x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

Are you sitting comfortably? Then I'll begin?

'And then the spider appeared as it promised at midnight, with a new story to tell?" Most of the bedtime stories my mother told me had something to do with a spider.

'And then the spider appeared as it promised at midnight, with a new story to tell?" Most of the bedtime stories my mother told me had something to do with a spider: she's Polish, and the spider is a big part of their children's story tradition. Perhaps because it can wander about unnoticed, it is a great observer of life and people's lives: and from its innocent comments, we, the children, used to draw our own conclusions.

I loved those times, growing up in Saudi Arabia in the 1980s. My friends would come and sleep over just to listen to my mother's bedtime stories. Of course, I was lucky: TV by then was a permanent fixture in many families, and for a lot of children that meant no bedtime stories - so they used to come to my mother instead. To this day one of my friends likes to tell her children the story of the day the spider got lost and ended up travelling the world on the back of a horse. Seen through the eyes of the spider, the world was big, noisy and confusing. Sometimes my mother would make the spider see the world only in red, or colourless, and the storytelling would become interactive, with the teller and the listener discussing how colour can change the perception of everything.

To make it more "cultural sensitive", my mother would sometimes put the spider in places such as the majlis, or even the mosque, and tell us a creative story about its adventures there. Whether it was the one about the cockroach with indigestion, or the girl with whiskers like a cat, the bedtime stories were funny and witty, not preachy and lame. Trust me, children pick up on stories through which the parent is trying to convey a lesson, although it needs to be done subtly and intelligently: I hated stories that I felt talked down to me.

These days, young mothers such as my friend are having a hard time finding bedtime stories written with any understanding of Middle Eastern culture, or even with a bit of "Arabness" in them. There are many children's books out there, but most are either translated or written by western authors. There are great Arab writers and illustrators, but mainly they focus on grown-up literature, and take on children's books as a passing fancy. That is a shame, given that oral storytelling is part of the Middle Eastern tradition, with some scholars going as far as to say that bedtime storytelling began centuries ago in a tent in the Arabian desert.

Because of my personal fascination with storytelling, wherever I visit I always search for the traditional storyteller. I discovered that in the Iraqi version of Cinderella, as well as in the Gulf one, the heroine is a dark beauty with black eyes and big, strong feet. In Lebanon and Syria she is blonde and thin, with "petite" feet. The famous slipper is not made from glass, as in the western version, but from cloth embroidered with gold and precious gems.

Whether it was the introduction of TV to the Middle East, or the political instability and unrest that continues to plague the region, the tradition of storytelling in homes has died off to a certain extent - replaced with depressing political talk. I was surprised to find out that my Syrian-Lebanese father grew up with bedtime stories, and it was a family tradition to sit with the elders and listen to their tales. He remembers how quiet the room would become as all the children gathered round the great aunt or grandmother and listened carefully to stories of jinn and "naughty children", and how good did not always win in the end. The good character had to be smart, and use wit - or sometimes the sword - to triumph against evil. The stories were also often peppered with poetry and riddles, which got the children thinking and working together to figure out the solution. "We used to get sad whenever the story ended, and always wanted more," my father says.

This tradition also helped the children to cope with the harsh realities of life. When my father was a child there were electricity cuts, shortages of food and other supplies, and the hovering possibility of war. I was lucky that my parents continued the tradition of bedtime stories: that small gesture always made bedtime one of the most anticipated times of day. rghazal@thenational.ae