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The Arabian Nights: A Companion, 290–91.
2 On the presence of
The Arabian Nights in literature and culture, see Hiam
Aboul-Hussein and Charles Pellat,
Cheherazade: Personnage littéraire (Alger:
SNED, 1981), and Pete Caracciolo, ed.
The Arabian Nights in English Literature
(London: Macmillan, 1988).
3 See on the role of The Arabian Nights in shaping nineteenth-century criticism
in England: Muhsin Jassim Ali,
Scheherazade in England (Washington, D.C.:
Three Continents Press, 1981).
N O M A D I C T E X T
to borrow the Nietzschean opposition, a poetics of the dark and of secret
nights. The poetics of The Arabian Nights is determinedly nocturnal:
it deals with nocturnal narrations and stands for a tenebrous aesthetics.
Its poetics is nocturnal, literally and metaphorically.
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The Essential Yusuf Idris
little after evening prayers a torrent of abuse gushing out of Abd
al-Kerim came pouring down on the entire village, sweeping
Tantawi and all his ancestors in its wake.
No sooner had he rushed through the four prostrations than Abd
al-Kerim stole out of the mosque and hurried down the narrow lane, apparently
irritated, one hand clasping the other tightly behind his back. He was leaning
forward, his shoulders bent, almost as if weighed down by the woolen shawl
he was wearing, which he had spun with his own hands from the wool of his
ewe. Presently he raised his brass-yellow face and caught the wind on the trip
of his long hooked nose, blotched with many ugly black spots. He muttered,
clenching his teeth, and the taut dry skin of his face wrinkled, bringing the
points of his mustache level with the tips of his eyebrows, which were still
speckled with drops of water from his ablutions.
His irritation grew as he trudged along down the narrow lane trying to
find a path for his large flat feet with cracks in their soles so deep they could
easily swallow up a nail.
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T H E C H E A P E S T N I G H T S
The lane was teeming with youngsters scattered like breadcrumbs, tumbling
about in all directions, and getting in his way. They pulled at his shawl,
knocked against him, and made him cut his large protruding toe on the bits
of tin they were kicking in his path. All he could do was lash out at them,
vituperating furiously against their fathers and their forefathers, the rotten
seed that gave them life, and the midwife who brought them to existence.
Shaking with rage he cursed, and swore, and snorted, and spat on the
wretched town where brats sprouted out of the ground in greater numbers
than the hairs on one’s head. But he comforted himself with the thought that
the future was going to take care of them. Half of them were sure to die of
starvation, while cholera would carry off the rest.
He sighed with relief as he emerged from the swarming lane into the open
square surrounding the pond which stood in the middle of the town. Darkness
spread before him where the low gray houses nestled close to one another,
with heaps of manure piled before them like long-neglected graves. Only
a few lamps shining across the wide circle of night indicated that there were
living creatures packed beneath their roofs. Their dim red lights, winking
in the distance like the fiery eyes of sprites, came across and sank in the
blackness of the pool.
Abd al-Kerim peered into the gloom that stretched before him, the stink
from the swamp winding its way up his nostrils. It oppressed him so he
couldn’t breath. He thought of the townspeople already snoring behind their
bolted doors oppressed him even more. But now his anger turned on
Tantawi, the watchman, as he recalled the glass of tea the latter had offered
him in the glow of sunset, and which his parched throat and his longing for
it had forced him to accept at the cost of his pride.
It was very still in the square. Still as a graveyard; nothing stirred. Abd
al-Kerim walked on, but halfway across he halted. Not without reason. Had he
followed where his feet were taking him, in a few paces he would have been
home and, having bolted the door behind him, there was nothing for him but
to flop on his pallet and go to sleep, and there was not a grain of sleep in his eyes
just then. His head felt clearer than pump water, lighter than pure honey, and
he could have stayed awake till the next crescent moon of Ramadan appeared.
All because he couldn’t resist a glass of black tea, and Tantawi’s fiendish smile.
