Forty Thieves and a Green-Eyed Girl
The moon is a pearl against the black skin of night. Morgiana reaches for it as she lies on her mat beneath the window. She cups her hands around it and sighs. Her little brother sighs too. The snores of the nearby women and children drone in their ears like mosquitoes, but that’s not what keeps them from sleep.
Jamal’s nose almost touches hers. “I don’t like when you wake me up with your dreams.” His worry forms a line across the smooth surface of his forehead. “If the dreams are about Mother, then why do they make you cry?”
She draws in a deep breath. If only the scent of jasmine could fill her up like a bottle of perfume, she might not feel so hollow. “It’s not the dreams that make me cry.” She closes her fingers over the moon until it disappears. “It’s the waking.” She rolls onto her side toward Jamal.
He wiggles closer. “Tell me about Mother’s name again.”
“Amani.” She rolls the word slowly over her tongue like a savory morsel. “It means wishes.”
Jamal edges himself into the curve of her body. “Tell me the twirling story,” he whispers. His skin smells of olive oil and goat’s milk.
“Close your eyes, little donkey.” She runs her hands through his black curly hair. “It was about seven years ago. I was a twig of a girl, maybe five years old. You were fat and round inside Mother’s belly; she could barely hold the lute to play a song, because you were in the way.” She tickles her brother between the ribs, making him giggle.
“But one day Amani played the Magic Twirling Song. She said if I spun around to the music, it would carry me away to Allah in Heaven, and when it stopped, His angels would fly me home. So Mother played the lute, and I twirled until all the colors of the world ran together. I spun until all the people and the creatures and the earth and the sky melted together and became one beautiful, perfect Heaven. When the music stopped, I fell to the floor, and the world kept spinning. Mother’s laughter danced around and around with the colors until everything finally slowed down, and the angels brought me back to earth.”
Jamal gazes at the ceiling, wide-eyed.
Morgiana traces his profile with her fingertip. “That’s one of the last things I remember about Mother.”
“Why did she give us away to Mistress?” Jamal’s shoulders tense. “Why did she send us away from Baghdad?”
Morgiana sighs. He’s heard it explained hundreds of times. “You know she didn’t give us away, Jamal. Mother was a woman’s slave. When the woman died, her husband sold Amani to the bath house in Baghdad and gave you and me to his sister as a wedding present.”
“Yes, he gave us to Mistress when you were just a slobbery, smelly baby. Not much of a wedding present.” She digs her fingers into his side to make him smile again, but he shrugs her hands away.
“You should learn how to play the Magic Twirling Song on your lute, Morgiana. When you play it, I’ll spin up to Allah and ask him to fly me all the way to Baghdad. I’ll find Amani and bring her here. Then you won’t be empty inside when you wake from your dreams.”
A lump swells in her throat. “I can’t play the Magic Twirling Song, Jamal.”
“I’ve forgotten the tune.” She pushes him gently away and rises from her mat. “I’m hungry. I’ll go slice a pear for us.” It hurts to think about the emptiness inside her that Jamal can see. She concentrates instead on stepping only on the patches of moonlight that slip through the openings in the carved window screens onto the floor. She makes it all the way to the cupboard without touching a single dark spot.
Finding a silver paring knife, she cuts the skin from a pear in one long coil as a thrush sings a lonesome tune outside the harem walls. The ribbon of fruit-skin drops to the table, and the birdsong ends, replaced with a new sound—a low rumble of thunder.
But that’s impossible. The monsoons won’t come for several months, and there’s no smell of rain in the air. The little hairs on her arm stand up. The sound’s not an approaching storm, but the thundering of many hoof beats like an army galloping into battle. The noise grows louder.
The pear slips from her fingers and rolls across the mosaic floor. Her heart changes its rhythm like a drum banging out a warning. Hoof beats rumble in her chest and under her feet. When the knife shakes in her trembling fingers, she clutches it so tightly her knuckles turn white. It’s as if the wind of fate is hurtling toward her like a hurricane.
The storm of hoof beats roars right up to the house.
Her heart pounds against her ribcage trying to escape.
With a sound like lightning, doors crack and rip off their hinges. An army of men on horses crash into the house with gleaming sabers.
Morgiana screams, frozen in place. Other screams pierce the air as the sleepers in the harem wake to a nightmare. Slave women grab their children. Mistress and her female relatives clutch each other, their eyes wide with terror. Jamal’s face turns white as a leper’s.
