Folk Hero series: Zat Al-Hemma

National Folklore Archive (NFA), Sunday 3 Apr 2011

This is the only complete oral history of an Arab folk heroine, beginning with her birth and ending with her death

zat alhema 1

This is the only complete oral history of an Arab woman, beginning with her birth and ending with her death. The tale is spiced with vivid scenes of war, some taking place among Arab tribes and others involving the Muslims and the Byzantines. Parts of the story take place on the borders of Asia Minor.

The story begins with an Arab king who begets two sons: Zalem and Mazloum. The latter of these two has a girl, Fatemah, who grows up to become the heroine of this tale, earning the nickname of Zatelhemma (the Woman with Resolve, or the Invincible Dame) in the process.

Her father, Mazloum, is not happy to have a daughter. He had agreed with his brother, Zalem, that whoever has a son would inherit their kingdom. Should they each have a son, the kingdom would be split between them.

Fatemah is quite exceptional, even at birth. She is “strong in her arms and limbs and broad-shouldered,” fit to play the role of a medieval hero. And she has the right experiences too. She is first banished from her tribe, subjected to humiliation, and she then comes back to take revenge and put back everyone in their place.

Mazloum, disappointed at having a female child, sends Fatemah away to grow up among Bani Koleib. Years later, the tribe of Bani Koleib are attacked by the tribe of Tayy who take several prisoners, including Fatemah and Marzouq, her brother in nursing. (If two babies are nursed by the same woman, they are considered to be brothers or sisters according to Arab custom).

Fatemah kills many of the Tayy men, practically everyone who tried to approach her sexually and then some more. From then on, people start calling her Zatelhemma and Marzouk becomes her faithful sidekick.

For political reasons the Abbasid Khalif al-Mansour presses Fatemah to marry her cousin, al-Harith.

“I live by the sword and I travel in the sand, alone with my horse. I have no use, if you don’t mind me telling you, Prince of the Faithful, for al-Harith or any other man,” she proclaims.

But she relents to pressure, marries al-Harith, and remains a virgin for quite some time afterwards, refusing to sleep with her husband. Al-Harith, resorting to trickery, drugs her and then copulates with her. She has a child but alas, the child is black and that makes al-Harith suspicious.

Al-Harith refuses to recognise the child as his own and a feud develops, leading to Fatemah leaving home and dedicating her life to fighting the Byzantines. It is a theme common in tales of a folk hero.

Zatelhemma becomes a role model for women warriors and we never see her experiencing a moment of weakness or a trace of feminine sentimentality. She leads an army in a battle against the Byzantines and drives them out of Islamic land, the ultimate culmination of medieval heroic tales.

( compiled by Ibrahim Abdel Hafez)

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