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And now he felt no desire to sleep and the townspeople were all huddled,
snoring in their hovels, leaving the night to their obnoxious children. What
was he to do with himself ? Stay up. But where? Doing what? Should he
join the boys playing hide-and-seek? Or hang around for the little girls
to gather round him and snigger? Where could he go with pockets picked
clean? Not a wretched piaster with which to take himself to Abou al-Assaad’s
den, for instance. There he could ordered a coffee and then smoke a
waterpipe and stay till all hours, or sit and watch solicitors’ clerks at their
game of cards, and listen to the radio blaring out things he didn’t understand.
He could laugh to his heart’s content poking Abou Khalil in the ribs and then
move on to where Mo‘allem Ammar was sitting with the cattle dealers and
join their conversation about the slump in the market. But he hadn’t a
wretched piaster. God bring your house to ruin, Tantawi!
Nor could he go across to Shaykh Abd al-Megid’s, where he was sure to
find him squatting behind a brazier with a coffee-pot gently boiling on top.
Al-Sheehy would be there, sitting near him, telling of the nights that made
his hair turn gray, and the days gone by when he had thrived on the
simpleminded, kind-hearted folks of those days, and how he was made to
repent of swindling and thieving and laying waste of other people’s crops by
the wily generation of today.
No, he couldn’t even go there, because only the day before he had pushed
the man into the basin below the waterwheel and made a laughing stock of
him. They’d been having an argument over the cost of repairing the wheel.
Not a civil word had passed between them since.
If only he could just grab his ferruled cane and go to collect Sama‘an and
together make off for the neighboring farm of al-Balabsa. There was fun to
be had over there. Wedding feasts, and dancing girls, and high jinks, and
merry-making, and what-have-you. But where was the money for all that?
Besides, it was late. Very likely Sama‘an would have gone to make it up with
his wife at her uncle’s, where she was staying. And the road was treacherous,
and everything was pitch black. Merciful God! Why must he be the only clod
in town tormented by lack of sleep? And Tantawi.
He wasn’t tormented. He
was probably snoring away peacefully in some quiet nook. God in heaven,
let him snore his away to hell!
Y U S U F I D R I S
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Suppose now that he were simply to go home like a God-fearing man. He
would nudge his wife and make her get up and light the petrol lamp, heat the
oven, warm him a loaf of bread and bring him the green peppers left over
from lunch. With luck there might be a piece of pie left over too, which his
wife’s mother had sent them in the morning. And then she’d make him a nice
brew of fenugreek and after that, pleased as a sultan, he’d sit and repair the
handles of his three worn reed baskets.
Yes, what if he did just that? Would the station take wings and fly, or
would the heavens collapse on the threshing floor? He knew no such thing
was likely to occur. He also knew his wife. She would be lying like a bag of
maize with her brood of six scattered round her like a litter of puppies. Nothing
would make her stir. Not even the angel Israfil blowing his trumpet to raise
the dead. And even if by some miracle she were to wake up, what then? He
wasn’t kidding himself. The petrol lamp was only half full and the woman
would be needing it when she sat up to bake all night tomorrow. That is, if
they all lived till tomorrow. And the children, growing hungry at sundown,
would have devoured the last of the peppers with the last scrap of bread.
And the pie was sure to have followed after the peppers and the bread. As
for fenugreek and sugar, he needn’t worry. There simply wasn’t any in his
house. And never again was he going to be offered a glass of tea like the one
he had drained at Tantawi’s.
God damn your soul to hell, Tantawi, son of Zebeida!
Anyone coming to relieve himself in the square at that hour, and seeing
Abd al-Kerim planted in the middle of it like a scarecrow, would have thought
him touched in the head or possessed of a devil. He was neither. Just a man
whose perplexity was greater than he could deal with. A simple man,
unfamiliar with the things of the night, the tea playing havoc with his head;
his pockets stripped clean on a cold winter’s night, and all his companions
long sunk in deep sleep. What was there for him to do?
He stood thinking for a long time before he made up his mind. Having
no choice he crossed to the other end of the square. He could only do what
he always did on cold winter nights.
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Y U S U F I D R I S
Finally he was home. He bolted the door and picked his way carefully in the
dark over the bodies of his sleeping children, to the top of the mud oven.
Inwardly he reproached the fates which had plagued him with six bellies so
voracious they could gobble up bricks.
