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


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?”


“Is there anyone handsomer than I am?”


“Is there anyone cleverer than I am?”


“Is there anyone wealthier than I am?”

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?”


“Is your wife young?”


“Is your wife bright?”

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.

Keeper of Stories: On Maja Haderlap’s ‘Angel of Oblivion’


Ravensbrück concentration camp was built on a plain about 50 miles north of Berlin, in a wooded area near a lake.  The largest concentration camp for women on German soil, Ravensbrück was a source of wartime slave labor for Siemens, and the site of some particularly cruel Nazi medical experiments.  About 150,000 people, from over 30 countries, were registered as having passed through the camp. Tens of thousands perished within.

Today the memorial that occupies the site combines leafy serenity with an assortment of memorial fixtures: sculptures; stelae; refurbished buildings containing artifacts.  But the memorial’s most arresting feature may be the grounds of the former main camp, which remain empty but for the foundations of the barracks, which have been excavated but recovered with cinders, preserving their floor plan in surface relief.  The original plan, as envisioned by the architects who designed that portion of the memorial, was to have the excavation conducted by volunteers, gradually over decades, with the cinders coming from a large slag heap that would be visible to visitors.  The intention, according to one commentator, was that the continual application of cinders from the heap would “layer” the “present over the past, encouraging us to reflect on the conundrum that this past cannot be brought to light without applying an arguably subjective language of representation.”

With Angel of Oblivion, Maja Haderlap achieves something very similar.  The present described by the novel’s nameless first-person narrator is that of a girl growing up in the Slovenian minority community in the Austrian province of Carinthia in the late-1960s or early-1970s.  Her subjective experiences — initially, the vivid sensory impressions of childhood, and later the ambivalent observations of a young adult — provide the story’s premise, and its structure, its texture.  But beneath this surface layer, as far as the eye can see, lies the war with all of its various forms of devastation, trauma, and loss.  And by the story’s end, Haderlap has succeeded in bringing into sharp relief some powerful truths about the war’s continued grip on those who survived it, and its impact, even decades later, upon their descendants.  “The war is a devious fisher of men,” says her narrator. “It has cast out its net for the adults and traps them with its fragments of death, its debris of memory.  Just one careless act, one brief moment of inattention, and it pulls in its net.”

Angel of Oblivion’s first word, and the most prominent character of its early chapters, is “Grandmother.”  The narrator’s grandmother is tough; spirited; opinionated.  Her forehead is “as wrinkled as the shingled roof of the grain silo,” and her force of will provides the centripetal force that keeps the family’s farm from chaos.  She cooks with authority, tossing around pork schmaltz and scraping mold off of preserves, and “even the eggs smell like earth, smoke and yeasty air.”  She believes in God and ghosts equally.  Her dishes “can connect the here and now with the hereafter, heal visible and invisible wounds, [but] they can make you ill.”  If she suspects a chicken is not laying, she “pounces” on it and jams two fingers in its behind.  Grandmother may be the only family member who bothers to pay attention to her granddaughter, our narrator, and the girl follows her around as if Grandmother is a “queen bee” and her granddaughter “her drone.”  Grandmother lets her have barley coffee, their little secret.  Sometimes they dance together.  Grandmother is a survivor of Ravensbrück, and dance, we are told, is one of her survival skills.  She leaves food out for the dead, so they will leave her alone.

Grandmother is the family’s keeper of artifacts.  She has saved her late husband’s Deutsches Reich Employment Record Book, inside which are recorded the dates of important family events, such as when they acquired the farm.  She still has her diary from Ravensbrück, as well as her too-thin winter coat from the camp, which she keeps but does not wear.  In her room she has squirreled away extra provisions, just in case.

Grandmother is also the keeper of stories: about how the Nazis killed their neighbors and pursued the Slovenian-speaking partisans into the hills; about the dog-bites and the experiments in the camps; about those who were arrested with her and did not come back; about the humiliation of begging for bits of grain upon her return.  Here, she is shown a book about Ravensbrück:
It was this guard, Grandmother says, laying her index finger on the woman’s face, which disappeared beneath it.  She was very young and very evil, very depraved.  Good Lord, what people won’t do, Grandmother exclaims and spits on the photograph.  Then she wipes the pages with her sleeve so they won’t stick together.

Sometimes she spits at the photograph of the SS camp doctor as a substitute for the SS doctors she came across when she was brought into the infirmary. The things these doctors did to the women, čudno, čudno, Grandmother says and, again, means “terrible” when she says “strange.”

She believes that, because of these books, no one will be able to accuse her of making up stories anymore.  No one can call me a liar anymore, she says.
“She was saved, yes,” our narrator reminds us, “but whether or not she’s glad she’s alive, that she can’t say.”

