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  • The Donkey Lady and Other Tales from the Arabian Gulf ed. by Patty Paine, Jesse Ulmer, Michael Hersrud
  • Margaret Mills (bio)
The Donkey Lady and Other Tales from the Arabian Gulf. Edited by Patty Paine, Jesse Ulmer, and Michael Hersrud. Highclere, UK: Berkshire Academic Press, 2013. 264pp.

This charming, well-produced large-format book is a group project conceived by students and faculty at the Virginia Commonwealth University of Qatar. Mostly female students, with the assistance of faculty members whose first language is English, collected and translated fifteen oral stories, which were then illustrated by College of Arts students. An intelligent short preface aptly invokes the collaborative fluidity of oral tradition to support attributing these stories to Qatari sources without making claims to exclusivity. The stories are both visually and textually accessible for young readers or listeners and aesthetically appealing to adult readers.

Each story is offered by a different student teller/writer and a different illustrator. Styles of illustration vary widely; all are effective and lively. Interestingly, the most conservative (“folkloric”) styles belong to the only two illustrators with European names. The Arab students’ techniques vary from lively pen and ink, to pastels (apparently), scratch work, felt pen, wash brushwork, and what appear to be paper cutout silhouettes. Their styles range from rather conservative literalist to anime, various cartoon styles, and abstract.

The stories vary by genre. There are two different variants of “The Kind and Unkind Girls” (AT 480) and a “Cinderella” variant (AT 410). Another magic tale’s core array of motifs, familiar in regional oral tradition and the 1001 Nights, has a young male hero carried off to the jewel-filled mountain aerie of a great bird, whence he escapes to a magic castle and opens a forbidden door, winning (temporarily) a supernatural bride. Among nonmagical tales, a legend of named male and female rivals explains the invention of sail technology among Gulf pearl fishers. There is one anecdote of Jouha, the Arab trickster/fool. Among admonitory tales are a version of “The Boy Who Cried Wolf”; [End Page 152] another tale of two young boys, best friends, with an aphoristic finish; an animal chain tale about eventual retribution for a goat who tries to harm her sister; and a tale of the comeuppance of a tailor who tries magic to make a young woman fall in love with him but attracts a goat instead (her little brother switches the lock of her hair that the tailor would bewitch, with the goat’s hair). Among the most interesting to this reader were two legends of supernatural female predators. A tale attributed to Korea concerns a female fox spirit, a Gumiho, with a preliminary episode in which a young Qatari in Korea rejects the spirit’s requests and escapes; a young Korean male is more vulnerable. We learn in passing that cell phones cease to work in proximity of a fox spirit. A second legend presents the shape-changing Donkey Lady (Om Hamar), who preys on children and adults. It is cleverly structured: the Donkey Lady ensnares some children by telling scary tales of her own predations. They escape and call the police, but she disappears. A coda has her attacking foreigners traveling the desert in an SUV.

This lively, beautifully produced collection could serve as a model for student projects elsewhere. The book’s production was supported by the Qatar National Research Foundation’s Undergraduate Research Experience Program.

Margaret Mills
Ohio State University
Margaret Mills

Margaret Mills is Professor Emerita of the Department of Near East Languages and Cultures at The Ohio State University. With a general interest in folklore and gender studies topics, she specializes in the popular culture of the Persian-speaking world, and her current oral history and folklore research is in Afghanistan. She is the co-editor of South Asian Folklore: An Encyclopedia (with Peter Claus and Sarah Diamond, 2003) and of Gender, Genre, and Power in South Asian Expressive Traditions (with Arjun Appadurai and Frank J. Korom, 1991). She is the author of Conversations with Davlat Khalav: Oral Narratives from Tajikistan (with Ravshan Rahmoni, 2000) and Oral Narrative in Afghanistan: The Individual in Tradition (1990). Her essay “Destroying Patriarchy...


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