An Ethnographic Discussion of Folk Tales from Southern Oman

An Ethnographic Discussion of Folk Tales from Southern Oman, Dr. Marielle Risse


This paper examines the cultural markers within a set of folk tales to introduce these previously unknown texts to the community of folk tale scholars and enthusiasts. In the 1970s Dr. Tom Johnstone documented the un-written, Modern South Arabian languages of Gibali (also known as Jebbali and Shahri) and Mehri in the Dhofar region of Oman. Many of the recordings were spoken by Ali Musallem Al Mahri. In 2014, Dr. Aaron Rubin published a book on Gibali grammar based on his own research, Johnstone’s notes and data from Gibali speakers living in America. Rubin’s book includes 70 texts (taped speech transliterated into a written form of Gibali with an accompanying English translation) which cover a variety of genres including folk tales, autobiography, grammar exercises, and fairy tales. My paper explains how the folk tales texts are representative of southern Omani culture by analyzing the various textual elements such as characters, setting, plot events and theme, as well as physical markers such as landscape and animals. These texts are among the very few documents written in Gibali and help illustrate ways in which the Dhofari culture has, and has not changed, since the rapid modernization after the 1970s. I will also compare the elements from the Johnston/ Ali Al Mahri/ Rubin texts with folk tales from other texts Khadija bint Alawi al-Thahab’s Stories of My Grandmother: Folk Tales from Dhofar, Hatim Al Taie and Joan Pickersgill’s Omani Folk Tales, and Grace Todino-Gonguet’s Halimah and the Snake, and other Omani Folk Tales.


Writing the Spoken: Gibali and Mehri Language Texts

In the 1970s Dr. Tom Johnstone began the first systematic documentation of the un-written, Modern South Arabian (MSA) languages of Gibali and Mehri in the Dhofar region of Oman.[1] During his research in southern Oman, he tape-recorded speech samples including many spoken by Ali Musallam Al-Mahri.

In spring 2014, Dr. Aaron Rubin published a book on Gibali grammar based on his own research, data from Gibali speakers living in America, and Johnstone’s notes/ recordings. Rubin’s book includes 70 texts (taped speech transliterated into a written form of Gibali with an accompanying English translation) which cover a variety of genres including folk tales, autobiography, grammar exercises, and fairy tales. The texts are included in the book as sample language texts; they are not presented in any specific order or with commentary.

The first goal of this paper is to introduce these texts to scholars of folk tales as most of the academic work on the Gibali language has been done by linguists. These texts are important as they increase the general knowledge of folk tales from the Arabian Peninsula and, more specifically, they were collected during the time in which the majority of Dhofaris were illiterate and thus more engaged in traditional story-telling than literate cultures which, for example, might have folk tales as part of school curriculum, parents reading to children and/ or children reading for pleasure.

Before Sultan Qaboos came to power in 1970, there was only one small school for the entire region of Dhofar. Although some men went abroad for work, either as laborers, drivers, police, military etc. in other Gulf countries or sailing on dhows to India for trade, the vast majority of the population moved only within the area of Dhofar and could neither read nor write. Dhofaris were not cut off from the world as there was some land trade with Yemen, Saudi Arabia, the Emirates and northern Oman, but, as I will show in this paper, most lived a very traditional life in the early 1970s. Modernization only came to Dhofar towards the end of the Dhofar War (1965-1975) in terms of schools, clinics, roads, cement block houses, running water, etc.

The second goal of this paper is to show how the folk tales reflect aspects of daily life at the time they were collected and how some of the cultural markers are still extant today by analyzing various textual elements such as setting, plot events and theme.[2] This paper does not attempt to place these texts in the wider context of folk tales by situating them within established codex; rather, this exegesis turns inward, examining how these stories, recorded at the very bringing of modernization in the Dhofar region, reflect many traditional elements of Gibali culture. I am specifically interested in how folk tales can reveal social structures and life-ways. Warner (2014) explains:

a story is an archive, packed with history: just as an empty field in winter can reveal, to the eyes of an ancient archeologist, what once grew there, how long ago the forest was cleared to make way for pasture, and where the rocks that were picked out of the land eventually fetched up, so a fairy tale bears the marks of the people who told it over the years, of their lives and their struggles. (77)

In trying to explicate some of the ‘marks’ left by the speakers, I will also compare the texts to other Dhofari folk tales including Khadija bint Alawi Al Thahab’s Stories of My Grandmother: Folk Tales from Dhofar (2012), Hatim Al Taie and Joan Pickersgill’s Omani Folk Tales (2008), and Grace Todino-Gonguet’s Halimah and the Snake and other Omani Folk Tales (2008). My work here is framed by my previous research on Dhofari and Gibali culture for the last ten years, including numerous publications and conference presentations.[3] I hope that the cultural background I provide will bring this collection of texts to the notice of readers who will enjoy them, as well as experts who may categorize and compare them to texts from Arabian and other cultures.


