When the civil war broke out in Lebanon in 1975, teacher, director and story collector Najla Jraissaty Khoury founded a traveling theater company in the hopes of preserving oral folk tales of older generations.
Performing on stage as well as in air raid shelters, refugee camps and isolated villages, Khoury collected stories from women in urban and rural centers across Lebanon, Syria and Palestine. This was no easy task. Many of the narrators were women over 60 who were distrustful of strangers — particularly during wartime.
But Khoury’s patience paid off, and as she collected more tales she began to notice themes emerging, as she explains in the introduction: “Certain stories told by women were for women only. In these tales, women play the lead roles to the disadvantage of men, especially husbands. Was this revenge for their situation in life? In a society where men dominate, women use 1,001 wiles to assert themselves.”
One hundred of the stories were published in Arabic in 2014, and Khoury whittled the collection to 30 tales, which are collected in “Pearls on a Branch,” the first English translation.
Like Western folk tales, the stories are brief, with fantastical elements. But the notion of good and evil is not as easily found. Here things are a bit more ambiguous, as reflected in the opening lines: “kan ya ma kan: it was or it was not — it happened or it did not. When magic and supernatural beings take part in human affairs, how can one be sure?”
What’s more, the main characters are young women with strength and wit. Here a young woman slaps a suitor, transporting him back to his old life; the daughter of the sun and the moon commands objects with her voice; Thuraya, a long-haired woman trapped in a tower by a beastly ghoul, escapes with her lover by transforming everyday objects into a forest, a fire, an enormous lake.
Filled with magic and cultural insight, the stories collected in “Pearls on a Branch” should be read aloud, explored and thoroughly enjoyed.