Fairy tales thrive in the face of technology

A project to collect Emirati fairy tales and traditional stories coincides with evidence that the genre still plays an important part in children's cultural development.

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"Once upon a time…" The traditional opener for a fairy tale evokes childhood memories of dragons, princesses and acts of derring-do, and despite the rise of the X-Box, Wii and Game Boy, the fairy tale still seems to be relevant to guide children's behaviour and cultural identity, if a number of recent films and books are anything to go by.

Last December, the Disney film Tangled, based on the fairy tale Rapunzel by the Brothers Grimm, became the 10th-highest-grossing film of 2010. In the literary world, every year sees a new edition of an old tale published. The His Dark Materials author Philip Pullman is reported to be working on an adaptation of the Grimms' fairy tales, and last year an anthology was published by Penguin Books called My Mother She Killed Me, My Father He Ate Me, containing modern takes on classic fairy tales by authors such as Michael Cunningham, Neil Gaiman and Aimee Bender.

The editor of the anthology is Kate Bernheimer, a writer, academic and editor of the literary journal Fairy Tale Review. Bernheimer believes that fairy tales are being taken seriously again: "There is a revival of cultural awareness of them and a growing acceptance of them as an art form, and a powerful need for them in these technological times. People are craving these stories; it's a form of nostalgia. Fairy tales provide comfort in the face of so much impersonality due to our increasing reliance on technology."

Reading a fairy tale, says Bernheimer, involves letting go of reality, "like Alice going down the rabbit hole".

All fairy tales have some element of magic or wonder, she argues. "Even if there is famine or violence, all the things we have in the real world, you feel supported by them. I love their sense of wonder mixed in with a sort of a shadow of fear. Darkness and wonder coincide."

This darker side involves the listener experiencing the sense of abandonment Hansel and Gretel might have felt, or Cinderella's bullying by her stepsisters. Maria Tatar, in her book Enchanted Hunters, suggests that fairy tales help children in their emotional development, enabling them to empathise with people in dreadful situations. "Fairy tales and fantasy enact perils and display horrors, but they also always show a way out, allowing children to explore great existential mysteries that are far more disturbing when they remain abstract and uncharted rather than take the concrete form of a story," writes Tatar.

The reality of the child's environment, being snug on a parent's lap while the story is read aloud, helps to rationalise any fear. "Bedtime reading environments offer a safe, secure space in which to read about horrors as well as beauty and an opportunity to process both with an adult."

Bettelheim suggests that fairy tales help children make the transition to adulthood, and that is what Iwona Taida Drozd, a Polish journalist who has lived in Abu Dhabi since 1989, found when she researched Emirati fairy tales for her book A Key to Another World.

Drozd talked to local women and wrote down the stories they had heard in their own families. The stories they told her dated back to a more basic existence where the telling of stories to children was both entertainment and a moral lesson.

"The people then lived very simple, very difficult lives. After a hard day of work, the only moment of relaxation was the evening time, when they were finally all together and sat around the fire," explains Drozd. "The ladies would prepare the beds for the children and to help the children go to sleep, told the children stories - stories the grandmothers had told their daughters, who then passed them on to their daughters."

These fairy tales, or kharareef in Arabic, explained to the children what was expected of them, emphasised the importance of their tribal identity and cautioned them to beware of dangers. Drozd describes them as being "like a letter from one generation to another, showing the youngsters the way to behave, to work; they were very important, crucial even, in raising children".

Drozd's research did turn up some surprises. "The most common story I heard was in fact a Cinderella story. The truth is that most of the stories we know originated from Arabia. Traders came from all over, from Persia, India, Zanzibar, and told their tales. These tales were retold, mixed with others and then travelled on further to other countries in the West with the caravans." In A Key to Another World western readers will recognise Salama, a fisherman's daughter, a Cinderella-like figure. Phoolan, in the tale originally from India, could equate to Rapunzel. Aisha and the snake work as the princess and the frog.

Dr Khaled Salem Al Dhahrei is a researcher of oral history, when he is not working at the National Library in Abu Dhabi, and has recorded more than 500 hours of stories retold by Emirati elders. Despite the enormous sociological changes in the UAE in the past 50 years, Al Dhahrei believes that most young Emiratis are aware of the kharareef. "They are part of the social tapestry," he says, "so one way or another, they will have been introduced to them."

However, this rich oral history has not yet been widely rendered into an accessible written form for children in either English or Arabic. Although Al Dhahrei welcomes Drozd's book and another book compiled by students of Zayed University last year as steps in the right direction, he believes more could be done to make this important element of Emirati culture more readily available.

"Arabic children's book publishing is unfortunately very narrow in scope and that is a shame as this is the age and generation that you wish to shape. But I think there must be a way of presenting the kharareef that is more popular, and it is also important for expatriates and their families who otherwise are not able to interact with the culture here," he says.

"And they all lived happily ever after…" Despite their often dark subject matter, fairy tales usually have happy endings, says Bernheimer. "If you look at traditional fairy tales you do find that you can count on a happy ending, but it always comes at a cost. Happiness is not all that simple or that sweet." Fairy tales are useful and enjoyable parenting tools, reflecting the ups and downs of life to children and teaching them about their culture and mores. It's a genre that will be around for a while yet.