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Hamas censors Libido in Palestinian folktales

Pierre Akel
Wednesday 7 March 2007

Palestinian Intellectuals in the West Bank are protesting Hamas government decision to withdraw from schools a book on Palestinian folkore. The book Speak, Bird, Speak Again- Palestinian Arab Folktales is authored by two Palestinian professors, Ibrahim Muhawi (Darwish) and Sharif Kanaana. The Hamas minister of education claims the book (in its arabic translation) is « full of sexual expressions ». He is probably referring to five tales alluding to « sexual awakening and courtship ».

Palestinian poet Zakariya Mohamed, quoted in « al Hayat », says: « the Hamas government has provided nothing to Palestinians, except censorship. The Hamas minister of culture had banned movies in Gaza and, now, their minister of education has decided to ban one of the most important collections of folktales in the Arabic ». Adding: « If we do not stand up to this decision, we risk allowing censorship to engulf all that is precious in our lives.. Hamas is seeking to remodel society according to its ideology.. ».

The introduction to the five tales from the website of Scholarship Editions (http://ark.cdlib.org/ark:/13030/ft4...).



In general, the five tales in this group portray the early stirrings of sexuality, when they are still subjective feelings and before formal arrangements for marriage have been made. Except for "Jbene," the individuals in the tales, whether male or female, handle these feelings in a way that communicates them to those for whom they are intended. In "The Little Bird," the theme of sexual awakening is manifested in the bird’s preparation for marriage. By collecting her trousseau, and by beautifying and putting herself on display, she arouses the interest of the sultan’s son. In "Jummez Bin Yazur, Chief of the Birds," the youngest daughter’s request is ambiguous enough that the father can acquiesce without feelings of shame. The girl is sending the message of her readiness, which Jummez is able to decipher. In "Sackcloth," the sexual awareness begins even before the girl leaves home, producing feelings of confusion, shame, and guilt, especially since she seems to arouse a most unnatural passion in her father. Hence her desire to cover her body completely, so as to appear to be not only of the opposite sex but also a horrible freak whom no one would want to touch. Only later, when she has had more experience and feels secure at the palace of the king’s son, is she able to accept her sexuality. Her dancing in public in the wedding dress her father had brought her is a declaration of her new awareness, her readiness to accept a mate. In "Šahin," the girl is the more mature of the two protagonists, and she awakens Šahin to his manhood. The emotional upheavals arising out of the first stirrings of sexuality are here shown not to be limited to young women: young men feel them also. Šahin must work through his frustrations and his confusion to assume the responsibility of his manhood.

In "Jbene," in contrast, the girl attempts to hide or deny her sexuality. Her behavior differs from the straightforward courtship behavior shown in the other tales in this group. She is more concerned with the welfare of her family than with her own; thus, her feminine, "nurturing," character emerges in relation to them, not to the husband-to-be, even though they were not willing to accept the responsibility that might have prevented her abduction. The tale shows the poignancy of separation, the isolation of the new bride. Jbene overcomes this isolation through acceptance of her mate, which in turn leads to reunion with her family. In "Jbene," sexual identity must be drawn forth from a reluctant woman, and her sorrow over the loss of her home security overcome.

The narrative devices used in these tales reinforce the theme of sexual awakening and the attendant personality changes. While the use of disguise is common in folktales, it seems to be particularly appropriate here. In the last three tales in the group, the heroines or heroes put on some form of disguise in an effort to mask their confusion while in transition to the new identity. The first two tales share the metaphorical disguise of the bird symbol, thus conveying a culturally complex meaning that would be impossible to communicate directly. Jbene’s disguise of staining her body black literalizes the metaphor of ruining one’s reputation; it serves as an appropriate symbol of her ambivalence and confusion, and of the shame or dishonor she might feel concerning her sexuality. She stains her body black not only to remain anonymous but also to protect her reputation and ward off possible advances from the son of the emir. Her longing for her parents is expressed in her ditty, which at the same time is instrumental in attracting the attention she is trying to avoid. Similarly with Sackcloth, if merely being a woman is sufficient to arouse unnatural passions, then her disguise transforms her into a monster of the opposite sex. The son of the king signals his readiness for marriage by his willingness to disguise himself as a woman, which, as can be seen from "Šahin," is a humiliating thing to do, especially if the disguise were to be discovered. Whereas in "Šahin" the feminine disguise is at first thrust on the hero against his will, he later assumes it voluntarily; here, then, the use of disguise helps to convey the role reversal on which the tale is based.

As a group, these tales also convey something of the power that women possess. through their sexuality. The first half of "The Little Bird" presents us with the archetypal image of a girl ready for marriage who, having made all the preparations, sends out her signals to attract the male. She appears to be passive and receptive, prey to be hunted. On the other side we have the archetypal male, an authority figure with symbolic gun in hand, ready to assert his will. Yet he could not be more wrong than to assume that he can have the upper hand, either because he is a male or because of his social position, or both. In "Jummez Bin Yazur," the lover risks his life by admitting his secret to his sweetheart. And in "Sackcloth," as we have noted, the king’s son risks his masculinity by wearing women’s clothes. Finally, in "Šahin," it seems that no matter what the vizier’s daughter does to the hero, his attraction to her only increases. The images here are reversed: she is the hunter and he the hunted.

In the Introduction we discussed the potential for conflict between husband and wife, especially when they are not first cousins. In this group of tales we can glimpse the source of this conflict: the power residing in women’s sexuality on the one hand and the superior social position accorded males on the other. In this respect the first and last tales in the group ("The Little Bird" and "Šahin") differ markedly from the others ("Jummez Bin Yazur," "Jbene," and "Sackcloth"), where the female is presented as having no concern but to be taken for a mate by the male. In "Šahin" and "The Little Bird," however, the roles themselves are put. to the test. Whereas the male, as represented by the son of the sultan, with his hunting tools and pretensions, receives his power from the role endowed on him by society, the power of the female is from within, from her own being. It is the source not only of her procreative power, but also of her creativity, her playfulness. For only the female is presented as playful, her playfulness in the courtship ritual being an outward expression of the power of her sexuality.

Yet this playfulness has serious overtones, because in the end the private passion must be channeled into public behavior that is in harmony with the norms of society. As Šahin says, "We have no recourse but for each of us to ask for the hand of his bride from. her father." In other words, legal and public sanction must be sought to validate private desire; otherwise, the whole process of courtship will remain at the level of a game. "The Little Bird" teaches us that underneath the charming acquiescence of Jbene and Sackcloth lies a power that no man can master. And "Šahin" teaches us that behind the apparent role of male domination sanctioned by society there may lie another reality altogether.


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