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Folktales from Syria

Folktales from Syria
Translated and with an introduction by Andrea Rugh

Syrian poet Samir Tahhan collected folktales from old men sitting outside their houses in Aleppo, drinking tea.

Series: CMES Modern Middle East Literatures in Translation

Center for Middle Eastern Studies, The University of Texas at Austin
January 2004
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104 pages | 5.5 x 8.5 | 20 b&w illus. |

Syrian poet Samir Tahhan collected folktales from old men sitting outside their houses in Aleppo, drinking tea. Afraid these stories would disappear with the passing of this generation, Tahhan also went to halls and events to hear professional storytellers and record their performances. Anthropologist Andrea Rugh helped translate the resulting two volumes of stories from the original Arabic and wrote the informative introduction to this one-volume collection.


Some of the tales appeared in rhyming verse in Arabic and some were based on events that are said to have actually taken place in Aleppo. Rugh explains the concepts of the most popular types of Syrian story structures: the gissa, the hikaya, and the hudutha. With two of the poems, the Arabic and the English are shown side by side in order to demonstrate the internal poetic structures of the original rhymes.



With their emphasis on morality and social values, the tales will be familiar to Western audiences. Another value for the reader is finding the accepted social values and behaviors that Arab adults try to inculcate in their younger generation, often through complex characterizations. Teasing out these meanings gives the reader an appreciation for the act of translation and hints of the power of the Arabic language in prose and poetry.



Professional illustrator Douglas Rugh has provided the book's black-and-white prints based on the stories and his experiences as a child growing up in the Middle East.


  • Preface
  • Introduction
  • Part One: Stories of Aleppo
    • The Story of the Beggar Queen
    • The Story of the Five Cakes
    • The Story of the Merchant of Khan al-Wazir
    • The Story of the Miser and the Porter
    • The Story of Soaking the Bread
    • The Story of the Stone Cutters and the Gardener's Son
    • The Story of Master Karshush's Tarbush
    • The Story of the Peddler's Daughter
    • The Story of the Saintly Thief
    • The Story of Luck and Fate
  • Part Two: Tales and Episodes of Aleppo
    • The Tale of the The Girl and the Judge
    • The Tale of the Three Mice
    • The Tale of Our Lady Namlush
    • The Tale of the Pigeon and the Crow
    • The Tale of the Cat and the Dog
    • The Episode of the Spilled Molasses
    • The Tale of the Little Bitty Thing
    • The Tale of the Fly
    • The Episode of the Mother Goat
    • The Tale of Tata

Andrea Rugh is Adjunct Scholar with the Middle East Institute in Washington, D.C.



"Kan ya makan fi qadim al-ziman" are words as familiar to a Syrian child as the words, "Once upon a time," are to an American child. The two phrases are laden with the magic of anticipation for a story as yet unheard or with the delight of recognition in retold tales.


At least four distinguishable types of folk narrative are found in Syria; three are represented in this volume. They are the qissa or story, the hikaya or tale, and the hudutha or episode, all designed for narrating in private homes or in other small gatherings. The fourth, the romance, the reader can find illustrated in the already translated 'Antar and 'Abla, which is roughly comparable to the English epic "Beowulf." In it, 'Antar, the son of a slave woman, and depicted always with a dark skin, falls in love with his paternal cousin, the beautiful, fair-skinned 'Abla. 'Abla's father is reluctant to allow her to marry 'Antar because of his slave mother's lowly origins, even though paternal-cousin marriage is the preferred form of marriage in many areas in the Arab world. Audience response to the epic romance reflects the widespread enthusiasm that existed before the advent of television. In contrast with other types of short folk narrative, romances were related in formal settings of coffee houses and large social gatherings. Their episodes continued over long periods of time through a number of installments. The storytellers, called Hakawati, knew by heart the basic elements of the long epics that were said to be originally based on true stories. Though the origins of the epics are not completely clear, they most probably began as descriptive stories and only later developed more complicated plots and, sometimes, even stable rhyming versions. Although the true events upon which they were based could have been related in the period of half an hour, the Hakawati could elaborate them with embellishments into a thousand hours. In the process, the storyteller would draw upon as much of the popular local knowledge and wisdom as he could to make the occurrences more appealing and relevant to his audience.


