by Barbara Cohen and Bahija Lovejoy
I was so exited when I found this book. As part of a long planned move, I’ve been plowing through old boxes to get rid of unnecessary items and one of the treasures I came across was this book. I’d always remembered it, but for years I didn’t know where it had vanished to. Imagine how thrilled I was to find it!
So without further, let’s talk about Seven Daughters and Seven Sons.
The beginning – it was so exiting to read it!
“These are the words written long ago by Buran, daughter of Malik, a poor shopkeeper of Baghdad. She put them down so that her children, and their children, and their children, and all those who came after them would know of the remarkable events that had given rise to their illustrious lineage… Read these words, then, and open your eyes wide in amazement at the marvels that Allah has wrought” (1)
The basic story follows the fourth daughter (Buran) of seven who dresses up and disguises herself as a young man and becomes a successfully rich merchant to help her poor family.
As I was reading the first part I did wonder a bit about some of the historical implications, such as:
“Addicted to nothing but luxury, they’d permitted actual power to fall into the hands of the Persian conquerors, who bought with them their own customs, including hijab, the veil for women. It was their way of distinguishing free woman from concubines. Turks had followed Persians, but the veil remained” (20).
My question was whether the custom of veiling was really been brought by the Persians. All I know is that veils existed in the Middle East prior to Islam. But any nuanced details on the custom of who and when the hijab evolved is beyond my knowledge and experience so I’m not going to try to talk about it.
Reading it again, I noticed a few, probably unintentional, parallels to stories in 1001 Nights.
First there is how her father – the nicer man – is poorer, while his brother (Buran’s uncle) is richer but is also conceited and greedy. Despite his wealth, he takes no interest in the troubles of his brother or the future of his nieces, who, without dowries, will be at the mercy of any available marriageable man. This is reminiscent to me of Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves, as well just general tales where a richer brother disregards a poorer one.
Second is the woman disguised as a man. This occurs in The Story of King Shariman and his son, Qamar al Zaman.
Going off that, there is also a fairy tale phase. Once Muhmud suspects Nasir might actually be a woman, he and his (sort of) friends set three tests for her to find out. This is reminiscent of “The Twelve Huntsmen”. And later, once Mahmud finally learns that Nasir is in fact a woman (she leaves the white chess queen her father gave her with the prince), he goes out to search for her. It reminded me a bit of “Rapunzel” but without the blindness.
Since her father only had daughters, he’s seen as unlucky whereas his brother, with seven sons, is considered lucky. This is turned on its head when Buran returns three years later, richer than any of her male cousins ever got. In fact, all of them squandered their money, in classic 1001 Night fashion, and Buran, recognizing them, gives them money in exchange that they tattoo her first initial by their heart. Every single one does. But once she’s back, her uncle wants her to marry one of his sons; she agrees on the condition that none of them bear any marks on their body. Safe to say, they all refuse the physical inspection and she marries none of them.
One scene that I always remembered since I first read it was after she has begun to realize her feelings for Mahmud. Alone in her room, she strips off her clothes and contemplates herself as a female entity.
“I was a woman. I had forgotten that for a long time, and now I knew it again. Mahmud had made me remember. I wasn’t angry about it any more. Being a woman hadn’t prevented me from doing what I wanted to do” (151).
I think it stayed with me afterwards because it was such a stark acknowledgement of her identity as a woman but without dismissing what she had done in disguise as a man. Writing this now, I’m reminded suddenly of another woman who disguised herself as a man to proceed along the path she wanted: Alanna from Tamora Pierce’s The Song of the Lioness Quartet. (oh, my preadolescence feelings).
She also has a point of recognizing her woman identity, but she still keeps the consequences, lessons, and responsibilities she gained. Buran is the same. Even after she retakes her identity as a woman and returns to dressing as one, she doesn’t stop being involved in the merchant world. She has reliable men work for her and advises her father. But the knowledge she’s gained — she still uses it.
Women like them mean a lot to me, though I haven’t really dissected why. Other than I used to assure myself that if I had to disguise as a boy, I could have pulled it off. Anyway, it’s all in flux at the moment. Maybe I’ll make sense of it someday.
In summation, Buran befriends and falls in love with the Wali of Tyre’s son (Mahmud), as well as gets revenge on her brothers. Of these two, I liked how Buran, as Nasir, and Mahmud’s feelings developed. You really got the sense that they were becoming close, sharing thoughts and memories they had never shared with anyone else.
Mahmud’s dilemma about whether or not Nasir is a man or a woman in disguise and how that would change whether they could be friends or not made me tilt my head. Not that women and men can’t be friends and lovers, because Mahmud realizes that that’s exactly possible. But that the story thought once there was a scent of sexual or physical attraction, Mahmud is struck with the certainty that Nasir is actually a woman.
Though I can’t critique this too heavily since 1. It’s a trope in fairy tales and folktales, and 2. (in lieu of trying to retell said trope) A note at the end says it’s based on a folktale from Iraq, so I’d be leery of critiquing another culture’s story.
Although, I kind of liked how Mahmud makes this conclusion. Watching one of the dancers at a banquet, he seems to make some kind of correlation between that woman’s “graceful brown body” and Nasir’s.
I liked the ending and how it told about the future of what happened to Buran and Mahmud. It felt complete and even more so, stirred up my own story series.
Cohen, Barbara, and Bahija Lovejoy. Seven Daughters & Seven Sons. New York: Atheneum, 1982. Print.