The Women Bury Qays Forever, as Told by My Grandmother
“In the course of conducting interviews on the urban history of Jeddah, a port city in the Hijaz region of present-day Saudi Arabia, I came across the story of al-Qays …”
— “Playing with Gender: The Carnival of al-Qays in Jeddah” by Ulrike Freitag
The tradition may have started this way, or it may not have: long ago, when dawn broke in Jiddah on the first of Dhu’l-Hijjah, no call to prayer rang out from the minarets.
Nearly all the men, even the muezzins, had set off for the holy city of Makkah in the cool of the night to lead and serve and sell to the pilgrims. A few had worn the ihram, intending pilgrimage themselves and hoping to return as clean of sin as the day their mothers had birthed them.
At the moment when the azan would have woken her on any other morning, Layla, whose voice was like honey, rose from the mat she shared with the two youngest of her seven children. Longing for the call that wasn’t there, she wrapped a sarong around her waist and a white cloth around her head in the style of a man’s turban, made her way to her quarter’s mosque, and climbed the seventy-seven stairs to the top of the minaret.
The men would be gone through the end of Hajj. They had taken with them their petty moments of anger and their love and their sweat and their sandalwood scent and their money in leather pouches and their lies and their truths and their copies of the Quran and all the surahs they’d memorized. They had taken rose-scented tobacco to smoke or sell to pilgrims, blocks of sticky dates grown inland in the valleys, and bolts of silk and cotton, some bought from pilgrims the year before and, if God blessed them, resold this year to pilgrims from other lands. They had taken with them their voices.
“God is great,” Layla said, just to hear a voice in the quiet left behind. The other quarters’ minarets were also vacant, mutely piercing the sky like thick embroidery needles. On the Red Sea to the west, she saw the fishermen’s anchored dhows floating empty and sail-less.
But the city was not abandoned. The tight-packed buildings and meandering streets merely slept. The men had left behind coral houses full of women and children, and elderly doormen with whom they entrusted the safety of their families, and rooftops cooled every night by the dark evening breezes. They had left the green-blue of the sea, and the smell of bread dough rising, and the softness of their children’s skin, and the wooden combs they ran through their wives’ hair on nights of passion.
“God is great,” Layla said louder. The words sounded to her as lovely as any muezzin’s refrain. And then she was ready to replace what was missing: as loud as a muezzin, she called the sleeping women to prayer. Five times that day she called them and five times they came.
The next day when Layla scaled the minaret, she was not alone. Women in their husbands’ clothes called from all four of the walled city’s minarets, their voices intertwining in the air like vines —
Between prayers, the women of Jiddah lived life as usual. They chopped and kneaded and stirred and stewed food for their households. They swept dust from their tiled floors with palm fronds. In the afternoon, they slept with the children in cool, shuttered rooms while heat lurked outside their windows.
When the sun set on the eighth of Dhu’l-Hijjah, the day the pilgrimage rituals began in Makkah, the women felt an urge to celebrate. Their men were blessed to live so close to God’s holy city, to be able to help the pilgrims grow closer to their Lord.
In each quarter, women brought out drums, tambourines, copper kettles. They carried them, like pots of stew or loaves of bread, into the shared courtyards. They banged the drums and tambourines with the heels of their palms and struck them with the pads of their fingers. They pinged the kettles with carved wooden sticks. They marched from the courtyards to the streets. Layla, who had earlier that day called the women of her quarter to prayer, initiated the dance. Removing her turban, she leaned forward and flipped her hair from side to side. It fell like dark, infrequent rain. The women clapped to the rhythm of her movement. They made up a song and called her “Governor,” and the water carrier’s daughter trilled for a full minute, a sound some say carried all the way to Makkah.
The women had broken open the door to a locked room they had been forbidden from entering all their lives. The men were gone. The women wanted to dance and sing.
And so they did, for five straight nights.
A year later, the women marched again — and convinced Layla to dress in the governor’s robes. The governor’s wife herself pressed and starched his mishlah, head cloth, and kufiyyah, and presented them to Layla. The clothes warmed her arms and smelled of the charcoal-heated iron. The musicians were practicing outside, and a young unmarried woman was singing a love song. “My eyes, my night,” she sang, as though her heart was breaking. The husband of Layla’s sister, Aaminah, was the guardian of their quarter. He’d gone with the rest of the men. Aaminah borrowed his robes, his turban, his knife — even his shoes, her feet just the right size, it turned out. The women teased her: “Feet as big as your lover’s.”
“My husband’s,” she said. She was not one to let anyone get away with teasing her.
The sisters walked together into the street, the governor’s wife behind them dressed as a beggar. A girl who married just a month before wore her wedding dress, gold coins spilling across her face and down her bosom. Her cousin — her best friend — drew a moustache on her own upper lip with kohl and slipped into the groom’s gilded headdress and gold-embroidered mishlah. The drums dum-da-da-dummed alongside them like a real wedding party, and crowds of women lapped against them like waves. The women pressed coins into the hands of the beggar and kissed the bride on both cheeks. They asked the groom for proof of his bride’s virginity and pinched his arms. For the festival’s five nights, women danced from quarter to quarter until blisters adorned their toes like painful pearls.
“I’ll be happy to sit behind my own rawasheen for the rest of the year,” the governor’s wife told Layla on the last night. “I can watch the world go by from there.”
The men returned, some a little richer, others complaining that the pilgrims did not spend money as they used to. Layla dreamt every night that she was strolling through the streets with her daughters, inhaling life’s beauty. She wore a man’s clothes and made her way to the beach, a short walk from her home. The water shone like turquoise on a bride’s headdress.
