Childhood tales that were in danger of disappearing with the oral tradition behind them are being collected and rejuvenated.
Qatar student project evolves into major folklore revival
Two years ago, Fatma Al Remaihi took an important piece of her childhood to university. Standing in the sparkling white corridors of the Virginia Commonwealth University in Qatar (VCU-Q), the Qatari graphic design undergraduate excitedly showed a dusty old book to a friend and classmate, Al Hussein Wanas.
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Published in 1980, the book was an old, photocopied collection of a few of the stories Al Remaihi remembered and gave no indication of who the authors might be. The language was simple and there were no illustrations.
“I used to read it as a child and it happened to be in our family’s library,” says Al Remaihi, now an alumna. “It’s just a collection of some of the legends. They’re just stories taken from our ancestors.”
Wanas, an Egyptian, was seven years old when he arrived in Doha. Curious when he heard about the tales recounted to his Qatari friends, he wanted to design a new book that would appeal to today’s generation of both expatriates and native Gulf citizens. The Qatari fairy tale project was born.
“These stories change from generation to generation,” explains Wanas. “What we are trying to do now is make a collection that is as socially relevant as possible, so that people now can get it and appreciate it.”
Instead of rehashing the text on Al Remaihi’s bookshelf, Wanas decided to approach one of the university’s faculty, Patty Paine Gibbons, VCU-Q’s assistant English professor, to discuss a more creative treatment.
“I didn’t want to use that book,” says Gibbons. “I was concerned about copyright. This idea was brought to me by a student so we thought this would be a great project to involve others. We came up with an idea that would involve a lot of disciplines.”
The project, which has received some funding from the government but has largely relied on volunteer and student time, is still seeking a publisher. The partnership has grown into a group involving five faculty members from VCU-Q and the neighbouring Qatar University (QU) and dozens of students from both institutions. For months, students from QU have been visiting their grandparents, recording the fairy tales and legends on dictaphones and transcribing them before translating them into English.
Sara Al Mohannadi, the assistant professor of literature and linguistics at QU, incorporated the project into her classes, asking 30 of her students to call on their Qatari elders.
“They liked doing this so much. They got to know their own heritage, their history,” she says. “Until now, I don’t think they were interested. The new generation is more westernised. They have the internet taking them away from just sitting around and listening to stories. They don’t have the patience.”
The VCU-Q students have been responsible for reading and researching those stories, visiting traditional sites and exploring older fashions to experiment with ways of illustrating the places and characters for the new collection, which will be released by the middle of next year. By the time it goes on sale, it is estimated that more than 100 people will have worked on the book in some way.
So far, 12 tales are in the process of being illustrated. Another eight to 10 will be included in the final A4-sized anthology, which has yet to be given a title.
Among the stories, which will be presented in the same book for the first time in Arabic and English, is a Qatari version of Cinderella called Hamda and the Fairy Fish.
The project is similar to the UAE’s favourite Freej television series, the brainchild of Mohammed Saeed Harib, or the Emirati Qais Sedki’s manga-style Arabic book The Gold Ring, in that it uses modern, graphically designed and intensely vivid images to capture the attention of a younger audience and teach them about their heritage while being simultaneously entertaining.
“We know the stories, but until now it has only been through word of mouth. We’ve never really had a visual for it,” said Mariam Al Sarraj, a VCU-Q graduate in interior design who is working as an illustrator on the book. She has, like the rest of the team, spent months of her spare time observing architecture in the souqs and styles of dress worn by the older generation to record and then visualise how the pages should eventually look.
Wafaa Al Saffar, a Qatari VCU-Q alumna of graphic design who is also working on the illustrations, has enjoyed the process. “It’s been insightful for me to dig deep and see,” she says. “I’ve been asking my mother about these stories and seeing whether what’s written is true or not. The purpose behind many of these stories is to scare their children.”
In Om Hamar, or The Donkey Lady, for instance, there is a scene where a mother admonishes her child for leaving the house at noon. It’s a tale that has been told in Qatar, and elsewhere in the Gulf, thousands of times. It warns children to stay inside in case a woman who is half-donkey and half-human comes to attack.
“They’re based on practical reasons,” says Wanas. “They used to make up stories to protect them from the heat.”
Al Mohannadi jokes about the contrast with present-day parenthood: “ Now, I am begging my kids to get up and go out, to get off their MacBooks and stop watching TV.”
The book started as an internal VCU-Q project, but an application to the Qatar National Research Fund resulted in a grant of about Dh330,000 under the title Orality to Image, Traditional Qatari Narratives and Visual Media. Most of that has been spent on travel, presenting the idea at conferences such as the Arts and Society Berlin gathering and an event on literacy in Cape Town, South Africa.
“We have had a very positive reaction. People are very curious, both about Qatar and the folktales,” says Jesse Ulmer, an assistant professor in English literature and composition who is working with Gibbons on editing the English stories. “It’s a culture that is threatened by modernisation.”
The group hopes the work, when published, can provide expatriates with a glimpse into what many perceive as a mysterious culture.
“There is a lot of talk about the segments of Qatari society and how they aren’t getting to know each other,” says Peter Chomowicz, VCU-Q’s dean of research. “The country is growing so fast, more are coming here and then pulling away. Some people have this observation and I hope that a book like this would help create bridges between host and guests. It’s a great idea.”
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