|Summoning voices, silencing vices: The story of Persian folktales (Part 1)||
In an interview with Maryam Ala Amjadi he discusses Persian folktales and their significance in the 21st century. Below is the abridged version translated by the interviewer.
Maryam Ala Amjadi: Could you please give us a glimpse of the history of tales in general? In short, what is the story of folktales?
Ahmad Vakilian: Tales are as old as human beings and they were created from the moment humans could relate to one another. Primitive humans were curious about the world they lived in and they had a mythical understanding of it. This helped to form beliefs that later on developed into legends and stories which they would narrate for one another in order to keep alive their tribal and communal memories. Also before the invention of writing, humans had the oral tradition of giving accounts of their lives and historical events. These stories went from one generation to another and they helped shape culture.
MAA: So, in the light of the fact that folktales are universal, could you please take us to the realm of Persian tales?
AV: Well, first you have to find how they originated. Storytellers and researches have two views. Some believe that most tales have a common origin and because of human contact, these stories travelled from one region to another. For instance, traders and travelers who moved on the Silk Road centuries ago would stop at inns to rest as their journey took months and sometimes years. At these stops probably more people would join them and each traveler would narrate stories of their lands. Some Persian stories would go to Europe and European stories would come to Persia with these travelers. But there is also another view which proposes that due to our universal human fate and because we have similar human traits, these tales originated in different parts of the world without any or much contact with other nations, because tales of pain, dreams, justice and injustice and so on include universal human concepts that pertain to one and all.
MAA: So where do these similarities actually take us?
AV: Based on these common threads, about a century ago, the Finnish folklorist, Antti Aarne came up with a classification system for tales, which was later revised by the American scholar, Stith Thompson who mainly focused on Persian, Indian and European tales. There are six categories:
1- Animal Tales, which are the simplest tales. A good example is Kelileh va Demneh. Animals were personified for two reasons. First, because children and young listeners could relate more to them and secondly, because they helped the narrator to freely express his thoughts under the disguise of animal characters. This is important because some of the ancient tales were formed during the reign of tyrants.
2- Fairy Tales
3- Religious Tales
4- Realistic Tales
5- Tales of the Stupid Ogre, Giant, or Devil
6- Anecdotes and Jokes
Within each category, folktale types are further subdivided by motif patterns until individual types are listed and coded. All these stories are indexed, they are numbered and classified.
MAA: What do these codes and numbers mean?
AV: They have defined a code for each story. For example, the Persian story Maah Pishooni (literally, moon forehead) is given a specific number. Now in Europe this story is known as Cinderella and in other countries it could be known under others titles. Because these stories have the same motif, they are also further narrowed down with other codes and this helps us find and group tales with similar motifs more easily.
MAA: Going back to the history of folktales, from what I understand these tales were created to be “heard” rather than to be “read”. Is it possible that when we read a folktale, it actually loses some of its intended oral functions?
AV: Very valid question. It has been proved that listening is the more effective method in the learning process. Also face to face contact with the storyteller helps the audience remember more details, but when you read these tales which were meant for actual narration, the efficiency is reduced by 50 percent. This is why researchers today opine that you should narrate tales for children, not even read out from a book but actually tell it. When I was in Norway for a symposium I saw storytellers there going to cafés, performing at gatherings and universities and actually telling stories.
MAA: But we have this tradition in Persian culture. For instance there is the tradition of naghali (dramatic narration of Iranian fables, myths and epics).
AV: Yes, exactly and this is the point. I saw the same thing in Germany and Sweden. You see, Iran is one of the oldest countries to have a long tradition of storytelling. Perhaps you have heard of Hezar Afsaan (literally, 1000 legends or myths) which was an Indo-Iranian body of folktales known during the Achaemenid period (550-330 B.C.) Then the manuscript somehow becomes extinct, although the tales were orally transferred among communities and you know each time a tale is narrated it forms a new version. Persians were one of the most skilled in the art of storytelling but unfortunately this art has almost faded today, although it has relatively progressed in the West.
