Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Arab Folktales

I've been reading the book Arab Folktales, edited by Inea Bushnaq, which is part of the excellent Pantheon Fairy Tale Library series.  I'm crazy about fairy tales, folk tales, and mythology of all sorts.  And although it's not fashionable to say so, I've always had a certain admiration for Islam and Arab culture.  Perhaps it started with Lawrence of Arabia, whose exploits I read about as a child, with no understanding of their colonial agenda.*  (Standard disclaimer:  "Arabic" and "Muslim" are not exactly the same.  Not all Arabs are Muslim, and tons of Muslims throughout the world are not Arab.  But in general - and throughout most of this book - they do go together.)

Bushnaq finds it appropriate to start off the book with tales of the Beduin (also spelled "Bedouin,") the desert nomads, who are the real, most authentic Arabs, in both their own eyes and those of the rest of the Arab world.  Camels, oases, the harsh beauties of the desert . . . we've all been there, at least in our imaginations.

Generosity is the primary virtue of the Beduin.  It is usually expressed in terms of food:  feeding the stranger, the visitor to your tent, or the members of your community who have less than you do.  Some people are rich, owning vast herds of camels, sheep and goats, large tents and fine tent furnishings.  Of course, since everything they own has to be carried on camelback, they probably don't have much of the kinds of possessions we house-dwellers have learned to value.  And wealth is measured, not by how much money you have in the bank or how many houses you own, but by how much you are willing to give away.

Bushnaq points out that any Beduin, even the wealthiest, can be impoverished in one season if his animals are wiped out by drought or disease.  I think it's significant that in these stories there are no examples of such natural disasters.  Instead, people impoverish themselves through generosity, by feeding everyone who comes to their tent even if they have to kill their last camel in order to provide hospitality.  If misfortune can strike at any moment, you might as well preempt it by giving away your wealth before it can be taken from you.  At least that way someone will benefit.

In our world, the world of Western materialism, the world where people live in houses and hope to save for retirement, there are two moral guidelines that don't exist in these Beduin tales.  One is the myth of the deserving poor.  The other is the myth of the deserving rich.  A prince of the desert doesn't ask, "Are you really hungry?  Did you lose all your money betting on the camel races?  Why should I give you anything?"  He serves up the best food that he has, and takes his guests under his protection.  In these stories there are no undeserving poor.

Likewise, in this world we expect people to continue on an upward trajectory.  You work hard and you are rewarded with financial success.  You get to keep your house and your 401k.  The stock market only ever goes up . . . right?  You get to hold onto your possessions. And therefore, by the same logic, you don't have to share them with anyone.  You don't have to be generous, because you have what you deserve, and the poor have what they deserve, which is nothing.

The truth is that no matter where you live, or in what era, misfortune can strike you.  You can lose everything.  Here in America that fact is becoming more and more apparent.  Good fortune can also strike you, whether you deserve it or not.  That's why most of the folktales in this book have happy endings, and the impoverished sheiks end up rich again.  Because Allah is generous too.

*Even at that young age, however, when his biographer tried to defend him from insinuations of homosexuality on the grounds that "he has many women friends," I knew that was a dubious line of reasoning.  But I digress.

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