A tall thin man with a dark beard and a face as cold as the devil’s rides a black horse up the front steps and through the doorway. The stallion rears and snorts, nostrils flaring.
A chill runs down Morgiana’s spine.
Master rushes into the harem with the eunuch guards, their swords drawn, but they’re outnumbered. When the devil-man sees Master, he spurs his horse and charges.
Morgiana screams and turns away, but the thwack of the man’s saber tells her Master’s dead. The shock of it makes her feel like the blood’s draining from her own body, and she grabs the table to keep from sinking to the floor. The riders attack the guards, shouting in victory when they fall. Mistress flings herself on her husband’s body, sobbing, as the men crash through the house, grabbing Master’s silver and gold and anything of value that they can carry. The women scream and try to hide the children as the riders whisk people onto their horses.
A slave grabs Morgiana’s arm, trying to pull her under the table to safety. Jamal. She struggles free from the woman’s grasp. Her brother’s a stone statue, standing on his mat in the moonlight, miles and miles away.
She runs toward him, but it’s like she’s moving through deep water. Faster, she orders her legs. But she’s too late—one of the riders snatches Jamal and pulls the horse’s reigns around, ready to gallop away with him into the night. She rushes at the rider, and beats his legs with her fists, forgetting she still has the small knife in her hand.
An arm hooks her waist, jerking her upward. The devil-man.
Morgiana kicks and fights against his hold, but his arms are like metal bindings. She bites him hard, but he thrusts her into the saddle in front of him and locks her in a tight grip. He doesn’t even notice her teeth clamped onto his flesh. She struggles to turn and see Jamal, but the man raises his fist in the air, shouts to his men, and spurs his horse toward the door. With a jolt, they burst out of Master’s house into the night. The sound of hoof beats and wild shrieking fill the air.
At first, she can only scream. The gold rings on the man’s bare arms cut into her ribs. The hard edge of the saddle presses into her thighs as she’s thrust forward with every stride of the horse. But after a while, her throat grows raw and her body stiffens against the pain.
A tattoo of a green serpent curls around the devil-man’s arm, baring its fangs at her in the moonlight. As if in a trance, she notices the blade of the small paring knife in her hand, hidden by the folds of her qamis. She should plunge the blade into the man’s thigh and leap from the horse. At once her heart comes alive; the blood rushes to her fingertips as she tightens her grip on the knife.
But just as quickly, her heart sinks back into its stupor. By stabbing him, she might have a chance at escape, but she’d lose her chance of saving Jamal. She slowly inches the knife farther into her palm until the blade’s hidden in her fist and the handle’s concealed beneath her sleeve.
The riders finally halt at a cedar grove where a man with a drove of mules waits. Morgiana’s body has turned so numb, she can barely move. The riders dismount to rearrange their plunder to the backs of the mules and tie up the captives. She strains to catch sight of Jamal in the darkness among the blur of people and horses, but the devil-man forces her arms behind her back to bind them.
She holds her breath and clasps her hands together, hoping he won’t discover the knife hidden between them, but he winds the rope around her wrists without hesitating. He turns her around and stands in silence for a moment, his back to the moonlight. His face is in shadow, but he can see her plainly enough.
She longs for her gauzy head scarf. Even though she’s a slave, she sometimes lets it fall over her face like a wealthy woman’s veil so people can’t see her eyes. Despite her dark hair and olive skin, she has light green eyes like a Western infidel—undesirable. Ugly. Weak.
The devil-man touches her cheek. His nails are long like a cat’s claws. He runs his fingers down the side of her face and lifts her chin. It reminds her of the way Mistress’ cat plays with the mice it catches before killing them. A shiver curls down her spine, but she stands tall and straight, facing him in silence. The tattooed serpent’s body winds all the way up his arm and coils over his chest. Instead of a tail, the serpent has another head, even fiercer than the first, with fire erupting from its mouth. As the man’s chest rises and falls with his breath, the serpent undulates back and forth, preparing to strike her.
A blinding white heat races through her body and fills her mouth; it tastes like fear. But this devil of a man won’t see it on her face. She gathers her courage and spits at his feet.
