Saving the stories
Qatar's disappearing oral tradition has spawned projects to record the storytellers.
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Others are more particular to the culture. The influx of ex-pats has brought with it resentment. Qataris say they feel like strangers in their own country and complain that foreigners are favored for jobs, and are crushing their culture. And in response, most Qataris keep to themselves. "Outsiders don't come inside," Watts says. "Many [foreigners] who have been here for ages have never been inside a home."Skip to next paragraph
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Mazin Mohamed, another young researcher for Watts, understands just how frustrating it can be to try to break into this private world. Though his family moved to Qatar from Sudan when he was 3 years old, many locals still consider him a foreigner. [Editor's note: Mazin Mohamed's country of birth was incorrectly identified in the original version.]
When he began his research, Mr. Mohamed ventured into coffee shops and mosques in the hopes of finding people to talk to. He was turned away again and again. "It was so difficult at the first," he says. "I would come to ask, and they would say no, no, no."
Once he tried to convince an older man to tell him some of his stories. "I talked to him many times. I told him, 'It's your heritage,' " he says. "He was so angry, he said 'Go away.' "
But slowly, sources came around. Mohamed visited his haunts again and again to build up relationships. Eventually, he convinced one woman to share a story about a donkey that steals grain from an old woman on a farm. The donkey denies that he is responsible, but the old woman designs a clever test to figure out that he's the thief.
"It's got a really great message," Mohamed says. "They all have powerful messages."
Since that initial breakthrough, other stories have followed.
Watts's project is part of a larger national effort. Over the past five years, the Ministry of Culture Arts and Heritage has conducted research and published extensively on folklore. The goal is to preserve Qatar's Muslim and Arab heritage and to teach it to a new generation.
"One of the unintentional and undesirable byproducts of such rapid social, cultural, and economic change is the erosion of traditional Qatari culture and heritage," says Jesse Ulmer in an e-mail. The professor is working with students at Virginia Commonwealth University (VCU) in Qatar and Qatar University to design a set of graphic short stories based on local folktales. His project aims to preserve this legacy by repackaging it in a way that will appeal to the current generation.
VCU student Mashaer Alyaarabi is helping to collect the stories and create the accompanying illustrations. Her work will incorporate traditional Qatari materials, such as gold thread and fabrics.
"Today, kids are more concerned about Disney stories and TV shows," she says. "We want to take them back to their tradition."
Reconnecting to a tradition is what has kept Saleh going, despite the challenges. "We're a country that's growing really fast, but there's something from the past that's still here," she says. "My daughters and my sons should really be able to read these stories."