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Timeless saudi folktales
Guest Columnist

Timeless saudi folktales

Timeless saudi folktales

Looking towards the light. A mythical art piece by pioneer artist Tagreed Al-Bagshi.

By Dr. Lamia Baeshen
August 23rd, 2020
Timeless Folktales of Saudi Arabia

For thousands of years, imaginative tales embodied the beliefs, customs and rituals of communities, while they amused, enlightened and instructed their audiences. Oral narratives managed to strengthen communal ties, not only by banishing the monotonous drabness of everyday life, but also by mirroring the collective psyche of human culture. The rich metaphors of the tales open the windows of the imagination and connect people to their surrounding world through group conformity and normative response.

Timeless saudi folktales

Oral tradition handed down multifarious types of stories; myth, legend,folktale, fable, and fairytale that are often grouped together invariably to mean “old fantastic stories.” But this misconception blurs the differences that distinguish each one of them.

A myth is a product of a distant past that is sometimes sacred, it revolves around "larger than life" figures struggling with cosmological issues. Its stories are epical in dimension and intensity, projecting man’s struggle with the forces of nature.

The realm of legends is historical heroism where grand stories are weaved around an inspiring leader, strong enough to win all battles with an evil enemy in long, episodic adventures. And while fables are mainly stories of animals, fairy tales involve fairies, giants, dragons, and other fanciful creatures.

Excerpts from Dr Lamia Baeshen folktales book.
Excerpts from Dr Lamia Baeshen folktales book.

It is interesting that nearly all of the tales have parallels in every part of the world, and the question of the origin of these tales is never resolved. This narrative form is living proof that the imagination is the fundamental instrument of rational thinking, and as indispensable imagination is to human cognition, so is the folktale to our literary and cultural constructs. 

Since there were as many tellers as there were tales to tell, the stories became individualized and varied and their forms were never stable or complete. Tellers could manipulate the sequence of events, the roles of the characters, and the length of the plot, to formulate their own versions of the same tales. Tales gave utterance to people's culture and value system, to their hopes and fears. Utility and pleasure served, they functioned as a form of moral construction under the guise of playful enjoyment. Up till the early decades of the 20th century, the small population of Jeddah had not yet been ushered into the world of the performing arts.

In the absence of the theatre, orality was prominent, and people of all ages used to gather for entertainment around one single performer—a hakawati or Rawi (storyteller)— who provided them with a one-man show through the simple act of telling a tale. At night, as children got ready to sleep, they waited anxiously for the aunt, or mother, or grandmother to carry them on the wings of imagination to faraway lands where they would experience fanciful adventures. This ritual of telling tales was a very popular practice in nearly all homes, thus it assisted in shaping identity, moral conduct and social norms. 

In my book, titled “Al-Tabat wa Al-Nabat” (which translates roughly to the equivalent “happily ever after”), I have collected traditional Hejazi folkloric tales which were taped as the subjects, mostly older women, were telling them to a live audience. The tales are captured in their original Hejazi dialect to present in this book the dynamic essence of the wealth of folkloric material which I was lucky enough to save from extinction, for the art of telling tales is nowadays a thing of the past.

One distinct feature of Hejazi folktales that appeals to me

Is the presentation of women as heroines: females in general appear as strong women in roles of power and moral authority who overcome challenging situations and always win by applying their wit, wiles and perseverance. In the tale of “Pearl, the Daughter of Coral,” which resembles the story of Rapunzel, the symbolic power of Lulwa’s long hair is equally matched by her sturdiness and power of mind. Just like a pearl that is hidden in a secured place, isolation makes her stronger and she succeeds in her battle with the imprisoning witch. Similarly, the girl in “The Bone” tale fearlessly breaks out of the underground cell her father kept her in, preferring her freedom and independence to the safety of the shackles of her home.

Timeless saudi folktales

Sometimes young women venture out on missions to save men from hardships, like the heroine of the tale “the Bird of Happiness.” When many brave men seek that bird but fail to capture it, this young woman rises to the occasion and passes the test so brilliantly that she not only captures the bird, but also frees all the men who were turned into stones. In the tale of “the Gardener’s Daughter,” the gardener is challenged by the Sultan to solve a series of difficult riddles, he goes home to his daughter sad and distressed, for there seems to 

be no exit from his dilemma, but the smart girl surprises him with one answer after another, until the Sultan finally pardons him. The real charm of the simple folktale is truly revealed through reading between its lines and contemplating the wisdom of the messages it carries within. My dream is that preserving these Hejazi tales, which provide merely the crude matter of the whole narrative art, would revive the genre of the folktale so people can cherish their own heritage and begin to pass it on to future generations.