He knew his way in the dark from long habit on cold winter nights. And
when he found his woman he didn’t nudge her. He took her hand and began
to crack her knuckles one by one, and to rub against her feet, caked with tons
of dirt. He tickled her roughly, sending a shiver down her sleeping bulk. The
woman stirred with the last curse he called on Tantawi’s head. She heaved
herself over and asked nonchalantly through a large yawn what the man had
done to deserve being cursed in the middle of the night. Abd al-Kerim
muttered, cursing whoever drove him to do this, as he fumbled with this
clothes preparing for what was about to be.
Months later the woman came to him once again to announce the birth
of a son. His seventh. He condoled with himself over this belated arrival. All
the bricks of the earth would never fill up this one either.
And months and years later, Abd al-Kerim was still stumbling on swarms
of brats littering the lanes, tumbling about in all directions and getting in his
way as he came and went. And every night, with hands behind his back,
catching the wind on his long hooked nose, he still wondered what pit in
heaven or earth kept throwing them up.
Translated by Wadida Wassef
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The Man from Bashmour
left Baghdad several days later, by which time Shihab had made all the
necessary arrangements for my exodus. He told me that my departure
coincided with the conjunction of ‘the head’ and Mercury. Before leaving,
I went to my Sheikh’s zawiya, where I performed two cycles of prayers and
asked God Almighty to bless me on my way. Yashkuri, who was there to bid
me farewell, gave me two tunics and an elegant Baghdad-made robe modeled
on the type made for the caliph, which was as beautiful as any I had ever seen,
to wear when I traveled. I gripped him in a long embrace and thanked
him for the gifts, then mounted my riding camel, which was a robust
workhorse that Shihab had presented to me. His wife Rawayihiya had given
me a number of long-necked glass bottles filled with perfume that she said
I could give to whomever I liked, use myself, or sell if I needed to along
the way. As for Rita, she supplied me with some semolina cakes, which are
a type of dry sweet well suited for travel. She wished me many blessings
and stood there a long time asking God to keep me in care and to grant
me safety and success.
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Having paid most of the money I had made during my employment at the
stationer’s shop, and which I had left in the safekeeping of Shihab’s wife, to
the owner of the caravan that would be overseeing my journey, I had just a
few pennies in my pocket.
At the journey’s outset the caravan only stopped long enough for us to
rest or sleep until, two days later, we reached the city of Jerusalem. As I
observed the city, I noted that it was built upon a mountain. At the time of
our arrival it was raining hard, which we were told was normal for Jerusalem.
The purpose for our stop there was to allow some of the merchants in the
caravan to deliver some of their wares. When the guards granted us permission
to go into the city’s marketplaces, we were led to a location referred to as The
Three Markets near the Mihrab Gate, which included a market for perfumers
and druggists and another for fabric vendors. We then passed through the
qaysariyat with their roofed marketplaces, bazaars, hotels, and merchants’
inns with residences located from above them, until at last we arrived at a
large caravansary constructed from lovely pink stone. In the center of it there
was a courtyard with the appearance of a roofed bazaar. We went inside and
tied our riding animals. I learned later that this place was known as Khan
al-Fahm, located on Khatt Dawud, or King David Avenue, which was the
city’s main thoroughfare. This street, which was the city’s largest, ran from
the Aqsa Mosque at Bab al-Silsila, that is, the Chain Gate, as far as Bab
al-Mihrab, or the Prayer Niche Gate, which is known also as Bab al-Khalil,
or the Hebron Gate.
Along the way I became acquainted with a man who traded in spices, and
who appeared to be highly virtuous and well mannered. Near the beginning
for our journey a rest shop in one of the villages located along the road that
led out of Baghdad, I noticed him shooting me frequent, scrutinizing glances.
Not pleased about this, I began feeling restless and suspicious of him.
“Sir,” I said to him, “you keep looking at me. Have you perchance learned
something about me that you disapprove of?”
“Certainly not!” he replied. “I have never seen you before. Nor do I
disapprove of you on account of anything I see in you. However, I am a man
with a discerning eye, and I know people well. You are going out in search of
someone dear to you, and you will expend great effort and time in the
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process. This person in quite ill, though, and you may or may not reach him
in time. Only God knows. However, on your way to him you will continue
on the path you have set out on, and never turn back.”
