Najla Jraissaty Khoury; Trans. Inea Bushnaq

Pearls on a Branch: Oral Tales by Najla Jraissaty Khoury and translated by Inea Bushnaq is a collection of 30 Arab folktales transmitted orally through the generations by Arab women. Khoury traveled in Lebanon during the civil war, collecting stories told by women in women-only gatherings.

The folktales share many of the characteristics of Western fairy tales with some cultural variations. Pomegranate-Seed-on-a-Platter and Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves resembles Snow White and the Seven Dwarves; Thuraya with the Long, Long Hair resembles Rapunzel. Ghouls and ogres make a ubiquitous presence; as do wicked step-mothers; talking animals, trees, and flowers; humans who transform into four-legged creatures and/or vegetation; peacocks that impregnate girls; and turds that sing. In some cases, a series of tasks or quests have to be performed before a marriage can take place. Also present are mnemonic devices very common to oral transmission in which a phrase or verse is repeated as an aid to memory. The virtuous are rewarded, the wicked punished and invariably meet with a dire end when they “explode in anger and die on the spot.”

The central character is a virtuous female whose beauty surpasses all others, and whose wit, intelligence, strength, and wisdom outsmart her male counterparts. In this patriarchal culture, the girl usually disguises herself as a male in order to travel freely and outfox her enemies. Through her perseverance, tenacity, smarts, and unparalleled beauty, the heroine wins the love of the handsome prince or sultan. Not surprisingly, the tale ends with the celebration of a happily ever after marriage.

This is a delightful collection, at times bawdy, at times didactic, at times funny, and always entertaining. Since oral transmission of folktales is rapidly becoming a dying art, the real value of this collection lies in its preservation of traditional Arab folktales for the enjoyment of future generations.


AuthorTamara Agha-Jaffar
CategoriesBook Review