“Since the people of Cairo have not come to us in Nubia, we have come to them.” With this tongue-in-cheek comment, Nubia writer Muhyeddin Saleh opened a recent evening dedicated to Nubian culture, heritage, and art at Bayt al-Sinnari in Cairo’s Islamic quarter. The event witnessed a book signing of Hawadeet Zeinab Kotod (Tales of Zeinab Kotod), translated from the Nubian language to Arabic by Mr Saleh who expressed his gratitude to the Bibliotheca Alexandrina (BA) and its Centre for Documentation of Cultural and Natural Heritage (CULTNAT) by whose virtue the book was published. CULTNAT, which was established in 2000, is a research centre affiliated to the BA and supported by the Ministry of Communication and Information Technology, that aims at documenting and disseminating Egypt’s cultural heritage, the tangible and the intangible, through state-of-the-art technology.
Bayt al-Sennari, an 18th-century house that is a splendid example of Islamic mediaeval-style grand homes, and which is used as the Cairo outlet of Alexandria’s BA, constituted the perfect romantic backdrop to the Nubian celebration.
Parallel to the book signing, an exhibition was held featuring artworks by Salma Kamal, who illustrated the book and designed its cover. Kamal’s paintings reflect the uncomplicated Nubian life with its vivid colours and the legends of Nubia with their profound symbols.
Musical entertainment was provided by the Nubian band Ashry Joe, and there was also a fair of Nubian handicrafts.
Hawadeet Zeinab Kotod contains 15 tales from timeless Nubian storytelling heritage narrated by the writer’s maternal grandmother, Zeinab Kotod. The book was signed by Youssef Shaarawi, son of the late Ibrahim Shaarawi who wrote the book.
“I have the honour of being part of this book,” Kamal said. “Because I am so fond of Nubia, I eagerly read the tales. They left a deep impression on my soul, and I expressed them according to my essence and imagination.
“I come from Cairo, but I have been granted ‘honorary Nubian nationality’ by the Nubian people,” she cheerfully said in response to the general admiration of her paintings. Kamal also expressed her wish to see this book published outside Egypt so that Nubian culture would have a wider audience.
The opening address was delivered by Muhammad Farouk, Head of the CULTNAT, who said: “This book is one of the most important publications of the centre, since it helps bond our Egyptian culture with the deep-rooted heritage of Nubia, a precious part of Egypt.”
“The author has compiled all kind of tales we heard when we were children,” said Zahran Muhammad Gabr, professor of comparative literature at al-Azhar University. The author Ibrahim Shaarawi heard them from his grandmother, Zeinab Kotod, and it was through her that his skill of storytelling was polished. Most of his previous books focused on ‘children’s literature’. Shaarawi wrote more than 50 books.
“Storytelling is one of the most difficult skills in literature,” Dr Gabr said.
Nubia’s Tom Thumb
Adel Moussa, Head of the Nubian Heritage Documentation project and one of the book’s editors, had a special role to play. Describing himself as a “storyteller”, Mr Moussa told one of the tales in the book, the story of Brokki, which attracted the attendants’ interest.
Brokki is one of the most popular childhood tales. It concerns a childless family that prays for a child, even if a weak little mouse, which is exactly what they get. The story continues to portray a series of incidents that the family goes through, led by the hero of the story: the little mouse Brokki.
“In 1860 the tale of Brokki was adapted by the Brothers Grimm, who added some modifications and named it Tom Thumb. So Nubian heritage has joined the ‘dialogue of cultures’,” Mr Saleh said.
Mr Moussa said the coming plan was to record these tales in a version for radio.
Kotod has been described as the pioneer of Nubian storytelling. In the Nubian language, ‘Ko’ denotes a legendary creature or lion, while ‘tod’ means son. Zeinab’s father was known as Kotod for his skills in horse riding and fighting. She was born in the Nubian village of al-Geneina wal-Shubbaak, the name of which translates into the Garden and the Window.
The book’s introduction refers to the storytelling principles adopted by Zeinab Kotod whose audience included children and grown-ups, male and female. She would narrate the shorter stories during the agricultural season when everyone was busy working the fields, and keep the longer ones for the season where her rural audience was more idle. She also told folkloric tales such as Al-Seera al-Hilaliya, also known as The One Whose Prayer is Answered.
Long live love!
The book’s 15 tales are accompanied by illustrations and drawings that transport the reader to a pure Nubia—the place and culture. Some of the tales form an interlinked series, whereas others are each on its own. There is a moral to each story.
The story Kill the Houseflies tells of a harmful housefly that ultimately causes an upheaval in the environment. The ruler finally orders it killed. The moral shows how damaging it is to disrespect others.
Samaha and Qamaha is another tale of two little girls, one golden hearted while the other cares about nothing but play and food. The indolent one loses all that is important in life, but the good girl wins because of her kind heart and concern.
Women play a vital role in ten out of Kotod’s 15 tales; they feature as the main characters: little girls, wives, mothers, and grandmothers. The men are the heroes in only five tales.
More than three tales feature the Erekbi, the legendary beast that depicts the god of evil in Nubia, as a pivotal character. But humans overcome al-Erekbi through wit, intelligence, and pure good intention.
All the tales end with good triumphing over evil even if after a period of misery; comfort in life is realised only after suffering.
Love is a precious value that dominates all the tales of Zeinab Kotod. Her stories are not mere tales; they possess values that have the power to last forever.
15 March 2017