I was amazed at what the man had said. At the same time, I was gripped
with a sense of dejection, fearing that some harm may have come to my
beloved Thawna. When I asked him how he had perceived these things, he
refrained from saying anything more, as though he were not willing to
confide things about himself to someone like me. Consequently, I felt
annoyed and offended at his self-importance.
So I pressed him, saying, “What you just said is nothing but superstition
and trickery. No one knows the future but God alone. Have you ever heard
the saying, ‘Astrologers lie even when they speak the truth’?”
Realizing what I was getting at, he retorted quickly, “I am not an
astrologer, I assure you. Rather, physiognomy is a profound science. Have
you never heard what the sheikh and philosopher once said about it? He said,
‘Outward vision only sees perceptible entities when darkness is dispersed by
the light of the sun, and when the barriers which separate vision from its
objects disappear. So also with inward vision: It is not within its capacity to
perceive the spiritual world unless the mirror of the heart has been purged
of the lusts that prevent the divine light from being reflected therein.’’’
Then he added, “I have ‘read’ what you are setting out to do through
physiognomy. I have observed you as we have traveled, including your
various tones of voice, the way your neck moves, the outlines of your nose
and eyes, the condition of your hair, the odor given off by your body, the
condition of your teeth, and the shape of your hands and feet. I have even
observed the condition of your fingers, toes, fingernails, and toenails.”
Incredulous at what he was saying, I recalled that a Hanafi sheikh from
Harran had once come to Afif ’s shop requesting that he copy a book which
he described as being precious and rare. He said that some time earlier, the
caliph had asked his chief translator to find a copy of this book and to translate
it for him into Arabic due to the great wisdom and knowledge it contained.
The translator betook himself to the land of the Greeks beyond the Byzantine
Sea and found the book, which was entitled
The Secret of Secrets, in a pagan
temple to the sun. It had been written by a sage of old by the name of Aristotle
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for a renowned king, although it had been copied from an ancient manuscript
wrongly attributed to the thrice-great Hermes. In any case, the man came
across a copy of the book in Persian, from which he then translated it.
As we were spending the night in the caravansary, a man who had just
arrived in the city from the land of the Greeks informed us that the Byzantine
emperor Nikephorus had advanced into Bulgaria and laid siege to its capital
city, then defeated and sacked it. In the process, he had killed large numbers
of people. So great was Nikephorus’s barbarism, he said, that he had begun
laying out young men on the ground and trampling them underfoot.
Then, after night had fallen and we had gone to sleep, we were all
awakened by the sound of loud laughter and guffawing. We got up to see
what the matter was, and what should we find but that one of the merchants
was having a fit of laughter which he had no power to control. We tried
every trick in the book to get him to quiet down from reprimands, to curse,
to beatings, to water poured over his head, to poking, to slapping, to pinching,
to reciting verses of the Holy Qur’an intended to ward off evil influences, but
all to no avail. Some of us thought he had gone mad. He remained in this
condition for an hour, then died. Some of the elders who were with us
suspected foul play. The man had brought an Ethiopian slave with him, so
they took him aside for questioning. They tied him up and flogged him till
he bled, and when he could not bear the pain any longer, he confessed that
he had given the man a poison know as ‘laughing poison.’ When he was
questioned as to the nature of the poison, he told his questioners how he had
made it: He took twenty dirhams of ginger, and fifty dirhams of pepper, then
ground them all into a fine powder. Then he added five ratls of water and
soaked the mixture in it for one day and one night. Then he took a ratl of
saffron, ground it up finely and soaked it in the five ratls of water that had
been mixed with the previously mentioned ingredients. This, too, he let soak
for a day and a night, after which he allowed it to macerate. He then left the
mixture until the solids had settled to the bottom, leaving the water clear. In
this clear water he soaked another quarter of a ratl of saffron for one day and
one night. He then repeated this process two more times until it had become
a deadly poison. He said that he had given his victim two dirhams of the
poison mixed with honey at his dinnertime, since his master had been in the
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habit of drinking honey mixed with water after the final evening prayer. What
he had done, he said, was all on account of the fact that after accusing him of
being remiss in his work, his master had threatened on more than one occasion
to castrate him. The slave added that he had been afraid that this master was
actually going to carry out his threat when the caravan arrived in Egypt.
