Rather for the chickens to pass the night awake than to sleep.  سهر الجداد ولا نومو

Even when someone is facing defeat, he will carry on harassing his opponent by one means or another.

This proverb is based on a story about a cunning fox that repeatedly snatched hens from their coop. Naturally the farmer noticed that his chickens were diminishing in number as each night passed. Determined to resist the rapacious fox, he closed all the gaps in the enclosure. Later that same evening the fox returned and found to his chagrin that a thicker, thornier fence now barred his way. There remained just one narrow hole that the farmer hadn’t bothered in closing. The fox pushed his tail into the gap and started to wag it briskly. In no time at all the chickens were cackling loudly in alarm and fear. Now it happened that another fox came passing by at this moment. Feeling curious, he stopped to ask why his brother was intent on troubling the chickens when there was no chance of catching even the smallest chick. The first fox replied, ‘Rather for the chickens to pass the night awake than to sleep.’ Although the fox was unable to attain his main goal, he had decided he could at least cause some nuisance to his adversaries.


The Mouse and the Beetle – a Sudanese Proverb with a Folktale

الخنفُسانة شافت ولدها في الحيط قالت دا لولي ملضوم في خيط

al khunfusaana shaafat walada fi l-HeeT gaalat da luuli malDuum fi kheeT.

The dung beetle saw its son on the wall and said these are pearls put together on a string.

Though the dung beetle is ugly, to his mother he is as lovely and beautiful as pearls beads strung together on a thread. This proverb implies that parental love can be blind. There is a short folktale called The Mouse and the Beetle relating to this proverb.

It once happened that a mouse married a beetle. One day when the beetle went down to the river to wash her shamla (a rag of wool or goat hair used by Sudanese women to cover their bodies when having a smoke bath), a strong habuub suddenly blew and swept away the shamla, together with the beetle who was clinging on to it tightly. The gust of wind threw the beetle on an island in the river, leaving her feeling shocked and bewildered. By coincidence, a boy from the house where the mouse and the beetle had their hole was passing near the shore. When the beetle saw him, she called out in her loudest voice: Continue reading

The Wise Man of the Village

The Nile, near Kerma, Northern Sudan
(The Nile Valley, near Kerma, Northern Sudan – photograph by Edmund Wyatt)

The Wise Man of the Village by Muna Zaki
In a village by the River Nile, there lived a wise old man, whose days of toil and labour were over. Every morning the old man’s chair was placed under the shade of some date palms overlooking the village. Here he would spend his days watching the flowing river and listening to the creaking of the saagiya waterwheels.
Over the years his reputation for wisdom had spread up and down the river so that many people came to seek his advice whenever they had a troubling problem or were in desperate need of help. Around his riverine gardens, he had buried various amounts of money. If anyone wanted to borrow some money from him, the old would lend each according to their need by directing him to a particular spot where some coins buried. The old man only asked that the person should pay back the money when they felt able by placing it in the very same spot from which it had been taken.
Amongst the people of the country was a merchant who did not value the favours of others. One day he came to the old man and asked for ten dinars to help with the purchase of some goods. Because of the loan, the merchant’s business prospered. He knew that he should have returned the money but he could not bring himself to part with it. Finally, he said to himself, “I won’t pay the old man back. My profits are large and I will never have to go begging to him for help again. In any case that old fool has probably forgotten all about the loan by now.”
Days, years passed by, and the merchant’s fruitful business withered and died. Soon he had used up all his money and was desperate. He said to himself, “I’ll go to the old man. I’m sure that he won’t recognize me after all these years.”
He found the old man sitting as before in his gardens near the river. As the merchant approached, the old man welcomed him and asked, “What can I do for you my son?”
“You are well-known up and down the river for your wisdom and generosity. I have come to ask you for some money as I’m facing some hard times,” explained the merchant.
“There should be ten dinars hidden there,” replied the old man pointing to the very spot from which the merchant had taken the money all those years before.
Eagerly the merchant began to dig down into the earth. He thought of what he would do with the ten dinars. Down and down he dug but there was no money to be found. At last he gave up and returned to the old man. “They told me you were wise but that spot does not even have a millieme let alone ten dinars…” the merchant began to complain bitterly.
While the merchant was still in mid-flow, the old man held up his hand and simply replied, “If you had paid it my son, you will have found it.”
© Muna Zaki

A Sudanese Proverb With A Tale

شِن قطعك يا راس

shin gaTa’ik ya raas.

Oh head, what cut you?

When words are many, sin is not absent, and he who holds his tongue is sometimes wise. One has to be wise in what one says and how you say it. Sometimes it is better to keep silent. This saying has a story behind it:


There was an Arab who was travelling on his donkey in the desert. On his way, he found a skeleton. Motivated by his curiosity, he got off his donkey to investigate it. He found that the head had become separated from its body. 

“Glorification is to God!” He murmured to himself in surprise. As he went closer to the skull lying close to the skeleton he asked: “Who cut you head?”

The skull jumped from its place and answered: “It is my tongue that cut me!”

The Arab was filled with horror. So he repeated the same question many times and the skull gave him the same answer every time.

Now as this Arab was not a sober or self-possessed person, he rushed back to his village straight to the mayor’s house. There he found the mayor with all the village notables around him, and without pausing for breath he told them the whole story of the beheaded skeleton. They started to giggle sarcastically at what he said and the Malik rebuked him. Instead of leaving the mayor’s council meeting, he was persistent and insisted on the mayor and the others  follow him back to the skeleton’s place in the desert.

