A review of ‘Pearls on a Branch: Oral Tales’ by Najla Jaraissaty Khoury

Photo courtesy of Archipelago Books.

By D.A. Dellechiaie
BU News Service

“Pearls on a Branch: Oral Tales” is a collection of Lebanese folk tales foreign to the Western reader in details feel that they should be accepted into the literary canon as classics because they are so relatable. 

The thirty tales in the volume range from animal fables of a fox who has given up eating meat or a mouse who wants to get married to tales of the courtship of quick thinking women who get the prince after they’ve had their fun with him to a bawdy story about a prince falling in love with a singing turd.

Najla Jraissaty Khoury transcribed the oral tales of Lebanese women verbatim. Although most of these tales have been passed down over the years and are archaic in subject matter (marriage is a central theme to almost every story), they feel timeless because they are accessible.

To choose one opening paragraph at random: “Once there were three girls. Their mother and father were dead and they lived in a small house at the outskirts of town. From their parents they had inherited a cow. Every day they milked their cow and fed it grass.”

Some of the tales such as “Sitt Yadab” share a lot of the plot of “Cinderella” and “Rumpelstiltskin.” “Lady Tanaqeesh and The Eggs of the Tawawees” has the same relationship with “Snow White” and even the Greek myth of Tantalus feeding his son Pelops is retold through “The Green Bird.”

You can probably guess what story “Thuraya With The Long, Long Hair” resembles.

But what distinguishes these tales as more than simple rewrites are the specific cultural details and changes to the stories. Alongside the common girls/soon-to-be princesses, there are bedouins, invocations to Allah, men going on Hajjs and djinns and ghouls out to both help and trick the protagonists. The inclusion of co-wives adds not just a cultural difference but also conflict to the stories.

These details, though foreign, never make the stories feel distant.

I am not a huge fan of fables because most of the lessons they try to teach are outdated, cringy, boring or too culturally specific. The fables  “Who Ate the Wheat?” and “King Solomon and the Queen of Birds” are more interesting for their mythological explanations than their actual stories.

However, the one fable in “Pearls on a Branch” that gripped me was “The Fly,” a two page story about a fly that flatters different animals only to be told that the predator of that animal is stronger than them.

After talking with a cat, a knife and a blacksmith, the fly reaches his final interlocutor — death: “So the fly addressed death and said: ‘Death, Death, how mighty is your taking!’ But there was silence. No one replied.”  

This fable did not feel contrived and taught an interesting, chilling lesson about the silence of non-existence.

The best tales in the collection felt like missing links between heartwarming Disney movies and the bawdy tales of Boccaccio’s “The Decameron.”

Pearls on a Branch,” “The Vegetable-Seller’s Daughter” and “The Drinking Fountain” follow the traditional royal-man-falls-in-love-with-a-girl-not-chosen-for-him story but all have a little sexual innuendo and silly pranks sprinkled in for the adult readers.

“Pearls on a Branch” is the story of the zany courtship of Husun Kamil, a king’s daughter, and Lulu Bighsunu, a king whom Husun wants to marry after he rejects her. Bighsunu tells his servant, Saiid, to “spend the night with [Husun]” so that he can get her off his back. Husun, in response to Bighsunu’s plan, tricks Saiid into doing Sisyphean tasks such as filling a jar with holes drilled into the bottom of it. What follows is pure comedic gold:

“When his master asked him about his night with Husun Kamil, he answered: ‘By God, I had to keep at it, emptying and filling, emptying and filling, through the night.’ ‘Bravo, Saiid! You have worked hard for your pay!’ said the king.”

In the translator’s introduction, Inea Bushnaq writes, “The gentle pleasure of hearing a story from a parent or grandparent is being eclipsed by the light shining from the television.”

While I do agree with Bushnaq that how we hear and tell stories is changing, I think that “Pearls on a Branch” is not just a “rescue mission to preserve the oral tradition” but a bridge that will help connect Western readers to a culture they do not know.

“Pearls on a Branch: Oral Tales” by Najla Jaraissaty Khoury and translated from the Arabic by Inea Bushnaq is available for $18 at Archipelago Books.

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