Language Issue
Not the Narrators’ Messages! The Iraqi Folktale and Social Structure
Not the Narrators’ Messages! The Iraqi Folktale and Social Structure
Issue 52

By Safaa Diab, Iraq

Arab folktales vary from one culture to another. In some cultures, stories are classified according to the seasons; there are stories for summer, winter, spring, and autumn. The stories of the ogre, the donkey, the wolf, and other animal tales are narrated only in winter while stories about the Sultan’s daughter, helping the blind, and ‘Juha’ are summer stories.

Narrative methods and occasions differ. In some cultures, narration is related to the harvest season or the month of Ramadan. In other cultures,  it is related to the winter season when people gather around the hearth, so narration is strongly related to particular cultures.

In Iraq, most stories are narrated to intimidate or to attract. For example, warnings about the river and swimming led to the creation of the story of the shovel that eats people and the story of ‘Abd al-Shat’, who abducts anyone who approaches the river in winter or at night. Stories about nymphs, elves, and giants are related to religious preaching and narratives about the prophets and saints. The question is whether we consider everything we used to hear to be a folktale.

The Iraqi folktale has undergone more than one transformation as reflected in two important books that transcribed oral narratives directly from the narrators. The first book – ‘Diwan al-Taftaf’ (Baghdad’s Tales) by Father Anastas Mari Al-Karmali – was published in 1933, and the second book – ‘Iraqi Folktales and Stories from Different Times’ by Sadiq Raji – was deposited in the National Library of Baghdad in 1986. 

We notice significant shifts when comparing the stories in these two books. The stories of Al-Karmali, which were recorded from women in Baghdad around the beginning of the 20th Century, revolve mostly around stories of elves, myths, and the pursuit of mysterious and magical worlds.