A magical fish helps a young woman escape the clutches of her evil stepmother in this folktale from the Qatari oral tradition, translated by Kholoud Saleh.
Translator’s Note: The fish in this story—a two-banded porgy that lives in the Arabian Gulf—is known as Al Fisaikra in Qatari dialect (and Fusijaira, Fusikaira, and Bint Al-Nowakhtha in standard Arabic). In Gulf Region folklore, Fusijaira is a supernatural being who helps deserving people in need.
In the name of God the Merciful:
Pray to the Prophet, peace be upon him.
Majana1 ela kheer lafana w lafakom w shar ta’adana w ta’adakum: May nothing affect us but goodness for us and you, and may evil stay away from us and you.
There was, my dear, a fisherman. This man was very good and kind, and he was married and had a daughter named Hamda. But by Allah’s will, his wife passed away, and the daughter was left alone with her father. The father went fishing every day, and the daughter would cook his catch for the both of them. They lived in joy.
One day, the father said to his daughter, “My darling, I want to get married.”
Enthused at the idea, the daughter said, “Dear father, that would be nice!”
The father explained, “I want someone to be with you at home. My wife will help you and be a mother to you. And when I’m not around, she will keep you company.”
The daughter said, “Father, we have a neighbor who's very sweet. I will go and ask her to marry you!”
The beautiful daughter went to the neighbor and asked her to marry the father, and the neighbor agreed. Soon they were married.
By Allah’s will, the woman became pregnant. She delivered a baby girl. Soon after the child’s birth, the woman began to despise her stepdaughter. She made her cook, clean, wash, and do all the household chores, while she treated her own daughter with love and dignity.
The daughter complained to her father about the stepmother’s behavior. But oftentimes he did not believe her.
By Allah’s will, the father passed away, and his daughter lived alone with her stepmother and stepsister.
One day, their neighbors brought them some fish in a basket. The stepmother took the fish and told Hamda to go to the sea and clean them by the shore.
Hamda said, “Oh, Stepmother, must I really go now, in the middle of the night?”
The stepmother answered, “Yes, go clean the fish now.”
The poor girl went to the shore and began cleaning the fish. Before she left, however, the stepmother warned her to be careful. “I counted the fish, so don’t lose a single one.”
Hamda cleaned all the fish, and the last fish that she needed to clean was Al Fisaikra.
Al Fisaikra spoke to Hamda and said, “Set me free and I'll make you rich.”
Hamda replied nervously, “No, I'm afraid of my stepmother.”
“Let me go and I’ll make you rich,” Al Fisaikra repeated.
But Hamda replied again, “No, I'm afraid of my stepmother.”
Al Fisaikra grew impatient, bit Hamda’s arm, and slipped from her hands. Then the fish hid in a hollow between the rocks, beyond Hamda’s reach.
Hamda went home with all the fish except one. When the stepmother saw the fish, she said in anger, “There’s one missing!”
“Oh, Stepmother, one of them slipped away into the sea.”
“Go and bring it here now!” said the stepmother.
Obedient Hamda asked, “Will you save some lunch for me?” The stepmother assured her she would.
Hamda reached the shore and looked for Al Fisaikra but was unable to find her.
She returned to her stepmother and said, “I couldn't find the fish. May I have my lunch?”
“Of course; it’s in the kitchen,"2 her stepmother replied.
In the kitchen, Hamda found only bones. She went back to her stepmother and said, “Oh, Stepmother, you left me nothing but bones!”
“That’s all you deserve,” said the woman. “Yes, we left you nothing but bones. The fish you lost in the sea is the one that would have been yours!”
Dejected, Hamda took the dishes to the beach to wash them. She sat on a rock and began to cry. “Oh, Fisaikra, oh, my dear, they ate all the lunch and left nothing for me.”
“Didn’t I tell you that if you freed me, I would make you rich?” the fish answered. “But you said you were afraid of your stepmother.”
Hamda repeated, “Oh, Fisaikra, oh, my dear, they ate all the lunch and left nothing for me.”
Al Fisaikra answered again: “Didn’t I tell you that if you freed me, I would make you rich? But you said you were afraid of your stepmother.”
Then Al Fisaikra felt sorry for Hamda, and brought her rice, mashkhool, and biryani.
The poor girl ate until she was full and content. Then she finished cleaning the dishes and went home. On her way, she overheard an announcement that the sheikh wanted his son to get married and was looking for a beautiful girl for his son.
When Hamda reached the house, she found her stepmother adorning her daughter in makeup and fine clothes. The stepmother planned to take her to a party that the sheikh was hosting. But before leaving, she took Hamda, locked her in the tanoor, covered her, and then went with her daughter to the party.
