Best known folktales from the Arab World

Beduin's Gazelle, The

Camel Husband, The

Cat Who Went to Mecca, The

Cobbler Astrologer, The

Division of the Prey

Donkey Driver and the Thief, The

Fisherman and the Genie, The

Father of a Hundred Tricks

Guest Who Ran Away, The

Hospitality of Abu Hussein, The

How the Ewe Outwitted the Jackal

How the Fox Got Back His Tail

King Who Became a Parrot, The

Little Mangy One

Little Red Fish and the Clog of Gold, The

Old Pair of Slippers, The

Princess and the Suit of Leather, The

Scarab Beetle's Daughter, The

Stork Caliph, The

Who Has the Sweetest Flesh on Earth?

Woodcutter and the Lion, The

Woodcutter's Wealthy Sister, The

 

The Beduin's Gazelle

Once when a Beduin and his son were hunting and the Beduin had followed a gazelle away from the child, a She-ghoul swooped out of nowhere and ate the child. When the Beduin returned with his gazelle and could not find his son, he knew the child must be dead. On the way home, he passed the cave of the She-ghoul and could see her dancing and rejoicing after her feast. He shot her, slashed open her belly, and removed the body of his son, wrapped it in his cloak, and carried it home.

When he arrived at home, he told his wife he had a gazelle for her, but it could only be cooked in a cauldron which had never held a meal of mourning. The wife searched for such a pot to borrow near and far, but at every home, people related their sorrows and losses. At last she returned empty-handed, saying there is no pot but what has cooked a meal of sorrow. The Beduin said to her that today the turn is ours to cook a meal of mourning, and folding back the cloak to reveal his son, added "This is my gazelle."
Arab Folktales, translated and edited by Inea Bushnaq (New York: Pantheon, 1986).

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The Camel Husband

(Animal husband tale type)
The poor barren woman wishes for a child, even if it is a camel, and her wish is granted. As a young man, Jumail, "Little Camel," wishes to marry the daughter of the sultan, who listens kindly and concurs, as long as the bride price is given: the girl's weight in gold. Jumail presents that amount and more, and the daughter sadly consents, only to make the happy discovery on her wedding night that the camel is actually the son of the king of the djinn who will appear as a handsome prince only to her, only at night. His secret must be kept at all cost. Once, at a time of battle, the princess accidentally reveals that the most heroic soldier is her camel husband; that night he does not return. To console his daughter, the sultan builds her a bathhouse, a hammam, which the princess allows women to use for the price of a story. A poor traveler tells her of a magical moment of seeing the son of the djinn, living in splendor but weeping. The princess recognizes her husband and successfully seeks his return.
Arab Folktales, translated and edited by Inea Bushnaq (New York: Pantheon, 1986).

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The Cat Who Went To Mecca

(Animal fable)
After the king of the cats made a hajj, the king of the mice thought he should visit him, for he would have changed his former sinful ways. The other mice were not convinced, so he went by himself and found the new hajji praying. When he saw the mouse, he stopped praying and sprang into attack. The king of the mice reported to his subjects that the cat prayed like a hajji, but pounced like a cat.
Arab Folktales, translated and edited by Inea Bushnaq (New York: Pantheon, 1986).

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The Cobbler Astrologer

Sittara wanted a magnificent jeweled robe like the astrologer's wife, so she talked her humble cobbler husband, Ahmed, into becoming an astrologer. He sold all that he had and purchased astrology instruments and went into the market. Through misunderstanding and coincidence, he solved two thefts and became famous, catching the eye of the king, who appointed him to solve a robbery. Again luck and coincidence play into his hands (in the manner of "Old One Eye") and he succeeds. The king rewards him with the hand of his virtuous daughter, and the former wife is left to fend for herself.
Foster, James R., The World’s Great Folktales (New York: Galahad Books, 1994. p. 556 ff. Previously published in two volumes, the World’s Great Folktales and Folktales of Wit and Humor by Harper and Brothers, 1953).
See also "Forty Fortunes" in Aaron Shepard's Gifts of Story: http://www.aaronshep.com/storytelling/GOS.html

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Division Of The Prey

(Animal fable)
When the jackal, the fox and the lion went hunting, the jackal divided their prey evenly, but the lion growled at him and slapped his head, drawing blood. Then the fox divided the prey, giving everything to the lion. The lion asked "Who trained you in the law and taught you to divide so justly?" The fox replied that it was the crown of blood on the jackal's head that had instructed him.
Arab Folktales, translated and edited by Inea Bushnaq (New York: Pantheon, 1986).