His features are half hidden in darkness. Did he smile to himself? He calls to the man in charge of the mules, who lifts her onto one of the animals. The man takes the loose end of the rope fastened around the mule’s neck and ties it around her neck so she can’t run away. The slack’s not enough for her to twist around to look for her brother among the captives. She tries, but the rope digs into her skin. Tears sting her eyes but she can’t wipe them away
After all the plunder’s secured, the man in charge of the mules mounts his horse and drives them behind the band of riders. Morgiana’s mule lurches forward, the rope yanking her with it. Her head slams against the mule’s neck. If she doesn’t hold still, the rope will choke her, so she rests her face alongside the bristly mane and allows her body to go limp. The cold desert air seeps all the life from her bones. Before long, she drifts in and out of sleep.
Morgiana awakes some time later to the sounds of the men calling to each other. When she tries lifting her head, a bolt of pain shoots down her neck to her shoulders. She holds still and glances around. The full moon’s vanished, but the sky’s getting lighter in the East. Though it’s still dark, she sees the riders more clearly, now. They point to an oasis of palm trees up ahead as they talk. The men are all bare-chested and tattooed. Gold and silver earrings, necklaces, and arm rings glitter against their skin. Their turbans shine a brilliant white. Jamal must be with the other captives on the mules behind her, just out of her sight.
They’re traveling north toward Basra, a seaport trading town she’s been to once with Master and Mistress several years earlier. It’s probably only a couple more miles away. The men will surely sell the captives when they get there. Her breath catches in her throat. Jamal might be taken from her and sent far away where she’ll never find him.
The riders direct their horses toward the palm trees and soon dismount and stretch. She aches to do the same. Dried blood cakes the mule’s mane where the rope scratched her neck. Her throat’s parched and swollen. She calls out for water at the gurgling sound of a nearby stream, but the rag in her mouth turns the noise into a groan.
Rough hands cut the rope from her neck and pull her to an upright position. She cries out at the pain of moving her numbed muscles. Despite the ache, she twists in her seat, scanning the captives.
Jamal. He sits on a mule near a palm tree not ten feet away as another man cuts the rope from his neck. Her brother’s already been watching her, his eyes round as platters, his face tight and pale. The man flings the rag from Jamal’s mouth and sets him roughly on the ground near the stream. But instead of drinking, he calls out to her. His voice sounds cracked and small, like a broken hand-bell.
She nods to him and tries to smile around the rag in her mouth. The hands pull the cloth away and lift her from the mule.
“Jamal! It’s alright—we’ll be alright.” Her voice sounds like a croaking frog, but her brother looks as if he hears an angel singing.
When she reaches the ground, her legs buckle underneath and she falls on her stomach, knocking the wind from her lungs. Lying there for a moment, she tries catching her breath until the taste of dirt makes her cough. With hands still tied behind her back, she wriggles to the edge of the stream and laps up the water like a dog alongside the other captives. She recognizes them all—most of them slave children like Jamal and herself, along with some of Mistress’ nieces and nephews. Their faces are ashen, everyone wearing the same stricken expression of a person waking from a nightmare—unsure of what’s real and what’s not.
Jamal still watches her from the stream, his face now streaked with mud. She sits up and tries to stand, but her knees are too shaky. Lifting herself off the ground with her hands, which are still behind her back, she pushes her lower body forward along the ground. By resting every once in a while, she finally inches her way over to Jamal.
He falls across her lap and curls himself up into a ball around her knees. “Morgiana, they made Master’s blood spill out on the floor,” he whispers. His thin body turns taut like a bow string. She wishes she could place her finger over his trembling lips, rest her hand on his head, and smooth his wild hair, his wild thoughts.
“I know. But they won’t do that to us, Jamal. We’ll be all right.”
“How do you know?” His voice is the squeak of a mouse.
“We’re valuable to them like the gold and silver around their necks. They wear them proud as peacocks, see? We’re treasure, Jamal.” She gives a little laugh. “A dirty runt like you—not much of a treasure if you ask me, but this pig-headed captain of the thieves won’t listen to me. He seems to think you’re quite a prize.” She glances at the devil-man who stands with his arms crossed over his chest, surveying the plunder.
Jamal’s lips tighten into a small grin. “Will they take us to a palace?”
She pretends to carefully consider his question as she strains her ears to listen to the captain. It sounds like he’s ordering his men to plunge the captives in the stream to scrub them and have them dressed in clean clothes for the next morning. The looming slave market makes her stomach churn, but she tilts her head and looks thoughtful for Jamal. “Well, I’m not sure. They certainly seem to like gold and silver. They may decide they want to trade some treasure.”
“Well, a boy like you might get them some valuable jewelry in trade at the Basra market. I bet that thought has crossed their greedy little minds. Look how they show off their pretty arm rings, strutting around like monkeys.” She wets her lips. “But the thing about being traded is . . . well, we want to be traded together, don’t we.”
