The Girl Who Lived With the Gazelles


as retold by Denise Sagers

On the dry lands of North Africa, there once lived a Moor.  He was a man called Muftah, who had a son and a daughter.  The boy was named Demba; the girl Halima.  They were a family who, like many Moors, followed the teachings of the Arabian prophet, Mohammed.  And they were good people

Not long after Halima was born her mother took ill and died.  Her father was greatly grieved but knew he must take care of his son and new daughter.  As the years passed, Halima grew to look more and more like her mother, offering some comfort to her father.  One day, when Halima was about 15 years old, her father announced he had to go on a long journey to obtain supplies for his business.  He packed his caravan of camels taking along all the necessary supplies of food, water, shelter, and clothing.  The night before he was to leave, he offered a place in his company to his son Demba.  He knew this would leave Halima home with no one to watch out for her, but Demba was becoming a man and needed to begin to do a mans work.  As all caring fathers do, he gave Halima a list of very specific instructions.  She was not to go out into the market place while he was gone, nor was she to allow anyone in the house.  He asked the Muezzin of a nearby mosque to bring food to Halima daily, and to keep watch over her.  The next morning, Muftah set off on his journey in complete confidence that his beautiful, fair skinned daughter would be well taken care of.

Muftah had not been gone more than a day when the Muezzin first dropped by.  He knocked at the door and when it opened, gave Halima a basket of food.  He then asked if he might come in and dine with her.  Halima remembered her father's cautions.  Even though the Muezzin was a man of the mosque, her father had specifically asked her not to allow anyone in.  So Halima told him he could not come in.  Every day the Muezzin returned to bring Halima food, and every day he asked to come in.  Finally, close to the time of her fathers return, the Muezzin told Halima if she did not let him in and consent to marry him, he would tell her father that she had been out in the market place every day without wearing her veil and had further disobeyed by having people over to the house.  Halima did not wish to marry and she definitely did not want to marry such a wicked man.  Besides, she knew her father would not believe such outlandish lies.

However, when word reached the small town Halima's father's caravan was only half a days travel away, the Muezzin rode out to meet them.  He told her father exactly as he had said he would, that she had been in the market without her veil and had invited many people to the house to stay with her.  Muftah was outraged.  How could his daughter, someone he had broughtup to be more respectful than that have behaved so disrespectfully?  She had brought shame to the family, and as was customary, Muftah knew she could no longer dwell in the family.

"Demba," he called to his son.  "Ride on ahead of us and get your sister.  Take her far out into the desert and kill her."  His heart was heavy because he loved his daughter, but he knew this must be as it was the law of the land.

Demba was obedient and rode home ahead of the caravan.  When he arrived at the house, he picked up Halima and lifted her into the saddle atop the camels back.  They rode for several minutes before either of them spoke.  "How could you have behaved so shamefully?" Demba scorned Halima. 

Her eyes widened as she looked back at her brother.  "The Muezzin is an evil man!" cried Halima.  "I don't believe that father listened to those terrible lies!"  

"Then it isn't true?" questioned Demba.  

"No," responded Halima  Demba stopped the camel. 

"I can not disobey our father, but nor can I kill my own sister when she has done no wrong.  Run; run far into the desert and never come home.  Allah will protect thee."  Halima slid off the camels back. 

"Give me your dress," instructed Demba, "I will kill a small animal and put it's blood on your dress so our father will think you are dead."  Halima slipped out of her white dress and watched as her brother rode away.  She sat down near some nearby brush and began to cry.  Night came upon the land and eventually she fell asleep.  The next morning as she awoke, she saw that she was surrounded by gazelle.  A bit frightened, she stood up.  Her once elbow length hair now reached her ankles and covered her body from the scorching sun.  One of the gazelle's stepped forward and spoke. 

"We've been watching you," he said.  "We know of your plight and would like to invite you to live with us."  Halima immediately accepted.  The gazelles took good care of her offering her the warmth of their bodies on the cold nights, herbs they gathered, and the milk they produced. Halima often thought of home, but became very happy among the gazelles.  One day a rich and handsome young king was out hunting gazelles and saw the strange sight of what appeared to be a woman running among the herd.  He stopped the swift mare he rode and waited as his servant caught up to him. 

"What do you see?" he asked the servant.  The servants eyes grew wide as he stared.  "It looks like a woman running with the gazelle's."  

"Yes," responded the king.  "Perhaps she is a woman, or perhaps a genie or some other being.  She is truly majestic."  

"Your majesty" began the servant, "perhaps we can find out if she is human or some other sort of creature by using couscous.  We will place two bowls of couscous out where she will find them, one with salt and one without.  If she is human, she surely will desire the salted couscous."  

