“Sackcloth” is a story from the Palestinian Folklore. It is one of many collected and edited by Ibrahim Mohawi and Sharif Kanaana in their book titled ” Speak, Bird, Speak Again”. Mohawi and Kanaana listed “Sackcloth” and other similar stories under a chapter titled: “Sexual Awakening and Courtship”.
According to the authors:
In “Sackcloth,” the sexual awareness begins before the girl leaves home, producing feelings of confusion, shame, and guilt, especially since she seems to arouse a most unnatural passion in her father. Hence her desire to cover her body completely, so as to appear to be not only of the opposite sex but also a horrible freak whom no one would want to touch. Only later, when she has had more experience and feels secure at the palace of the kings son, is she able to accept her sexuality. Her dancing in public in the wedding dress her father had brought her is a declaration of her new awareness, her readiness to accept a mate.
And, the story goes like this
• Testify that God is One!
• There is no god but God.
Once upon a time there was a king who had no children except an only daughter. One day his wife laid her head down and died, and he went searching for a new wife. They spoke of this woman and that, but none pleased him. No one seemed more beautiful in his eyes, so the story goes, than his own daughter and he had no wish to marry another. When he came into the house, she would call him “father,” but he would answer, “Don’t call me ‘father’! Call me ‘cousin.’”
“But father, Ο worthy man! I’m your daughter!”
“It’s no use,” he insisted. “I’ve made up my mind.”
One day he sent for the cadi (judge) and asked him, “A tree that I’ve cared for, feeding and watering it—is it legally mine, or can someone else claim it?” “No one else can claim it,” replied the cadi. “It’s rightfully yours.” No sooner had the cadi left than the father went out and brought his daughter jewelry and a wedding dress. He was preparing to take her for his wife.
The girl put on the new clothes and the gold, and sat in the house. Her father came home in the evening. When she realized that he was absolutely intent on taking her, she went to a sackcloth maker and said, “Take as much money as you want, but make me a tight-fitting sackcloth that will cover my whole body, except my nostrils, mouth, and eyes. And I want it ready by tomorrow morning.”
“Fine,” he said. “I’ll do it.”
[When it was finished] the girl went and brought it home. She put it in a shed in front of the house and locked the door. She then put on the bridal clothes and jewelry [again] and lounged about the house. Her father came home in the evening.
“Father!” she called to him.
“Don’t call me ‘father’!” he said. “Call me ‘cousin.’”
“All right, cousin!” she replied, “But wait until I come back from the outhouse (All respect to the audience!).”
“But you might run away.”
“No, I won’t,” she answered. “But just to make sure, tie a rope to my wrist, and every once in a while pull your end of it and you’ll discover I’m still there.”
There was a big stone in the lower part of the house, and on her way out she tied her end of the rope to it, together with the bracelets. She then went out to the shed, put on her tight sack, and, invoking the help of Allah, ventured into the night.
Meanwhile, the father tugged at the rope every few moments and, hearing the tinkle of the bracelets, would say to himself, “She’s still here.” [He waited and waited] till the middle of the night, then he said, “By Allah, I’ve got no choice but to go check on her.” When he found the rope tied to the stone, with the bracelets dangling from it, he prepared his horse, disguised himself, mounted, and went out to look for her.
She had already been gone awhile, and by the time he left the house she was well outside the city. He followed after her, searching. When he caught up with her, she saw and recognized him, and clung to the trunk of a tree. Not recognizing her, but thinking she was a man, he asked, “Didn’t you see a girl with such and such features pass this way?”
“O uncle, Allah save you!” answered the maiden. “Please leave me to my misery. I can barely see in front of me.”
He left her and went away. Seeing him take one path, she took another. [She kept on traveling,] sleeping here and waking up there, till she came to a city. Hunger driving her, she took shelter by the wall of a king’s palace.
The king’s slavegirl came out with a platter to dump leftover food. Sackcloth fell on the scraps and set to eating. When the slave saw her, she rushed back inside.
“O mistress!” she called out, “There’s a weird sight outside—the strangest-looking man, and he’s eating the leftovers.”
“Go call him in, and let him come here!” commanded the mistress.
“Come in and see my mistress,” said the slave. “They want to have a look at you.”
“What’s the situation with you, uncle?” they asked, when she came inside. “Are you human or jinn?”
“By Allah, uncle,” she replied, “I’m human, and the choicest of the race. But Allah has created me the way I am.”
“What skill do you have?” they asked. “What can you do?”
