The Wisdom of Women Shines in Najla Jraissaty Khoury’s ‘Pearls on a Branch: Oral Tales’

October 22, 2018 | 1 book mentioned 7 min read

Long, long ago
These things happened or maybe no.

Let’s start with the image on the cover. Three women sit in a courtyard. One holds a long-handled pan over a coal brazier; the other two, one of whom has her back to us, hold small cups. They wear identical pale head-scarves. Between them, an elegant coffee pot rests on an ornate purple and gold table. The women’s aprons are vividly colored, geometrically lined, and seemingly coextensive with the mosaic tiling of the surrounding courtyard, as if all were made from the same bright, fearless stuff. Behind them is a verdant garden, potted flowers and flowing trees in full bloom. We cannot see the face of the woman who is turned away, but those of the other two are striking. Neither smiles fully, but their expressions suggest contentment, even if we have clearly interrupted their conversation, stepping into their space.

Cover art featuring one or more women with back turned (and/or headless, perhaps in traditional garb) is both ubiquitous and potentially problematic, as Anna Solomon has previously discussed on The Millions. But women on the cover of Najla Jraissaty Khoury’s Pearls on a Branch are not presented as objects of passivity or erotic desire. They are the storytellers whose stories the book collects. The cover image is from a gouache painting by Beirut-born artist Helen Zughaib called Subhiyya at Teta’s House (Morning at Grandma’s House). In her remarks on the painting, Zughaib describes a morning coffee ritual, a “routine that never changed” in which “six or seven older women, all widowed, would gather at [her] grandmother’s house.” Each would enter without knocking (the door was wide open anyhow) and sit in the same place every time. They would drink coffee and share news: births, illnesses, deaths, gossip, the arrival of new produce at the marketplace. But mostly they were there to tell stories. And the stories, Zughaib reminds us, “were always the same, told each day by the same woman and yet the women never seemed to tire of telling or hearing them.”

The complete gouache, as opposed to the narrow-cropped version appearing on the cover of Pearls on a Branch, includes an enormous blue fountain, two additional women enjoying a hookah, and, far off in a perimeter doorway, the small shape of a curious boy. Storytelling women in the foreground: It’s a fitting visual for a book collecting traditional Lebanese folktales, told by women, to women, celebrating women’s cleverness and resilience, and asserting their ability to define their own identities.

Khoury, now a grandmother herself, still remembers her grandmother’s stories. In the late 1970s, while civil war flared, the theater company Khoury founded traveled throughout Lebanon, using marionettes and shadow puppets to perform traditional stories in rural villages, air raid shelters, and refugee camps. Their plays were based upon oral tales, patiently coaxed from the memories of the elderly. She describes her process:

I often spent hours listening to the narrator—they were mostly women—tell me all about herself, her experiences during the war, her health problems, personal reminiscences, or even some cooking recipe … before I finally ventured to ask: “Who told you stories when you were a child? Which story did you like best?”

After removing the chaff—for example, those narratives apparently lifted from television—Khoury revisited each story, perhaps several times, so as to catch nuances, variations, commentary. Initially, her goal was material for the theater troupe. But in 2014, she published a book, collecting a hundred stories in written Arabic. Thirty of these, translated into English, form Pearls on a Branch.

The collection is immediately recognizable as a cousin to other collections of traditional oral folktales from around the world. There are tricksters, ghosts, personified animals, themes of love and transformation, justice and revenge, ample humor. The stories are reliably didactic, full of wisdom and warnings, if sometimes cryptic. But Pearls on a Branch is unique in emphasizing women as the creators, audience, and in most cases the protagonists of such tales.

Khoury reminds us in her introduction that until at least the middle of the 20th century, Lebanese society, like that of its Arabic-speaking neighbors, was highly patriarchal. Men could go out to the coffee house with other men to hear the hakawati (storytellers) recite the old epics. But the women were typically confined to their courtyards. There they would gather with other women to tell their own stories, “stories in which men are dependent on women who are sharper and more intelligent than they are, where women become the true heroines if only through their patience in the face of oppression.”

Take, for example, the couple in “A House without Worries.” Every night, the man beats his wife with a series of switches, demanding that the woman assure him of his worthiness:

With each blow he would ask her a question and she would answer him:

“Is there anyone pleasanter than I am?”

“No.”

“Is there anyone handsomer than I am?”

“No.”

“Is there anyone cleverer than I am?”

“No.”

“Is there anyone wealthier than I am?”

“No.”

Satisfied, the husband would leave the house and the wife would gather and replace the sticks with which she had been beaten. But the wife confides in a wise old woman, who tells her to stop answering “no,” and instead answer that Shah Bandar, a merchant, is in fact pleasanter, handsomer, cleverer, and wealthier than her husband. Mad with jealousy, the husband seeks out Shah Bandar, who asks the husband some questions of his own:

“Is your wife beautiful?”

“Yes.”

“Is your wife young?”

“Yes.”

