Pearls on a branch

Pearls on a branch

Publication Date: 2014

Publisher: Dar al adab

Country of Publication: Lebanon, Beirut

Pages: 415

In the Levant, folk tales are told by men to men. They are also told by women to women. In this unique book, Najla Jraissati Khoury shares an over 30 year long research into the Levent’s women’s folk tales.

In the 1980s in Lebanon, Najla Jraissati Khoury creates a theater and pupet troupe with a few friends. The troupe performed in the city’s venues, as well as in Beirut’s suburbs, in country sides, refugee camps and isolated villages. Given that the shows were based on folk tales, Najla would travel across the country, looking for people who would remember a tale or two. In times of war, people would be suspicious, and meeting them, getting them to tell a tale, or even recording them was often very hard, if not impossible. She would wait patiently, listening to hours of story telling, until she would find the gem in the rough.

In such cases, when Najla felt she had found a “real” story teller, she would often come back to listen again, and complete her notes. Sometimes, in order to improve the show, Najla would look for different versions of the same tale. The tales would vary depending on the teller’s sect, or on whether they were from the coast or the mountain.

More often than not, Najla would meet with the house’s women. In fact, story telling in public spaces is a masculin tradition in the Levant. Untill the middle of the 20th century, men would meet in cafes to listen to the Hakawati and his epic tales. Meanwhile, the women, confined in the private spaces of their homes would also share stories. In these stories, women are the true heroins. The female characters are smarter than the male ones, and ultimately always manage to get what they want.

After 20 years, the troupe stopped its performances, but Najla continued gathering women’s tales. Beyond their feminine character, these tales, unlike European ones, are less dichotomous. The boundary between good and evil is not as clear cut. For example, there are no fairies and witches, but rather good or bad magicians.

Najla felt compelled to share her 30 year long research, as she believes that these tales are part of an important Arab human cultural heritage. She published 100 tales in two volumes in 2014. The book is one of its kind, and was acclaimed by the Arab press as a unique reference of an important literary genre.

[More details available upon request]

When they had completed the rituals of the Hajj they were ready to start for home. But the camels would not get up; they stayed kneeling in place, frozen. People said, ‘The camels won’t budge. Maybe they need to be watered.’ The camels drank but continued on their knees. The vizier said, ‘The camels are refusing to move, my Master, is there some errand that you have forgotten?’ When he heard this the King remembered his daughter’s request. He retraced his steps and went to buy the gift she wanted. At the nearest shop he asked,
“Do you have Pearls on a Branch?”
“Ask my neighbor,” said the storekeeper.
He asked the neighbor who said, “Ask my neighbor.”
So from store to store and neighbor to neighbor he went asking the same question and receiving the same answer. The king was puzzled by this. He noticed an old man sitting by the side of the road. He told him all that had happened and said,
“What am I to do? She is my only daughter! The camels won’t move! Where on earth can I buy Pearls on a Branch?”
The old man said, “Pearls on a Branch cannot be bought or sold! But how can I lead you there? If I point to the place with my hand it will be cut off. If I signal with my eye it will be torn out. If we talk about it my tongue will be cut out. “
“So what can we do?” asked the king.
The old man said, ‘Buy me a water jar. I will walk ahead of you and you will follow. When I reach the palace gate I’ll stumble and the jar will break. That is where you will find Pearls on a Branch.”
The King bought the jar and he and the Vizier walked behind the old man until he fell and the jar broke at the gate of a magnificent palace. The King and the Vizier entered the gardens and knocked at the door. When the servant opened the King said,
“I have come looking for Pearls on a Branch.”
The servant left them and returned with a good looking youth. The young man asked the King what he wanted. The King told him about his daughter’s wish and what had happened whenever he asked where he might buy Pearls on a Branch. Then he handed the box to the young man. Now this handsome youth was master of the palace and a king in his own right. He opened the box and saw that his name was written on the paper inside. But he did not reveal to the King or the Vizier that he himself was Pearls on a Branch, Lulu Bigsunu. Instead, he asked the King,
“What is your daughter called?”
“Her name is Husun Kamil, Loveliness Perfected”
“Is your daughter beautiful?” asked the youth and the father replied,
“She is loveliness perfected.”

[Longer translation excerpt available upon request]

Archipelago, United States, English, 2018

Actes Sud, France, French, 2019

Pearls on a branch