The Tortoise's Tale

"... we went to school in the sea. The Master was an old turtle-we used to call him Tortoise-"
"Why did you call him Tortoise, if he wasn't one?" Alice asked.
"We called him Tortoise, because he taught us, " said the Mock Turtle

Jill P. May, editor

Folktales, Children’s Literature and National Identity in the United Arab Emirates

Rida Blaik Hourani

Dr Rida Blaik Hourani earned her Ph.D. in Policy and Management from The University of Melbourne. Dr Blaik Hourani has worked at various higher education institutions, has taught and authored diverse courses in both education and social sciences disciplines, and she lectures within the realm of education leadership, school management, curriculum and instruction, peace studies, school reforms, cultural studies and sociology of education.  She has recently assumed the position of Division Head of Educational Leadership - Arts and Humanities at Emirates College for Advanced Education, after holding the position of Division Head for Arts and Humanities at that institution for several years.
Dr. Rida Blaik Hourani has numerous publications; her research focus is in policy and leadership, school reforms and innovation, sociology of education and cultural studies.  She is an author of a book, What Palestine do we teach?: the History curriculum for Palestinian Arabs, 1861 - 1999.


This research explores UAE folktales and attempts to analyze the content of these folktales, for eventual construction of children’s literature, for and with UAE lower primary school students. Consequently, this paves the way for language arts subjects to promote literacy through the narration of UAE folktales that are constructed within the UAE cultural index.

Context of the Study

The intention of this study falls within the scope of Abu Dhabi Education Council (ADEC) national and social perspectives of school reforms. Preserving and presenting the national and cultural identity of the UAE is one of the pillars that ADEC Policy Agenda and the UAE Ministry of Youth, Community and Development have endorsed, rendering this research significant (ADEC 2009). His Highness Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed Al Nahayan, President of the United Arab Emirates, called for 2008 to be a year of national identity and heritage. His Highness’s call was in line with the strategic vision adopted by the federal government, that aimed at the promotion and protection of national identity and heritage. Accordingly, this leads to launch of a cultural index for the sake of developing the community and its national heritage.

Since 2009, a new subject called ‘Integrated Social Studies’ was introduced to schools or the first time, as part of the curriculum changes to cycle-1. This embodies a national education and heritage component. According to ADEC’s Strategic Plan for P-12 (2009-2018), cultural engagement and active citizenry are part of Abu Dhabi Education aspirations (ADEC 2009). Hence, cultural, national and civic teachings were integrated in the social studies curriculum across the school cycle-1 teaching.  As stated by the UAE Ministry of Culture, Youth and Community Development “Integrated social studies will be taught three periods a week and has been especially designed to help strengthen a student’s cultural and national identity …. in order to contribute positively to the environment and society” (Gulf News, August 26, 2013).  In the words of His Highness Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed Al Nahayan, President of the UAE: "He, who has no identity, does not exist in the present and has no place in the future". ("National Identity", 2015) Therefore, the Ministry of Culture, Youth and Community Development is striving to make the development of the national and cultural identity a prime target for its present and future strategy and plans.

In line with this orientation, the Ministry of Culture, Youth and Community Development is striving to consolidate and promote several initiatives encompassing the six pillars that support the nurturing of the national and civic education and socio-cultural heritage. Those initiatives aim at enhancing a sense of belonging to the homeland and enshrining the sense of social responsibility at all levels. The ministry also aims at preserving the Emirati identity and national heritage, striving to strengthen the interdependence and solidarity of its members around a set of concepts related to the citizenry and socio-cultural heritage through the school curricula. From the ministry's strategic objectives emerged the idea of establishing a cultural index, to analyze and measure the country’s cultural status, through a well-rehearsed advanced methodology and implementation mechanism that cover all the UAE Emirates, and which would take into account the diversity and specificity of each Emirate.  Consequently, The Ministry of Culture, Youth and Community Development (MCYCD) created a cultural index that is the first of its kind in this domain in all Arab countries.  This gives the UAE the lead in applying the cultural index, laying the foundations and drawing the methodologies that allow other countries to apply in the future.  Within the above scope of the UAE strategic dimension, this paper considers several elements: the UAE folktales and their cultural implications, the extent that UAE folktales fall within the spectrum of the cultural index determined by the Ministry of  MCYCD, and appropriateness of the folktales as literary content for children.

