After being cast into the Valley of Ghouls at his deceptive mother’s command, King Sayf Ben Dhi Yazan finds himself in a “land of spacious gardens and spreading plants and meadows” full of birds and trees and rivers and fruit and fragrances (135). He sleeps in a tree over night to protect himself from the Ghouls. The next morning he sees deformed Ghouls coming to the tree, meets an old woman who is their ruler, refuses to eat the dead deer the old woman offers him, and eats lotus fruit instead. He then asks the old woman “Where have you come from, and what are these ghouls?” and, through the woman’s story, he learns about the cross-species and diseased origins of the monsters. The woman who had given birth to the Ghouls was “afflicted with an itch on her private parts,” and in order to fall asleep she sought relief from the itch by going into her private orchard to scratch herself with sticks or lift up her skirt and letting the air assuage her. It was this disease which caused her to fall asleep with her legs raised against a tree, so that when a he-wolf entered the garden he has “access” to her body, and though “she had woken while the wolf was with her” she “dared not move for fear the beast should kill her.” So the wolf’s seed combined in her womb with the smoke from a burnt stick she used to itch herself, and combined still further that night with her husband’s seed. The result: Ghouls – ugly, deformed, vaguely humanoid creatures with fangs, large ears, sharp nails, covered in hair “like the quills of a porcupine,” who want to kill and eat humans.
The pseudo-chemistry of this moment seemingly operates by unspoken laws, as if King Sayf Ben Dhi Yazan is not only learning the origins of Ghouls, but also how to make one; of course this is how monsters are made, in a diseased and afflicted vagina (too accessible, too penetrable) as a mixture of human, non-human, and other (burnt plant) organic materials. As if the wife were a petri dish where the genetic experimentation and biological concerns of the sira can be played out. This origin story of monstrous conception and birth follows on the heels of King Sayf Ben Dhi Yazan’s refusal to eat meat – Sayf Ben Dhi Yazan, the epitome of the virtuous king we are meant to admire, chooses a vegetarian diet, refusing to allow the meat of the deer to enter his body, just before he is told the story of a woman who was not so careful about regulating her orifices. Of course, Sayf Ben Dhi Yazan has his own bizarre origins, being found as an abandoned child suckling on a the teet gazelle. When King Sayf Ben Dhi Yazan is first found, the hunter who found him wondered what manner of gazelle it was “that gives birth to a human baby” (16). His first given name is “Wahsh al-Fala,” which we are told means “Beast of the Wild.” There is clearly some logic by which the human, plant, and animal worlds ought or ought not to mix. Suckling on the teet of a wild gazelle is okay, and a gazelle giving birth to a human is a wonder or a marvel, not a transgression. Using a not-burn stick or orchard trees to help relieve one’s painful genital itch is also acceptable, but being raped by wolves due to one’s disease or scratching oneself with a stick filled with smoke is sure to result in monstrous birth.
Sayf Ben Dhi Yazan is not the only one to be cast into a valley of monsters in this moment of course. His wife Shama had already been cast into the Valley of Giants, where she is almost executed for her “small stature; for he supposed she was deformed because she had offended their god,” the sheep, for whom she is gifted two chickens and bread every day for taking care of (134). Both King Sayf Ben Dhi Yazan and Shama’s experiences very clearly intersect bodily difference, disease, gender, food, political violence, and the non-human. It’s difficult to track the logic of these encounters – both are gifted with food, Shama is thought to be deformed and Sayf Ben Dhi Yazan hears the story of a diseased woman, the giants worship a sheep as their god and the ghouls credit a wolf, a burnt stick, and a disease with their creation. Parsing out the relationships in these two episodes – as I have attempted to start to do here – will I believe help piece together the logic by which the human interacts with the non-human world in the sira.