Women in Oral Literature: Dreams of Transgressions in two Berber Wonder Tales

Yasmina Sarhrouny, Mohamed V University, Rabat, Morocco

Tales of wonder in Morocco are told by women, to women, and describe the lives of women, yet seem to uphold the values of the dominant patriarchal culture which are biased against women. In a "rhetorical self-flagellation" , grandmothers appropriate the prevalent misogynist images of women to tell their granddaughters about obedient good girls, evil stepmothers, jealous co-wives and daring bad girls, using this powerful socializing engine that is the wonder tale to condition female children for their role as sex objects and procreators under the yoke of male domination. To ensure a space of expression for themselves within a culture hostile to the female presence, they have to speak in their master's voice. However, below the overt embracing of traditional structures, dreams of transgressing the boundaries imposed on woman persist in undermining the implacable logic of the symbolic order.

The bulk of wonder tales about women and by women in our culture pays allegiance to the Law of the Father. At that level, there is no subversion of the status quo, as the language is always already marginalizing the female voice from the start. However, at an other level, spots of resistance and rupture from the symbolic order surface. Under psychoanalytical lens, a "semiotic discourse" appears to be at work in these wonder tales, liberating the desires women usually repress to fit within cultural norms. Julia Kristeva, who first developed this category of the semiotic language, defines it as a challenge to the paternal discourse, together with a return to the preverbal identification with the mother . In these tales, both the symbolic and the semiotic order collide and contradict each other, in a profusion of metaphors, symbols and signifiers attesting both the wealth of the ethnic imaginary and the tensions inherent in the female unconscious.

From these numerous sites of ambivalence, I chose two Berber tales I collected from my grandmother, a prolific storyteller who initiated me to a genre long ignored or studied as mere ethnographic curiosities. Moroccan oral literature was collected by French ethnographers during the colonial era , in an attempt to secure knowledge on 'les indigènes', the colonised, for historical chronicles and official texts are by no means expressions of the Moroccan peoples' mentalities and cultural concepts, while oral tales are. It is therefore significant that the French authorities in Algeria, during the colonisation, proscribed storytelling in public places, not only to avoid crowding, but rather to severe the channels transmitting and securing traditional values through storytelling, a task generally relegated to women . For this reason, these texts require serious theoretical introspections, for they truly grant the critic a privileged access to the female cultures, histories and unconscious.

The two tales I shall discuss in this paper represent the two extreme figures of women in traditional tales, that of the 'good' girl and that of the 'bad' girl. The first is about the woman who became a bird, and the other about the girl who married a snake.

The woman who became a bird

Zazia was a pretty girl who used to wear a scarf on her head all the time, until the whole tribe thought she was bald, while she had an incredible long hair no one knew about. Once she washed it at a source, and the source dried, because one single hair of hers obstructed its orifice. Her brother, head of the tribe, introduced a stick in the source and extracted the hair. He was so amazed at its length that he swore to marry its owner even if it turned out to be his sister Zazia! So, in a Cinderella-like manner, the tribe's women compared the hair with that of the tribe's girls until they found out it was Zazia's. When she heard them say that she was to marry her own brother, she felt ashamed and escaped with her youngest brother. They crossed two enchanted streams and she forbade her brother to drink from them, but he drank from a third enchanted one and was turned into a deer and left her. She reached a fourth stream, bordered by palm trees, drank from it, then, sat on a very short palm and ordered the latter to rise up in the air. The palm grew up and she lived on its top, but the stream like a mirror reflected her face and hair. Two slaves came passing by, and when they saw her reflection, thought it was theirs! They felt angry because they were so handsome yet condemned to serve others. But a wicked old woman discovered her, and tricked her into climbing down the tree by asking her to milk her ewes for her, and sold her to a king. The king married her and housed her inside a palace surrounded by a garden of peach and pomegranate trees. Once he was on a long journey, his other wives sneaked inside her garden, drugged her, then they span every hair of her head on a needle, and thrust all the needles into her head. She became a dove and, from that day forward, she lived with a flock of doves inside her garden, feeding on what they fed and drinking from the garden's source, until the king came back. He went to her garden, the dove landed on his lap and he started caressing her silky feathers. As he was smoothing a feather, he sensed a needle and gently extracted it. He drew with it a long hair. So he plucked out all the other needles and, once the last needle was removed, she became human again. She then told him about her co-wives, he killed them and they lived happily ever after!