MAA: But what happened to the tradition of naghali in Iran? Why is it disappearing?
AV: Let’s go back in history. During the Achameaneid Empire, there were much sought after entertainers who went by the name of gowsan. They also played the role of messengers. When the king issued an order, the gowsans would set out throughout the country and in order to attract the attention of the people, they would use their storytelling skills. So they would first tell stories with instruments like harps and within those tales they would also give an account of the King’s orders. During the Sassanid Empire (AD 224 to AD 651) there were musicians like Barbod and Nakisa who told tales with their songs. Many Persian poets like Nezami Ganjavi, Attar and Rumi wrote tales in verse. But the art of naghali as we see it today was shaped during the Safavid era (1501-1736) and it peaks during the Qajar period (1785-1925) but unfortunately today we have very few naghals (traditional narrators or storytellers) left.
MAA: And why is that?
AV: During the Pahlavi period (1925-1979) some of our intellectuals were under this illusion that if they want a progressive country, then they should westernize it and think western. This was later opposed by anthropologists who distinguished between civilization and imitation, proposing that each nation is culturally unique. About 5 or 6 decades ago this art was still popular in Persian coffee houses but then its popularity gradually decreased. Today one of the oldest and greatest traditional storytellers alive is the 80 plus years old Haj Seyed Mostafaa Saeedi.
MAA: Does he have students who will carry on this tradition?
AV: Not exactly. He has few enthusiastic individuals who want to learn from him but no student as such. No institutionalized training. I don’t think in the next two decades we will have any traditional storytellers or if we do, it would change form and direction, perhaps become more modernized.
MAA: How do you see the impact of folktales on children?
AV: Nothing can take the place of storytelling for kids. It helps to bond with and relate to them while it also creates a form of mental balance. Even the Prophet of Islam emphasizes the necessity of storytelling for children. He says that instead of training children one should mentally nourish them by setting a good example until the age of seven. Even the word of God, at times, comes in the form of stories. The Quran reveals the account and history of people who existed even before Islam.
MAA: Why do they tell stories to children at bedtime? Sometimes I feel some stories are just meant to wake you up.
AV: Because before we fall asleep, our unconscious mind becomes active and it can connect to different times, the past and future. This is a good time to tell stories as the child will sleep with the values and images that the stories convey until morning. The child may identify with some characters in his dream and make his own stories in his imaginative world.
MAA: Can you tell us a little about the influence of Persian tales on other nations?
AV: Rumi versifies the story of a very poor man in Baghdad who dreams that he would find treasure in Egypt. Pursuing this dream, he sets off for Egypt but as soon he gets there, he is arrested and interrogated by a night guard who is curious to know the reason behind his visit. When he tells him of his dream, the guard laughs at him and says he also has similar dreams about a treasure hidden in Baghdad in such and such place but he is not a fool to go all the way just because of a dream. The man realizes that guard is giving an account of his very own home, so when he goes back, he finds the treasure exactly where he had lived all his life and then he becomes rich and affluent. Rumi narrated this story in the 13th century and Paulo Koelho expanded the tale and wrote his own version, The Alchemist. Also Charles Dickens said he was greatly influenced by the tales of One Thousand and One Nights.
MAA: What is the origin of the One Thousand and One Nights?
AV: As I said, it was previously known as Hezar Afsaan and it came from India to Persia after which the settings and characters gained more Persian colors. You know the heroine is Shahrzad (Shahrzadeh or chehrzad, meaning native born beauty) and the hero Shahriyar (Persian for ruler) and like many other characters, they have Persian names. During the reign of the Abbasid Caliphate, Baghdad became the capital of Islam and it was there that many of these tales were retold and they gained the tone and colors of those times. The tales of One thousand and One Nights were open ended stories, I mean each time different events and elements were added to them. 300 years later, these stories were collected by Antoine Gallan. And the translation of this version is what we have today and not the original one.