The other major storytelling presence in our young narrator’s world is her father, who has also been scarred by the war.  Unlike Grandmother, Father did not spend time in a concentration camp, but as a young boy he was tortured by the police, hanged on a tree until he lost consciousness, then taken to the police station and whipped.  Turned into a resistance partisan at the tender age of 12, he ran for his life into the mountains, only to be later flushed out by his hunger:
The day our provisions ran out and the commando came, it was up and out, down the mountain, through the German soldiers, over, out, Father recalled.  That was some kind of noise.  At two in the morning they slid down the mountainside in deep snow, down a chute that was used to send tree trunks into the valley below.  The Germans trained searchlights up from Kamnik.  It was so bright, every movement was visible.  There was shooting in the valley, and all you could see were red and blue streaks.  Leaves and branches rained down from the trees and one partisan was lying on the ground yelling help me, help me, Father tells us, but he just ran as if the devil were on his heels…Because in war it’s like being hares in a hunt, only much worse, Father says.  
In our narrator’s present day, the war is years in the past, and yet Father is still running for his life: drinking too much cider, crashing his motorcycle, lying down in the snow and refusing to move.  He allows his daughter to accompany him into the forest, where he shares with her the celebratory rituals of hunting and shows her how to cross the border illegally from Austria into Slovenia.  The forest was his refuge, but its silence always threatens to get the upper hand.  The best thing to do when you are afraid in the forest, Father instructs her, is to sing partisan fighting songs.

Like Grandmother, Father is ambivalent about having survived the war. Our narrator’s childhood is punctuated with Father’s drunken threats to kill himself, to go out to the apiary with his rifle and end it all, perhaps taking with him any family members who try to stop him.  They wait until he passes out, then pry his fingers from the gun.

At wakes and burials the stories come freely. Father and Grandmother don’t always agree on the details, but their stories merge into each other, forming a thicket of violence and loss. The accumulation of stories overwhelms our narrator:
As I listen, something collapses in my chest, as if a stack of logs were rolling away behind me, into the time before my time, and that time reaches out to grab me and I start to give in out of fascination and fear. It’s got hold of me, I think, now it’s here with me.
Angel of Oblivion is, among other things, a book about the power of stories and storytelling.  One aspect of this is its exploration of how stories shape personal identity.  We witness this with our narrator, who has been hearing stories about the war, from Grandmother and others, all of her childhood, and by adolescence has come to resent their omnipresence in her life.  She harbors conflicting impulses: on one hand, she wants to collect and preserve all the stories, conscious of their importance to her family and their broader community.  But she also seeks to distance herself from the past, to be free of the ghosts that haunt Grandmother and Father.   She goes to Vienna to get an education and begin a career, but she returns.  “The hills of my home region have turned into a trap that reaches for me and snaps shut every summer,” she asserts; “The war invades my internal space.” Later, she reads Grandmother’s diary and is “afraid of being overrun by the past, of being crushed by its weight.”  In the end she makes a conscious decision to write about her family’s stories, allowing them to become part of her even if it means that they will change her.

So, too, do stories shape the narrator’s mother, a complicated character who is perhaps unfortunately overshadowed by Grandmother and Father:
When Grandmother was alive, Mother was almost never able to talk about herself.  She sat next to those telling stories from the past and was never asked for her own.  Her family’s stories were considered insignificant, nothing very bad happened to her mother during the war, it was said, of course she’d had to raise her children alone as a day laborer, but that was nothing unusual. In the Slovenian convent school where Mother completed a one-year home economics course, they drummed into her head that she must only read chaste, pious books and never pick up the works of depraved writers.
The other point about storytelling that Haderlap makes is its importance for community identity, particularly in a minority community, where stories may offer important counter-narratives to those promulgated by the majority community that surrounds them.  This is a particularly salient point in the case of the Slovenian-speaking Austrians, a tight-knit minority community that offered the only sustained partisan resistance to the Nazis but has also historically been a target of discrimination by the German-speaking majority:
The memories of the residents of these valleys begin to revolt, they rise up and take over.  After the end of Nazism, they still knew their stories, they told each other what they had lived through, they could recognize themselves in another’s suffering.  But then the fear sets in that they’d be excluded because of their stories and seen as alien in a country that wanted to hear other stories and dismissed theirs as unimportant.  They know their history is not mentioned in Austrian history books, certainly not in Carinthian history books in which the region’s history begins with the end of the First World War, is interrupted and taken up again at the end of the Second World War.  Those with stories to tell know this and they have learned to stay quiet.
Along with everything else she accomplishes with this powerful work — a work of historical witness, a Sebaldian descent into the depths of memory, and a brave and innovative hybrid of fiction and memoir — Haderlap (and her English translator) deserve praise for breaking the silence to bring the stories of Slovenian-speaking Austrians to a much broader audience.