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Abeja Dispatch

December 1, 1999
Ding Dong! The Beast is Dead

The women warriors sprinkle their own fairy dust and bring new lessons to Egyptian fairytales
Caption
Once upon a time, in the valley of the mighty Nile River, in the city of the Victorious, the Mother of the World, the congested Egyptian capital of Cairo, a band of ten women warriors set out to change the world. They were stunningly beautiful-as all heroines from fairy tales are-but that, for once, has no relevance to this story.

For they were not waiting for wealthy Arabian princes to whisk them away. No knight in shining armor was going to rescue them from dreadful beasts. Nor were they conniving unfaithful wives or witches who came from the enchanted forest to eat children who misbehaved. These women were writers and poets, professors and mothers, activists and visionaries, intent on recreating reality from somewhere deep within. The beast they fought was all around them. It cast spells upon them, and their families, and their homes. No razor sharp swords or magic potions would kill it, no sacred kisses or "open sesames!" would reveal its true form.

Our fearless heroines left their children at home, set their writing aside, left papers ungraded, and gathered together. Armed only with books and memories, pens and paper, they summoned the insidious beast by telling fairy tales.

The tales came from their own childhood, from their collective memories. There were well known Arabic folk tales such as that of the evil Ghoula who ate children, Ali Baba and the 40 Thieves, and the stories told by the beautiful Scheherazade in A Thousand and one Arabian Nights, to save her life from the misogynous King Shahryar. Indeed, in the story of Scheherazade, herself, the beast lurks.

The first tale was told, as it had been told century upon century, millions of times. Each time, the al-rawiy, the storyteller, recreated anew the well-worn fable, bringing it to life with a different accent, a new detail, a bit of magical flare. Yet each time, the story held true to its form, the beast remained nestled deep within, hidden away. The spell remained unbroken.

Vocabulary Box

insidious- working or spreading something harmfully in a subtle or sneaky way
al-rawiy- traditional story (al-rawiyya is a female storyteller)
concubine- a female; a woman who lives with a man and has few rights and a status lower than a wife
misogynous- women-hating
permeated- to spread through
harrowing- extremely distressing or agonizing
catharsis- a purifying or cleansing of the emotions
extol- to praise

From the age when they walked like cats on four limbs, spoke like sorcerers in an unknown tongue, and drank the milk of their mother, these women had heard this tale. But this time, during this final telling, surrounded by other women warriors, something changed.

The story ended. The al-rawiyya, the female story teller, fell silent. The search began. The beast was sniffed out, confronted, called to task for its deeds. "Why is it," one wondered out loud, "that King Shahryar believes that all women are unfaithful and that his wife has wronged him, yet he himself has dozens of concubines, and is considered a great and virtuous man?"

The earth began to shake. The walls cracked around them. The beast was on the run. "Yes, yes!" The others cried. "Why this double standard?!" For they knew, in their world, outside the tales, outside this hall, that this double standard still held true. They each knew it, from somewhere deep within, hidden in the shadows, beneath the place where thoughts are formed.

Calling it by name exposes the hidden beast. The truth is told, the spell revealed! As they talked, the story crumbled before their eyes, into a pile of outdated stereotypes and sexist prejudices, which had silently permeated the entire culture.

Alone, each woman sat down to face the beast within her. Each woman had a different story to be told, a different battle to be fought. The "old" story still lingered in the air, like the smoke from a shisha pipe, waiting to be rewritten.

Somaya stared at the blank page and cursed it. "I am cramped! Why must I have these walls!" This was not the sort of behavior expected of a professor at the Academy of Arts, but demons can cause strange things. "I am a creative writer! This isn't individualism! It is harrowing!" The task of re-writing something not her own was a great challenge, and she thinks she did a horrible job.

Hoda, on the other hand, wrote with glee. "What fun! What power! What catharsis!" A history professor given free reign over a crumbled story, Hoda spoke her truth through the framework of the old tale.

Rania wrote as if in a trance, yet she felt things were clearer than they had ever been. "Sometimes I had in my mind, ideas, feelings, of things I didn't like. But I never said 'I hate this!' Reading these stories made me face those ideas in my mind, that I never faced before!"

Confront the ghosts in your cultural closet
Open the door of the folk story
Shine in the light of your perceptions
Shadows form
Stark outlines in black and white
That which shines true
frames the darkness of the beast
eyes staring out at you
frightened
cornered
ready to strike.

But a woman knows how to face the demons.
No swords or guns
but sweet candy words.
A smile,
the feminine wiles coat the bitter pill
which kills the stagnant image.
To survive, we've learned this art well.

A candle is lit
the ghoula coaxed out
its face revealed.
Alone and scared
misunderstood.
The ghost was nothing more
than your shadow.

The spell was broken. Like waking from a dream, the women looked around them and saw the story for what it was: powerful words lay bare the hidden truths. One "old" text had yielded 10 "new" versions.

In every story, the power structure shifted. In one story, for example, the king could find no one to sleep with him, as all the women wanted to maintain the virtues he so strongly extolled. So instead he told lies, slandering an innocent woman in revenge.

Slowly, one by one, month after month, the fairy tales of the Arab world have been dissected and recreated by this growing band of superheroines. Sometimes, the new stories followed the old ones closely, but other times, the source of the inspiration for the new stories was almost lost. Somaya quit, then rejoined, then quit again, until she too felt good about her work.

But the beast lives on, if the truth is not shared. "We must tell these stories to the world!" And so, for their next battle, they invited others to listen to these new tales. With the room full of men and women, anxious to hear the stories retold, the spirit of the truth came out! The beast was lying, nearly slain, as the women spontaneously acted out their newest stories to a crowd of friends and fellow warriors.

The women warriors of the Women and Memory Forum may live "happily ever after," but that does not mean that this is the end of their story. They continue to meet, month after month, to challenge the beast through workshops. They continue to share their stories with the people of Cairo through storytelling nights. And they have also published a book, Qalat Al-rawiyya, "The female story teller tells her story," with some of their most powerful works.

What do the stories you grew up with tell you about cultural values? What do they tell you about the roles and abilities of men and women? I was so inspired by the Women and Memory forum, that I sat down and rewrote Cinderella. It was super-fun!

Are you a superhero or superheroine, too? Send us a popular story that you have re-written. It can either be one you grew up with, or one from One-Thousand and one Arabian Nights, which can be found online at www.arabiannights.org. We'll read them all and publish some of our favorites!

Abeja

p.s. - Please e-mail me at ...worldtrekker@internettreks.org

 

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