Special Guest Columnist

Dr. Lamia Baeshen is a Saudi scholar, critic and author specialized in folktales and oral heritage. She is also a professor of Literature at the Department of European languages and literature at King Abdulaziz University in Jeddah. 

Ople’s spirits to the point that they ended up resorting to eating locusts and gravel to ease their starvation. A number of elderly who had lived through this time narrated that they would go on for days with nothing to eat and drink – death was looming over their shoulders and many would fall to it.

Through this year, Al-Bassam rushed to aid as many people as she could. With her own money, she bought large quantities of dates and hired those who would travel across the region to pass it around. She herself would go around her city of Unaizah and visit the homes of the poor, asking if they needed any help.

Other than the year of hunger, Al-Bassam also played a role in the year of mercy in 1918 – the year Cholera ravaged the region, taking the lives of so many, including those of her own children. But that never stopped her, for she knew she could save the lives of many others. Her faith in God helped her, and she pushed forward and devoted her time and energy into helping those who needed her.

Moudi Al-Bassam, who died in 1944, was so highly regarded throughout her life, that the poet Mohammed Obaidallah once said – “If God blesses you with a son, name him Moudi!” She was also quite respected by the founder of the Kingdom, King Abdulaziz, both writing letters to one another.

And speaking of kings, who could forget the pilot of the kings?

Nahar Al-Nassar, born in 1936 is considered to be the youngest Arab and first Saudi pilot to glide through the skies. His love for flight and travel wasn’t of random nature. Growing up in the Eastern Province, he would accompany his father to Dhahran Airport for his contracting work. The young Al-Nassar would watch with fascination as planes landed and took off on the runway – later expressing to his father his desire of becoming a pilot someday.

His father supported the idea. And so in pursuit of his dreams, Al-Nassar travelled to Egypt in 1953, and for the next few years dedicated his time to attain the necessary education that would qualify him to become a world-class pilot. Years passed, and Al-Nassar had one goal in his mind – to be up in the skies.

And that he did accomplish. Alongside his older colleagues, and starting at the age of 23, Al-Nassar worked as a pilot for Aramco and then made his way up the ranks. During the 1960s, his career witnessed a great leap as he moved from being the assistant pilot to the commander of the royal planes, Captain Sam Bugler, to becoming the commander himself.

All in all, Al-Nassar never forgot his roots, for he prided himself of belonging to a linage of caravanners – men who lead caravanners - throughout the deserts, carrying goods and people along the way. A modern day caravanners , he carried kings all around the world, including King Saud, King Faisal, King Fahad and King Abdullah while he was a crown prince – up until his death in 1994.


When it comes to remembering our roots as Saudis, we usually fall back to folklore and music – which brings us to our final individual, who through his artistic talents and keen feel for rhythm composed over five-hundred songs. Tareq Abdulhakeem, born in 1920 in Taif, had always had a knack for singing and performing folk art – always gravitating towards music. 

After joining the army in 1939, he began to participate in composing military marches. Noticing his talents in music, he was sent to Egypt in 1952 as the first Saudi to study music. It was there that he learned to read and write musical notes. Taking these skills with him back to the Kingdom, he established the Saudi Army Music 

School, ultimately training future musicians and military marches. To many musicians in the region, he is considered to be the ‘Godfather’ of Khaleeji music. Amongst his students were Talal Maddah, known as the man with the “golden throat,” and world-renowned singer Mohammed Abdo. And due to this influential role, he won the UNESCO International Prize for Music in 1981 – becoming the first Arab as well as the sixth musician to receive this award. 

What he is most known for is developing and distributing the national anthem that was originally composed by Egyptian Abul Rahman Al-Khatib, essentially adding the last few touches to the anthem – the unified song of our country.

Special Guest Contributor

Ghada Al-Muhanna is a Saudi writer, Media and Communications officer at the Saudi embassy in Berlin, and an advisor to the Diriyah Gate cultural project.

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