MAA: The most popular opening sentence in Persian tales is yeki bood, yeki nabood (literally, there was one; there was not one/no one). It’s as though saying, yeki bood ke YEKI nabood (there was ONE who was not just ONE).
AV: Well, this has been researched to a great extent. It originally means before creation of the world, there was no one but God. It could also be read as “with the presence of God, there was no one else”. It is a metaphorical phrase. Opening sentences of tales exist in all languages; in English you say “Once Upon A Time”. This is mainly to get the attention of the listener.
MAA: What are the therapeutic effects of folktales?
AV: Pray, tell tales to hearts heal/Tell tales to soul’s relief. So says the Persian poet, Rumi in the 13th century. Narrative therapy was realized in the West less than a century ago with Bruno Bettelheim, but it is not known in Iran today although the concept has existed for ages. Take for instance, the Shahrzad of One thousand One Nights who heals a criminal and lunatic king with the healing powers of her stories.
MAA: Can you give us a glimpse of the image of women in Persian tales?
AV: Well, tales have traces of reality in them. For instance, in the tale of Maah Pishooni, we have two extreme examples of women, the ideal and unwanted woman, the mother and the stepmother, daughter and stepdaughter figures. While the mother makes sacrifices, the stepmother displays wickedness. Researchers believe because women were deprived of fully expressing themselves, they would go to extremes to oppose the dominance of the males: from logic to lunacy, from angels to witches, they would take refuge in magic and fantasy as a form of liberation. This is true of tales in all nations. On the other hand, there are also positive images of women who solve problems with endurance and wisdom as in the tale of Aroosak-e-Sang-e-Saboor.
MAA: I think what we need most is the wisdom of a modern Shahrzad, who can tell stories of today with an eye on tomorrow.
AV: Have you ever heard of the name, Mashdi Gelin Khanoom? During WWII, a young British man named L.P. Elwell Sutton came to Iran to launch the first BBC radio. Here he met an old woman at Ali Jawaherkalam’s home. Ali Jawaherkalam was an Iranian journalist. This woman was actually a nurse who used to tell many interesting stories to Jawaherkalam’schildren. Sutton became interested in her stories to the extent that he started writing and recording them because he was well versed in Persian. Her name was Mashdi Gelin Khanoom. During the 2 years that he was in Iran, Sutton recorded 118 Persian tales out of which we could recover 110. He then left Iran to become a professor at University of Edinburgh. Later, the German scholar of Islamic studies, Ulrich Marzolph who was working on his PhD thesis about Persian Folklores became aware of Sutton’s work. Sutton, who was by then old and retired, handed over all his precious archives to Professor Marzolph and asked him to return it to its original owners, the Iranians. And this is how we have documented a great body of Persian folktales today which I have collected in two separate books with the help of professor Marzolph.
MAA: What is the importance of folktales in the 21st century?
AV: When you speak of dialogue among civilizations and cultural closeness, the focus is more on governments, the elite members of societies, writers and intellectuals. But we can never unite if ordinary people and citizens do not come together. When ordinary people and nations grow closer, they can understand how their cultures are so entwined and they would feel a sense of unison. Then civilizations are born from the heart of these very societies and this can stop war and bloodshed. When people become aware, when a soldier who goes to war against another country learns that mothers of that land tell the same stories, same themes and values to their children just as their own mother did, perhaps they would think twice before attempting aggression.
Endings and beginnings
Like any other ceremonious facet of culture, Persian storytelling is not free of customs and etiquettes. In fact, it is very much a ritual on its own. In rituals, beginnings (introduction) and endings (conclusions) are important as they can sustain the attention of the audience and assert the worthwhileness of the act.