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The Donkey Driver And The Thief

A thief steals a simpleminded farmer's donkey, then harnesses himself and tells the farmer that he just returned to being a man at the end of a seven-year hex. A few days later when the farmer attempts to buy a new donkey, he recognizes his old beast which the thief had sold and chastises him for getting himself hexed again.
Cole, Joanna, Best Loved Folktales of the World (New York: Doubleday, 1983. p. 488 ff.).

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The Fisherman And The Genie

When a wicked Genie threatens the poor fisherman who freed him from a vessel, the fisherman saves his skin by tricking the genie back into the vessel and sealing it closed.
Cole, Joanna, Best Loved Folktales of the World (New York: Doubleday, 1983. p. 485 ff.).

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Father Of A Hundred Tricks

(Animal fable)
The jackal boasted to a hedgehog, "I know a hundred tricks." The hedgehog replied,"I know one trick and a half, but let us try our luck together." Soon they came to a grain pit and dived in and ate until their bellies were so full they could not pull themselves out. Since they could not get out, the hedgehog offered to comb the fox's hair for fleas, but when the fox bent down his head to be combed, the hedgehog bit his neck. The jackal reared his head in pain, and the hedgehog launched himself from it out of the pit.

The hedgehog saw the farmer coming, and the jackal wailed that now all was lost. The hedgehog chastised him for boasting of 100 tricks, saying he still had half a trick to save the jackal. He told him to pretend to be dead so that the farmer would beat him only a few times and throw him out of the pit, and indeed, that is what happened.

But the jackal had some tricks left in him. When he picked himself up and left, still trembling from the beating, he met a wild sow who asked him why his teeth were chattering. He answered that he was reciting the Koran. The sow asked him to teach the Koran to her seven babies. He said he would, and they would learn better if they stayed with him for seven days. He ate the babies one a day, and when the sow came to get them, he tricked her into becoming a meal, too.
Arab Folktales, translated and edited by Inea Bushnaq (New York: Pantheon, 1986).

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The Guest Who Ran Away

A Beduin has his wife prepare two chickens for a weary traveler, but she cannot resist a taste for herself and her son, and they wind up "tasting" both chickens to the bones. To cover the crime, they arrange for the traveler to overhear a discussion in which the son says that when guests arrive, his father cuts off both their ears and roasts them over the fire for him to eat. The traveler quietly tiptoes out of the tent. When the Beduin asks why, his wife replies that the guest had stolen the chickens. The Beduin gave chase, saying "Let me have one at least!"
Arab Folktales, translated and edited by Inea Bushnaq (New York: Pantheon, 1986).

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The Hospitality Of Abu l’Hussein

(Animal Fable)
Abu l’Hussein is the fox who invited the raven to dine, then served a fine meal of porridge upon a flat plate. The raven could only peck at the food. Later the raven invited the fox for a dinner of dates. When the fox arrived, he flew up to the top of the date palm and knocked the sweet dates down into the thorn bush. While the raven plucked the sweet fruit from the thorn bush with his armored claws and strong beak, the fox could only watch.
Arab Folktales, translated and edited by Inea Bushnaq (New York: Pantheon, 1986).

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How The Ewe Outwitted The Jackal

(Animal fable)
A jackal and a ewe agreed to farm together, but when the crop was harvested, the jackel gave himself four shares and the ewe one share, saying she should be happy with that. The ewe asked him to wait while she got the donkey to carry her share home. On the way, she told the saluki dog about the unfairness, and he agreed to help. He hid in one of the donkey's panniers (saddlebags). When they reached the farm, the ewe asked the jackal to help lift down her little lambs. The jackal could not believe his good fortune and hastened to open the pannier, but as soon as he saw the saluki's teeth, he turned and ran, leaving all the grain. "If a man is not content with little, God takes away from him much."
Arab Folktales, translated and edited by Inea Bushnaq (New York: Pantheon, 1986).

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How The Fox Got Back His Tail

(Cumulative tale)
Like "The Old Woman and Her Pig," this story is a trail of favors asked and returned to get what one wanted to begin with.