When the stepmother was gone, Al Fisaikra came to Hamda and said, “Hamda! Why didn't you go to the party?”
Hamda replied sadly, “They didn't take me!”
“Come, come, I'll take you out and get you ready.” The fish cleaned her up, put makeup on her, and brought her beautiful clothes. Al Fisaikra told Hamda to go to the party. She put a bracelet on Hamda’s hand and told her not to drop it.
“Insha'Allah,” said Hamda.
And so Hamda went. The sheikh’s son saw her, and he liked her beauty and her long hair.
The stepmother never recognized Hamda, who was transformed. She enjoyed a good time with her daughter, believing that Hamda was still in the tanoor.
Hamda ran home before her stepmother returned. In her hurry and fear, the bracelet fell off.
The sheikh’s son found the bracelet and said, “I want the girl who wore this bracelet. Whomever it fits is the girl I will marry.”
His servants hunted for the girl from place to place and from home to home.
They finally reached Hamda's house, knocked on the door, and waited for an answer. When the stepmother heard the knock, she took Hamda and hid her again in the tanoor.
Luckily, the family had a rooster. The rooster saw what the stepmother had done to Hamda.
The servants tried to fit the bracelet on the stepdaughter’s wrist. They asked, “Don’t you have any other girl here?”
“No, no, no, there is no one else,” the stepmother said. “This is the only daughter I have.”
The rooster cried: Ko-ko ko-ko, Auntie Hamda the Beautiful is in the tanoor!
The servants tried to listen, but the stepmother said, “Kish, kish, kish!” to frighten the rooster away.
The servants said, “Wait! Let us listen to him.”
“No, no, the rooster has nothing to say, nothing!”
But the rooster cried again: Ko-ko ko-ko, Auntie Hamda the Beautiful is in the tanoor!
This time the servants heard the rooster clearly, and they stepped into the house and opened the tanoor to find Hamda inside. They brought her out and tried the bracelet. It fit perfectly!
They rushed to tell the sheikh about finding the girl. The sheikh’s son ordered them to go back to her house and ask her family for permission to marry. The stepmother, however, demanded a dowry. “I want a beeb of seawater, a galat of dates, and a beeb of small fish.”
The servants were surprised by her orders, but they agreed, and brought the dowry on the eve of the wedding.
Al Fisaikra—who was really a djinni—came to Hamda in the form of a woman. She cleaned her, made her beautiful, and put kohl and henna on her. When the stepmother saw Hamda, she was shocked and angered. She asked Hamda, “Who did that to you? How did you do it?”
Hamda was not allowed to say, so she just replied, “I don't know.”
Once Hamda had completed her bridal preparations, the stepmother brought the sheikh’s gifts to her and forced Hamda to drink and eat it all.
"Oh, Stepmother, I'm really full!" Hamda cried. But the stepmother ignored her complaints and forced Hamda to finish all of it until the poor girl’s stomach bulged.
Now when the sheikh’s son arrived to take his bride, he came in the form of a black dog! He took her home, and the stepmother was jubilant. "Oh, I really hope he eats her, I hope he tears her apart!” she prayed.
At home, alone again with Hamda, the sheikh’s son turned back to his human form. Hamda wept, telling him of the pain in her stomach. He took off his ghutra, placed it on the ground, and said, “Try to empty everything in your stomach out onto this.”
Hamda vomited, but all that came from her stomach was pearls and corals. Beautiful!
Filled with joy, the sheikh’s son brought her to her very own house, where Hamda lived with love and dignity3 in her husband’s home.
Now the sheikh’s son had a brother, and the jealous stepmother said to him, “My dear, I would give you my second daughter to marry.” She asked for the same dowry she had requested for Hamda.
She forced her daughter to eat it all, exactly as she had done to Hamda, expecting her daughter to vomit pearls and corals as well.
That night, a terrifying black dog came for the daughter. When they were alone, however, he did not turn back into a man. The daughter cried of her stomach pain. The dog said, “Really? Your stomach hurts?” And thinking that she would produce pearls and corals, he took his ghutra and put it on the ground for her. This time, however, the daughter vomited only digested food! This angered the sheikh's brother—and he ate the girl and tore her apart.
When the mother came in the morning to visit, she found her daughter eaten and her bones lying on the floor.
W rohna anhoom w jeena w ma atoona sheey: And we came and we left, and they brought us nothing.
1In Qatari dialect, the “j” turns to a spoken “y.” So majana in this case would be pronounced “mayana.”↩
2The Arabic term is al merfarah, which can also mean a shelf or a plate for leftovers.↩
3Muazzazzah mukarramah, a common saying.↩
Told by Umm Khalaf. Translation © 2020 by Kholoud Saleh. All rights reserved.