Fatima the Spinner and the Tent

Today I felt like sharing this story as a little thank you to all the candidates at DBM who have trusted me with their career projects over the past years. It is a story I cherish for it embodies how I feel about our professional lives. Contrary to popular belief, I think that only few people know what their mission in life is from a very young age. The vast majority of us will switch jobs several times and some, sometimes, like Fatima, will feel “life just doesn’t make sense” until they find out what it is they ought to be doing.

Here’s to you: Alejandro, Alfredo, Ana, Anna, Antonio, Bernice, Birte, Carolina, Carles, Carmen, Catherine, Charlène, Clara, Claudia, Cris, Cristina, Dani, Elisenda, Enric, Federico, Fiona, Frédéric, Glòria, Gloria, Héctor, Herminia, Javier, Joerg, Kathy, Katja, Leonor, Leyla, Maristela, Neus, Paco, Quim, Rocío, Rosa, Rosa, Sam, Sandra, Sarolta, Silvia, Susy, Sylvia, Vicent, Virginie.

Once upon a time, in a city in the Farthest West, there lived a girl called Fatima. She was the daughter of a prosperous spinner who had taught her all the secrets of his trade.

One day her father said to her: “I need you to come with me on a journey, for I have business in the islands of the Mediterranean. Perhaps you find some handsome and prosperous young man whom you could take as a husband.”

They set off and travelled from island to island, the father doing his business while Fatima dreamt of the prince that would be hers.
But one day, when they were on the way to Crete, a storm blew up, and the ship was wrecked. Fatima, only half-conscious, was cast up on the seashore near Alexandria. Her father had died in the accident, and she felt miserable. She could hardly remember her life back home, for she was exhausted from the experience of the shipwreck, and her exposure in the sea.

While she was wandering on the sands, a family of cloth-makers found her. Although they were poor, they took her into their humble home and taught her their craft.

Thus it was that Fatima made a second life for herself, and within a year or two she was happy and reconciled with her destiny.

But one day, when she was once again on the seashore for some reason, a band of slave-traders landed and carried her away, along with other captives. Although she bitterly lamented her fate, Fatima found no sympathy from the slavers, who took her to Istanbul to sell her as a slave. Her world had collapsed for the second time.

That day, there were few buyers at the market. One of them was a man who was looking for slaves to work in his wood yard, where he made masts for ships. When he saw the poor Fatima, he decided to buy her, thinking that in this way, at least, he might be able to give her a slightly better life than if she were bought by someone else.

He took Fatima to his home, intending to make her a serving maid for his wife. But when he arrived at the house, he found that he had been robbed and all his possessions where gone. He could no longer afford any workers. So he, his wife and Fatima were left alone to work at the heavy labour of making masts. Fatima, grateful to her employer for rescuing her, worked so hard and so well that he gave her freedom, and she became his trusted helper. Thus it was that she became comparatively happy in her third career.

One day her employer said to her: “Fatima, I want you to go to India, as my agent, with a cargo of ships’ masts, and be sure that you sell them at a profit.”

So Fatima set off, but when the ship was off the coast of China, a typhoon wrecked it, and she found herself once again cast up on the seashore of a strange land. Once again she wept bitterly, for she felt that nothing in her life was working according to her expectations. Whenever things seemed to be going well, something came and destroyed all her hopes. “Why is it”, she cried out, for the third time, “that whenever I try to do something it comes to grief? Why do so many unfortunate things happen to me?” But there was no answer.

So she picked herself up from the sand, and started to walk inland. Now it so happened that nobody in China had heard of Fatima, or knew anything about her troubles. But there was a legend that a certain stranger, a woman, would one day arrive, and that she would be able to make a tent for the Emperor. And, since there was as yet nobody in China who could make tents, everyone looked forward to his strange visit with the liveliest anticipation. In order to make sure that this foreigner, when she arrived, would not be missed, successive Emperors of China had followed the tradition of sending heralds, once a year, to all the towns and villages of the land, searching for any foreign woman to present at the palace.

When Fatima stumbled into a town near the Chinese seashore, one such herald happened to be there. He spoke to her through an interpreter, and explained that she would have to go and see the Emperor.

So Fatima was brought before the Great Emperor of China, who asked her: “Lady, can you make a tent?” “I think so,” Fatima responded.
She asked for rope but there was none available. So, remembering her time as a spinner, she collected flax and made ropes.

Then she asked for stout fabric, but the Chinese had none of the kind she needed. So, drawing on her experience with the weavers of Alexandria, she gathered thread and wove some sturdy tent cloth.

Then she asked for tent-poles, but there were none in China. So Fatima, remembering how she had been trained by the mast-maker of Istanbul, looked for appropriate wood and craftily cut the tent-poles she needed.

When these were ready, she racked her brains for the memory of all the tents she had seen in her travels. And so, a tent was made.
When this wonder was revealed to the Emperor of Chine, he was so impressed that he offered Fatima the fulfilment of any wish she cared to name. She chose to settle in China, where she married a handsome prince, and where she remained in happiness, surrounded by her children, until the end of her days.