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Shahrukh Husain on the Timelessness of Folktales

Counter Islamophobia Through Stories Folk tales Shahrukh Husain

Shahrukh Husain, a prolific writer of fiction, non-fiction and screenplays writes for both adults and kids. Her work focuses on retelling of myths for a modern audiences. Her book "The Wise Fool: Fables from the Islamic World" published by Barefoot Books on Mulla Nasruddin, introduces this 13th century jester to new audiences. 

Can you tell us a little about where you grew up and what inspired you to be a writer?

I was born in Karachi, Pakistan, spent a couple of early years in London while my father finished off his studies and then returned to Pakistan. I started writing when I was far too young so it's hard to know what inspired me.  It was just something I did. I would make up stories and as soon as I could, I began writing them down.  

It's very likely the influence of the story-telling culture in which I grew up.  My mother's family in particular, had a story for every occasion, they even used anecdotes to tell us off or to demonstrate right and wrong. And I always felt a powerful urge to tell - and hear - those stories again and again.  Later when my own toddlers reacted with the prompt demand 'again!'  after I'd finished telling them a story, it struck me that I must have been a bit of a pest!

When did you first hear stories of Mulla Nasruddin? 

I think they were always there floating in the ether - but he really settled in my consciousness in 1967 when I was 17 and started puzzling over the meaning of some of the more obscure tales.

At the time a regional, cultural development (RCD) had been formed between Turkey, Pakistan and Iran and when I mentioned the 'Hoja' to a senior Irani diplomat in Karachi, he said:'we don't like talking about him in Iran.'  I was startled but I delved into the tales and realised that it was because many of the stories subtly oppose the government of the day and can be downright critical.  

But a 'fool', or jester as in Shakespeare, gets away with criticising society and government while an ordinary person can be severely punished as a rebel. But the Mulla triumphed and his stories continued to thrive everywhere despite this gentleman's objection.

Since these were mostly oral tales, how and why did you decide to commit them to the written word with illustrations?

I'd often toyed with the idea of retelling the tales and then Penguin India approached me to retell them.  It was exciting because I had noticed the Mulla's presence among story-tellers and academics in England, certainly, but also Spain and Canada.  Then I was utterly thrilled when Tessa Strickland asked me to do an illustrated book for Barefoot.

Images enhance and complement words and help fix verbal impressions in the mind.  It was great because I had dozens more stories in my head and some distinct ideas of the Mulla's characters ie. his fondness for food, specially baklava, his love of travelling, his way of dealing with neighbours and his occasional laziness.  

I do believe very strongly that folktales and myths have a universality about them that reveal our common humanity, underscore the excesses of the ruling classes, equalise the fate of rich and poor.  Mulla Nasruddin's experiences are compact and punchy little packets of humour and wisdom and they cross boundaries of time and space as well as age. Parents can enjoy them as much as children of all ages.

What makes these stories different as compared to Western fairy tales such as Aesop's or Grimm? 

The Brothers Grimm are a different proposition altogether they are folk-tales with a narrative, often quite long, intended to show how life can be and often suggesting that things come right in the end and the under-dog will win.  Fables with their short and compact format are comparable but have a clearly stated moral.  

Mulla Nasruddin's tales though short, too, are anecdotal often with a twist in the tail.  There's an element of light-heartedness, irony; he has no hesitation in poking good-natured fun at everything and everyone including himself. But behind the jokes and irony lies concern about the serious aspects of life; poverty, injustice, the effects of extreme power, snobbery, greed, foolishness and the individual ego.

Nasruddin lived in the age of a cruel king and took the opportunity to challenge him by playing the fool - humour allows the clown to get away with a surprising amount cheek. 

Has oral storytelling gotten lost in this visual and wired world we live in?

NO!! And thank God for it.  There's an international revival of oral storytelling.  New technology reinforces it just like the images of colour and form in picture books always a great way of fixing different worlds and narrative events in our minds - a fabulous boost to the imagination and joy to the eye.  

Why do you feel it is important to read folk stories?  

Stories should be read and shared for enjoyment. I also love the fact that traditional tales are informative in so many ways. They look at cultures, human character and experience in a way that enters our subconscious and subtly delivers life lessons to help us manage our expectations. They show us that difficulties on our individual journeys can be overcome. 

The written word is the best way of getting to places you've never reached before and children's literature helps us cross boundaries. When my children were growing up I learned a lot while reading to them.  Not only was I reminded of stories I'd forgotten, but I understood the hidden meaning in some that I'd never worked out before. I also came across new stories and connected with the wisdom of children and the complexities of life in a simple way.

What is the one misconception about Muslims that you could wave your magic wand and banish forever?

That Muslims are a hermetically sealed, monolithic block of a community and all think they same way - mostly negatively. And Muslims, like members of other faiths, should not be defined by the worst examples of their faith or be expected to answer for the misdemeanours of those they themselves disagree with.  I have no idea why a man kills or shouts a religious phrase before doing something terrible so how - and why - should I have to answer for them?

Check out Folk Tales from Islamic Traditions

What is your favorite story from Islamic traditions?

Oh so many great little stories - one of them is about an occasion when the Prophet Muhammad's close associate Omar visited the mosque and was annoyed to find a group of men jeering at him.  He saw that the Prophet remained focused on his prayers though he could hear them so Omar ignored them too. The Prophet acknowledge his forbearance with a smile.  When Omar had completed his prayers, he passed the men again, still taunting the Prophet.  Omar was known for his quick temper and this time he reprimanded them.  

The Prophet looked sad and disappointed.  'I don't understand,' Omar said, going over to him. 'You smiled when I failed to defend you from those men but now, when I've challenged them, you look upset.' 'Omar,' the Prophet said. 'When you ignore offensive behaviour, the angels defend you, when you join in that behaviour, they withdraw.'

Finally, biryani or kababs?

Can I be greedy?  Kebabs (with a salad) to start and then biryani. I'd happily forego pudding.

Thank you Shahrukh Husain for being part of our interview series! Wishing you continued success with your writing!  This interview is part of KitaabWorld's Counter Islamophobia Through Stories campaign.

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  • Sadaf on

    Thank you Micha! We love your bright and bold illustrations in this books too – they complement the Mulla’s cheek and humor!

  • Micha Archer on

    Thank you for this!
    Such a nice way to get to know better the author of the book we did together (although I felt very close to her when illustrating her book)
    These stories are important and even more so in these oddest of times.
    Micha Archer

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