There is a popular contemporary genre of retellings of the canonical fairy tales: take a narrative known by the entire population of former children and reframe or rewrite the structure of the tale in order to fundamentally alter our understanding of the normative assumptions that lie at the core of the stories we tell. Hundreds of ‘feminist fairy tales’ have been published since the mid-20th century, rewriting classic stories like Cinderella or Snow White to allow the women in the stories to be more than a passive object of the desire for the prince who sweeps them out of poverty or mystically prolonged dozing. The recent film The Lure (2015) provides a starkly feminist retelling of The Little Mermaid as a punk rock horror-musical set in a seedy Polish nightclub in the 1980s, drawing out the injustice of the sacrifices asked of women conforming to society to gain the love of human males only to be betrayed by those very men.
In another mode, novels like Gregory Maguire’s Wicked provide a focus on female villains in fairy tales – Maguire’s novel takes the story of The Wizard of Oz and shifts the narrative to focus entirely on the life and times of the Wicked Witch of the West, in order to draw into question the trope of the evil woman dedicated to monstrous evil and ask why so many unmarried women in fairy tales are painted as evil anyway!
While this genre of ideological reframing the canon has a great deal of value – it’s good to question stories defending patriarchy or racism or feudal orders! – I sometimes get a sense that these collections are produced so that there can finally be stories for a marginalized population to see themselves in. And this project of refitting classic fairy tales into non-patriarchal, non-western-centric fairy tales is troublesome for two reasons: 1 it assumes that the stories which have been judged problematic can be saved by prudent editing and 2 it fails to ask what stories the marginalized communities have been telling themselves. For if a marginalized group doesn’t see itself recognized in the mass popular culture, they don’t just sit at home in silence. They turn around and tell stories themselves. Instead of working to save stories which might not be salvageable, storytellers and adapters would do well to remember they are creating art for living and breathing communities, and sometimes there is more value in asking your audience what stories they are already telling themselves, rather than assuming a gap of mass popular representation is paired with a lack of narrative representation overall. If no stories are being written for women or non-white audiences by Hollywood or Broadway, then what stories are being told by those women when the evening winds down and people need entertainment, when children play with dolls or toys, or when disparate communities start to form over new modes of mass communication less limiting than film or television production? How might those stories be captured, if no one is putting them on a stage?
A joyous example of an artist/archivist carrying out this work of cross-cultural recording and interpretation is the happy publication in English of “Pearls on a Branch” (2018, Archipelago Books), a set of oral tales from Syria, Lebanon, and Palestine, collected by Najla Jraissaty Khoury and translated from the Arabic by Inea Bushnaq. Khoury began her work during the Lebanese civil war by touring refugee camps and rural communities, asking her interviewees to tell stories they remembered being told as children. Khoury and a theatrical troupe she founded – the Sandouk el Fergeh, or Box of Wonders – would then perform these stories exactly as delivered by her elderly storytellers, travelling throughout the Levant, even as the civil war raged from 1975 to 1990, bringing these stories to camps of Palestinian, Syrian and Lebanese refugees, performing them with shadow puppets when the only stage available was a canvas and a lantern. Eventually Sandouk el Fergeh closed down, but rather than let that be the end, in 2014 she selected her favorite 100 stories to publish in book form, in order that the works she and her collaborators had collected and brought to life could be shared with a new generation of listeners and storytellers.
These stories, nearly all centering on young girls figuring how to make their way in a patriarchal world which often treats them unjustly, are excellent examples of a popular culture produced and delivered from below. Khoury describes realizing after several interviews that there were some stories which would be told quite differently if men or children were in the room. As she writes “certain stories told by women were for women only” (12). Khoury asks whether this was a way for women to assert their presence and independence in a deeply patriarchal society, particularly before the middle of the 20th century, when these stories were first told to the majority of Khoury’s interviewees as children. As Khoury describes it, at this time –
“Women, once their housework was done, were confined…to their homes. The men could go out to the coffee house to hear the Hakawati, recite the old epics before a strictly male audience. The women visited each other and told stories; stories in which men are dependent on women who are sharper and more intelligent than they are, where women become the true heroines if only through their patience in the face of oppression” (13).
In these stories, adventurous young girls defy their fathers who have unjustly locked them in rooms to keep them from marriage and run away to seek their fortune outside of the home, but even demure girls who do not make such dramatic gestures show determination and wily scheming to attain their desires. As Khoury writes – “In a society where the men dominate, women use 1001 wiles to assert themselves.”