No one knows if it was the next year or decade — or century — that the majnun first joined the women’s annual celebration, bearing with her a cackling chicken in a pot. The majnun wore her dead brother’s clothing backward and inside out, and she had stolen the chicken from her neighbor’s kitchen.
“Kill it!” the women shouted. “Cook it!”
Someone sang a song about Qays, also known as “Layla bint Mahdi’s majnun,” the most famous madman in history and the most famous lover, too:
Qays, what’s your quandary? Come inside and drink from our vessel.
The world has left for Hajj. Why have you stayed behind?
The women paraded through the streets night after night, lanterns hanging from their wrists like baskets filled with glowing souls — stars freed from the sky.
The women began to call the festival Qays. Unaware of the activities that went on when they left, the men looked on approvingly, even proudly, as their wives neatly folded their newly washed clothing and packed it into bundles the men would carry with them to Makkah.
If the men had known about Qays, they might have asked the doormen to report the goings on of the women. As it was, the doormen did not say a word. They had seen what happened to one of their kind. One year, a doorman had told the women to stop their foolishness, their sin. The women had beaten him with their wooden sticks and slammed him with their copper kettles. They had whipped him with their iqals. He’d come away with a swollen eye, dark as though smudged with kohl, a split lip, a bruised torso, and a limp that didn’t go away for a week. When the other men had returned that year, he’d lied, saying he’d staved off half a dozen bandits who mistakenly thought they could rob the homes of Jiddah.
“During God’s holy time — can you believe it?” he had told them, and they had touched their hearts and asked God’s forgiveness for the bandits and themselves and every flawed mortal soul.
One year, bandits really did come. They arrived on horseback, the ends of their head cloths wrapped over their noses and mouths as though they were riding through a dust storm. The sky was blue and clear. The women donned their costumes and wielded their weapons — their husbands’ swords and knives, two-handled vegetable blades, large wooden pestles. They stood atop the city gates, watching the bandits ride past the smattering of houses beyond the walls. The bandits carried great curved swords, bows and arrows, daggers.
A gazelle appeared then, just outside the city gates. A gazelle with liquid eyes and two spiral horns aimed toward the bandits’ hearts, its legs poised to rush them. A gazelle as tall as the city walls themselves, walls taller than six men.
By then, Layla had returned to God. Her granddaughter’s granddaughter’s granddaughter — a woman whose hair and eyes had whitened, whose skin had wrinkled like silk crushed in a fist — may have been the one who walked through the gates and fed the gazelle from her hand.
Had she no fear? The bandits were heartless and greedy, willing to kill a grandmother and a beautiful beast, willing, if necessary, to leave pools of blood in their wake as they hacked through doorways to collect gold and incense and silk.
And who won the battle? The women of Jiddah or the bandits of the badiyah? That year it may have been the women, another year the bandits. Every time the marauders triumphed, the men of Jiddah swore not to leave the women unprotected again. For the women, having the streets to themselves for the five nights of Qays was worth the risk. They coaxed and persuaded, they told their men the story of the gazelle who, they were certain by God’s will, would come to protect them again.
The men called it a fairytale and said, “How can you be sure you’ll be safe? This year you were not, and we’re to blame.”
But then the business of the Hajj called to the men, and they left as they always did.
As soon as they were gone, the beautiful beast appeared. The women led it to the front of their parade and graced its neck with gardenia garlands. Little girls rode on the animal’s back, brushing its horns with their fingertips.
Others say there was never a gazelle, that it was a woman with horns strapped to her head — horns she’d carved with her own hands from rosewood. She wore a pelt she’d skinned off a goat and hooves she’d made from polished granite. By the fifth day of Qays, she smelled gamey. Her eyes had liquefied. The women wondered if she could return to her female form. They wondered if they could return to theirs.
Of course, every year they did. The women “buried Qays,” as they called it, ending the festival on the fifth night, the streets left as quiet as the moment before the azan for dawn prayer. They hid away their costumes and instruments. The men came back to a city that seemed exactly as they had left it, and the women’s long wait for the next year’s Qays began.
Blame automobiles for the festival’s end. Travel from Jiddah to Makkah shrank from a day to an hour. The men were gone and back. Or blame oil, which brought new buildings and new ways of making money, new affluence. More men stayed in Jiddah at Hajj, and more women thought of the festival as novelty, not organic to the region’s culture or faith, to the city’s millennia of history. They embraced instead the history of the infant nation that had swallowed the city.
In the villages beyond, where smaller festivals had sprung up over centuries, women still knew the songs. They practiced all year and, at Hajj time, they packed their drums and kettles, their costumes, their chickens, their gazelle’s antlers, their ceremonial swords and daggers into the trunk of an Oldsmobile. One of the troupe got her brother to drive them to the homes of wealthy Jiddah women who liked a show and could afford to bend the rules to remember the past.
In a green-tiled bathroom the village women changed, transformed into governor and beggar, bride and groom, majnun, judge, gazelle, hunter. They emerged into a wallpapered salon filled with American cigarette smoke, French perfume, and Lebanese fashion. The audience of rich, urban women whistled, ululated, and clapped. They pressed paper money into the performers’ hands — all of the hands, not just the beggar’s. The village women left counting their bills.
Walls no longer protected Jiddah. Men were filling the sea along the coastline with soil, building new neighborhoods. Every villa had become its own walled city. Apartment buildings grew like anthills on land that had once been desert and now was — is — looped by expressways.
Time passed, invisible as an underground river. Eventually, the village women didn’t come back.