Research Frame

Children’s literature consists of a wide variety of genres such as fantasy (including folktales, fables, myths and legends) and fiction (such as science fiction and historical fiction), informational books, picture books, biography and poetry.  It has also often been used deliberately to construct and develop the language and literacy skills and creative thinking skills of young readers.  Moreover, it functions as a catalyst to modify behavior and as a vehicle for promoting acceptable and desirable social attitudes, through instilling approved values.  This section illustrates the significance of folktales and their educative and cultural roles in learning, behavioral modification, acquisition of values and cultural transmission.

Children’s Literature, folktales and storytelling

Although many of the early titles of books for children included the word “amusing”, their main purpose is usually to instruct and moralize.  Children’s literature is a mixture of the fanciful overladen with glimpses of morality, through teachings that may portray traditions, customs, social and civic values. Though children may not be intrigued with the moral, cultural values in stories, they unconsciously assimilate to these values by means of narration and role playing. Folktales are recognized as a source of learning. There is a wealth of recent research available on folktales, where they (folktales) can function as primary sources in complex research projects like any other literature (Jenkins, 2002, and Hanlon, 2000). 

Jenkins (2002) indicates that folktales in children’s literature are valued for sharing indigenous and local cultures, which can easily vanish in the midst of urbanization and globalization. Jenkins (2002) adds that traditionally a primary reason for publishing folktales stemmed from ethnographic, multicultural and nation-building studies.  It was noted that folktales need to be preserved as historical artifacts for their importance in enduring and employing ethical, moral and social-cultural values, as well as cultural tolerance and accepting the “Other" (Jenkins, 2002).

Children love stories. They fabricate interesting images in their minds when listening to a story. Teaching by storytelling, therefore, is one method of teaching values, ethics and citizenship. Teachers can employ narration in any lesson presentation to enhance knowledge construction and knowledge processing (Hanlon, 2000).

The historical development of storytelling goes back to the times when societies began. For millennia stories have moulded children's characters by carrying many social, moral and cultural values.  The teacher (and primary school teacher in particular) has assumed this important role of storytelling for knowledge construction (Zavan, 2010).  Since primary education is more concerned with teaching of values, storytelling becomes a very important method of this teaching and, in particular, in language arts.  Therefore, traditional folk stories have great significance in the system of modern education. Storytelling has more benefits as an effective method of instruction, because it involves many mediums of communication.  Stories broaden the knowledge of the children in the cultural beliefs and activities, and storytelling also establishes good relationships among pupils and their teacher (Zavan, 2010).

According to Hanlon (2000), teaching through folktales is practical, fun and engaging, since folklore stories themselves are entertaining. Most folktales from oral traditions use patterns of language and plot that make them easy to retell and consequently dear to the hearts of tellers and listeners.

Folktales and culture

Folktales act as cultural transmitters (Leimgruber, 2010).  Every culture has long traditions of oral storytelling. Students can learn about their own culture and transmit their own culture to others by studying folklore, by collecting folklore from their own families and communities, and by writing or dramatizing their own variants of traditional tales and rhymes.  Once educators and students start looking, they can find allusions to familiar folk heroes, rhymes, and sayings throughout popular culture (Hanlon, 2000).  Folktales are universal and enhance globalization of cultural knowledge.  Although it is interesting to compare culturally specific details in folklore from different times and places, one of the most intriguing phenomena in human experience is the similarities in stories with universal themes from all over the world.  For example, there are obvious historical connections between the Appalachian "Ashpet” and the German “Ashputtel" that European settlers in Appalachia would have known.  There are stories that are similar to Cinderella motifs also found in ancient African and Asian traditions.  There are many fascinating theories about the universal elements in world folklore and myth, in addition to the localization and cultural unique features of folktales (Hanlon, 2000), but (unfortunately) this is beyond the scope of this study.