The following day, they took the slave and handed him over to the city
police chief. As for the dead man, we brought him grave clothes from the
market, then washed his body and prepared it for burial. From the
caravansary we took the deceased to the city’s great mosque, where we prayed
over him and buried him in a nearby tomb. As for his merchandise, we
inventoried it and left it as a deposit with the caravansary proprietor until
the man’s family had been informed of his death.
Never in my life had I seen a mosque as magnificent as the Aqsa Mosque.
Hence, when we left the cemetery, I excused myself from those who were
with me and went back to get a better look at it, since my earlier exposure
to it had confirmed to me that it was, indeed, one of the most splendid,
extraordinary mosques in all of existence. A masterfully constructed edifice
overlaid with gold and colored with pure dyes, it had numerous doors opening
out from its three sides, and the entire mosque was wide-open space,
unroofed anywhere but at one end. It had a spacious, rectangular atrium of
exquisite beauty and delicate craftsmanship with colonnades of colored
marble and mosaics that were more beautiful than any I had ever seen, even
in the church at Antioch. In the atrium there was a large platform five cubits
in height, with stairs that led up to if from several locations. In the center of
the platform rested a huge, octagonal, lead dome on marble pillars. The dome
was embellished inside and out with mosaic and colored marble. In the
center of the dome was the rock to which people make pilgrimage, and on
the edge of which one can see the footprint of the Prophet, upon him be
blessings and peace. Beneath it was a grotto into which one descended by
several steps and inside of which one could pray. This dome had four doors
and to its east there lay another dome atop lovely columns called the Dome
of the Chain. The Dome of the Ascension was likewise located on the plat-
form, as was the Dome of the Prophet, upon him be blessings and peace. All
of these rested on columns and were topped with lead. In the mosque floor,
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numerous basins and reservoirs had been dug, as the entire mosque had been
built over a rock in which rainwater would collect. Consequently, not a single
drop of it went to waste, and everyone could benefit from it.
I went on wandering around the mosque until after the mid-afternoon
prayer. After I had performed my ablution, prayed, and uttered praises to
God, I approached one of the walls of the mosque’s atrium and sat down
besides it. My roaming about the mosque, our walk to the cemetery,
and insufficient sleep the night before had left me in a state of weariness.
For some time I sat there ruminating, staring into the firmament that opened
out above me and at the land that was visible to me in the distance,
with its meadows, its tilled field, its hills, and its houses. Then I began thinking
about something my sheikh had said once as he spoke to us about his
I found heat to be opposed to cold, and I found that the two
opposites could never come together in a single place so long as
their natures are what they are. I thus perceived from their
existence together that there is something that unites them, an
irresistible power that conquers them contrary to their natural
propensities. That which can be conquered is weak. Moreover,
this weakness, together with the influence of that which conquers
it, is evidence both of its temporal nature and of a being that
brought it into existence, an originator that originated it, however,
its creator or originator does not resemble it, because whatever
resembles it must, ipso facto, likewise be temporal. Hence, its
creator and originator is God, the Lord of the worlds.
I remained in this state for some time, reflecting on the cosmos and its grandeur,
until my body grew lax and senses were dulled, and my consciousness
began to grow hazy. Hence, I was tempted to surrender to my lethargy and
take a much-needed nap to help me through what remained of the day and
what might face me at the caravansary that night. I remained motionless for
some time with my eyes open, staring into the heavenly expanse above me
and meditating on the majesty of the Creator. Enveloped by a sultry breeze
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that refreshed my spirit and calmed my senses, I found myself slipping little
by little into a contented, peaceful slumber. I do not know how long I
remained in that state. However, I wakened to something which, for all I
know, may have been a dream, or may have been a waking vision of reality
itself. My beloved Thawna had come to me in the same dorm in which I had
seen him once before while I was hiding in the marshlands of Egypt. As he
had been the first time, he was standing atop a high hill with a staff in his
hand. His face radiant with benevolence, he said, “Why the rush? Rather,
remain in the city of the prophets until your spirit has drunk its fill and is
indwelt fully with faith. Then come. I will wait until you get here.”
