Throughout my life, I’ve devoted an increasing amount of time to gathering stories from all corners of the world. It started in my late teens, when I began to criss-cross the continents in a crazed preoccupation with folklore. I developed a first-hand love affair with societies that, over millennia, gave birth to their own astonishing traditions of stories and storytelling.
Most of the time, when reading or listening to tales, we forget that they have been shaped through the passage of time. Like pebbles in a river smoothed by rushing waters, they were honed through centuries of telling and retelling.
When I was twelve years old, my father published a masterwork, World Tales. The first edition was very large and featured hundreds of original illustrations. The book was unlike any that had come before, for it detailed the provenance and history of each story told.
At bedtime one night, he presented me with an advanced copy. For as long as I could remember, my father had been talking about the project.
Having an actual copy in my hands at last was thrilling beyond words.
Peering down at me sternly, my father said:
‘This is far more than a book, Tahir Jan. It’s the foundation stone of a great building… a building that is human culture. As you grow older, and as you go out into the world, you will understand that the folklores contained between the covers of World Tales have brought amusement and educated, and have solved problems when they were needed most of all.’
My father was right.
When I eventually headed out into the wilds of the world for the first time, I discovered the stories contained in World Tales for myself, along with a great many more. Just as he said, the stories published in his treasury were the warp and weft threads of society. Stories are the matrix on which culture itself is based – a framework that enables daily life to continue as smoothly as it does.
The Occidental world seems to assume stories must appear in certain regimented ways – presented with a well-defined beginning, a middle, and an end. You know what I mean: the protagonist winning against all odds, and the happy ending to it all.
In the ancient tradition of teaching stories, the kind recounted for an eternity around campfires in the desert and in longhouses deep in the jungle, there’s no such standardisation.
Rather, there’s usually a hotchpotch of conflicting threads: stories without a straight linear narrative but with an underlying turbulence that gets the reader, or the listener, to sit up and think.
At The Scheherazade Foundation, we are preoccupied with the way we can extract knowledge from stories – either deliberately, or in a less structured way.
We hold the firm opinion that stories are best served up in the same way they were passed from one generation to the next throughout human history.
Intriguingly, some tales now appear dated because vocabulary and writing styles have altered. But the fact that they seem old-fashioned is of great interest – proof of the way stories are constantly changing and evolving from one era to the next.
Over the last thirty years, I’ve gathered hundreds of tales on my own journeys, most of them spoken directly into my ears by storytellers and fellow travellers, by wizened old men in the middle of nowhere, and by anyone else good enough to indulge my pleas.
On all those zigzagging adventures, one story sticks out, tantalising me whenever I turn it around my head.
It was called ‘The Man Who Turned into a Cat’.
The reason I mention it here is not because it was an especially fine tale, but rather because, from that moment, it affected the way I perceive the world.
It was as though I were a lock and that, by hearing the tale, a key had been slipped into me and turned.
Since first receiving it, I’ve never been quite the same, my state of consciousness having been flipped inside out.
The fellow traveller who recounted ‘The Man Who Turned into a Cat’ was lost in shadow, no more than a fragment of his left cheek protruding shyly into the light.
We were sitting on low divans in a teahouse in the ancient Afghan city of Herat.
When the tale had been whispered, I sat there in silence.
‘What have you done to me?’ I asked after a long pause.
The fellow traveller offered half a smile.
‘I didn’t do anything,’ he replied. ‘It’s the story that’s affected you – a story that I myself first heard when I was a child playing in the orchards of Balkh.’
Peering into the shadow, my eyes widened.
‘I don’t understand,’ I said feebly. ‘After all, it’s not an especially grand story. There wasn’t even a jinn.’
The traveller’s mouth eased out from the shadows.
Very slowly, it grinned.
‘Tales containing the greatest sustenance for a soul speak in the softest voice,’ he said.