Jilali El Koudia is afraid so. Born into a rural family in the ancient cultural crossroads of Morocco, he experienced his mother’s telling of folktales as a vital relief from daily hardships. Now a prominent writer and translator, he feels it urgently necessary to preserve the tradition that nurtured him, before it disappears. From a number of narrators, primarily older women, he has collected the thirty-one tales in this brief but rich anthology, and offers them for us to enjoy and marvel at in our turn.
There’s certainly no shortage of excitement, as our heroes and heroines dodge jealous stepmothers, man-eating ghouls and unscrupulous sultans on their way to “happily ever after.” Most of the tales begin with a fraught family situation: jealousy, betrayal or revenge provoke a crisis, which usually leads to an encounter with magical beings or events.
It’s fascinating to compare these tales with their northern European variants. In a Snow White-type story, a beautiful girl is persecuted and flees to a house of seven ghouls; she is such a good housekeeper that instead of eating her, they offer her a home as the wife of the youngest. Though she later is found in an enchanted sleep by a sultan, who wants to make her his bride, she prefers life with the ghouls and can’t rest until she returns to them.
In “Nunja and the White Dove,” a man has two wives, one of whom becomes jealous of the other and turns her into a cow, then causes her to be slaughtered. As in the German “Cinderella,” the dead mother continues to help her daughter. A magic pomegranate provides her with the dress and shoes to wear to the palace of the sultan, who falls in love with her and (after some interference by the jealous stepsister) marries her.
Men with multiple wives and the routine seclusion of women are a common feature, unsurprisingly for tales from a Muslim culture. Interestingly, many of the stories also turn on a strong brother-sister bond. This is a typical cultural pattern in the Middle East, as a scholarly afterword points out for those of us who are more or less ignorant of this tradition.
In “Rhaida,” both the positive and negative aspects of such a bond are strikingly portrayed: the title character is a beautiful girl who has never been seen by her brother, the sultan. Upon beholding no more than a strand of her hair, he declares that he must marry her, even though she is his sister. She escapes with the help of a younger brother, who remains faithful to her through many trials.
There are many brave, clever and resourceful female characters in the stories, perhaps reflecting the fact that they were narrated almost exclusively by women. Fatna, in “Father and Daughters,” escapes the unwanted advances of a sultan’s son by disguising herself as a male fakih (Muslim scholar). She even goes so far as to “marry” another woman, who when let in on the secret is willing to help Fatna reinforce her disguise. In another long tale, “Seven Daughters and Seven Sons,” a man is scorned because he can produce only girls, while his brother proudly boasts of his sons. The tables are turned when the youngest daughter outwits her male cousins and brings home treasure for her family. These stories could be the basis for a great novel: any writers looking for source material out there?
As he notes in the introduction, El Koudia did not merely transcribe the tales he heard, but rewrote, reconstructed and retold them, eliminating wordiness and repetition. His English translation (with Roger Allen) gives us the tales in direct, unembellished and almost stark language. It is an excellent basic source for storytellers and teachers, who can retell the stories in their own idiom. For scholars, there is a critical analysis and an impressive numerical index of tale types and motifs.
If you don’t yet have a good source of Middle Eastern folklore in your collection, this one is worth a look. I heartily recommend it to anyone who, like El Koudia, loves stories and believes in their power to transform and sustain us
(Syracuse University Press, 2003)