Sally Mallam was in her early 20s in London, when she first heard author and educator Idries Shah narrate stories of fire breathing dragons, magical horses and treasure boxes full of dreams to his children, family and friends, “These stories were an integral part of his exuberant recollections of Afghanistan - he often recalled the fruit trees grew the best fruit, where the mountains, flowers and valleys were the most beautiful and where the men, women, and children were brave, honorable, and wise – or were learning to be so” she remembers.
Idries Shah had collected hundreds of traditional stories from oral and manuscript sources in and around Afghanistan and the Middle East. Mallam even recalls typing these stories from a dictating machine and the memories of those oral stories remained with her even as she moved on to the United States and pursued a career in publishing and the arts.
“In October 1996 when I visited him in London, I asked him why though many of his books had been published for adults, these children’s stories were not in print anywhere. He gave me the manuscript and – just before he died the following month – agreed that we produce a series of illustrated books from it” she reminisces. Mallam mined her network for illustrators and reached out to local Bay Area art schools and worked with young and emerging artists to bring these books to life. Mallam, who is a painter and has an art degree, also illustrated The Man and the Fox, but only because, “I ran out of money!” she laughs.
While the stories are universal, the gorgeous and detailed illustrations and outlook of the characters are uniquely Afghan. Unlike Western folk tales such as contemporary versions of Aesop’s tales, these are not simple moral tales, but something more instructive. “These aren’t stories of finding and slaying the dragon but in stories such as Neem the Half-Boy, the young boy learns to understand the dragon’s predicament and chooses peaceful negotiation over violent confrontation” she explains.
Like most folktales, these stories too were created as a way to pass on moral and cultural values. Mallam explains, “In the West, the ‘Disneyfication’ of many stories – to select and retell only those elements that have a strong emotional appeal – has led to the demise of the story as a developmental instrument. These stories, however encourage thinking, problem solving skills and perception.”
These Sufi stories offer a sophisticated way to learn and observe ourselves and others and to understand a characters motivations and consequent actions. They also allow you to step into a world where you can empathize with the people in the story, share and acknowledge their point of view even if you don’t partake of their traditions and rituals. “A flexible mind open to other perspectives is something we need to develop and learn otherwise we will all become mass-produced morons! Once you hear them, these stories stay with you like talismans you can reach out for again and again at different points in your life” she enthuses.
Citing a few examples, she mentions The Clever Boy and the Terrible, Dangerous Animal, which featured on the Library of Congress’s 2002 Christmas list as a great story full of humor that emphasizes that though we may be afraid of something we don’t understand, we can learn to overcome fear. “We all can benefit from overcoming irrational fear of ‘the other’ especially in racially charged environment we see today” she states.
In The Old Woman and the Eagle an elderly woman tries to change an unfamiliar eagle into the more familiar pigeon. Children, who are all individual “eagles,” readily respond to story while adults recognize that the old woman’s efforts to alter the unfamiliar to make it acceptable. The Magic Horse is a tale of two brothers, one who pursues his heart’s desires while the other takes on a more difficult path, both emphasizing different life choices rather than mere good and bad binaries.
While all the stories reflect universal ideas of courage, perseverance, personal choice and encourage critical thinking, they also remain rooted in Afghan culture which is often misunderstood in the West or only seen through the lens of war, poverty and oppression. These books are instrumental in helping young readers gain a different perspective of Afghanistan and also appreciate that we are more alike than different and we all have something to learn from each other.
Mallam decided to take that a step further by creating bilingual versions of these stories. “I remember how difficult it was to learn to read in my own language, so the idea that anyone would have to learn to read in a language that they only spoke outside their home seemed crazy” she says.
In 2005, Mallam took things full circle to return these wonderful stories to Afghan children in Dari and Pashto. “I thought that these stories could develop a love of reading and learning and also teach Afghan children about their rich culture and perhaps reinvigorate their ancient, story-telling tradition” she says. She also hopes that these books could help alleviate the influence of extremism, by encouraging flexible minds and critical thinking which are essentially incompatible with extremist beliefs.
RELATED: See these Sufi stories in our Folktales from Islamic Traditions booklist
Through the Books for Afghanistan program and the invaluable help of implementing partners in Kabul, Hoopoe has distributed over 4.4 million Hoopoe books to NGOs, schools, orphanages and street children in all 34 provinces of Afghanistan, and trained over 500 teachers. Many of the older generation recognize the tales from their childhood and this serves as a bridge to connect the more conservative elders and the younger generation.
“The most wonderful thing is that children recognize the images in these books as “theirs” – for children who have so little this means so much. These stories can help to change a child’s internal narrative from one of struggle, suffering and war, to one that is self-confident, generous and hopeful” says Mallam.
Hoopoe began a similar program in Pakistan, where they have provided approximately 100,000 books to date in Urdu-English, Urdu-Pashto and Urdu-Sindhi. Mallam is excited roll out bilingual editions in English-Pashto and English-Dari as well as plans to publish in French, Arabic and other minority Afghan languages such as Uzbek, Turkmen and Hazaragi.
Mallam firmly believes that anyone who is familiar with these stories understands that they are timeless and hold useful lessons for all of us; as she concludes, “I am still learning from them.”
This interview is part of KitaabWorld's Counter Islamophobia Through Stories campaign.