Folktales reflect infinitely meaningful socio-cultural codes, moral and civic values.  Because folktales represent human experience through symbols and archetypes, there is room for endless debate about how to interpret particular tales.  These tales also provide excellent examples of the symbolism of socio-cultural codes that may be conveyed in children’s literature (Jenkins, 2002 and Hanlon, 2000).   They also tend to preserve oral history, andlink oral and written literatures of the world (Jenkins, 2002 and Hanlon, 2000).  According to Hanlon (2000), educators often forget that all literature developed originally from oral traditions, and that most people in human history had no writing system to record their languages and stories.  Storytelling is still alive as an oral tradition in many places.  Thus folklore works well when teaching oral skills, speech drama and social values.

Folktales and school teaching and learning

Folktales bridge the link of popular culture and heritage with academic subjectsand skills such as literacy, drama, music, civic education and social studies. Almost every type of literary and cultural analysis has been applied to folklore, so short or familiar pieces from oral traditions can be used to introduce longer works of literature.  Many of these have mythological or folkloric roots or themes, as well as topics in history, geography, social studies, fine arts, and moral and civic education.  For example, Caduto and Bruchac’s Keepers of the Earth (1988) links Native American tales from different regions (geographic theme) with environmental activities for children (Hanlon 2000).  The use of these environmental elements is also described in Icelandic folktales by Thorvarðardóttir (1999), while in this online lesson plan, students can learn about American historical characters from America's folktales.  Students achieve historical knowledge and skills in social studies through reading short stories about ten historical characters from American folklore, matching a statement about each American folklore hero character with the correct character, rewriting one of the ten stories in their own words with emphasis on the moral and civic values learnt and connecting the story they choose to the place on a U.S. map where it took place. Therefore, folktales can be employed as means to teach language arts and to instill values and develop desirable attitudes.

Storytelling and modifying behavior

Moreover, storytelling and children’s literatures are means and catalysts for behavioral management, behavioral modification and modeling desirable behavior.  The process of shaping behavior is gradual; that is why behavior modification generally includes a plan of short-and long-term goals. This includes developing long-term attitudes and perceptions of what is desirable (Zavan, 2010).   Parents, guardians and educators tend to intervene directly to reinforce behavior positively or negatively rather than giving room for children to reflect on a malpractice and improving it through self-discipline or intrinsically. Reflective practice on mal-behavior or misbehavior is complex and necessary, though not a common trend in behavioral modification.  Punishment and rewards tend to have the upper hand in children‘s bringing up (Maffini, 2010). Reflective practice is the capacity to reflect on action so as to engage in a process of continuous learning, developing and manage undesirable behavior and adopt desirable attitudes. Self-reflection is a skill that children of all ages need to develop, as this skill will help kids towards adulthood in many ways, including developing their self-esteem.  Self-reflection for children means that being able to think about what they have done and to in order to modify their attitudes and undesirable behaviors (Maffini, 2012).

However, Blaik Hourani (2012) indicates that children still tend to be punished or rewarded for their behavior, rather than reflecting on their behavior for modification to construct attitudes and perceptions.  Yet it is recognized that children need to be exposed to behavioral self- reflection drills in order to explore their interests and develop their social attitudes.

Cultural development and transmission

Culture itself has multiple definitions. According to some definitions, it consists of two types:

1) popular culture: This includes food, entertainment, traditional dress

2) refined culture: literature, music and the arts. 

