Saturday, April 18, 2015

Dreams and tales in Siwa and Ouargla

Valentina Schiattarella, who recently finished her PhD thesis on some aspects of Siwi grammar, has gathered the first serious collection of Siwi folk tales recorded in Siwi (forthcoming from Köppe some time soon). Like most languages, Siwi has opening and closing formulae to mark the beginning and end of a tale. The commonest closing formula in the stories she's recorded seems to be:
ħattuta ħattuta qaṣṣaṛ ʕṃəṛha, akəṃṃus n xer i ənšni, akəṃṃus n šaṛ i ntnən
Hattuta hattuta its span has shortened[Ar], bundle of good for us, bundle of bad for them
The first part of this is in Arabic, and is not too different from what you might hear elsewhere in Egypt: ħattuta ħattuta is a corruption of حدوتة ħadduta, Egyptian Arabic for "story". (For similar formulae in Palestinian tales, such as tūtū tūtū faraɣat il-ħaddūtu, see Sirhan 2014.) The second part is in Berber, and hence presumably has an older history within Siwi; it is precisely paralleled in an opening formula used at Ouargla (Algeria):
Ṛəbbi yəttamən f lxiṛ ụhụ f ššəṛṛ, lxiṛ nn-iw, ššəṛṛ nn-əs, ini yiwi-tən gaɛ
God believes(?) in good not in bad; the good for me, the bad for him, or may He take them both
Basset (1920:107) places this formula in a wider context; throughout the Berber world, opening or closing formulae commonly take the form of "propitiatory formulae or formulae for the expulsion of evil", which he takes to indicate that the act of storytelling must have been viewed as potentially dangerous. Alongside Ouargla, he cites Kabyle examples blessing the group and cursing the jackal, and Shilha ones wishing the teller the meat and the others the tripes. The Siwi formula, however, is far closer to the Ouargla one than to anything else Basset mentions. And whereas the Kabyle formula invokes an animal whose importance in Berber folklore and mythology is obvious, and the Shilha one remians close to everyday life, all the key words of the Ouargli and Siwi formulae are specifically Arabic and religious (Rabbī "my Lord", khayr "good", sharr "bad"). This suggests that, while the idea may be Berber, the formulation itself might be taken from Arabic.

As it happens, the early Islamic period furnishes us with just such a formula in Arabic, in a similar but curiously different context. The still widely used Interpretation of Dreams, attributed to Ibn Sirin, explains in its introduction that a dream interpreter who does not want to reveal his interpretation to his client should instead tell him the following: "May good be for you and bad be for your enemies; may you receive good and avoid bad" (خير لك وشر لأعدائك، خير تؤتاه وشر تتوقاه), or, if the interpretation concerns the interpreter too: "May the good be for us and the bad be for our enemies (etc.)" This expression is also found in an unmistakeably related context in some dubious hadiths reporting Umar ibn al-Khattab as saying "Learn to read the Qur'an in Arabic, and the interpretation of dreams, and say: May good (khayr) be for us and bad (sharr) for our enemy", and: "If one sees a vision and recounts it to one's brother, let him say: May good be for us and bad for our enemy".

The obvious interpretation is that, at some point in the early history of these Saharan oases, the act of telling tales was locally assimilated to the act of recounting dreams, allowing the Arabic formula for the latter to be adopted for the former. It would be interesting to know why this happened; was the idea that a tale, no less than a dream, somehow contained cryptic clues about the future? Or did Saharan Berbers in late antiquity make a habit of recounting dreams to one another on winter evenings, as well as folktales? Unfortunately, we'll probably never know for sure, but it can be interesting to speculate...


John Cowan said...

I think the connection between stories and the supernatural runs deeper than that, and doesn't depend on thr particular rituals of a particular culture. Half a world away, Tolkien wrote in "On Fairy-Stories":

"If no young man had ever fallen in love by chance meeting with a maiden, and found old enmities to stand between him and his love, then the god Frey would never have seen Gerdr the giant's daughter from the high-seat of Odin. But if we speak of a Cauldron [of Story], we must not wholly forget the Cooks. There are many things in the Cauldron, but the Cooks do not dip in the ladle quite blindly. Their selection is important. The gods are after all gods, and it is a matter of some moment what stories are told of them. So we must freely admit that a tale of love is more likely to be told of a prince in history, indeed is more likely actually to happen in an historical family whose traditions are those of Golden Frey and the Vanir, rather than those of Odin the Goth, the Necromancer, glutter of the crows, Lord of the Slain. Small wonder that spell means both a story told [as in gospel, notably], and a formula of power over living men."

In an entirely different mood, Oscar Wilde's Miss Prism said in "The Importance of Being Earnest": "The good ended happily, and the bad unhappily. That is what fiction means."

Lameen Souag الأمين سواق said...

Fair point. In that sense, stories do have the power to affect the future in not entirely predictable ways. Perhaps that's what Berber storytellers had in mind, at some level.