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Saving the stories

Qatar's disappearing oral tradition has spawned projects to record the storytellers.

By Amanda EricksonContributor / March 28, 2011

Strollers enjoy the Souk Waqif, or “standing market” in Doha, Qatar, at dusk. Much of Qatar has been transformed into a bustling, modern society in which global pop culture has washed over Qatari traditions. A group of academics is pushing back.

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Doha, Qatar

Growing up, Kholoud Saleh never heard the story of the donkey and the grain. Or the one about the magic fish that helped a lonely stepdaughter escape her evil stepmother. "The older people, they were told [these stories]," she says. "But us, no."

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Ms. Saleh is part of the first generation of Qataris to grow up around the oil boom, which has brought unprecedented money and a flood of foreigners into this Arab emirate. Qatar now boasts one of the highest per capita gross domestic products in the world.

But the boom has also dramatically changed the country's complexion – native Qataris make up only 15 percent of the 1.6 million residents – and way of life. Qatar "is not as it used to be," Saleh says. When her parents were younger, they spent hours listening to elders tell stories. "Now, we don't have that time to just talk."

As a result, many fear the country's rich folklore and storytelling tradition is disappearing forever. Saleh and others are trying to change that. Over the past six months, a group of students and professors has begun to record and transcribe folklore and oral histories told by Qatari elders. Eventually, they will be compiled into the country's first-ever combined English and Arabic folklore anthology.

The project is being led by Autumn Watts, who runs the writing center at Weill Cornell Medical College in Qatar. Ms. Watts has long been fascinated by the ways [Djinn are] incorporated into story-telling. The idea for this project came to her while she was researching genies in Arabic literature. She searched and searched for an anthology on Qatari folklore before concluding none existed in English.

In Qatar, stories have primarily been shared orally. This was partly by necessity – the government didn't offer comprehensive public education until the middle of the 20th century. In 1970, more than two-thirds of Qataris over 15 were still illiterate. Even in 2009, a study reported that Qatari children read only a quarter of a page per year outside school.

Folklore was a way for extended families to share their heritage and values. It "allowed grandfathers and grandmothers to play a big role in children's verbal education at home," explains Elnour Hamad, an art education professor at Qatar University.

But in the past 10 years, Qatar has rapidly transformed into a bustling cosmopolitan society. Now, young people spend more time at school and in malls than they do with their families.

As a result, Qatari elders don't have the same opportunities to share their knowledge. And Watts worries they never will. "Their grandparents lived in a [tent], [and] they're driving [Land Cruisers]," Watts says. "A generation is vanishing really fast." [Editor's note: Some words have been changed to better reflect the source's intent.]

Watts is trying to stem the loss by creating a written document of these tales. Over the past six months, she has trained nine students to lead interviews and conduct field research. She then armed them with tape recorders and sent them out to find elders. The students record and transcribe the tales, told in Arabic, then translate them into English.

Along the way, Watts has faced a number of challenges. Some are obvious: How do you capture the nuances and poetry of an oral tradition in writing? How do you find the elders who know the stories?

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