x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 26 July 2017

Cinderella comes to Sharjah

The story of a poor girl who overcomes hardships to marry a handsome prince crosses centuries and cultures - and now the Emirati version has been written.

Released last month by the Directorate of Heritage of Sharjah, the book Bdeha honours both the folk tale and the al Badah fish, which is now in season.
Released last month by the Directorate of Heritage of Sharjah, the book Bdeha honours both the folk tale and the al Badah fish, which is now in season.

SHARJAH // Whenever Hamda, gentle and fair, suffered cruelty at the hands of her evil stepmother and ugly stepsister, she would head to the edge of the sea and call out "Bdeha" three times.

In this Emirati version of the beloved universal fairy tale of Cinderella, the fairy godmother is the baby version of the popular local al Badah fish, here named Bdeha.

With big sad eyes, the longtail silver biddy fish comes to Hamda's rescue and grants her any wish. Bdeha's rewards are thanks for the mercy Hamda showed the fish, throwing her back in the sea when she was caught in her father's fishing net.

Released last month by the Directorate of Heritage of Sharjah, the book Bdeha honours both the folk tale and the al Badah fish, which is now in season.

"Our Cinderella is a typical fisherman's daughter and the hero is our local fish, which we often take for granted," said Abdulaziz Al Musallam, the author of the book and director of heritage and culture affairs at Sharjah's Department of Culture and Information.

While Cinderella was written in 1697 by the Frenchman Charles Perrault, this brand of story - poor girl struggles under stepmother and stepsister but escapes and ends up marrying Prince Charming - is believed to be at least a millennium old.

Beyond the fairy godfish, there are some other elements in this latest book that are specific to the Emirates and the areas around it. This Cinderella is found not by leaving behind a glass slipper but one made of golden leather, and her Prince Charming is a sheikh's son.

"Depending on who is telling the story, if for instance it is someone from the desert, its setting will be the desert and the hero will be a desert fox or cat," said Mr Al Musallam, who has published 18 books on heritage, most of them on local fairy tales.

The 44-page book, in Arabic with colourful illustrations, follows the story of Hamda and her relationship with her father, her stepfamily and Bdeha. When the sheikh decides to find a bride for his son, he asks all the main families of the area to bring their daughters so that he may choose the fairest of them all. After losing her slipper, Hamda ends up locked up in a clay oven, or tanour, and is rescued by a rooster who informs the royal delegation searching for the slipper's owner that Hamda is in the oven.

But the story does not end at happily ever after. Hamda's trials continue.

"The stepmother tries to sabotage the marriage by making Hamda eat nothing but onion and salted fish, so that she smells on her wedding night," Mr Al Musallam said.

The ugly stepsister, who is portrayed as fat with crooked teeth, ends up married to the sheikh's other son.

"There are some surprises in this version of Cinderella," he said.

The story of Bdeha is quite popular among Sharjah's fishermen, who deal with the al Badah almost every day.

"Yeah, we know that story about it granting you any wish," said Mohammed bin Al Noun, a fisherman for 40 years. "But it never granted me any of my wishes. Maybe I should have tried to release one back into the sea and see what happens."

Mr Al Noun said that a central plot point of the story is sound, in that this fish swims so close to the shores that it is easy to capture.

"It is a very nice fish, it has big expressive eyes," he said. "I like it because it is fat and very delicious."

Besides the fairy tale, the book comes with a colouring book. One segment is dedicated to the story of the fish and the importance of kindness towards all marine life.

"These kinds of books are important to help stimulate the imagination of the child and the adult," said Mona Al Shamsi, an independent heritage researcher. "Most people don't even know the difference between one fish or the other, and don't bother to find out."

The mother of five read the Bdeha story to her youngest, leaving the older ones to discover it for themselves.

"A fairy tale is the best way to remind us all of our wealthy and imaginative past and not take things for granted."

A twist in the tale is that Mr Al Musallam decided to have Hamda wear a blue dotted headscarf and a colourful thoub, instead of the black abaya and shayla.

"They didn't wear black back then when the story was born," he said. "I wanted to keep it true to its origin and style."

Mr Musallam goes further and speculates the Cinderella genre might have roots in this part of the world.

"There are some things, like the cinder on her face from being stuck inside the oven to the beauty of small feet in a lady, may hint at the story being originally born here in this part of the world and then passed on through our ships to Europe," he said. "Maybe Cinderella's real name was Hamda, who knows, anything is possible in the realm of fairy tales."

rghazal@thenational.ae