When Sonia Nimr was a girl growing up in Jenin, Palestine, she wondered why the girl next door knew so many stories about djinn. Her own mother had raised her “by the book,” and magic tales were simply not on the agenda; she had to actively seek them out. Now a professor of philosophy and cultural studies, she engages with the difficult road the stories have taken at times, a hard road they shared with their original tellers and audience, as she explains in an interview with ArabLit:
After 1948, when people went to the camps, they needed different, realistic stories. Not because they don’t like folktales. Because they wanted to revive the Palestine they lost. So these [folktales] were substituted by stories of how we left Palestine, the journey of suffering: how was it in our homeland, our homes, our gardens.
This journey appears in the framing narrative of Wondrous Journeys in Strange Lands. In a folkloric mode, Nimr has her protagonist relate “how it was in our homeland” through a detailed delineation of “the Village,” a nameless village with a peculiar history. Before our tale can properly begin, we learn the genealogy of the narrator, the unusual history of this particular place situated vaguely in northern Palestine yet circumscribed by the particular (a dream leads the founder to an evergreen tree growing in the shadow of a mountain). In the same way Palestinian refugees relate stories about their own villages, their histories, fragmented and mixed with the vague and the specific.
The novel begins like unwrapping a present, a precious artifact. The wrapper is a slight frame narrative; the manuscript was found and wandered into the hands of an academic from Palestine studying for a time in Tangier, Morocco. Unlike most frame narratives, we do not return to the academic once the manuscript’s tale is told. By leaving the bracket open, Nimr presents the spirit of Palestinian folktales as though it were an heirloom to be passed on, endlessly and freely. It is not to become a closed tradition, but rather made to live again as an open one.
Nimr first began writing while imprisoned by the Israeli occupation on account of her political activism as a student at Birzeit University in the West Bank. Her first two stories, written at that time, were confiscated, but the impulse to write for children lived on. Her first two stories written in English were retellings of Palestinian folktales. She writes to return folktales to children; the originals were intended for adults and are often “not polite.” So, she rewrites the stories for children and “to be approved by librarians.” She writes in Colloquial, rather than Standard Arabic, in part because younger audiences find Colloquial Arabic more appealing. Nimr has a PhD in Oral History, and a bibliography that includes A Little Piece of Ground (with Elizabeth Laird), A Story that Begins and Ends with Lies, Ghaddar the Ghoul and Other Palestinian Stories, and Thunderbird (most of which are now available in English as well as in the original Arabic). The original Arabic version of Wondrous Journeys, Rihlat Ajeeba Fi Al Bilad Al Ghareeba, won the 2014 Etisalat Award for Arabic Children’s Literature for Best Young Adult Book and appeared on the honor list for the International Board on Books for Young People.
Ghaddar the Ghoul and Other Palestinian Stories is a treasure of Palestinian folktales; Wondrous Journeys makes me feel the same thrill of delight, the same sudden bursts of laughter. Take, for example, the cause of the protagonist, Qamar’s, departure on her travels. Her mother’s dying wish is that her daughters go to “the City” to live with their uncle. Qamar’s filial piety and attachment to her childhood home cause her to stay behind—only so long as the books in their humble home provide her with expanded horizons. Leaving for the City, her very own Call to Adventure comes in the form of the City’s prince asking for her hand in marriage. “That was my sign to leave,” she says. Not even the argument that the prince will divorce one of his four wives for her sake will shake her resolve. Besides, she has the wanderlust.
Another passage reminds me of many Palestinian tales where the oblique truth being told is that there’s quite a blurry line between witches and saints. Qamar lives in a village seemingly cursed so that no girls are born—not even female animals or insects. It is through the ingenuity and persistence of Qamar’s mother that the curse is explained and alleviated:
One of the women stepped forward, carrying something in her arms. When she came nearer, she lowered a newborn baby calf to the ground.
“It’s a she!” she said through her tears.
The woman went on. “It’s thanks to your mother, who we wronged by saying she was a witch. Your mother is a saint!”
Oh, how I wished my mother were alive to see this victory with her own eyes, and to share the women’s joy at the end of the curse. The woman who carried the infant cow went with the others to my mother’s grave. She set down the female calf beside my mother’s grave and loudly recited a passage from the Quran, with the other women joining in. Then one of them took out an oil lamp, lit it, and set it atop my mother’s grave before they all left together. With the birth of the first female in the long-cursed village, my mother was transformed from a strange witch into a saint.
From then on, whenever a female of any species was born, the women of the village came to her grave and laid on it either a lamp, or flowers, or the branch of a tree. My mother’s grave became a shrine. We grew used to seeing women arrive to sit beside the grave, recite from the Quran, and leave something behind.
Qamar’s travels take her across borders, in a wandering that suggests many travel narratives and folktales where the protagonist’s fate swings wildly from weal to woe. She trades in the misogyny of her village where she and her family had been ostracised, to endure being enslaved in Egypt while on her way to Morocco, and a pirate jaunt among many other trials. There are many stories about people being enslaved in Egypt if we look to folk, and Biblical lore and the Mediterranean is the source of hundreds of pirate tales. Never is there a moral or a textbook quality to the book, which saves it from the trap of the folktale as didactic tool.
The style is engaging, combining the very best qualities of showing and telling in equal measure. Her narration has a strong voice, much like the author’s own style when performing.
Wondrous Journeys in Strange Lands fulfills Sonia Nimr’s aspiration to write stories for young people that keep “the spirit, the magic” of Palestinian folktales alive. This is especially important when life is so bleak, the future so dismal in Palestine. This is a novel full of romance in the sense of love, but also adventure in the tried and true episodic form that will journey with us through the generations, so long as folktales are told.