Collecting the Tales

Yasmina Sarhrouny, Mohamed V University, Rabat, Morocco

Part 2 of the author's "Gendering Tales: A Feminist Reading of Seven Wonder Tales"

The task of collecting and translating tales from storytellers is neither simple nor easy, because numerous reasons. First, the sociopolitical events that swept Morocco during the last century introduced a 'modern' westernized lifestyle which seriously threatened the oral legacy, preventing the elders of most communities from transmitting their cultural wealth to the next generation, who was busy identifying with newly introduced ideals and cultural models imported from the conquering west through mass media. Oral literature became 'folklore', meant to entertain tourists and interest ethnographers in search of 'primitive' forms of narrative. For these reasons, old people started forgetting huge collections of tales no one cared to hear. The second problem is therefore to refresh the tellers' memories through showing interest in their cultural heritage. One conversation is never enough; the researcher needs whole days of continuous questions and enquiries before tales flow like a river long kept by a dam and set free at last. It is almost impossible, at that time, to stop the teller from remembering dozens of stories, anecdotes, proverbs, songs and parables that would require hundreds of papers to cover them all. The next problem that emerges is that of transcription. Indeed, writing the oral tale kills most of it, for the oral tale is a multi-layered textual structure; it is made of words, of course, but also of intonation, body language, mimicry, facial expressions, eloquent silences and discreet smiles that express more than what could be recorded on a blunt blank page. The whole atmosphere surrounding the teller is sacrificed during the writing, and I apologize for my failure to transmit it to the reader, due to the shortcomings of the written medium. Problems do not stop here, though; the process of translation is further damaging for tales, as it is for most texts situated in different cultural frameworks. Translation is indeed the unavoidable violence I perpetrate on these seven tales to be able to study them, and I apologize for this, as well as for the footnotes who are supposed to constitute a glossary. Writing and translating oral texts are definitely no easy tasks for a researcher, but they are far more rewarding and interesting than working on long-digested supposedly-canonical wonders of a culture other than mine. This is not a chauvinistic stand, but rather a legitimate 'postcolonial' re-evaluation of a culture reduced to touristic attractions.

My grandmother sat before her loom. The sun was already beginning to melt into a purple and orange cream of clouds. She lit the petrol lamp. She selected her wool threads on its faint gleam. Red, blue, white, green, yellow. With these basic colours she wove her stories every night, along with the carpets and quilts she covered her children with. Now I look at the carpet in my mother's house, worn out but still red bright. My grandmother's stories are still as fresh, though her voice now sounds like downtrodden straw.

My grandmother was busy working on her loom, and I was busy devouring the flames in the kanoun with my eyes, wolfing their riotous light with my young and hungry urban eyes. Bulb lights didn't dance that way back home. But here everything was different, even carpets spoke to me. This one was blue, featuring little girls and birds roaming around mazes of merry patterns. Would the little girl catch the bird? I turned back to the fireplace, trying to steal a bite of passion.

"Won't you stop getting yourself into trouble? You'll burn yourself! Come on, come and sit by me, and let me tell you a story. I don't want your mother to come and find you burnt. What would your daddy think?"

But was it safe to hear my grandmother's stories? I looked at my aunt. She had been listening to tales since she was a child, gathering round her with her brothers and sisters while my grandmother uttered her fatal hypnotic words, entrapping her children in silence and awe while she peacefully wove her way to the night. What if I got charmed too? Yet I longed to know about the birds and the girls, so I readily crept to her.

"This is the story of Khoullal El Khadra," she began.

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Last modified: 14 December 2001