Oral Literature. Jabari and the three tests

Once upon a time, there was a king who had seven strong sons. When the day came for the eldest of them to leave home, he explained to his father that he longed to travel to a distant land and asked for a sailboat, along with some food and money. The king gave him these things. The young man set sail across the ocean, promising to return to his family once he had completed his great adventure.

He had been on the seas for some weeks when he spotted an island up ahead, and as he wished to rest awhile on dry land, he moored his boat and swam ashore. He found it a very pleasant spot, and strolled happily among the fruit trees, helping himself to large handfuls of the juicy berries hanging from almost every branch.

The berries satisfied not only his hunger, but also his thirst, and when the young man spat out the seeds, he noticed that they transformed themselves instantly into new plants laden with deliciously ripe fruit. Delighted with this discovery, he collected several baskets of the berries and took them on board his boat. He drew up his anchor and set sail once more, hoping that the next stage of his voyage would prove just as rewarding.

After several more days at sea, he approached another strange land, this time populated by a race of tall and powerful men, and discovered that it was ruled by a great sultan. Wishing to make a favorable impression, the young man offered the sultan some of the wonderful berries he had gathered, explaining how the seeds could bear fruit as soon as they touched fertile soil.

The sultan was immediately suspicious and refused to believe a word until he had seen the evidence with his own eyes. “ If what you say is true,” the sultan declared, “I will reward you handsomely. But if I find that you are lying, I will throw you in prison for having wasted my time”. So the young man brought a basket of fruit from his boat, ate some of it and spat the seeds upon the ground. But to his great disappointment, the seeds lay there without altering their shape in any way. The sultan gave the signal, and at once a group of guards seized the young man, bound him, and carried him away to prison, promising that he would never again see the light of day.

When six months had passed and the king had still not received word of his eldest son, he began to grow extremely worried. His brothers were also very concerned for his safety and so it was agreed that the next eldest should go in search of him. It was not long before he, too, arrived on the island bearing the wonderful fruit trees and when he had eaten some of the fruit and found that the seeds sprang to life as soon as they touched the soil, he gathered several baskets of the berries and took them on board his boat.

Shortly afterwards, the second son approached the sultan’s kingdom and, as his brother had done before him, he began to boast of the miraculous fruit he had discovered, offering to demonstrate its remarkable magic to the sultan. He ate some of the berries and threw the seeds upon the ground. But the seeds failed to spring up, and the sultan, enraged that he had been made to look a fool a second time, immediately ordered him to be imprisoned in a chamber next to his eldest brother.

One by one, the king’s sons set sail from the palace. Each landed on the island and gathered the enchanted berries. Each boasted of their wonderful magic when they arrived in the sultan’s kingdom, and each was immediately thrown into prison when the seeds failed to sprout. At last, only the youngest son remained. The boy’s name was Jabari, and although he was scarcely a youth, he could not be persuaded to abandon the thought of going in search of his brothers. The king eventually agreed to give him a boat and when he had loaded it with millet, rice and cattle, he embraced his mother and his father and took to the waves.

After a long, storm-tossed journey, Jabari arrived on a cold, desolate island and climbed ashore hoping to find some trace of his brothers. But the first sight to greet him was a flock of weather-beaten birds, perilously close to starvation.

Without any hesitation, the young boy hauled a sack of millet ashore and scattered it all around for the dying creatures to feed on. Soon the birds had recovered their strength, and in return for Jabari’s kindness, they begged him to accept from them an incense stick: “Burn this stick if at any time you need us”, they told him, “and we will smell it and come to help you”.

Jabari accepted the gift and walked on towards the trees. He had not gone very far before he encountered a swarm of flies, weak with hunger and unable to take to the air. The boy immediately slaughtered the cattle he had on board and threw them on to the island. Soon the flies were buzzing around him gratefully. Their leader thanked Jabari and gave him a second incense stick: “If at any time you need us”, the flies told him, “burn this stick and we will come to your aid”.

Jabari explored a little further. Eventually, he came upon a family of jinns who were also without food. He stopped to light a great fire and began cooking a large pot of rice for them to eat. The jinns marveled at this generosity and when they had eaten their fill, they handed him an incense stick, identical to the other two, instructing him to burn it if ever he ran into trouble.

Jabari sailed away and before he had even lost sight of the island, the sun began to shine, the sea grew calmer, and soon he had arrived at the place where his brothers had gathered the enchanted berries. He could not quite believe his eyes when the seeds he spat out blossomed into new trees, and so he decided to gather some of the fruit and take it to the jinns to show them.

“0 yes”, said the sultan of the jinns, “we have heard all about these berries and they are very real. But if you intend to show them to anyone else, it is important to know that the miracle will only happen when the seeds fall on special soil”.

The young boy considered this information for a time, then he thanked the jinns and returned to the island of the fruit trees. Here he gathered up enough of the precious soil to fill three wooden barrels. He rolled the barrels onto his boat, hoisted his sails and set out to sea once more.

After he had travelled only a short stretch of the ocean he came upon the sultan’s kingdom and presented himself before the great ruler. “I have journeyed here in search of my brothers”, he informed the sultan, “and if any of your people can help me find them, I will reward them with a very special tree that will always bear more fruit than they can eat, and whose branches will always remain strong and productive even in times of famine”.

