The Art of Telling Tales

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“Sheikh Abu Ali Sayyagha was one of the most respected and honest men in his days. He was capable whenever he met someone for the first time to guess immediately what type of person he was, whether smart or stupid, generous or stingy, honest or not, by just staring at his face, a science called those days physiognomy.

Before cars were made, on one of those days the sheikh was going on foot from Hasbayya to Jdeidet Marjeyoun. 
When he arrived at the intersection of Souq El Khan, he met a man riding on a donkey going in the same direction. 
When the man got close to him, the Sheikh stared at his face and said to himself “I don’t like him… he’s dishonest.”

The man dismounted his donkey, rushed to the sheikh, kissed his hand and asked: “Where are you heading for?””Jdeidet Marjeyoun” the sheikh replied. The man in a loud voice said “How lucky I am. I’m going there too.” Then asked the sheikh to mount the donkey. 
The sheikh hesitated and thought for a while. “How can such a noble gesture come from a dishonest man?” Then he stared again at the man, again only seeing signs of dishonesty on his face.
 He apologized kindly saying “No , thank you…But I prefer to walk.” The man insisted “It is impossible for you to walk while I ride” and added: “Someone we know may pass by and say how rude and impolite I am. No… No… You must ride. I insist.”

The sheikh finally mounted the donkey in spite his will. Every time he stopped the donkey to dismount him, the man would stand in his way threatening to rip away the donkey’s belly with his dagger if he did so.

On the way, the man was always talking about his devoutness and respect to clergymen, a thing which made the sheikh worry and think: “To me, this man looks infernal, but his behavior shows that he’s a man of honor. I believe I have a problem here. If he proves to be of moral excellence, then I have to reconsider from now on the way I judge people. If my judgment on this man is wrong, then I think I may have made mistakes in judging others in the past…and that’s a serious problem, because then I may loose people’s confidence in me.”

Arriving in Jdeidet Marjeyoun, the sheikh dismounted the donkey, thanked the man and walked away…
The man called him saying “But you haven’t paid me the donkey’s fare…”
”How much do you want?” the sheikh asked “Half a Majidi. The sheikh looked at the man’s face and said to him: “Listen my friend… Only truth prevails at the end. I knew the person you were from the first time I saw your face…” and added: “Here’s a whole Majidi… But I want you to always remember that honorable signs can only appear on the faces of honorable men.” ( Translated by Hanna Farha, link below, “Honorable signs can only appear on the faces of honorable men”)

Salam Al Rassi (1911-2003) was a Lebanese writer who created his own genre of folk literature. He was born in the small village of Ibl Al Saqi in Southern Lebanon. His father was a church pastor and the founder and headmaster of Al-Funoon School in Sidon. Salam had 13 siblings. Although his mother wanted him to become a pastor, he spent his life in civil service and political activism instead, before he started writing at the age of sixty.

He is credited with the creation of his own genre of folk literature where his 16 books are composed of short stories, essays and commentaries, depicting traditional Lebanese village life and exploring the origins of proverbs, idioms, and folk tales. He was interested in recording oral history from the perspectives of ordinary people, and their relationships with politics, governments and rulers.

He was particularly interested in recording history of the common man through elaborating on his comments on political events and the relationship with rulers or the governments of the day, a relationship which was mostly turbulent and mutually antagonistic.

In addition to reproducing the nation’s oral history in a unique literary style, Al Rassi was an original writer in his own right, with his unique narrative, strong sense of drama and a refined form of classical Arabic combined with spoken expressions. Al Rassi was a captivating raconteur with his distinctive village accent.

His protestant liberal background provided by his family and the general environment of the first quarter of the twentieth century in Lebanon had a deep impression on him; he was a village boy with deep ties to his ‘folks’ culture, a strong sense of identity as a Lebanese Southerner and an educated city boy with continuing interactions with upcoming literary and political ideas. Those ideas advocated liberal thought, secularism, social equality and resistance to French colonial rule. He was active in anti-French protests and was arrested many times. He resigned from the Communist Party in 1948 and returned to his village.

