Saturday, November 21, 2015

Timeless Tales collected from Syrian refugees (book review)

I first heard about this book at the Federation for European Storytelling conference in Greece this summer, from Jack Lynch, the Irish storyteller who revised the English translation. It immediately grabbed my attention - we spent a lot of time at the conference talking about the refugee situation.

Timeless Tales is the result of a joint project between the Swedish Cultural Heritage without Borders, Fabula Storytelling, and members of the the Hakaya network (Arab Education Forum, Al Barad theatre, Arab Resource Collective for Popular Arts - Al Jana). In 2014, Syrian researchers gathered more than 250 folktales from displaced people in refugee camps in Syria and Lebanon. They selected and transcribed 21 of them, and published them in January 2015 in a high quality, English-Arabic bilingual book.
This was the book that showed up in my mailbox two weeks ago, courtesy of Peter Hagberg from Fabula Storytelling. I was going to save it for my A to Z Challenge theme in April, but recent events made it very timely, so I decided to talk about it today.

UPDATE: The book can be downloaded in a free PDF from this website.

In addition to being a very important project for the preservation of intangible cultural heritage, this book is also a very enjoyable read. It is shorter than it looks - the English half amounts to about 95 pages, with illustrations in-between - but it is very well organized. Each story is marked with the name, age, city of origin and current residence of its teller, often with footnotes explaining where the city is, and what kind of a region it belongs to. Additional notes explain names and cultural terms. The translators and editors even noted where the tales have been altered from their original format (this is how you know the book was created by professional storytellers).

The tales themselves are delightful, and run a wide range of genres. There are tricksters, wise fools, tragic lovers, man-eating ogres (which seems to be the generic term the translators used for ghouls), wise women, just kings, and camels that lay golden eggs (and then marry princesses). Some of the stories will ring familiar - there is a version of Love Like Salt, two different versions of the Animal Husband (one with a camel and one with a horse's head - this latter takes the cake in the category of "unlikely"). There is even a variation of the Three Little Pigs (without pigs, but with the addition of a ghoul). All the tales carry nuggets of wisdom and good advice - one of them is a very well-known inspirational story that has been making the rounds on the Internet, but the rest read like classic folklore.
I especially liked the stories that involved women in difficult family situations - one getting away from an abusive home by wit and luck, one saving her daughters from the jaws of a ghoul, and one giving advice to her husband on how to become wealthy. There is even a story in here about how a husband's own distrust and meanness turns his wives to erratic behavior (which he blames them for, until his own fault is pointed out). While not all the tales are kind to women, they have clearly been selected with a professional storyteller's eye to what would appeal to wider, contemporary audiences.

In the end, I was kind of sad that out of the 250 collected stories, only 21 made it into the collection - I hope to hear or read more of them in the future.

The illustrations are pretty and fun, and the entire layout of the book is clear, professional, and visually pleasing. All in all, the volume does justice to the tales, and to the people who tell them. I would like to quote the closing thoughts of its preface:

"Stories are what we are made of, and if we lose our stories we risk losing touch with our humanity and our identity. We strongly believe that through the enhancement of this thousand-year-old heritage of storytelling the Hakawati project has a potential to bridge ethnic, political and religious divides and hopefully build better understanding between people."

Strongly recommended read for all storytellers, story-loving people, and people following the news on the refugee debate.


  1. thanks Csenge, always look forward to this blog

  2. thanks Csenge, always look forward to this blog

  3. Sounds great! Where might one purchase this book?

    1. I don't know if it is commercially available. I contacted Fabula Storytelling to ask them about the project and they sent me a copy.

    2. Scratch that, you can download it from here :)