How folk tales are giving children in conflict-ridden regions fresh windows on the world

Eleven of Hoopoe’s 18 titles are folk tales from Afghanistan, Central Asia and the Middle East that were collected by the late Afghan author Idries Shah. 

Children enjoy storytelling as a respite from conflict in Paktika Province, Afghanistan. Hoopoe Books has distributed more than 4.5 million bilingual books to children in Afghanistan and Pakistan, and has also reached 600,000 disadvantaged youngsters in the Americas.   Courtesy Hoopoe Books
Beta V.1.0 - Powered by automated translation

The Afghan king Ahmad Shah sheds his regal robes for the tattered rags of a poor man, abandons the artifice of palace politics and wanders the city’s bazaar in search of a genuine and trustworthy companion.

On meeting an impoverished shoemaker, the king asks:

“May I ask what makes you so happy?”

“Why, sir, today I have fixed enough shoes to buy what I need for my dinner,” the shoemaker responds.

“But what would you do if you had no shoes to fix?” asks the king.

“I would trust in God and find another way to earn my food,” he replies.

As a test, Ahmad Shah passes a law that decrees mending shoes illegal. Resolute in his optimism, the young man displays initiative and resilience against his misfortune, which ultimately secures him a life of prosperity.

The Wisdom of Ahmad Shah: An Afghan Legend is the latest in a series of beautifully-illustrated books inspired by the rich oral traditions of Afghanistan, published by Hoopoe Books in the United States.

Eleven of Hoopoe’s 18 titles are folk tales from Afghanistan, Central Asia and the Middle East that were collected by the late Afghan author Idries Shah.

Shah is perhaps more famous for his writings on Sufism, psychology and literature, but in 1965 he established an education charity, the Institute for Cultural Research, which aimed to stimulate “study, debate, education and research into all aspects of human thought, behaviour and culture”, and worked alongside psychologist Robert Ornstein.

Orstein went on to create the California-based Institute for the Study of Human Knowledge (ISHK) in 1969, a non-profit education charity and the driving force behind Hoopoe Books.

“We started Hoopoe Books in 1996 when [Idries] Shah handed the ISHK a manuscript of these wonderful stories and asked us if we’d like to do something with them.

“Obviously, I thought it was a fantastic idea, so we then pursued breaking the manuscript up into a series of shorts for children,’ says Sally Mallam, director of Hoopoe Books.

Using Shah’s and Palwasha Bazger Salam’s titles, the ISHK established the projects Books for Afghanistan and Books for Pakistan. These have provided more than 4.5 million bilingual publications to children, including English-Urdu, Urdu-Pashto, Urdu-Sindhi, Urdu-Baluchi and Dari-Pashto editions of Hoopoe’s titles, along with teaching guides for schools, orphanages and libraries.

By improving access to good books, ISHK and Hoopoe Books hope to improve the literacy rate among children.

“The problem in Afghanistan and Pakistan is that teachers tend to depend on rote learning. Children need to think for themselves and the teaching guides we provide ensure that teachers are sufficiently confident to ask their students questions,” says Mallam.

The books began arriving in Afghanistan in 2005 during the United States occupation, reaching the remote parts of the country where the stories originated from.

“Never mind just children, people in their 30s have seen nothing but war in these countries. It’s disastrous,” says Mallam.

Not all Hoopoe's titles have been retold in their original setting. Shah's The Man with Bad Manners, a tale about a badly behaved person whose behaviour is altered through a plan initiated by a young boy, is set in the West, underlining the universal appeal of folklore.

What children read makes a significant difference to their world view, according to academic research.

In a 2009 study for the journal Bookbird, Kathy Short analysed the effect that reading foreign texts had on children, and more specifically how it changed perceptions of the world around them.

For the study, Prof Short introduced a class to South Korean culture through reading When My Name Was Keoko (Linda Sue Park, 2002), alongside non-fiction titles.

She concluded that an introduction to diverse literature not only helps to “provide a window on a culture, but they can also encourage insights into students’ cultural identities. Students come to deeper understandings about their own cultures and perspectives when they encounter alternative possibilities for thinking about the world”. Prof Short also highlights the importance of diversity in opening doors into a new world for children, outside of their own experiences.

Mallam agrees: “Deep thinking is necessary for children so they can say: ‘I’m different from you ... but we have a lot in common. I’m open to change because I’m rational and intuitive.’”

Hoopoe books are being read in the developed world beyond Pakistan and Afghanistan. Their Shared Literacy programme has reached more than 600,000 disadvantaged children in the United States and other countries, including Mexico and Canada.

The programme partners with established early childhood education agencies, which assist impoverished and low-income families through after-school programmes, and with organisations providing ESL (English as a Second Language) and adult literacy instruction.

They provide a complete curriculum that encourages parental knowledge and involvement in the development of their child’s literacy, and they practise what Prof Short describes as an “opportunity to go beyond a tourist perspective of gaining surface-level information about another culture”.

In order for a child to start their own diverse bookshelf, Hoopoe ensures that each child involved with the Shared Literacy programme takes at least one book home to keep.

With the growing success of Hoopoe in Central Asia and North America, Mallam is hopeful of expanding in the Middle East and of reaching the growing numbers of refugees.

“Hoopoe would be very pleased to work with others to provide books to the millions of children in IDP [Internally Displaced Person] camps in Iraq, Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan and elsewhere,” she says.

“It would be great to get our books into the region but it’s just a question of trying to get the structure to ensure the donations are safe and the books get distributed, and that depends on personal relationships built overseas. What we’ve tried to do from the beginning is integrate these Middle Eastern stories into other cultures, such as here in the USA, Canada and Mexico. Now, through our refurbished website, our books are available worldwide via Amazon, and will all be available in digital format by the end the year.

“Despite coming from a long history of storytelling in a different society, the messages are universal and deserve to be read by everyone.”

Hoopoe Books continues to rekindle the art of storytelling across different languages and cultures, publishing stories that capture the magic of oral tradition.

More importantly, they value education as the key to progress.

All Hoopoe titles are available in both paper and hardback at their website and via Amazon. They can be shipped internationally, including to the UAE.

Sherif Dhaimish is also a contributor to ReOrient magazine.