Arab Sto­ries Told by Women

Foreword Reviews - - Foresight Women’s Voices -

Na­jla Khoury, Inea Bush­naq (Trans­la­tor), Ar­chi­pel­ago Books (MARCH), Soft­cover $18 (270pp), 978-0-914671-96-1

Pearls on a Branch: Tales from the Arab World Told by Women is a col­lec­tion of thirty sto­ries cu­rated by Na­jla Khoury, who spent years com­pil­ing, pol­ish­ing, and edit­ing these pri­mar­ily oral works. Re­told from gen­er­a­tion to gen­er­a­tion, the folk­tales orig­i­nally rep­re­sented a form of shared ex­pres­sion and en­ter­tain­ment for Le­banese women, as well as a cre­ative re­bel­lion against the lim­i­ta­tions im­posed by their cul­ture.

As Khoury notes, for cen­turies women of the Mid­dle East were kept from pur­su­ing ed­u­ca­tion and mak­ing their own choices. This dom­i­na­tion be­gan with fa­thers, grand­fa­thers, broth­ers, and un­cles, con­tin­ued with hus­bands, and could even per­sist fur­ther through their own sons. Women were not free to chal­lenge male edicts, or if they did they could suf­fer se­vere con­se­quences.

Pearls on a Branch in­cludes sev­eral sto­ries of women over­com­ing re­stric­tive cir­cum­stances to tri­umph (or, se­cure a rea­son­ably happy mar­riage)—us­ing beauty and wiles, in­tel­li­gence and good­ness.

Kings may send their daugh­ters to the “palace of iso­la­tion” for dis­pleas­ing them, if they haven’t al­ready killed them at birth sim­ply for be­ing born fe­male. In re­al­ity, this cruel author­ity was rarely ques­tioned. In the in­vented tales told by ac­tual women of Le­banon, mag­i­cal el­e­ments and twists of fate in­ter­cede, and both poor girls and princesses find true love.

The sto­ries of Pearls on a Branch vary from fairy tale-es­que to cu­ri­ously com­pelling or comic. Vir­gin preg­nan­cies oc­cur from eat­ing pea­cock eggs or drink­ing cream left out in the moon­light. Talk­ing roses of­fer their beauty to hu­mans, mice have wed­ding ban­quets, and jewels sparkle amid a back­drop of sul­tan’s gar­dens, camels, and mys­te­ri­ous spir­its. These fan­tas­tic tales are cul­tur­ally in­trigu­ing, and par­tic­u­larly

no­table for ac­knowl­edg­ing the unique voices of Le­banese women, past and present.

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