The Girl Called Laughter

This folk tale was trans­lated from the Ara­bic by C.G. Camp­bell and first pub­lished by Ernest Benn Ltd. in 1952, no copy­right notice. I added a touch of spice to the present version.

Inci­den­tally, the name Badr, pro­nounced in the Ara­bic, sounds like “bother,” which makes a nice play on words in Eng­lish. A wazir is a high offi­cial or trusted advi­sor; “wiz­ard” comes from the same Ara­bic root word. The word “harem” (pro­nounced hareem with a rolled “r”) sim­ply means pri­vate or for­bid­den. In for­mer times the term applied to the women’s quar­ters of a house­hold, but the excesses of the Ottoman Empire gave it the Eng­lish mean­ing of a pri­vate col­lec­tion of wives and mis­tresses. In the story below, “harem” is ren­dered “For­bid­den Apart­ments,” to clar­ify that we are sim­ply refer­ring to the queen’s domain within the palace.

Finally, you must under­stand that this is a folk tale, best told around a camp fire of dried camel dung, told with much ges­tic­u­la­tion and vehe­mence of expres­sion. Or told over innu­mer­able tiny cups of cof­fee, in the smoky din of a tired café in Old Cairo. Reduced to text, it lacks life, but such is the nature of the Net.

The Story of the Girl named Laugh­ter, who never laughed at all.

Once in for­mer times there was a king who was with­out a son, and though he took to him­self wife after wife no son was born to him. And one day, when the king’s wife was lying on her bed await­ing the com­ing of a child, his wazir came into his pres­ence and said: O our mas­ter! Come! Come! For your wife has given birth to a fine son! And the king ran and ran to the For­bid­den Apart­ments, and he pushed aside the women and he went up to the bed, with his heart full of joy, say­ing: A son! Thanks be to God! But the women all laughed and said: It is not a son, but a daugh­ter, and we called out the news to the eunuch by the door, and he called it out to your page, and your page ran to the wazir. But we cried: There is born to the wife of the king a –. And the eunuch called out in joy: A son! A son! And in this man­ner you learnt false news.

And the king saw that the child was really a girl, and he said: Though all of you are laugh­ing, I am weep­ing. And he ordered: Let her be called Thuhook, that is to say, Laugh­ter, for she is but a joke.

And the years passed and the girl Laugh­ter grew to be a sweet and lovely girl. Her face was made for gaz­ing at, her body was made for embrac­ing and her lips for kiss­ing; her waist looked bet­ter with­out a gir­dle sash to dec­o­rate it, and her legs looked sweeter with­out silken bag trousers to adorn them. But as for her voice, none knew if it was sweet or harsh, for she never spoke at all; and as for her laugh­ter, none knew of it, for she never laughed at all. And the king was sad to see his daugh­ter silent, and he brought wise men and doc­tors and philoso­phers to exam­ine her, and they said: She has a tongue and she has lips and she can speak, and she knows every word of the Ara­bic lan­guage. But why she will not speak we do not know, for she replies to us only by writ­ing, though in the most beau­ti­ful and dec­o­ra­tive hand, and she will not tell us why she will not speak. And the king said: It is a pun­ish­ment on me from the Most High God, for when she was born I should have said “Thanks be to God” whereas I said “She is but a joke.”

And the king greatly desired that his daugh­ter should laugh and joke and be as other girls, so he made an order and pub­lished notices say­ing: If any man can make my daugh­ter laugh and talk, then I shall give her to him in mar­riage, and with her I shall give the gov­er­nor­ship of a province, and when I die he shall suc­ceed me as king, for I have no heir. But, that my daugh­ter may not be trou­bled by those who try in vain, should any man try and yet fail to make her laugh and talk, then he shall be flogged with a hun­dred lashes and his prop­erty shall be confiscated.

And there was in that coun­try a mer­chant who had three sons, and he loved his eldest son, who was named Suleiman, since he was both clever and indus­tri­ous. And he like his sec­ond son, who was named Badr, since he was will­ing and dili­gent. But he hated his youngest son, who was named Fahad, since, though he was a hand­some youth and clever, he never did any work. Rather, he used to go to the wells and entice the girls, and draw them into a secret place and play with them, until fathers and hus­bands took their swords and searched for him; but since he was clever he was never caught.

And the mer­chant sent for his three sons and told them of the notices issued by the king, and he said: I desire that Suleiman, who is the eldest of you, should go and make this girl laugh and talk and marry her and become king in due time; but I desire that you, Badr, and you, Fahad, should help your brother, that he may get the girl and not get a beat­ing. And the boy Badr agreed to his father’s words, but the boy Fahad said: I know more of girls than either Suleiman or Badr, there­fore I should make her speak and become king. And the mer­chant grew angry and said: This is no affair of phi­lan­der­ing in a ditch. This is an affair of brains and intel­lect, to make a king’s daugh­ter laugh by learn­ing and intelligence.

