Mapping Identity Formation in Exile: "The Tale of the Forty Girls" Hadith al-arba'in al-jariyah

By Esther Lu / Arab-Islamic Literature/ Dec. 8, 2016

In this narrative project, the identity formation of the young man in the story is going to be tracked via his journey escaping from his father's kingdom into exile (319, trans. Gelder) The entire story for this man involves him evolving from one kind of identity and gaining new ones along the way. Ultimately his identity formation is deeply influenced by his relationship with women who give him leverage and power in society. He is the helpless protagonist of his own story and the women are the heroines despite them not being the main characters of the tale.

The boy kept walking in the land without knowing where he was going, the first day, the second, the third . On the fourth day his food ran out. His heart was beating fast with fear of dying and he soon found himself at the point of dying (320, trans. Gelder)

At once when the man is exiled from the kingdom, he is denied basic access to housing and food security. From his life of privilege he is now been disowned from his family and without physical resources to sustain himself. These basic denial of human resources lead him from a dependency on the earthly things to a dependency on God. It is noted in the text that immediately after he is exiled and nearly starving in the wilderness, he calls upon God to save him: "O Thou Who art near with relief , who savest the drowned from the deep, " (320, Gelder), this shows that his very first identity that he gains is a spiritual relationship with God.

What is presented here in these scenes of being exiled is that the man loses his identity of royalty, losing his class privilege, and belonging to a community. What he gains as his new identity is a spiritual identity coupled with an awakening sexual identity. This quote points to his entrance into another identity. "The gate was open. The boy entered, expecting certain death." Thus as one identity dies, since he expects death, the death of his past is what gains him access to his new sexual identity. His awakening of a sexual identity is apparent in how he enters the castle, which is an all women's castle without consent. This entrance and exploration of the castle along with consuming the food in the castle symbolizes intercourse and can be seen as foreshadowing of him having intercourse with the forty women warriors in the castle (320-321, Gelder) .

It is interesting to note that the structure of the text from the man losing his former kingdom, with gaining a sexual identity he also gains access to a new kingdom. The force of sexuality is used to leverage him thus giving him privilege with being provided for and gives him control of woman's bodies as he sleeps with maidens and fathers a child from each maiden. Thus he not only gains identity of being a pimp or lover, but also a father.

As the story moves into him finally sleeping with the leader of the warrior women, the main sorceress, he gains full access into her kingdom through being her lover (324-325). Yet when he finds out about her secret, of the sister turned horse, he leaves the sorceress to help the horse turn back into a human being. It is with the relationship with this man that this woman horse gains her freedom, (326). Once he leaves the sorcerer to help the horse, this leads to him marrying the rival sister of the sorcerer (332). That sister was also banished from her father's kingdom. His marriage to this banished sister signifies that his banishment has come around full circle and he can rule his own kingdom now.

What is significant about this man's journey of being exiled and losing everything, is that he uses women as a political tool to give himself leverage in society and give himself heirs and to even find himself a new kingdom to call home.

His identity with acquiring a new kingdom points to a loose parallel of Moses who was given away as a child and grows up to lead the 12 tribes of Israel to The Promise land through acquisition over tribes and new lands, and the procreation of heirs within the tribes in order to carry on the blood of the Israelites. Both the man and Moses are exiled due to corrupt kingdoms. Though the man does reach the new kingdom, Moses never reaches the Promise land. Similar to Moses who is found and nurtured by a woman and then gains entry into the royal kingdom, this young man also finds his way into a kingdom because of women. This parallel to the story of Moses would hold significance as Arab Islamic literature would have been shaped by the Tanakh or the Hebrew Bible which set up the base line of Islamic belief to develop.

The story of the sorcerer and her women warriors living alone in their own kingdom points to the powerfulness of women without men. The fact that the man wins over the warrior women, implies that he gains his manhood over them with his masculinity. This story suggests that it is the women who shape his forming identities and give him the most out of his life and without the women he would be forever exiled and abandoned.

As the story talks about the man's journey as his own, instead of it being from the perspective of women, some readers may interpret this text as abusive towards women because essentially he is using women to give himself power and control over his own life. Yet his entire new identity in exile is shaped by the social power and leverage that women in places of privilege have given to him. Which also keeps him indebted to all the warriors that he has slept with. This feeling of being indebted to them is shown when he makes sure to give all of them and their children, money to keep them content (332).

This tale points to the social and political influence that women hold in shaping people's identities. Even though the story is focused on the man's journey, his journey in identity formation is entirely dependent on the relationships that he has with the women warriors, sorceress and queen (the one he marries in the end). What we can learn from this man's exile is that it is often presumed that the protagonist is a man and a hero whose journey should shape his character, but in this case the protagonist is not the hero but instead he is the one who is saved by a God who uses a whole community of women to rescue him even though they were the ones who were historically oppressed politically and socially in society. Yet these women are the ones with the social power in this story to rescue the protagonist.

Identity formation in exile points to the roots of this word where one is left to complete abandon of everything that they once had, it is a complete shift in a way of living and thus a way of thinking, this new way of thinking is having women at the forefront of influence and change, to change the hero's narrative away from the savior complex and instead to an interdependence with those who are marginalized.

Works Cited

1. "A Fairytale: The Tale of the Forty Girls." Classical Arabic Literature. Trans. Geert Jan Van Gelder. New York and London: New York UP, 2013. 318-32. Print.

2. Cittadini, Marco. "The Man and the Desert." Panoramio. N.p., 5 Feb. 2010. Web. 7 Dec. 2016.

3. D' Amico, Jordan. "Disney Princesses As “Avatar: The Last Airbender” & “The Legend of Korra” Characters." Recently Heard. Vicomi, 22 Jan. 2015. Web. 7 Dec. 2016.

4. "Journeys Heart of Persia." Golden Eagle Luxury Trains. Designs Up North, n.d. Web. 7 Dec. 2016. (Cover Photo)

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