A first reading reveals a definitely patriarchal tale. The heroine is a condensation of desirable femininity: she is pretty, passive, vulnerable, has a long hair, according to the canons of female beauty, and triggers the lust of men around her, including her own brother. Her guilty flight from this first incestuous relationship, doubled by the animalisation of her younger brother, which means the break-up of this second incestuous relationship, leads her to a maturing stage, up on the palm, until she is recuperated by the community in a more culturally-accepted heterosexual union, in a polygamous system. Another set of circumstances allows her to get rid of rivalry and finally secure the ideal union: a monogamous marriage with a protective, rich, paternal husband. The narrative is thus closed by the ultimate reward for a girl, the integration into patriarchy.

This blissful happy end is converted into a bitter statement of failure if the tale is to be read at an other level of meanings. The whole narrative becomes then a succession of aborted trials to escape from the very femininity the community wants to confine Zazia within. Her desire to escape from the feminine is first expressed by concealing her hair under a scarf. There is at the base a desire to hide this hair, a metonymy of her whole desirable female body, for its discovery generates the first symbolic rape at the source. Her brother introduces his phallic stick in her source. The hair, removed from secrecy, eroticises and exposes the female body to the desire of her brother/father figure, for, being head of a tribe, he stands for the patriarch. So her first flight from the community can be translated not only as a flight from incest but also as a rejection of the rape/incest/procreation triangle she is to submit to, if she is to integrate patriarchy as a woman. A second incestuous couple, that of Zazia and her younger brother, is disintegrated by the animalisation of the latter, which is the result, once again, of his drinking from the forbidden stream. Although strongly associated with the water element, the girl craves to move away from what it represents, her sex-role as procreator, water being connotative with childbirth and the amniotic liquid. So she crosses the streams and drinks from one, like her brother, like a man. She also climbs the phallic palm tree and lives like a bird in a nest, like a man, for birds and the act of flying are interpreted in psychoanalysis as a sublimation of the male Eros; therefore, for a woman, to dream of flying, of leaving the ground and defeating gravity, is a liberation of the desire to transcend her condition as a female in a culture where the transcendental signified is the phallus and she has only meaning in relation to it. Accordingly, Michel Butor, the French critic, concludes that: Dans la chambre secrète du conte, la femme mime le rôle de l'homme.

There is, then, an inversion of the primary symbolism, which presumes the girl's embracing of traditional values in this secondary symbolism where she actually rejects her status and hungers for a position of power. But then, the community, through the old woman, recuperates Zazia, because water reflected her beauty. She is, in a sense, betrayed and reclaimed by her own sex. It is also interesting to note that she is abducted while milking ewes, culture actually calling her back to the task assigned to her. The symbolism is reinforced by her marriage with the king and the garden she is to live in, since spherical fruits in general, forests, gardens, and water sources constitute symbolic representations of the female body and genital organs. Thus the woman is entrapped inside her body by patriarchy; she is to be a body, a figure of femininity, an object of male desire. In this sense, her metamorphosis into a bird sounds more like a liberation than like a curse, and her co-wives' function slide from aggressors to benefactresses, an expression of a female solidarity repressed and silenced by mainstream patriarchal discourse, for they repress deep inside the hair that makes a desirable woman of her, so she can finally experience freedom and active sexual behaviour. So she flies with other birds and drinks from the source, enjoying, thus, a male-related autonomy, until she is definitely recaptured by her husband, the Father, who re-shapes her into the woman she is supposed to be.

From this perspective, the tale becomes truly that of the woman who became a bird, the woman who tried to transgress the boundaries of her sex role, to mimic the possessor of the phallus who condemns her to an object position, and fails, because it is the only alternative she can narrate in her Father's language. "It is only by submitting themselves entirely to the culture [Š] that women are allowed any space to manoeuvre," asserts Hasna Lebbady, who reaches the same conclusion in her analysis of another Moroccan tale. Female storytellers can indulge in a semiotic discourse, but only within the confines of the symbolic order.

