"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. They are the qissa or story, the hikava or tale, and the hudutha or episode,' all designed for narrating in private homes or in other small gatherings. The fourth is the romance.
This type of folk narrative 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 tile epics are not completely clear, they most probably began as descriptive stories and only later developed more complicated plots and, some times, even stable rhyming versions. Although the true events upon which they were based could have been related in the period of half au 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 plat form, 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 tile 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 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 second group of folk narratives is stories (qisas) collected mainly from urban storytellers. 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.
A clue to the origin of some of the stories lies in allusions to identifiably Christian or Muslim themes. Syria consists of large communities of Muslims amid 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 mere view 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.
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 stories are probably Christian, while Muslims tend to he 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 third form of narrative is the tale (hikaya), which is generally a non-serious, 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 top?" 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 he 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 fourth form of narrative is the episode (hadutha). Some analysts consider the hikaya and hudutha to be essentially the same narrative form. Others, however, see the episode as a combination form. While it can usually he classified as a non-serious 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. Alternatively, an episode may combine a serious story line with imaginary animal characters. It is not always easy to make categorical distinctions.
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.
Folktales from Syria
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 every one who listens. As the child grows, he or she learns to strip the "on ion" 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 he 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.
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 he 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 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 it self 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 set ting it within this repetitive mold.
A common device in Arabic, as in English, is to present a point in three repetitious actions. 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.
Sometimes, repetition of events simply underlines a point being made. 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.
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 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-qissa, be farha am hi ghussa," with not only an introductory word hissa that rhymes with qissa 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, hi sha'a am halawiya." Literally this phrase translates, "Aya, aya (non sense 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, marhuta 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.
It is interesting that the endings in the 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 hours- long songs of the famous singer Um Kalthum. The audience finds it self 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.
Detail is used only when the plot requires elaboration of a point to make a conclusion more plausible. 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.
1. I have chosen to represent the different narrative forms with these English equivalents to avoid confusion.
2. See 1978, 'Antar and 'Abla: A Bedouin Romance, Quartet Books Ltd., London.
3. Sec El-Shamy, Hasan M., 1980, Folktales of Egypt. University of Chicago Press. Chicago. p.xlv.
4. "Kan ya makan fi gadim al-zaman" means literally "There was a place in olden times." El-Shamy says that this ending and those similar to "and they begat boys and girls" are phrases used more frequently by women and children in Egypt. See his Folktales of Egypt.
The art of storytelling in Syria