Because the stories were conveyed from mouth to mouth and not written down until later, early storytellers had a great deal of leeway in how they related the major episodes in the life of 'Antar and 'Abla. It was common in the cafes where the stories were told for factions to form, with patrons in support of certain characters cheering their favorites on one side and those opposed booing on the other. It was customary also for the listeners to bribe the storyteller to change the details of the episode to favor their own side. The storyteller would sit on a low bench (mastabaa) in the middle of his audience, sometimes elevated on a platform, holding his rababa, a single-stringed instrument that was used to accompany the musical parts of the romance. Usually, the owner of the cafe, who paid the basic price for the services of the storyteller, would hover near him, seeing to the needs of the customers and subduing the quarrels of the competing sides, should they threaten to erupt and damage his establishment. If the patrons became too heated, the cafe owner would put a stop to the storytelling for the evening or might beg the storyteller to bring the episode to a compromise conclusion so as not to incite the passions of the crowd.


The episodes of the romance sometimes would serve a subtle purpose in the local setting where the sides taken by patrons might reflect deep rifts in the community's equanimity. Not infrequently, the underlying enmity would become sublimated in the epic's events. In such cases, if a community dispute centered around property, for example, the storyteller might take the opportunity through the actions of his characters to advise the factions on the benefits of compromise or, more specifically, on the virtues of one solution over another.


'Antar, of course, would win major battles as well as victories in the individual episodes. One of the lessons the 'Antar and 'Abla epic teaches is contradictory to the generally held value that a person must take the side of other family members even when they are wrong. 'Antar takes the view that right is right even when it means opposing the rest of the family.


With the advent of television and, incidentally, the much beloved modern serialized dramas that last through many episodes of the lives and loves of fictionalized characters, the popularity of the epic romances has diminished. Now they are rarely heard except under the auspices of the Minister of Culture during the evenings of Ramadan. The old battles of 'Antar and the wars between the Crusaders and the great Arab hero Salah al-Din are not as engrossing anymore as modern battles in Lebanon or events concerned with the Palestinians, nor are the romantic episodes as relevant to modern day audiences as the problematic loves of television heroes and heroines.


The folk narratives published here, in contrast to the epic romances, are short, self-contained, and designed for telling in smaller, more intimate gatherings. They are still familiar (or at least narratives like them are familiar) to many modern Syrians, perhaps because they have been related and preserved through the generations by family members and are shorter and more easily remembered. Among other functions, they continue to serve the need that the older generation has to hand down its social values to the upcoming generations.


The first group of folk narratives, in the form of stories (gisas), Samir Tahhan collected mainly from the old men in Aleppo who used to sit outside their houses, drinking tea and discussing the activities of the neighborhood that took place before their eyes. Some of these storytellers would come to be thought of as possessing a special wisdom (hikma or fahm), and people would consult them when they needed advice. Perhaps a parent would inform the sage of an inappropriate marriage a grown child wished to contract, and while the child was present the sage might tell a story about the consequences of such actions. He might create a story on the spot, or he might select something pertinent to the problem at hand from a set repertoire of known stories. The warning would be clear: that it is risky to marry out of one's class and social level. Then again in another such story a difference in rank would not be a significant impediment to marriage with even a prince. Stories, like popular aphorisms do not need to be mutually consistent. Each depends for its impact on the context in which it is told and the receptivity of its audience to a specific message at the time of its telling.


The stories will appear familiar to a Western audience both in form and in the general content they express. Like Western fairy tales, their purpose on the most explicit level is didactic--that is, to teach lessons in morality and social values or simply to inform about the ways of the world. The stories are presented as serious narratives that are true enough to life so that they might have happened without resort to miraculous or super-human intervention. In general, this approach means that the actors are human, or, if animals are the main characters, that they behave in a way consistent with reality; that is, they don't talk or otherwise behave as human beings. One exception appearing in the text is "The Story of Luck and Fate," where a talking panther briefly appears at the end of the story. When Samir challenged his grandfather on this point, his grandfather responded that it was not the animal speaking of its own volition but rather an animal being used in the story as a vehicle for the words of God.


