Wednesday 7 March 2018

#bookreview: Pearls on a Branch: Arab Stories Told by Women in Lebanon Today

Pearls on a Branch: Arab Stories Told by Women in Lebanon TodayPearls on a Branch: Arab Stories Told by Women in Lebanon Today by Najla Khoury
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Every country has its own folklore, stories from ancient past handed down from generation to generation. As with all oral traditions, similar stories with a single origin are spread over a wide district, changing along with the ever-evolving culture and circumstances of the storytellers themselves. Most of the time, the differences are only in the details. The thirty translated stories in Pearls on a Branch are a window into the lives of Arabic women, selected from a larger repository of Arabic tales recorded and transcribed by Najla Jraissaty Khoury. As with all fairy tales and folklore, the stories range from the almost mundane to the extremely fantastical, including animals that speak and classic forms of poor men winning the hands of rich princesses (and vice versa).

These tales capture the poetic forms of its original language, with most of them beginning and ending in verse. Yet, as Khoury herself notes, the essence of such oral stories are captured in “the nuances in the choice of words, the comments and body language of the storyteller. It was a revelation: certain stories told by women were for women only.” It is a shame that such nuances cannot be captured in print, and that some references are inevitably lost when such stories are translated into English and read by one without the appropriate local and cultural cues.

Despite this, it is almost surprising (though it shouldn’t be) that some of the tales are uncannily similar to familiar Western tales. Two striking examples are O Palace Beautiful! O Fancy Friend, which is in essence Snow White (or Pomegranate-on-a-platter) with Ali Baba and the forty thieves as the seven dwarves; and Thuraya with the Long, Long Hair, which follows the form of Rapunzel.

Quite a few of the stories feature clashes between man and woman, the most interesting of which is how Husun Kamil outwits and outmatches Lulu Bighsunu, the snotty young prince in the title story, Pearls on a Branch.

So read on: It was or it was not, in the oldness of time…

Note: I received a digital review copy of this book via Edelweiss. I was given the book with no expectation of a positive review and the review is my own.

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