Persian storytellers usually open the story with a few verses of poetry or at the least, rhyming sentences which are recited in a clear and loud voice in order to get the attention of the listeners. Then there is a small pause, after which the listeners are introduced into the realm of the story. Just as most tales in the English language begin with “Once Upon A Time”, there are many introductory sentences for Persian tales, varieties of which depend on region and dialect. The most typical opening sentence in is “yeki bood yeki nabood gheyr az khoda hichki nabood”, (literally, there was one/someone, there was not one/no one, there was no one but God). In the Fars province region, the storyteller may begin by saying “Those who are servants of the Lord say oh Lord!” after which the audience unanimously says, “Oh Lord!”
Another popular opening is “roozi bood, roozegari bood, shahri bood, shahriyari bood, dar zamaan haaye ghadim, in bood va aan bood” (literally, it was a day, it was an era, there was a town, there was a king, in ancient times, long long ago, there lived so and so…) Most tales begin with an eye on the past where the origin of the story lies. Most of these sentences draw attention to the fact that the listener is about to enter a world of fantasy and what he hears is not true, even though it may bear resemblance to reality. There are also typical sentences that the storyteller uses for linking different sections of the tale and also in order to keep the listeners alert. Here are a few examples:
-Joonam baratoon bege (literally, “my soul is saying “which actually means “As I was telling you dear ones”)
-Now let us let go of the king and know more about so and so (another character)
-Now hear a word or two from this girl (or another character)
The closing sentences of Persian tales also bear significance from three aspects. First, they once again remind the listener that what he has heard is just a story:
-Ghesse-ye maa be sar resid, kalagheh be khoonashnaresid
And so hereby ends our tale, and the crow didn’t get to its lair
-Bala raftim mast bood, gheseh ma raastbood, paaeen aamdim doogh bood, ghesseh maa dorough bood
We went up, there was curd, our story was exact, we came down there was buttermilk, our story was fake and fib
Secondly, they offer a prayer for the listeners. The narrator might say things like, “I hope your wishes also come true just like so and so in our story.” And sometimes they demand the listeners to say Ameen (Amen).
Thirdly, the storyteller may finish his tale with a few verses of poetry that include a gist of the story’s moral:
-A greedy man’s eyes are either filled with gratification or the soils of the grave
Saadi, Persian poet (1184-1291)
-From the pot, seeps what the pot holds
Fourthly, the narrator may ask the listeners to say Salawat after he ends the tale. Salawat or “Peace be upon him” is a phrase that Muslims often say after saying (or hearing) the name of the Prophet of Islam.
1- The Persian word for “tale” is much used Arabic word “ghesseh”.
2- Persian tales have greatly influenced Persian art and handicrafts. You can see the impression and manifestation of these tales in Persian carpets, paintings, miniature, ghalamzani (Persian engraving on metals) among others.
3- The titles of some Persian tales and certain sentences have developed into proverbs and idioms. For instance, the phrase, ghesse-ye-Amir Arsalan-e-Naamdar and ghesse-ye-HosseinKord-e-shabestari are titles of tales that are used ironically as they stand for “giving long accounts of someone” or “explaining something to a great extent with unnecessary details”. The tale of Maadar-e-Div-e-Fooladzereh (literally, Mother of the Metal Armored Ogre) is another title which has developed into a somewhat derogative phrase for an unpleasant mannish looking women.
4- In today’s Iran, Fatemeh Habibizad (born 1977) better known as Gordafrid is the first female naghal (storyteller) of the Shahnameh, Persian epic poem. Gordafarid who takes her name after one of the female characters in the Persian epic, Shahnameh, has been an active storyteller for more than 10 years.
5- The MasnaviManavi by Rumi has many fables and scenes from everyday life that are narrated in verse. Many of these tales are a part of the Persian oral tradition.
6- There are usually different versions of one Persian tale as each ghessehgoo (storyteller) had a different method of representation. Time, place, mood of the listeners and the storytellers are the factors that shaped these variations.
7- Rhymed and short anecdotes with didactic themes are known as “metal”.Matals are also very entertaining as they often include animal characters and natural elements. Among the most popular ones are davidamo davidam (literally, I ran and ran) and atal metal tootooleh.
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