A clue to the origin of some of the stories lies in allusions to identifiably Christian or Muslim themes. Aleppo is a town with large communities of Muslims and various sects of Christians. A discerning Syrian reader can usually make an educated guess about which religious community a particular story originally came from. However, once a story becomes a part of the lore, it is no longer important whether a Muslim or a Christian tells the story, since each narrator is quite likely to add his or her own embellishments.


Syrians as a people are generally tolerant of different religious groups, and it is unlikely that people generate certain themes to promote their religious beliefs. Instead, those who first tell the stories tend to use the symbols and details with which they are most familiar. Therefore, rather than identify the stories positively as originating in one religious community or the other, which may prove inaccurate, let me review in general the details that a Syrian might use as markers. Normally, Christian stories would not mention divorce, polygamy, or revenge conflicts. They would be more likely to mention priests and holy symbols such as crosses and churches. Muslim stories tend to be peopled with sheikhs and Bedouin, and fateful incidents may occur that are not a direct consequence of the actions of the characters, as seen for example in "The Story of the Saintly Thief."


Muslim stories are more apt to divide the world of men and women clearly, as, for example, when a character enters the woman's quarters or joins the men in their reception rooms. A character's occupation is one important way of identifying religious origin, since the different religious communities in the past tended to monopolize certain of the trades.


Christians generally pursued craft and manual occupations that were frowned upon by Muslims. Thus stonecutters, peddlers, goldsmiths, gardeners, and weavers appearing in the stories are probably Christian, while Muslims tend to be occupied in government and commercial professions. Many of these distinctions have broken down now, but at the time these stories emerged, significant differences still existed. In attempting to identify the religious origins of the stories it is important to look at the markers in context. A single symbol alone may not be definitive.


The second form of narrative found in this book is the tale (hikaya), which is generally a nonserious, humorous entertainment, sometimes appearing in rhyming verse and designed for young children. Though the tales often convey moral messages, the meanings may be less profound than those in the more serious philosophical stories.


Most families in the past had their taletellers, often a grandfather or more likely a grandmother who because of old age was released from many of the daily responsibilities of the household. It was the delight of these older people to assume some of the care of the young children of the household. A harassed mother, constantly interrupted in her work by the distraction of her child, might say, "Go to your grandmother and tell her to 'tie the sheep' or 'hold with molasses' or 'the beans and remaining'," all phrases that in the secret language between mother and grandmother meant that the grandmother should keep the child occupied and out of the presence of the mother.


The grandmother would begin first with a rhyme that would distract the child and involve his or her participation. "Let's give an apple and a ball to father, to mother, to little brother. And who do you want to give the apple and the ball to?" And the child's selections would be incorporated in the rhyming phrases. The repetition of the phrases helped the child learn Arabic sounds and increase vocabulary. A rhyme might start, "Selma went to the store and bought a sweet," and the child would repeat the phrase. Then the rhyme continued, "Selma went to the store and bought a sweet which she put in her pocket." With each repetition a new phrase would be added until there was a very long sentence that the child had to repeat. The challenge of completing the sentence in one breath would make the boredom of repeating the phrases fun for the child. Another participation game might involve role playing where the grandmother would play the part of a judge and the child would take the part of a petitioner.


The purpose of the hikaya was therefore first to amuse and distract, second to teach lessons in language, morality, and role-playing, or to make simple discriminations without the conscious knowledge of the child. The stories often involved animals that talked and so were explicitly imaginary. The use of animal actors served also to shield the children from too close an identification with the main characters, which might prove too intense in the case of fearsome or dangerous events.


The third form of narrative (hadutha), here called an episode to distinguish it from the stories and tales, appears in two examples: "The Episode of the Spilled Molasses" and "The Episode of the Mother Goat." Some analysts consider the hikaya and hudutha to be essentially the same narrative form. Samir, however, sees the episode as a combination form. While it can usually be classified as a nonserious narrative, it may not fall exclusively into that category. For example, the episode may combine events based on reality with those that have a miraculous quality about them, as in "The Episode of the Spilled Molasses." Alternatively, an episode may combine a serious story line with imaginary animal characters as in "The Episode of the Mother Goat." It is not always easy to make categorical distinctions.


