The Tale of Princess Fatima, Warrior Woman, The Arabic Epic of Dhat Al-Himma (edited and translated by Melanie Magidow, 2022) BOOK REVIEW
“When Mazlum told her of her uncle’s suggestion, Fatima laughed outright. Then her eyes flashed and she spoke softly. ‘I swear, even if the most powerful king in the world made this proposal, my sword would be closer to his head than his own speech. I don’t need a husband! I was made for fighting, not bedding. No one lies at my side but my sword. My attention is reserved for my horse. If you ever bring up this subject again, then I will go live in the desert.’”
The Tale of Princess Fatima, Warrior Woman is an ancient work of Arabic literature, and the only Arabic epic named for a woman. Thought to have been composed between 1100 and 1143 in Northern Syria and spread via oral retellings, the epic is set around the seventh through ninth centuries and tells of Princess Fatima of the Bani Kilab, a formidable warrior who leads her tribe in the Arab-Byzantine Wars. Penguin Classics brings the most extensive translation into English of the original epic, translated, edited and selected by translator and scholar Melanie Magidow, covering eleven episodes of the original’s 455, so that the story can be enjoyed by an anglophone audience. Magidow’s excellently curated and translated work comes complete with an extensive introduction and notes to contextualise the epic. The Tale of Princess Fatima is a delightful, action-packed adventure that both entertains and provides insight into the time and culture that birthed it.
The epic starts by introducing Fatima’s ancestry, going back to her great-great-grandfather Al-Harith through to her father Mazlum, demonstrating that she comes form a long line of heroes. At her birth, Fatima was secretly given away because she wasn’t male, she is captured by a rival tribe, the Bani Tayy, who are immediately struck by her dignity and bravery, allowing her to learn the arts of war. Soon she starts leading the Bani Tayy in battle as a feared warrior, capturing Mazlum. The revelation of her identity leads her to reconcile with her father and return to the Bani Kilab tribe, where she becomes a renowned warrior nicknamed Dhat al-Himma, or “She of Noble Ambition”. Princess Fatima becomes the most powerful, feared and respected warrior in the land, leading armies of over seventy thousand men against rival tribes and against the Christian invaders from Byzantium. She regularly outwits her devious uncle Zalim and his despicable son Walid, who becomes infatuated with her and impregnates her against her will. Her son ‘Adbelwahhab also becomes a great warrior and fights alongside her. Fatima and her friends have many adventures, encountering magical jinni and waging epic battles, and finally Fatima must face another warrior woman, Nura, who is almost her equal in looks, strategic brilliance and strength, on the battlefield to win back her friends and son.
The Tale of Princess Fatima is a fascinating glimpse into Arabic culture during the 1100s, showing as it does the conflict between the Muslim Arabic tribes and the Christian Byzantine Empire, and portraying the precarious existence of the people who lived in the large, nebulous border between these powers. The story takes us on a journey, featuring betrayals, reversals of fortune and narrative twists aplenty to keep the reader engaged. With its mix of different styles of narration, encompassing exciting action scenes and bloody battles but also poetry and romance, it displays the versatility of the epic as a form and the storytelling skill of those who performed them.
It is also remarkable for its depiction of Princess Fatima, a female character with agency who embodies the stereotypically masculine qualities of strength and tactical brilliance and prowess on the battlefield. Princess Fatima frequently has to fight against the patriarchal society around her, but she is never diminished or defeated by it. After Walid drugs and impregnates her, then disowns their son because he is black, he and Zalim spend much time trying to ruin Fatima’s reputation. However Fatima’s bravery, eloquence and force of personality ensure that she always comes out on top. Similarly, Nura is a brilliant general and an incredible fighter, and though she uses her beauty to ensnare her enemies when it suits her, she is never reduced to her sexuality.
The Tale of Princess Fatima, Warrior Woman is a fun and exciting read. Magidow has done an excellent job in presenting the text for a modern audience, and her translation effortlessly encompasses the epic’s poetry and its storytelling panache. The epic is brimming with as much sense of wonder as The Odyssey, as much storytelling inventiveness as The Arabian Nights and as much exploration of battle and conflict as The Iliad. Princess Fatima in particular is a brilliant and endearing character, and her epic deserves to take its place in the pantheon of ancient classics. Penguin Classics are to be applauded for making it available in this approachable form to anglophone audiences.