These dynamics of feminine agency within a patriarchal society show most clearly in the title story – “Pearls on a Branch”. In it, the young princess Husun Kamil (Loveliness Perfected) seeks to marry a nearby king, named Lulu Bighsunu (Pearls on a Branch). He refuses her request in such an insulting manner that she immediately steals out into the dead of night, sells herself as a slave to Bighsunu’s household, and grows close enough to make small bets over the playing of a game. If Husun Kamil wins, she can make one request. The first night, she wins and ties Lulu Bighsunu’s hands together until morning. The next night, fascinated by Husun Kamil, Lulu Bighsunu asks her to come to his chambers and serve his dinner. Husun Kamil comes at his request, but as she peels an apple over his palm, she intentionally cuts into his hand. She rushes to bandage his wound and then leaves the city without saying another word. When Lulu Bighsunu does not find her, he searches everywhere he can think of, until he unwraps the bandage, revealing a letter placed directly over the wound –
“Lulu Bighsunu will not be coming to sit at Husun Kamil’s hearth?
The first night with her belt she tied your hands
And let you sleep as if on firebrands.
The second night she cut your palm and made it bleed
You’ll never be the one that Husun Kamil needs.” (94)
Aroused but humiliated, Lulu Bighsunu goes off to seek his own revenge by asking Husun Kamil’s hand in marriage, only for Husun Kamil to be told when she arrives that he will in fact be marrying someone other than her! She bows her head and seemingly accepts this and reenters Bighsunu’s household as a servant. But when Bighsunu directs Husun Kamil to sleep with his black-skinned servant Saiid, Husun Kamil, in order to avoid this sexual activity with a man not of her own choosing, demands that Saiid complete impossible tasks which he 1 cannot finish before morning and 2 will not be able to describe to Lulu Bighsunu without Bighsunu assuming the job was carried out. The first night she asks Saiid to separate out an enormous bag of white and black beads into black and white piles. When Lulu Bighsunu asks how his night went, he can only say “as God is my witness, my Master, between black and white, I was up all night!” When Husun Kamil orders Saiid to fix an unfixable door, Saiid can only report to his master “By God, it was push and pull, push and pull, hour after hour, my Master” (99). Husun Kamil tricks her way into Lulu Bighsunu’s bed, with the aid of Bighsunu’s other wife, and gives birth to a child so beautiful and so obviously Bighsunu’s son that he is forced to overcome his need to dominate Husun Kamil, since she will obviously come out ahead of any further battles! He agrees to marry Husun Kamil and they live “happily to the end of their days” (104).
These events begin when Husun Kamil asks her father to bring back “Pearls on a Branch” on the advice of her maid, even though she does not know what the phrase means. Her father does his best, but when this object asked for as a gift turns out to be a human male, and this male immediately insults her and refuses to come to her, her pride demands she work and scheme until she has acquired this Pearls on a Branch , even if she has to go out herself into the wide and treacherous world. She becomes a slave and works her way to become Lulu Bighsunu’s wife, leaping up and down the economic hierarchy of his kingdom. Husun Kamil does not simply beat Lulu Bighsunu at games of chess and wit, she grows familiar enough with his servants and his other wife that she can make bargains or demands without them telling Lulu Bighsunu what’s been really going on. She proves to be a master of spycraft and intrigue without ever acting in a way which would give her opponent and desired husband any evidence of acting shamefully.
There are other stories in this collection which do not provide as many opportunities for clever ploys for young girls. In the story “The Sun Her Mother, the Moon Her Father”, a young girl born with the sun for a mother and the moon for a father is courted by the king’s son. She finds him pleasant and accepts his offer of marriage, but her aunts warn her as she leaves to join his household – “Because he is the king’s son you have to maintain your own position. Don’t say one word to him until he mentions your mother the sun and your father the moon” (47). She follows this advice and the king’s son puts her through terrible trials trying to get her to speak to him, but until he recognizes her descent from the sun and the moon, she speaks not a word! Of course, he does so, after overhearing this secret from some enchanted tableware, and when she immediately runs to his side we are told that “he kissed her and she kissed him” (52). She takes the demure silence demanded of women in so many spheres of the world of the story’s original listeners and turns it into a means by which to sustain her position as an equal of her husband. The girl is in a position of legal and cultural weakness, but as every good reader of Clausewitz or Sun Tzu knows, there is strength and advantage in even the worst position!
