Shulamith Levey Oppenheim


new work

Ali and The Magic Stew

Ali and the Magic Stew

Illustrated by Winslow Pels
2002, Boyds Mill Press

Ali ibn Ali loves his mother and father. But the spoiled and selfish boy has nothing but disdain for others, especially the beggar who sits at the palace gate. Why is the beggar allowed to sit there, Ali wonders. "A true Muslim gives to the poor," says his mother. "As he chooses to bless our gate and accept our food, there he shall remain," says his father. Then one day Ali's father becomes seriously ill. In his feverish state, Ali's father whispers, "shula kalambar," the name of a stew with healing powers. Ali runs from the palace in search of the ingredients for the stew and trips over the beggar. Anger turns to wonder as Ali discovers that only with the help of the beggar can he save his father's life, and change his own.

Perhaps five years ago, shortly after a trip with my husband to Granada and Cordova in Southern Spain, I was leafing through A Book of Middle Eastern Food, by Claudia Rodin. I came upon a recipe for Shula Kalambar. Above the list of ingredients was the following statement: "a lentil and spinach dish prepared in Medieval Persia to heal the sick. For the cure to be effective the ingredients had to be bought with money begged in the street."

Begged from the street! For whatever reason, the great Court of the Lions (which in my story became part of Ali's mansion) from the glorious fortified hilltop palace in Granada, built in the 13th and 14th centuries, flashed before me and I had my story.


A healing stew that can only cure if its ingredients have been bought with money begged from passersby simmers at the center of Oppenheim's (The Hundredth Name) uplifting tale. Ali ibn Ali, the spoiled son of a rich merchant, scoffs at the beggar outside their palace gates and asks why his parents allow him to sit there. "A true Muslim gives to the poor, the crippled, the homeless, the hungry. That beggar is all of these," replies his mother, "a woman of great beauty and even greater kindness." When Ali's beloved father falls ill after a business trip, he requests shula kalambar, a stew. The beggar at the gate tells Ali that he must beg for the money to buy the stew's components. The boy swallows his pride and dons the beggar's ragged cloak to help his father, enduring jeers and catcalls until he completes his mission. His father is healed, and Ali, full of new humility, approaches the beggar he once despised to thank him. Pels (Spectacles) characterizes the beggar as profoundly serene, sitting in a Zen-like posture, thus creating a mystical presence for this spiritual guide. Multilayered tableaux incorporate computer-altered images of kilims, copper vessels and exotic fabrics; the jewels on the family appear to glisten. Oppenheim's text moves right along, and delivers an ageless moral. Ages 5-up. -- Publishers Weekly

Ali ibn Ali is a selfish little rich boy, languid and spoiled, who loves only his parents and his pet monkey. The beggar who sits at their front gate day after day annoys him, and the child is frustrated that his persistent requests to have the old man removed meet with softly worded refusals from his parents. They, in fact, regard the beggar as a blessing. Indeed, he becomes just that for Ali when his father is taken ill and only a particular stew, shula kalambar, can save him. As he goes to get the necessary ingredients, he trips over the beggar who, to his surprise, tells him that he must disguise himself and beg for what he needs, if his father is to live. Unwillingly, the boy does so, and, in the process, not only saves his beloved father, but changes his own life as well. The fluid prose manages, just barely, to escape the didactic, and the point is, if not hammered home, at least knocked sharply into place. Nonetheless, and despite considerable predictability, Ali's situation does evoke sympathy; and there is enough tension in the narrative line to hold readers. Pels's lush, stylized full-page illustrations are indeed reminiscent of Persian miniatures in their depth of color and attention to detail. Just a bit too long for reading aloud, this book may well be picked up on the basis of its pictorial strength and stuck with for the ultimately involving story.
-- School Library Journal

Ages 4-8. The story of the pauper who becomes a prince gets a nice reversal in this original tale from Persia in which the spoiled young merchant's son must become a beggar in order to be powerful. Ali ibn Ali has always despised the beggar outside the palace gates, but when Ali's father becomes deathly ill, and only a special stew can save his life, Ali learns from the beggar that the ingredients for the stew must be bought with coins begged from the street . Then the rich boy sheds his privilege and learns what it's like to be the object of the disgust and shame that he has always inflicted on others. The message is obvious, but children will like the reversals, including the boy's quest to heal the powerful parent. Pels' richly detailed illustrations, both clear and elaborate, evoke the stylized weavings of Persian rugs as well as the brilliantly colored collages of quilted fabric. They extend the story of the boy who leaves his spoiled isolation for the magic connections and diversity of the world. -- Booklist

Oppenheim ( Yanni Rubbish, 1999, etc.) employs familiar motifs to craft a story with the feel of a folktale. Ali ibn Ali is the much-loved but spoiled son of a kind, doting parents. His haughty disregard for others, particularly the beggar at the gate of his palace, causes his mother to remark, "A true Muslim gives to the poor, the crippled, the homeless, the hungry." When Ali's father becomes mysteriously and gravely ill, Ali's only hope to save him, according to the beggar, is to discard his expensive clothes, take up a beggar's bowl, and beg for money to buy the ingredients for a stew that will heal his father. Ali finds that begging is a humiliating and humbling experience. But the advice proves correct: the magic remedy cures his father, Ali learns the power of kindness, and the archetypal giver of wisdom melts into the night sky. With opulent, stylized illustrations that have the flavor of the Thousand and One Nights, this tale is ultimately as satisfying as Ali's stew. And the references to Allah may stimulate conversation. -- Kirkus Reviews