MAY / JUNE 2017: BY CAROL STARKEY
In Arabian culture, family carries great importance. As Margaret Nydell writes in Understanding Arabs: A Guide for Modern Times, “family loyalty and obligations take precedence over loyalty to friends or demands of a job.” This familial loyalty leads to overprotection of their women, and reverence of mothers. Arabians value courtesy and politeness as a culture, which leads to the setup of the set of tales in Jean Russell Larson’s The Glass Mountain, and Other Arabian Tales.
The young suitor comes to woo the daughter of a great man, but her father wants nothing to do with him. The two men go back and forth, telling tale after tale. At no point is the father or youth rude in words, but hidden in the drenching compliments are barbs and insults. Neither man likes the other, and with these stories, each tries to one up the other so he may win the girl. From tales of witless men to tales of adventure, each attempts to outsmart the other.
What I found most interesting was how little women figure into any of these stories. Men journey and battle and act. The only story with a female protagonist, “The Rubies of Isfahan,” portrays a young woman tired of her sheltered life. She seeks adventure, finds it, saves her family, and still ends up coming home because she realizes it is the best place.
As much as Arabians claim to love family, and place much importance on mothers, the men are the true movers and shakers. Not once in this book did the father or suitor ask the girl what she wanted. Instead, they battled over who would have her—the father to keep his daughter, or the young man to marry her.
The stories themselves follow a familiar pattern: a character must use his wits to outsmart those greater or smarter than him. In each story, the character wins, and as the father and youth told their stories, each tried to best the other. If an animal won in a story, a similar animal loses in the next. If a youth journeyed, the next story focuses on staying home.
The stories were enjoyable, but reading between the lines made me sad. Women have little freedom and that was apparent reading these tales. Though the stories Larson collected are old, and the culture has changed, it the most important ways, it hasn’t. Women still have little say over anything; if one reads current fairy tales from other cultures, women adventure, fight dragons, save the princes, do anything the men can do. Here, we have passive women; they can only watch, and when they act, the lesson is it’s better they don’t. It’s better to exist and let the men lead, do, live.
If nothing else, these stories reminded me of my many privileges. I have the freedom to lead, do, live.