In “Sitt Yadab”, a young girl named Yadab respects her family and her teachers so very much that when she sees the Sheikh who teaches at her school is in fact a horrifying ghoul who eats small children in the dead of night, she tells no one as this would be disrespecting her teachers! The ghoul tries to trip her up by coming and asking her if she saw him eating children, because if she speaks against her teachers he will be able to eat her up next. But she is not fooled and even when the ghoul threatens to eat her family’s cows, her family’s camels, or her parents, she says only that she saw her teacher “preparing tests/To help his students do their best” (191). She runs from her hometown, but wherever she goes the ghoul follows and eats her loved ones when she does not admit that she saw her teacher eating her classmate. She marries a prince and bears two children, but the ghoul appears and, after she refuses to admit what she saw, eats her children and leaves a mark of blood upon her lips. Yadab’s husband locks her in a prison cell as the killer of her own children, and in this cell she grieves and cuts marks in a Stone of Patience with a Knife of Sorrow procured on a Hajj from Mecca. As she cuts into the stone she cries out all the sorrows she could not admit to the ghoul without disrespecting her teacher. After an entire night and day of weeping and declamation in total isolation, her ritual attains its purpose:
“the ground at her feet split open and the Sheikh appeared. He addressed her with these words:
‘O Sitt Yadab, no human has existed
Who defied my orders or strength resisted
Until your patience and your tears
For the first time in all my years,
Sapped my strength and conquered me!” (199-200)
Whereupon her entire family, its camels and cows, her children and everyone else the ghoul had consumed throughout Yadab’s trials all appear in Yadab’s small room, and the ghoul disappears back into the ground. The prince hears about the magical commotion, everything is revealed, and Yadab is reinstated as princess. Her wedding celebrations are renewed to allow her parents to celebrate and recognize this second beginning, and the couple “then lived together in happiness and peace” (201). This is a didactic story, firmly advising young women to respect their elders and their teachers, but the lesson is pushed to such an extent that in living according to the maxim “respect your teacher”, Sitt Yadab allows her parents and children to be eaten by a ghoul. This requires a deep and abiding subjective fortitude in the face of literally inhuman attacks. The quiet, abiding patience of Sitt Yadab is evidence not of a blind unthinking adherence to a schoolbook lesson, but rather of real subjective courage as she upholds the virtues she demands of herself in a hostile world.
These three women, Husun Kamil, the daughter of the sun and the moon, and Sitt Yadab, are active members of their society, toying with and becoming masters of the deeply patriarchal rules they must live within. They turn deeply unfair requirements of silence and obedience to their own advantage, whether that advantage be a desired sexual partner in the case of Husun Kamil, mutual respect as an equal of her husband in the case of the daughter of the sun and the moon, or a meaningfully life defined by ethical virtue in the case of Sitt Yadab. And this is all done without explicitly decrying the injustice or arbitrariness of these customs and orders.
Given that these customs and laws are so much a part of the worlds of these stories, some readers might well wonder whether these stories will be unintelligible to an American without any grasp of 20th century Lebanese history. I can tell you this is of no concern. The translator Inea Bushnaq has rendered these tales in an English which echoes the prose of most children’s stories in this language without erasing either the Muslim faith of the storytellers or the Jinns and Ghouls of Arabic spirituality. The stories leap from raucous comedy to delicate melodrama to truly frightening moments of horror; stories filled with astounding magic and talking animals exist side by side with tales featuring nothing more surprising than a young girl who stands for what she wants in the face of masculine petulance. Additionally, there is another entry-point into this collection for the wary American child - many of these stories will be immediately recognizable the stories of Cinderella, Rapunzel or Snow White, shifted and translated into Arabic audience. The Snow White figure, placed into a mysterious sleep by her jealous step-mother, is protected here not by 7 dwarves, but rather by Ali Baba and his 40 thieves, and must sleep until a virtuous sultan speaks a magic phrase to wake her from her slumber. The sultan marries her as his wife and live joyfully together, causing the wicked step-mother to become so angry that she bursts into a thousand pieces! If the stories here require some moments of translation on the part of the listener, we should remember that stories always have. Even the most isolated of rural communities or marginalized populations have taken stories from other cultures or more powerful groups within the same community and reworked them to fit their own needs.
But the crowning glory of this collection, as well as of the translation by Bushnaq, lies in the farshehs - a rhymed framing device placed before the prose stories in the book. Readers of English fairy tales will be familiar with the phrase “once upon a time”, which tells us that we will now be hearing a story in the half-pretend world of King Arthur or Mother Goose. These tales have an Arabic equivalent which begins most stories proper – the wonderfully conceptual “It was or it was not” – but the farsheh, a word referring to a pillow brought into the center of the living room at the end of the day to create the sleeping space, is a luxurious sequence of rhymed puns, filled with nonsense words and goofy images mixed together into an opening movement to a night of storytelling. The farsheh sometimes primes the listener to what the story will be about, but often is nothing more than an occasion to revel in the talent of the storyteller as the community gathers around to listen to the story. As Khoury describes it in the beginning of the book, “the purpose of the farsheh…is to catch the listeners’ attention and announce that they are heading into an indeterminate elsewhere. ‘This is what the story will lie upon,’ says the storyteller” (13). Bushnaq’s rendition of “The Sun Her Mother The Moon Her Father” reads:
It happened or maybe it didn’t.
