Timeless Tales: Folktales told by Syrian refugees


The Horse’s Head, a tale told by Moumen Nawaf, 17 years, currently residing in Wadi Az Zeneh in Lebanon. From the anthology Timeless Tales. Illustrator: Saad Hajou

The overall objective of the project ‘al-Hakawati – The Storyteller’ and the production of the antology is to spread knowledge about the Syrian folktales gathered and to bring them to life. A clear purpose is to increase the knowledge of Syrian history and cultural diversity without emphasizing the differences.

The anthology contains 21 Syrian folk tales that are told of Syrian refugees, both children, young and elder peoplemen and women. The film (53 minutes) with a collage of raw films from the collection of the tales here.

Watch the documentary about the Al-Hakawati project with interviews with persons involved in the project. Produced by Anna-Viola Hallberg.


An active and living tradition of oral storytelling still exists in Syria and in other countries of the Middle East. These stories, or rather folktales, capture social and moral values, entertainment and heroic epics. They have existed throughout generations mainly in oral tradition and can be considered as a common denominator for solidarity across ethnic, geographic, and religious boundaries. In order to contribute to the preservation of this intangible cultural heritage the Hakawati project was initiated by the Swedish foundation Cultural Heritage without Borders in January 2014, with financial support from the Swedish Postcode Lottery.

A close collaboration was established early on between CHwB and the Hakaya network represented by the Arab Education Forum (Jordan), the Arab Resource Collective for Popular Arts – Al Jana (Lebanon), and Al Balad theatre (Jordan), and in association with Fabula Storytelling (Sweden). Within its framework, six Syrian researchers in Lebanon and Syria collected more than 250 stories and a selection of 21 traditional stories has been made and published in this bi-lingual (Arabic -English) anthology Initially, one of the questions regarding this project concerned its timeliness. At a time when Syrians are suffering from displacement, imprisonment, killing and destruction of their homes and livelihoods, it could have been inappropriate to ask about traditional stories. However, this apprehension was dispelled with the first narratives collected, as people were eager to remember and share their stories. During the collection process the lead researcher expressed amazement at the diversity of the traditions in these stories, something that actually reflects the diversity within Syria itself. Furthermore, and in addition to the wealth of stories  that have been collected, the collection process revealed that people within the age group of 30-50 years represented the majority of the ones who volunteer their stories: the older generation no longer tells, and the younger ones no longer listen. This anthology is not only meant to archive these stories, but give them a second life to be read and told by new generations of Syrians wherever they may be, as well as introduce the world to these exciting folk tales. Before transforming them into written text, a residency was organized in cooperation with Al Balad theatre and Fabula Storytelling during the Seventh Hakaya festival in Amman in September 2014. This residency brought together 12 storytellers from Palestine, Jordan, Lebanon, Syria, and Sweden to transform some of these stories into repertoires for the storytellers to use in their future performances as one means to ensure that the stories will continue to have a life of their own. The next step was to transform the oral stories into written text, both colloquial and classical, and a renowned writer and editor with Palestinian, Jordanian, and Syrian roots, Zulaikha Abu Risha, accepted to undertake this difficult task. She reviewed all 55 stories selected by Paul Mattar who supervised the research process at ARCPA/Al Jana in Lebanon, and shortlisted 34 followed by another shortlist of 28 to end up with 21 stories that are included in this book. The stories were then translated into English by Serene Huleileh to be edited by Irish storyteller Jack Lynch and simultaneously recorded by two renowned Syrian storytellers/actors: Nimer Salamun and May Skaff. In every one of these steps a new layer was added to these stories whether by the editor or translator or storyteller, or even by the artistic medium itself. The anthology will be distributed as widely as possible in Sweden and in the MENA region, and will be accompanied by storytelling performances organized by Fabula storytelling in Sweden, Al Balad theatre in Jordan, and Al Jana in Lebanon. The performances will ensure that these stories continue to live on in the hearts, minds and traditions of
Syrians, host populations in the region and elsewhere in the world.

Stories are what we are made of, and if we lose our stories we risk losing touch with our humanity and our identity. We strongly believe that through the enhancement of this thousand-year-old heritage of storytelling the Hakawati project has a potential to bridge ethnic, political and religious divides and hopefully build better understanding between people.