“By Allah, I don’t have any skills in particular,” she answered. “I can stay in the kitchen, peeling onions and passing things over when needed.”
They put her to work in the kitchen, and soon everyone was saying, “Here comes Sackcloth! There goes Sackcloth!” How happy they were to have Sackcloth around, and she stayed in the kitchen under the protection of the cook.
One day there was a wedding in the city, and the king’s household was invited. In the evening they were preparing to go have a look at the spectacle.
“Hey, Sackcloth!” they called out, “Do you want to come with us and have a look at the wedding?”
“No, Allah help me!” she exclaimed. “I can’t go look at weddings or anything else like that. You go, and I wish you Godspeed, but I can’t go.”
The king’s household and the slaves went to the wedding, and no one was left at home except Sackcloth. Waiting till they were well on their way, she took off her sackcloth and set out for the festivities, all made up and wearing the wedding dress she had brought with her. All the women were dancing in turn, and when her turn came she took the handkerchiefs and danced and danced till she had had her fill of dancing. She then dropped the handkerchiefs and left, and no one knew where she came from or where she went. Returning home, she put on her sackcloth, squatted alongside the walls of the palace, and went to sleep. When the slaves got back from the celebration, they started badgering her.
“What! Are you sleeping here?” they taunted. “May you never rise! If only you’d come to the wedding, you would’ve seen this girl who danced and danced, and then left without anybody knowing where she went.”
That happened the first night, and the second night the same thing happened again. When the king’s wife came home, she went to see her son.
“Dear son,” she said, “if only we could get that girl, I’d ask for her hand—the one who comes to the wedding and leaves without anybody knowing where she comes from or where she goes.”
“Let me wear women’s clothes, mother,” he suggested, “and take me with you [to the women’s side]. If anyone should ask, say to them, ‘This is my sister’s daughter. She’s here visiting us, and I brought her with me to see the celebrations.’”
“Fine,” she agreed.
Putting women’s clothes on him, she took him with them. Sackcloth, meanwhile, gave them enough time to get there, then took off her coat of sackcloth and followed. She went in, danced till she had had her fill, then slipped away. No one recognized her, or knew where she came from or where she went. Returning home, she put on her sackcloth and went to sleep.
The following day the king’s son said to the others, “You go to the wedding,” and he hid outside the door of the house where the celebration was taking place. Sackcloth came again, went inside and danced, then pulled herself together and slipped away. No sooner had she left than he followed her, keeping a safe distance until she reached home. No sooner did she get there than she went in, put on her coat of sackcloth, and squatted by the palace wall and went to sleep.
“What!” he said to himself, “She dwells in my own house and pretends to be some kind of freak!” He did not say anything to anyone.
The next morning he said to the slaves who bring up his meals, “I don’t want any of you to bring my food up today. I want Sackcloth to serve my dinner, and I want him to share it with me.”
“O master, for the sake of Allah!” she protested, “I can’t do it. I’m so disgusting, how could you want to have dinner with me?”
“You must bring up my dinner so we can eat together,” he replied.
The servants prepared dinner, served it onto a platter, and gave it to Sackcloth. She carried it, pretending to limp, until she was halfway up the stairs, then she made as if her foot had slipped and dropped the whole platter.
“Please, master!” she pleaded, “Didn’t I tell you I can’t carry anything?”
“You must keep bringing platters and dropping them,” the son of the king insisted, “until you manage to come up here on your own.”
With the second platter she came up to the landing at the top of the stairs, slipped, and dropped it.
“This isn’t going to get you anywhere,” said the son of the king. “Do not for one moment hope to be excused.”
With the third platter she limped and limped, leaning here and there, until she reached the top and served him his dinner.
“Come sit here with me,” said the prince, closing the door. “Let’s eat this dinner together.”
“Please, master!” she protested, “Just look at my condition. Surely it will disgust you.”
“No. Do sit down! I would like to have dinner with you.”
They sat down to eat together, and the prince pulled out a knife and reached for the coat of sackcloth.
“You must take this thing off!” he said. “How long have we been searching, wondering who the girl was that came to the wedding. And all this time you’ve been living under my own roof!”
He made her remove the sackcloth coat, and called his mother. They sent for the cadi, and wrote up their marriage contract.
“For forty days,” the public crier announced, “no one is to eat or drink except at the house of the king.”
They held wedding celebrations, and gave her to him for a wife.
And this is my tale, I’ve told it; and in your hands I leave it.