Monday, March 4, 2019

Land of Life and Death (Following folktales around the world 101. - Egypt)

Today I continue the blog series titled Following folktales around the world! If you would like to know what the series is all about, you can find the introduction post here. You can find all posts here, or you can follow the series on Facebook!

Folktales of Egypt
Hasan M. El-Shamy
University of Chicago Press, 1982.

A classic collection from a great series. Egyptian folklorist Hasan El-Shamy has done incredible work for the collection and preservation of Egyptian andArab folktales. At the start of his research in the 1960s, mere dozens of tales had been collected; he started a campaign to record and archive oral tradition all over Egypt, including Copt, Nubian, and Berber communities. This book contains 70 of the more than 2000 tales that have been preserved. There is a long foreword about Egyptian storytelling from American folklorist Richard M. Dorson, and a shorter introduction from the editor. From the latter, we learn a lot about Egyptian oral tradition, and the role of storytelling in everyday life (such as, "wonder tales" were almost always told by women, and that by the 1960s there were no professional tellers working in Cairo). Before each story, we learn about the storyteller, and get a short note with information about the cultural elements of the tale. At the end of the book there are ample notes and references for each tale; and even the thematic chapters come with their own introductions. This book really contains all the information the reader could ever need about a folktale. It is a great example of folklore publication.


Bishari youth
Among many stories of wisdom, my favorite was The liver of the wise and the liver of the foolish. A king wanted to eat the livers of a wise and a foolish man (this was the only cure for his illness). For a fool, he caught a Bishari tribesman, and for a wise man, he caught a judge. Except the Bishari soon proved that he himself was very wise, and the judge only had mindless book knowledge (and then got two other victims for the king - the vizier and a poet). I also liked the story of Sultan Hasan, who had been exiled from his realm, and got married to a divorced woman. It was supposed to be a legal loophole marriage, but they fell in love, and refused to get divorced again.
Among the religious legends, I really liked the stories about Azrael, the Angel of Death. In one, he talked a man out of suicide, but later, when the man tried to cheat his way out of death, Azrael tricked him anyway. From another legend we also learned that Azrael does cry, laugh, and feel fear sometimes.
There was also a story where injustice prevailed. A judge and a baker stole a roasted duck; later, when the duck's owner took the baker to court (with all the other people the baker had wronged), the judge decided every case in the baker's favor, until the last man decided not to complain at all, too afraid to get fined. A very realistic ending to a tale.
Another story told about Reasons to beat your wife - or rather, reasons not to. In it, a man with a great wife was constantly told by his friend that he should beat her anyway, just for good measure, and that he should manufacture a reason to do so. The clever wife, however, avoided the beating, until her husband reconsidered his friend's foolish advice.


In the Introduction I encountered a tale about a sultan who was turned into a woman, then back - a story type I have only encountered so far (apart from Tiresias) in Scotland. The same type repeated twice in the story of The grateful fish.
Among better known tales, there was a Clever Maiden (Sesame seed; here she was the wife's sister, giving advice to her brother-in-law on how to fulfill the sultan's impossible wishes); a Magic Flight, combined with Rapunzel (Louliyya, Morgan's daughter); Magician's Apprentice (The Maghrabi's Apprentice); and another Silent Princess tricked into speaking by dilemma tales and some jealousy (The royal candlestick). After Greece, I once again found the story of the man who tried to fix the dripping fountain of his luck, but accidentally managed to stop it up for good. I also found one of those stories where three men do some excellent detective work finding a one-eyed camel - in this case, they also had to figure out which Mohamed should inherit after their father.
After Serbia, I once again encountered the story of the Land of Darkness - it is a part of the Alexander (Al-Iskander) epic where Alexander the great sets out the Fountain of Immortality. In the end, it is his counselor el-Khidr who accidentally finds it and bathes in it, and becomes an immortal (who shows up whenever stories are told about him). The legendary Arab hero Antar ibn Shaddad also made a brief appearance from beyond the grave in one of the legends. And to add to the lineup of famous men, Saint George (Mari Girgis) figured into several Coptic tales, including the famous dragon-slaying one, which is tied to Nile fertility rites.
I found out that Egyptians also have the concept of changelings - here, it is the djinn who change the babies for their own.
Abu Nawwas
Among the trickster tales, there was a classic "top and bottom of the crops" story, between a lion and the mouse, resolved with another classic, the race between animals. Among famous human tricksters we had Goha and Abu-Nawwas (a court poet of Harun Al Rasheed). The latter won a contest in laziness by not even entering. About Goha, there were multiple stories; in one, he faked his own death to prove a point to his wife; in another, he was really dying, but trying to trick Azrael out of taking him. There was also the classic tale about applying pepper to a donkey's ass - a story I first learned from my grandfather, who swore up and down it happened in our own village.
There was even a collection of jokes at the end of the book (jokes are a folk genre too). I liked the one where the police found out about the origins of an ancient Egyptian statue - because they made it confess everything. In another one, a recently deceased man decided to take a trip from heave to hell on a tourist visa, and enjoyed it very much; but when he went back on an immigrant visa, he was thrown into the pit with the rest of them. Think about it.

Where to next?

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