Then the mer­chant ordered his three sons to go to all the philoso­phers and wise men in the city and to ask them for jokes such as girls laugh at, and to write down the jokes and to bring them to him. And the three broth­ers went out, and after a day they returned, each with a book of jokes. And the mer­chant com­manded them to tell their jokes, say­ing: Refrain from laugh­ing if you can.

And Suleiman told his joke, say­ing: Once there was a learned man who was writ­ing a book. And he wrote with one eye open and the other eye closed. And men came to him and asked “Why do you close an eye?” And he replied “Would you use two lamps when one lamp does the work. I keep one eye for writ­ing and the other for read­ing.” And the mer­chant laughed and laughed till he choked and the boy Badr laughed till the breath was gone from his lungs. But the boy Fahad did not laugh. He said: Such a senile and futile joke is suit­able for the old and for the decrepit and for the learned. But that is no joke for a girl need­ing a lover. And the mer­chant cursed him, say­ing: Cease from remind­ing us of your ditch-​​wantons and think of learned and suit­able jokes for the daugh­ter of the king.

Then the boy Badr told his joke, and he said: Once there was a scholar who was read­ing a book when the sun was high in the heav­ens, yet he kept a lighted lamp by his side. And men came to him and said “Why do you read by a lamp when your book is fully lit by the sun?” And he replied “It is a book con­cern­ing the causes and the nature of night, and is there then any sun by night?”

And the mer­chant laughed until hic­cups came, and like­wise the boy Badr laughed until his stom­ach hurt him, but Fahad did not laugh. He said: That is a joke to make a grey beard wag­gle. A girl needs a joke to make her roll with laugh­ter, and there is no power in that joke to make her even smile.

And the mer­chant grew angry, and said: Cease from telling us of your ditch rollings, and tell us a noble and learned joke. And Fahad replied, say­ing: I can not tell you a joke suit­able for a girl any more than I would decide on a joke before I had seen the girl. For, know you, girls are dif­fer­ent and no joke and no story will ever suit every one of them. And a joke should be told with the eyes more than with the tongue, and other eyes should respond to it. And a joke may be told with the feet and with the fin­gers, and if my brother wants my advice it is that he keeps his tongue silent and uses his fin­gers to tickle her, for she will only weep at his dull wit, but it is my expe­ri­ence that a great num­ber of girls laugh when you tickle them. And the mer­chant grew angry with his son Fahad, and he cursed him and bade him be silent.

And on the appointed day the boy Suleiman went to the palace, and he was left in a cham­ber, and the girl Laugh­ter was brought into that cham­ber with all her ladies and serv­ing maids. And they said to the boy Suleiman: Now make her talk and laugh, and she is yours and you will become a king. But she shall talk three times and laugh thrice. And should you fail, then we will take you for a flog­ging of a hun­dred lashes. And the ladies and girls shall be wit­nesses of your suc­cess or failure.

And the boy Suleiman looked at the girl Laugh­ter, and his tongue went dry and his heart throbbed. For she was as the new moon, yet musk scented, with cheeks like peaches, and with a lit­tle mole, sweet like a pearl, in a dim­ple on her cheek. And the boy Suleiman thought: I must not fail, for she shall be mine.

And the boy Suleiman told the first of his sto­ries, say­ing: Once there was a learned man who was writ­ing a book. And he wrote with one eye open and one eye closed… And he told that story fully, even as you have already heard it, for he did not omit a sin­gle word. And when he had fin­ished he started to laugh until he could no longer breathe, but the girl Laugh­ter and all her ladies remained silent. Nor did they even smile.

And the boy Suleiman, with his heart full of fear, told his next story, say­ing: Once there was a scholar who was read­ing a book when the sun was high in the heav­ens, yet he kept a lighted lamp by his side. And he told the story fully with­out omit­ting any part of it, and when he was fin­ished he started to laugh… Ha-​​ha-​​ha.. Ha-​​ha-​​ha. But the girl Laugh­ter remained silent, though her ladies yawned.

And the boy Suleiman told story after story while the ladies wept from bore­dom, until finally the eunuchs and the sol­diers came and threw open the doors, and they took Suleiman and chained him and led him out for a flog­ging of a hun­dred lashes.

And when they were fin­ished with flog­ging Suleiman they brought him back to his house, and his father and his broth­ers wept. And the mer­chant said: Since Suleiman is not to marry the girl Laugher, then Badr shall have her. But tell us, O Suleiman, what was your mis­take? And Suleiman said: I made no mis­take, for I told her the fun­ni­est of sto­ries, and all were about lamps. And so funny were they that I could scarcely talk for laugh­ing, yet the girl and her ladies did not laugh.

