Lake Saif-ul-Malook, situated at a height 10, 600 feet at the northern tip of the Kaghan Valley in Pakistan’s Himalayas, is one of the most beautiful places on earth. I have been there twice, the first time as a 12-year old and then in 2009, when I determined to capture some of its magic on camera and on paper, in the words of two local storytellers who relate the legend of the Lake to visitors.
It is the story of a prince and a fairy, Saif-ul-Malook and Badr-ul-Jamal – a story of love, adventure, faith, magic, suffering and betrayal – a story of the multitude of human passions.
Many different versions exist, but below is a reproduction of what the storytellers told us, with ample writer’s liberties. I hope you enjoy it!
Meanwhile, in Paristan – where Prince Saif had snuck into at that very moment, aided by his invisibility cloak and the magic staff – Badr Jamal felt a deep shiver run through her body. “He’s here…” she murmured. “He’s here! I can feel it! My Prince has come to get me!”
But nobody heard her hysterical cries. For the Fairy Queen was locked away in a tiny cell, with chains around her hands and feet, deep in the dungeons of her father’s castle.
What had happened was this: living away from home for so long, Badr Jamal had forgotten what her father, the king of Paristan, was really like – cruel, cold, and sinfully proud of his race.
As she fled from Egypt, Badr’s heart had brimmed with excitement at the thought of returning to Paristan, of being with her family, whom she had not set eyes on for over 10 years.
But the reception she received was far from what she expected. Her mother had passed away only a few years earlier – at the ripe age of 180 – and without her softening influence, the Fairy King’s behavior had only deteriorated.
So that when Badr Jamal showed up at the castle gates – not the innocent child who had disappeared years ago as she played with her friends in the castle gardens, but a tall, beautiful, fully-grown woman – the king her father did not shout, or weep for joy. He did not run to embrace her, or send up a prayer of thanks to the gods.
“Father, it’s me, Badr!” she exclaimed.“I’ve come back, Father!”
In reply, the king slanted his eyes and scrunched up his nose in disdain.“You?” he scoffed. “You are not my daughter – for on you I smell the scent of a human. No daughter of mine would dare dishonor her race by lying with a khaki. Be gone!”
With that, he ordered the guards to seize her.“But, father!” Badr Jamal cried as they dragged her away. “You don’t understand! You don’t know what happened!” She tried explaining in a few hurried words the twists her life had taken since the last time they had seen each other – but the king turned his back on her with a swish of his robes and strode off, followed by a retinue of sniggering ministers.
Now, as Badr sat despondently in the dark, damp cell, pondering over her past, she realized she had probably taken Prince Saif’s love for granted; and that it was a pretty rotten thing to do to have abandoned him like that, without explanation. She had inherited some of her father’s accursed pride after all!
And what if Saif never came? What if he didn’t consider it worth his while to risk his life for her a second time? What if she were to languish in this dungeon for the rest of her days?
That’s why Badr Jamal burst into a frenzy when she sensed that Prince Saif had entered the fairy realm. As he navigated the precipitous paths of Paristan on his way to the castle, Badr writhed in torment, screaming as if she had lost her mind. She was making such a racket that the prison guards grew alarmed and ran to notify the king.
The king descended to the dungeon to investigate, followed by his minions. “What is the meaning of this, Badr!” he demanded sternly. “Throwing a tantrum is not the way to plead forgiveness for the shame you have brought upon your family.”
Deep in his heart, the King felt a prick of anguish, seeing his lovely daughter reduced to such a tortured state. But he couldn’t give in. The whole kingdom knew of what Badr had done. The fairy folk were an open-minded lot, but this was one transgression they could absolutely not tolerate. If all their females – or males for that matter – were to make off with human folk, that would mean the end of the fairy race; for it was a known fact that fairy-human unions only produced human children.
So if the king did not act firmly in the case of his own daughter, his people would take him for a pushover, a weakling, and lose respect for him.