Because of the Arab’s boldness in asking, the mayor and his council agreed to follow. The mayor threatened and said: “By divorce. If I find out what you have said is not true, I will behead you like the skeleton you have seen.”

When they reached the place, the Arab asked the skull: “Oh head, what cut you?”

But to his bad luck the skull did not move or answer. He repeated the question many times, but still he got no answer. The mayor’s blood boiled in his veins and he felt that his reputation had been ruined for following such a mentally deranged man. He beheaded the Arab and went back with his men to the village… but before they moved further, the skull jumped of its place towards the head of the Arab which was still bleeding and said to it: “Didn’t I tell you that my tongue cut me?!”

Two villages by moonlight

While collecting Sudanese folktales it has always struck me how many references there are to the jinn and evil spirits. This traveller’s tale by my husband describes a trek he made through the Jabal Marra mountains shortly before the eruption of the Darfur conflict in 2003. He believes that the strange episode in this story was entirely in his imagination, but I’m not so sure…

“When some of the merchants in the market at Nyala heard that I was going to hike through the mountains alone they expressed concern. “There are lions, leopards and goodness knows what else!” they warned in dark tones. And as it happened, there was a reason later on to remember their warning.”

“Several days into my trek, I reached the floor of the Deriba crater under the ridge of the Jebel Marra mountain. Here horses grazed on the pasture while a troop of baboons entertained me with their quick agility on the steep mountainsides. In the middle of the crater was a salt lake that according to legend would suck into its depths any bird that flew above it. Inwardly I had scoffed at the tale recounted in a geographical article written by British officers who were the first to climb Jebel Marra after the 1916 invasion. However, as I watched the tranquil scene, I noticed that strangely enough there were no birds amongst the trees on the crater’s floor, nor soaring above the rocky mountainsides.

Moving down the mountain, I came to a series of hot sulphur springs next to which I relaxed for some time until the golden rays of late afternoon sunshine warned me that dusk was approaching. I had planned to spend the night at the village of Quaila but according to my map, which was entirely in Russian, it was still some distance away.” “Surprisingly, I was not perturbed at the thought of being benighted on an African mountain despite the chill of the evening air. Surely this is why I had come to Africa in the first place – for an adventure! With the last rays of sunlight, I saw a brown hare scurrying away while from further off came the haunting cry of a jackal. I watched a line of feral donkeys filing their way down into a ravine, their eyes glowing fluorescently in the gathering gloom. Following them, I came to a salt encrusted marsh that I squelched my way across before scrambling up the valley’s side and onto a plateau.”

“Here I saw in the moonlight a row of African houses surrounded by thorn hedges. There was no light coming from any of them so I decided to walk along the settlement’s perimeter in the hope that someone would come out and greet me. To my astonishment, the place was deserted without even the bark or snarl from one of the ferocious dogs that usually guard the Fur homesteads. As I walked back, I began to feel more and more uneasy. Turning round at last I saw that the houses had disappeared! All that now stood in their place were some thorny shrubs…”

“Fortunately, I did find the path down to Quaila, and a couple of hours later found myself standing in the middle of the deserted market place. From the middle of the village I could hear the merriment of a wedding celebration. If there was ever an occasion to gate crash a party, I felt that this was it, especially after my “hallucinations” earlier that evening. Within minutes, I had been seated around a blazing fire and a bowl of warm broth placed in my hands. Afterwards I rolled out my sleeping bag and stared at the stars that looked like jewels in the black night’s sky. Around the flickering fire a sufi chant had begun “la ilaah illa allaah!, la ilaah illa allaah!” (There is no God but God!). I hope that they don’t keep that going all night I thought to myself but within minutes I was lost to the world in the luxurious sleep of the exhausted. My warm reception that night was typical. The rural people of the Sudan justly deserve their reputation for great hospitality. There were numerous times when they offered me, a foreigner and chance-met traveller, a meal or bed for the night.”

“I don’t think I’ll ever forget those two very different villages that I encountered one moonlit night in the Jabal Marra mountains.”

(a traveller’s tale by Edmund Wyatt)

The Lion, the Hyena and the Fox

This is a retelling of a famous Sudanese folktale from northern Sudan. The three characters were much maligned in the past due their prey on livestock. Hunted down as “vermin”, the only place that most of us can see them today is behind bars at the zoo in Khartoum North.

The Lion, the Hyena and the Fox.
There was once a lion, a hyena and a fox who agreed to go hunting together. Continue reading

The Shrewd Ewe: a Sudanese folktale

Here is the first of several folktales that I hope to publish on this blog.

The Shrewd Ewe

by Muna Zaki

“Sheep?” said the young man incredulously. “I’ve heard of a clever camel, a crafty fox and even an intelligent elephant but never a shrewd sheep!”
Before him, sitting on a thin strip of matting, was a poor wandering dervish who had arrived in the village just before sunset. The stranger gave the young man a long intense look before replying, “You will notice from the patchwork on my old jibba that not all pieces of cloth are alike. So it is with animals, and I know a story from the days of long ago that will confirm to you what I have said.”
At the prospect of a story, more youngsters gathered around the dervish. A lamp was lit and when the dervish saw that his audience was ready and waiting, he began his tale.

Continue reading