Background of Area and Language

Dhofar is the southern region of the country of Oman, bordering Yemen, Saudi and the Indian Ocean. The inhabitants are primarily Sunni Muslim and Arabic is the official language of education, government and business. Many Dhofaris speak a non-written, Modern South Arabian language, called Gibali.[4] Gibali is also referred to (in some academic contexts and by older generations) as Sheri, but the people who I know/ work with/ interviewed refer to themselves and their language as Gibali.

Gibali as a noun refers both to a language and the groups of people who speak it. It is from the Arabic jabal (mountain), and it can be spelled in English as Gebbali, Jebali or Jebbali, the most common spelling for linguists.[5]  The word can also be used as an adjective, as in ‘a Gibali house’. In the Dhofar region, the coastal and mountain towns and villages are almost exclusively Gibali speaking; however, other non-written, Southern Arabian languages, particularly Mehri, are also spoken there.

Within Gibali speakers there are linguistic and cultural divisions, for example between Al Sheri, Al Yafi, Al Kathiri, and the Hakli tribes.[6] There is some intermarriage between Gibali and non-Gibali Dhofaris; an easy way to differentiate is by the tribal name of a person because women keep their own tribe name (used as the last name) when they marry. The visible differences in terms of personal appearance, dress, and clothing between Gibalis and non-Gibalis are slight but recognizable to community members.

The Collected Gibali Texts: A Literature Review

The 70 texts in Dr. Aaron Rubin’s The Jibbali Language of Oman (2014) represent various genres including folk-tales, personal memoirs, sample sentences, reported conversations, and cultural descriptions, with both first and third person narrators. Therein, 62 of the 70 were collected by Dr. Thomas Johnstone in the 1970s and 1980s; one was collected by Fulgence Fresnel in the early 1800s, and the rest were collected by Rubin. The vast majority were spoken by Ali Musallam Al-Mahri for Johnstone, although Ali Al Mahri sent one to Rubin in 2013. Among Johnstone’s texts, two are by women; all the rest are spoken by men. Among Rubin’s texts, four are by a young Gibali (Kashoob) man, one by a Western Jibblai speaker (Baawain), one anonymous. In citing the stories, I use the designation numbers Rubin deployed (n.b. when there are missing numbers and some numbers are preceded by letters to identify the speaker).

All the texts are written in Rubin’s English translation and Rubin’s system of transliterating Gibali. All the texts are also extant in different formats: taped, written in Gibali, Mehri, and/ or Arabic by Johnstone and/ or Rubin. These texts are not the first written Gibali texts, but they are the first collection of fiction and non-fiction texts published in English. Other texts were printed, translated into German, in the Die sudarabische Expedition der kaiserlichen Akademie der Wissenschaften in Wien (Müller 1899).

The previous examples of written Gibali texts were used for grammatical purposes. Johnstone wrote several articles and books about Gibali and other Modern South Arabian languages, which include quotes/ sentences in Gibali but he was concentrating on grammar issues.  (See, for example, ‘A Definite Article in the Modern South Arabian Languages’ 1970 and ‘The Language of Poetry in Dhofar’ 1972). He also wrote three articles about the region which all make at least one reference to one of the texts collected in Rubin’s book: Text 17 from Rubin’s book is found in ‘Folklore and Folk Literature in Oman and Socotra’ (1974); Text 54 is in ‘A St. George of Dhofar’ (1978); and Text 22 is in ‘Oath-Taking and Vows in Oman’ (1975).

Johnstone’s article ‘Folk-Tales and Folk-lore of Dhofar’ (1983) references several of the texts (15, 16, 17, 22, 25, 36, 38, 53, 54, 60, 83, AM1, TJ5), as well as texts that aren’t included in Rubin’s book. Johnstone clearly meant to publish these stories that he had collected and in this article makes some preliminary remarks about their content although he states that his “primary purpose in collecting them was as example of texts for linguistic analysis” (pg 123).

Miranda Morris, who was Johnstone’s student and who learned the language while working with Gibalis after the Dhofar War, co-wrote a comprehensive book about plants in Dhofar including information from many Gibali informants (Miller 1988). She published one article on the life-ways of Gibalis, ‘Dhofar – What Made It Different’ (1987), and ‘A Poem in Jibbali’ (1985) in which Morris transcribes a poem recited by a male poet in praise of a woman. She does a primarily linguistic analysis, noting changes and perseverance of words/ topics/ literary conventions, and markers.

There are not many published folk tales from Oman. One example is Mershen’s ‘Ibn Muqaarab and Naynuh’ (2004) which discusses two important characters from local folklore used ‘to explain ancient fortifications, tombs and other built or natural structures’ (91). Compilations of stories include Hatim Al Taie and Joan Pickersgill’s Omani Folk Tales (2008), Grace Todino-Gonguet’s Halimah and the Snake, and other Omani Folk Tales (2008) and Khadija bint Alawi Al Thahab’s Stories of My Grandmother (originally in Arabic, translated into English 2012). There are also some folk tales scattered within several travel books set in the region including Thomas’ Alarms and Excursions in Arabia (1931) and Arabia Felix: Across the Empty Quarter of Arabia (1932), Thesiger’s canonical Arabian Sands (1959) and Clapp’s fanciful The Road to Ubar: Finding the Atlantis of the Sands (1999).