Generally, culture can be conceived as a set of beliefs, values and attitudes shared by society. Beliefs are, by definition, standards by which members of the community identify. It should be noted, however, that culture generates tremendous momentum through successive generations, and always remains subject to change. People's attitudes and codes of conduct are more likely to change than their values and beliefs. Culture is acquired as it transmits from generation to generation through family, religious traditions, educational and social means. The elements of culture reflect the values and virtues implied in a culture and the social behavior in favor of ethical foundations and citizenry ("National Identity", 2015).

The MCYCD program builds on the words of his Highness Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed, Al Nahyan, noted earlier, that "He has no identity, does not exist in the present, and has no place in the future," recognizing that pro-development communities enjoy moral, ethical and knowledge values that enable them to progress and develop through the promotion of these values among their members. However, communities whose members practise and entertain anti-development values are more likely to suffer a decline in their development and remain backward-looking and unable to attain prosperity. 

Cultural development needs several tools to be supported in the community. These tools need to be directed towards progress and societal advancement, otherwise, they can become tools of destruction, if their use is not directed or aimed at development and upgrading culture and behavior ("National Identity", 2015).  The most important tool of cultural development that affects culture is education.  Culture plays a major factor in shaping education, and in certain instances, it can even supersede children’s formal education. More specifically, children’s education may be the most effective mechanism for the transfer of culture, since children (especially at a young age) learn religion, language, values, morals and basic components of their personalities, from their parents, teachers and educative community. They are establishing these elements, rather than simply replacing or reviewing prior knowledge. Cultural learning and cultural transmission take place formally and informally through home and school education, and folktales are key parts of the cultural substance that children acquire through home and school. Nevertheless there is also a chance that transmission of cultural content through some of the folktales may be inappropriate and not within the cultural index or milieu desired by the educating authority or the responsible adults guiding those children.

Appropriateness of Folktales as an educative value transitive mean

Not all folktales are appropriate educative tools. Though parents and guardian inherit folktales that are considered catalysts for cultural knowledge, misconceptions and mythical notions can be conveyed simultaneously, most of the time not deliberately and unintentionally. Folktales may play a negative role in a number of ways; for instance if they carry stereotypical images or convey prejudice, portray fear or transmit aggression, carry anti-social meanings or convey unethical notions, model immoral deeds, proclaim racist and gender segregation symbols, or display manifestations of anger and violence. Under the MCYCD program, folktales need to enhance social development and ethical, moral values and positive behavior.  Boudinot (2005) indicates that: “The use of fear and violence in folk and fairy tales is a contentious issue that illuminates disparities of societal difference between those firmly entrenched in beliefs of righteousness and others who believe no harm is done by frightening children with folklore”  (p. 3). Some people believe that children need to be shielded from all displays of violence, especially violence found in folktales, because children might model it and bring harm to themselves or others. Conversely, there is some supportive evidence from educators and sociologists that show fear and violence in folktales contributing to a safer and more educated society (Boudinot, 2005) by “vaccinating” children with small doses of these unpleasantries from the safety of a book.  Whether this is seen as positive or negative, with roots in the oral tradition, folktales have provided a vehicle for sharing caution, phobias, fears, and values.

Zipes (2002) says that at the beginning, literary folktales were written and published for adults, and though they were intended to reinforce the mores and values, they were so symbolical and could be read on so many different levels that they were considered somewhat dangerous. While social behavior could not be totally dictated, prescribed, and controlled through folktales, there certainly were subversive features in language and themes that are now considered dangerous for children on emotional and social levels. This is one of the reasons that early literary folktales and fairy tales were not particularly approved for children.  Historians of folktales, such as Marina Warner, Bruno Bettelheim, and Jack Zipes, agree that the exact origins of folktales remain cloudy and uncertain because we cannot pinpoint exactly how a tale began and who was the originator. Over time, folktales have been created organically and moved haphazardly across borders, societies, and generations germinating minds like pollen being spread by the wind (Boudinot, 2005, p.5).

