James Nicoll Reviews

Home > Reviews > Post

On Their Own Two Feet

The Tale of Princess Fatima, Warrior Woman: The Arabic Epic of Dhat Al-Himma

Edited by Melanie Magidow (Translated by Melanie Magidow)

20 Jul, 2022



Support me with a Patreon monthly subscription!

The Tale of Princess Fatima, Warrior Woman: The Arabic Epic of Dhat Al-Himma was edited and translated by Melanie Magidow. It offers a selection of the many, many adventures of pious, ferocious Bani Kilab warrior-woman Princess Fatima, also known as Dhat Al-Himma (She of Ambition). 

These eleven episodes are a very small sample of the total. It seems that there were over 450 stories featuring or related to Fatima. Note to TV producers: the 1909 Cairo edition is comprised of seven volumes and 5,084 pages. If we assume twenty episodes a season, there are enough episodes for a twenty-year TV run. Or perhaps this has already been done? I’m not up on Middle Eastern TV series. 

Modern readers, particularly those of a certain juvenile canine tendency, might be astounded to discover that not only does this 12th century (or perhaps a bit earlier) cycle of the Arab-Byzantine conflicts featuring a daring swordswoman, daring swordswomen are by no means scarce in the narrative. Fatima encounters quite a number of almost as skilled women, who no doubt would have been heroic figures in their own regard had they not the bad luck to encounter the protagonist. 

While there is considerable tragedy — fortunes reverse on a dime, and lives often come to very abrupt ends — and danger abounds, the stories are often quite funny. Well, perhaps not as funny from the perspective of the men who discover the hard way how skilled Fatima is with her sword, but the reader will be amused. Really, my only complaint is that the translator did not translate more chapters. 

The Tale of Princess Fatima, Warrior Woman: The Arabic Epic of Dhat Al-Himma is available here (Amazon US), here (Amazon Canada), here (Amazon UK), here (Barnes & Noble), here (Book Depository), and here (Chapters-Indigo).

Introduction by Melanie Magidow

A brief introduction. Magidow comments on Fatima’s sense of right and wrong, one shared by many of the other characters in the stories. Firm beliefs in this matter somehow stop at rustling. They cheerfully abscond with insufficiently well-guarded livestock, sometimes leaving a few corpses in their wake. But this is the custom of the country, so tolerated. 

There are also notes on translation and character name choices. 

Ancestors: The opening episode of the epic

Fatima’s great-great-grandfather Al-Harith is smitten with Al-Rabab, whom he meets as he and his warriors are looting her camp. To prove his sincerity, he woos her properly. However, the happy bride is disturbed by a fearful dream, which foreshadows great destiny … but not for Al-Harith nor Al-Rabab, neither of whom are long for the world.

I have seen much, and death comes for rich and poor alike.” Could be a motto for the book. Even Fatima ultimately dies … but only after many, many adventures. 

Jundaba’s childhood and first adventure

When his foster-father and foster brothers are captured by a ferocious warrior woman whose livestock they were trying to steal, it falls to Al-Harith and Al-Rabab’s son Jundaba to rescue them all. 

[He] began to drive her livestock away, as was the custom among rivals” could also be a motto for this collection. In defense of Jundaba’s foster-father Darim, he had no idea that the woman from whom he was appropriating livestock was skilled enough to defeat a hundred warriors. 

The romance of Layla and Sahsah

Jundaba’s widow and orphaned son Sahsah are granted shelter by Jundaba’s brother ꜤAttaf. Sahsah’s infatuation with ꜤAttaf’s beautiful daughter Layla is hopeless, as he is a poor boy living on charity. His habit of spontaneously declaiming romantic poetry at her triggers a crisis, as people might gossip. Nothing for it but for the boy to go out and make his fortune, thereby proving himself worthy of Layla. 

This story features horse theft by proxy: Sahsah finds a dying horse-thief who is so grateful for Sahsah’s attempt to help him that he gives him a fabulous stolen horse. 

Fatima uprooted

Sahsah and Layla’s sons Zalim and Mazlum agree that should both have sons, those sons will share rulership of the Bani Kilab clan. To Mazlum’s disappointment, his child, Fatima, is a girl. Mazlum pretends that the child was a boy who died. 

This ruse will cost the Bani Kilab dearly; thanks to various misadventures, Fatima is captured by and raised among rival clan Bani Tayy. Only after a successful career as the fiend of Bani Tayy,” with the Bani Kalib a frequent target, does Fatima learn who her father was and rejoin her clan. 

The sorry affair of Fatima’s marriage

Fatima’s cousin Walid is smitten with Fatima. Fatima for her part prefers martial affairs to marital and has no desire to marry. Nevertheless, she ends up with a husband she did not want, who is in no way worthy of her. 

Arab-Byzantine encounters

The Rum (Byzantine) Emperor Leo’s brave and capable daughter Malatya sets out to conquer land for the glory of the empire. This would have no doubt ended well for the Rum save for the fact this is one of Fatima’s adventures, not Malatya’s.

In this setting there is no assumption that enemies are inherently bad, so assuming the parties survive combat they can later become friends (depending on circumstances). In this case, however, things turn out very badly for Malatya and there is no chance for her to become one of Fatima’s chums.

Trials of motherhood

Frustrated with Fatima’s lack of interest in sex, Walid takes the terrible advice of his serpent-tongued advisor ꜤUqba and drugs Fatima into acquiescence. She is extremely displeased but has no legal recourse. 

When Fatima’s son ꜤAbdelwahhab is born black-skinned, Walid is convinced that Fatima was unfaithful. The amir Ghashim offers a solution: Walid could simply divorce Fatima, leaving her free to marry the love-struck Ghashim. Fatima runs the unwanted suitor through with her sword, leaving the fact of her innocence to be proven by a panel of wise elders in Mecca. 

One of Fatima’s little quirks is that she is not interested in men who are not at least as adept on the battlefield as she is, and testing this can very easily be fatal for would-be suitors. I wonder, is this the earliest occurrence of a woman protagonist who demands to be bested in battle? 

Switching sides

On the advice of ꜤUqba, an annoyed Walid defects to Constantinople and converts to Christianity. However, when the King of Portugal threatens Constantinople, it is Fatima who strikes him down, endearing her to Leo. Walid is most vexed by this but his attempt to ambush his former wife goes about as well as one would expect. 

The conflict between the Byzantines and the Arab is good-natured, if rather homicidal. That said, I would not read too much into the statement in this adventure that After all, religions are not so far from one another, and peoples resemble one another,” because the person claiming that is ꜤUqba, the embodiment of an evil advisor. 

Like mother, like son

In various ways and through various feats, ꜤAbdelwahhab shows that he is his mother’s son. 

The story of Nura

ꜤAbdelwahhab and his brave companions encounter the wondrously beautiful Byzantine princess Nura, who easily overcomes and captures them. Unfortunately for Nura, this means she now has to deal with ꜤAbdelwahhab’s mother. 

They complained, You only beat us because of your looks!”
Probably,” she agreed. 

But this does not prevent her from taking them all as prisoners anyway. In the case of Al-Battal, Nura captures not just his body but his heart. This complicates hostage exchange, as it is hard to exchange a hostage who refuses to leave. 

A final adventure

During one of many clashes with the Byzantines, Fatima and her companions become trapped in a cave. All seems lost, save for the fact the cave was once the home of a wise man who foresaw what would happen after his death, and took steps to leave the tools the adventurers would need to escape.