5 Folktale-inspired Stories Translated from Arabic

This Women in Translation Month (#WiTMonth) Wednesday, five selected short stories from five different countries that are re-tellings or inventions of folktale narratives:

1. “Pearls on a Branch,” from the collection of folktales Pearls on a Branch: Oral Tales

ed. Najlaa Khoury, tr. Inea Bushnaq. (Lebanon)

This gorgeous, subversive, beautifully translated collection — subtitled “Tales from the Arab World Told by Women” — is a must-have for all ages. The title story, published on Tin House, opens:

There was or there was not
In olden days that time has lost…
O you who like stories and talk
No story can be pleasing and beautiful,
Without invoking the Almighty, the Merciful.

THERE WAS A KING – there is no sovereign but God – and this king had a daughter. She was his only child and he liked to please her. So when the month for the pilgrimage to Mecca drew near, the king asked his daughter:

Tell me what do you want me to bring you from the Hajj?

*

2. “The Memoirs of Cinderella’s Slipper” by Shahla Ujayli, translated by Alice Guthrie and published in The Common. (Syria)

This story is, naturally, a retelling of the Cinderella story, although set in an unnamed country that seems much like modern Syria.

It opens, in Guthrie’s translation:

The uniformed conscript led the way, bearing aloft, on a small pink velvet cushion, a shabby-looking woman’s shoe. The leather was faded, stretched, and torn. Part of the sole had come off, and the heel had been roughly hammered back on with protruding nails. None of the repairs that had obviously been carried out in an attempt to restore the shoe’s former glory had succeeded. Behind the conscript came the cavalry, weaving their way through the houses of the city, searching for a woman’s foot to fit the shoe.

The shoe belonged, in fact, to a beautiful young woman in her mid-twenties called Cinderella. She had purchased it a few days earlier from a downtown store. It was a plain but shiny black round-toed shoe, a stiletto, and it had ushered in her elegant size-37 left foot and held onto it as if it had been custom-made. The following day Cinderella had set out in it for a job interview at a company. She’d stormed out of the house, hoping to escape her stepmother’s tyranny by getting a job and leaving home for good.

*

3. “Al Fisaikra,” translated by Khuloud Saleh, from the Qatari oral tradition. Published in Words Without Borders. (Qatar)

In this story, a magical fish helps a young woman escape her evil stepmother. Kholoud Saleh writes in her translator’s note that the “fish in this story—a two-banded porgy that lives in the Arabian Gulf—is known as Al Fisaikra in Qatari dialect (and Fusijaira, Fusikaira, and Bint Al-Nowakhtha in standard Arabic). In Gulf Region folklore, Fusijaira is a supernatural being who helps deserving people in need.”

The story opens:

There was, my dear, a fisherman. This man was very good and kind, and he was married and had a daughter named Hamda. But by Allah’s will, his wife passed away, and the daughter was left alone with her father. The father went fishing every day, and the daughter would cook his catch for the both of them. They lived in joy.

*

4. “The Sharp Bend at Al-Bakur,” by Najwa Binshatwan, translated by Sawad Hussain, winner of the 2019 ArabLit Story Prize, published in ArabLit Quarterly. (Libya)

It appears that Khadija wasn’t precise enough with measuring ingredients when mixing together powders for her rejuvenating paste. Especially when all of a sudden the lights went out midway through. Trying to estimate the quantities based on the last thing she had seen, she calmly stretched out her hand to pour the bottles without so much as a drop splashing outside the bowl. She then managed to put them back; not a single thing fell off the table.

*

5. “How The Peasant Woman Kneads Her Dough,” by Salwa Bakr, tr. Srpko Leštarić and Edward Alexander (Egypt)

A contemporary Egyptian satire with echoes of Kalila and Dimna. This story opens:

The door opened suddenly and the sunlight soaked the dark mud hut which had no other openings. At this, all three monkeys began to shriek and jump up and down, in the hope that it could be the beginning of the end to the suffering which they had endured throughout the whole of the previous night.

The first monkey, who was named Zaqzuq by their keeper Sharshar, attempted to be courteous and, when Sharshar burst through the door, raised a hand as though to greet him. He didn’t respond to this in any way, maybe out of haughti- ness (since he looked down on the monkeys), but maybe just because he had quickly turned to his wife who had entered after him, leading a goat. They had, namely, brought a goat, for whose presence at that moment the three monkeys could not see a single sane reason. In any case, when Zaqzuk saw that the man did not acknowledge him with any sort of polite gesture, he swallowed the insult and dropped his hand back down onto the oor, as though he were waiting for something.

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