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from the February 2020 issue

Enduring Tales: The Qatari Oral Tradition

Doha is a city in the midst of swift transformation. Between the wind-etched dunes of the Qatari desert and the bright shores of the Arabian Gulf, luxury towers, art museums, shopping malls, top-tier universities, mosques—new, old, and in construction—bloom beside tailors, shawarma vendors, shisha cafes, cafeterias selling intriguing juice blends (the Rolex, the Computer), construction barriers, and morning fish markets. Traffic whirs down streets necklaced with roadwork, debris of a small and newly rich country surging forward at breathtaking speed. Yet beyond the humming city remain traces of a vanishing era: trackless desert, abandoned fishing boats, grazing camels, sprawling date farms, and eroding stone and mud houses emptied to sand and wind.

Qatar’s ambitious modernity is rooted in a diverse cultural inheritance passed down from pearl divers and fisherfolk, traders and merchants, and Bedouin nomads with complex family clans and tribal alliances. These regional and ancestral histories are deeply etched in Qatar’s intangible cultural heritage—its songs, poetry, dances, jokes, proverbs, and especially its folk stories. Known in Qatar as hazawi, folktales are the oral stories of everyday life, transmitted within families for education and entertainment in the home, the majlis, or the desert camps. Common characters in Qatari folktales include donkeys, goats, magic fish, jealous wives, orphaned children, sneaky thieves, sea monsters, djinn, folk heroes, and clever old women. Details change with every rendition as a storyteller adds their own flourishes, so that each tale is a dynamic, evolving performance. The stories are abundant with social wisdom, moral instruction, and cultural knowledge, and reflect the lessons and concerns of the past and present. They may begin with a prayer to Allah and a ritual opening:

            May nothing affect us but goodness for us and you, and may evil stay away from us and you.1 

And end with a ritual close:  

            And we came and we left, and they brought us nothing.

Stories passed down from nomadic tribes illuminate survival in the austere inland desert: tales of ailing camels, unreliable strangers, and Umm Hamar, the donkey lady, who prowls in the dangerous noontime heat. Families descended from coastal villagers recount stories of pearl diving and a life tied to the perils of the open ocean, of long, grueling trips away from home, and encounters with Bu Darya, the Father of the Sea. One such tale presented here, “The Sunni and His Friend,” humorously depicts the practical tribulations of a high-seas trader while also imparting sharp moral commentary on dishonest motives. Tales of Persian origin may recall landscapes never seen in Qatar: wolves and deer, forests and lakes. The stories can be witty or tragic, dark or even bawdy, and frequently concern themselves with familial relationships, particularly those most fraught in a time when girls married young. Such tales depict malicious stepmothers, envious wives or sisters-in-law, and unheeding fathers or brothers, and may involve abandonment in the desert or forced feeding of the bride or daughter—or the consuming of them. So is the final, dire fate of the jealous stepsister in “Al Fisaikra.”

Folktales are not contained; they take on the flavor of a place, they migrate and cross-pollinate over time. This is why similar folktales are often found in very different parts of the world. Just as the mother sheep in “Fatoum, Hamoud, and Hamed” who warns her children against the wiles of a sneaky wolf in her absence recalls the Brothers Grimm tale of the wolf and the seven little goats, so “Al Fisaikra” shares much kinship with Cinderella. Yet the tale remains very distinctly Qatari: no glass slipper but a bracelet, and instead of a prince, a sheikh who transforms into a black dog.

As in many other traditional societies propelled by rapid modernization, lifestyle changes have led to a decline in Qatar’s oral storytelling tradition, and folktales that have been passed down for generations are now told and recalled with increasing rarity. Moreover, in their colloquial rendition, Qatari folktales often transmit tribal dialects and ancestral vocabulary, another aspect of nonmaterial heritage. As the older vernacular and its “grandparent words” slip from common usage, the bygone materials and practices they describe also fade from memory.