But the sultan laughed uproariously for some minutes at the young man’s speech. “Listen to this fool”, he called to his attendants. “There are six men in my prison who came here boasting the same thing. See to it that this one joins them”.

But Jabari began to protest noisily: “Give me a chance to prove myself”, he pleaded. “Tomorrow, I will show you this wonder, but please be patient with me until then”.  “So be it”, replied the sultan indifferently, “but remember, if you fail, I will show no mercy and you will be cast into prison with the others”.

That night, when he was certain that everyone lay sleeping, Jabari crept from his chamber and headed towards the shore. He dragged the first of the three barrels from his boat and began sprinkling the soil thinly and evenly upon the ground. The work took several long hours and he had only just emptied the last of the barrels when the first rays of sunshine peered over the horizon. Silently and carefully, he crawled back to his bed and waited there anxiously for the people to stir.

As soon as the sultan and the wise men of the kingdom had awoken, Jabari was summoned to appear before him. He carried a small basket of fruit with him and set it down on the ground. Slowly he lifted a handful of the ripe berries and began chewing on them.

The sultan yawned aloud and twisted in his seat. The wise men glanced around them and took very little notice. But when Jabari spat the seeds upon the earth and they began to rise before their eyes, the sultan and all the people on the island cried out in sheer delight. Again, Jabari performed his great miracle and soon he was joined by others who ate the fruit and spat out the seeds until the whole kingdom blossomed with the magic trees.

From that moment onwards, the sultan took Jabari under his wing and saw to it that everything he needed was provided for him. Almost immediately, he arranged for his brothers to be released from prison and ordered a great feast to be held to celebrate their freedom. As time moved on, the sultan grew very fond of the young man and wished that he had been blessed with an equally wise and generous son of his own.

The sultan possessed a daughter; however, whose extraordinary beauty and talent were famous throughout the land. It was not long before Jabari came to hear of her many virtues and when, one day, he spotted her strolling through the palace gardens, his heart was filled with a deep desire to be with her. He went before the sultan and asked if he might make her his wife, but to his surprise, the sultan grew very angry and declared that he had yet to encounter a man even half good enough to marry his daughter. “What would I have to do to prove my worth to you?” Jabari asked him, “I will do anything you ask, for now, that I have seen her, my heart will never be at peace”.

The sultan led Jabari to a very large storeroom and pointed to the hundreds of sacks containing all kinds of mixed grain. “If you can separate these different kinds of grain and place each kind in its sack by tomorrow morning, then you may marry the princess,’ he announced.

Jabari’s eyes widened in disbelief at the sight of the huge task facing him, but he so badly wanted the sultan’s daughter, that he agreed at least to try his hand. So, he sat down on the floor and began sorting through the first sack. But after a very short time, he realized how hopeless the situation was and buried his head in his hands.

Then he suddenly remembered the incense stick the birds on the lonely island had given him. He took the stick from beneath his robe, and as soon as the pungent odor filled the air, a flock of birds appeared out of nowhere asking what they might do to help him. After the birds had heard what the sultan had ordered, they flew around the room and began picking up the grain in their beaks, separating each kind into its sack.

The next morning, when the sultan arrived at his storehouse, he saw that all the grain was separated as he had ordered. But he walked away, shaking his head, and gathered his wise men around him. At length, he came and spoke to Jabari: “We cannot quite believe what we have seen”, he told the young man, “and so you must prove yourself once more if you wish to marry my daughter. If you can cut through the trunk of that Baobab tree over there, with one stroke of your sword, you can take her”.

Jabari saw that the tree was enormous and knew that he could not possibly perform what was required of him without help. So, he asked to be allowed to go back to his room to get his weapon and here he burned the second incense stick. At once the family of jinns appeared before him and when he told them what the sultan wanted him to do, they flew away and returned with an army of white ants that marched towards the tree. The ants gnawed at the trunk leaving only the bark so that when Jabari approached and drew his sword, he easily cut the tree in half and it fell to the ground effortlessly.

But the sultan was still not satisfied: “Tomorrow will be your final test”, he told Jabari. “In the afternoon all the maidens of the kingdom will pass in front of you one by one, each of them wearing identical veils over their faces. You must pick the princess from among them and if you choose correctly, you shall have her for your wife”.

Then Jabari retired once more to his chamber and burnt his last incense stick. Immediately, the leader of the flies appeared and Jabari explained what had been demanded of him. “When the maidens of the city pass before you”, said the fly, “I will stand in front of you and you must keep watch on me. When the princess draws near, I will drum my wings and alight on her shoulder as she passes by”.

So, the next afternoon all the maidens of the kingdom passed in a procession before the sultan and his attendants and, as promised, the leader of the flies took to the air and landed on the shoulder of the princess as she walked past. Jabari stood up and walked forward to where the princess stood, planting a kiss on her cheek for everyone around to see.

Jabari had now passed his three tests and the sultan could not deny he was more than a fitting son-in-law. Proudly he took the princess by the arm and led her away. They were married the very next day and the sultan built for them a fine palace where they lived a long and happy life together. (Folktale from Zanzibar) – (Photo: Pixabay)

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