“Female author write down vanishing Middle Eastern folktales”

기사 개재 날짜: 2017년 11월 23일 

Ameera bin Kadra smiles during an interview with The Korea Times at the Expo Center Sharjah in the United Arab Emirates, on Nov. 7. Korea Times

Digital era posing threat to oral tradition of storytelling

By Kang Hyun-kyung

SHARJAH -- In the Middle East, recorded knowledge and folktales written down are relatively scarce, partly because stories have been passed down from one generation on to the next for centuries through oral traditions.

In the fast-changing Middle East where Western ideas increasingly affect locals' lifestyle and way of thinking, some began to worry about the loss of traditional wisdom.

Such concern has spurred some female authors of the United Arab Emirates to write down vanishing stories to keep their literary heritage alive.

"I like globalization, but my belief is it shouldn't come at the expense of our cultural roots," Ameera bin Kadra, author of the children's book "My Grandmother's Story About Henna," told The Korea Times at the Expo Center Sharja in the UAE on Nov. 7. "In my books, I shed light on traditional values, such as family-oriented lifestyles, and try to let our readers know more about our cultural heritage."

In her Arabic book, Kadra revisits how old Emirati women used henna, a plant that grows to be four to eight feet high under hot temperature. Its leaves, flowers and twigs are ground into powder and the powder is mixed with water to make paste. In the Middle East and North Africa, the paste is used as a natural ingredient for hair dye or body decoration.

Kadra created a grandmother character who tells her granddaughter about how her ancestors used the plant for body decoration.
"My story is based on what I heard from my grandmother. She told me lots of her memories about her grandmother regarding the use of henna," the Dubai-based writer said. "In the book, the little girl spends most of her time with her grandmother and learns how to use henna leaves for her hair and hands."

Nadia Alnajjar, an author of five books, is another mission-driven writer determined to preserve folktales.

In her children's book, titled "I'm Different," she strives to raise awareness of an endangered indigenous animal. She describes a little boy, who has one shorter leg, about his smooth adaptation to society after cultivating his friendship with an Arabian leopard. Alnajjar said her book addresses respect for diversity, which is part of Middle Eastern culture.

"The other message I was trying to deliver through the book is that being different is okay and it's not something people should be ashamed of," she said. The award-winning writer initially wrote about serious social issues. Her first non-fiction was about a tragic ship sinking in the seas off Dubai in 1961 and its implications on the entire community.

Later, she said she turned her attention to topics that can captivate younger readers.

In the Digital Age, Kadra and Alnajjar say it's hard for writers to attract younger readers because they are exposed to a sea of internet games and other digital-based fun stuff.

Kadra said writers need to bear such social and technical changes in mind to grab those younger readers' attention with books. "As we know, children's attention span is short, so stories for kids shouldn't be long. They also need to be exciting enough to encourage them to read," she said.

Eum Ik-ran, a research professor of Dankook University's Gulf Cooperation Council Institute, said documentation of folklore and oral literature is necessary to preserve literary heritage in the Middle East. This is because, otherwise, much of it would be forgotten as time goes by, she noted.

"Unlike in Korea or Western society, in the Middle East, literary culture is mainly based on oral traditions," she said. "People there like hearing stories more than reading. They are also encouraged to recite, so stories have been passed down from one generation to the next, mainly through oral storytelling and recitations."
Eum said the role of female writers in the transformation of the Middle East is one of the less-covered academic topics. "There certainly existed female writers in the pre-modern Middle East," she said. "Some of them used pennames, not their real names, so it's hard to figure out whether the authors of certain publications are male or female. Middle Eastern writers used pennames, especially when they addressed serious social issues in their books."

As writers, Kadra and Alnajjar said they share the pain and joy of creating stories. Without their supportive family, they said they would have been struggling to balance their work and family.

Kadra, the mother of four children, said her supportive husband is willing to take care of their children and even share housework without complaints during her absence at home. Her eight-year-old son Mohammed is an avid reader of her writing and his feedback is critical to move her book project forward, she said.

Her remarks indicate the perceptions of people outside the Middle East toward the status of women in the region may be biased. According to Kadra, there were certain rights that had remained off-limits for women for a long time, such as driver's license in Saudi Arabia. Saudi Arabia lifted the driver's license ban earlier this year and also allowed women to watch sports in stadiums.
Kadra said such bans had been there so long to "protect women," not repress or discriminate against them as Westerners believe.

The rise of women in the Middle East has taken a different path compared to the women's rights movement in the West.

Women in the West were able to make their voices heard, while going through decades of struggles for their own rights.

In the Middle East, however, governmental intervention to educate women was the key behind the improved status of women.

The status of women in the Middle East is closely related to their access to education.

Professor Eum said girls' education in the region has been pushed for decades by political leaders as part of a national development strategy.

Women hold the key to quality human resources because they spend most of their time with their children when they grow up and thus their influence on the upbringing of future generations is greater than any other family members. This rationale was behind the Middle Eastern political leaders' push for girls' education, Eum said.

"In Saudi Arabia, for example, the government's plan to educate girls had met initial opposition from clerics. The Saudi government was able to persuade those disgruntled religious leaders by convincing them education for women is the most efficient way to have competitive human resources," she said.

In the UAE, Sheikha Fatima bint Mubarak Al Ketbi is known as the key female leader behind the progress in girls' education and women's rights.