It Was or It Was Not: Femininity in Arabic Folktales


Arts & Culture

The folktales in Pearls on a Branch, oral survivors from a preliterate era, resemble a quilt made with the fabrics of well-loved clothes. Just as patches of cloth in a quilt are arranged in different combinations to form a design, traditional folk motifs appear and reappear in a variety of settings and plots to shape the stories. One prince falls in love with the grocer’s daughter next door, another can’t take his eyes off the Bedouin girl he sees on his way to the hunt, all to the horror of the royal mothers. Here a golden anklet, and there a voice heard out of an open window, inspire obsessive love for their unknown owners. A songbird with green feathers reveals one crime and a speaking nightingale another. In the stories, love conquers all, but inevitably there are obstacles on the way to the happy ending. These are tales told by women to women so, not surprisingly, the main characters often are young women with remarkable courage, wit, and endurance. Whatever their unfortunate circumstances at the beginning, whether poverty or oppression, they are the heroines in the end.

The thirty texts gathered in Pearls on a Branch have been chosen from a hundred tales, recorded and transcribed by Najla Jraissaty Khoury and published in Beirut in 2014. Captured on tape, these are verbatim renderings of the storytellers speaking. The translation, like the transcriptions, adheres word for word to the Arabic original. The aim is to allow the English reader to listen in as the storytellers, older women living in Lebanon in the last quarter of the twentieth century, pass on the stories they had heard in childhood. Only in the verses that ornament many of the stories does the English sometimes need a few added words to be comprehensible.

“Once upon a time,” the opening to English and European tales seems to promise an account of actual happenings. The Arab narrator is not so certain; she begins her story with the phrase kan ya ma kan: it was or it was not—it happened or it did not. When magic and supernatural beings take part in human affairs, how can one be sure? Kan ya ma kan is generally followed by the rhyming fi qadim az-zaman, “in the oldness of time.” Often a few more verses with the same rhyme follow, questions to the audience—do they want to listen or do they prefer to go to bed?—as if asking permission to speak. At times, God, the Prophet, the Virgin Mary, or a local saint might be invoked in the introductory verses.

It is still customary among older people in Arabic-speaking countries to pronounce the name of God, bismillah, as a blessing, before embarking on any enterprise: starting the car for a journey or preparing to knead bread at home. Over the entrance of houses one often sees, as a blessing or for protection, the words, IT IS BY THE WILL OF GOD, ma sha’ Allah (i.e., built not by the hand of man alone). In one of the stories, a woman sings praises of her niece’s house then automatically repeats, “It is God’s will!” This is almost a required expression after praise, when admiring a baby, congratulating a graduate, or celebrating any other success. It invokes divine protection and averts the evil eye of envy. All the more then, would a storyteller feel the need for blessing and protection when embarking on a story involving powerful jinns, beings believed to exist invisibly alongside human beings.

More elaborate than the handful of rhymes following kan ma kan, there is a long stretch of fantasy and nonsense rhyme called the farsheh. Literally, the farsheh is the soft bedding stored in a corner during the day and rolled out onto the floor at night, turning the living space into a bedroom. It is the equivalent of a red carpet rolled out for the stories about to be heard. At a storytelling session, it is the prelude to the main event. In the manner of a traditional evening’s entertainment, a sample farsheh precedes the rest of the narratives in the book. This particular text was part of a much longer recited verse. A number of the tales have their own, shorter introductory nonsense rhymes. Even without paying full attention to the words, listeners settling into their places for the storytelling would enjoy the lilt of the farsheh’s rhyme.

In classical Arabic poetry, a single rhyme can be sustained for hundreds of verses, delighting and surprising listeners with the skill of the poet in achieving the repeated echo. Such an attempt in English, were it even possible, would be monotonous. Arabic has the advantage of considerable flexibility. Almost all words grow out of three-letter and, to a lesser extent, four-letter roots. The root letters can be extended and tweaked to have very different meanings; a single word can express number, gender, case, and tense all at the same time. This facilitates word play and rhyme, both of which are popular oral arts. There are competitions held for extempore versifying, and even at an informal dinner table, guests might engage in a round of ad-lib verse, teasing those present or commenting on the politics of the day. In folktales, simple verses with homespun images, some formulaic, some playful, are inserted to highlight moments of drama.

Folktales everywhere address the same human needs and passions. The differing cultures, however, lend their separate coloring to the way their stories express love and hate, achieve justice, defeat oppression. A distinctive feature of the Arabic-speaking countries was the patriarchal family system. For centuries it served as the individual’s main support in the community. In return, personal aspirations had to cede before the demands of family welfare; family honor and property had to be preserved at all costs. To that end, marriage between first cousins was the preferred arrangement. In stories, like “The Girl Who Had No Name,” where a youth chooses a stranger as his bride, the resentment of his rejected first cousins is the trigger for the unlikely events that propel the plot. Whether they are blood relatives or not, fathers- and mothers-in-law are called “Paternal Uncle” or “Aunt” because that is the assumed norm for the relationship. Adults, once they are parents, are identified by the name of their firstborn son, rather than by their own names, as in Abu Suleyman and Umm Suleyman, “Father of Suleyman” and “Mother of Suleyman.” One of the worst curses in Arabic is to wish childlessness upon a person. Interestingly, childless women in the stories pray for baby girls. Fathers want sons, and one father, having no male child, sends his daughter to school as he would a boy; girls in the stories are taught at home. As if family were the sole model for relationships, strangers are called brother, sister, aunt, granny, depending on the age and gender of the person addressed.

