In these days of fax machines, it's reassuring that people still like to sit down and listen to a story," says Palestinian-American folklorist Inea Bushnaq, who enchants audiences and readers with traditional Arab folktales, just as her father once enchanted her. Bushnaq's interest in folklore began in the 1980's, when she undertook to compile, translate and edit a collection of Arab folktales. As she researched collections of Arab folklore from many countries dating back to 1860 and, during visits to the Middle East, tape-recorded tales still told there, the project led her on a "nostalgic journey" to the landscape of her youth, and revealed parts of her own culture that she had forgotten.
Childhood memories of tales told at her father's family home in Tulkarm, 55 kilometers (34 miles) northwest of Jerusalem, led Bushnaq to begin scouring Palestinian villages in search of stories. Tape recorder in hand, she took to the hills, often climbing through centuries-old olive groves, to reach villagers eager to recount the tales their parents and grandparents had told.
"The people were so proud to be able to tell me these stories," she recalls. For Palestinians, "the interest in folk art has intensified during the past decade or so."
After five years of research, Bushnaq's Arab Folktales was published by Pantheon in 1986. The first International Conference of Palestinian Folk Heritage was also held not long afterward, in 1987. Today, Birzeit University in the West Bank boasts an active folklore department, and in nearby al-Bireh, the In'ash al-Usra (Family Restoration) Society has a division of folklore and social research.
Yet, writes Bushnaq, "It is a wistful moment when interest in recording an oral tradition awakens. It means that the tradition is well past its finest days, since it is the fear of losing it altogether which first motivates the collector to preserve the oral legacy."
Bushnaq's family left Jerusalem, where she was born, in 1948 and ultimately settled in London, where she was educated. She attributes much of her success to her parents' emphasis on education and languages. A master's degree in classics from Cambridge University and her fluency in Arabic, English, French and German led to work translating two books, and gave her entree to the New York publishing world after she moved to the United States in 1967.
Bushnaq considers herself "an interpreter of my past, to the present." The same folktales that were such a "wonderful treat of my childhood... seem to be the ideal instrument to open doors for people who might not be predisposed to listen to anything about the Middle East." Thus, during the 1991 Gulf War, Bushnaq was invited to tell Arab folktales to children in New York City schools, and children in her Greenwich Village neighborhood still remember her as "the one who told us those stories!"
Today, Bushnaq still tells tales, but she is also working on an oral history of rural Palestinian life, collecting "the stories of the people who tell the stories." Back in the 1980's, recording folktales, she noticed that - after the tape recorder was turned off - the women and men told "stories about their own lives as fascinating as the tales they had recalled."
And after all, she smiles, "Lives are stories too, aren't they?"
Piney Kesting is a free-lance writer who covers Middle Eastern affairs from her base in Boston.