CHICAGO: According to its translator, Melanie Magidow, “The Tale of Princess Fatima, Warrior Woman: The Arabic Epic of Dhat Al-Himma” was originally printed in 1909 by a man named Ali Al-Maqanibi in Cairo. That version spans several volumes and thousands of pages of text, and it was reprinted in Beirut in 1980. It is the latter text from which Magidow selected a dozen stories to share — in English — with contemporary audiences in her recently published book.
Magidow stresses that her work is not a literal translation — however, the heart of her tale and the atmosphere it encapsulates is equally as electrifying as the original.
“Dhat Al-Himma” is, Magidow says, the only epic to be named after a woman. The tales are as captivating as they are complex, following events that begin at the end of the seventh century, with the fading power of the Umayyads and rise of the Abbasid Caliphate. The stories of the sword-wielding, spear-throwing, horse-riding, battle-hardened legend Princess Fatima (aka Dhat Al-Himma) thrill. The heroine’s adventures take her north from the Arabian Peninsula to the border of the Byzantine Empire.
Princess Fatima is born into a long line of leaders of the Bani Kilab tribe. However, her father Mazlum sees no value in girls, and when Fatima is abducted by the Bani Tayy — a rival tribe — Mazlum makes no attempt to rescue her.
With her captors, Fatima learns to ride a horse, to craft weapons and to fight, and wins the hearts of those around her with her ferocity and bravery. Eventually she finds her way home and becomes a hero of her tribe — despite patriarchal traditions.
Along the way Fatima encounters Byzantine emperors and Abbasid caliphs as Muslim and Christian armies compete for regional dominance and is caught up in fierce tribal wars. All the while she must protect herself from scheming tribe members who wish her ill.
This is a classic hero’s journey. Fatima sets out troubled by uncertainty but devotes herself to a higher purpose — service to God and to her tribe. Magidow’s translation is a fine introduction to a thrilling epic filled with fabulous characters and adventure.