These are the words written long ago by Buran, daughter of Malik, a poor shopkeeper of Baghdad. She put them down so that her children, and their children, and their children, and all those who came after them would know of the remarkable events that had given rise to their illustrious line.
And wonder of wonders, she wrote all these words in her own hand, forming each beautiful Arabic letter with perfect precision and grace, for her father had taught her to read and write when she was very young, even though it was not the custom in her time for girls to learn such things. Read these words, then, and open your eyes wide in amazement at the marvels that Allah has wrought.
I’m not sure when I first read Seven Daughters and Seven Sons by Barbara Cohen and Bahija Lovejoy. I know I read it in 1996, around the same time I read Jurassic Park, Fahrenheit 451 and The Lord of the Flies, but I recently found a note that I’d read it a year earlier in 1995. I read it again in 1999 and 2001, but hadn’t read it since then, until I re-read it for this project. So I read it at least four times before the age of 20 and while I’ve carried it with me from home to home, I hadn’t read it as an adult.
It’s impossible to really know how this book has influenced me over the course of my life, but I can easily say: quite a lot. It was first published in 1982, the year I was born, though I read the 1994 Beech Tree edition (including this latest time).
A note at the end of the book says that it’s based on a folktale that “has been part of the oral tradition of Iraq since the eleventh century of the common era.” I would’ve only known Iraq from the Gulf War, which had taken place just a few years earlier, so the opportunity to read a book like this, about a girl very different from me (one who with a different religious and cultural background, who also would’ve lived in a completely different time than I lived) was huge. It probably did a lot to shape my curiosity about different cultures.
Seven Daughters and Seven Sons is the story of Buran, the fourth of seven daughters. Her father Malik is known as Abu al-Banat, the father of daughters, and this is believed to be the cause of his unluckiness in business and his family’s poverty. Malik’s brother has seven sons and is very wealthy and arrogant. After her seven cousins are sent to far-flung cities to try their hand at business, Buran convinces her father to invest his meager savings in her and to allow her to dress as a boy and try to make her fortune. She travels via caravan from Baghdad to Tyre and in just a few years, amasses an enormous fortune, which she sends home to her family so her sisters can make good marriages and her parents can prosper. In Tyre, she befriends Mahmud, the prince, still in the guise of a man. There’s a section from Mahmud’s point of view as he begins to suspect the friend he knows as Nasir is actually a woman and devises tests to prove this is the case. During the last test, Buran/Nasir flees from Tyre and on her way home to Baghdad, she meets each of her male cousins, all of whom have fallen low.
Essentially, 7 D and 7 S is an adventure story with a girl protagonist. Buran is very smart and very brave and she travels all over modern day Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Egypt, making a fortune in business. While her actions go against cultural tradition, she is pious and respectful of her family. As she grows and learns, she becomes more independent and knows her own mind, and she essentially becomes the head of household. Her father defers to her judgement in business and while at first her parents urge her to marry, her father doesn’t force her to. Her father is very crafty about starting the gossip that eventually brings Mahmud to Baghdad in his search for Buran (though he doesn’t know her true name), telling her over and over, “How could such a thing be kept secret?”
That’s one of my favorite parts actually, Buran’s independence when she returns home and her partnership, of sorts, with her father as he comes to understand her intelligence and strength of character. For such a slim novel, it really covers quite a lot of ground and does some amazing character development. However, one thing I was always disappointed by, more so on the re-read, was that Buran/Nasir’s success in business is mostly relayed in hindsight and from Mahmud’s point of view. We don’t get to see her establishing herself in Tyre and making the decisions that ultimately make her successful. It’s a flaw of the story, but one that’s easy to understand – the main points of the tale, especially for young readers, are first, Buran’s independence and courage, and later, the romance that eventually develops between Buran and Mahmud. Plus, the wheelings and dealings that made her successful in Tyre would’ve made the book a lot fatter (and maybe more along the lines of the plotting and machinations in Game of Thrones, which actually sounds pretty awesome).
7 D and 7 S definitely holds up all these years later. It was a quick, entertaining and inspiring read. Both authors wrote other books, but nothing since this one. Barbara Cohen wrote a handful of children’s and teen titles and died in 1992 (before the Internet got going properly, so there’s very little information about her online). Bahija [Fattuhi] Lovejoy wrote three other books about Iraq and Baghdad, in the 60s and 70s. I’d dearly love to know more about how they came together to write this book, but can’t find anything online.
The first thing I did when I finished this time around was try to find reference to the Iraqi folktale that the book’s based on, but to no avail. I’m not the only one whose looking, though and I’m going to keep an eye out for collections of Iraqi/Arabic folktales. Shahrazad is mentioned several times, so that makes me wonder if 7 D and 7 S might not be based on one of the tales she tells in the Thousand and One/Arabian Nights. I think this is something I’m going to have to research further.
While researching about the authors and the original folktale, I found a bunch of the reviews of the book online. It was nice to see the ones from folks who have fond memories of this book from their youth, like I do. The frustrating reviews were those that compared this book (usually unfavorably!) with Disney’s Mulan. Frustrating for so many reasons, including the fact that both the original folktale and 7 D and 7 S predate Mulan and also because I think it’s interesting when myths, folktales and fables from different cultures resonate with each other (surely Disney’s Mulan is based on a folktale – so many of the movies are). The other really annoying reviews were from folks who said that the book was inappropriate for young readers because of a) the nudity (Buran looks at her own naked body after having been disguised as a man for a while) and b) a few references to Mahmud’s consorting with his father’s slave girls (hate to say it, but probably appropriate to the era of the story) and c) the descriptions of how Buran/Nasir and Mahmud feel about each other (completely relevant and not at all gratuitous). We’ve got bigger problems in our society if female nudity (in privacy) and mild sexual feelings are considered problematic reading material. You can probably tell by now that I get really peeved about what’s considered appropriate for young readers by parents and educators. Too often, the “appropriate” books are the ones that are whitewashed and sanitized and don’t speak any truth at all to young readers. My reading was never censored by my parents when I was growing up and I ignored any other adults who tried to censor what I read – I feel like this, more than any other single aspect of my youth, has made me the intelligent, respectful, curious person that I am today.
Books like Seven Daughters and Seven Sons made me more socially aware and curious, inspired and entertained me. And they still do, well into my adulthood.