In this issue we answer the call to imagination and respond to the magic of its worlds. To do this, we relied on a book published more than 66 years ago about imaginary beings, which takes the reader on a journey through a zoo of legendary animals, including creatures like the sphinx, the centaur and the phoenix. The writers of this book, Jorge Luis Borges and Margarita Guerrero, conducted in-depth research on classical and oriental literature, but they do allude to the fact that their book doesn’t cover all mythical creatures ever conceived. In the preface to the second English language edition of the book, published in 1967, Borges and Guerrero write: “A book of this kind is unavoidably incomplete; each new edition forms the basis of future editions, which themselves may grow on endlessly.”
This week, instead of merely recommending Borges and Guerrero’s Book of Imaginary Beings, we reimagine a few of the animals mentioned there, like the dragon and the buraq, and retell some of the stories weaved around them. We also add a mythical creature of our own environment: the salaawa.
Think of it as a time-out from daily life — from the rigid rules of logic and reason. Let’s suspend disbelief for a moment and go on a tour of the imagination; perhaps we can better understand ourselves and our reality when we allow space for the beauty of the mysterious and the fantastical to come through.
We begin with what is probably the most familiar mythical creature, which we’ve come to know through various legends and stories.
Supposedly, dragons were meant to be immortal and have the ability to cause rain and storms, and to even eat the sun (when referring to an eclipse). In several Asian cultures, they were also the creatures said to carry the emperor to the heavens when he dies. The Arabs believed that the dragon had the head of a horse or camel and that he flew with two giant wings while his tail resembled that of a snake’s. According to the judge and writer Zakariya al-Qazwini (1283–1203) who has written several books on maps, meteorology and wondrous creatures, the dragon has the same color as the tiger, and its wings are scaley like fish. He writes in his book Marvels of Creatures and Strange Things Existing that it’s like “a rebellious serpent that eats whatever creatures it finds on land. When it goes too far, God sends it a king that carries it to the sea where it does to the sea creatures what it was doing on the land. As its body gets stronger, God sends it a king that carries it and throws it to Gog and Magog.”
Qazwini also writes about the appearance of a dragon in the area that is present-day Aleppo in Syria: “Thick as a lighthouse and incredibly tall, it roams the earth consuming any animal it finds on its way and breathes fire out of its mouth.” Qazwini does not describe the dragon as a creature capable of flying but rather as a kind of reptile, one that is destructive, as he writes in the previous story where a king would eventually fight it then carry it to the sea in order to save the land. And speaking of kings, Qazwini also recounts that Alexander the Great once hunted a dragon through a trap made of iron hooks, which closed on the dragon’s mouth, trapping the fire in its throat until it died.
Today, dragons are no longer so scary. With the click of a button, and like the mightiest of the kings of yore, you can slay a dragon in a video game. It shows up on your screen in its sparkly colors, breathing flames, yet it looks familiar now. If he kills you — and sometimes he will — you only have to reset the game and fight him again, until you are victorious.
We’ve heard a lot about a white creature that’s “bigger than a donkey but smaller than a mule,” with wings and a beautiful face and “breath like that of a human’s,” which the Prophet Mohamed rode on his Night Journey from Mecca to Jerusalem.
We don’t know exactly when the first time the buraq was mentioned as a key element in the Israa and Miraj story (the Night Journey and Mohamed’s subsequent ascension to the heavens), but the creature has enchanted the minds of storytellers, historians and artists in the Islamic world and beyond for centuries. We refer to the buraq as female since the majority of this creature’s representations in Islamic art — especially in Iran and South Asia — depict it with the face of a woman and the body of a winged horse. Some also add a peacock’s tail. There are a lot of different takes on what the buraq was and what she looked like, but no one seems to agree on her role in the story either: Did she only carry Prophet Mohamed to Jerusalem, or did he ride her through the Seven Skies as well? Some say he tethered her to a wall once he got to Jerusalem (the Western Wall today, known as the Buraq Wall for Muslims and the Wailing Wall for Jews), then ascended to heaven by means of a glittering staircase.
In one tale, the buraq topples a flask of water as she flies away from earth, and when she brings the Prophet back to the same place at the end of the journey he catches the flask before a single drop of water spills from it: such was her speed, and such was the difference between time in the heavens and the time we know here. In another tale, the buraq bucks when Mohamed attempts to ride her, and the angel Gabriel reprimands her, saying: “By Allah, no one has ridden you in all creation more dear to Allah than he is.” Yes, Mohamed was not the first to ride the buraq; according to yet another tale, it was the buraq who carried Abraham from Palestine to Mecca every month so he could visit Hagar and their son Ishmael.
Where was the buraq during the centuries that separated the lives of Abraham and Mohamed? Where did she go after returning Mohamed to Mecca? Is her home on earth or in the skies? What does she feed on? Or is she like the angels: doesn’t eat, doesn’t drink, doesn’t sleep? It is said that the Prophet spoke to a camel one day, and that the animal complained to him that his owner starves and exhausts him. It makes one wonder whether the Prophet also spoke to Buraq during their journey together: What could he have told her? What could she have told him?