Qatar’s folktales have not been extensively documented, although recently, state-driven national interest in preserving oral literature has led to a surge of individual and institutional efforts. Collections that share a few folktales of Qatari origin among other regional stories include Tales Arab Women Tell (El‐Shamy, 1999), Folktales from the Arabian Peninsula: Tales of Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, The United Arab Emirates, and Yemen (Taibah & MacDonald, 2015), and The Donkey Lady and Other Tales from the Arabian Gulf  (Paine, Ulmer, & Hersrud, 2013). In Arabic, Ḥikayat shaʻbiyah min alKhalij (Ṣayyagh, 1994), reprinted in English as Folktales from the Arabian Gulf: A Selection of Popular Tales Collected in the Field (ibid., 2003), includes stories from the Qatari tradition, as does Myths from Qatar Heritage (Al-Ghanim, 2015). The now-defunct Arab Gulf States Folklore Centre formerly published a quarterly journal, Al-Ma’thurat al-Sha’biya, presenting a number of Qatari folktales, selections of which have recently been reprinted in English as Studies in Qatari Folklore 2 (Qatar Ministry of Culture and Sports Public Libraries and Heritage Dept., 2019). Finally, a few folktales appear in illustrated children’s books through local publishers, such as Ghosoun and Her Brother, the Gazelle (Al-Ghanim, 2016).

To date, however, the most comprehensive collection of Qatari folktales is Mohamed Taleb Salman Al-Duwayk’s al-Qaṣaṣ al-shaʻbi fi Qaṭar (Folktales of Qatar), a substantial two-volume book locally printed in 1984. It is now difficult to find and remains untranslated to English. In his research, Al-Duwayk collected folktales from pearl divers, fishermen, and students who recorded folktales within their own families. When faced with multiple variations of the same folktale, or a folktale with missing or forgotten elements, Al-Duwayk collaborated with the storytellers to select or complete the most representative version. He published the stories in Fusha (literary Arabic), rather than in the colloquial dialect of the storytellers. While this validation is valuable and important, it loses the orality of the narrator.

The three stories presented here were gathered with the support of an Undergraduate Research Experience Program grant (UREP 08-081-6-006) awarded by the Qatar National Research Fund.At the time, I was a writing faculty member of Weill Cornell Medicine in Qatar, and my interest in Qatari folklore was first piqued by stories of djinn in abandoned houses, and the donkey woman who devoured straying children. As I sought to hear more local folktales, I also learned of their increasing scarcity and the accelerating decline in the tradition. With the support of the UREP grant, two colleagues and I trained a team of nine students from Qatar University and WCM-Q with the aim of reaching out to local storytellers and documenting their stories. Our research method followed a code of ethics that protected the rights and wishes of the storyteller. Each researcher recorded their interviews in Arabic, transcribed them in colloquial dialect, and translated them to English, retaining the orality of the narration as much as possible.

The Qatari family is a private sphere, and collecting these stories required sensitivity and respect for local traditions. Some women did not wish to be recorded, so a female interviewer transcribed the story by hand; in other cases, permission to record was granted, but only on the condition that no men would be allowed to listen. Some elderly interviewees could not read, so the researchers read aloud an oral consent form. An interview ideally began not at the first meeting, but at the second or third, over tiny cups of fragrantly bitter coffee and the sweet, sticky dates beloved in Qatar.

While our project sought to document folktales and ultimately publish them, detaching these stories from their social, performative context and transferring them to print arguably only serves to memorialize them. With that in mind, I collaborated with the Qatar Heritage and Identity Centre (QHIC), a government organization that hosts cultural exhibitions and school programs, an archive library, and publication and research on Qatari folklife. Together with the QHIC Director, Dr. Khalid Al Mulla, and its Director of Heritage, Sheikha Noora Bint Nasser Bin Jassim Al Thani, who has deep experience documenting Qatari folktales and traditions, we created the “My Identity, My Story” project: a workshop series that aimed to invigorate Qatar’s oral storytelling tradition by raising awareness and engaging the community as partners in preservation. Over the six-week event series, local storytellers and folklorists delivered free public talks about Qatar’s folktale heritage, oral storytelling, ethical fieldwork, and translation. Participants who wished to document folktales within their own families were equipped with audio recorders and mentorship.

The three tales presented here offer a glimpse into Qatar’s folk storytelling tradition as it exists today—diminished, perhaps, and endangered certainly, but as yet still alive. The tales now told in Qatar are the ones that have endured, that speak the most meaningfully to the people who tell them, and are in turn enriched with each new telling. We are grateful to the storytellers who shared their time and their stories with us, and hope these folktales and their treasures will live on not just preserved in books, but in the way they have always lived: organically, affectionately, from memory and by mouth to listening ears.


1Another variation: Majana wala yakom illa alkhair lafana w lafakom, waash-shar ta’adana w ta’adakum, man lah nabee yasalee alaiah: Whatever came to us or to you was good, and the bad escaped us and escaped you. And whoever has a prophet, let them praise that prophet.

© 2020 by Autumn Watts. All rights reserved.

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