According to Zipes (2002) fear and violence in many forms have permeated societies around the world since the beginning of time, so it is no surprise that these themes are prevalent in folk and fairy tales. Stories of monsters eating children, parents beating their young, and witches putting spells and curses on beautiful maidens are only a few of the many fantastical examples of violence, cruelty, and fear evident in folktales. Though the purpose of folktales was to instill caution, protection and safety, fairy tales can also demonstrate betrayal, fear, phobias, feuds, quarrels, hatred and jealousy. Readers are faced with the ugly sides of mankind, but also learn to mobilize capabilities in order to deal with these dark forces.

On the other hand, teaching fear through folktales tales is a proven method of helping children learn about safety and can help improve a child's judgment and critical thinking skills. Fear is an instinctual aid to survival, according to the British naturalist Charles Darwin, and it shapes psychological and sociological structures. "Darwin speculated that fear's instinctual symptoms evolved, like all other features of life, because they aided survival. Fear was a response to some threat in the environment, especially to the approach of a predator." (Darwin cited in Boudinot, 2005, p.6).

In many folktales and oral traditions these "predators" are imaginary creatures such as trolls, ogres, and giants who serve the purpose of frightening children away from dangerous situations. In Iceland, stories are told to children about elves and trolls inhabiting hillocks and boulders. "Oral tales concerning Icelandic elves and trolls no doubt served as warning fables. They prevented many children from wandering away from human habitations, taught Iceland's topographical history, and instilled fear and respect for the harsh powers of nature." (Thorvarðardóttir, 1999, p. 33). The cautionary folk tale can be traced to cultures all over the world and in each instance fear is used to warn children of certain dangers. For example, children are warned of the threat of being kidnapped in Native American folklore by "Basket Woman," a cackling ogress who creeps up on children when they are out past their bedtimes. She whacks their heads with a cane, collects the bodies in her basket, and later drops them in a pot of boiling water to cook for dinner. As with most folktales, in the end, the victims triumph through cleverness and a little bit of luck, and manage to escape from the ogress who ends up melting away in the boiling pot. (Livo, 1994). In cultures all around the world, folktales demonstrate protection and safety of children.  In Nigeria, a folktale about a woman named "Mommy Water" is told to children to scare them away from waterways and village wells, which are often non-childproofed unprotected holes in the sand. Tom Weakley, a volunteer of the Earth Watch project established in Nigeria wrote: [P]arents will tell their children not to go near the river or wander down to the lake or the canals because there is a person down there, usually a woman, who lives in the water and who cries out for her lost child. And if they get too close to the water or the canal, she will reach out her hand and grab their leg and drag them into the water. (Livo, 1994, p.7).

Nevertheless, according to Boudinot (2005), if no violent or potentially tragic outcome is written into the folk tale, children will be less likely to heed warning and steer clear of danger. For instance, if the "Mommy Water" tale was about a nice old woman who gave away candy in the wells or the trolls in Icelandic folktales allowed children to magically fly from the rocks, the rate of accidents involving children would likely rise.

It is important to recognize that perceptions of fear and violence are narrated and traced in oral history and folktales, and that these negative meanings and messages in folktales need to be analyzed; simultaneously, the identity of cultural knowledge and preserving the heritage of oral literature is significant.  Therefore it is essential to research the folktales in the midst of the dynamics of globalization, where researchers examine the context of the folktales to determine appropriate and educative children’s literature. As times change, so do the meanings of folk and fairytales—what was once simply frightening needs to be transmitted into more educative and meaningful content (Boudinot, 2005).

Cultural exposure is embedded within the school, home and society on formal and informal levels.  As folktales can be educative and are a means for teaching socio-cultural, moral, national and civic values, an option for educational authorities is to provide a general cultural index for the development of children’s education at the pre-schooling and early primary years stages, and reforming education in a way that children are exposed to a sense of cultural awareness and belonging.  The UAE cultural index framework for endorsing folktales, heritage and socio-cultural learning and involvement is one such program.

