Bedtime stories

Storytelling is an ancient custom that properly dates back to the Stone Age, where humans used to draw pictures and events on the walls of caves. Later on conversations that took place among travellers on the Silk Road. Not only did those travellers exchange goods, but they exchanged details about their trips and the stories they heard in India—stories that lived on in their memories because they conveyed moral and humanist lessons and concepts that unite us all, despite the difference in culture and language. This is what helped preserve these tales and folklore, which women used to facilitate communication between one generation and the next. But do these stories still play an essential role in our Syrian society as they did before?

Bedtime stories
Photo: Sarah Thabet to the far right of the photo with her neighbour, her two daughters, and one of her in-laws in their Damascene house in Al-Diwaniyah neighbourhoodin the 1950s, Baghdad Street, Damascus.

Writer and researcher of spoken heritage, Maysa Sheikh Hussein, says, “Today, this folklore is greatly endangered, as mothers and sisters have begun to forget these folktales.The Syrian woman played a creative role in story-making. For example, the grandmother would merge global folktales with old local ones to bring out a moral and instil the desired strength and courage in the hearts and minds of children.

There is also a great similarity between the popular global folktales and the local ones, for example, the tale of Lulu Sumac—which is inspired by the story of Princess Snow White, the tale of Nanna—which tells the famous story of Rapunzel, and the tale of “Nus Nsais” known as “Uqlat Al-Isbaah”, i.e., Hop-o’My-Thumb.

The Damascene nature of these folktales is manifested in the names of their characters and local details. They also reflect in their events the culture and values ​​of the place. For example, a mother may choose one of the neighbourhood children’s favourite characters to be the protagonist and the conveyor of the lesson or wisdom in the global folktale, such as the candy seller in the story of Abu Khalil Al-Bastati.

When I asked about her interest in and knowledge of these tales, Mrs. Maysa Sheikh Hussein told me how they were circulated among the women in her family three generations ago. Her late mother told her these tales, passing them down by word of mouth from Sarah Thabet, Maysa Hussein’s grandmother, who spent her childhood in Saydnaya and received her school education in French, before she got married and moved to Al-Jisr Al-Abyad area in Damascus.

Raja Semkari, daughter of storyteller Sarah Thabet, told me some of Sarah’s stories. I was struck by the similarity in folk tradition between global folktales and the ones she adapted and turned into familiar folktales. I asked Raja Semkari the following questions:

How important are these tales to you?

They preserve our folklore and oral tradition and hold many lessons that are imprinted in the child’s memory. They may as well pass them on to children of relatives and neighbours. Hence, these tales will always remind us of those who sow the seeds of our values ​​and morals and will push us to be more imaginative and creative.

How did you come to love folktales? How did you learn them?

My siblings enjoyed reading, art, listening to music, and watching Arab and foreign films. I was the youngest, and they would take me with them to cinemas and libraries. My mother was fluent in French, so she translated all the stories she learned in her school into Arabic for us. She also merged some meaningful lessons that she wanted to convey to us in a relatable way, which helped her create beautiful stories cleverly and skilfully. When I got married, I passed these same stories on to my children and my granddaughter Mai, who is now the fourth generation to be taught these stories.

When were these tales shared?

During family home evenings in particular. My mother Sarah loved to tell stories she had learned in school to the whole family, young and old. Adults were especially eager to listen to her stories because some of them were illiterate and couldn’t read or write. One of the most beautiful storybooks that she would also read to us during these family times was the One Thousand and One Nights and the book of Kalila and Demna, translated by Abdullah bin Al Muqaffa.

What short stories do you remember that your late mother was so keen on passing down to your grandchildren?

One of the most beautiful stories is the tale of Lulu Sumac, the little girl with red cheeks like sumac. This tale takes from the global folktale of Snow White and the local tales children learn at school. It also adds some local details, like sumac, to describe the colour of the heroine’s cheeks and the wells frequently seen in the Syrian villages. One of the most important lessons that stand out in this tale is the victory of good over evil in the end. This is exactly how Sarah would make her tales more relatable.

Recording of Lulu Sumac tale, voice: Raja Samkari

In addition, there were many other stories that my mother would adapt to suit our family’s lifestyle and Damascene environment, such as the story of the ogre’s daughters who went to bring water from the well, and the amount each of them could get depended on how kindly they spoke. In this tale, the mother tries to teach her daughters that words of kindness are essential for survival. Unfortunately, none of us wrote down these tales, and I forgot some of them. However, some family members, who heard them from my mother as children, still remember them.

Recording of The Ogre’s Daughters tale, Voice: Raja Samkari

Are there any downsides to telling stories that are exclusively suited to the local environment?

The tales provide timeless wisdom and lessons suitable for any environment.

Although these tales are no longer a part of women’s and family gatherings, due to technology that has changed how people entertain and interact with each other, I believe that this style of storytelling is not dead, because it is linked to the role of women as mothers, educators and main caregivers of their children at every stage of their lives.

Still, the real purpose of these Damascene folktales and the reason they are passed down from one generation to another is to preserve the concepts of child-rearing that are unique to each family.