The folk tales translated here are only a drop in a rich and varied reservoir of Syrian folklore. They do not include, for example, proverbs, jokes, lullabies, love poetry, or songs for special occasions such as weddings. Nor do the tales include stories about the nights of the fasting month of Ramadan and special Christian and Islamic feasts, or children's street chants, or what must be clearly classed as folklore--the chants of peddlers passing through the streets of Aleppo. Moreover, they do not include the impromptu verses that poets hurl in challenge at each other in cafes or sometimes on television, where a verse started by one must be completed by another, in rhyme. It is often even difficult to separate narrative and music, since one is so much like another when rendered by Arabs in Arabic.


A listing of popular oral lore is not complete without mentioning the colorful tradition of karacuza (shadow play), which provides popular social criticism and instruction to the grownups and children that attend to their stories. A final popular art form that also bears mention combines visual with auditory pleasure. Familiar from the childhood of most Syrian adults is the sanduk al-dinya, a covered box with peep holes into which the child looks after paying his "penny" (or in some cases a piece of fruit, some bread, cheese, or whatever a child can scavenge from his mother's kitchen). As the narrator winds his pictures from one roll to another he chants, "And now you see the Great Pyramids of Egypt, etc. etc," exciting the imagination of the viewer with "believe-it-or-not" style commentary.


We have said that the narratives are didactic, whether as serious instruments of moral instruction or as merry tales teaching language, numbers, animal sounds, customs, and general information. The list is potentially endless. The child may not grasp the full meaning the first time he or she listens to the narrative, but when the adult explains in simpler language and continuously repeats the account, eventually even sophisticated words come to be understood.


For general comprehension and instruction, these narratives are designed for mature children from at least age seven and up to adulthood. Yet younger children find amusement in the yarns, and older people find them useful illustrative examples of popular truths, following the common discursive pattern of explaining a point with a descriptive case. One often hears, "What I am saying is just like what happened to so and so," and the story is told with some embellishment. It is easy to see how such everyday stories could be made anonymous and embroidered even further to fit the conventions of folk narration.


It would be a naive person who didn't see the usefulness of innocent-sounding folk tales in making political points as well. With very little effort, the narratives can be construed, whether intended or not, as advising rulers on their obligations to their people, as commenting on unnecessarily harsh treatment of citizens, and even as criticizing super-power approaches to Middle East issues without fully comprehending their complexity. Syrian adults enjoy drawing such parallels from the innocuous-seeming prose.


The narratives are thus enjoyed by people of all ages, providing within a flexible medium an instrument that offers something to everyone who listens. As the child grows, he or she learns to strip the "onion" of its ever-deeper layers of meaning, with each layer bringing its own kind of enjoyment. And simultaneously, the older person finds an enjoyment in the meanings attuned to his or her comprehension level, as well as enjoyment in the pleasures of the narration itself. My favorite example of this multi-layered phenomenon is a popular lullaby sung by mothers:


Sleep, my son, sleep
I'll kill a dove for you
Oh dove, don't believe what I say
I only tell lies so he will sleep


As a lullaby, the rhythm and melody are technically enough to soothe the child, but the popular version is not content with the single purpose of putting a baby to sleep. It reassures the older, comprehending child not to worry about the possibility of an early demise for the dove and slyly acknowledges in the presence of other adults the conspiracies of parents in achieving their purposes with children. As a whole the lullaby expresses at the same time the sincere tenderness a mother feels for her child.


The explicit lessons to be learned from the narratives are the accepted social values and behaviors that adults wish to inculcate in the younger generation. From the stories we learn, for example, that it is desirable for people to share what they have, to be generous without expectation of return, to be modest and not overly proud, to treat others as you would expect to be treated, to be wise in your approach to problems, and to seize opportunities when they are presented or it may be too late. In addition, we learn the auxiliary lessons that a person's nature never changes, that bad behavior brings bad results, that people usually deserve what they get, that wisdom is not necessarily a function of age or size, and that you can't avoid your fate.