Enhancement of values and UAE cultural index

In the UAE, a cultural index has been provided for pre-school, primary, secondary and higher education. This cultural context features social responsibility, characterization of ethical values and citizenry, and its triggered an analysis of the content of the UAE folktales that underpin the educational and behavioural aspects discussed above. The Ministry of MCYCD distributed forty-nine initiatives to strengthen the national, civic, socio-cultural and moral values that seek to consolidate the sense of belonging to the homeland, ethical values and the spirit of social responsibility among all community members. The following features were derived from these forty-nine initiatives and hence constitute the conceptual framework of this study:

    1. Protection of the UAE’s heritage.
    2. Promoting art and folklore through the organization of cultural activities.
    3. Finding safe havens for meetings of the members of the community through strengthening the cultural exchange.
    4. Instilling a sense of national responsibility in children through the development of national education curriculum in schools.
    5. Promoting children’s passion to read through the launch of a national campaign to encourage reading and providing children with books.

      ("National Identity", 2015).

Nonetheless, while these features are embedded in the cultural index, they are not necessarily reflected in the UAE oral, cultural heritage characterized by the folktales collected and researched.


This research falls within the cultural studies paradigm, a pluralist field of contesting perspective. Cultural studies explore culture as the signifying practices of representation with the context of social power. It coheres conceptually around the key ideas of culture, signifying practices, representation, discourse, articulation and texts.   Cultural studie” is an interdisciplinary or post-disciplinary field of inquiry, which explores the production and inculcation of maps of meaning and can be described as a language-game or discursive formation concerned with issues signifying practices of human life. Above all, the field of cultural studies is an exciting and fluid project that tells us stories about our changing world (Barker, 2000).

The field of cultural studies is interdisciplinary and reflective. Thus, it embodies various disciplines: history, sociology, education, literature and politics as an integrative entity (Denzin and Lincoln, 2003).

Research Questions

This study addresses several key research questions: what social, moral, national, civic, religious and cultural values and themes do UAE folktales reflect? Do the folktales fall within the scope of the UAE cultural index, set by The Ministry of Culture, Youth and Community Development?  How appropriate is the content endorsed in these folktales for children, in terms of the themes, messages, morals and values conveyed?

Research tools

This research is a content analysis of UAE folktales, in particular, social semiotic aspects of folktales will be explored and analyzed in this research (Denzin and Lincoln, 2003).

Data Collection

The dimension of the study conducted revolves around collecting UAE folktales and determining social, national, religious, moral and civic values that this oral literature reflects. This research involved UAE nationals, where the researcher collected UAE folktales from these community members through a higher education institution in Abu Dhabi. The participants’ folktales narrators were 25 community members from both genders and from different age groups that varied between 21-74 years old.  Folktales narrated by the participants were transcribed but, due to socio-cultural inhibitions, the folktales narrations were not voice recorded.  Following the participants’ narrations of the folktales, semi-structured interviews were conducted on an individual basis with each participant. The semi-structured interviews inquired about UAE folktales with which participants were familiar and symbols and values each narrated story reflected or conveyed, the perceived purpose and moral of each story, and the perceived appropriateness or inappropriateness of these folktales for children.Throughout this data collection stage, the researcher traced and analyzed five UAE folktales around which children’s oral literature revolved. Cross-narrative authenticity of these folktales was conducted for precision and reliability.  The narrations were coded and decoded and followed by content analysis of the folktales gathered. Values stemming from these folktales were tabulated according to the following values: social, cultural, moral, religious, national, and civic.

Participants who narrated these stories were from different age groups (20s-70s) and were members of the UAE community; narration was uniform.  None of the folktales was rejected by the participants, though participants stated a few comments indicating that they felt inappropriate themes and messages were conveyed in the folktales. The participants’ comments and responses were incorporated in the implications of the study. 

