Vol. 1, No. 2 (December 1995)|
THE PASSION AND THE MAGIC: DISTINCTIONS OF ARABIC FOLKTALES
By Fatme Sharafeddine Hassan*
A large number of Arabic legends, folktales, and myths reflect the culture's history, social customs, morals, values, and religious beliefs. Since the Arabs share the same geographical conditions, historical experiences, and language, it is quite difficult to specify the origin of Arabic legends and folktales. A reader of Arabic literature may find different versions of the same stories in various Arabic countries. For instance, the folktale Clever Hassan from Palestine is equivalent to Abu Hajlan from Syria and to Mhammad Belhajjala from Tunisia. Although the versions differ slightly, the moral behind the tales is the same.
Arabic tales share many characteristics. The stories display the social values that the Arabs have in common and discusses the position and roles of men and women in society. Faith in God is usually expressed through the hero, who uses his belief to achieve the main task. An all-powerful King is also depicted and supernatural elements are a very important component of most Arabic tales and legends.
Since the tribal structure was the nucleus of social and political life for a very long period in Arabic history, the values of such a culture influenced the folktales and legends. Very often, hospitality and kindness to guests and strangers is essential for survival in the desert. Values such as courage, honesty, honor, hospitality, generosity, and loyalty are emphasized. Moreover, the hero is defined by characteristics such as pride, bravery in war, protecting the weak, and helping the poor.
A woman is portrayed in traditional Arabic tales and legends as a weak person who needs protection by her man, such as her father, brother, son, husband, or uncle. Most of the time a woman is described as a housewife who does not have the right to make, or even share in, important decisions. She is accused of not being able to keep her husband's secrets, since she is always expected to gossip with neighbors and relatives regarding all matters. Thus, she might destroy her husband's plans. The woman's honor is in her virginity before getting married, and in her loyalty to her husband afterwards.
An Arab's faith in God is strongly reflected in folktales passed down throughout the generations. In a large number of these tales, the hero is said to act according to God's will. For instance, a poor man accepts his poverty because it is his destiny decided by God. God may answer the wishes of good people, such as granting a child or bestowing wealth. In addition, God also punishes the evil characters that cause trouble for the main protagonists.
The King is also an extremely powerful figure. In most stories, he is the ultimate ruler whose will is never questioned by the public. The king possesses slaves and has total power over anyone in his country. He can marry any woman he desires, can kill people without justifying his act, and can make people rich or poor whenever he decides.
The supernatural element is a very important aspect in ancient Arabic literature. Jinn, Jinniyeh, Ifreet, Ghouls, Ghouleh, Giants, and Angels are some of the supernatural creatures that appear frequently. There are two kinds of forces that control human beings: good forces, including God and angels, and evil forces, such as Jinn and Ghouls. Good forces are thought to be more powerful than evil forces, but not powerful enough to eliminate them. In general, Arabic folktales and legends are very violent. There are many scenes in which storytellers describe fights and methods of killing very bluntly, regardless of the age group listening. In addition to supernatural elements, Arabic folktales include magical elements that, most of the time, help the hero achieve his goals. Examples of such elements include a ring, three hairs of a horse, a crystal ball, slippers, and a flying carpet.
It is interesting to note that although folktales might include supernatural and magical elements, they are usually based on real life events that stem from the Arabic culture. For instance, social values such as courage and honesty are often preserved in the legends and folktales. Imagination and creativity in these tales add to their beauty and entertaining capacity without minimizing the influence of real life events.
An interesting element of the stories is the use of formalistic numbers that still have spiritual meanings for many people in the Arab world. For example, the numbers three, seven and forty are very meaningful to Arabs in general. In many of the tales those numbers have been used to describe various aspects in the development of events. Expressions such as "seven days and nights", "three chances", and "forty doors to open" are commonly used.
In addition, many Arabic folktales lack of the element of logic. Events might be clearly presented, but sometimes little details that clarify parts of the story are missing. For instance, in Clever Hassan, the hero suddenly possesses a magic ring that helps him in his troubles. The story doesn't mention where the ring came from or why Hassan didn't use it before.
Most of the tales have morals that teach the listener or reader right from wrong. Some of the common morals are "patience is the key for success," "satisfaction and contentment keep you out of trouble," "loyalty is always rewarded," and "stealing is usually discovered and punished." These lessons are meant to enhance and preserve the set of values that comprise Arab culture and make it unique.
Fatme Sharafeddine Hassan, an aAssistant Editor of Al Jadid, is a Lebanese American writer, lives in Ohio