From the Land of Sheba: Yemeni Folk Tales
retold by Carolyn Han with Kamal Ali al-Hegri. Interlink Books (Northampton, Mass 01060), 2005. Pp. l04. Introduction. Glossary. Pb. £13. 95. ISBN 1-56656-571-5.
In spite of the title, the stories presented in this book are not intrinsically Yemeni nor, strictly speaking, are they folk tales. They are the kind of edifying anecdotes which we used to read on grandmother's knee: short, moralising, and anodyne. Carolyn Han has set her stories in a vaguely oriental environment flagged with names and places relating to Yemen.
Interest in the oral heritage of Yemen has been growing in recent years so this review offers a convenient peg on which to hang a survey of existing material on Yemeni folk tales.
An initiative to be applauded is the collection of folk tales in 2006 by the Sana'ani doctor, Fatima al-Baydhani: Mil al-Dhahab (The Golden Kohl-stick) which has since been translated into French, and is available in Contes du Yemen, Neuf de l'ecole des Loisirs, Paris, 2008. In fact, the three most delightful tales in the book were collected by others and belong to the core 60 of the Yemeni folkloric tradition; the authors do not seem to have been aware that all three tales have been published previously and in a more complete form, underlining the complexity of the Yemeni genre. An important point to stress is that although Yemen looks like a fairy tale country, folk tales died away quite some time ago, and it would be hard to reconstruct, or even imagine, from its shattered remnants, the splendour of the crystal mirror which they once epitomised.
Nevertheless, there are a number of original collections which, despite being spread over a period of more than a century and between Yemen and Israel, offer remarkably identical insights into the magical world of the Yemeni folk tale and its connection with tales from other parts of the world. First I should mention the works of two Yemeni researchers: Ali Muhammad Abduh's Hikayat wa asatir yamaniya, Beirut and Sana'a, 1978; and Muhammad Ahmad Shihab's al-hikayat al-sha'biya: min al-turath alsha'bi al-yamani, Aden, 1980. A selection of the best tales from both collections is available in Italian (Fiabe e Leggende Yemenite, a cura di G. Curatola, Roma, 2002).
Various collections, both scholarly and readable, have been published from material collected from Yemeni Jews in Israel and recorded in the Israel Folk Archive. They include Jefet Schwili erzahlt, ed. by Dov Noy, Berlin, 1963, and Hadre Teman by N. B. Gamlieli, Tel Aviv, 1978. The two English language collections of tales from Yemen emigrants in Israel (Tales of the Jews of Yemen by S. D. Goitein, NewYork, 1947, based on the German original published in Berlin in 1934, and The Answered Prayer by M. Maswari Caspi, Philadelphia, 2004) are not of the Dov Noy quality.
It should come as no surprise that in a society where many traditions were shared and where the art of telling folk tales probably goes back to a period before monotheism, stories from Jewish Yemenis and Muslim Yemenis have common threads.
Perhaps the most impressive collection of folk tales was made in the late 19th century by the expedition sent to South Arabia by the Austrian Imperial Academy of Sciences. Seven of the expedition's thirteen published folio volumes contain elements of such tales. Although the expedition's aim was primarily linguistic - the material includes the oldest recorded specimens of Mehri, Soqotri and Yemeni Arabic - the seven volumes document folk tales, very similar to and often identical with those in collections mentioned above. In particular, the relationship of the Arabic Tale of the two Brothers collected on Soqotra, with the world's oldest recorded folk tale - the ancient Egyptian Tale of the two Brothers - has been discussed ever since. Clearly, if the Egyptian tale is a popular version of Osirian religion, this would also be true of its Yemeni counterpart. The material recorded by the Austrian expedition is now easily accessible in D. Roth's Arabische Marchen aus dem Weihrauchland, Bern, 2001.
My own Marchen aus dem Jemen were collected in al-Tawila and in Aden. With 7 reprints, the book is widely available. But the text has been cannibalised in a publication entitled Marchen aus dem Land der Konigin von Saba, Munich 1987 and 1993. So beware!
With the discovery that identical themes and structures are to be found in the folk tales of the most diverse and distant cultures, the analysis, classification and interpretation of such tales have developed into a fully fledged field of academic studies. Did the tales travel from one place of origin to all over the world? Can they offer us a glimpse into the very distant past? I have discussed these and other questions in the postscript to Marchen aus dem Jemen, and I firmly believe that folk tales represent a heritage which in Yemen goes back to pre-Islamic times.
It is noteworthy that in the Arabian peninsula, true folk tales occur only inYemen (and here only in the South andTihama), and in Oman.The tales collected and published in SaudiArabia and the Emirates are anecdotes, animal fables, or popular wisdom. I would venture to suggest that true Zaubermarchen are the offspring of an age-old settled Middle Eastern civilisation and its religion,which does not seem to have existed in those regions.