Jamal sits up. “They might trade me without you?” His mouth falls open.
She shrugs her shoulders, trying to appear unconcerned. “They don’t look very smart. You and I go together. Like a pair of earrings. We’re too valuable as a pair to be separated, but they might be too stupid to think of keeping us together how we belong. Fortunately, I’ve already thought of that.”
As Morgiana speaks, she edges up to the palm tree. Opening her fist, she lets the knife slip to the ground near the trunk behind her back and covers it quickly with sand as best she can. “I won’t let them separate us.” She lowers her voice as one of the men approaches to make them start washing up. “Don’t worry, Jamal. I have a plan.”
The water feels cool on her feet. The man scrubs her skin with sand and a horse brush, bringing tears to her eyes, but afterwards, it feels like Paradise when he pours a bucket of water over her head to rinse off.
Some of the men stand posted around the grove to watch for any approaching parties, but most of the others have fallen asleep leaning against a palm tree or lying in the sand. She counts forty men in all, including the captain.
After Morgiana and Jamal dress in clean clothes and she puts on the red head scarf she’s been given, the man ties their wrists behind their backs again and tells them to return to the tree and sleep.
Now’s the time to dig up her knife and keep it hidden in her sleeve so she’ll be ready to cut their ropes and escape with Jamal. She tries not to think of the men keeping watch. But they’ll be on the look-out for intruders, not escaping children. Besides, the men won’t harm the captives—it would decrease their value at the slave market. At least she hopes they won’t.
She heads back to the tree, but stops mid-stride. Her heart almost stops as well. The devil-man’s walking toward the very tree where she buried the knife. She glances at the spot and almost chokes on the breath that catches in her throat. The silver tip of the knife blade’s sticking up through the sand. Sunlight glints off it like a sparkling diamond.
Morgiana bites her lip and walks quickly toward the tree with Jamal as she watches the devil-man. He doesn’t seem to notice them, so she pulls Jamal down with her on the ground to wait, several feet away.
The captain unwinds part of his turban cloth and dabs the sweat on his forehead. He looks as if he might sit down to rest, too, but then he stops. His body straightens. He’s seen it.
She holds her breath.
He bends down and plucks the knife from its pitiful hiding spot. After turning it over in his hands several times, he slips it into the sash at his waist and sits down with his legs crossed. He places the end of his turban cloth over his eyes and leans back against the tree to sleep.
Morgiana sighs and lets her head fall to the ground. No knife, no escape. She, too, closes her eyes so Jamal won’t see the tears rising in them. She lies in silence for a long time until she feels a tickling in her ear as Jamal whispers, “Morgiana, what’s your plan?” His eyes are bright. When his face is clean and his hair shines, he looks like a little prince. He’ll certainly be one of the first children sold at the slave market in the morning.
The devil-man snores quietly.
Staring at the tip of the silver knife handle poking out of his sash, she whispers back, “It’s a very tricky plan, Jamal. I need lots of help. Lots of wishes.”
“I can wish for you.”
“Then lie here as still as you can. Now close your eyes and think of Mother. I need you to say her name over and over—
“Amani, Amani, Aman—”
“Shh. Say it in your head.”
His lips move as he thinks the name.
“And wish with all your might for my plan to work until I come back.”
Jamal’s eyes pop open. “Where are you going?”
“Shh. Just concentrate on your wishes, Jamal. I’ll be back in a moment.” She glances around. The guards at their posts have their faces turned away from them, and all the men nearby are sleeping. The other children huddle in small groups like sheep.
She lifts her chin. Being a sheep means letting these men lead her and Jamal off to market where who knows what will become of them. Never. As quietly as possible, Morgiana pushes herself to her knees and moves closer to the devil-man. She stops and looks around. No one’s watching her. She rises and moves even closer, until she’s side by side, almost touching him.
The green serpent glares at her, daring her to come any closer. The man’s loose headcloth covers his eyes and nose, and his beard hides most of his mouth, but even the fierce set of his jaw makes her tremble. The knife handle’s in easy reach, but with her hands tied behind her back, she’ll have to twist around and slip it from his sash without seeing what she’s doing.
Amani, Amani, Amani, she chants inside her head as if the thought of her mother might somehow give her the power to free herself and Jamal. She glances around one last time, licks her lips, and stretches her fingers out for the knife. His silken sash brushes against her skin, and she freezes. But her touch wasn’t heavy enough to disturb the devil-man. She tries again. The shock of the cool silver handle assures her fingers, and she slides them around the hilt.