Then the mer­chant said: Since Suleiman was unsuc­cess­ful with sto­ries, then Badr shall tell no story; rather he will do some­thing at which she will laugh. And the boy Fahad said: You mean he will tickle her, for that is the best thing he can do, since his wit is dull. But the mer­chant cursed Fahad and said: Cease from rec­ol­lect­ing your deal­ings with cour­te­sans. And the mer­chant com­manded his sons to go to the mar­kets and to note every­thing which made peo­ple laugh.

And after a day they returned to him, and Suleiman said: I saw a man walk­ing in the bazaar, and a camel came up behind him and bit him and every­body laughed. And the mer­chant was pleased at the words of his son, and he said: A camel shall bite Badr. Then Badr said: I went to the mar­ket and I saw a man walk­ing, and his thobe was caught by a nail and it tore so that he was left stand­ing naked, and every­body laughed. And the mer­chant was pleased, and he said: When the camel bites you, he shall tear your thobe and you will be left stand­ing naked. Then the mer­chant asked Fahad: What did you see? And Fahad replied: I went to the mar­ket but I saw nobody laugh. Then I went to the well and all the girls laughed, but you, O my father, will only curse at the joke which was between us, for your humour is not as their humour. But, since you like jokes about lamps, I sug­gest that Badr, when he is stand­ing naked and bit­ten by the camel in front of the girl Laugh­ter, should carry a lighted lamp in his hand, though the time is high noon. And what do you think fun­nier than that?

And the mer­chant was pleased at the words of his son Fahad, and he said: At last I know you for my son, and I see there is sense and virtue in you, though it is some­times obscured by debauch­ery. And the mer­chant and Suleiman and Badr laughed much at the idea of the boy Fahad, and they said: When she sees the camel bite, and the thobe tear, and when she sees a lighted lamp at mid­day, then she will scream with laughter.

So, at the appointed time, the boy Badr went to the palace, and he found the girl Laugh­ter sit­ting amongst all her ladies, and he saw her face, and he saw the mole on her cheek, nestling like a dew­drop on the petal of a rose, and his hand shook and his heart beat, and he thought: I must have her.

And Badr led in a camel, known as a vicious biter, and he turned his back on the camel, and the camel bit him well and truly in the behind. And he wore an old and rot­ten thobe, and when he felt the camel bite he jumped for­ward and the thobe tore and he was left stand­ing naked, for he wore noth­ing beneath. And in his hand he car­ried a lighted lantern, though the time was mid­day and the sun shone.

And he waited for the laugh­ter of the girl and of her ladies, but no laugh­ter came. Rather, they were yawn­ing and weep­ing from very bore­dom. And the sol­diers came and chained him and led him away for a flog­ging. And when they were fin­ished with flog­ging him, he returned to his home, and his father and his broth­ers grieved to see him come.

And the mer­chant was sad, and he said: Now no son of mine will ever be king. But Fahad said: It is my turn now, and I want no help from you my father or from you my broth­ers, for this is a job which I under­stand prop­erly, so much so that I have no doubt of suc­cess. And the mer­chant cursed him, say­ing: How can one so depraved as you are suc­ceed where your noble broth­ers have failed?

But Fahad went to the palace and he craved an audi­ence with the king, and he said: O my mas­ter! I will make your daugh­ter laugh and talk, and I want no wit­ness of it, for she her­self will freely admit it when I have fin­ished with her. But I want to meet her when she is alone in a gar­den at night, sit­ting beneath a lamp, for, it appears, jokes about lamps are con­sid­ered most suit­able for her.

And the king agreed to the words of Fahad, and on the appointed night he went to a lonely gar­den, and he saw the princess sit­ting beneath a lamp under a tree.

And Fahad went up to the princess and saluted her say­ing: Peace be upon you! But she returned him no answer. Then Fahad looked up at the lamp, and he said: Peace be on you, O lamp! And how are you tonight, O lamp? But the lamp gave him no answer. Then Fahad said: I see you are angry tonight, O lamp. And I know why you are angry, because your mis­tress has put you so high up in the tree. But do you know why she has done this? It is because she does not want your light to fall too brightly on her cheeks, since her love­li­ness is from a paint box, not from nature. There­fore you are as silent as your mis­tress, that silly girl, who remains silent because her voice is as harsh as a crow’s cackle.

And the girl Laugh­ter grew angry, and she said: Are you mad to talk to a lamp, for how can a lamp answer you? And my cheeks are real and not painted! And my voice is sweet! And Fahad replied to her: Remem­ber that you have spo­ken once. And I talked to the lamp because it was no more silent than you were before. And the girl Laugh­ter said: I have to speak three times and laugh three times, or you will get the thrash­ing you so richly merit. But Fahad said: Remem­ber that now you have spo­ken twice. And the girl bit her lip and remained silent.

