water, a piece of stale bread, and a few grains of salt will do to satisfy our appetites.”
“Shortly afterwards, the man came out of his tent. When he laid eyes upon the beggars, he felt pity towards them and his generous soul coaxed him to usher them in. With what little food and drink he had, he fed them and quenched their thirst. They thanked him for his hospitality and sat to rest. The man was beside his wife who cradled her son in her arms, thereupon he asked them about their business and where they had come from.”
“They told him that they were traveling through the desert in search for a place to live with their families, but that a sandstorm, so high it obscured the sun, had torn them apart. When it receded after an hour or two, they found themselves lost to the harsh desert, left to fumble and die. Now remember, habibi, these were gods and they had no families, but they wanted to test the man’s compassion. So, he let them stay and they promised to repay him.”
“But they’re beggars,” I asked, cutting Sitti short. All eyes were on me now, “What could they possibly give the man and his wife?”
Sitti laughed, “That was exactly what the couple thought, now listen to what the gods responded with,
“We can pray that your wishes be fulfilled.” they said, “We’ve learned to be pious worshippers and the gods never turned down our requests.”
Baba was now beaming. His mantra of “Asking Allah for help always yields its results,” came to me.
“Now this of course had bothered the man and his wife. Three beggars on the brink of death could pray to the gods for assistance and they, in turn, would oblige? Why then had they not done so to save their own lives? Why not pray for rain, or food, or sense of direction?”
“The couple quietly assumed that the sun had made them delusional so they thought nothing of this promise, and the gods, smelling this doubt in their hearts, said, “The power of the gods is undeniable, my son. Would a sign make you believe?”
“The man thought for a moment, the devil whispering in his ear. “A sign of the gods would make me a believer. A miracle would make me and my family commit our lives to worship.” He laughed, out of hopelessness, as he thought of how the gods had forsaken him to a life in the desert where no man or plant or animal could survive. “In fact, show me a miracle and I will dedicate my newborn son to the gods.”
“You see, this was something the devil wanted the man to think. He was cunning and fed on the faithless. The old beggars pondered over this bet, and eventually agreed, for perhaps the son could come into use.”
“We will pray first thing in the morning.” said the Sun god.
“When morning came, they all stood in line to perform prayer. The sun was their Imam, and they followed his every move. Kneel. Bow. Rest. Kneel. Bow. Rest.” To this, Sitti demonstrated the Salat prayer.
“As their faces kissed the floor, the Earth god dug his finger into the sand and whispered an incantation. In a second, the sky filled with gray clouds and it started to rain. So much rain, Ya Sitti, so much that it filled the canyon and turned it into a sea. Then the earth shook and trees of all sorts started to bloom around them: olives, oranges, grapes, bananas, pomegranates, mulberries, figs, gardenias, and hundreds of sorts of shrubs. It was as though the desert was a large canvas that the gods traced in green and blue. And while the earth was still moist, the man watched as shapes began to form from the soil and animals came to life, birds beating their wings flying up, cats purring, lions roaring, elephants stomping, giraffes swinging their necks right and left. Oh it was a sight to behold. The man cried and fell to his knees at this miracle and begged the gods for forgiveness.”
“Shall you fulfill your promise?” they asked him.
“I promise to be a firm believer,” he said, “and promise that my family shall follow in my beliefs.” But promised no more than that.
They reminded him that he was to also dedicate his son to the gods and that they would call upon them to collect this tribute.
“Give me some time to prepare my son.” the man said, hoping they would forget, “A few years until he unlatches from his mother’s breasts.”
The gods nodded and vanished into the wilderness, promising to come back when the child grew older.”
“A few years later they returned to find that the man’s tent had been replaced by an edifice of stone and mud, high and mighty amidst the lush green Eden.
“The Earth god admired his work and said. “He is sure to be content now that he has everything.”’
“But the gods were mistaken.
They transformed themselves again, tucking away their magnificent wings and godly forms in old beggar skin, and knocked on his door. He greeted them once more, this time with less fervency for he knew what they sought. Still, he fed them meat and poured them wine.
“Such wonderful gardens.” Said the Earth god.
“And such beautiful weather.” Added the sun god.
“But nothing exceeds the cozy nights.” Added the moon god.
The man agreed and thanked the gods. To which they reminded him of his promise.
He hesitated saying. “The boy is still too young and he needs his mother. I cannot deny him this right.” he said. “Then again, how can I be so sure that the rain had not been a coincidence? After all, the desert has plentiful rains that bring about lush grounds.”
This was what the devil had taught him to say again and again and he asked for another miracle. “We will pray again in the morning to show you that our word is true. What do you ask for?”
“People to share this land with,” he said. “A paradise is worthless if you cannot enjoy it with other people, and I would like to be their king.”
And the gods prayed again. This time, the moon god touched the surface of the sea, and from it came moving shapes of all sizes. Their watery bodies hardened and turned to flesh and their faces glimmered with expressions. Soon, he was surrounded by men and women and children who hailed his name. “Long live the king!” they shouted and cheered. He laughed and cried and begged for the gods’ forgiveness again, asking them to come back when the boy reached adulthood. They agreed, but told him they would not answer any more of his wishes until he fulfilled his promise.
A few years later they returned only to find that his stone and mud house had become a palace with high walls and guards that moved here and there with weapons.
They admired his kingdom and the moon God said, “He is sure to be content will all these riches.”
But again, they were mistaken.
Upon reaching his door, they disguised themselves as filthy beggars, tucking in their wings and their godly features and knocked on his enormous palace doors. The man, now a king, unwillingly let them in and fed them meat and wine for three days. But when they asked for the child who had already become a man, he refused saying, “But he is to get married soon, and I cannot deny him this request.” The gods scoffed at his treachery. “Grant me one last wish, and I promise you my son’s blood.” When they asked him what he would like to wish for, he said, “Palestine is growing far and wide and the people are becoming less peaceful with me. They wish to overthrow my rule and I would like to bring more order to my kingdom. Grant me eternal power.” Again, Ya Sitti, this was exactly what the devil wanted. He wanted to stray people from the path of righteousness.”
“The Sun god, being the wisest of the three, had had enough. He returned to his normal form, unfurling his massive wings that wrapped around the sky and igniting his massive halo that blinded the people of the land from the truth.
“Man’s greed is insatiable,” he shouted, “and for this, you shall all suffer the wrath of the gods.”
The man fell to his knees in prayer. His tears slowly turning to blood.
But before the final blow was delivered. Before the gods finished off the human race in one single swipe, the son of the king came forth and begged for their forgiveness. He offered himself as sacrifice, so that people could live. They relented and took him along, as was originally promised and vanished for the last time.
Can you believe that, Ya Habibi, how easily humans are changed by power? They trick themselves into thinking they’re never going to die and they keep asking for more, but greed is a single-edged sword. Anyways, the three gods returned to the heavens and vowed that the Palestinians should never rest and would always be blinded by the truth until they paid their debt in blood. As for the son, he was taken along to the Gods so that people would remember that there is still hope at the end of the road. That sacrifice is the answer.
Did you like the hadoota?
Mohamed Mahmoud is an educator, a Master’s Degree student in Applied Cognition and Neuroscience from the University of Texas at Dallas, and an author. He enjoys writing novels in the general fiction genre, specifically adventure, mysteries, thrillers, historical fictions, and even science fiction. He has interned at a literary agency in New York and is working on his publishing career as a novelist and literary agent. This short story is an excerpt from a novel by the same title.