Pearls on a Branch edited by Najla Jraissaty Khoury

It happened, or maybe it didn’t…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

This collection of Lebanese and Syrian folk tales begins with an introduction from the author explaining how she came to record them. During the Lebanese civil war, Khoury travelled with a theatre group that put on shows for those dispossessed or marginalised by the conflict. As she travelled, she began to ask local women to tell her the stories they were told as children so that she could adapt them for the theatre company. She speaks very interestingly of how she went about the task of collecting the stories, sometimes from individuals, more often from groups of women, and sometimes having to find a time when their children were otherwise occupied to allow the women to relate the more bawdy tales! As with most oral traditions, she found the stories varied from telling to telling, with regional differences and also different emphases on humour and darkness. Then she discusses how she decided which stories to include, firstly in the collection of a hundred stories originally published in Arabic, and then for the thirty stories in this English translation.

This is followed by a second introduction, equally interesting, from the translator, herself a folklorist. Inea Bushnaq explains the storytelling conventions of the region, pointing out the similarities and differences to our own. She talks about the patriarchal society that has only recently begun to change. These stories are ones told by women to their daughters or amongst themselves, so they’re often about girls outsmarting men, but they also show clearly the restrictions under which women lived. Bushnaq also explains the “farsheh” – a kind of nonsense rhyme or humorous story, often involving word play, that the storyteller would use to introduce herself and get the attention of her audience before beginning the telling of the main story. Where we would begin a story “once upon a time”, the Arab convention is to begin with the less definite “there was, or maybe there was not” or “it happened, or maybe it didn’t”…

Najla Jraissaty Khoury

I’m not the world’s biggest fan of folk tales, so I expected to find this interesting rather than enjoyable. But I’m delighted to say I was wrong! I loved these – they’re fun, or moving, or occasionally horrifying, they’re very well written, the translation is excellent, and there’s a wide range so that they don’t begin to feel repetitive. Also, they shed a huge amount of light on a society and way of life that is so different from my own, and which is slowly passing; so that there’s an importance and even urgency to the act of gathering and recording these oral traditions before they are lost. Some are fables, like the story of the fox who turns vegetarian and goes on the Hajj, while many are stories of love and marriage, two things not always connected in a world where girls have no say over who they marry.

There are loads that got five stars from me, so here’s just a brief flavour to tempt you…

The Farsheh – in traditional fashion, the book kicks off with a farsheh, on this occasion part rhyme part prose. A deliciously wicked story about a young man who falls in love with a beautiful girl and decides he must have her for his own. But the girl isn’t quite as docile as he perhaps hoped. A great little starter, very well told with good language and rhythm and lots of humour.

A House Without Worries – a rather horrifying story (to western eyes) about a woman whose husband beats her every night for no good reason. (Not that I’m suggesting there’s ever a good reason!) But as with so many of these stories, the man gets his comeuppance in the end and the woman escapes to a better life. While these stories are quite uplifting with the happy-ever-after endings, they really show the grimmer side of a life where women have no rights. I loved the idea, though, of the kind of subversiveness of women sharing these stories as a form of mutual support.

Lady Tanaqueesh and the Eggs of the Tawawees – tawawees being peacock eggs, the eating of which makes you pregnant apparently! (There are lots of stories where women get pregnant through strange means – I’m sure there was an underlying meaning to this that I couldn’t quite grasp…) In this one, Lady Tanaqueesh has two jealous sisters who trick her into eating the eggs and the resulting pregnancy leads her father to expel her. There’s lots of rather nasty stuff in this one, including the brutal revenge Lady T considers for her sisters. But it’s very well done, with lots of rhyming and repetition – a real feat of translation, I think.

The Fly – a little kind of repetitive question and answer thing that reminded me of the style of “Who Killed Cock Robin”. The fly lands on a series of creatures, praising each, but each replies to the effect that yes, but I can be hurt by another creature or thing, so the fly then goes off to that creature or thing, praises it, etc., until eventually… well, that would be a spoiler, but I love the end of this – quite dark.

O Palace Beautiful! O Fancy Friend! – First off, what a great title! I’ve included this one because it has many elements of Snow White in it, which made me realise how much crossover there is in traditional tales – it made me feel closer to the culture than some of the other tales. Plus, it has Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves in it! Jealous mother, beautiful girl, poisoned apple – what’s not to love?

Oh, I want to tell you about the woman who farts in front of the cow, and the chiffchaff who wants to be Queen of the Birds, and the donkey who ate the wheat, and… but I’ve run out of room! So loads of variety, lots of interest and hugely enjoyable. Great stuff – highly recommended, and not just to folk tale fans!

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Archipelago.

Amazon UK Link
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37 thoughts on “Pearls on a Branch edited by Najla Jraissaty Khoury

    • Isn’t it? That’s why I like to read something occasionally that only half appeals – you can never be sure when you’re going to get a great surprise!

