It is said that once, in the Island of the Arabs, was a great king, named Hamed bin Bathara, who had a beloved wife whom he loved more than life itself. And it came about that Hamed returned to his palace from war, and he discovered that his wife, his queen, was faithless to him, for she had lain with a slave. And the king was filled with a great anger, and he said: There shall remain in this land no woman save she who gave me birth, for women are false and faithless and there is virtue only in man. Nor shall any woman enter this land on pain of instant death.
And every female, from the youngest child to the oldest hag was thrown out of the king’s lands. And there remained only men and boys and the mother of the king. Nor did any women or any girl dare to return to that kingdom, and they remained in far countries. And a girl, whose name was Sherifa, the daughter of a neighbouring king, was astonished at the situation in the kingdom of Hamed bin Bathara, and she said: I will visit his land and I shall enter his house, and I shall learn how man can live without woman. But they said to her: You cannot go, for Hamed bin Bathara will surely kill you. And she said: I am without fear.
So the princess Sherifa bought for herself the clothes of a prince. And she prepared a ship, and sailors, and soldiers, and made ready to visit the king, Hamed bin Bathara, but in the guise of a man, not a woman. And she sailed to the kingdom of Hamed bin Bathara, and sent messengers to inform him that the Prince Sherif would wait on him in his service and be his guest.
So the Prince Sherif, who was really the Princess Sherifa, landed at the town of Hamed bin Bathara and was received with great magnificence and splendour. And she was amazed to see that in that city there were only men and boys, and even the washing of the dirty vessels at the well was the work of men. And the king, Hamed bin Bathara, thought that the Prince Sherif was a beautiful youth, and he knew her not for a girl. And the Prince Sherif stayed for many days at the court of the king, and accompanied him wherever he went, whether for hunting or hawking, for jesting or for drinking. And the king, Hamed bin Bathara, felt a great friendship and love for the Prince Sherif, and he was puzzled, and thought: Perchance he is a woman. So the king went to his mother, who was the only woman in all that country, and he said: O my mother. There is come amongst us a beautiful youth, whose face is as the moon, were the moon sweet-scented with attar of roses, who is as straight and supple as the date palm, were only its fruit jasmine flowers, yet on that lovely face there is not even a thing wisp thinner that the morning mist where the moustache of manhood should sprout. Can then such loveliness belong to a man, or is a woman come amongst us, for such a one I have sworn to kill. And the king’s mother replied: If the prince is youth or girl I do not know, but take her to the market, then if she gazes at the shops of silks and jewels, and if she turns aside from the shops selling daggers and saddles and swords, then she is a woman, and you may do with her as you wish. So the king, Hamed bin Bathara, rode out with his court to the market, and by his side rode the prince Sherif. And the king said as they passed: Look at those shops selling gold bangles and ruby earrings. Bu the Prince Sherif said: Leave those things. They are not for a man. Let us see the swords.
And as they rode further into the market the king said: Look at those shops selling rare silks of Persia. But the Prince Sherif said: Leave those silks, they do not concern us. Where are the swords?
And when they came to the shops of the armourers the prince dismounted, and entered a shop, and seized swords in his hands, making the blades sing through the air, and plying the merchant with questions as to their worth. And the merchant replied to the words of the prince, who purchased the finest sword in all that shop and in all that street, paying its value with a bag of gold.
And the king, Hamed, returned to his mother, and he said: It was thus and thus, and he behaved as a man. But does a man have a voice like a sweet dove cooing to its mate? And Hamed’s mother said: Know you that a girl eats hot food slowly and delicately. Prepare a meal hot as fire and full of peppers and cloves. Then when she eats it you shall know whether she is man or woman.
So Hamed bin Bathara prepared a meal as hot as fire and full of filfil and spices, and he bade his court be seated to eat of the meal. And blisters came on the tongues of Hamed and his courtiers, and had they spat out they would have set fire to the earth. But the Prince Sherif heaped the food into his mouth and ate heartily, calling on the kind and the courtiers: Eat! Eat! The food grows cold while you dally.
And the king Hamed went to his mother and said: He ate better than any man could eat, but, O my mother, does a man have lips soft as peach blossom? And Hamed’s mother replied: If you would know whether she is man or woman test her heart, for men’s hearts are as cannonballs, but women’s hearts are soft as the ball of wool with which a child plays, for women’s heart are men’s playthings. Let a child crave mercy from her, that you may test her heart.
So Hamed sat in his court with the Prince Sherif beside him. And the servant who brought him coffee spilt some on the dress of the Prince Sherif. And the king became angry and said: You would ill-use my guest, but to your own death. And a small child who was in the gathering burst forward weeping, and clutched the cloak of the Prince Sherif, crying: O merciful prince. Please intercede with the king and save my father. And the Prince Sherif said: Call me not merciful, for mercy is for women and justice is for men. Let then the king’s sentence executed here and in the presence of all, that all may see justice. And the king was astonished, for he had not really meant to kill his servant, since it was but a ruse, but he could see no way of avoiding the man’s death.