Preliminary Analysis of Folk Texts for This Study

I have placed the Rubin texts into three preliminary categories for the purpose of description in this paper: grammatical exercises, fiction, and non-fiction.[7] The three grammar texts (42, 42b, 86) are lists of sentences demonstrating the conditional such as ‘If he wasn’t lazy, he wouldn’t have stayed and left his work’ (42b, 497).

The 16 fiction texts are divided into five sub-categories: animal fables, Ba Newas, Bu Zid, fairy tales, and djinn stories.

The two animal stories (48, TJ1) are similar to Aesop’s fables with animals speaking with didactic meaning. In TJ1, the raven and fox pretend to be friends, with the raven eventually betraying the fox. In 48, a wolf, leopard, hyena, vulture, raven and fox are traveling together. The fox manages to get the wolf and leopard to die by out-jumping them, and to torture the hyena by forcing it to carry him. The story, unusually, ends with ‘and half of the story is finished’ (pg 515). Presumably the rest of the story will have the fox killing the vulture and raven. It is interesting to note that these fables feature an assortment of animals which are found in the Dhofar region, but rarely found elsewhere on the Arabian Peninsula.

There are three Ba Newas (a trickster figure, 18, 23, AM1) stories and one Bu Zid al-Hilali (a hero figure, 54) story. The three Ba Newas stories are typical examples of Arabian folk tales in which Ba Newas up-ends conventions and escapes punishment. Also, as typical in Arabian folk tales, Bu Zid is the hero who kills a monster and is able to do a physical feat (jumping) that no one else can do.

I use the designation ‘fairy tales’ for texts 6, 17, 22, 36, 97, TJ4 to highlight that they contain magic and/ or unrealistic elements. As this paper focuses on the folk tales, there is not enough space to give a detailed description of these texts but in brief: Text 6 is about two brothers who escape from an evil-stepmother, using the trope of leaving a cup in sacks of grain as with Benjamin in the Bible. Text 17 is a twist on the Oedipus story with a king being told to kill his daughter. She is rescued by her brother whom she proceeds to torment and attempts to kill. Text 22 reads like a Ba Newas (trickster) story with the unnamed protagonist deceiving an old woman and two men. In 36, a princess is beset on all sides by men who try to sleep with her, after enduring much she emerges triumphant. Text 97 is a Cinderella-type story with Middle Eastern details such as scorpions, turbans, a circumcision party and a man who is mad at his wife who goes to sleep at his mother’s house. TJ4 is a long narrative about a poor boy who falls in love with a princess and schemes to come close to her.

The last four stories (15, 16, 30, 33) are about djinn. Texts 15, 16, and 33 are short stories with specific Dhofari details and might be local legends. Text 33 is a long story about a man trying to recapture his djinn wife who was tricked into marriage by having her clothes stolen by the future husband and is freed by tricking her mother-in-law into returning the clothes so she can escape. The husband in the text is successful in reuniting with his wife which accords with the Dhofari belief that there are men who married female djinn.

I divided the 50 non-fiction texts into five sub-categories: description, life stories, examples, other, and teaching stories–most of which are folk tales.

The five descriptions (4, 9, 14, 45, TJ2) are (implied) first person (‘us’ in 4, 393; ‘we’ in 9, 413) speaking to an unidentified ‘you’ (14, 425). These explain specific events in Dhofari life: Ramadan celebrations, taking care of animals, oath taking and the steps of marriage. The two life stories (13, TJ3) are longer, autobiographical pieces in which a man relates The 29 texts I coded as example texts (1, 3, 7, 8, 10, 20, 24, 28, 31, 32, 35, 38, 39-41, 43, 47, 52, 55, 57, AK2, AK3, AK4, FB1, FR1, SB1, SB2, Anon1, AK1) are a variety of short texts that are self-contained.  For example, there is one short translation in Gibali of a part of the Bible (FR1), a riddle (43), a boy talking about his favorite camel (AK2), and description of curing a sick man (55). Many of these pieces are short conversations, for example between husband and wife (28), medicine woman and patient (38), buyer and seller of sardines for fodder (41), mother and son (57). The four other texts (49-51, 53) all have a first person narrator, which is unusual for the collection, and discuss events in the life of a young boy, who is called ‘Ali’ in one story and might be Ali Al Mahri himself.

The ten texts marked as teaching stories (2, 5, 12, 21, 25, 34, 46, 60, 83, TJ5) are longer, coherent, didactic stories with identifiable literary components such as protagonist, antagonist, settings, turning points, climaxes, etc. Several of these are folk tales, i.e. without magic or unrealistic elements, which I will discuss below.

Analysis of Dhofari/ Gibali Elements

The texts were initially collected at a time when only a very small percentage of Gibalis were literate (literacy is nearly universal now) and there were limited and intermittent connections with other cultures. Men who left for work usually stayed away for years; dhows on trading or fishing trips could be away for weeks or months at a time. One Gibali informant told me how a man in his village left to work in Kuwait and did not return for over 20 years.

