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Rym Tina Ghazal

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Bedtime Stories: The Spider, the Arabian Cinderella and Her Fairy Godfish...

Posted: 05/22/2012 12:26 pm

"And then the spider appeared as it promised at midnight, with a new story to tell... "

Most of the bedtime stories my mother told me had something to do with a spider: She's half Polish, and it seems the spider is a big part of their children's story tradition. Perhaps because it can wander about unnoticed, it is a great observer of life and people's lives -- and from its innocent comments, we, the children, used to draw our own conclusions.

I loved those times, growing up as a child in Saudi Arabia in the 1980s.

My friends would come and sleep over just to listen to my mother's bedtime stories.

Of course, I was lucky. TV by then was a permanent fixture in many families, and for a lot of children that meant no bedtime stories -- so they used to come to my mother instead.

To this day one of my friends likes to tell her children my mother's story of the day the spider got lost and ended up traveling the world on the back of a horse.

Seen through the eyes of the spider, the world was big, noisy and confusing. Sometimes my mother would make the spider see the world only in red, or colorless, and the storytelling would become interactive, with the teller and the listener discussing how color can change the perception of everything.

To make it more "cultural sensitive," my mother would sometimes put the spider in places such as the majlis (a traditional Arabian sitting area) or even the mosque, and tell us a creative story about its adventures there.

Whether it was the one about the cockroach with indigestion, or the girl with whiskers like a cat, the bedtime stories were funny and witty, not preachy and lame.

Trust me, children pick up on stories through which the parent is trying to convey a lesson, although it needs to be done subtly and intelligently: I hated stories that I felt talked down to me.

Oral storytelling is part of the Middle Eastern tradition, with some scholars going as far as to say that bedtime storytelling began centuries ago in a tent in the Arabian desert.

Because of my personal fascination with storytelling, wherever I visit I always search for the traditional storyteller.

I discovered that in the Iraqi version of Cinderella the heroine is a dark beauty with black eyes and big, strong feet.

In Lebanon and Syria she is blonde and thin, with "petite" feet.

In Iran, she has magic powers.

And the famous slipper is not made from glass, as in the western version, but from cloth embroidered with gold and precious gems.

One particular Cinderella version I like is the Emirati one, told to me by Abdulaziz Al Musallam, an Emirati researcher and writer.

And it begins like all stories:

"Kan fi qadeem al zaman ..." Once upon a time... There was a girl called Hamda. Gentle and fair, whenever Hamda suffered any cruelty at the hands of her "evil" stepmother and "ugly" stepsister, she would go out to the sea and call out the name "Bdeha" three times. In this version of the beloved universal fairy tale of Cinderella, the fairy godmother is a fish, Bdeha, a baby version of the popular local 'al Badah' fish. Silver with big sad eyes, the Longtail Silver Biddy fish comes to Hamda' s rescue and grants her any wish. This was the reward the fish granted Hamda when the girl showed mercy and released it back into the sea when it was captured by her father's fishing net.

Believed to be at least a thousand year old, this story of Bdeha is similar in a general sense to the universal story of Cinderella in that it is a tale of a beautiful kind girl who struggles with her stepmother and stepsister but in the end through the help of a lost slipper -- a golden leather one in this case -- ends up marrying prince charming, or the sheikh's son.

But there are some unique elements in the story, specific to the Arab world.

Like when the Sheikh decides to find a bride for his son, he asks all the main tribes of the area to bring their daughters to a feast and then the "fairest" of them all will be chosen.

Then there is a part in the story that led some to speculate on the origin of Cinderella.

Hamda ends up being locked up in a clay oven, 'tanour,' by her stepmother but then is rescued by a rooster ( sent by Bdeha) who informs the royal delegation in search of the owner of the slipper that Hamda is inside the oven.

So the "cinder" on her face (from being stuck inside the oven) to the beauty of small feet in a lady, hint at the possibility of Cinderella being originally born in this part of the world and then passed on through ships and traders to Europe.

Who knows.

But unlike Cinderella, Hamda's story doesn't end at happily ever after with a wedding. It continues.

The stepmother tries to sabotage the marriage by making Hamda eat nothing but onion and salted fish, so that she "smells" on her wedding night.

Bdeha comes to the rescue and gives Hamda something to drink that makes her, oddly enough, vomit out all the smelly food she ate.

This magic potion also helps Hamda smell of musk on the wedding night.

And interestingly, the ugly stepsister, who is portrayed as fat with crooked teeth, also ends up getting married to Sheikh's other son.

But the other son isn't as rich and handsome as Hamda's prince.

There are many versions of Cinderella, particularly when it comes to her looks, a reflection of what is considered 'beautiful' in a particular culture.

She is "plump" and the daughter of a farmer when retold in Egypt, has dark eyes and long dark hair when retold here in the Gulf Arab countries and is often the daughter of a fisherman.

The animal characters in the stories were often those indigenous to a particular tale.
Camels, snakes, and horses are common in Arab fairytales, while sheep, large birds, cats and dogs are common in European tales.

For instance, the prince frog is a prince snake in the Arab version.

The most common of fairytales have a damsel in distress that gets rescued by some prince. Some heros are common men, but often, they are "prince charming." This the case as well with Arab fairytales.

Collecting fairytales from across the world, or "jinn-tales'' when it comes to this region, has always been a habit of mine. I note them down whenever I overhear someone narrating them.

I am sure everyone has a set of tales, or perhaps one favorite tale, tucked in back somewhere in the memory bank from the time of their childhood.

One story my grandmother told me when I was just five and I always like to share was how animals were forbidden from speaking the human language except for one hour sometime after midnight and before sunrise.

For years afterwards, whenever I was anywhere near a farm or had access to animals, I would make a point of at least trying to wake up after midnight and sneaking around to try to "catch" the animals speaking.

I even got several of my Saudi childhood friends to believe in this and they would also try to catch their sheep or goats talking in the late hours of the night.

There is just something enchanting about bedtime stories.

And so I leave you with a quick bedtime story.

Once upon a time, there was a short and small 'henna' tree who flirted with young girls as they crossed its path on their way to get water from a well.

"Hello, beautiful! Come over here and sit and talk to me," the tree would say.

All the girls ignored the poor little henna tree except for one, who sat next to it and asked why it kept saying such ridiculous things.

"I love you. If you marry me, all your dreams will come true," the tree said.

And every time the girl passed by this tiny tree, it would yell out its love for her. So finally, the girl agreed to marry the tree, and went to her parents to tell them the news. They found it strange, but agreed to the marriage.

On her wedding day, the bride was dressed in her best clothes as she sat next to the tree.

"Kiss me,'"said the tree, and with a single kiss it turned into a handsome prince.

And they both lived happily ever after.

Moral of this story: Do not judge based on appearance and its OK for women to take the first step, and tell their parents who they want to marry...

Rym Tina Ghazal is a senior journalist and columnist for The National Newspaper.

 

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