Tuesday, November 17, 2009
Seven Daughters and Seven Sons
by Barbara Cohen and Bahija Lovejoy
published by Atheneum 1982, Beech Tree 1994
Once upon a time, in medieval Baghdad, lived a man who had seven daughters but no son. To his shame, he was therefore known as Abu-al-Banat (Father of Girls). To make matters worse, this man’s brother was blessed with seven sons. Furthermore, Abu-al-Banat was poor, whereas his brother was rich.
Since he had no son, Abu-al-Banat was forced to teach one of his daughters skills that were normally taught only to boys. He taught her to play chess, so that he would have someone to play against. He taught her to read because she wanted to learn so badly. In the evenings, he would sit and talk business with her, although he himself was not a successful businessman. But his daughter had the gift, and although Abu-al-Banat did not know it, by teaching his daughter he had sown the seeds for future good fortune for his family.
I don’t know why it is, but often the times-and-places that were the most unpleasant for the people who lived in them, make the most romantic settings for stories. I love the milieu in which this story is set. I love the way the characters talk to each other, using the vocative: “O my brother,” or “O father of daughters.” I love reading about the caravans and the spice shops. But I know that, especially as a woman, I would have hated to live there. Not all of us are blessed with the remarkable resilience and survival instincts of Abu-al-Banat’s daughter Buran.
Perhaps one thing that makes such a harsh world seem attractive, is that is it not peopled solely with characters who are bound by their culture. In a world in which the social separation between the sexes was extreme, and in which women were therefore considered barely human, we get characters like Abu-al-Banat, who allows his daughter to dress as a boy and go out into the world to seek her fortune; and like the prince, who when he finally figures out that his friend “Nasir” is a woman, feels attracted rather than repelled. For realism’s sake, we also have characters like the prince’s friend Amin, who considers a reading, chess-playing woman a “freak,” and Buran’s mother, who is completely conventional. But the presence of some choice men who can rise above their culture, as Buran rises above hers (without rejecting it or Islam), make this an adventurous, romantic world rather than just a monotonous, oppressive one.
Apparently there have been such men and women in real life as well, for a note at the end of the book says that this novel is “based on a folktale that has been part of the oral tradition of Iraq since the eleventh century.” It is a well-written, absolutely spellbinding story. I don’t know why it isn’t better known.
See a kid's review of the book.