I am writing this as I am high in the air, returning from an all too brief stint in the Emirates, where I was telling stories for students from ages 4-15 at the American Community School, an international school in Abu Dhabi. I am fortunate enough to have had several experiences like this in the last few years – and while yes, I was in some very different cultures – Thailand, Argentina, China, none were as different as this. For although the malls in Dubai make the Mall of the Americas in the Midwest look like a bodega, the fact that this is a truly spiritual land is never completely lost.
As I strolled past the Dolce Gabana store, and gazed at the indoor ice rink in one massive shopping complex, the call to prayer rang out even there, and shops that sported the most opulent merchandise imaginable put out signs saying “Closed for Prayer”. The greeting –
As – Salamu Alaykum - meaning “Peace be with you.” is their hello, and for many people, the traditional robes, while not dictated here, are their preference, a way of showing their dedication to their faith.
What I know about Islam is slight, and so as I was thinking on what stories I would tell and yes, what I would wear, I grew worried. I feared being disrespectful, and being the quintessential “Ugly American”. In a time where hate is swirling around like leaves in the fall, I in no way wanted to add to that, especially since the company that was producing this, Pana Wakke run by my dear friend, Sonia, is all about educating from the heart.
My list of questions for the school administrators was long – what animals – I already knew pig and donkey were out - what words – I knew magic was probably not a good idea – were appropriate???? And that is when, ONCE AGAIN, folktales saved me, for the school’s core values are: Courage, Curiosity, Compassion, and Integrity – I almost laughed when I saw that for what they did not know was that it is rare to find a folktale that doesn’t have those things.
So, my favorite story about my Nanny and the Voodoo Woman was out, as was the pig in Juan Bobo and the Pig. Lazy Jack picked up a horse, instead of a donkey. My demon in one story, was just a monster, but the core of the stories remained, because these marvelous tales teach the very things that the teachers at the school wanted their students to learn. And folktales have been doing that for longer than anyone can remember – all around the globe, in countries that would never say they have anything in common with other lands, their stories run parallel to, and echo each other. Because, and this is just my opinion, the Core Values of the American Community School, and the Core Values of Folktales speak to the heart of all of us, no matter where we live or what call to prayer, if any, we answer.