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Genies, Sheiks, Tinkers: Scholar Brings Unpublished Iraqi Folktales to Light

Story posted August 17, 2005

If it were a tale from The Arabian Nights, it might be titled, "The Scholar and the Hidden Treasure."

Archival papers

In 1988, Assistant Professor of Religion Jorunn Buckley received a cardboard box filled with aged, yellow papers. What the casual observer might consider trash, Buckley recognized for what it was: invaluable scholarly archives from Lady E.S. Drower, one of the most prominent women novelists and ethnographers of the Near East during the first half of the 20th century.

Buckley had a decided interest in Drower's notes and correspondence. Much of it pertained to her study of the Mandaeans, an ancient Gnostic religious sect from Iraq and Iran who increasingly face religious persecution and exile from their homelands.

Buckley is the world's leading expert on the Mandaeans and author of The Mandaeans: Ancient Texts and Modern People (Oxford University Press, 2002).

As Buckley sorted through the papers, which were given to her by the late Lady Drower's family, she stumbled across a stack of hand-typed Iraqi folk tales. Upon further inspection, Buckley realized that none of the tales had ever been published.

"They are about genies, sheiks, monsters," says Buckley, "about falling in love with the wrong kind of species. They are stories of food, power, marriage, water, gender, the low and the rich."

Buckley has spent the summer editing the tales in preparation for their upcoming publication by Gorgias Press (New Jersey). An earlier volume of Iraqi folk tales was published by Lady Drower in 1931, but currently is out of print.

While her foray into Iraqi folk tales is a detour from her primary scholarship, and her growing work with Amnesty International and other groups on behalf of exiled Mandaeans, Buckley says the stories "put a human face on the Iraqi culture from a very unexpected angle. It's an important thing with the war going on."

What makes the tales arresting is the form in which they were recorded. Lady Brower gathered the stories entirely from oral tradition -- in the marketplaces, coffee shops, and private homes in and around Baghdad in the 1920s and 1930s.

jorunn1.jpg"The stories put a human face on the Iraqi culture," says Buckley. "It's an important thing with the war going on."

"Up until WWII, there were professional storytellers," notes Buckley. "It is an ancient art form that is dying out now. All of these stories were told to her - you can see her notes on the top of the page: Told by a Shiah tribesman near Khidhr on the Euphrates."

Their preservation in an oral tradition gives them a lively tone and sometimes surprisingly modern detail. "The stories have things in them that are part of the reality of when the storyteller is telling them," says Buckley. "A fairy will call on the telephone, for instance. There are cars and airplanes. It is a living tradition; people in Iraq believe that the world of these stories is a separate reality that exists with their own. That's what makes it so vivid."

Drower herself was something of a legend. The aristocratic wife of a British consul in Iraq in the 1920s, she already had drawn wide acclaim for her novels set in the Near East. Dissatisfied with the life of an aristocrat in exile, Drower set out to study the people of Iraq and developed a profound knowledge of Mandaean language and religious rites.

She published several books about the Mandaeans, and amassed the world's largest collection of Mandaean manuscripts, which contains liturgy, ritual texts and priestly esoteric works reflecting Mandaean tradition as far back as the third century A.D. Most of these texts are now housed in the Bodleian Library at Oxford University - while some of her papers went to her scholarly successor, Jorunn Buckley.

Buckley met Drower in 1971, when the dowager-anthropologist was 91. "She was astonished at my seriousness in studying in the Mandaeans," says Buckley. "She said she hadn't met a young person for years interested in this."

Buckley, who joined the Bowdoin faculty in 1999, is the author of four books. Her forthcoming book, The Great Stem of Souls: Reconstructing Mandaean History (Gorgias Press, 2005) traces Mandaean priestly lineages from the 3rd century A.D. to the present day.

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