Despite the rich data collected, a limitation was noted by the researcher in relation to the lack of depth of some participants’ responses.   Nevertheless, this did not hinder the researcher from addressing follow up questions. These stories were endorsed in the findings; none were excluded and hence no selection or elimination of any narration took place.


The findings endorsed five popular Emirati folktales: “ Um Al Soua’f Wa Leef”, “ Hemarat  Al  Qayleh”, “ Al Jathoom”, “ Um Dways”  and “ Bu Diryan”. These stories reflected social, religious and health/ hygiene elements. The findings below describe the content of these folktales and their symbolic representations as described by the participants/ narrators.

Um   Al Soua’f Wa Leef

This folktale presents a dead and infertile palm tree trunk, which was haunted by Djenie, so it can harm and torture humans and men in particular. “Um Al Soua’f Wa Leef” is found in dumps and deserted places. The story states: Once upon a time a man went to a tree called “"Umm Al Soua’f Wa Leef” and as he stood next to it, he was so scared and terrified because he saw the palm tree truck rolling towards him. The man was scared to death and he couldn’t overcome his fear and reach salvation until he read Qur’anic verses. The Djenie living in the tree haunted the old man because he approached the tree.  The man was so scared and was attacked by the evil spirits.  In the end, the old man recovers from the evil spirits only when he read verses of the Qur’an.  At this stage, his body is cleansed and the evil spirits are kicked out due to the religious Qur’anic impact and conclusively he stays is saved from sinful deeds.

The word “Soua’f” is an Arabic term that means the palm tree leaves and “Leef” is synonym of sponge (in Arabic).  According to Emirati popular folktale, both words represent an ugly, dead, non-productive and infertile palm tree that is synonym to an infertile wicked old-maid who targets men, emits evilness and triggers sinful deeds.   “Um Al Soua’f Wa Leef” is a palm tree that has been occupied by a Djenie that is found in deserted places, dumps and far away farms. 

Emirati participants of these popular folktales gave multiple implications and symbolic interpretation to the folktale “Um Al Soua’f Wa Leef”: firstly, to scare children from going far away, so they do not get lost or harm themselves; secondly reading Qur’anic verses is significant for salvation and protection; and thirdly, men should stay away from old-maids and wicked women who trigger sins.

Hemaret Al Qayleh

Amazingly this is a children’s story. "Hemaret" is a synonym the female donkey in Arabic and "Al Qayleh" means afternoon nap time. The story is about ugly scary half-women and half-donkey that appears only during midday when the sun is very strong. "Hemaret Al Qayleh" kidnaps and kills children in the middle of the day and during strong sunshine.   According to the Emirati participants, this story was narrated to scare children from going outside during sunny mid-day time and going out on their own unaccompanied by adults.   By breaching these two forbidden actions, children will be kidnapped or become sick from sun-stroke and eventually die.  According to the Emirati folktale, “Hemarat Al Qayleh” is featured as a very terrifying and disgusting woman whose upper body is a donkey and lower body is a human body. In this folktale the scary figure is also a female.

Al Jathoom

"Al Jathoom" means the one who sits comfortably on the floor, and is a nick-name for a bulky scary creatureAccording to the popular folktale narrators,it is arguable whether it has any shape or a form or whether it takes the form and shape of an ugly and scary women with long hair; whichever, the creature sits inside the chest of a human and tries to suffocate humans and paralyze them helplessly, so they cannot speak  or scream. Moreover, according to the narrations, this creature kills people who d not pray or fail to fulfill their religious duties.  The “Al Jathoom” only hurts people who neglect their religious duties and prayers and only harms non-religious people who are overwhelmed with worldly joys, physical pleasures and laughter. According to the narrators, “Al Jathoom” will come at night and suffocate non-religious people who do not practice Islam and who embrace worldly indulgence.

