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Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 September 2018

New competition to revive Emirati stories

Now in its third year, folktales authored by children are less violent but still focus on current issues

New Fairy Tales and Fables from the UAE revives stories of forgotten djinn like Abu Al Les, the cunning fox. Illustration by Arwa Ahmed Al Amoodi, courtesy Brione LaThrop
New Fairy Tales and Fables from the UAE revives stories of forgotten djinn like Abu Al Les, the cunning fox. Illustration by Arwa Ahmed Al Amoodi, courtesy Brione LaThrop

“Once upon a time, there was a wise, old, camel named Adil….”

So begins the tale of Adil the camel, a generous dromedary from Al Ain who makes a deal with a sly fox who promises to bring him succulent plants in return for the shade of his hump. When the sly fox fails to keep his word, he is taught a lesson about honesty and hard work. This story is one of the 2017 winners of the short story competition, New Fables and Fairy Tales from the UAE.

Stories and illustrations from the second annual writing competition will be on display for the first time during Eid at Ferrari World Abu Dhabi, starting Friday until September 9. An award ceremony for the winners will be held next month.

Now in its third year, New Fairytales and Fables has revived stories of Emirati folk characters on the brink of disappearance.

In the tale Camel Karma, by Jumeirah Primary School pupil Ruby Shaheen, Adil the camel makes a deal with a sly fox. Illustration by Rashida Al Mansouri.
In the tale Camel Karma, Adil the camel makes a deal with a sly fox. Illustration by Rashida Al Mansouri.

Traditionally, Emirati djinn are a gruesome lot. There’s Naghaga, a mother who accidentally kills her wailing child and is transformed into an owl with the face of a woman. Then there’s Baba Daria, a sailor with hands sawn off at the wrists who was thrown into the water and possessed by a djinn.

For the last three years, Brioné LaThrop, creator of New Fables and Fairytales of the UAE, has worked with children to recast them as sympathetic guardians.

“They died out and they’ve died out because they’re so fear based,” says LaThrop. “People don’t tell their kids these stories because they’re so fearful. If I brought them back the way they were known in the past, it would have the same impact. My goal is to have them reintegrated. These characters are competing with Disney characters to win the hearts of kids. They have to have more positive attributes.”

A renewed interest in heritage has witnessed some djinn reestablish themselves in popular culture. Most renowned are Baba Daria and Umm Al Duwais, a seductive custodian of love and slayer of the unfaithful.

Now LaThrop is reviving unknown djinns such as Abu Karbah, father of the husk, a male palm tree that uses two of its largest branches as arms to wallop anyone who harms the farm. One of this year’s stories tells of a woman intent on chopping a ghaf tree after her hair gets snagged in one of its branches. Furious, she spends days hacking its trunk until the haunted tree casts a spell on her, to make her appearance as ugly as her heart.

Hundreds of children from the seven emirates competed to represent their schools. This year’s competition had 200 submissions from more than 100 schools. Stories from winners will be translated into colloquial Arabic and English, and published next year.

Children wrote about one of 25 local folktale characters.

The competition has developed from Story Mile, a Zayed University project where students retold folktales tackling modern taboos and challenges, such as a fiancé tempted while studying abroad. Abu Ras, the big-headed guardian of the souq who once protected the market from thieves, was reshaped as a fighter for workers’ rights.

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Related links:

Is it better for your children to be reading in colloquial Arabic?

Why horror stories and the djinn continue to thrill us

Djinn: fact or fable?

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Submissions were in Arabic and English categories for two age groups – from seven to nine and ten to 12. Each school held its own competition, and submitted its top three stories from each category for New Fairytales and Fables of the UAE.

Stories authored by children are less violent but still focus on current issues. Layanne Elboreini retells the traditional story of Salama, a mountain in the strait of Hormuz that sinks any ship that draws near it. In Elboreini’s version, the mountain protects the ocean’s resources and fish from greedy sailors instead of a sunken treasure chest.

Layanne Elboreini tells the story of Salama, a mountain in the strait of Hormuz that sinks any ship that draws near it. Illustration by Arwa Al Amri.
Layanne Elboreini tells the story of Salama the mountain, who sinks any ship that draws near it. Illustration by Arwa Al Amri.

The fables were originally collected by Sharjah’s famed storyteller, Abdulaziz Al Musallam, who has traveled the Gulf since the 1980s gathering folklore with roots in Iran, India and Zanzibar.

The universal values of folktales offer cultural connection today, said Nasser Isleem, one of the competition judges and senior lecturer of Arabic, Arts and Humanities at New York University Abu Dhabi.

"Young children adore stories and folktales,” said Isleem, who has authored a textbook on Emirati dialect.

“They come to draw pictures in their minds when listening to a story. Thus, teaching by storytelling, is certainly a way to teach values, ethics and citizenship, as well as cultural tolerance and acceptance of the ‘Other’.”

There were only 10 submissions in Arabic this year. Safia Al Qubaisi, 54, says the younger generation had forgotten the folk stories that spooked her when she was a little girl in Abu Dhabi during the 1960s. “My grandmother told me that Abu Daria will take you to the sea and that Umm Al Duwais, she’ll take you to the mountains and you’ll never see your parents again,” said Ms Al Qubaisi, who works at Abu Dhabi’s National Theatre’s handicraft centre.

“Nowadays kids don’t know these characters and they don’t know fear,” says her friend Naeema Al Kutbi, 42.

Both praised the competition for the revival of djinns. “These stories were based on fear,” adds Al Qubaisi. “Now they must be based on a lesson. Now we must tell stories that advise.”

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