Again she pauses. The man’s snores continue—no one’s noticed her. She pulls on the knife. It slides partly out of the sash, but in order for her to draw it completely free, she’ll have to move forward on her knees, away from him a little as she tugs. Her hands are sweaty now. If she fumbles, he might wake thinking she’s attacking him and he’ll defend himself. The memory of how he killed Master with his saber comes to mind. She swallows with difficulty and steadies her grip.
Amani, Amani, Amani.
She moves forward as she pulls. The knife slips free of the sash. As the weight of it lifts from his waist, the devil-man stops snoring.
Morgiana forgets how to breathe.
“Captain!” Shouts erupt from the guards. They’ve seen her.
Her heart races. She drops the knife behind her and crumples to the ground, bracing herself for the strike of the man’s blade on the back of her neck.
“Captain, they’re coming!”
The devil-man leaps to his feet, his saber already drawn.
“Arise!” He shouts to the rest of his men. “Mount!” They spring into action the moment the words leave his mouth. He points his weapon.
Shaking, Morgiana lifts her eyes and follows the tip of the saber. She stares past the palm trees to the desert at what looks like a dust storm coming from the direction they traveled the night before.
The men thunder by her on their horses. The devil-man, too, jumps on his stallion and races away, toward the dust cloud.
“Morgiana, how did you do that?” Jamal’s eyebrows slide to the top of his forehead. “That was strong magic. It made them all go away!”
The dust cloud must be men gathered by Master’s and Mistress’ relatives to catch the thieves. Perhaps they’ll defeat the robbers and rescue the captives. But perhaps they won’t. This moment might be their only hope of escape—the chance they’ve been wishing for.
“They may come back, Jamal. We have to hurry.” Morgiana fumbles on the ground behind her till she finds the knife. “Turn around; I’ll cut your ropes, then you cut mine.” She must rock her whole body back and forth to move the blade across Jamal’s ropes like a hand saw. As she works, the sounds of shouting and the clash of weapons rise in the distance.
All the huddled children wear a new look on their faces: hope. Is she doing the right thing? She and Jamal might find themselves sleeping safely on their mats the next evening if they just stay here with them and see what happens.
But the wind of fate seems to whisper in her ear, Amani, Amani, Amani, and tug alongside her fingers until the blade severs the final thread of Jamal’s rope. When he finishes cutting through hers, she takes the knife and ties it around her thigh. “We’re free, Jamal.” The words sound strange and beautiful, like music sung in a foreign tongue. “We’re free.” She squeezes her brother’s hand and points north toward Basra. “Let’s go!”
I first heard the exciting story of “Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves” as a child, listening to a collection of audio recordings from the Arabian Nights. It was my favorite of the tales, and daring young Morgiana never ceased to intrigue me. Around that very time, my father took my brother and me to see the film Gandhi, staring Ben Kingsley, which had a lasting impression on me. Afterwards, the kind, unassuming voice of Ali Baba was forever paired in my mind with Kingsley’s image of soft-spoken Gandhi, and most likely influenced my idea of making Ali Baba a peaceful humanitarian, who gave away his treasure instead of keeping it for himself.
The Arabian Nights or Thousand and One Nights is part of both Arabic and European literature and is a jumble of narratives—epics, fairy tales, fables, comedies, political works, etc.—some of which have roots in Sanskrit, Persian and Greek literature. The tales are framed around a central story of a young woman named Shahrazad, who volunteers to marry a king known for murdering a new wife every night. Each evening Shahrazad tells him tales that stop on such cliff-hangers that he keeps her alive in order to hear the endings. In this way, the thousand and one stories save her life and the lives of countless other women.
An important and recurring theme throughout the Nights tales is the idea of predestination and the relationship between freewill and fate (“That which is written on the forehead”.) Much of this is due to the Muslim world-view of the storytellers. Many protagonists of the Nights’ tales set out to beat fate but find that their evasive actions actually become the very vehicle fate uses to bring about their destiny. I loved this element in the Nights and wanted to highlight the irony of free will’s tie to fate in Forty Thieves and a Green-Eyed Girl. Morgiana sees fate as a wind blowing toward a certain destination, but Captain Khoja’s notion of fate is connected to the troubling voices he hears whispering on the breeze. Both Morgiana and Khoja exercise free will by acting upon their wishes, or desires, thereby working with fate to bring about their destinies.