Thus, although there were chances for men working aboard or visiting Salalah (the main town in Dhofar) to hear stories and repeat them once home, there were few opportunities for Gibalis to read folk tales. I was, therefore, interested in whether and how the stories reflected Gibali life, i.e. appeared to have been created within the specific Gibali physical and social milieu, and whether the physical and culture markers present in the stories were still in evidence today.

 Physical markers

Two features of Gibali life in the Dhofar mountains are important for the purposes of this paper. First, until the 1970s, a vast majority of the people were practicing transhumance and living seasonally in caves. Secondly, having a separate language helped to define and insulate their community. As Johnstone writes in ‘Folklore and Folk Literature in Oman and Socotra’:

…it seems likely that the popular beliefs of these people [the Mehris and Śḥeris, Gibali speakers, of Dhofar; the Ḥarāsīs of Oman proper; and the people of Socotra] are not radically different from those of their Arab neighbors in Southern Arabia, but the fact that they have their own languages has tended to preserve their beliefs by insulating them from certain old-fashioned influences, namely religious and legal structures, within the confines of language understood well by only a few. (1974, 6)

There are two main ways to mark these texts as Gibali or non-Gibali. One is to examine if there are physical markers; the second is to look for cultural markers. Physical markers would be specific actions and objects/ animals which were/ are seen as typical in Gibali culture, such as living in caves (texts 25, 42B, 49, 50, 51, AM1); using sardines as fodder for cows (1, 41, 97, TJ2); medicinal branding (40), throwing stones (53), the presence of typical Dhofari animals such as ibex (6), leopards (15, 48) hyenas (48), and cows (9, 12, 14, 20, 23, 38, 41, SB1, TJ2, TJ3, FB1[8]). Other physical markers include a description of making mageen (a kind of meat boiled in fat which is distinctive to Dhofar, 12), a discussion of Southern Arabian languages (34), and a local tribe name (60). One can also notice surprise at the appearance of an object not typical in Dhofar, for example the surprise of tasting ice (35) and the idea that drinking something cold makes you sick (40).

Non-Gibali physical markers would mean the stories includes elements unusual or not found in Dhofar in the late 1970s such as horses (17, 97), date palm plantations (30), cities and/or professions found only in cities such as the occupation of bookseller (52) and having an accessible royal family (7, 17, 36, 97, TJ4).

 Cultural markers

Cultural markers would mean characters acting/ speaking in a way which would make sense within Gibali society as judged by the knowledge I have acquired studying the Gibali culture for over ten years. For example, forbearance and endurance are two traits that are highly valued in Gibali society. Thus it makes sense that many of the folk tales celebrate these virtues. Text 20, a story about camel-herders, cow-herders and goat-herders fighting over water, ends with ‘Patience is better than anything’ (pg 443).

Another trait that is respected is the ability to get out of difficult situations without fighting. Attacking is praised when there is no choice or one is fighting for honor, as seen in text 83, when a boy is attacked by a raiding party, kills four men, is killed in return and then celebrated for his bravery (see also texts 25, 46, 83, TJ5). However, my field experience shows other evidence: normally in Gibali culture, a person is respected for avoiding a fight or conflict when possible. In another example, Text 2 is a folk tale about a man who tries to have sex with a woman and she tricks him. In Text 2, there are no specific Dhofari physical markers but it is very much in keeping with Dhofari spirit of avoiding problems through cleverness. The woman does not shout or argue with the man; rather, she agrees to the relationship and then gets him to kill his camel (a great loss). When he later lies about her, she turns the tables so he is the one punished by the community.

Three Examples of Texts

In order to give a better understanding of the type of texts, below are three examples. One (text 8) is what I termed an ‘example text’ as it is not a story, but men having a typical type of conversation. Texts 12 and 21 are ‘teaching stories.’

Text 8 – ‘A Conversation’

Text 8 is a short dialogue between two men, one who has lived outside of Dhofar for ‘about five years’ and another who is asking him for news of his son from whom he has not had any news recently (pg 411). The man who was abroad tries to calm the worried man by saying ‘I think maybe since he has not sent anything [to you], he intends to leave [and come home].’ This is reinforced by the man remembering that someone who ‘does not lie’ told him that the son was planning to leave.

This is an example of the point made above of men leaving Dhofar in the 1960s and 1970s to look for work. Further, this is a typical Gibali exchange in which a person who is worried is placated by someone who might or might not have any actual news, but wants to create a peaceful atmosphere. The exchange highlights the Gibali cultural imperative to keep composed at all times. Bringing a person out of temper back to tranquility is more highly valued than being realistic/ truthful.

Text 12 –‘Cow Theft’

Text 12 is a didactic folk tale in which two men steal, kill, and cook a cow. The next morning they meet a hungry man who asks for food. They tell him that they have food but that it is ‘forbidden,’ i.e. taken and/ or killed illegally or against the edicts of Islam. The hungry says he won’t eat the meat. When the two thieves ask him not to tell anyone he agrees but the next day, he rats out the thieves for a rewards of ‘30 [Maria Theresa] dollars.’ When confronted, the thieves deny that they took the cow and agree to swear on the tomb of a saint that they are innocent. On the way to the tomb, they sleep and one of the thieves has a warning dream. The man then says that ‘We don’t want to swear anymore’ and they give compensation for the stolen cow.

