In myriad cultures, children who listen to stories of their parents or grandparents are carried by the power of imagination to distant times and places. This timeless tradition played a significant role in shaping Yemeni characters and narratives, especially after many of these stories were written down.
In Tales from Yemen’s Folk Heritage, Mohammed Saba’a, 37, offers an overview of his country’s collective consciousness throughout the ages.
“I was keen to record the tales as they’re told now,” said the artist and researcher. “I collected them from several sources, including storytellers. I also scoured books about travel, exploration and history.”
Saba’a reveals the uniqueness of Yemen’s cultural heritage and takes Yemenis on a journey into the world of ancient imagination.
“This realm is a legacy that deserves our attention and protection,” he added.
Values of Coexistence in Yemen’s Folktales
Many Yemeni folktales and myths touch on values of peaceful coexistence: justice, service, and solidarity.
The story of Wariqat al-Henna (henna leaf) has a Cinderella-like plot in which a young girl comes to the aid of an elderly woman despite her own hardship. Her compassion and willingness are later rewarded with prosperity and happiness.
Al-Habba (the grain) addresses the quest for knowledge to better understand the world. It’s the cautionary tale of a young man who travels widely to unlock the secret of a grain he cannot identify. In the end, it turns out to be ancient wheat, which gets increasingly smaller as human greed increases. The seed eventually shrinks to the size of the grain we know today.
Other stories address harsher aspects of life, but not without redemptive social values. Talwih, which refers to the use of a sheep shoulder bone fragment for clairvoyance, is a fable that extols tolerance, benevolence and forgiveness. At a feast in a nearby town, a man is led to believe through talwih that his wife is sleeping beside a stranger. He returns home to stab the intruder, only to discover that he has killed the eight-year-old son of the local sheikh. In defiance of public insistence to avenge the loss of his child, the sheikh pardons the killer.
Mohammed Saba’a favours new formats to preserve such stories for future generations.
“I recommend drama series and children’s cartoons,” he said. “These tales convey our history, our heritage, traditions, and the wisdom of our ancestors.”
The Boncast platform has been documenting Yemeni oral heritage in a podcast featuring ancient folktales in broadcast quality since 2020. The title, Araikhhn, means story in the Himyaritic language that was spoken in ancient Yemen.
“We selected our favourites and started working on them,” said Sarra Abdulrahman, 27, one of Boncast’s producers. “Our attention turned to young people, who are more inclined to listen to these tales than read them.” The result was a first-of-its-kind programme for Yemeni listeners.
“Many Yemeni folktales and myths touch on values of peaceful coexistence: justice, service, and solidarity.”
Araikhhn recently concluded its first season of nine episodes, thanks to a volunteer team of 15 narrators, writers, producers, directors, and production supervisors. Abdulrahman and the Boncast platform team are eager to recruit specialised practitioners who can research more stories. The second season will include content from many more areas in Yemen, including Socotra.
The Araikhhn podcast has drawn over 19,000 listeners so far. For many, the stories bring back cherished childhood memories.
“These are the tales we grew up listening to through our grandmothers’ soul-stirring voices before falling asleep,” Ahmed al-Adeeb wrote in a comment.
Mariam al-Qubati, another listener, appreciates the way these tales are a link between generations.
“My mother waits with great anticipation for the episode to air,” she wrote. “This reminds me of my Grandma Maryam, who would tell me some of these same stories whenever I visited her.”
She hopes her sister will enjoy the podcast too. “Listen to them with your daughters,” she told her. “They will love them.”