  1. This sounds really very good, FictionFan. And the Introductions sound as engaging as the stories themselves. What a good idea, to talk to people and find out those stories they always heard – a fabulous way to preserve these cultural treasures. I need to put this on my wish list!

    • The introductions were great – enough to inform without becoming overload, and the translator was clearly so knowledgeable about the subject I felt I was in safe hands even before I got to the stories themselves. If you do get a chance to read it, I hope you enjoy it as much as I did! 😀

    • I loved it! They were different enough to feel fresh, but familiar enough to feel comfortable, if that makes sense. If you get a chance to read them, I hope you enjoy them! 😀

  2. I’m surprised the translator was able to capture the language so well. In many cultures, there is a rhythm to how the string together words. However, that can get lost in translation. The publisher must have worked hard to find just the right person for this book. However, I wonder how much the words are changed quite a bit to keep the same feel to the stories instead of a literal translation.

    • She is a folklore specialist as well as a translator, and I felt that came through. And since it’s an oral tradition, I imagine she was able to be pretty liberal with her translation – she certainly included lots of rhyming and rhythm that couldn’t have been a straight translation, I think.

      • That’s so cool. I don’t know a ton about translation. I used to think anyone who spoke two languages could translate, but have since learned that’s not how it works at all. The translator pretty much has to be the best reader ever of that book and then re-write it. Funnily enough, a man who write literary horror in the States, Brian Evenson, also translate French theory and philosophy. That always amuses me.

        • Yeah, I once compared three translations of the same passage and it was incredible how different they were, and how far they veered from the original. I guess this is why Google translate hasn’t taken over from real translators yet! 😉

  3. I think we all can learn something from folk tales, especially we writers. This collection sounds most appealing, FF. I find it interesting how the women telling these stories to their daughters had hopes for a better world for them. Perhaps that’s one important reason for reading such tales, that we come away resolved not to return to such restrictions.

    • Yes, I think folk tales can really tell a lot about a culture, especially when they’re still oral rather than preserved in writing. I expect the stories change all the time to take account of what’s going on in the storyteller’s life. And I loved how these stories showed women talking to women about women primarily.

  4. Sounds brilliant. This one appealed to me when you trailed, so I’m glad it turned out to be enjoyable.
    Rafa through round 1 – phew!

    • The stories are great – different enough to feel original to jaded western eyes, but also with a lot of the same conventions of our own folk tales.

      Yup! Long may it last…!

    • I thought these were great for giving an insight into the culture even though obviously they’re not “true to life”. And they also showed how women are really pretty much the same the world over… 😀

    • I got it from a Paris Review article about this book and they hadn’t attributed it. But another google image of it suggested it’s an illustration or painting of a scene from 1001 Nights. I’m afraid that’s as much as I know… but I felt it suited this book well.

  5. This sounds great and it’s good that the stories are so varied. I do like to see how elements of some tales cross cultures although I’m a little bit unsure of those means of getting pregnant which I certainly don’t remember appearing in any of ours!

  6. Wonderful! I do like folk tales and in the past did some comparative studies of themes across cultures in folk stories – but I do forget to read them now. I love the women’s perspectives in these stories. I’ve just recommended that my local library buy this – here’s hoping.

    • I’m not the greatest fan of folk tales usually but I think it was that these were so well translated, and I loved all the rhyming and repetition in them. I hope your library gets hold of a copy – these definitely deserve a wider readership than they’ll probably get. Did you get my emails, BTW?

      • My library has purchased a digital copy of Pearls! That’s great that I can read it and I’m pleased it’s now available as a community resource too. Yes, replying soon, thank you.

        • Oh, that’s great! I’d love to hear what you think of them! Sorry – been offline watching tennis. I’ll reply to your email as soon as I can catch up with real life… 😀

    • Thank you! Sometimes it’s the books that we least expect that give us the nicest surprises, which is why I like to take a chance every now and then. This was much more enjoyable than I expected!

  7. I haven’t read fairy tales in a long time. Time to start again! Lately I find myself drawn to anything translated into English, especially from a non-European language. This book is on my list now. Thanks!

    • I don’t usually look out for them, but I was intrigued with these being from Lebanon and Syria. I love travelling the world through books! If you get to read this one, I hope you enjoy it as much as I did… 😀

  8. Isn’t it fascinating how many folk tales are actually horrifying and quite disturbing? It almost makes me think we are getting too sensitive in this digital age of ours, people used to be much tougher…also what is a chiffchaff?

    • Haha – I believe a chiffchaff is a bird based on the story, but I’d never heard of them either! Yeah, I think children are much tougher than we give them credit for – I don’t think most of them are the least bit bothered by horrible things in fairy stories. They bother me more now I’m an adult!

    • I think you’ll probably enjoy them as much as I did – a little gem, and good for the #AW80 since I felt it really did give an insight into a different culture… 😀

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