This is a very typical Gibali story with physical markers such as cows, the way the meat was prepared and cooked (mageen), and the tombs. The cultural markers include referring to food as haram (or halal). Halal and haram are usually used to distinguish categories of food (what animal is allowed to be eaten) or how the animal was killed. The Gibali men in my research group often use this other level of distinction to evaluate how the food was obtained, noting that fish caught by their own hands is halal but food bought with money that was gained dishonestly is haram.

The handling of honesty is also culturally appropriate. The thieves had no problem stealing a cow (for food) and then lying about it to the owner, but they would not lie to the stranger about the meat itself. Allowing someone to unwittingly eat haram meat is not acceptable in their world view because that is a religious problem, not fixable by money. Cow stealing is a less serious level of iniquity.

Text 21 – ‘Four Hungry Men and a Date’

Text 21 is another didactic folk tale; it has no specific physical Dhofari markers but highlights the trait of perseverance. Four men who are ‘already famous for bravery and patience’ are traveling and have run out of food for two nights. They meet a man who has food but has hidden it before they arrive in order to test the travelers. When the travelers come to his campsite in a valley, the man says, ‘I have no food.’ The travelers say, ‘We still have patience.’

When they have lain down to sleep, the man gives a small piece of a date to one of the four friends, saying ‘I have only this. I want it (to be) for you. Eat and keep quiet’. The boy then gives the dates to the friend lying closest to him with the same words. In turn, all four friends pass on the date until it is returned to the lying man, who then knows the boys are honest. He then rises and prepares food for the boys. The story demonstrates the Gibali qualities of patience and perseverance, as well as the accepted method of assessing people by setting up a situation to see how they react.

For example, a Gibali student wrote me a true story about how one of her younger brothers killed a rooster by accident. An older brother saw what happened and used it against the brother for days, making him do all the chores. Finally, the younger brother got tired of it and went to his grandfather to confess. The grandfather told the younger brother that he had also seen what happened and was waiting for him to confess – he allowed the older boy to bully the younger one to teach the younger boy to speak up for himself.

Cultural Analysis – Issue of Male/ Female Relationships in the Texts


Peterson (1990) states that “Women have been relatively freer in Oman than elsewhere in the Arab world.” Gibali women have transitioned from the herding and farming pre-modern life to full participation in contemporary Omani life: studying, driving, working, voting and owning businesses. A pamphlet written and distributed by a group of Dhofaris in the 1970s states that the Dhofar’s:

character [was] as a herding society…Women were entitled to own and inherit cattle – the main resource; less stigma was attached to divorce and remarriage than elsewhere; women were relatively free to travel and work within Dhofar without sexual segregation. (“Women and the Revolution” 1975 9)

Yet even as Dhofar/ Oman developed, women still worked outside of the home. In 1988, Christine Eickelman noted that “Recently, a woman was appointed head of research at the Omani Central Bank” (209). As Peterson (2004) explains, in the 1990s “certain occupations were declared off-limits to expatriates and shops were required to have Omani employees [Omanization]. The banking sector was one of the first targets. By the late 1990s, it was heavily Omanizied and included a high proportion of female Omani employees” (“Oman” 135).


In Oman, women work professionally as lawyers, doctors, dentists, engineers, economists, bankers and university professors… All told, in the mid-1990s, 40 percent of the economically active women, whether currently employed or not, were in professional job categories (Chatty 2000 248).

In an interview, Sultan Qaboos’ made a clear and public statement about employed women in Oman:

There should be no discrimination against working women. They should have the same job titles, salaries and benefits. The problem now is that more and more ladies want jobs. So men are feeling the heat. They’re competing with us! I say, why not! We have senior ladies in government; I hope we’ll have some more senior women in government soon. We’re making progress. (Sultan Qabus and Judith Miller 1997 17).

The university where I work, like all universities in Oman, has men and women in the same class, although they do not sit next to each other, and men and women in all levels of faculty and administration. Women own their own businesses and work in all capacities from clerk to manager in stores. Some fields and some jobs are off-limits, especially in the oil fields, but there are women in the police, military, security, embassies and not just appointed to higher levels of government, but also elected to office.

As Eickelman says,

The tribal political structure of the interior places a premium on the men and women of family clusters who work in close and team-like cooperation and provides many women with the opportunity to be very influential politically. There are indications that even in the new setting of the capital area; the family cluster remains the basic political unit. Omani women remain principal actors in the political arena and cannot be excluded from the political world.  (1988 205)

Further, the emotional ties that Western women develop with male friends and boyfriends are cultivated in Dhofar between brothers and sisters. As most Gibali families have over four children, usually each child will have at least one sibling or cousin of the opposite gender who s/he is close to.  Even if there are no close emotional relationships, a man must show in public that he is caring for female relatives in order to be judged as “good.” This means making sure female relatives have money for new clothes, phone cards, food for the house, transport to visit relatives/ hospital visits, new outfits for Eid, and new decorations for the house for Eids.

