La belle au bois dormant by Tahar Ben Jelloun

“Once upon a time there were a king and queen who were very sad and discontent, for they could not conceive a child. They had tried everything, following the advice of several doctors and midwives and even a few sorcerers. One adviser went as far as suggesting to the king that he follow as special diet and eat at regular hours while holding the queen’s hand. But in vain. One day, the king and his wife went to the Mountain of Childhood, where they stayed for seven days and seven nights drinking the brackish and warm water of the Source of Life. They often felt nauseous and vomited their meals, but without complaining. When they returned to the palace, they made their prayers before entering the chamber of love…”

So begins the tale of Sleeping Beauty as retold by Tahar Ben Jelloun, born in Morocco and a respected French writer and poet who was awarded the Legion of Honour by French President Nicolas Sarkozy in 2008. I have here given a rough translation of the first paragraph or this familiar fairy tale as retold in the original French, but with a Middle-Eastern flavour. Here, sleeping beauty is awakened not by the tall blonde green-eyed prince she imagined but by a short, skinny brown-haired one who must first deliver her from the snakes of the desert that are defending her door, and when Sleeping Beauty—here known as Jawhara—emerges from her hundred-year nap, her skin turns black as the night. After some time the prince must bring his beloved and their two small children back to the family palace where his mother, a cruel woman filled with prejudice, believes that all black people should be slaves. She tries to drown their children at sea and hires an ogre to cut out Jawhara’s liver which she intends to eat, but of course her plan is thwarted when the ogre, upon seeing Jawhara, is so charmed by the light emanating from her beautiful face that he comes up with a plan to defeat the evil queen instead…

A charming story, and an original retelling, and the book itself is a sheer pleasure to behold, with cover art and illustrations that add tremendous appeal to the overall experience. It was a Christmas gift from my mother who lives in France and whom I haven’t seen in six years now. I had perused the book before, but this was the first time I actually read the story, and because of the beauty of the book and the sentimental attachment I have to it, I can only say that I cannot find fault with it and was put under its spell.

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4 thoughts on “

    • Yes, of course I knew that! :-) Also didn’t hurt that it was by Tahar Ben Jelloun. Which reminded how much I enjoyed reading Amours Sorcières when I was visiting you last. On the strength of that book of short stories alone I decided he’s one of my favourite writers. So reading the book you gave me reminded how much I wanted to read more of his work, and I just acquired an edition with both L’enfant de sable & La nuit sacrée. I remember quite clearly you talking about the story, we were at your home in St-Antoine.

      See? Suggestions never get lost, sometimes it just takes a while to follow up on them. xoxo

  1. It seems rich in every respect – illustration, story, the telling of it and the fact it is a cherished gift for you. My French is appalling I am afraid and so it would have to be a translation for me.

    I got you email – thank you :) I will reply soon.

    • An other English speaking reader was telling me that he had searched everywhere for a translated version of this book, but it seems it is still only available in French. Maybe I should contact Ben Jelloun and offer him to translate it since I’ve already done a half decent job of translating the intro? ;-)

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