Now, unbeknownst to the king, the ministers and prison guards, Prince Saif had already infiltrated the castle, unseen under his magic cloak, throwing open all the gates, locks and bolts that lay in his way with a single tap of the Moses staff.
“He’s here, father! He’s here!” Badr suddenly shrieked. “He’s here in this cell as we speak!”
“What are you talking about, girl?” the king replied, annoyed. “That is simply impossible. There is no way that a magic-less man, a mere khaki, can find the portal to Paristan, let alone penetrate the magically protected gates of the city and make his way here to the dungeons undetected.”
“That’s what I tried telling you before, father,” Badr’s anguish was replaced by wide-eyed elation. “Saif is no ordinary man! He possesses a magic far greater than you, or I, or Deo Safed. That is how he freed me from the Deo’s clutches, and that is how he will free me again, here, under your very nose.” As she said these words, the heavy chains that bound Badr’s wrists and ankles sprang open and fell to the ground. Prince Saif, with a good sense of the dramatic, had tapped the chains with his magic staff at just the right moment.
Pandemonium went up in the dungeon.“Look! Look! Badr Jamal is free! But how can it be?”
The king could not believe his eyes. This was unprecedented. This was serious magic, not one that any ordinary man could wield.
“Daughter, if what you say is true,” the king’s tone suddenly changed, “and if Prince Saif is in this room and responsible for the feat we have just witnessed, I beg you, ask him to appear before us. I give you my word, I will not bring him any harm.”
“I take your word for it, Fairy King, father of my beloved,” Prince Saif pulled off his cloak with one swift stroke and appeared in the tiny cell standing next to Badr Jamal. He cut a striking figure, handsome as ever, with a grit and wisdom about him that impressed all who were present. Badr was beside herself with joy and leapt into Saif’s arms, murmuring a string of I’m sorry’s and Forgive me’s. She knew when an apology was in order.
“Sir,” Prince Saif addressed the king. “I made the long, not easy journey to your fair land to ask for the hand of your beauteous daughter in marriage, whom I had wedded according to the customs of my land not a year ago. Imagine my shock, then, when I found her a prisoner here, treated worse than an animal would be in my own kingdom. I am enraged. And, whether you give us your blessings or not, I am taking her away.”
Badr’s father was left dumbfounded. How could a man be so bold, so fearless to speak thus to the King of Paristan? He, who had hundreds of thousands of jinn, ogres, sprites and fairies under his command, whose magic could strike down the Prince in an instant, and blight the fortune of his family for generations to come?
Now, Prince Saif did not know all of this, and it was just as well. The Fairy King, taken in by Saif’s impossible confidence, thought to himself, “I had better not do anything foolish now. This man may not be a man at all; he may be a powerful wizard, or at any rate, under the protection of some great mage, who will certainly wreak vengeance on me if any harm were to befall the Prince, or Badr.”
So the King gave the couple his blessings – which Saif and Badr were loath to receive – and married them in a typically rambunctious fairy ceremony, held after twilight in the gardens of the castle. In spite of himself, Prince Saif had to admit that the fairy folk knew how to throw a party.
Throughout Paristan, all people could talk about was Badr Jamal’s dashing groom, the valiant man-prince who possessed an unusual magic, who had rescued Badr from the fearsome ogre Deo Safed where all the sorcery of the Fairy King had failed. When the time came for their departure, the Fairy King, now all smiles and flattery, presented Prince Saif with numerous gifts, including a buraq, a magnificent winged horse that could travel at the speed of a falcon.
Saif named the horse Aajil, the agile one, and on him the couple returned to Egypt, to the utter and absolute joy of Saif’s parents, who had despaired of ever seeing their son again.
Henceforth, Saif never asked Badr to put away her wings. He never told her off for bathing in the moonlight, never demanded that she attend the boring court luncheons his mother loved to organize. Badr was free to fly where she willed, but she always returned to pass the night with Saif.