Examples from the texts of male/ female relationships

In all, 39 of the texts make explicit reference to a woman. There are 10 stories in which a woman’s good behavior is the focus of the text, for example the folk tale in which a clever woman tricks a man who wants to have sex with her (text number 2), a wife revenging her husband’s death (25), a daughter demanding that her father’s death be revenged (46), a mother giving good advice (57), and a wife tricking her mother to protect her husband (60). All of these folk tales are realistic/ based on true stories and are centered on Southern Arabia, if not specifically Dhofar.

In four other stories women are acting against religious and cultural mores, but with a reason, either fighting for their own interest or their tribe. The short text SB2 has a beautiful woman sending a letter to a writer suggesting they marry as she is pretty and he is intelligent, “Our children, their appearances will be beautiful like me, and (they will be) clever and intelligent like you” (pg 573). He responds by upending her argument saying they should not marry as perhaps their children will get her intelligence and his (ugly) looks.

In text 28, a wife argues with her husband as she needs his help in moving the settlement. In text 47, a woman argues with her husband, trying to convince him not to ride an untamed camel. He refutes her advice, gets thrown, curses her but then they reconcile (pg 509). In the djinn/ magic text (15), a woman uses a leopard to attack the goats of a group of people who are on land under the control of her tribe.

Other cultural markers related to women are the Gibali traditions that women have the option to choose their partner if they remarry and to stay with her family after marriage, to the point of asking and receiving a divorce so that she does not have to leave her family. In the description text 45, the speaker gives the example of a man asking to marry a divorced woman and her father saying, ‘She is not a girl, so speak with her’ (pg 501). In Gibali culture, a father can arrange a first marriage ‘even if she has no knowledge’ (503), although she is usually consulted, but if she is divorced the second marriage is entirely in her hand. In the example text 7 and autobiographical text 13, a wife refuses to leave her family and go with her husband. The same situation occurs in two recent texts which Rubin collected, TJ2 and TJ3.

Against this general Gibali understanding of seeing women as independent agents, the negativity of the unrealistic fairy tales and the Ba Newas stories clearly stand out. In one Ba Newas story, he uses the body of a dead woman as a prop in one of his tricks (18); in another, he causes the death of an older woman (AM1). The misogyny is also very apparent in the fairy tales, 97 is a Cinderella tale with an evil step-mother. In 6, another evil step-mother tries to kill her husband’s two sons. In 17 an ungrateful sister is saved by her brother, then tries several times to kill him. In 22, a greedy, stupid woman gives a man all her jewelry thinking she will get more. Only two fairy tales (TJ4 and 36) have positive women, but their positive quality is restricted to preserving chastity.

Thus, texts which are clearly not Dhofari-based have harmful women who act in selfish and greedy ways while most of the women in folk tales which have Dhofari/ South Arabian physical and/ or cultural markers have positive behavior, acting in the best interest of their children and husbands, or in an independent manner which does not go against tribal or religious norms.

Cultural Analysis – Issue of Swearing

The above example of women having the right to get divorced is widely discussed in Dhofar. Gibali women are seen as having more freedom than other groups, however sometimes a distinguishing cultural feature is hard to see. A pattern of thinking or acting can be so engrained, it is hard for adherents to see it as distinctive, such as the use of swearing.

Swearing falls into two categories. One is a way to verify the truth as in the two description texts 14 (about oath taking) and 45 (about marriage, explaining how the witness must swear to the judge that the divorced woman gave permission to her father). In Dhofar, this kind of swearing was often done on the tomb of a holy person as many informants have explained to me and as reported by Johnstone (1975 14). In the story text 12 when the two thieves swear that they did not take the cow, the owner insists that they swear on the tomb.

One can lie when swearing for truth in certain situations without penalty. For example in text 2, the lecherous man asks the woman to swear she will have sex with him if he kills his camel for her. She agrees but then refuses as she was giving her promise just to forestall him and the story ends that he has ‘gotten his due’ (pg 369).

The second type of swearing is a way to get someone to do something.  In Gibali culture, there is a strong pressure to both graciously accede to requests from family, especially older relative, and friends and to be an independent agent. The mechanism whereby these two opposing expectations are regulated is swearing.

Many of the texts illustrate this principle. For example in text 28, the speaker says to a friend that he can’t go with him (as he has said he would) because ‘my wife swore’ (pg 461). The same sort of persuasion is used in texts 41 (about selling sardines), 57 and 60.

In text 46, a girl refuses to marry her cousin. He “swore, ‘If you don’t tell me, I will kill you’” (pg 505). She answers with her own oath: “She swore, ‘I won’t marry anyone except whoever avenges my father’” (pg 505). The man avenges her father’s death and they marry.

A third kind of swearing is for a man to swear ‘on divorce,’ that means if the other man does not do what he wants, the speaker will divorce his wife. There is some joking about this issue but it is still done , and occasionally results in divorce. If the man assumed the other man would yield and he divorces his wife; he will then have to pay her some kind of compensation to marry again (if she agrees) so this is a serious matter.

