Almost every child in the Netherlands is familiar with the story of Aladdin, a young man who comes into possession of a magical lamp and, along with the confident Princess Jasmine, attempts to thwart the evil plans of the sorcerer Jafar. The animated film that Walt Disney based on this Middle Eastern tale caused a surge in searches for more children’s stories and fairy tales from Arabian culture after its release in 1992. What stories and fairy tales are available in Arabian culture, and what do children grow up with?
Once upon a time…
During childhood, we all came into contact with fairy tales at some point. Snow White, Cinderella, Rapunzel, Sleeping Beauty, Hansel & Gretel, and Little Red Riding Hood are just some examples of fairy tales that I myself was completely enamoured with as a child. A fairy tale is a prose narrative that combines fantastic and supernatural elements. They often carry symbolic or allegorical meanings. The rich fantasies present in fairytales, like dwarves and talking animals, conjure unique and supernatural realms where characters usually live happily ever after. Moreover, these stories typically involve a moral or a lesson from which children might learn.
Fairy tales and stories from Arabic culture have had an enormous impact on European literature through the ages. Writers like Boccaccio and Chaucer took inspiration for their frame narratives from One Thousand and One Nights, and from the eighteenth century onward, there was widespread interest in Orientalism and the recurring themes in these narratives, such as love, dreams, and violence. Unlike their European counterparts, these early Arabian stories were often crafted for entertainment rather than didactic purposes.
And they lived happily ever after
One Thousand and One Nights is the most famous and beloved collection of Arabian fairy tales in the Western world. The stories are spun by Scheherazade, who, fearing for her life after marrying the king Shahryar, must tell tales to delay her execution, because he always kills his wife and slave girls in the palace after the first wedding night. Shahriar, having been betrayed by his first wife, resolves to marry a new woman each day and execute her the next morning to prevent further betrayal. To spare herself and future brides, Scheherazade weaves a story each night, but she always leaves the stories unfinished. As Shahryar wants to hear the rest of the story, he is compelled to keep her alive for another day to hear the end. But that next evening she not only finishes the story, she also starts a new one. Night after night, she narrates a new story, and after a thousand and one nights, her tales cure Shahryar of his bitterness. And they lived happily ever after.
Islamic Golden Age
A portion of these tales, first recorded in the tenth century during the Islamic Golden Age, have roots in oral tradition. As time went on, more stories were added until the collection reached the iconic number of 1001. The tale of Aladdin is included in this collection, but it was a later addition. Scholars even question whether it truly originated from Arab culture or was a creation of the French translator Antoine Galland in the eighteenth century.
Interested in the Islamic Golden Age? Then you might want to read “From the Desert to Baghdad: The Spread of Islam and Arabic”.
Much like the world we inhabit, stories and fairy tales evolve too. For instance, did you know that One Thousand and One Nights was long considered inferior in the Arabic world because it didn’t meet certain content and stylistic criteria? As recently as 1986, an uncensored version of these tales was banned in Egypt for being too erotic.
But that’s not the only thing that has changed over time. Fairy tales and stories are continuously modified to stay relevant for the children growing up with them. A case in point is the Arab Fairy Tale Feasts publication of 2021, a cookbook aimed at children aged eight to twelve, which features recipes from across the Arab world. Each dish is introduced by a modern folktale rooted in ancient stories, like in “Fish Soup in Gaza.” In this tale, the wise Goha character is drawn from the seventh-century Abu al-Ghusn Dajin al-Fazari and the thirteenth-century satirist Nasreddin Hodja. Traditionally, such stories’ protagonists would be male, but the author decided to give intelligent girls and women prominent roles in these modern tales, including in “The Dream Garden.” Here, Princess Soraya rescues her two brothers from the dream garden and brings back a trove of gems for her father.
Did you know that characters based on Nasreddin Hodja often recur in contemporary Arabic tales? This character is known by several names, one of which is Djoha (جحا, IPA: juḥā), an animated figure who stars with his talking donkey in a series of short films on everyday themes.
Arabic Fairy Tales
Rodaan Al Galidi also brings a contemporary twist to the fairy tales he grew up with in Iraq in his book Arabic Fairy Tales. This includes the tale of “Sinbad,” which broadly traces back to the seven voyages of Sinbad the Sailor in One Thousand and One Nights. Sinbad recounts his seven voyages, featuring shipwrecks, mythical creatures like the roc and the cyclops, and encounters with powerful rulers— tales often likened to the adventures of Odysseus. In Al Galidi’s version, the adventures are condensed into a single journey where young Sinbad searches for a treasure across the seas, only to find in his old age that the treasure was buried at his family home all along. By simplifying the story, Al Galidi made it shorter and more accessible for children, and he added a moral: sometimes happiness is closer than you think.
Like European fairy tales and stories, Arabic narratives often trace back to earlier iterations. As they journey through time and across countries, they are perpetually tailored to the target audience and the cultural context of the time, and they will undoubtedly continue to do so.If you’re keen to delve into more modernised or localised Arabic content, why not read “Open Sesame” and discover how Sesame Street has been localised for Arabic-speaking children?