Launching the FOLK Issue: The Ordinary and Extraordinary That ‘Refuse to Be Erased’

The Winter 2021 issue of ArabLit Quarterly is available in print and e-form:

Print editions of our FOLK-themed special double issue, the last ALQ of 2021, are available via Gumroad and Amazon (USUKCanadaGermanyFranceItalySpainAustraliaJapan, the UAE, and elsewhere), and are forthcoming in bookshops and elsewhere. E-copies are available as PDF or EPUB via Gumroad.

You can also subscribe to a digital edition on Exact Editions (as an individual or institution) or become a print subscriber and supporter on Patreon. You can also add this issue on GoodReads.

This massive special issue was guest-edited by Ali Al-Jamri, who introduces the work within:

By Ali Al-Jamri and M Lynx Qualey

Ali: In 2013, I saw the Palestinian folk musician Reem Kelani perform at the “Beyond Borders” festival in Scotland. During the performance, she gave her view on why so many nursery rhymes and children’s stories have dark, morbid edges. Sleep, she explained, is scary—after all, you lose consciousness and total control. One function of a children’s rhyme, explained Kelani, is to provide something more frightening than sleep’s oblivion, to turn sleep into a relief. 

Perhaps because I myself struggle to surrender to sleep most evenings, this view of the role of children’s rhymes speaks to me quite deeply. I think of Homer’s depiction of Sleep as Death’s brother, and the Sanders translation of the Gilgamesh epic, which gives the memorable (if not wholly faithful to the original) line, “the sleeping and the dead, how alike they are, they are like a painted death.”

From the morbid, we find hope: This view of children’s rhymes suggests that if sleep can be tamed, then life can too. Those rhymes and tales that tame sleep become a charm, verbal talismans against the much more real terrors we are exposed to as we grow up in a world riven with gross inequalities.

We did not dwell on trying to define “folk” for this issue. Yet I think it is no coincidence that so many of our submissions speak to the spirit of resistance. There are dark edges to many of the pieces in this issue, and yet there is also relief: elites are lampooned, patriarchs outmanoeuvred, hope tenaciously pursued.

But the most radical act, really, is the preservation of memories in the telling itself. A folk story or song is often extremely local—reflected in the many Arabics in this issue. A folk story or song can charm, delight, warn, lament, celebrate—it can do all that and more. With each retelling, it reasserts itself. The name of the original storyteller may be lost, but their love for people and place, their deep humanity, is passed onto new audiences time and again. 


MLQ: If high art is official history, then folk art is a history of those left out of official narratives, be they women, jinn, children, the poor, or transgressors of all types. 

In “Al Yamama: A Tale of Three Women,” Alaa Murad takes us from a tale she heard as a child back through earlier print iterations. Through all these medieval versions, there is a woman who forces her community to face the violence they were trying to hide. The tale, Murad tells us, is “about the normalization of women’s resistance to brazen acts of injustice.”

Many folktales are bristling with injustice, borrowed from community memory and whittled down to a sharp edge of memory. They are also often, as Ali discovered in the course of writing “Have You Seen Afifa, Have You Seen Latifa,” one of the few places where the stories of ordinary women are preserved. As he went looking for stories of his Baharna community in colonial and family records, it was largely men’s stories that were set down on paper. It was through calls with his grandmother, and sharing folk poetry, that stories of women’s lives emerged.

Folk arts teach us, but they can also be irreverent, like the two poems by the Hebrew and Arabic litterateur known only as Nasir, whose poems were popular around 1300 CE. In one of the poems, translated here by Alan Elbaum, he purports to offer a recipe that will cure love; in the other, he debates whether hash or wine is the better intoxicant. Echoes of his irreverence reappear in Cairo folk music of the early twentieth century. In “Re-Collecting Egyptian Folk Songs,” Nicholas Mangialardi writes about the irreverent tunes being sung in music halls. Yet when they were set down in print, becoming a part of the official history, they were sanitized, with many of the darker edges edited away.

Still, the malleability of folk art is one of its great pleasures. In this issue, two Palestinian authors—Sonia Nimr and Sonia Suleiman—both interpret a single folktale, and then discuss their process and the folktale form.

The short stories in this issue also twine the supernatural with the ordinary lives of people just getting by. In the frightening “A Well No One Can Reach” by Saudi author Omar Al Jadhee, translated by Leonie Rau, something mysterious prevents thirsty people from reaching water. In Mariam Qahtani’s “Heavensent Huriyya,” translated by Ali Al-Jamri, a woman who is abandoned by her community shapeshifts into something otherworldly. Yahia Al-Tahir Abdullah’s “Death in Three Portraits,” translated by Salma Harland, weaves the natural process of contagion and death with the supernatural that lies just beyond the edges of our vision.

The importance of folk narratives to diasporas is keenly felt across time and space. Eman Quotah’s “Songs from My Father” journeys through a childhood in Ohio shaped by her father’s Meccan nursery rhymes, while  Will Pewitt’s translation of ‘Abd al-Rahman al-Dakhil gives us two 8th century CE Andalusian poems which strike a chord with modern yearning for a lost home. 

But at the center of this issue, Zainab Almahdi reminds us that folklore is also all-ages fun. In her bilingual graphic novel “Um Hmaar Returns!,” we go on a lighthearted, fast-paced adventure with both the supernatural and manufactured TV hype in Bahrain. 

This issue, our last of the year, is a celebration of stories and poetry that are oral, anti-professional, transgressive, strange, and fantastical. In it, the ordinary and extraordinary people at the margins, as Alaa Murad writes, “refuse to be erased.”