Country Focus: Tunisia (Tunis in Arabic)
Behind Closed Doors: Women’s Oral Narratives in Tunis
By Monia Hejaiej
Forward by Laura Rice
Originally published in Great Britain by Quartet Books Limited, 1996
My edition: Rutgers University Press, 1996
About the author: Hejaiej is a literature professor at the University of Tunis.
Don’t be put off by the scholarly-sounding subtitle as I almost was. Behind Closed Doors opens up to reveal a wealth of traditional folklore and a fascinating look at the world of the tale tellers. Professor Monia Hejaiej has recorded 47 stories as told by three “Beldi” women – Ghaya, Sa ‘diyya and Kheira – in 1989 and 1990. With roots going back centuries, the Beldi are the elite of Tunisian society. These particular women were the master storytellers of their generation (the women were ages 63, 55 and 62 respectively), but societal norms precluded them from telling their tales outside the home. Tale-telling was typically saved for female gatherings and special occasions.
A long but fascinating introduction takes up the first third of the book. Hejaiej does an excellent job setting up context for the tales by explaining Beldi life and, most importantly, the social roles of Beldi men and women. Although I was tempted to skip the intro and jump right into the stories, it turned out to be essential to understanding the viewpoints of the tales’ female protagonists.
The stories themselves are highly enjoyable, and include elements that are familiar to anyone who has read Grimm’s Fairy Tales, Hans Christian Andersen and the like. Sa ‘diyya begins hers with “Once upon a time,” and all three women often end with an amusing spin on the typical European story ending: “And they lived happily and procreated until death did them part.” Events often happen in threes, magical elements abound, and cleverness often subverts trouble.
It’s a shame that these stories have traditionally had such a limited audience. Thanks to Hejaiej for throwing the doors open.
Quote from “The Clever Peasant Girl” as told by Kheira:
The queen arrived at her father’s saniya, with the king hidden in her luggage. As she entered the tent, she unlocked the case and laid the king on the divan, stretching out next to him until the morning. The cool morning breeze revived the king, who woke to the lowing of the cows and the chirping of the birds. ‘Am I dreaming?’ he thought. He turned and found his wife beside him. ‘Where am I?’ She replied: ‘You’re with me, safe and sound.’ He asked: ‘What brought me here?’ She replied: ‘You told me to leave and take with me whatever I valued most. I thought gold and silk are earthly possessions. What else do I have dearer than you? So I brought you with me.’ He replied delightedly, ‘Come back with me.’ The carriage brought them back to the palace and from that day on, the queen sat in court with him.