My Mother’s Persian Stories: Folk Tales For All Ages In English And Farsi

Stories. All cultures have them. While my husband was a child growing up in Shiraz, Iran, his mother would tell bedtime stories to her many children. At a time when there was no electricity, running water, or any of the modern niceties that one now takes for granted, these touching and gentle stories made them feel like “the richest children in the world”. My mother-in-law could not read or write. She remembered these stories by heart from her mother, who remembered them from hers, and so on down the ages.

Unfortunately, the art and tradition of storytelling from one generation to another is dwindling. Those special moments of cultural communication between one generation and the next are somewhat lacking in our modern world. Instead, today’s offerings are digital, fleeting, and often bereft of the deep cultural roots that come with age-old storytelling.

Fearing that these stories would be lost forever, my husband and I decided to write them down for posterity. As a grown adult, my husband sat with his mother before she passed away, and asked her to retell them to him. Many years later, we began to write them down in my native tongue, English.

My husband remembered almost all of the stories and pieced the ones he did not together by asking his brothers and sisters. Each sibling remembered different parts or even the same parts in different ways. We then knew that she told the stories in a different way to different aged children.

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My linguistic training made me realize that the stories had a very different feel to them in English. You see, every language tells folk stories in its own way. My husband then started to write them in his native language, Farsi. I thought it would be an interesting idea to write each story in both languages, to get the full flavor of how each one sounded in both English and Persian. Thus, the idea of a bilingual story book was born.

We sat many hours together, sometimes revising parts of the story to make it more accessible in both languages. We tried to find the ‘even ground’ of storytelling so that both western and eastern audiences could grasp the story and be able to understand it as a folk tale. Many times we synthesized a new type of storytelling to make this happen. For example, the opening line is a combination of the Persian “There was a day and an age under the purple dome”, and the English “Once upon a time”. We created our own storytelling opening line of “Once upon a day and once upon a time under the purple dome of the sky…” In this sense, the English part is not a translation of the Persian, and the Persian part is not a translation of the English. Rather, it is a joint effort in a synthesized type of writing to convey the flair and nuances of both languages. In some cases, we combined two stories together. The poems were particularly difficult to write in this way, since particular rhythms also had to be maintained. We were pleasantly surprised to find out that writing the stories bilingually made them richer and more vibrant in both languages.

At all times, we aimed to create a story that was comprehendible in both cultures, but still reflect the flavor of Persian tales. We tried to find the elements that are shared between east and west. For example, the witches in our stories never fly like in western stories, but are still mean and have potions and can cast spells. Sometimes we changed the Persian, sometimes we changed the English. We crafted the stories so that they would flow in both languages and invoke the same kind of emotions in our audience, regardless of background.

The stories are varied and encompass the many religions and sects of Iranian culture in simple, folkloric tales. Some are based on ancient Persian mythology, some are mystical, some are humorous, and some are perhaps allusions to actual historical events. His mother told many more stories than those included in the collection, but we chose those that were, to our knowledge, less familiar. The last three in the collection were made up by my husband in the vein of oral storytelling.

My husband also did the illustrations and cover art painting, some of which he had envisioned in his mind’s eye as a child while listening to his mother tell the stories. The illustrations use a mixed media approach that combine pictures and drawings. Most have Persian elements, such as a Persian carpet, or Persian motifs found in the ancient Persepolis ruins near Shiraz, or elements from classic Persian miniatures.

These stories were originally made by wise and loving souls whose names have been forgotten but whose works have remained eternal. Like all gems, the art and tradition of oral storytelling and the stories they produce can become lost if not gathered for posterity. This is our aim – to preserve these stories and perhaps revive the special moments that generations can share between each other by passing them down from one generation to the next. It is our greatest wish that parents will read these stories to their children, perhaps embellishing and changing them as they see fit, or even adding new tales of their own.

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