Language Issue
Arabic Folktales: Origin and Fate
Arabic Folktales: Origin and Fate
Issue 53

Atif Atiah, a writer from Lebanon

This paper focuses on aphorisms in Arab folk culture. The proverb is a literary expression, and the majority of people understand its message. This distinguishes it from all other literary expressions except the folktale. If religion is for all human beings and the same is true of the folktale, then the folk proverb is similarly anchored in the individual and collective conscious. In recent times, in line with the advances in modern technology, we have shifted to other interests that are more easily available in light of the diminishing impact of the proverb and the waning interest in the folktale.

The folk proverb is known to be prevalent among all classes, from the elite and educated to the uneducated and illiterate, from the most experienced people to novices, and from adults to the young. This is because a male or female of any age from any of these social classes will hear and share multiple proverbs every day, either to assert an opinion or to compare something that he or she has observed to something that happened in the past in similar circumstance.

In order to make a comparison, one does not need to know the details of the past incident, which are summarised in a short proverb without an identifiable hero or characters. Speakers often refer to the relevant proverbs in a summarised form without details; the details of the most recent incident explain what happened in the past. The proverb helps people understand the present by reminding them of the past. If two neighbours quarrel, others may try to intervene and encourage a reconciliation by saying, “Choose the neighbour before the house”, “Your close neighbour is better than your faraway brother”, or “Allah commanded us to treat all neighbours well, down to the seventh neighbour”. And if there is a disagreement between a father and son due to their differences in age and lifestyle, this proverb can help to promote reconciliation: “My heart is focused on my son, and my son’s heart is focused on a stone”. In this way, proverbs with examples that favour one side over another may be used to conclude a discussion, or proverbs with contradictory examples may fuel a discussion.


Here, I recall a friend’s experience. He was very drunk, and an official at a checkpoint caught him and sent him to have his head shaved. Begging the official to forgive and release him and promising not to drink again, my friend recited a proverb based on a verse from the Holy Quran, saying, “Allah is Forgiving, Merciful”, but the official slapped his face and said, “Allah severely punishes”, employing another verse as a proverb.