But when the executioner came the king ordered: Flog him only, but with a hundred lashes, since there are no merciful women in this land from whom he can beg his life. And the executioner started to flog the servant with a great lash, and the child screamed and clutched the cloak of the Prince Sherif and begged mercy. And the king looked at the face of the prince and saw it as cold as stone. And the courtiers winced when they saw the lash fall on the man’s bloody back, and even the king turned his eyes away, but the Prince Sherif made not a sign of mercy. And finally the king and the courtiers cried out and begged the executioner to desist, for they could stand the sight no longer.
And the king went to his mother and said: The heart of the prince is as hard as a cannon ball, but, O my mother, do men have hands which are smooth and slim and small? Do men have ears like little seashells? Do men have hair softer than silken thread, which the hand seeks even as the dove seeks its nest? Do men have bodies for which men yearn even as the Shepard yearns for rain?
And the king’s mother replied: If you would know her man or woman you must see her body, for she is cleverer than you and there is no other way. Take her with you beside the sea, then say to her: The day is hot. Let us doff our clothes and swim in the sea. And should she hesitate, then pull off her clothes as in playful jest, as you would with a reluctant friend. But shall you see her and then kill her? And the high king, Hamed bin Bathara, replied: Kill her I must, for my oath is sworn.
So the king, Hamed bin Bathara, rode out from his palace with all his courtiers and with the Prince Sherif, and he took the road towards the sea. And the Prince Sherif halted his horse in the great gate of the town, and quickly with his dagger, he wrote a verse in Arabic on the wooden door, and when the king and the courtiers glanced back at him he urged his horse forward, saying: I do but test the keenness of my dagger point, for a blunt dagger does not become a man.
And when they got near to the sea, at a beach on the bay where lay at anchor the Prince Sherif’s ship, the prince cried out in a loud voice: O king, it is hot. Why should we not swim? And the prince galloped his horse into the sea, and jumped in fully clothed, shouting: Only women worry about wet clothes. But the king commanded: Catch him and bring him back. And all the courtiers and even the king hurled themselves into the sea fully clothed, but the prince swam faster than a fish, and easily escaped them.
And the prince swam easily to his ship, and the sailors hoisted the sail and sailed away. And the king and his courtiers rode back to the town with their clothes ruined by the sea. And the heart of the king was heavy for he though: Now I shall never know if he be man or woman. But when they came to the great door they saw a crowd collected, gazing at the door. And they made way for the king, and he saw what they saw and read what they read. And on that door was carved a verse in Arabic, as well written as if by pen, yet cut deeply into the wood. And the king read out the verse, which said:
Woman I came, I went no other,
To your despite, Hamed bin Bathara.
Dakhalit athara wa kharajit athara
Wa raghman alek, ya Hamed bin Bathara.
And the king grew hot with rage and he called carpenters and he bade them efface the verse. But they cut with chisels and blades without effect, saying: This wood is teak, harder than iron; no man’s weak hand can cut it.
And the king was mad with fury, and he said: This woman ahs defied me and scorned me, and she must die. So he disguised himself as an old man with a white beard, and he took a ship and sailed after the Princess Sherifa.
And after months of seeking and enquiry he found her palace and he entered it at the dead of night. And he entered the room of the princess and he was astonished at what he saw, for a lamp burned in her room and she stood naked before him, without any clothes on her body. And Hamed was amazed, for her skin gleamed as silver in the lamplight, and her waist was shaped for the embrace of a man’s arms. And the girl Sherifa said to the king: I have waited for you, Hamed bin Bathara, and now, if you look, your question will be answered. But you shall answer my question before you kill me.
And Hamed said: What is this question? Then the girl Sherifa asked him: What is a dagger without a sheath? And the king replied: A dagger without a sheath cannot be, for the blade would rust and decay and the edge would be blunt, how then can there be a dagger without a sheath? And the Princess Sherifa said: If there can be man without woman then there can be dagger without sheath, for man is a sword blade, and woman is the sheath which protects him, and cooks his food, and keeps his house, and fulfils his desires. And the king, Hamed bin Bathara, was filled with an exceeding love for the girl Sherifa, and he returned his dagger to its sheath. And Hamed bin Bathara married the Princess Sherifa, and he returned to his country and ordered that all the wives and girl children should return to the land. For he said: Man there must be, and woman there must be, and, if the day is for man, what is the night without the light of woman?
Women expend much energy having babies and feeding and caring for their young. Men too, invest in their children, but while unlike women, they can’t be absolutely sure that the children are really theirs. Assuring their paternity is thus a major obsession with men. Claustration and chastity belts can be seen as attempts by men to regulate female sexuality and assure themselves of their paternity. In angry reaction to his inability to regulate his wife, the king decides to eliminate women entirely. Sherifa’s courage and wisdom cure the mad king and teach him that women and men are in this together. She wins the kings admiration and love by staying one step ahead of the traps he and his mother set for her. When the king condemns his servant to death, Sherifa helps him to recognize the importance of women and to regret a hard man’s heart. The king himself revokes the death sentence “since there are no merciful women in this land from whom be [the servant] can beg his life.” Sherifa predicts the king’s plan to kill her as well as she has predicted all his other plans. Her womanly body answers his question, but Sherifa poses and edifying question of her own: “What is a dagger without a sheath?” The result of Sherifa’s wisdom and daring is that the king renounces his bitter war against women and all the wives and girls return to the land. Sherifa saves the king and his kingdom.