Following the devastating earthquake in 1956, Minister Emil Busatni recruited Al Rassi as an employee at the newly formed Reconstruction Department (Maslahat Al Ta’meer). Al Rassi’s job was to deal with the villagers of South Lebanon on behalf of the ministry, because Bustany thought that he ‘spoke the same language’. According to Al Rassi, this post started his long journey to collect people’s stories, which became valuable raw material for his future literary career. He continued his work as a government worker moving from one department to the other until he retired in 1975.

In 1971, Al Rassi was 60 years old. As he was approaching his retirement, his family encouraged him to write down his ‘stories’ in order to preserve them ‘lest they are lost’. Al Rassi’s first book was thus published, entitled Lialla Tadhi (Lest They are Lost).

Al Rassi was clearly ready for embarking on his new career as a writer. He followed his own recipe for anyone who aspired to become a folk writer: “Sail across the waves of society, gauge the depths of the masses, have rows with taxi drivers and food stall sellers, confront police men, disobey state laws, stand in front of judges in courts, try the taste of prisons, become a vagabond, emigrate, love, hate, revolt, curse, commit the 7th sin and its ‘redemption’, squeeze all people’s worries in your memory and lastly have faith in people”.

Following his first book’s success, he continued and wrote 15 other books until he was ninety. Al Rassi wrote in his unique blend of formal classic Arabic and local (mostly rural) dialects. He also appeared in his own television show in the 1980’s-1990’s, called Al Adab Al Shaabi.

Abbas Baydhoun wrote in Al Safir that Salam Al Rassi realized he was at the end of a history, the end of a culture that was void of memory; so he chose to found a memory for the future. Al Rassi was not really interested in customs, religious holidays or folklore, but rather in the magical ability to coin an eloquent or effective phrase for an occasion or a situation. It was the choice of a poet more than that of a historian or a researcher. He made jewels out of someone else’s parlance. However, Al Rassi was in effect the creator of such jewels in the way he made the choices giving much appreciation to the essence of oral expression, which was transmitted through generations. He did not shun away from his real world because he believed that we will have a future when we find our missing history.

Folktales in general transcend the generations of people who passed on these stories. They continue to evolve, and are shaped according to the conditions of the times. Therefore, folktales never cease to be relevant even today and will remain so in the future. The indigenous knowledge and wisdom found in the folktales keep us connected to our traditions and indeed help shape our culture.

Folktales reflect society’s attempt to give form and shape to its hopes and fears, and answers to its questions providing order to seemingly random experiences, as well as express the culture’s belief system. Today, many of these old tales are regarded as flights of fancy, but they live on because they capture our sense of wonder and aspirations. They embody the popular attitudes, beliefs, customs, traditions, and values of the society where the stories originated, thus, enriching children’s consciousness and appreciation of the cultures of other people.

Salam El-Rassi explored the depths of a troubled and at times ironic memory; leaving a treasure of folk literature that would have been forever lost was it not for his prodigious pen. A man who worked until he was ninety, tirelessly documenting his rich cultural background and the stories of everyday man, he was and still is the guardian of the rural art of story telling.

More short stories to read all translated by Hanna Farha: (

Beirut claims back its only patron saint

My uncle Makhoul did not believe in fate. He always used to say: “A man can always reap what he sows”, while my other uncle Abu Saadeh declared that “Man cannot choose his destiny…. Everything is written.”

When Abu Saadeh’s wife decided one stormy day to go to the neighboring village of Abu Amha to fulfill her vows at St. Georges church, uncle Abu Saadeh did not stop her saying, “Let her go. She’ll get whatever fate has decided for her.”

When she failed to show up after dark, he didn’t go out to look for her, but confessed his concern that, “Perhaps she has fallen prey to Abu Amer the hyena.”

She finally arrived completely soaked, to tell us her dramatic adventure of how she was followed all the way , but from a distance by Abu Amer. She was convinced that the hyena did not get close to her because “Mar Jiryus – St. Georges – was guarding her from the church to the footsteps of her house.

