“Reader’s Guide” for the English version of Khadija bint Alawi al-Thahab’s My Grandmother’s Stories: Folk Tales from Dhofar

(photo by M. A. Al Awaid)

“Reader’s Guide” for the English version of Khadija bint Alawi al-Thahab’s My Grandmother’s Stories: Folk Tales from Dhofar (Translated by W. Scott Chahanovich, U.S. Fulbright Scholar at Dhofar University, 2009-2010). Washington, D.C:  Sultan Qaboos Cultural Center, 2012: 17-23.

People who visit Oman are always amazed by the beautiful scenery, abundant wildlife, magnificent forts and gorgeous traditional clothes and jewelry. But there are also unseen treasures: the stories and poems carried from generation to generation by oral tradition. At first it might seem that these stories are part of the familiar territory of 1001 Arabian Nights but many of the stories in this collection are specifically from the Dhofar region of Oman and reflect elements of Omani culture.

These stories can be read as exciting folk tales, but the stories were meant to teach the listeners about their religion and society. As Khadija bin Alawi al-Thahab writes in her Introduction, “Truly, not one story in this collection is without moral and religious dimension, nor does it lack from teaching children noble qualities and social values.” The people listening would instantly understand the lessons but it is harder for an outsider to make sense of some of the actions and motivations within the story.

This brief reader’s guide is for non-Omanis. From the perspective of living in Oman for five years, I hope to explain some of the cultural background, so that readers new to Oman might gain more insight about the stories. I would also like to connect the stories to Western traditions to show how fairy tales around the world have similar aspects.

On one level, the stories are easy to understand. The language is not difficult and there are many traditional fairy tale elements, for example the repetition of three. Princess Salma is tested three times; in “The Carpenter’s Daughter,” Nora returns to her husband three times and bears three children. In “Shabeer and the Haunted Well”, Shabeer receives three gifts from the well. There are also familiar fairy tale characters, the patient mother (“Mother Charity”), the poor man who becomes rich (“The Poor Logger”), royalty in “The Prince and the Intelligent Maiden,” and animals who talk, “The Lazy Donkey” and “The Sly Fox.” There are genie (from the Arabic word: djinn) in several stories such as “The Genie Bride,” as well as magic in “The Magic Ring” and “The Orphan.” There are also the traditional folk tale elements of a common man with superior strength (“The Courageous Young Man”) or intelligence (“The Lying Blind Man” and “Smart People.”)

But how is a reader supposed too understand “Shaq and Shurambaq”? The couple kills their grandson, a crime too horrific for a usual fairy tale. If we look carefully at the elements, the cultural lesson becomes clear. Their actions are absurd (pouring butter over a rock!) but there are realistic traditional elements.

For example, they bring butter as a gift to their grandchild which may seem odd but in previous times, butter was used as a trade commodity. People living in the mountains would barter their butter to desert dwellers for salt and palm fiber or barter with townspeople. Butter was, therefore, a valuable and appropriate gift for a daughter who has just had a child. Gazelles, an exotic animal for the Western world, are indigenous to the Dhofar region. They are often seen in the dry hills beneath cliff of Jebel (Mountain) Samham. I have met two people who, just as in the story, happened upon a gazelle fawn by accident, although they did not put jewelry on it.

Camels, another exotic animal for Westerners, are very common in Dhofar. Once you leave the city of Salalah, camels are grazing everywhere. But how could the couple not know how a camel chews its food? The butter is the clue. The couple lives in the mountains (where previously there are cows and goats, but not as often camels) and are traveling down from the mountains to see their daughter.

Then the couple kills their grandchild. How could they think of putting a heated nail on its head? This is incomprehensible to non-Omanis but the local audience would understand. Traditional medicine in Oman included briefly placing a heated piece of metal on the patient’s back or head. This was carefully done by a skilled practitioner. Shaq and Shurambaq heated the nail in an ignorant imitation of this custom.

Finally, when the daughter returns to the room, why doesn’t she blame her parents? This ending reflects two elements of Omani culture. One is respect for parents. Even though they have killed her child, the daughter will not accuse them. Second, there is a strong tradition of ‘acceptance’ in Dhofar culture. A person must be judged by their merits and accepted as they are. Trying to change another person or harshly punishing someone’s actions is not usual in Dhofar. People who misbehave are quietly shunned (asked to leave). It is each person’s responsibility to stay away from dishonest or harmful people, thus the daughter blames herself for not remembering her parent’s “ignorance.” She will not blame them for their actions.

Another cultural element in Dhofar is respect for astute men and women. Being crafty, sneaky, devious or tricky is seen as dishonest, but shrewdness is respected. For example the story “Smart People” is well known in Dhofar. This story is seen as very traditional and reflecting the Bedouin tradition of testing someone’s intelligence. It was normal in Omani culture for a man to look for a wife by visiting several villages and talking to people. The “farm” mentioned points to a Dhofar origin to the story. On the whole Arabian peninsula, only the Southern region of Oman has a regular rainfall (the monsoon is called Khareef); therefore there is a lot of arable land producing watermelons, cucumbers, tomatoes, sweet potatoes, onions, peppers, limes, bananas, coconuts, papaya, and pomegranates. “The Prince and the Intelligent Maiden” is very similar, but does not have the same specific Dhofari elements. Dhofar does not have a history of princes and the date palm trees here are known not for producing dates.