In this part of the Islamic world where we live, the buraq is not very present in our stories about the Prophet, despite how central the story of the Night Journey and Ascension are in Islamic tradition, as though if we acknowledge the buraq’s role — with all her extraordinary qualities — we threaten the credibility of the story, and of Mohamed’s entire message. But isn’t the very essence of faith the admission that the universe contains mysteries beyond our comprehension? That there are things we cannot understand or explain, things we cannot describe no matter how hard we try? What is “ordinary,” really, about the creatures we know, other than that we’ve seen them with our own eyes? Are our eyes the only judge?
In another world depicted by Tunisian director Nacer Khemir, a group of children in the heart of the desert scramble to imagine what the word “garden” means. In his 1984 film El Haimoune (Wanderers of the Desert), we see a place where plants don’t grow and the only color visible is the yellow of the sand as far as the eye can see. Here, trees are mythical creatures. The boys break mirrors and assemble its shards on the ground in the shape of a sun, claiming it as their garden. On the bedroom wall of the history teacher tasked with teaching those children hangs a picture of the buraq: a woman’s face, a horse’s body, and a saddle — but no rider.
Buraq is often painted this way; on her own, or with a circle of light at her back, since Islam forbids the visual depiction of prophets. And so imagining this mythical creature somehow becomes easier than picturing the man riding it, despite him being an “ordinary” human. What is faith without an imagination vivid enough to fill the gaps? It is said that Mohamed’s chest was split open to purify him of doubt, long before the buraq appeared and he ascended on his journey to heaven. It was as if God knew that what Mohamed was about to experience was difficult to believe, even by the man who carried his message himself. There’s no one to split our chests open now, in a world abandoned by miracles. But we can, from time to time, abandon what we know and surrender to the truth that what we don’t know is even greater, and perhaps more beautiful. If we unleash our imagination it might take us to a place where the notion of a winged horse with a woman’s face and peacock’s tail is not so impossible to fathom.
In the early nineties, zoo keepers at the Giza Zoo used to put up a cardboard sign on the wolves’ cage that said: “The Salaawa,” with the hope that visitors would tip them more generously if they believed they were seeing such a strange creature. It was as though in that wolf den, the regular zoo magically became a fantastical zoo like the one in Borges and Guerrera’s book.
The salaawa was never scientifically classified as a hybrid creature. In fact, it has never even been heard of outside our Egyptian context. Its story originates in the desert settlements at the edge of the city, and it was believed to be the result of mating between a dog and a wolf. It’s described as a black creature, with front legs shorter than its hind legs. It was also said that it exclusively attacked children.
Many stories were told about the salaawa, and many street dogs were killed after they were mistaken for a Salaawa. There was a palpable panic at the time, especially among children. It was never explained clearly though how the wolf and dog mated to create what would one day become this alleged hybrid. Some claimed that the salaawa was able to knock, and that children left home alone would naively answer the door, becoming instant prey. Parents used that story to warn their children of ever opening the door if no adults were home.
This is how the salaawa became the contemporary version of Omena al-Ghoula, the mythical creature from Egyptian folktales whose name translates to “Our Mother the Ghoul.”
One night a man took a bowl of dry food and accompanied his son to feed the stray dogs in the neighborhood. While he scooped piles of dry food and servings of water onto foam plates for the dogs he heard someone say “You’re a legend.” He realized that a boy was speaking to his son, who was playing with the dogs and leading them to where his father was placing the food. The word angered the man, and he asked the boy why he called his son a legend, to which the boy said that he considers the other boy a legend because he seems so comfortable with the dogs while he, the older boy, fears them.
In literature, a legend is a story that’s supernatural, one that never happened. It’s like the stories of the ancient Egyptian or Greek or Roman gods, referring to what we cannot see with our eyes but only through imagination. A legend is the same as a myth — it does not exist. What is legendary is impossible, which means it can’t be true.
The man told the stranger never to use the word again, and the boy kept assuring him that he meant no insult; “legend” is not a “bad word,” he said; he actually meant to praise his son. But the man insisted that legend is synonymous with non-existent, and his son exists and is playing with the dogs in front of him. “No,” the stranger said, “Legend is synonymous with hero.”
The man realized that his definition of “legend” is outdated. Mohamed Ramadan calls himself a legend; he exists and is actually one of the highest paid celebrities. The word has come to be used in a way that overhauls its actual meaning. Language often places its devotees in such uncomfortable situations, making them seem like the stubborn guardians of old, forgotten notions, rejecting new ones that have come to replace them. The man remembers what some friends of his, defenders of colloquial Egyptian, say: there is a wisdom behind every change made to classical Arabic in our daily dialect. Perhaps Egyptians no longer want to believe that what is legendary is non-existent: perhaps they’re ready for legends to come true.