The fox Abu l'Hussein is stealing milk from an old woman. One night she cuts off his tail. When he demands it back, she requires him to give back her milk first. So, fox goes to goats who ask for green twigs to nibble, then to the olive trees who ask for a man to hoe around their roots, then to the laborer who asks for shoes, then to the cobbler, who gave him some slippers which he returned to the laborer and continued repaying the favors until the old woman gave him his tail back. The long list of requests is repeated and gets longer with each new petition.
Arab Folktales, translated and edited by Inea Bushnaq (New York: Pantheon, 1986).

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The King Who Became A Parrot

The king learns a magic charm by which he can enter into the corpse of any person or animal he pleases. His vizier tricks him into telling the charm and entering the body of a parrot; then he, the vizier, enters the body of the king. The queen recognizes the difference in her husband and refuses his attentions. Meanwhile the parrot impresses all with his cleverness. Eventually the vizier-king boasts of his secret power, the queen tempts him to prove it by entering the body of the goose, and the king-parrot re-enters his own body, the wiser for his experience.
Foster, James R., The World’s Great Folktales (New York: Galahad Books, 1994. p. 502 ff. Previously published in two volumes, the World’s Great Folktales and Folktales of Wit and Humor by Harper and Brothers, 1953).

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Little Mangy One

(Animal fable)
Three little goats, Siksik, Mikmik and Jureybon the Little Mangy One, were approached by a hyena. The hyena called out to Siksik, "What are those points on your head?" "What is that patch on your back?" "Why are you shivering?" Siksik answered straightforwardly "Horns," "Hair," and "Because I am afraid of you." The Hyena ate him. Mikmik answered the same way with the same fate. When Jureybon was asked, he answered with bravado that the points were swords, the patch was his shield, and he was not shivering but trembling with rage, then he began to advance on the hyena, who turned and ran. Jureybon caught him and slit open his belly, freeing his brothers.
Arab Folktales, translated and edited by Inea Bushnaq (New York: Pantheon, 1986).

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The Little Red Fish And The Clog Of Gold

(Cinderella tale type)
In this Iraqi Cinderella, the part of the fairy godmother is played by a fish and the glass slipper is a golden clog. The storyline is advanced by charming proverbs: "They say water will wear away stone. In the end the fisherman married the widow..." and "Oh Allah Whom we praise, how much this lady resembles my husband's daughter! But then, don't they say ‘Every seven men were made from one clod of clay'!" Rhymes highlight plot turns, as when the rooster says "ki-ki-ki-kow!/Let the king's wife know/They put the ugly one on show/And hid the beauty down below!/Ki-ki-ki-kow!"
Carter, Angela, The Old Wives Fairy Tale Book (New York: Pantheon Books, 1994. p. 171 ff.); Arab Folktales, translated and edited by Inea Bushnaq (New York: Pantheon, 1986); http://www.fables.org/crown_thistle/gold_clog.html

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The Old Pair Of Slippers

Wealthy miser Cassem is admonished by all to purchase a new pair of slippers, for his old ones had been repaired and patched so often that they have become an object of comparison whenever anyone wanted to describe something weighty. Cassem refuses to spend the money. One day at the bathhouse, Cassem finds Cadi's new slippers where he left his own and happily puts them on and walks away. He is arrested for theft – from the cadi, no less! – and has to pay a fine to get out of jail. He tries to get rid of the accursed slippers in every which way, but they keep returning to him, each time costing him trouble and money. At last he returns the slippers to the cadi. The fun of this story is in the rollicking and outlandish troubles the slippers cause, but the story ends with a mock moral about not changing one's slippers often enough.
Foster, James R., The World’s Great Folktales (New York: Galahad Books, 1994. p. 572 ff. Previously published in two volumes, the World’ Great Folktales and Folktales of Wit and Humor by Harper and Brothers, 1953).

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The Princess In The Suit Of Leather

(Many furs tale type)
Juleidah has no stepmother or stepsisters, only a widower father. After the death of the queen, the king seeks a new wife as lovely as his old. On the advice of an old woman, he plans to marry Juleidah, his own daughter. Horrified at the thought, Juleidah dresses in leather and flees the palace and the kingdom. She finds work in the palace kitchen of a foreign land where her co-workers disdain her because of her strange chanting. One day the queen reports a beautiful unknown guest had attended a women’s party, and the prince wants to meet her. At the next party, he finds a way to meet her, but she leaves hastily, taking his ring. Of course, the guest is Juleida who had removed her leather suit and appeared as her beautiful self. Working in the kitchen, she bakes the ring into a cake, which the prince discovers, traces to her, and marries her. Her father had been searching for her all along and finally reached the palace, where Juleidah recognizes him and tells him her story. He repents, and the old woman who advised him to marry his daughter is flung off a cliff.
Carter, Angela, The Old Wives Fairy Tale Book (New York: Pantheon Books, 1994. p. 39 ff.). Tatar, Maria, The Classic Fairy Tales (New York: Norton & Company, 1999. p. 131 ff.).

