Saving the stories

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

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.
John Samples
Autumn Watts (center, in gray) works with a group that is part of the Folk Tales Project. They gathered at the Sheikh Faisal Museum in 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."

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?

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."

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."

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