Everyone has a story. For people we hate or dislike, it seems easy to ignore their stories so that we can continue our feelings of disdain.
A story leads to another story and then to another story until you have a bridge of understanding.
When I came upon an Iraqi folktale “The Sparrow and His Wife”, I discovered three ways that have helped me to be at peace with others:
- Learn the Language
- Learn the Culture
- Find Similarities
Learn the Language
On television I often hear Arabic yelled by those who burn the American flag. Yet, in the poems within the Iraqi folktale, I found the beauty of the language even before I understood how to pronounce the words.
Being that it was a beautiful love story, I learned a little Arabic for the poems. The National Middle East Language Resource Center (NMELRC) at Brigham Young University was kind enough to guide my pronunciation by telephone as well as to send a mp3 recording attached in email so I could practice on my own.
Besides the NMELRC, there are over three-dozen languages regularly taught at BYU. Another 30 languages are taught when there is enough student interest. Feel free to contact the David M. Kennedy Center for International Studies to help in your research.
Beyond foreign languages, sometimes we need to understand the way a person or group of people talk, even if we share the same language such as English.
Learn the Culture
As was important to understand for “The Sparrow and His Wife”, divorce rarely occurs among the Middle Eastern culture for marriage status is honored among men. Yet, men are frequently absent from the home to care for business (Lovejoy, 1964). The sparrow was away from home longer than the usual time so the wife ate the corn that triggered the divorce. If a man desires a legal divorce, he must have witnesses and his wife in the same room and say three times “Woman, I divorce you.”(Lovejoy, 1964; Stevens, 1971). The sparrow performed this same action. At this point, the woman finds it difficult to remarry and rejoins her family (Lovejoy, 1964). In the story, the sparrow wife flies to her father’s tree and it is here that the husband calls to her.
Upon the story’s ending, the belief of the Evil Eye and the consequences of pride are revealed. Only when the sparrow presents five colored threads to his wife does the wife agree to return. She weaves the colored threads in the nest, one of the many ways to avoid the curses of the Evil Eye such as failure in the home and death. A glance through the bazaar among the narrow streets shows whole areas dedicated to items to repel these curses (Marks, 1999; Patterson & Aghayeva, 2000; Stevens, 1971).
Throughout the country, people strive to care for their families. Despite what your personal views may be of the war, enlightenment can be found in all cultures and beliefs such as sanctity of marriage. The Arabic poems within the story demonstrate tender words, which may surprise people who are used to angry words broadcast on television.
I learned much about the Evil Eye and admire how the Arabs treasure the trait of humility. Below is the introduction I give for “The Sparrow and His Wife” so that the tale is more meaningful and that similarities can be found--
From your seat, you may notice I have blue eyes. If I were to travel to the Middle East, some people would run from me or look down to avoid my glance because I have blue eyes. Why? I may cause the Evil Eye and place curses such as headaches, fatigue, or death. Many of those locally born into the Arab lands have brown eyes so blue eyes are suspicious. I could be in danger from your eyes if you were envious of what I have or own. You may not mean to curse me. Pride brings upon the Evil Eye and so humility is a trait treasured among the Arabs. I could bring about the curse upon myself if I don’t watch my pride. You can be protected. You can go down the narrow streets that sometimes will not let two donkeys pass each other and on to the bazaar, the souk. Whole areas would be dedicated to items for sale to keep away the Evil Eye. You’d find blue-eyed amulets to confuse any other blue eyes that stare at you. Or you can buy certain seeds to burn or woven fabric to hang outside your home. For now, let us cast our kind eyes to the story told by an unknown Moslem woman of Mosul, northern Iraq, entitled “The Sparrow and His Wife”.
From learning the language to learning to culture to finding similarities, I feel a bond to the Iraqi people. Any storyteller who follows these steps will find hatred disappear while peace takes its place in the heart.
For another article about peaceful storytelling, click here.
Lovejoy, B. (1964). The Land and People of Iraq. New York: J.B. Lippincott.
Marks, S. L. (1999). Mashallah: The Evil Eye in Contemporary Sephardic Culture. Retrieved June 21, 2006, from http://www.sefarad.org/publication/lm/038/13.html
Patterson, J. & Aghayeva, A. (2000, Autumn). “The Evil Eye—Staving Off Harm—With a Visit to the Open Market” [Electronic version]. Azerbaijan International, 8.3, 55.
Stevens, E. S. (1971). Folktales of Iraq. New York: Benjamin Blom.
Taylor, A. (Ed.). (1971). Focus on the Middle East. New York: Praeger.
Until we tell again,