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The Scarab Beetle's Daughter

A good story for the very young with its rhyming chants and small creatures working together for a simple happy ending to a problem any child can imagine. Kunefseh's mother dresses her and sits her out in front of the house to attract a suitor. She is approached by the camel and the donkey, each of whom her mother rejects. At last the mouse comes along and is found to be an acceptable suitor. One day when Kunefseh is washing the laundry, she slips and falls into the creek. She calls out a message to a passing horseman who delivers it in town where it is overheard by her mouse husband. He rushes to rescue her, but since he cannot reach her with his hand, he pulls her out with his tail.
Arab Folktales, translated and edited by Inea Bushnaq (New York: Pantheon, 1986).

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The Stork Caliph

The caliph and his vizier take some magic snuff to become storks for a day of observing the city from above, but when they get ready to return to their bodies, the magic word supplied fails. The caliph's brother had hired a sorcerer to get rid of his brother so that he could rule, and this was the method he chose: to sell them the magic snuff but misspell the magic word. When they overhear the sorcerer telling the brother his secret, including the real magic word, they return to their bodies. The caliph gains a bride as well, an enchanted princess forced to live as a woodpecker until a prince should ask for her hand in marriage.
Aaron Shepard's Gifts of Story Page: http://www.aaronshep.com/storytelling/GOS.html

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Who Has The Sweetest Flesh On Earth?

(Porquois tale)
When the devil was thrown out of heaven, he went around looking for a way back in. He went to each animal asking them to help him. He told the snake that if he could get him back into heaven, he would tell him which was the sweetest flesh on earth, which was that of the sons of Adam. The snake hid the devil in his right fang so that no one would see him enter the gates of paradise. The devil was hiding there on the day Eve got into trouble, in fact!

When the snake came to claim the sweetest flesh, the swallow heard him talking to the man and asked how he knew. The snake said the devil had told him, and the swallow replied that the devil lies; they should test the answer.

They sent mosquito to fly around the earth and find out if the assertion was true. After a year, mosquito returned but was intercepted by the swallow. When he heard that man was indeed the sweetest flesh, he decided to protect his friend. He bit out the mosquito's tongue, and when mosquito went to make his report, he could only buzz. Swallow interpreted his buzz for all, saying that the mosquito decreed the sweetest flesh was that of frog. Thus deprived of his favorite food, snake attacked swallow. To this day, snakes eat frogs, mosquitoes buzz, and swallow has a cut in his tale where snake took a bite out of it.
Arab Folktales, translated and edited by Inea Bushnaq (New York: Pantheon, 1986).

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The Woodcutter And The Lion

On the way out to chop wood in the morning, two woodcutters noticed lion spoor in the road. At the end of the day, one woodcutter took another way home out of fear, but the second took the same road, which was shorter. On the way, he met the lion, who threatened to eat him, for he needed the brains of a son of Adam to cure him of an illness. The woodcutter said that he did not have any brains, else he would not have taken this path; the one with the brains is on the other road, he added, and the lion left to go attack the other woodcutter.
Arab Folktales, translated and edited by Inea Bushnaq (New York: Pantheon, 1986).

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The Woodcutter's Wealthy Sister

In this fine Syrian cautionary tale, a She-ghoul convinces a poor woodcutter that she is his sister and invites him to bring his wife (who brought their scrawny cow) and ten children to live in her home, where they feast and live a life of ease. The fisherman's wife is always suspicious, and one night she hears the She-ghoul trying to talk her way past the cow into the house to eat the family. Next day, the "sister" asks her brother to kill the cow, for she is hungry for beef. The wife plots an escape for herself and her children, but the husband is eaten as, bite by bite, he recognizes he was deceived.
Carter, Angela, The Old Wives Fairy Tale Book (New York: Pantheon Books, 1994. p. 216 ff.); Arab Folktales, translated and edited by Inea Bushnaq (New York: Pantheon, 1986).

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