Once upon a time in Persia there lived a handsome young man called Sasha, who was the Ruler and greatly loved by all. Sasha had only one enemy, Kashenor, a cruel wicked wizard whose desire was to put his own son Mizrah on Sasha’s throne.
Sasha loved to collect ancient precious objects, and he always granted an audience to any passing merchants. One day, Kashenor, disguised as a merchant, was taken by Mansor, the Chief Minister, before Sasha. The Ruler bought everything the merchant offered him, but he also asked what was inside a small drawer in an antique box.
“I really don’t know myself,” replied Kashenor, pulling out of the drawer an old roll of paper written in a long-forgotten language, together with a tobacco jar full of black powder.
“I’ll give it to you as a present,” he told the Ruler. Sasha wanted to know what the writing meant, so he gave the paper to his wise men, and a few days later, they told him what it said: “The man that reads these words will acquire the power to turn himself into an animal, any animal he likes, and to know its language. All he must do is to sniff the black powder and say the word MUTABOR. To turn back to a man again, he must bow three times to the east and repeat the word!”
But the roll of paper also contained a warning. It told the reader he must never laugh when in his animal shape, for he would then forget the magic word forever.
“Did you hear that, Mansor!” exclaimed the Ruler. “We can turn into animals! Shall we do it?” “Sire, I’ll do whatever you want me to,” replied the Chief Minister with a low bow. “Good! Then we’ll try it tomorrow.” At dawn next day, the Ruler and his Minister left the palace, and when they were well out of sight, Sasha took the tobacco jar from his pocket.
“What animal shall we choose?” he asked the Minister. Now Mansor had no idea, till he noticed a stork glide past. “Storks!” he cried. “Let’s become storks!”
Sasha sniffed the powder and together the two said the word MUTABOR. Suddenly, their legs shriveled into long thin limbs and their clothes became snowy white feathers, covering their whole bodies. All trace of the Ruler and his Chief Minister simply vanished. The two storks gaped at each other in astonishment. They flapped their wings and discovered they knew how to fly. At first, they were awkward, but soon became quite good at it. “Doesn’t the ground look different from the air? Let us go and find other storks, suggested Sasha cheerfully, so they headed towards a river estuary. What a lot of bird things they learned on the way. Sasha and Mansor found it so silly to see a stork prancing stiffly around in his funny dance that they forgot all about the warning and began to laugh. They were later to regret bitterly that laughter.
Full of their new knowledge, the two storks decided, as the afternoon wore on, to return to the palace. Slowly and majestically they flew over the city. Something had happened in their absence, for they could see that the streets were thronged with spectators and a long procession was entering the portals of the palace. Sasha was furious to see a stranger sitting in his golden carriage, escorted by his own servants and guards. Wicked Kashenor’s trick had worked, for the wizard’s son was on his way to seize the Ruler’s throne. “Hurry!” urged Sasha. “We must dash back to the palace. Who is that impostor?” “It is the son of Kashenor, that wizard you once banned from the palace,” replied Mansor in horror. “He swore he’d get even. Remember?” But even as he spoke, the Chief Minister shook with fear, for what he himself could not remember was the magic word. The two storks landed on the ground, ready to become humans again, but Sasha could only stammer… “I don’t remember…I don’t remember…” They looked at each other sadly: “We will never be human beings again!”
Followed by the Ruler, the Chief Minister rose into the air. “We will go to Mecca and pray on the Prophet’s tomb. Perhaps he will help us remember the magic word.” But Mecca was a long way away and the sun was setting. Tired and hungry, the two storks landed amongst the ruins of an old temple. As they looked around them, seeking food and water, a sudden long-drawn out screech made them jump in fright. Who on earth was living in such a lonely place? Sasha plucked up courage. “Let’s go and find out!” he said, and off they went through the crumbled buildings. From a dark corner a pair of big yellow eyes glowed and the mournful cry of some strange creature echoed louder than before. It was a huge owl. “Thank goodness,” it said, “I’ve been waiting for years. The spell is sure now to be broke.” Sasha and Mansor stared at each other in amazement on hearing the owl talk. “Who are you?” they asked it. “I am Naja, the King of India’s daughter. Many years ago, an evil wizard called Kashenor wanted me to marry his son Mizrah, so that he could seize my father’s kingdom. One day, disguised as a slave, Kashenor gave me a cool drink in the garden. That turned me into an owl. Kashenor said I would remain a horrible bird till the day someone came, wanting to marry me. That’s why I have been sentenced to making my home in these ruins.”
“So you are one of Kashenor’s victims too!” exclaimed the Ruler, and he went on to tell the owl his own story. “What shall we do now?” they asked themselves. “There is hope yet,” replied the owl. “For now and again, Kashenor meets the other wizards in one of the ruined halls. While they are banqueting, they boast of what they have done. If Kashenor should brag of what he did to you, then he might repeat the magic word you’ve forgotten!” “Goodness, yes!” agreed the storks. “Let’s go to the hall.” But the owl sat where she was.
“Before we go,” she said, “one of you must promise to marry me. Otherwise I will remain a bird forever!” “Very well! I promise I will marry you, but only if I manage to hear the magic word and break the spell,” said the Ruler. So the owl led the storks along a narrow passage beneath the temple, to a hall. “This is their meeting place. We can spy on them from this hole.” The three birds took turns at keeping watch. Then one evening, the murmur of voices announced the arrival of the wizards. As they ate and toasted each other’s health, Kashenor rose to his feet.
“Guess how I succeeded in placing my son on the Ruler’s throne?” he said, and when the wicked wizard said the word MUTABOR, the two storks thrilled with delight. “Mutabor! Mutabor!” they repeated. “That’s the magic word!” Outside in the open air, the storks bowed three times to the east and said the magic word. Instantly they became men again, and the owl magically turned into a beautiful young lady. The three hugged each other with joy. “I will keep my promise,” he assured her, “and when I am on my throne, I shall marry you.” The Ruler’s next task was to depose Mizrah. Stealing the wizards’ camels, they rode all night, and dawn found them at the city gates. “The Ruler is alive!” cried the first people to see them. As they rode through the streets, the citizens pressed round, cheering wildly.
“Sasha has come back! Mizrah has lied to us!” The wizard’s nasty plan had failed. With a handful of followers, Mizrah had succeeded in seizing the throne, certain that Sasha would never be seen again. But when he heard the news, the wizard’s son tried to escape. However, he was captured and thrown into prison. Kashenor too was put in chains, and the citizens themselves pronounced the sentence, when they learned what he and his son had done. “Death! Put them to death!” shouted the Ruler’s subjects. And so the wizard was executed. Mizrah, instead, was forced to sniff the black powder that had caused all the trouble and speak the magic word MUTABOR. He instantly turned into a stork and was sent to live in a cage at the top of the highest turret. And in the end, this whole affair brought much happiness to the palace, for Naja turned out to be the perfect wife of Sasha’s dreams.
Arabian Fairy Tales, retold by Amina Shah, with wood-engravings by George Buday. London: Muller, 1969.