The King agreed and the plan was put into action.  Then he and his servants his in the shrubs as she approached the bowls.  She tasted both and then began eating the salted bowl.  A sudden disturbance in the nearby underbrush brought her to her feet.  She spotted the King and began running.  It wasn't long, however, until the king caught up with her.  He grabbed her and lifted her onto the back of his mare.  Secretly, she was delighted to have been caught, especially by such a handsome king.  Shortly after this event, Halima and the King were married.  They were a very happy couple with only one downfall.  In all the time Halima had spent with the gazelles, she had forgotten how to speak the human language, so she was silent, communicating only with her body movements and facial expressions.  

Several years passed and Halima bore a child.  He was a beautiful little boy and she loved him greatly.  The King's soothsayer noted how much she cared for the infant and devised a plan to help her recall the spoken language.  One day as she sat holding the baby, he grabbed the tiny being from her arms and ran to the window.  He held the boy out over the ledge as though he were going to drop him. 

"Don't hurt my baby!" Halima cried out.  The soothsayer immediately brought the infant back in and explained he had meant no harm.  From that day on Halima was able to speak.  All progressed happily until the kings Vizier took ill and died.  The king couldn't manage his kingdom without a advisor, so he quickly found someone to take over the position. 

The new Vizier was selfish and bad.  His desire was to overthrow the kingdom so that he could be in command.  He observed the inhabitants of the kingdom every day until at last he thought of an evil plan.  The Vizier noticed how in love the King and Queen Halima were.  Each day as they sat and ate their couscous together at breakfast, the King would smile warmly in the direction of his fair wife.  She would return the smile with a loving glance.  The best way to cause upheaval in the kingdom would be to destroy their happiness.  

One night as the kingdom slept, the wicked Vizier stole into the infant Prince's room. He grabbed the babe from the bed and tucking him beneath his robes, ran away with him.  The next morning when Halima went to check on their son, she couldn't find him.  "Oh no!"  She thought, "when the King finds out I've lost our son he will be outraged.  I must leave before he finds out." 

As she turned to leave, she noticed the turban of the Vizier on the floor next to the bed.  Instantly she realized what had happened, but she still feared because she had lost their child.  Quickly, she left the kingdom and went to a neighboring village.  There she disguised herself as a man and got a job working in the local inn.  

Time passed until there was to be a great hunting tournament in the village where Halima lived.  As strange luck would have it, her father Muftah, her brother Demba, the wicked Muezzin, the King, and the bad Vizier all came to stay the night in the inn where Halima was working.  She recognized them at once, but they did not know her as she was wearing mans clothing. 

"Supper is almost ready my good fellows," she announced.  "While we wait, I will entertain you with a tale."  The men sat down as did Halima. 

"It seems," she began, "Many years ago, their lived a beautiful young girl, contentedly in her small home.  Her father had to travel to a distant town and she was left at home.  Her father did not worry over her as he had left the Muezzin of the nearby mosque to look over her.  What her father did not realize however, was that the Muezzin was a wicked, decietful man.  When the father returned home, he was met with many lies told about his daughter, lies which he believed.  The daughter was sentenced to death, death inflicted by her brother.  Our tale does not end here.  The brother was a good, obedient youth, but he could not bring himself to kill his sister, so he instead left her in the desert and killed a young animal to stain the white dress she had been wearing with blood.  Her father was satisfied the girl could no longer shame the family and life continued.  A great deal of time later, the girl was discovered among the gazelles by a king out hunting.  He captured her, took her home, and married her.  She bore him a son and all was delightful in the kingdom until a wicked Vizier stole away and hid their baby son.  The Queen knew the King would be very angry and so she ran away before he discovered their son was missing."  Halima looked at the stunned expressions on the faces of the men.  She then removed her turban and shook down her silken locks.  

"Halima" all five men gasped.  Immediately, Muftah, Demba, and the King realized what had happened.  They pounced on the evil Muezzin and wicked Vizier.  It only took a moment before they were bound and carted off to the dungeon to spend the rest of their days.  Halima was reunited with her husband.  The Vizier told them their son lived with an old man at the edge of the town.  Soon, he too was back with them.  Great feasting and rejoicing followed their return.  Then came a proclamation from the King that in that land, no gazelle could be killed unless a hunter was starving.  No one was ever allowed to forget it was these gentle beasts who had saved the life of the Queen.  

Carpenter, Frances. African Wonder Tales. Garden City, New York: Doubleday and Company, Inc., 1963. (p. 77-85)

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