The woman in the patriarchal family is regarded as a protégée of her men folk, her father and her brothers. Certainly the stories in Pearls on a Branch demonstrate loyalty and protectiveness among siblings: brothers ready to face ogres and hazardous travels for the sake of a sister and sisters refusing marriage in order to devote themselves to prayer for a sick brother’s recovery. To this day, fathers, protectors of the family, keep a sharp eye on their daughters, especially as any hint of misbehavior by an unmarried young woman can stain her family’s honor. In the stories, the father, fond and indulgent as he may be toward his daughter, becomes suddenly harsh when he suspects her of unseemliness. A recurring theme is the bold young woman who resists her father’s will and takes matters into her own hands. She rides away dressed in men’s clothes or pretends to be a humble serving girl and devises any number of ingenious tricks to achieve her goal and eventually marry the man of her choice. Beyond the success of her plans, the girl’s ultimate vindication is to see her father’s tears and remorse when the family is finally reunited. To be sure, the sons in the stories also create problems. However, when they fall in love with the wrong girl, they are not forced into lengthy struggles or harrowing adventures; their mothers quickly relent and go themselves to ask for the girl’s hand on behalf of their sons.

While rebellious daughters venture bravely into the world, there are quieter girls who realize their hopes through patience and endurance. This, too, takes courage. In a number of stories, the girls are subjected to what amounts to a trial by silence. A young bride is advised not to speak until her husband utters a certain phrase. She maintains her silence even under threat of divorce and after the husband acquires a second wife, a co-wife. (Islam permits a man to marry up to four wives with the proviso that he maintain and love them equally.) Accepting hardship and heartbreak without complaint, these girls also succeed at last. One device for unraveling their mounting woes is a “stone of patience.” Chipping away at it with a knife, a girl unburdens herself by listing her sorrows in singsong. Talking aloud to the stone, a form of folk therapy perhaps, also allows the girl to be overheard by her husband or her oppressor. And so the truth is learned, innocence is proven, and all ends well.

As they thread their way through the challenge of family relations—including the usual jealous sisters, overbearing husbands, and wicked stepmothers—the young men and women of the stories are lured or stray into realms of magic and the supernatural. Here are palaces with rooms through which run rivers of silver and gold and gardens with flowers that talk in rhymes. Peacocks lay eggs that make girls pregnant; combs can turn into dense forests in an emergency and mirrors into lakes.

Inhabiting this parallel world are the jinn, and they take many spirit forms. Hairy ghouls with sharp fangs and a taste for human flesh are the monsters most frequently met with. Unlike the ogres of other cultures, they can be good as well as evil. A few respectful words or some personal service, barbering or bathing, will win a ghoul over. No longer a threat, he becomes a kindly father figure and a source of helpful information. A female ghoul will be mollified by some volunteer house cleaning. There are jinn in the shape of bearded old men, some benign and some malicious. One demon demands the right to suck at will the blood from a young girl’s finger; another dresses the tips of a woman’s fingers with gold after every encounter. One spirit adopts a runaway girl and raises her to be fit to marry the king’s son; another hounds the girl who disobeys him and transforms her into a mangy dog.

A story about spirits gives free rein to the imagination to recount what in real life is impossible and invisible. A story also gives the woman storyteller the freedom to speak of what in real life would be unacceptable. Adultery and illegitimate birth, cultural taboos, seem to be treated fairly casually. Sexual innuendo, sometimes quite broad, is permitted for amusement, especially when the joke is on the men.

Underlying each plot there usually hides some didactic message. No need to spell out a moral at the end of the story. As elsewhere, compassion is rewarded and evil always punished. A cardinal virtue in Arab culture is hospitality: the penniless goatherd who slaughters his only animal to feed a guest later happens upon a chest filled with gold. Acceptance of fate is wisdom. “What is written on the brow will be seen by the eye,” goes one saying. Contentment is touted and plain folk living in tents are shown to be happier than princes.

Even the handful of children’s tales in Pearls on a Branch reflects the customs of the culture and the tenor of the stories. The little mouse that wants to be married gets her mother’s consent only when her suitor is another mouse and a first cousin. Like women in the stories, the little mouse is boss; she makes every decision for her husband. This is true of the frog’s wife also: she calls the shots from the moment she leaves in a huff to take refuge in her paternal home, until she deigns to rejoin her distraught husband at the very end.

In addition to the adventures of the characters in the folktales, ranging from royal princes to orphan girls spinning wool for a living, the modern reader may appreciate the unexpected glimpses into a simpler way of life that is rapidly becoming “once upon a time and long ago.” The jealous sisters in one story conspire on the flat roof of their house where they are stationed to keep away the birds from the family’s wheat, spread out to dry in the sun. A fond village bridegroom, proud of his wife, places nails where they will catch her veil so everyone attending the wedding feast may see the beauty of her uncovered face.

Growing out of almost every flat rooftop nowadays are television aerials thick as a crop of barley and satellite dishes fat as prize melons. The gentle pleasure of hearing a story from a parent or grandparent is being eclipsed by the light shining from the television. Najla Jraissaty Khoury’s painstaking rescue mission to preserve the oral tradition gives the age-old tales another life, in print, that will prevent them from being forgotten altogether.


Inea Bushnaq is a Palestinian American writer and translator born in Jerusalem, educated in England, and now living in New York. She edited and translated the collection Arab Folktales.

Excerpted from Pearls on a Branch: Oral Tales by Najla Jraissaty Khoury and translated from the Arabic by Inea Bushnaq.