Open main menu

The Folk-Lore Journal/Volume 7/Cairene Folklore


WE owe it to the late Librarian of the Khedivial Library at Cairo, Spitta Bey, that that rich vein of folklore and story-telling out of which sprang the tales of the Arabian Nights has once more been made available for European study. Spitta Bey drew attention to the fact that the Cairene story-teller still plies his trade, and that those who choose to listen to him may still hear the stories which in one form or another have been current for so many centuries in the Mohammedan world. At the end of his invaluable grammar of spoken Egyptian Arabic,[1] he has printed eleven Hhikâyât or tales taken down from the lips of Cairene story-tellers, and in a separate publication (Contes arabes modernes, Paris, 1883) he has given another series of twelve tales similarly transcribed as he heard them recited. The latter are provided with a French translation, but those at the end of his grammar have unfortunately never been rendered into any European language, which is the more regrettable as there are few scholars who have studied the Cairene dialect. I translated a portion of one of them in the National Review for September last year, but otherwise I am not aware that any translation of them has been made.

During the past winter, which I spent in Egypt, I was told a good many stories by my waiter on board a dahabiah, by name Mustafa ’Ali. Mustafa was a native of Helwân, but had been educated and brought up in Cairo since the age of eight or nine. The Arabic he spoke was that of the ordinary Cairene, who, unlike Spitta Bey’s informants, make no pretensions to correct speaking. The dialect with them is unspoilt by admixture with literary forms and modes of pronunciation.

Unfortunately, I could not write rapidly enough to follow Mustafa’s dictation, except where the story was a short one, especially as my attention was chiefly directed to recording the precise nuances of his pronunciation, and I did not, therefore, attempt to transcribe more than two of the stories he told me. They were by no means good samples of the rest, as they were short and somewhat feeble in character, though like most Cairene tales they were provided with a moral at the end. Such as they are, however, I lay them before the readers of the Folklore Journal and hope that another year I may return to England with a larger supply.

No. 1. Fî kân wâhid sultân fellâti: ubâdên howa yeshûf wâhid sitt; yekhallî gôzah, râhh beled tâni: ubâdên howa râhh fïl bêt. Fî wâhid wezîr: ’ando wâhid sitt kwaiyîs ; ubâdên lamma howa síma’, gai fil bêt es-sultân billêl: es-sitte betâ’ el-wezîr, lamma síma’ es-sultân gai hineh, ishtéri samak wa-’amal ashkal ketîr; ubâdên lamma gai es-sultân hatto el-akl ’al es-soffra ’oddâmo; ubâdên akal minno washâf et-tâm betâ’ es-samak; ubâdên howa ’alêha: fî ashkal ketîr, lâkin et-tâm samak; ’alet-lo: ya sultân, ehhna kamân el-hharïm kûllo zê bádo. Howa ’álêha: ana ma’amilshi hhâga battâl ebeden fîl dûnya. Ubâdên lamma gai el-wezîr, síma’ es-sultân gai fil bêt; ubâdên mâ-nâm-shi way el-hharîm betâ’o. Es sitt lébis zê wâhid râgil, urâhh ’and’ es sultân: en-nâs ma’ arafûsh es-sitt; wa es-sultân ’âlo: ’au’z ê, ya shâter? ’Âlo: ana lî hhâga ’and el-wezîr. Ba’at-lo el-wezîr. Lamma gai el-wezîr ’al-lo el wezir: ma’aggar minnî wâhid bostân; lamma eggar minnî el-bostân, mûsh lâzim eddî-lo moyeh yishrab, wala hala yimûtt? el-wezîr ’âl: na’am, ana ma’aggir el-bostân, lâkin ana s’mêt séba’ dakhal fîl bostân; lâkin ana magdarshi ahhûsh fîl bostân bâd es-séba’ la mayetla’ el-bostân; ubâdên es-sultân ’âl-lo: na’am, es-séba’ dakhal el-bostân, lâkin ma’arash el-ashgar: ubâdên el-wezîr yistanna fîl hharîm betâ’o zê en-nehardeh.

“There was once a sultan of amorous proclivities, and it happened that he sees a lady:—she leaves her husband (and) departs to another town; then he returns home. Now there was a vizier; he had a pretty wife; when he hears that the sultan is come to the house during the night,—the vizier’s wife, when she hears that the sultan is come here, buys some fish and prepares all kinds of things, and then when the sultan is arrived she placed the food for him on the table before him. Then he ate some of it and perceived that the taste was that of fish. So he said to her: ‘There are plenty of things, but they all taste of fish.’ She replied: ‘O sultan, we also, we women, are all just the same.’ He answered: ‘I have never done anything in the world at all naughty.’ Then when the vizier is come, he heard that the sultan has come to (his) house; so he did not sleep with his wives. The lady dressed herself like a man and went to the sultan; no one recognised that she was a lady. And the sultan said to her: ‘What do you want, my clever fellow?’ She replied: ‘My business is with the vizier.’ The vizier was brought to him: when the vizier was come, he said to him, namely, to the vizier: ‘Some one hired from me a garden: when he hired the garden of me ought he not to have given it water to drink, otherwise it would have died?’ The vizier answered: ‘Certainly: I hired the garden, but I heard that a lion had entered the garden; but I could not enter the garden until the lion had quitted the garden.’ Then the sultan said to him: ‘Certainly; the lion entered the garden, but it did not injure the trees.’ So the vizier remains among his women as is the case to-day.”

