Emirati author Abdulaziz Almusallam on why Arabic ghost stories are cautionary tales

The poet says the UAE's folk tales are often inspired by the supernatural

Abdulaziz Almusallam, right, in conversation at the London Book Fair. Photo: instagram.com / @SharjahBookAuthority
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It was the scariest show on UAE television.

This was the reason given to Emirati author and poet Abdulaziz Almusallam when Sharjah TV pulled the plug six episodes into his 2002 supernatural Ramadan anthology series, Kharayef.

“Looking back at it now, perhaps people were not ready for these kinds of stories,” he says, from the London Book Fair.

“Another thing about that show was that we worked with a special effects team from the US, so some of the make-up and costumes were intense. It wasn’t the kind of things that people were used to watching on television.”

Twenty years later, all episodes of Kharayef are now available on Sharjah TV’s streaming platform and app Maraya.

The show remains a local gem. Each episode, written by Almusallam, is shot across the emirate and based on superstitions and folk tales dealing with family and society.

Stories from the elders

Almusallam is pleased the show has found appreciation among a new generation of fans, but he hasn't been idle for the past two decades, either.

Viewers and broadcasters may not have initially been keen about his material on screen, but they remain enthusiastic for Almusallam's eerie tales on the page.

The Sharjah resident has built an enduring career writing more than 200 short stories, often based on Emirati folk tales, published in numerous Arabic collections, including 2011’s Hikayat Khurafiya.

With spirits and apparitions featuring heavily in UAE novels, poetry and films, Almusallam, who is also chairman of the Sharjah Institute for Heritage, explains these themes are predominantly passed down generations.

“My mother is an example of this. Whenever she wanted us to help her prepare food, she would tell us these short stories of ghosts and spirits,” he says.

“I went on to learn these stories by heart and they influenced me. They remain a rich source of inspiration for my work.”

These stories are not merely told for thrills and chills. Almusallam says they often act as cautionary tales.

“This is really what distinguishes a lot of Arabic ghost stories from those written in America,” he says.

“A lot of the time with Arabic stories, the hero is ultimately defeated.”

A key reason for the anti-climax is because of the writer’s intentions. “A lot of ghost and supernatural stories from the UAE and the region is really meant to educate first,” Almusallam says.

“It's about raising awareness, especially when it comes to children. When I was small, I would remember listening to these stories where it doesn't end well for the hero. What I got from that was not sadness from what happened, but learning to be careful about not making the same mistakes the hero did.

“This doesn’t happen generally with American stories where children like the character so much they want to emulate their behaviour.”

Standing the test of time

Abdulaziz Al Musallam, Director of Heritage & Culture of the emirate of Sharjah, photographed with his new book "Badiha" at Bait Al Garbi in the Heritage area of Sharjah on Wednesday, June 22, 2011. Photo: Charles Crowell for The National

Almusallam is not burnt by his first attempt at screenwriting.

He hopes for another opportunity to make a show based on the stories he's since written over the years.

“These kind of stories are timeless,” he says.

“For any culture to thrive, it must begin from its heritage. The stories that I am writing are from that starting point and that’s what makes the experience so enriching.

“Some people say we don’t need folk tales. I disagree because they are steeped in culture and tradition. And anything that has roots will stand the test of time.”

Updated: April 06, 2022, 8:09 AM