Ibrahim Muhawi and Sharif Kanaana, Speak, Bird, Speak Again: Palestinian Arab Folktales (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1989).

Speak, Bird, Speak Again, a collection of 45 Palestinian folktales, represents the largest selection of Palestinian folklore in English. The tales were recorded by the editors over a two-year period in the West Bank, Gaza and the Galilee, then carefully and painstakingly translated into English. The excellent introduction explains how oral tradition has been an essential and lively part of Palestinian society and family life.

The stories are divided into major groupings reflecting the individual’s passage through life stages and his/her relationship to society and environment. Most concern interactions among family members: the often tense relationships between mother and son, father and daughter, co-wives and in-laws provide rich material for the plots. While often earthy and somewhat violent, the tales are also quite entertaining. The editors’ analysis at the end of each section, coupled with the introduction, takes the reader inside the work and identifies the major themes confronting the individual and society, such as sexual conduct, authority, the forces of good and evil, family loyalty and marriage.

What is remarkable about this collection is that the tales were collected in a natural setting and translated, verbatim, into English without editing or modification. The reader gets a rare view of a teller who, as the editors point out, is usually an illiterate woman in her sixties, narrating her stories within the confines of the home and among family members.

Folktales are considered largely an art form practiced by women, and the tellers are bound by certain highly stylized linguistic formulas. They usually open with a statement such as, “Testify that God is one!” to which the audience responds, “There is no god but He!” Similarly, the teller concludes the tales with a charming formula such as, “This is my tale, I’ve told it, and in your hands I leave it.”

The plots reflect the importance of the family and marriage not only to the teller herself but to Palestinian women in general. Given the age and social position of the narrator, she is able to talk with frankness about taboo topics, such as incest and sexual desire. The stories illustrate that while decision-making is clearly the domain of men in Palestinian society, women also have power, both as narrators and as heroines. The institution of polygamy, practiced rarely at present, is not depicted favorably in the tales.

Some of the stories are similar to fairy tales found in Western culture. Reminiscent of Cinderella is “Sackcloth,” a tale about a young girl whose beauty is disguised by ugly clothing. At night, she changes into a beautiful dress to attend a party at a palace where no one recognizes her, then leaves mysteriously only to return to her original disguise. Another tale similar to that of Rapunzel describes a woman with very long hair who pulls her mother up to her castle with her long tresses. This collection suggests the importance of the social aspect of oral tradition: Listening to and watching the teller and reacting collectively cannot be recorded. Although the tellers themselves are missing here, this extraordinary, annotated collection is the next best thing to hearing the tales on a starry night in Palestine.

How to cite this article:

Ann Barhoum "Muhawi and Kanaana, Speak Bird, Speak Again," Middle East Report 164-165 (May/June 1990).

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