Childhood stories tracked down and remembered

AbdulAziz al Musallam's fascination with the old tales his mother told him has led to a book bringing together folk stories from the region.

A belated fascination with the stories his mother recited in his youth has driven Sharjah's cultural affairs director to travel the length and breadth of the Emirates in search of local folklore in an effort to preserve a disappearing part of his homeland's heritage. Rym Ghazal reports Turning on his hand-held tape recorder, AbdulAziz al Musallam looks up at his mother as she is cooking and says, "Tell me a story." And she does.

"There was this beautiful young woman, tall and fair-skinned with long black silky hair," recites Mariam al Shammari. "She leaves behind her a trail of captivating fragrance of musk and amber ? her voice, so soft and seductive. She is dressed in gold and those who see her are spellbound by her enchanting beauty. "She shows up out of nowhere to men when they are alone and lures them into adultery; she then reveals her true nature, a repulsive demon, before beheading them with a sickle."

She then provides the tale's moral: "So, my son, beware of beautiful women." Though there are different versions of the Um al Duwais tale and several descriptions of her appearance, they all end the same way, Mr al Musallam says:"She ends up killing or mutilating the men she seduced." Mr al Musallam admits to not always paying attention to the moral behind his mother's stories; in his youth he was often caught looking at beautiful women much like Um al Duwais.

Still, they remained in his memory. A decade ago, when he was 30, he started recording the Emirati fairy tales his mother had told him in childhood. His mission to collect the old, beloved and often frightening bedtime stories he and his siblings used to hear eventually went well beyond his mother's memory. He travelled around the Emirates, recording local fairy tales and oral folklore such as poetry, nursery rhymes and songs, preserving precious bits of his national heritage before they disappear.

"I wanted to document the original stories and then dig into the stories behind the stories, so that future generations will have access to the fairy tales their parents and grandparents grew up on," said Mr al Musallam, 43, and Sharjah's director of heritage and cultural affairs. After years of research, he published in 2007 20 fairy tales and their different versions and origins in Arabic with illustrations in a book called Kharareef, meaning myths or fairy tales. He continues to record all the folklore he can find, even gathering stories from expatriates and visiting delegations.

Through his research, Mr al Musallam found that the Um al Duwais tale was based on an apparently true story, the far more tragic tale of a bride losing her mind on her wedding night and using a sickle to take a grisly revenge on men. It is not clear whether she was violated, or if the man she loved was killed and she was forced to marry another, or if she simply took leave of her senses as she was about to be wed.

"Since most stories were not written down, it is difficult to retrace the roots without finding contradictory information," he said. Most of the tales in the book are home-grown, with many revolving around camels, sailors and the sea, intermarriages and the "evil palm". The infamous mangrove tree believed to be home to the ugly jinn Fatouh, said to be the protector of the mangrove, is also represented.

Telling fairy tales is usually a source of entertainment at evening gatherings, especially those about jinn, or the supernatural. They also help to make sense of unexplained phenomena such as natural disasters and teach children lessons about life. There are often perfectly reasonable explanations for what seem like preternatural phenomena that back up the tales. An example is Salama and her daughters, the former a giant jinn said to reside at the bottom of the Strait of Hormuz.

Whenever a ship happened to pass by, the story goes, Salama would start to dance, creating giant waves and deadly whirlpools designed to sink them. She and her daughters were then said to devour the drowning sailors. Seafarers passing the area kept stocks of sheep, goats and chickens to throw into any whirlpools they spotted as a sacrifice. "I actually travelled to the spot and there are these four mountains, one big and three smaller ones, at the Strait of Hormuz," said Mr al Musallam. "Because it is a narrow passage between two large bodies of water, there are strong tidal waves there that could easily turn into powerful whirlpools."

Again the story is apparently rooted in reality in the story of a passenger ship travelling from the UAE to India more than 60 years ago that was faced with high waves and whirlpools. Its captain is said to have told passengers to start throwing out their luggage into the whirlpools to appease a hungry jinn. Since the ship succeeded in crossing into the Indian Ocean, the legend of the jinn was born and repeated for generations.

Mr al Musallam hopes one day his collection can be considered an Emirati version of popular fairy tales such as the Brothers Grimm collection from the 19th century. "I have been inspired by the works of the Brothers Grimm and have encountered the same kind of tales revolving around cruelty, sexual themes and triumph of wit which, with time, get modified and watered down depending on the social norms of that time," he said.

He has tried to preserve the cruder versions he was told as a child that are generally considered too terrifying for children today. They include Emirati versions of universal stories, such as local takes on Cinderella, The Hunchback of Notre Dame and Beauty and the Beast. "There are so many stories out there and only now, when I am older, I really appreciate them and love to tell them to my own children," said Mr al Musallam. "They love listening to them, particularly when I put a twist on the story and make the father get punished for being naughty instead of the children for a change."

His children have already memorised the stories in the book, so he is on the hunt for more. However, Mr al Musallam never tires of the tales his own mother told him and has dedicated his book to her, "the original storyteller".