When Saif’s father, the king, passed away, Saif ascended the throne. His 30-year reign was said to be one of the most prosperous and peaceful the kingdom had seen. Some people attributed it to his wife’s magic, and the other enchanted objects he possessed, whose fame had reached far beyond the borders of Egypt. But the truth is, Saif never used the Solomon cap, the invisibility cloak and the staff of Moses again. He even tried looking for the old buzurg he had met on the outskirts of Cairo, and the other from the teashop in Peshawar, to thank them and return the precious objects that had saved his life on so many occasions – but he couldn’t find a trace of them anywhere. It was as if the old men – or man, because Saif was convinced they were one and the same person – had never existed.
The couple had three beautiful children, two daughters and a son. There was nothing fairy-like about them, though they inherited their mother’s grace and their father’s chiselled looks. Unfortunately, Saif met with an untimely death, in a battle with the Mongols in Syria. Badr was devastated, and could not bear to pass another day in the palace without him. But, for the sake of her children, she continued to live there. And so the years passed, her children grew up, were married and had children of their own, adorable little tots whom Badr cherished and loved with all of her heart.
But even they could not fill the empty space inside, the constant yearning she carried for Saif, her one true love, and for Paristan, her homeland.
One night, without telling a soul, Badr rose from bed, gathered her fairy wings and a few mementos of her children and grandchildren – a toy, a piece of clothing, a pocket portrait – and left the palace. It was the night of the full moon, chowdveen ka chaand. Flying through the still, eerie night, she first headed towards the Royal Cemetery, were Saif was buried some 30 years ago. Alighting on his white marble sepulcher, Badr uttered the following words.
“O greedy earth, long have you enjoyed
The man who in life, was my heart’s delight
But now I have come, to reclaim what is mine
From this jealous grave, I raise Saif tonight”
As she spoke, the marble tomb began to crack open, as if an invisible hand were pounding it with a giant pickaxe. Thud, crack, split – until finally, through the gaping rent on the marble surface, deep from the damp earth below, enveloped in a silvery-purple mist, arose a skeleton – Prince Saif’s remains.
The skeleton hovered over to where Badr Jamal stood, and collapsed in a heap at her feet. Badr carefully collected the bones and wrapped them in a piece of cloth, which she fastened to her back along with the other odds and ends she carried. Then she took off, without looking back, leaving the vandalized grave to magically repair itself as if nothing had happened.
Flying towards Paristan, Badr Jamal had tears in her eyes; she knew she would never return to Egypt again. She would never see her children or grandchildren again. But at least she had recovered some part of her beloved, something she could touch and feel and remember him by. And that gave her consolation.
Badr passed the rest of her days in Paristan, among her own people – among her brothers and sisters and childhood friends, in that strange and fantastical land where the beasts spoke and the trees walked and the sun changed color everyday.
She never aged, never displayed so much as a wrinkle on her luminous, moon-like face; for in Paristan, nobody ages from the outside, remaining in the prime of their youth till the day they die.
As for Prince Saif’s skeleton, she strung some of the smaller bones into a necklace, which she wore at all times. The rest of the bones she stored in a gilded chest in her bedroom.
Thus Badr Jamal lived for another 100 years, until finally, her time also came.
On that day she was swimming in her favorite lake, high up in the snow-clad Himalayas in the shadow of Malika Parbat, as she used to do as a child and as a prisoner of Deo Safed’s, so many years ago.
There she was, floating on her back in the dark, velvety waters, looking up at the spectacular, star-studded night and a radiant moon that bathed the mountains below in a soothing silver light. In that moment, Badr was perfectly happy. She was at peace.
All of a sudden, there was a flash of light – a blue fire that burst forth from her person – and she was gone.
Nothing but ashes remained, floating on the blue, murmuring water.
We don’t know where fairies go after they die. We don’t know if purgatory and paradise for fairies is the same as for humans. But we hope that it is, so Badr -ul-Jamal could be reunited with her beloved Saif, and they could look down together at this strange, fantastical drama we call life.