[Notes by LKG]
This story is part of the Holy Land Folklore unit. Story source: Folk-lore of the Holy Land: Moslem, Christian and Jewish by J. E. Hanauer (1907).
The great Suleymân el Hakìm was sitting one day near a window of his palace, listening to the love-talk of two pigeons upon the house-top. Said the male bird loftily: "Who is Suleymân the king? And what are all his buildings to be so proud of? Why, I, if I put my mind to it, could kick them down in a minute!"
Hearing this, Suleymân leant out of the window and called the boaster, asking how he could tell such a lie.
"Your Majesty," was the cringing reply, "will forgive me when I explain that I was talking to a female. You know one cannot help boasting in such circumstances."
The monarch laughed and bade the rogue begone, warning him never to speak in that tone again. The pigeon, after a profound reverence, flew to rejoin his mate.
The female at once asked why the king had called him. "Oh," came the answer, "he had overheard what I was saying to you, and asked me not to do it." So enraged was Suleymân at the irrepressible vanity of the speaker that he turned both birds into stone, as a warning to men not to boast and to women not to encourage them.
Suleymân was well acquainted with the language of plants. Whenever he came across a new plant, he asked its name, uses, the soil and cultivation by which it flourished, and also its properties, and the plant answered. He laid out the first botanical garden.
One day, in the Temple courts, he noticed a young plant of a kind unknown to him. He promptly asked its name. "El Kharrûb," was the answer. Now El Kharrûb means the destroyer.
"Of what use art thou?" continued the king.
"To destroy thy works," replied the plant.
On hearing this Suleymân exclaimed in sorrow, "What! Has Allah prepared the cause of the destruction of my works during my lifetime?"
Then he prayed that his decease, whenever it should occur, might be hidden from the Jân till all mankind should be aware of it. His reason for making this petition was his fear that if the Jân should know of his death before mankind knew of it, they would seize the opportunity to do mischief and teach men iniquity.
Having prayed thus, the king dug up the Kharrûbeh and planted it close to a wall in his garden where to prevent, as far as might be, any harm coming from it, he watched it daily till it had grown into a strong, stout sapling. He then cut it down and made of it a walking-stick on which he would lean when he sat superintending the labours of the evil spirits he kept slaving for him to prevent them from exercising their power and ingenuity against mankind.
Now, many years before, Belkis, Queen of Sheba, had come to prove Suleymân with hard questions, one of which was how to pass a silk thread through a bead, the perforation in which was not straight through, but winding like the body of a moving serpent. It had been a hard task, but it was performed, at the king's request, by a small white worm or maggot which, taking the end of the thread between its teeth, crawled in at one end and out at the other. To reward this insignificant creature for its work, the king granted its request that it might lodge inside the seed-vessels and other parts of plants and feed thereon.
Unknown to Suleymân, it had found a home under the bark of the young Kharrûb-tree, his staff, and had penetrated to the very centre of the trunk. The time arrived for the king to die, and he happened to be sitting as usual, leaning on his staff, when Azrael came and took away his soul, unknown to the Jân, who worked on steadily for full forty years, not knowing that the king was dead because the staff upheld his corpse just as if it had been alive.
At last, however, the worm hollowed out the staff, which suddenly broke in two, so that the body of Suleymân rolled to the ground and the evil spirits knew that their tyrant was dead. To this day the traveller in the East is shown a huge unfinished stone in the quarries at Ba’albec, and others in different parts of the country, and is informed that they are some of the tasks left unfinished by the Jân, when at last they were sure that Suleymân el Hakìm was dead.
Next: El Khudr the Evergreen