The girl who married a snake

The same implacable logic governs the tale of the girl who married a snake. The tale starts in a Hansel-and-Gretel manner, an evil stepmother compelling her husband to get rid of his two children from a former marriage, a foolish boy and a smart girl. They are forsaken in the forest, captured by the ogress (but there is no mentioning of gingerbread houses) and the little girl succeeds in killing the ogress and both she and her brother settle in the ogress's tent. However, this tent sheltered another host, a snake who marries the girl. She gives birth to a supernatural child, Smimie'ennda Ould Lehnech . The snake starts stirring up the sister against her brother; she decides to dispose of him so they could leave with their son in peace. But the boy loves his uncle more than his father, and resolves to protect him from his mother and his father's malevolence. First, the sister hides her husband in a buttermilk jar and sends her brother to fetch it, but the boy goes instead and the uncle is safe. Then she hides him in a jar of dates, and the boy manages to save his uncle again. Then, she puts her snake of a husband inside a sack of wool and sends her brother to wash it at the river. The boy suggests that they drown the sack of wool then beat it, what they do, and the snake is beaten to death. The sister accuses her brother of murder and casts him out, but her son leaves her and follows his uncle. The mother is therefore abandoned in her tent and the other two go for another set of adventures.

I will stop here, as the rest of the tale is centralised on the tribulations of the uncle and nephew, which are beyond the scope of this paper. For me, the tale of the little girl ends here, to leave space to her son's story. She is left alone, in the forest, in the tent of the ogress. What is to become of her, apart from turning into an ogress or a witch, herself? And why should the story of such a smart and enterprising little girl end thus, instead of a happy marriage like for Zazia? Probably because little girls are supposed to be neither smart, nor enterprising, and they are definitely not supposed to marry snakes.

The significance of the snake requires some development. In Judeo-Christian mythologies, the snake stands for the Beast, the devil who tempts Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, as reported in the Genesis Book of the Old Testament. In Islam, there is no reference to the snake, Satan being the fallen Archangel, a creature of light. Consequently, the presence of the snake in this tale is either a residual motif from the pre-Islamic era, standing for evil and secession between brother and sister, or, rather, a symbolic representation of the male genital organ.

In various cultures, actually, the snake connotes sexuality. In Cambodia, for instance, dreaming of a snake is a premonition for marriage , and Bouhdiba, in La Sexualité en Islam , reports that, in many Arab countries, the snake is a slang word for the male sexual organ. The ingenious young girl's alliance with the snake is, therefore, an expression of her sexuality. But can a woman in a patriarchal community experience sexuality outside of the conventional paradigms, that is, without being a man's mistress, or a man's wife? Besides, the young woman is not possessed, dominated by the snake, but rather the contrary. She owns, controls, and directs the male organ she is supposed to submit to in society. She introduces it in her jar of buttermilk, in her jar of dates, to kill her brother, for she must eliminate this representative of patriarchy is she to assert her sexuality and her jouissance. There is a performance of erotic active female sexuality in this tale, yet it takes place outside of society, and is put out by the son, who takes a phallocentric revenge on his mother, not only by killing her snake, the object of her pleasure, but also by condemning her to loneliness outside of the community, in the forest of the unconscious. Once her snake is dead, the girl is silenced, flung to the margins of the narrative, and forgotten about. There is no space in the symbolic order for a woman who challenges the Law of the Father, but that of the witch, the ogress, the monstrous figure condensing male hysteria before female sexuality.

So these tales generate multiple levels of significance. From a traditional feminist perspective, they are discursive practices deployed by culture to subjectify women to a patriarchal ideology; this type of reading does away with the unconscious, while a psychoanalytical approach delves into the ambivalence of the discourse of those women speaking against themselves, revealing what Foucault terms as "the complex and unstable process whereby discourse can be both an instrument and an effect of power, but also a hindrance, a stumbling-block, a point of resistance and a starting point for an opposing strategy". The opposing strategy I suggest is, again, a thorough study of these texts, not only in a feminist attempt to unearth the buried voices of women, but really as a postcolonial gesture to rescue our oral literature from its status of 'exotic' minority expressions.


Postcolonial OV Morocco Gender Matters literature Casablanca Conference

Last modified: 25 May 2001