Tales of Socotra: Experience and Challenge (1)

1976, Socotra, a photo from my archive

It is hard to tell why you are interesting in tales. The tales are usually connected with children and childhood. I had heard my first tales in my childhood of three or four, and it was in the second part of 1950s.

These tales was traditional Russian tales retold by classical Russian writers and also Belorussian, French (of Charles Perrault), German (of Brothers Grimm), Polish, and other folk tales published in Russian. They were read to me by my parents, mostly by my mother. Of course, this was a common practice in educated families that time (my father was an Army signal officer and my mother was a schoolteacher in mathematics).

As you know, tales are always telling about far off lands and unusual travels. But our family due to my fathers work also traveled and staid
in Germany, Ukraine, Moldavia, and Poland visiting my home in Moscow – the capital of the former USSR (now Russia) – only for vacations. The foreign towns, especially that early medieval town in Poland, in which we lived in 1958-1964, looked like a scene of a fairy tale. The foreign nature and peoples and their traditions are also looking interesting and attractive – and unusual. So, all this made my own life in the childhood not so far away from a fabulous. Like a tale.

From the other hand, the tale is always a good, amazing, optimistic story, telling about the long-ago past but guiding you and arming you with an optimism toward the future. And above this, the tales are generally perfectly composed, excellently fabulated, easily understood wise short novels containing basic rules of right human life and behavior. And there is a mystery and a miracle in them. Thus, when after some years books, films and TV took place of children’s editions –small books with pictures –in my reading and entertainment, the respect for the folk tales left.

That is why when I came to Socotra and started my own field research in Soqotri language, I understand soon that there is nothing to do with this subject without recording and translating of Socotran folk tales – best examples and the most reliable source of the ancient Soqotri language.

However, when I was told that I am going to Aden as an Arabic language interpreter after my graduation from a language institute in Moscow in 1976, I didn’t even expect that I would ever been on Socotra.

Although, it was unexpected that when I, three years earlier, went to Egypt in July 1973 for my 11-months Arabic interpreter internships, it was a journey to October war. And that Egyptians would cross the Suez Canal right in my 20th birthday – October 6th, 1973. But the interpreter’s life also is often like a tale.

So, in the end of August 1976 I was in Aden – and on September 19th, after less than a month, Antonov-24 plane took me to Muri airfield in Socotra. In fact, I knew, there was a language on the island: I had found a book about modern Arabic dialects in Yemen by Murad Kamil when in Moscow in that some short examples of Soqotri was given. I even recorded them but they were too complicated, and I did understand nothing. However, having Arabic as a profession and Egyptian colloquial “as a plus” it was impossible for me not to begin studying Soqotri. Directly from the local people living in the nearest wadi.

There were also another people from different places of Socotra who helped me with this field research of Soqotri but the influence of my neighbors – herders of Muri mountain area from the tribe of Keshen – and their specific dialect of Soqotri was the most powerful. Their Northwestern Soqotri is still like my home tongue.

– ’Al ba‘areken! (Good morning!)
– ’Al ba‘ar! (Good morning!)
– ’Inim shaken? (How are you?)
– Bi-kheyr. (Well.)
– Horten laha? (Are you all right here?)
– ‘Afiya we diye. (Wellness and boon.)…

However, despite my rather quick understanding that Soqotri as a language is close enough to Classical Arabic – especially in its grammar (active dual for substantives and verbs, passive voice, word order in sentences and etc.) – and my good vocabulary collected by me in 1976-1977 I was able to get only short fragments of the Socotran tales in this period. The poetry was told and the songs were sang with great pleasure – but not the tales retold! The problem was, as the folklorists know, in that fact that the folk tales are a special indoor prose genre used mostly inside families as a significant element of parents-children and even grandparents-grandchildren personal relations and generally at night time: tales help children fall asleep faster. In fact, it is almost impossible for the adult alien to get a tale told to him in all its linguistic and literary perfection in the middle of the day. The most that the field researcher can hope, is that he will be able to record a general story line of the tale with only few fragments of side lines and rhymed refrains in it.

However, in March 1978 I met a Socotran man from Hadibo in the Yemeni mountain town of Mukeyras who told me a tale from a cycle of tales about Ba Nuwas. I already knew in general a few stories in Soqotri in which the hero was a trickster Ba Nuwas (Abū Nuwās al-Ḥasan ibn Hānī al-Ḥakamī (756–814), one of the greatest classical Arabic poets also known in connection with his mockery and satire entered the Arabic and Swahili folklore). This time it was a full, perfectly retold tale about a poor guy who had suffered because of his dream and was saved by the trickery of Ba Nuwas. This story became a key for my approach to the told-in-Soqotri unwritten and unpublished tales ‘library’: it showed how a real Socotran tale should be.

In the same time, I should stress it that I would like not to collect tales of Socotra like a folklorist – I wanted to record the most classical oral texts in Soqotri language as a field researcher of this unwritten rare language.

To be continued>>>

(Written especially for Black Camel online magazine on WordPress)

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