Thus swearing is done rarely, and usually under duress, as a last resort to get what one wants. A person who uses swearing often and/ or for trivial matters is avoided as selfish, a difficult problem in a tribal community. The examples of swearing in the texts illustrate how it is used in Gibali society: to allow a person to force another person into a beneficial, but not venal or mercenary, course of action. In 28, the wife needs the husband’s help in moving the household, in 41 the speaker needs sardines or his cows will starve, in 46 the male cousin wants to know the reason for his cousin’s refusal and she, as a good daughter, wants her father avenged.

Cultural Analysis – Issue of Folk Tales and Orality/ Literacy

Marshall (2000) discusses the ‘the political tradition’ of literacy which is concerned “primarily with the moral dimensions of reading literature,’ specifically the impact of Matthew Arnold’s ideas of the ‘ethical effects of reading” (2000: 382, 384). Dhofaris are in complete agreement with this view. They believe that writing should show the positive qualities and exhort people to good behavior.[9] Thus there is a separation between written and spoken folk tales. Written folk tale collections stress either the ethical lessons of the stories or their virtue in documenting traditions, whereas the texts in Rubin’s book do not make any claims about celebrating principled action.

For example, Khadija bint Alawi Al Thahab writes in her introduction to her Stories of My Grandmother (2012)

Among the other benefits these stories provide, they serve to strengthen family bonds…Not one story in this collection is without a moral and religious dimension, nor does it fail to teach children noble qualities and social values. Each story aims to impress these positive traits in every child. These fables and fairytales — depending on their topics and the intended moral — vary from stories of courage and bravery to religious sermons. (6)

In the Foreword to Todino-Gonguet’s Halimah and the Snake, and other Omani Folk Tales (2008), Abdullah al Harthy writes, “these stories are not merely narrated for the sake of escapism, but they also intend to teach a moral lesson” (5). In their Introduction to Omani Folk Tales (2008), Hatim Al Taie and Joan Pickersgill write that ‘It is time to look seriously at preserving the oral asset of the nation. Folk tales, proverbs, and oral history are part of a fast-dying ancient traditional culture’ (8).

All of these stories in these books are all educational, even those with magical elements. For example, in Omani Folk Tales (2008), several stories express the Omani belief in bravery and dedication to one’s village and tribe. ‘Dancing with Fire’ is about a woman who is hounded by her sisters to dance in an inter-village competition three days after she has given birth. This is an accurate reflection of Omani values; ‘She felt she had a moral obligation to save the tribe’s name from humiliation’ (53). Personal pain is less important than supporting your tribe, even in artistic events such as dances. That personal courage is a quality found in both Omani men and women is expressed in ‘Selmah, The Brave Shepherdess.’ When the girl finds a leopard that has killed seven of her goats, she attacks it. In a fierce fight, the animal and Selmah kill each other and lie ‘dead in each other’s arms’ (70).

In My Grandmother’s Stories (2012) ‘The Magic Ring’ teaches wives not to tell their husband’s secrets. The concept of trusting in God is clearly shown in the moral lessons of the texts ‘Mother Charity,’ ‘The Sad Little Girl,’ ‘The Poor Woodcutter,’ and ‘The Lying Blind Man.’ In addition, as Khadija bint Alawi Al Thahab is Dhofari, many of her stories have elements which point to the Dhofar region. Mother Charity is brought to a wadi [valley] with ‘hyenas, wolves, and dogs;’ for her faith, she is given a flock of goats and a herd of camels that eat ‘green grass.’ The mountains of Dhofar were once covered entirely with trees, and there are some forests still remaining; men still walk through the trees, culling dead wood to sell for people to use for campfires as in ‘The Poor Woodcutter.’  ‘The Courageous Young Man’ is an example of the Omani cultural imperative of not bragging. People who boast are mocked as not respecting themselves.

In contrast, the originally oral texts in Rubin’s collection do not always end with evil punished and virtue rewarded.  The difference between written texts which promote integrity and the, originally spoken, texts in Rubin’s book can be seen, for example, in text 18. In this story, the trickster figure of Ba Newas digs up the body of an old woman and tricks a rich man into believing that the woman is Ba Newas’ mother and the rich man has killed her. Ba Newas gets a large compensation and goes ‘back to his settlement having become rich’ (pg 441). In the written story ‘The Sly Fox’ in My Grandmother’s Stories, the fox does the same trick, but he is punished at the end: ‘his wicked ways led him straight to prison’ (pg 43).

Another comparison between one of Rubin’s texts and My Grandmother’s Stories is the trope of a woman who sacrifices her children in order to preserve her honor. Text 36 has an unnamed woman pursued by a judge, who causes her father to cast her out because of his lies, and a slave, who kills her children because she refuses to sleep with him. The story ‘Princess Salma’ in My Grandmother’s Stories follows the same narrative plot with a minister who schemes to have her thrown out of her father’s house, a djinn who cuts off her arms and legs, and another minister who kills her children because she refuses to sleep with him.

The ending of both stories is the same: the woman is restored to her husband, father and position while the judge, slave, and ministers are killed and a magic potion restores her limbs. But whereas text 36 ends simply: ‘the woman went with her father and her brother, she and her husband’ (pg 487), the written text is much more didactic: ‘even in his sadness at what happened to Salma and her sons, he [the father] told her that he was proud of her patience and zeal in protecting her honor, purity and dignity’ (pg 38).