No. 2. Kân fî wâhid ’Ali; lamma tegî ’adîyeh yîgî waya hharamât, mâfîsh waya rigâlah. Ubâdên es-sitt betâ’o gai za’lân. ’Â’let liggârîyeh: ya bint! ’âlet: na’am! Khod arba’ ’ersh we ruhhe fissúq; ishtêri samak yekûn hhâi. Ishtéri es-samak yekûn hhâi. Fî wâhid râgil; gâb battîkh ’ande ’Ali: es-sitt tiksar el-battîkh we-hott es-samak fil gûwa. El-’âdi gai fîl ghada: ’âl lis-sitte betâ’o: hâtli wâhid battîkh. Hott wâhid battîkh wes-sikkîn: kassar el-battîkhah; notta samak hhâi. El-’âdi ’âl: es-samak fil-battîkh! hâtlî kamân wâhid battîkhah. Hott el-battîkh: kassar el-battîkhah; notte samak fîl battîkhah tâni. ’Al: khabberîyeh? samak fîl battîkh! lâzim tekallim lil-kûtubeh es-samak fîl battîkh: tilli’o fôq ’alashân yeshûf es samak fîl battîkh. Gâb lil-kûtubeh battîkhah; kassáru el-battîkhah: mâfîsh samak gûwa fîl battîkhah. Ubâdên ’âlu: el-’âdi magnûn waddoh fil muristân; ubâdên lamm’ yisa’aloh: es-sana kam shahr? ’âl: etnâsher shahr: wâhid shahr kam yôm? ye’ûlohôm: telatîn: esh-shahr kam gomâ’? ye’ûlohôm sitteh: weg-gumâ’ kam yôm? ye’ûl: t’manyah. Ye’ûloh: es-samak fên? ye’ûllohôm: fîl battîkh! ’âlu: el-’âdi lissa magnûn. Wâhid yôm es-sitte betâ’o sa’aloh: lamm’ yisa’alûk, es-samak fên? ’ûllohom: fîl bahhr. ’Âl-lahâ: es-samak fîl battîkh. ’Âlet-lo: es-samak fîl bahhr. ’Âllah: taiyyib! Lamma gûm sa’aloh; ’âlhohôm: es-samak fîl bahhr. ’Âlu lil-’âdi: tayyib! mûsh magnûn. Lamma râhh fîl bêt, ’âlet-lo ’s-sitt betâ-’o: lamma tegîlak ’âdîyeh, lâzim timshi doghri; ana hattêt es-samak fîl battîkh, ’alashân enta mâ timshish doghri. Ubâdên howa ’âllehâ: min en-nehar-deh ana amshi doghri.

“There was once a certain ’Ali; when he becomes a judge he consorts with women and not with men; so his wife grew angry. She said to her neighbour: ‘My daughter!’ She replied: ‘Yes!’ ‘Take four piastres and go to the market; buy some live fish.’ She bought the live fish. There was a man; he brought some watermelons to ’Ali’s house. His wife cuts the melons in two and put the fish inside (them). The judge came to dinner: he said to his wife: ‘Bring me a melon.’ She brought a melon and the knife: he broke the melon in two: out jumped the live fish. The judge cried: ‘The fish is in the melon! Bring me another melon.’ She brought the melon; he broke the melon in two: out jumped another fish from the melon. He cried: ‘What’s the matter?—fish in melons!’ ‘You must tell the scribes that the fish are in the melons. Bring one of them up that he may see the fish in the melons.’ A melon was brought to the scribes; they broke the melon in two: there was no fish inside the melon. Then they said: ' The judge is mad; carry him off to the madhouse.' Then, when they asked him: 'How many months are there in the year?' He answered, 'Twelve months.' 'How many days in a month?' He replies to them) 'Thirty.' 'How many weeks in the month?' He replies to them, ' Six.'[2] 'And how many days in the week?' He replies, 'Eight.' They ask him: 'Where are the fish?' He answers them: 'In the melons.' They said: 'The judge is still mad.' One day his wife asked[3] him: 'When they ask you where are the fish? tell them: In the sea.' He said to her: 'The fish are in the melons!' She replied: ' The fish are in the sea.' He answered: 'Very well.' When they came and asked him, he replied: 'The fish are in the sea.' They said to the judge: 'Good! he is no longer mad.' When he had gone home, his wife said to him: 'When a judgeship falls to you, you ought to walk uprightly. I put the fish in the melons, because you do not walk uprightly! ' Then he said to her: ' From this day forth I will walk uprightly.' "

  1. Grammatik des arabischen Vulgärdialectes von Ægypten (Leipzig, 1880).
  2. According to the Arabic mode of reckoning, the end of the last week of the previous month and the beginning of the first week of the next month being counted in.
  3. A slip of the narrator's tongue.