Let us tell stories that amuse and delight.
Even if we sleep a little later tonight
Some on pillows stiched with pearls and coral rings;
Some on pillows full of lice and crawling things.” (43)
Whereupon the story begins. Bushnaq describes the farsheh in her introductory text as “the equivalent of a red carpet rolled out for the stories about to be heard” (17). In this book, most of the farshehs are less than six lines long, but when these stories were told live, storytellers could go on at astonishing length, until they nearly ran out of words to rhyme! These tales come to us fully prepared with a joyous and unmistakably oral poetic form attached, whose entire purpose is to ease the audience, whether they be children or adults, whether they speak English or Arabic, into the world of the story, that glorious zone of indeterminate existence found directly between “it was” and “it was not”.
As always, when reading a collection of such charming folktales, I feel a temptation to rhapsodize on the imagination of these un-Disneyfied narratives, to ‘go back’ to this rural life filled with linguistic invention and rustic virtue. But this desire to return to a perceived ‘simple’, ‘rural’ life is itself a failed engagement with Khoury’s work! By holding this book as the answer for the ideal set of stories to sell to feminist parents, I’ve asked precisely the wrong question. Instead of proclaiming Khoury’s collection of intergenerational oral tales as the True Feminist Stories to be stamped as the Official Children’s Literature of the Modern World, we should be following the example Khoury and her interviewees have set us.
What stories are told in your worlds that are not being translated or transcribed or recorded, whether because of a lack of time or a perceived lack of interest in the wider audience? Instead of taking the massively distributed narratives from the wider culture (blockbuster films, animated television shows, etc) and retooling them to represent marginalized populations or promote liberatory ideals – I repeat that these are worthy goals in their own right! – we should take Khoury’s text as a prompt to look for the stories which are already being told by those marginalized populations! Ask your family members and the strangers around you what stories they tell themselves and their children. Ask yourselves!
Certainly, for anyone born in the United States in the last century, the films of Hollywood and the books published by British or American publishing houses have been the major prisms of childhood narratives. But as hegemonic as these narrative structures have been, anyone despairing at the lack of popular engagement in the creation of stories and ideas would do well to look in the odder reaches of the internet, where entire communities form around fandoms of just about every novel or film or television show imaginable. These fandoms gather to write criticism and get to know each other, but most of all to retell the stories under discussion, drawing out minor characters or utterly revamping the world of the fiction to fit communal needs and desires. We live in perhaps the most absolutely mediatized time in the history of human civilization, with our every interaction taking place via some multinational corporation or other, whether as the foundation of our imagination or the medium of its communication, but the blossoming of fan-fictional and communal narratives online provide a profound counterargument to the idea that there are no new stories being told or no new storytellers taking the time to tell them.
This is not to say that corporate control over our popular imagination isn’t a threat to the emancipatory powers of storytelling, or that stories can’t ultimately disappear. Khoury’s project of collecting these stories took place in a time of massive displacement and exile, as the stories here and the peoples telling them through generations were passing into new, less coherent forms of communal being. Most archival projects only come about as to respond to an imminent threat of informational dissolution, to grab hold of some body of culture before it is gone. Khoury herself, since 1997 has been working with the NGO Assabil Libraries to establish and expand public libraries throughout Lebanon, to create institutions working against the disappearance of popular culture.
On one level, this erosion of narrative memory is nothing more than the basic experience of living as a finite being in a finite world. Every story will pass away, just as every storyteller will pass away. But on another, this erosion is a reminder that this does not have to be the end. Erosion is the experience of time, yes; but if you experience it then you are still alive, and so can still pass your story on! If you do so, along with a farsheh and its power for opening the intimate theatrical space of communal storytelling, then perhaps another audience unused to such a generous experience of narrative might be brought to its unique joys. Perhaps this story will be the one that future audience needed to hear!
And if you don’t have a story to tell, ask yourself whose stories you have never heard. If you treat them with respect and show you are an earnest listener seeking only to translate for the good of the story, they will love to tell it to you, as there can never be too many librarians asking for stories in this war-torn world so driven to forgetting.