Thus the texts in Rubin’s collection do not reflect the moral imperative of written folk tales to punish the wicked. In the Gibali texts, wrong-doers may flourish and avoid penalties but the published folk tales must be didactic and have a return to justice at the end of the story.


This paper uses the fields of anthropology, history, ethnography and literary analysis to help explicate the context of a series of folk tales spoken by members of the Gibali culture. While folk tales are a universal genre, the paper shows how specific physical and cultural markers in these texts reflect the specific surroundings and beliefs of Gibalis.

Rubin’s collection is an important addition to the field of Middle Eastern folk and fairy tales as it allows readers to enjoy and scholars to examine a new group of texts from a little studied region. I hope that in the future Gibalis themselves will collect more stories and that interested academics might expand on this preliminary step by classifying them into established codex and beginning the process of comparing them to analogous texts from the Arabian Peninsula and elsewhere.



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            [1] For the purposes of this paper, MSA will refer to the group of unwritten Modern South Arabian languages: Mehri/ Mahri, Harsusi, Hobyot, Bathari and Gibali, which is also known as Jibbali, Sheri, Śḥerɛt, Shaḥri, Geblet, Ehkili and Qarawi. Sheri/ Śḥerɛt/ Shaḥri is an approximation of the word ‘mountain’ in the Gibali language.

            [2]  The person speaking the majority of the texts is from the Al Mehri tribe, who speak the language of Mehri. Mehri is another MSA language but these texts are in the Gibali language (a few are also extant in Mehri) and Rubin’s book mentions that he was married to a Gibali-speaking woman. Both Mehri and Gibali informants attest there are some small cultural differences between the two groups, but disagree as to how to classify those differences. In this paper, I analyze the texts in terms of Gibali culture, based on my ten years of research. I also try to make distinctions between what is a general trait in the Dhofar mountains (for example the presence of leopards, using sardines for fodder, living in caves) and what aspects are generally seen as specifically Gibali, such as more freedom for women.

            [3] My publications on Gibali culture include 2017, 2015,  2013a, 2013b, and 20011; I presented papers on Gibali culture at international conferences in 2017 (twice), 2016 (twice), 2015, 2014, 2013 and 2012.

            [4] See Gravina (2014), Hofstede (n.d.), Johnstone (1981), Rubin (2014) and Watson (2014).

            [5] I use “Gibali’ as my informants say ‘g’ (‘goat’), not ‘j’ (jeep), without lengthening the ‘b’, i.e. gi – ba – li, not gib – ba – li. When speaking Arabic, the Gibali accent usually has the Arabic letter Jeem/ Jim pronounced as ‘g’; ‘university’ for example is pronounced ‘gamma’ not jamma.’

            [6] Usually the correspondence between language and culture is automatic, but a few people who do not identify themselves as Gibali/ are not from a Gibali tribe speak the language. All the examples I know of are men who had Gibali neighbors and learned the language from playing together as children. There are very few Westerners I know of who spoke/ speak the language. Dr. Janet Watson and Dr. Miranda Morris are currently working on a book and website devoted the translation/ transcription of MSA languages: Morris has also done extensive work on botany in Dhofar, see Anthony Miller, Miranda Morris, and Susanna Stuart-Smith’s Plants of Dhofar, the Southern Region of Oman: Traditional, Economic, and Medicinal Uses (1988) and Miranda Morris’ “The Aloe and the Frankincense Tree in Southern Arabia: Different Approaches to Their Use” (2012).

            [7] I hope a future scholar will take up the task, beyond the scope of this work, of sorting these texts into for example, the International Aarne-Thompson Tale-types or the matrices found in Hasan El-Shamy’s Types of the Folktale in the Arab World: A Demographically Oriented Tale-Type Index (2004) or Folk Traditions of the Arab World: A Guide to Motif Classification 2 Volume Set (Vol. 1 and 2) (1995).

            [8]  The coast of Dhofar is visited by monsoon clouds/ rains between June and September. As a result, the landscape supports herds of cows which graze along the flat coastal plain and in the mountains. Cows wandering freely during the day is a distinctive feature of Dhofar, so much so that tourists from the Emirates, Saudi etc., will often stop to take photos of them.

            [9] This concurs with a strong current in Arab/ Muslim literary criticism that writers should support and strengthen the culture (see, e.g., Badawi 1980; Jabra 1980). Salma Khadra Jayyusi, in her introduction to The Literature of Modern Arabia: An Anthology (1988): states that all the writers chosen have “a message that is deeply ennobling and  humanizing…this literature is a literature of the human spirit at its best, endearing and liberating, with a deep and enduring love and a supreme commitment” (20, 22).

One result of this belief is that fairy tales, unrealistic stories and/ or stories without a moral ending are not seen as a fit subject for academic study. For example, none of the English language/ literature students at my university in Dhofar have read The Arabian Nights/ The 1001 Nights. Although some students know/ have read Sindbad or Aladdin stories, such stories are perceived by Dhofaris as being on the level of Tom and Jerry cartoons. Similarly, in Dhofar stories about Juha, the popular Arabic trickster character, are seen as something for children, never a topic to discuss in a university.