Jamal Sleem Nuweihed,
Abu Jmeel's Daughter
& Other Stories: Arab
Folk Tales from Palestine & Lebanon

(Interlink, 2002)

Literary translations from less-current languages are always greeted with enthusiasm by this reviewer. Such projects are namely one of the ways in which we become acutely aware of mankind's simultaneous cultural diversity and universality as a species. In this case, however, it must be admitted that the qualification "less-current language" is to be taken in a very relative sense, for Arabic is spoken by no less than a quarter billion people worldwide.

The translation of these 27 folk tales is a family venture of Salma Khadra Jayussi. Herself the niece of the collection's author, Jamal Sleem Nuweihed (1907-1991), she is also an acknowledged scholar of Arabic literature. Jayussi initiated -- and still heads -- PROTA (the Project of Translation from Arabic). Together with several generations of Khadra and Nuweihed siblings she undertook the effort to render these folk tales, originally collected in the colloquial of Palestine and Lebanon, into English.

In a way the transmitters of these stories reflect the interconnectedness of the lands of the Levant. (In addition to Palestine and Lebanon, these include Jordan, Syria, and even parts of Turkey.) Jamal herself lived in Lebanon, Syria, Jordan and finally Jerusalem. The folk tales in this volume came first and foremost from Jamal's mother and the latter's sister, who were of Turkish origin (their father being a member of the Ottoman aristocracy). In addition to this duo, two other women -- a Palestinian and Lebanese lady of more common origin -- also provided Jamal with material for her collection.

This brings us to another significant aspect of these particular folk tales. Not only were the four transmitters and the author of the final selection of tales all women, but most of the stories also feature prominent female actors. This provides an interesting perspective on things. For the segregation of sexes in traditional Arab society made -- and often still makes -- it impossible for members of the opposite gender to become directly acquainted with the cultural heritage of what usually remains hidden behind the walls of the women's quarters. The significance of this is also confirmed in the introduction written by Remke Kruk, professor of Arabic at the University of Leiden in the Netherlands and -- as this chauvinist Dutch Arabist is happy to report -- a world authority on Arabic literature. She points out that little or no scholarly research has been conducted into the contributions of women to Arabic literature. She therefore applauds the release of this collection of folk tales, a literary genre that was first and foremost the domain of women.

The characters portrayed in some of these tales are surprisingly familiar. In the story of "Rummana," we can easily recognize the figure of Snow White, albeit in a distinctly Arab setting. Then there is "Clever Hasan" who appears under a variety of guises in a number of the collection's stories. Through his cunning he is able to outsmart all kinds of adversaries and emerge victorious, as so many fairy tale characters in our western traditions used to do. Although non-Arab readers can easily identify with many of the themes and personae, on closer reading we may also detect that certain tales take twists that reflect prevalent Arab cultural values. For example, the morale of many of the tales emphasizes the importance of family solidarity and filial piety.

Apart from human characters with their usual qualities and flaws, these stories also contain players from the other realm. Ghouls and jinn feature prominently in a number of the tales. The former can be considered as the Arab equivalent of man-eating ogres. The category of jinn is more complex and can be traced back to Arabia's pre-Islamic religious heritage, which contained a strong animist component. Consequently, they can appear in numerous forms that go beyond the "genie in the bottle" or Aladdin's lamp.

This brings me to a final critical note. The translator of literatures from other cultures always faces a special challenge: how to present language-specific features of such cultures to non-initiated readers. Although in the endnotes certain Arabic terminology is explained, this volume might have benefited from a glossary in which also the meaning of certain personal names would be expounded on. With regards to the story of "Qamar al-Zamaan and Shams al-Dunya," for example, it would be nice for non-Arabic speakers to know the significance of these names ("The Moon of Time" and "The Sun of the World," respectively).

In conclusion, this quite voluminous (340 page) collection of stories provides an excellent introduction to the rich Arabic folklore and enables western readers to look beyond the all too familiar One-Thousand-and-One-Nights tradition. Salma Khadra Jayussi's qualifications as a scholar and editor have also ensured a consistent level of translation, offering readable English texts that nevertheless retain some of the Arabic's authenticity.

[ by Carool Kersten ]
Rambles: 7 September 2002

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