“Is your wife bright?”

“Yes.”

Upon which Shah Bandar gives the husband a magic comb, a present for the woman. When she uses it she is lifted into the air and taken to Shah Bandar, who takes her as his own wife. The old woman’s sage advice has proven effective: Not only does the long-suffering wife get her escape; she also gets the satisfaction of knowing that her abusive husband appreciates what he has lost.

Or consider “The Frog and His Wife,” about an amphibian couple who quarrel but are mostly content until the husband, angry when his wife wakes him with a sudden splash in the water, insults her harshly. Stung, the wife returns to her parents’ house, leaving the husband frog dejected and depressed. A parade of animals offer to mediate, but it isn’t until the sultan’s stallion gets involved that the wife responds. From horseback the frog’s wife demands that her husband list all of his various failings. When he does, albeit in a way that reminds her of his positive qualities, she takes him back, to live together happily ever after. Again, we see a female solving her problem with tenacity, cleverness, and a little help from some friends.

Challenges with marriage and children are major themes throughout Pearls on a Branch, but the men aren’t always the problem. Take, for example, the story of Lady Tanaqeesh, whose sisters are jealous of her beauty and intelligence and general pleasantness and give her peacock eggs to eat, causing her to become pregnant. Banished from her father’s house, Lady Tanaqeesh finds herself lost and alone in the wilderness. She cries but finds her strength, following some pigeons to safety and giving birth alone in a small hut. Ever resourceful, she enlists the birds as her allies, instructing them to return to her father’s house to ruin his wheat stores and sing the truth about Lady Tanaqueesh’s innocence. Vindicated, Lady Tanaqeesh is invited to have her revenge against her sisters, which she imagines in satisfying detail (“Their guts will serve as ropes to hang my washing on,” she promises) but in the end she chooses mercy, grateful for the beautiful child she would not have but for her sisters’ jealousy.

In her introduction, translator Inea Bushnaq notes that for all the stories about “rebellious daughters [who] venture bravely into the world, there are quieter girls who realize their hopes through patience and endurance. This too takes courage.” Sitt Yadab falls in the latter category. A serious, hard-working student sent to study with the sheikh because her parents “had not been blessed with a boy,” she accidentally sees the demon sheikh “devouring” a small boy. The sheikh presses her to admit what she has seen, but, terrified of his wrath, Sitt Yadab refuses, earning a lifetime of his harassment. Years later, after the sheikh has killed her parents, kidnapped her children, and punished anyone who might show her even basic charity, she finally unburdens herself with the help of the Stone of Patience and the Knife of Sorrow, retrieved from Mecca:

Sitt Yadab wept as she etched with the knife a cut on the stone for each of her sorrows. She shed tears as she recited her refrain. She cried through the day and cried through the night. But, as darkness was lifting, the ground at her feet split open and the Sheikh appeared.

He speaks:

“O Sitt Yadab, no human has existed

Who defied my orders or strength resisted

Until your patience and your tears,

For the first time in all my years,

Sapped my strength and conquered me!”

Having finally defeated the demon Sheikh after a life of suffering, she gives the Stone of Patience and the Knife of Sorrow to her daughter, “for they would give her strength when she had to endure in silence.”

It’s not all heaviness and sorrow. The great thing about folktales is that they can be both deadly serious about their message and also great fun. Humor, one suspects, is one way in which a story might persist through the years, relayed through various storytellers, made relevant to various generations, amidst various historical circumstances. And many of the stories in this collection, for all of their gravity, are delightfully silly.

And so we have “The Singing Turd,” about a woman so desperate for a child that she asks God to grant her “a little one, even if she is just a turd.” God grants her wish—after nine months, she gives birth to a turd—and she is overjoyed:

Happy to be a mother, the woman picked up her little daughter and placed her in a bowl of cut crystal, which she set on a shelf in the bathhouse. She pushed back the window shutters so the child could look outside and not feel lonesome. The daughter liked to sing and she had a voice that could move the world.

It’s a clever little story, incorporating many of the collection’s themes: mistaken identity, inner beauty versus external recognition, the sultan. I won’t give away the ending except to say that love wins, and virtue is rewarded, and it’s possible that someone ends up getting married to human excrement.

Each story begins, and sometimes ends, with a farsheh, a brief verse that may or may not be directly related to the story but sets the tone for the flight of imagination that is to come. (Bushnaq reminds us that the word farsheh literally refers to the bedroll that transforms the Lebanese living space into a bedroom at night). Like the painting on the cover, these verses remind us that the stories within this volume come from a place both familiar and removed; quotidian and special; traditional and yet, somehow, subversive. Khoury has done us a great service by preserving them.

This is our story and we have told it
In your pocket you can now hold it.

's book reviews have appeared in Booklist, the National Book Critics' Circle's "Critical Mass" blog, and elsewhere. He is currently writing a novel about male friendship, parenting and the horrors of immigration law. Originally from western New York State, he now lives in Colorado.

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