Morgiana’s story takes place in the early 10th Century AD, a time when medieval Baghdad was home to a vast counter-culture of street folk like those who appear in our story. Beggars, pickpockets, treasure hunters, musicians, comedians, mimics, snake charmers, sorcerers, swindlers, drug-addicts and story-tellers crowded the busy markets, all desperately surviving by means of their wits and wiles.
Around this period, territorial bands of ruffians and vagabonds called ayyarun plagued the streets. These armed gangs collected money from area merchants in exchange for protection from rival gangs. Their leaders really did ride on each others’ backs and used helmets, shields and harnesses woven from plaited palm leaves.
Tucked inside this rough and tumble setting lies another historical reality of Morgiana’s world; in the medieval Middle East, women moved in a sphere completely separate from men. The harem is the best illustration of the sharp divide between the genders. All wives in a household lived in a separated section of the home with their young children and extended female relations, servants and slaves, forming a close, sometimes complex community. Marriage was not usually seen as a romantic union between a man and a woman but a matter of property transfer from the father to the groom, who acquired the woman to begin his own familial line.
Though women were generally discouraged from stepping outside these bounds, there existed subcultures within the broad, rich culture of the medieval Middle East that offered alternative perspectives on women’s roles. During the time of our story, there was a growing movement of Muslim mystics called Sufis who sought to experience the spiritual reality behind their religious texts and rituals. Like Ali Baba’s family, they emphasized the unity in nature and devoted their lives to meditation and devotion to God and to living a life free from worldly gain. Sufis advised respect and honor for the feminine and integrated women in their ceremonies, valuing them as active participants. Eighth century Sufi, Rabi’a al-‘Adawiyya of Basra, is one example of the many celebrated women in the history of the movement. As a child, Rabi’a was sold into slavery and freed herself from a cruel master through her faith in Allah. Later in life, she chose not to marry in order to devote herself to God. Rabi’a is remembered as one of the greatest Sufis in Islam.
Another intriguing sub-culture involved the Safavid women from Iran. Their “soul sister” vows were common in the 16th century, and I wanted to include this fascinating ritualistic union among two female best friends in my 10th Century story. These unions were considered vital and were recognized and fostered by the entire community.
Ali Baba’s wife, Leila, mentions several actual ways in which these kindred spirits communicated their most intimate moods and feelings using kitchen supplies as secret gifts with coded meanings, though I have altered their meanings slightly for the sake of the story I wanted to tell. The vow of sisterhood entailed a fierce loyalty and was often displayed by dressing alike, moving in the same social circles, not talking about each other behind one another’s backs, and even inheriting property. The engagement involved a sort of match-maker, a reputable woman, who arranged the union just as Leila describes it in the story. The couple then visited a shrine on a religious holiday to make their union public. One woman would declare, “In the name of Ali, the Shah-conqueror of Khaybar,” and the other would reply, “Oh God, accept and fulfill our desire.” Afterwards, there was celebrating with dancing and drinking of sherbert.
While these historical pictures of medieval Middle Eastern women are refreshing and complex, female characters in the Nights tales were generally confined to two strict categories: dangerous women—adulteresses, witches and prostitutes, or safe women—devout sensible creatures who were merely decorative to the plot. Morgiana, the slave girl in the tale “Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves” was one of the few females in the Nights who seemed to possess both the bold, passionate characteristics of the former and the loyalty and integrity of the latter.
As a dancer, the Morgiana character possessed an energy and vivaciousness. She certainly embodied boldness, taking over Ali Baba’s mess, patching up his brother’s mishap, diverting the robbers, then killing them when they showed up later, and finally saving Ali Baba and his son from the captain. No one could deny Morgiana’s fierce loyalty. But what were her motivations? Why was she so passionate and brave? What could possibly provoke a slave to risk her life more than once for the sake of a new master?
Since the traditional tale never gives us the answers to these questions and relegates Morgiana, the natural choice for leading role, to the background, I thought it time to pull this fascinating young woman into the limelight and let her shine.
The opening of the story manages to show a lot without the reader feeling overburdened. I quickly cared about the main character because of the way she interacted with her brother on page one. And because I cared about her, my heart pounded for her when she was in peril. That’s important when trouble comes so early in a story. Some writers expect readers to care just because the main character is in trouble, but you have to care about them first. This writer accomplishes that.
—Kimberly Wills Holt, 2011 Katherine Paterson Prize Judge