I sat there for a while, speechless and disconcerted, uncertain what to
make of what I had just experienced and the vision I had had of Thawna. But
then God granted me guidance and opened up a clearer understanding to
me. As a consequence, I made up my mind to do the very opposite of what I
had originally intended. Getting up quickly, I went to the caravansary, where
I found the caravan guide and informed him that I would not be leaving with
the others the next morning. Instead, I explained, I would by staying for some
time in his city of the prophets. After bidding farewell to all those who had
been with me on the journey, I gathered up my meager belongings and left.
On my way out the gate, I met up with the physiognomist who had spoken
to me before, and when I began bidding him farewell, too, he looked at me
thoughtfully, then said, “Did I not tell you that you were about to embark on
a path from which you would never turn back?”
I roamed about Jerusalem for some time thereafter. Winter after winter
passed, and summer after summer. The city grew accustomed to me, as I
grew accustomed to it. I would spend one night in a mosque, another in a
marketplace, and still another in an orchard or a wilderness. The city had
captivated me as no other city ever had, so much so that I could not part with
it. It was as if there were no other place on earth where my spirit could find
solace and comfort.
Some days I would spend in churches, and others in mosques. At other
times I would go up to the fortress, then to David’s Prayer Niche in the heart
of the mosque that had been built on the West side of the fortress wall. An
elevated spot to which one could ascend by a staircase, it marked the place
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where the Prophet David had sat, upon him be peace. I would linger there,
looking through the large stone window where a mark had been left by his
elbow when it sank into the stone, and I would marvel at the tile in which
the imprint had been made. As for the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, its
structures are among the wonders of the world. I would go there from time
to time and gaze at the place where the Master, upon him be peace, had sat
on the stone, and the rock-strewn spot where he was flogged and tormented,
as well as the prison in which he was placed. I would remain there until the
arrival of someone from the house of Nusayba or the house of Jawda—two
Muslim families that had been given the keys to the church and entrusted
with the tasks of opening and closing it.
I lived off what I received from people by way of alms and gifts, and
most of my time was spent in prayer and worship. I preferred peregrination
to anything else in this world. Sometimes I would go down to Dayr
al-Musallaba, an old Byzantine monastery masterfully constructed of
stones and lime. Situated gracefully in a sea of olive trees, grapevines, and
fig trees not far from a village to which it was connected by a road, the
monastery housed Greek iconographic paintings that had been drawn with
the most exquisite skill and symmetry.
Other times I would go to an elevated spot that overlook the Jericho
Valley, the site of another monastery known as Dayr al-Siq, which in its turn
looked out over green expanses and the River Jordan. Once there, I would
be received by gracious, spirited monks, who would offer me some of what
they had on hand by way of bread and fruit, then leave me to devote myself
to meditation or prayer. The only people who would come their way were
travelers for whom the monastery was their intended destination, or those
passing through the farms in the valley beneath. As for the area above them,
it was the site of a road that led to the red dune beyond.
One day I was passing through a valley known as the Valley of Jehosephat,
where there is a spring of water. A group of women had come to the spring,
and in their midst I saw a young woman who was one of the most beautiful
I had ever seen. The other women pushed her into the spring, after which
she took a drink and cast some of her clothes into the water. When, after she
had done so, she remained standing on her feet, all the women cheered,
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applauded and let out trills of joy, saying that she was innocent and pure.
Baffled by what I had just witnessed, I asked someone to explain it to me,
and I was told that this spring was referred to as ‘The Spring of the Virgin,’
or ‘The Spring of Accused Women.’ Any woman who had been accused of
not having conducted herself honorably would be brought to this place to
be tested. If she was guilty of the accusation against her, she would die after
drinking of the spring’s water. If, however, she drank of its water and remained
unharmed, this was evidence of her purity and innocence. It is said that the
Virgin Mary, upon her be peace, agreed to submit to this test, drank of the
spring’s water, and thereby demonstrated her purity, since she neither died
nor suffered any harm. And the spring has born her name ever since.
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