That the lessons are sometimes subtle and complicated is clear from "The Story of Luck and Fate." The story illustrates, along with the main point, that man cannot escape his fate and two more subtle messages. First, once you have taken a certain path you cannot fail to accept the consequences of that action, and, second, once you have rejected an opportunity you cannot go back and claim it at a later time. This advice is far from the idea of a passive acceptance of fate often attributed to Arabs by Westerners. The reader is told to make active choices at each juncture, but in the end one should not complain if his choices have led him to an unhappy conclusion. "Don't cry over spilled milk," is a good English equivalent to the Arabic "nasibak" (it is your fate). in this case.


The tales and episodes teach many of the same lessons as the stories, but, if there is a difference, it is that the lessons in the tales are presented in a lighter manner and the message is usually not as profound. The tale prefers a smaller truth rather than an all-encompassing one. We learn that people should seek justice and the good of all, that it is cleverness and not size that counts, that one should behave moderately, that one should be careful of whom one trusts, that the greedy person loses in the end, that one should mind one's own business, that no one looks after your interests like a mother (a committed one), and that right when backed with might will be victorious. As with the stories, the implicit lessons of the tales are limited only by the imagination of the listener.


A number of conventions and formulae are found in the narratives. Many are based on the didactic device of repetition. We have already mentioned how the constant repetition of the narratives themselves allows them to be absorbed quickly by all ages. The pattern of repeating an action with variations a number or times within the narrative itself serves the same function of engraving the moral point more distinctly on the mind of the listener, while it builds suspense for a resolution to the problems raised. If indeed a true event existed behind the story or tale, it has been embellished and made more congruent by setting it within this repetitive mold.


A common device in Arabic, as in English, is to present a point in three repetitious actions. For example, we see such a device used in the story about the miser who offers a porter three pieces of advice. The repetition may involve a set number of specified actions that must be accomplished to test the hero or heroine, or actions that must be imitated in order to achieve anticipated results, or simply actions that are repeated a number of times to emphasize the main point. In "The Tale of Our Lady Namlush," reaction to the news of her husband's death draws a sympathetic response again and again from a series of characters. Most show their sympathy with behavior the tale condones as being appropriately moderate in scale and eventually reversible. It is the contrast of the one immoderate response that allows the point to be made. The conclusion then goes on to explain why things went wrong and what could have been done differently to avoid the problem.


Another way of using repetition is found in "The Episode of the Spilled Molasses." First, the heroine behaves in an exemplary manner with happy results; but, when her sister emulates the exemplary behav ior in anticipation of the same rewards, she is disappointed. The moral compares the two behaviors in this and similar narratives and points out why, because of some miscarriage of the action or a wrong motive, the rewards are not forthcoming.


Sometimes, repetition of events simply underlines a point being made. In "The Tale of Three Mice," for example, each mouse is clever in its own way at avoiding becoming the cat's meal. In "The Story of the Stone Cutters and the Son of the Gardener," repeated absurdities bring down an appropriate consequence. A final repetition in these and other narratives brings home the point again. While the body of the text makes the point in the concrete form of an example, the statement of the moral repeats the point again in abstract philosophical terms. Thus, the listener absorbs the lesson at whatever level he or she finds most convenient.


Repetitive behavior internal to a narration is a pattern more common to the tales than to the stories. Tales, therefore, can more legitimately be referred to as formula narratives. By contrast, stories usually rely more heavily on the details of the person's character or actions rather that the repetitious acts of various actors for their impact. For this reason, both plots and actors are carefully elaborated. In "The Story of Master Karshush's Tarbush," for example, the narrator carefully sets the scene of the action and the special flaws in the character of Master Kartush that make the surprise ending plausible. Usually, the possession of some specific trait, such as miserliness, wisdom, stupidity, generosity, or excessive pride, allows the moral to be drawn.


Other commonly occurring formulae are found at the beginning and end of stories and tales. I have already noted the introductory rhyming phrase that is roughly equivalent to our "once upon a time." Stories and tales, however, may also begin with such phrases as, "There was a place, my noble listeners," or "It happened one day that." Or, in some cases, the story begins immediately without a special phrase.