“The Courageous Young Man” is an example of the Omani cultural imperative of not bragging. People who boast are mocked as not respecting themselves. A brave, but modest, person is seen as the ideal.

The elements of the story which might seem the most unrealistic are actually true. The “foggy autumn” refers to the monsoon season which is June until September. This is called ‘autumn’ by locals because of the cool, grey, rainy weather matches the European/ North American autumn. The mountains in Dhofar are “green” during these months. The downy (“100 camels and 100 goats”) may sound like a fairy tale to Westerners, but still today, men will pay a bride price to get married. The money will be used by the bride to buy new clothes for the wedding or to save for the future. The groom is also expected to give gold. The “jungle” may seem unbelievable, but there are areas on the side of the mountains in Dhofar which are thickly overgrown with trees, creating a veritable jungle where there are, in fact, “poisonous snakes,” “wolves,” “hyenas” and leopards, but not lions.

“The Magic Ring,” “The Carpenter’s Daughter” and “Princess Salma” are stories which give lessons for wives. “The Magic Ring” is easiest to understand: don’t tell your husband’s secrets. “The Carpenter’s Daughter” is more complicated. It has the same elements of “testing” as “Smart People,” but here the joke turns sour. Nora brands Ghalib as we saw in “Shaq and Shurambaq.” The “leather water sack” is a traditional item; honey is the traditional sweetener in Dhofar, gathered from wild bees in the mountains. The man traveling overseas is also something normal in the Dhofar region as there have been connections to other countries by ship for hundreds of years. There are men still living who sailed wooden sailing ships to India for trade.

A wife who supposedly dies and is brought back to “life” appears in both The Winter’s Tale and Much Ado about Nothing by Shakespeare. Nora disguising herself as a man is a common fairy tale element, used in Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night and Two Men from Verona. And the idea of a couple who disagree or fight, then make up is also common, i.e. The Taming of the Shrew. The idea of gaining acceptance and forgiveness after a period of penance is also part of Omani culture. But the point is stretched to unrealistic proportions, even by fairy tale standards!

“Princess Salma,” at first glance, seems violent and alien but it is connected to many elements of Western culture, both real and fictional. For example, the story is reminiscent of the original Brothers Grimm’s fairy tales, more bloody and disturbing than the ‘Disney-fied’ versions. In the original Cinderella, the step-sisters cut off their toes to try to make their feet fit in the shoe. Each one walks away with the prince, but when he glances behinds and sees the trial of blood, he brings the step-sister back to the house. Salma is also reminiscent of Job from the Bible, in that she accepts her fate with patience and is, at the end, given a reward of a second family.

The idea of kings being betrayed by evil ministers is a common trope from Shakespeare, with Macbeth killing Duncan and the attempted betrayal of Henry V by Richard, Earl of Cambridge. The idea of a prince marrying a woman without arms and legs can be linked to the fairy tale “The Princess and The Pea” in that a woman born a princess can always, no matter what circumstances, be recognized as a princess.

Princess Salma is thematically linked to Lucretia is a legendary figure in Roman history. According to the Roman historian Livy and the Greek historian Dionysius of Halicarnassus, she was raped by the king’s son and then killed herself in front of witnesses. Her suicide caused the revolution that overthrew the monarchy and established the Roman Republic. On the personal level, she used throughout Western history as the proper example of a woman defending her virtue.

Salama, being Muslim, can not kill herself but the violence she endures was explained to me by an Omani colleague with the simple format that, “if you keep doing what is right, you will always be protected.” Even after she was banished from the palace and lost her limbs, she still managed to marry a prince, have three sons and magically regain her arms and legs. Thus, when the second minister attempted to attack her, she should have faith that, no matter what happened, she would be saved.

The concept of trusting in Allah are clearly shown in the moral lessons of “Mother Charity,” “The Orphan,” “The Poor Logger,” and “The Lying Blind Man.” Here again there are many elements which point to the Dhofar region. Mother Courage is brought to a wadi with “hyenas, wolves and dogs”; for her faith, she is giving a flock of goats and a herd of camels which eat “green grass.” Similarly “The Orphan” has the common fairy tale element of a cow which gives milk and honey but there is also the Dhofari element of a fig tree close to the ocean. “The Poor Logger” might seem a story from the Levant, but 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.

The “trick stories” of “Shabeer and the Haunted Well” and “The Genie Bride,” as well as the animal stories of “The Lazy Donkey” and “The Sly Fox” have traditional Arabian fairy tale elements of the magic well and talking animals. The importance of the perfume in “The Genie Bride” may not make sense to an outsider but most Omanis (male and female) wear perfume/ cologne every day. Scented smoke from burning pieces of luban (the gum of the frankincense tree) is wafted onto clothes and through houses almost every day.

I hope the brief guide may help readers to understand and enjoy these stories. In addition to discussions with Omani colleagues and friends, I have consulted Salim Bakhit Salim Tabook’s unpublished dissertation “Tribal Practices and Folklore of Dhofar; Sultanate of Oman,” a very valuable resource for those who would like to learn more about the beautiful Dhofar region.