Sunday, April 12, 2020

In the land of the djinn (Following folktales around the world 151. - Yemen)

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!

From ​The Land Of Sheba
Yemeni Folk Tales
Carolyn Han
Interlink Books, 2005.

The book contains 24 folktales. There is a long and detailed introduction that talks about Yemen's geography, history, customs, traditions, the Incense Road, everyday life, and the circumstances of collecting the stories. The tales were collected by the author herself, as well as her Yemeni friends, translated to English, and re-told. They have a strong atmosphere of literary re-tellings (none begin with "once upon a time"), but the story structure is still the same. There is a glossary at the end of the book.


I liked the story where the cats in the mosque helped a shayk raise a foundling boy; it turned out one of the cats was a djinn (and we even found out where he got the money to help). In the tale of Johar and the green bird, on the other hand, a cat could see the djinn; it meowed every time its master got guests, but once it meowed ten times only and they had twelve guests. The last two confessed they were djinn in disguise.
In the tale of the cloud camels an entire village pretended to be insane to save their home from the sultan; even though he tried to make them give themselves away, they kept up the ruse and won.
In the story of Shayk Al-Mahdi the protagonist left his money with a friend while traveling, only to find out upon his return that the friend died and the money was gone. He went to the gates of Heaven and Hell (Zamzam's well and a volcanic crater) and yelled in; the friend responded from Hell, telling him where the money way hidden.
I was amused by The porter's wisdom in the tale where a man tried to pay the porter, carrying his valuable alabaster window panes, in wisdom instead of money. The porter, in return, dropped the alabaster panes, teaching a valuable lesson: "don't try to cheat the guy who is carrying your fragile cargo."
Probably my favorite story in the book was The djinn of Wadi Dahr, where a man moved into a tower already occupied by a djinn. They mutually tried to evict each other, the djinn by going full poltergeist, and the man by various rituals of exorcism, until a wise old man came along and helped them reach a truce. After that, they became friends, and lived happily together.


image from here
Ali, Ali and Ali was a version of the "lost camel" folktale type; three clever princes set out to find out which one of them was disowned by their father (since they all had the same name). A clever sultan helped them by figuring out which one of them was a bad person. There was also a Brave Tailor story (Brave Suleyman), and a Cinderella variant called Henna Leaf where the shoe test suddenly made a lot more sense, since the prince was not allowed to look at the girls' faces.

Where to next?


  1. Thanks Zalka for these djinns, benevolent spirits/creatures for me, but debatable.... Would love to visit Yemen. Unfortunately, such a beautiful country constantly ridden by war, poverty, famine and rarely spoken about in the News. The only time I touched down in Yemen, was in 1989, to change planes, coming back from Africa, and the airport terminal was riddled with machine gun bullets and heavily armed soldiers lined the tarmac. Chilling. Take care. Can’t wait for the rest of the world tour of what is , let’s face it , the cradle of all modern stories.

  2. Yes, forgot. Check out an animated film Azur et Asmar, made by the director of the Kirikou (little African boy) series of films,
    about djinns.