I first heard Arab folk tales when I went to work in Kuwait in the late 1980s and I was invited to visit the diwaniyahs. A diwaniyah is the living room found in every Kuwaiti house where the men of the house entertain their friends. We used to sit, play cards, chat and joke, nibble and drink. Late at night, if we were lucky, the story would begin.
Fabulous stories that they were also and all the more because of the narrative style. Even though there was always a TV in the corner, it was turned off as soon as someone, sitting cross-legged on a pile of cushions, started telling a story. My Arabic was very poor at that time (and not much better today) but there was always a kind soul that murmured a translation. I followed the stories as best as I could, watching the delighted faces staring at the speaker and his gestures as his voice went up and down. Traditional stories are still alive in the Persian Gulf.
I had the habit of writing these stories, when I could remember them in the mornings. Later, as the founding editor of Kuwait this month, I tweaked and published them, and they got along very well with the English readers of the Gulf. I later discovered that various versions of these stories had been written hundreds of years ago, but most of them, with a few exceptions, were actually unknown in the West or have been forgotten.
The stories I heard were really good stories. By that, I mean that they had large parcels. The seed of a crisis was always sown early and there were rarely long windy descriptions. The crisis would grow, seem to resolve, but would only worsen several times. Finally, there was usually a very satisfying end.
Although the stories were based on the plot, the characters were still plausible. With just a few clever words, the storyteller would sketch a complete personality that you could easily believe, even if they were jinn, ifreet, or other super-natural beings. By reading one of my favorite tales, The Ox and the Donkey, I find the talking animals quite realistic, perhaps because their thoughts and actions reflect the stupidity of humans.
Although Arab tales reflect local culture and in particular the Bedouin spirit, their themes are universal – the struggle for justice, which might not be right, the villain always receives his just deserts, the struggles sub-dog, etc. They almost always have morally satisfactory results with which we can all identify.
If you, like me, are the kind of person who enjoys a good story for your own good, you should immerse yourself in the rich store of folk tales that have been told for hundreds, sometimes thousands of years, in Arabia, and are still told today.