Since then, the image of St. Georges has glittered in our imagination. From childhood we have believed in his power, our own personal protector against all harm: hyenas, thieves, and evil eyes – he was our patron saint.

Years later when the civil war broke out and spread to Mina Al Hosn, all the hotels there including the St Georges were converted into barricades.

One day I went to see a friend who live in that area. After greeting him amidst the din of cannon and rockets he looked at me and said sarcastically: “It seems that this battle is between St. Georges on one side and Al Khadr on the other.”

The next day when I saw smoke coming from the area, I went to check on my friend. After a very long search I found him sitting with his relatives and friends in the basement of an old house. So I asked “Tell me my friend..who won the battle, St. Georges or Al Khadr? ” *

“Unfortunately the dragon” He replied from amongst the rubble.

Plato and the Goatherd

When I was still young , I used to memorise statements made by famous writers or philosophers which I tried to use when I needed to prove a point of view or to end an argument.
One day we were discussing the question of this strange and astonishing creature called ‘Man’.
Someone among those present asked us to give him the correct definition. This sparked a discussion that went on and on ,and caused a big argument among us.
I said in a loud voice : Listen my friends, Plato, the father of all philosophers says : Man is a rational being not more, not less.
I continued: If the animal speaks, it will then be equal to man.
Abou Faraj who was a goatherd from my home town stood up, looked at me and said: Who’s this fellow the father of all philosophers that you just mentioned?
Haven’t you heard of Plato, the great philosopher who lived before Christ and whose words are still as good as gold? I replied.
No, no said abou Faraj the goatherd. Your father of philosophers is mistaken. I have the correct definition of ‘man’.
I smiled, looked at him with astonishment and asked: “Based on your experience, what’s man then?”
”Based on my experience , man is a lying animal, not more not less”.
”If the animal can learn lies, then he can talk, compose poetry, and can sit with you and me and talk philosophy.”
I looked at Abou Faraj and said to myself: This is an idea that I never faced before. Man is a lying animal? For 2000 years we’ve been teaching Plato’s philosophy at schools and universities. Can you imagine how astonishing, exciting and frustrating it will be if the goatherd of Ebel Al Saqi can prove that Plato is stupid or foolish?
I remembered here my cousin who had spent ten years preparing a 600 page dissertation on Plato’s philosophy. Oh my God! Had this been a waste of time?
What’s your proof that animals don’t lie? I asked Abou Faraj. He replied without any hesitation: Be patient and listen..
And this was the story he told…

During the first world war, the Ottoman government used to draft young men in the army and send them to war, a thing which forced many of them to flee and hide. The government used to chase those fugitives , punish them once they were caught and punish anyone who gave them shelter or help.

One day, a fugitive from Baalbeck fled to Ebel Al Saqi and took refuge in Hajj Mitri’s house.
Hajj Mitri offered him work as a labourer. They agreed they would deny knowing each other if he were caught by the Ottoman army.
After sometime the fugitive’s story was spread in town. He was scared and ran away to the neighboring village Rashaya Al Fukhar. 
But after a few months later he was caught by a Turkish officer called Fahmi Agha.
So you are Hajj Mitri’s labourer, the officer said. “No I am not” the fugitive replied. “I don’t know Hajj Mitri..I know nothing about him..”
Officer Fahmi took the fugitive back to Ebel Al Saqi to Hajj Mitri’s home. Hajj Mitri denied knowing anything about him and so did Hajj Mitri’s wife and four children.

It just happened that the officer’s eyes fell on a dog, tied to a trunk of an old tree, shaking his tail happily at seeing his old friend after a long absence.
Suddenly, the officer caught Hajj Mitri by the neck and said to him: You liar. you’ve taught your wife to lie, you’ve taught your children to lie, but you were not able to teach this shameful habit to your dog.
Then the officer ordered the dog to be unleashed . The fugitive and the dog ran to each other to hug and kiss like two lovers meeting after a long separation…







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