The introductory phrases for stories and tales show basically the same variation in this collection. However, in the two cases that are defined by Samir as episodes (haduth), the narration starts uniquely with, "I heard from Taq bin al-Tarintaq," an imaginary character who is supposed to have originated these particular episodes. His name conveniently rhymes widely with other words in preliminary phrases that have nothing to do with the basic story line that develops. Such openings are designed primarily as a means of setting the mood by means of a brief round of rhythmic verses. The verses can be equated with our, "I'll tell you a story of Jack and McGory, and now my story's begun. I'll tell you another of Jack and his brother, and now my story is done." The meaning is subservient to the luscious feel of the words rolling off the tongue.


Ending formulae for stories, tales, and episodes are more stable than introductory phrases. Each type of narrative has its own convention that is determined by the need to find words that rhyme with the Arabic name for the type of narrative: qissa, hikaya or hadutha. For stories, the ending goes "Hissa, hissa, antahat al-gissa, be farha am bi ghussa," with not only an introductory word hissa that rhymes with gissa but also a final word ghussa. Literally the phrase translates as "Thus ends the story with its allotted share of joy and agony." In the text, an attempt to preserve some of the rhyme has resulted in a freer translation of, "Thus ends the story, with its share of grief and glory."


The tale also has its consistent ending, "Aya, aya, antahat al-hidaya, bi sha'a am halawiya." Literally this phrase translates, "Aya, aya (nonsense words), thus ends the tale, was it disgusting or entertaining?" In the text, the translation becomes a freer, "So that is the tale's ending, did you find it charming or offending?" The storyteller may demand an answer from the child telling whether he or she liked the tale or not. The child who answers hastily, "Oh, I liked it," is told, "Good, then you are satisfied, so go to sleep!" Next time, in hopes of hearing more tales, the child says, "No, I didn't like it. Tell me another one." The storyteller replies, "So my tales don't satisfy you, then I won't tell you anymore. Go to sleep!" The joke is understood by the child and the storyteller, who both know that victory in the struggle of wits lies with the storyteller.


The final ending formula that appears in this collection is the one specifically designed for the hudutha, "Tuta, tuta, antahat al-hadutha, marbuta am mafluta?" Literally, this phrase translates as "Tuta, tuta (nonsense words) so ends the episode, all tied up (complete) or with loose ends (inconclusive)?" In the text the freer translation reads, "Thus the episode ends with all its events, was it unclear or did it make sense?" All the ending formulae bridge the gap between formal narration and normal conversation by engaging the listener in comments about the presentation.


Preceding the ending formula in one story appearing here is another familiar conclusionary phrase that is roughly equivalent to the English, "And they lived happily ever after." In "The Story of the Peddler's Daughter," after the resolution of the problem issue, the narrative continues, "And so one year succeeded another, and she bore boys and girls and they all lived healthy and strong until the day came when the one who destroys all pleasure and dispatches all groups appeared and demanded their souls, and thus they died." More than the English equivalent, this ending specifically names what people can expect from life: children as the source of pleasure, and death as an inevitable end that comes even to princesses and princes.


It is interesting that the endings in these narratives all develop a properly rising crescendo of tension and a definite climax as the suspense is resolved, similar to a Western folk narrative. In this, the narratives differ from what is more typical in Arabic art, music, and literature: the never-ending sequence of roughly equivalent events or episodes. We find examples in the interminable saga of "The Thousand and One Nights," in geometric Islamic motifs where angles of equal weight leave no single point for the eye's attention, and in the hourslong songs of the famous singer Um Kalthum. The audience finds itself back at the beginning when an artistic piece is ended, in an episodic cycle of beginnings and endings much more true to the reality of life. With a moral point very much in focus, however, the narratives take a different course, building toward their goal and ceasing when the point is made.


