#Read More Arab Folktales

Yes. I  want YOU to read more Arab folktales. There’s been a lot of attention lately given to how #WeNeedDiverseBooks and increasing the number of diverse characters in film, and seeing more women directors etc. A strong subset of genre fiction, in particular fantasy and science fiction, is the retold fairytale or folktale.  I love these kinds of stories – Grimm, Anderson, Perrault and others. I’ve read the traditional ones as well as Russian, Hawaiian, Indian etc.  Granted, I will acknowledge I am blurring the lines between myth, folktale, marchen, and fairytales.  🙂

But what has always nagged at me is that I have rarely seen any Middle Eastern tales.  Where are the tales of the Beduin?  Or of Djuha? Or djinn and ifrits and ghuls? All I ever hear of is One Thousand and One Nights (Alf Layla wa Layla), “Arabian Nights” as many people call it. *sigh*  And while I love those stories, as I mention in “Why 1001 Nights Isn’t Your Best Multicultural Steampunk Reference” it isn’t exactly an unbiased source. Is that why no one references Middle Eastern tales – They don’t know where to get them? Is that the core question? What are good sources of Arab folktales?  Where can people get a chance to taste the very rich tradition of storytelling from my part of the world?

I hope that’s the issue.  Because I have an answer. From my library I just pulled my three favorite collections:

Arab Folktales – Translated and Edited by Inea Bushnaq

ArabFolktalesCoverThis is by far my favorite book.  I haven’t read any other of the Pantheon Fairy Tale and Folklore Library Series, but if this is anything to go by, it’s likely worth collecting the others.  I’ve lost three copies by loaning it to people and not getting my copy back.

“Out of alleys of Cairo and Bedouin tents, from the Moroccan laborers and Syrian peasants, this collection of 130 tales comes from Arab worlds from North Africa to the Holy Land.”

The stories are divided up into categories:

  1. Tales Told in Houses Made of Hair;
  2. Djinn, Ghouls, and Afreets;
  3. Magical Marriages and Mismatches;
  4. Beasts That Roam the Earth and Birds That Fly with Wings;
  5. Famous Fools and Rascals;
  6. Good Men and Golden Words; and
  7. Wily Women and Clever Men.

If you want to read Arab “fairytales” this is probably one of the best places to start.

Behind Closed Doors: Women’s Oral Narratives in Tunis – Monia HejaiejBehindClosedDoorsCover

“Tunis has a long history of city life reaching back to ancient times. The Arabic language is firmly rooted among its inhabitants and most embrace the morals and culture of Islam. Behind Closed Doors presents forty-seven tales told by three Beldi women, members of a historic and highly civilized community, the city’s traditional elite. Tale-telling is important to all Beldi women, and the book examines its role in their shared world and its significance in the lives of the three tellers.

“Tales are told at communal gatherings to share and pass on Beldi women’s secret lore of love, marriage and destiny. Ghaya Sa’diyya and Kheira tell stories which echo their life experience and have deep meanings for them. Their tales reflect accepted moral codes, and yet many depict attitudes, relationships, and practices that contradict established norms. Whereas Kheira presents a conservative and moralistic view of the role of women, Sa’diyya’s heroines are alive with sexual energy, and Ghaya’s stories also offer racy and rebellious comments on a woman’s lot. These contradictory visions offer a kaleidoscopic view of the position of women in the rich life of a historic North African city.”

Just a note, not all of these tales are…umm, kid-friendly.

Speak, Bird, Speak Again – Ibrahim Muhawi and Sharif KanaanaSpeakBirdCover

“Were it simply a collection of fascinating, previously unpublished folktales, Speak, Bird, Speak Again: Palestinian Arab Folktales would merit praise and attention because of its cultural rather than political approach to Palestinian studies. But it is much more than this. By combining their respective expertise in English literature and anthropology, Ibrahim Muhawi and Sharif Kanaana bring to these tales an integral method of study that unites a sensitivity to language with a deep appreciation for culture.

“As native Palestinians, the authors are well-suited to their task. Over the course of several years they collected tales in the regions of the Galilee, Gaza, and the West Bank, determining which were the most widely known and appreciated and selecting the ones that best represented the Palestinian Arab folk narrative tradition. Great care has been taken with the translations to maintain the original flavor, humor, and cultural nuances of tales that are at once earthy and whimsical. The authors have also provided footnotes, an international typology, a comprehensive motif index, and a thorough analytic guide to parallel tales in the larger Arab tradition in folk narrative. Speak, Bird, Speak Again is an essential guide to Palestinian culture and a must for those who want to deepen their understanding of a troubled, enduring people.”

I love, love, love all the footnotes.  🙂


I will also say that these three books aren’t the newest out there.  There is likely something more recently published that is equally awesome.  If you know of any other great collections of Arab folktales, by all means leave a comment!  I want to know.  If you haven’t, I hope you’ll at least consider my recommendations and will “read more Arab folktales.”