Given the wealth and variety of Arabic traditions in oral narrative, lovers of folk-tale art have long been awaiting the arrival of a general collection representing the Arab world. The ordinary reader in English is rarely exposed to anything from this tradition, other than standard selections from the "Arabian Nights."
What distinguishes this collection is the editor's genuine appreciation of the material in its native idiom, which she attempts to preserve in her translation. She also offers a comprehensive selection covering many genres of Arabic oral narrative and nearly all Arab countries.
The editor sets the scene for the book with a group of tales reflecting Bedouin life ("Tales Told in Houses Made of Hair"). She thereby introduces readers to the values most highly prized in Arab society (honor, generosity, hospitality, pride) which shine through these tales. Included here is a story ("Tale Within a Tale") involving the "father of generosity himself, Sheikh Hatim at-Tai." In seeking the hand of a lady also reputed for her generosity, Hatim has to undergo a series of adventures, each of which forms a tale in its own right. This type of frame tale is the folk prototype of the "Arabian Nights" and other well-known collections, like the "Decameron" and the "Canterbury Tales."
Readers familiar with the Sufi tradition surrounding Nasruddin Hodja will find a generous selection of stories ("Famous Fools and Rascals") based on the exploits of his folk original, Juha, the universal hero-trickster of the Middle East and North Africa. A good representative of these short, humorous tales embodying situations from ordinary life is "Djuha Fries Quails," which I could not resist quoting in full to give potential readers a taste of what's awaiting them:
"Two friends came to visit Djuha just as he was frying himself some quails. 'This dish lacks salt,' said one friend after he had picked a bird out of the pan and tasted it. 'It also lacks vinegar,' said the second friend, biting into another quail. Taking the last quail, Djuha said, 'What matter, since it now lacks quails!'
More than one-third of the book is devoted to "Tales of the Supernatural." Among these are many that are very popular among Arabs but not known to Europeans and Americans. Also included are distinctive Arabic versions of some well-known European fairy tales, like Cinderella, Rapunzel, Mother Holle, The Juniper Tree, among others. Readers familiar with these tales will be fascinated by differences and similarities with their Western equivalents.
The book also contains a selection of animal stories, some of which will remind readers of Aesop's fables, long popular in ancient Arabic versions ascribed to Luqman the Wise. "The animal protagonists of these tales," says the editor, "are especially suited to that stock folk subject, the triumph of shrewdness and common sense over physical strength."
All in all, about 130 well-chosen tales are included. To gather this material, the editor ranged widely over obscure collections (listed in the bibliography), hitherto known only to scholars. She also consulted contemporary Arabic sources and traveled to her native Palestine to collect folk tales.
Her translations are good, frequently superb, and this shows in her commendable and largely successful effort at rendering into English rhyme all the verses that dot the original tales.
The introductions to each of the seven sections comprising the book also distinguish this from other collections. Through them, the editor sets the tales in their social context. She discusses the tellers, the social setting in which the tales are told, the values that inform them, and the social customs and conflicts that form a background to them, and she provides other cultural information necessary to the appreciation of the text. It is a blessing that she herself is a native of the tradition she presents, for her information is accurate and free of stereotyping and prejudice.
I think this is an excellent book, delightful and instructive at once. My only suggestion for improvement would be to make it useful as a scholarly tool by providing the sources for each tale and by letting us know which tales were composites collected by her and from which sources.
Nevertheless, "Arab Folktales" is worthy to take its place along with the other major collections in the Pantheon series, and readers of these are sure to enjoy it just as much.