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Doug Wilhelm is a full-time writer and an independent publisher in Weybridge, Vemont. His newest book is the novel STREET OF STORYTELLERS (Rootstock, 2019). His 15 previous novels for young adults include THE REVEALERS (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2003), which has been the focus of reading-and-discussion projects in well over 1,000 middle schools.

The story of Fatima

After college in the mid-70s, and after a summer and fall of painting houses, I traveled by train and bus from London to India and Kathmandu, with a backpack half full of books. In Delhi late in the trip I was still buying books when I could, mostly about Hinduism and Buddhism — and in a bookshop on Connaught Circus I found and invested in a Penguin paperback titled Thinkers of the East.

Back at the Venus Hotel in the travelers’ neighborhood by the railway station, I was a little let down to find that this volume of stories and anecdotes was from the Muslim world, collected by a man named Idries Shah. But there began a lifelong interest in the wisdom stories and teaching tales of the Sufis, who in Islam follow paths of personal search and illumination.

Shah was a Sufi, and he published many collections of traditional tales. The one I appreciate most is a story that I think I need to remember just now. Maybe it will matter to you, too. It’s the tale, shortened and paraphrased here, of Fatima.

Fatima's father was a spinner who taught her to spin, and one day he took her on a journey across the Mediterranean Sea, to islands where he traded. But a storm wrecked the boat, drowned her father, and cast Fatima ashore near Alexandria. A family of cloth-makers found her, dazed and drained, on the beach; they took her in, and in time she became a skillful weaver. Then, walking the beach again one day, Fatima was kidnapped by slave-traders and carried off.

“Her world had collapsed for the second time,” Shah writes. On a slow day at the slave market, the disconsolate Fatima was spotted by a kind-hearted maker of ship’s masts, who took her home to be a serving maid. But he arrived to find he was ruined — pirates had captured a cargo in which he had invested all he had. “So he, Fatima and his wife were left alone to work at the heavy labor of making masts.”

Grateful for her rescue, Fatima worked very hard, and learned this craft, too. But when the tradesman sent her to Java to sell a ship’s cargo full of masts, she was shipwrecked again, this time off China. Once again cast up on an alien shore, she wept in desolation. “Why should so many unfortunate things happen to me?”

In China, there had long been a legend that a female stranger would someday arrive and be able to make a tent for the emperor. No one in China knew how to make tents — and so each year, one emperor after another had sent emissaries to every town and village, searching for foreign women to bring to the court. “When Fatima stumbled into a town by the Chinese seashore, it was one such occasion.”

She was brought before the emperor, who asked if she could make a tent. “I think so,” Fatima said. The Chinese had no ropes, so she asked for flax, and spun some into ropes. The Chinese didn’t have the strong, thick cloth she needed, so she wove some. The Chinese had no tent poles, so she hewed several from harvested trees. Then she carefully recalled all the tents she had seen on her adventures; and she created a tent.

The emperor, most impressed, offered Fatima whatever she chose. “She chose to settle in China, where she married a handscome prince, and where she remained in happiness, surrounded by her children, until the end of her days.”

So few stories end that way, these days. In his book Tales of the Dervishes (Octagon Press, 1967), Shah attributes this version of the Fatima story, “well-known in Greek folklore,” to Sheikh Mohamed Jamaludin of Adrianople, who founded the Jamalia Order of Sufis, and died in 1750.

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