These narratives differ from the usual Arabic literary tradition in yet another way. In general, Arabic prefers an elaborate, embellished plot, replete with florid descriptive passages. But, instead, the narratives appearing here are usually composed in a spare, restrained style that outlines only the critical elements of the plot. They jump time and distance without describing more than briefly what transpired in the interim. They usually pause only briefly to highlight significant details that describe settings, what people were thinking or doing, and how they reacted to unexpected events. One can be sure, however, that every detail is relevant in some way to the story's conclusion. In "The Story of the Merchant of Khan al-Wazir," for example, the narrative describes the types of people who make up the audience coming to watch the execution of the debt agreement: the gloaters, condolers, sympathizers, and those who rejoice in the misfortune of others. The important point is that everyone responds emotionally to the impending tragedy but no one is ready to provide what is necessary to prevent it. In the story "The Miser and the Porter," the storyline is even more restrained with the narrative moving quickly to essential actions, as the pragmatic porter, trying to make the best of a bad situation, accepts advice instead of money. The long, steep stairway up which he carries his burden suggests the difficulty of his task and the appropriateness of his revenge when he realizes how badly he has been taken in. No extra words are needed to convey his feelings.


Detail is used only when the plot requires elaboration of a point to make a conclusion more plausible. The young girl in "The Story of the Peddler's Daughter" must be described at length to convince the listeners that someone so immature might possess the cleverness to fool the authorities as she does. In general, keeping the storyline clear and uncomplicated is most certainly an orientation dictated by the comprehension level of the youthful audience with its short attention span and need for a simple, logical sequence of events to grasp the main moral point. By contrast, epic romances designed primarily for adult listeners can afford the elaborate, flamboyant plots with intricate digressions beloved by Arab audiences.


The English language falls far short in conveying the sounds, rhythms, and emotions of the Arabic language. When English remains objective, Arabic is subjective. When English describes minimally, Arabic may be redundant with reiterations of the same word or synonyms. The young woman who doesn't eat is not just in danger of being ill; she is also pale, weak, and thin. When English is impersonal, Arabic appeals to the emotions in a mist of phrases that tenderly or cruelly tug at the heartstrings. When English searches for preciseness in meaning, Arabic prefers to create a vague ambiguity with words that flow in musical instead of logical succession. Where English style requires short, direct, declarative sentences, Arabic loves the endless sentence strewn with past participles and past perfects and connected with "and," "or," and "but," as if releasing the eye with a period might forever lose the attention of a distracted reader. Arabic abhors the uninvolved, the impersonal, and the uncommitted, and with its poetic oratory strives to envelop its reader in the gossamer strands of raw sentimentality.


The hikaya tales by the nature of their rhymes, nonsense words, and sometime pointless maneuvers to set the mood are much more difficult than stories to translate satisfactorily into English. The importance of their rhythms, didactic repetitions, and participatory goals must be kept in mind when translations fall short of complete communication.

Andrea Rugh

Once upon a time, there was a poor widow with five children. She loved them as the earth loves the seeds, and they loved her as the seeds love the rain. One night when there was no food left to give her children except five cakes, she went and prepared some tea. She brought the tea and distributed the five cakes so that each child could have one cake. Then she sat quietly drinking her tea with no food left for herself.


The oldest of the children looked at his mother and thought, "My poor mother! She divided all the cakes she had among us and left none for herself to fill her empty stomach. God knows how much she has worked for our sakes, washing clothes, cleaning, ironing, shopping, cooking, washing dishes, sewing, and all the other tiresome chores. I must share my part with her." Immediately, he divided his cake into two, giving one to his mother and keeping one for himself. When the next son saw what his brother had done, he presented his mother with his second half and so did the third and fourth and fifth sons, so that their mother found two and one-half cakes placed in front of her. The mother looked at her children with a smile and said, "Look what has happened, when one makes little sacrifices, one is compensated with a lot. You see what has happened to me. I had nothing to begin with and now I have more than any one of you." She put out her hand and took one-half a cake like her children and put the remaining two cakes in the middle of the table, so if anyone felt the desire to have more he could help himself a second time.


So all of them were satisfied and slept happily, enjoying love and affection, which is more valuable than any wealth, and sufficient compensation for any need or lack. Keep yourselves from calamity and evil. Learn that in selfishness there is dishonor, and that the road to greatness is through giving.


Thus ends the story, with its share of grief and glory!