Then Fahad said to her: If your cheeks are not painted, then is that lit­tle mole real or of plas­ter? But the girl remem­bered and she gave him no answer. Then Fahad gripped her in his arms and lifted her up, and he pressed his lips to her cheek. And she cried out in alarm: Let me go! Let me go! And Fahad said: I was just see­ing if that lit­tle mole could be licked off. And remem­ber that you have spo­ken three times.

Then Fahad put her down on the couch, and he reached up with his hand and turned down the wick of the lamp until the flame was the size of a match head, and he sat down beside her and said: What is it that a man and a girl can do when they are alone in the gar­den, and the light is dim? And the girl Laugh­ter sprang up in alarm, and she said: Remem­ber I am a princess. But Fahad laughed and pulled her back on the couch, say­ing: Why, it was noth­ing. What did I say? I asked what they can do. The answer is, of course, that they can talk, the one to the other. But what was in your mind that you became fright­ened of me? And the girl Laugh­ter did not answer him, but she laughed a sin­gle laugh.

Then the boy Fahad said to her: But a man and a girl can talk stand­ing and they can talk walk­ing. But what is it that they can do in the dark on a beau­ti­ful couch such as this couch is, long and soft and com­fort­able, and what is it for which they must have a couch? And the girl Laugh­ter started in alarm, and she tried to rise, but Fahad held her firmly, and she said: Stop! Stop! I am the king’s daugh­ter! And Fahad replied and asked her: But what did I say? I asked why they needed a couch, and what else would they need it for but for sit­ting on? But what was in your mind that you grew fearful?

And the girl Laugh­ter did not reply to him, and she remained silent. But she laughed twice.

And at that very moment the lamp, which had only been glow­ing as a match head, gave a pop-​​pop-​​pop and went out. And Fahad said: It is in my thoughts that the lamp does not wish to see the answer to that ques­tion which I have just asked you twice, and which you did not answer.

And the girl Laugh­ter laughed for the third time, and she went on laugh­ing until the laugh­ter came out of her ears. Fahad took a san­dal in his hand, and the girl Laugh­ter made to jump up in alarm. But she was spent in laugh­ing, and the boy Fahad held her tight. Fahad laughed in his turn, and he said: One of us shall receive the thrash­ing the king your father decreed, but who shall it be? And Fahad drew the princess across his legs, prepar­ing to thrash her with his san­dal. The girl Laugh­ter cried out: I am the king’s daugh­ter! And she called for the guards and her ladies. And Fahad laughed and laughed, and wielded the san­dal until the guards laid hands upon him, bind­ing him in chain. And the princess laughed anew at his plight.

Then Fahad saluted the guards, say­ing: Peace be upon you. Behold the princess Laugh­ter, for she has spo­ken, and she has laughed, and she has her­self deliv­ered the proof into your hands! And the guards sti­fled their own laugh­ter whilst they removed the chains, and con­ducted him to the king.

And when Fahad and Laugh­ter were mar­ried, and when he had become a gov­er­nor of a province and the heir of the king, his broth­ers and his father went to him and they saluted him with great respect and asked: But how did you make her laugh?

And Fahad answered them, say­ing: My broth­ers tried to make her laugh with lighted lamps in day­light, but I made her laugh with an unlit lamp at night. And he told his father and his broth­ers the entire story, from start to fin­ish, and he did not omit a sin­gle word.

Then Fahad sent for his wife the princess, and saluted her, say­ing: Peace be upon you. The girl Laugh­ter returned the salute with the sparkle of laugh­ter in her eyes, and she said: And upon you peace, O my hus­band the prince and heir of my father’s kingdom.

And Fahad sat her beside him. He reached up his hand and turned down the wick of the lamp until the flame was the size of a match head. He said: My father, and my broth­ers, shall see the answer to that ques­tion I have asked you twice under the lamp, and which you did not answer. And the lamp gave a pop-​​pop-​​pop and went out, and the princess said: Per­haps I shall answer, O my hus­band, but no-​​one shall see!

Then Fahad asked the ques­tion for the third time: What is it that a man and a girl can do in the dark on a beau­ti­ful couch such as this couch is, long and soft and com­fort­able, and what is it for which they must have a couch? And the wife Laugh­ter made no reply.

Then Fahad pulled his wife across his legs whilst remov­ing his san­dal, and answered say­ing: The man can fin­ish the thrash­ing she so richly deserves! And the father and all three broth­ers laughed and laughed in the dark, and even the princess Laugh­ter joined in the joke, laugh­ing until she cried.


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