Um Dways

"Um Dways" means the mother of sickles, in Arabic.  "Um Dways" has cat’s eyes and donkey’s legs. Nonetheless, "Um Dways" is a beautiful seductive woman.  Sometimes she comes in an image of a child. She can transfer from a woman to a beautiful baby girl, in order  to deceive men  and tempt them so they sin and commit adultery . “Um Dways” attacks men who intend to commit adultery and sinful deeds.

Bu Diryan

According to the Emirati narrators, “Bu Diryan” is an ugly, giant creature who controls the water and underwater worlds. Big chains are wrapped around his neck and feet. He moves around the beach and coast. People can hear his jingling chains while he walks. He catches children by pulling them and wrapping them to his chains. “Bu Diryan”, therefore, safe guards the coast, making sure children are away from the sea, and keeps them away from swimming in the deep sea.

Implications of the study

Interpretations of the folktales were proposed by the research participants. The commonality among these stories is the tone of disciplining children through fear and punishment rather than through positive learning, intrinsic awards and reflective behavior. The implications of the folktales revolved around the symbols, values and moral lessons, where mainly the female gender is the source of sins and punishment.

The five Emirati folktales represent the dualism of fear and danger versus safety and security.  This dualism is characterized by a series of dichotomies encompassing:

a) women / men 
b) sun / shade 
c) day / night
d) fulfilling Islamic religious duties / religious detachment and religious negligence
e) cleanliness / un-cleanliness
f) sinful / sinless
g) health / wellbeing and sickness.

The sources of fear, unhealthiness and insecurity stemmed from the notion of wellbeing characterized by a challenge to either being unhealthy and at risk from dangers of the sea, deserted places and the sun, or being negligent of Islamic religious duties, detached from Islamic faith and absence of religious practice. 

These sources of fear, unhealthiness and insecurity were embedded in the Emirati folktales “Umm Al Soua’f Wa Leef”, “Hemarat Al Qayleh”, “Jathouma” and “Um Dways”. These folktales when told to children and teenagers feature particularly the perception of fear of seductive women, where men and teenage boys need to stay away from physical temptation and sinful deeds. This was implied in “Um Dways”. In” Um Al Soua’f Wa  Leef”, dry, shabby and black colored palm tree leaves represent un-cleanliness, dirty, fear and evil.  Moreover, in ” Um Al Soua’f Wa  Leef”, the infertility of old maids who are a source of harm was directly conveyed, while salvation is portrayed through reading Qur’anic verses that help in keeping away the harmful scary old maids who trigger sinful deeds.  Hence, this perspective highlights the superficial significance of women’s marital status and the suggestion that this status can instill sinful and shameful deeds. This includes the notion of evilness of unmarried women and the opposition of what they symbolize, that is, the binary of infertility and continuity.

Hemaret Al Qayleh” portrays the notion of un-safety, insecurity and unhealthiness. These notions stem from the dangers and fear represented by the sun (sunstroke), deserted places and night. According to the “Um Dways” folktale, night indicates fear of darkness and being lost which are children’s common sources of fear. In addition to this,“Bu Diryan” represents the dangers encountered from the sea and deserted places.

Religious implications are not only referred to in “Um Al Soua’f Wa Leef” but also in “Al Jathoom”, where the absence of religious faith and lack of religious commitment leads to punishment, distress, pain and in some instances death penalty by suffocation.

All these folktales featured evilness, insecurity, wrong doings and breeching social and religious norms.  The dangerous figures in the stories were mainly in a form of a woman, except for “Al Jathoom” and “Bu Diryan”.

The folktales revolve around children’s safety, salvation through religious faith and the fulfillment of religious duties, and keeping males away from temptation, sin and evilness. Nonetheless, the means in each of them to children's safety is fear and threat. These stories reflect insecurity due to religious negligence, as well as health and safety hazardous notions linked to sun, heat, sea and deserted places. They also emphasize violence and social inhibitions associated with fear, due to non-compliance with religious practice and belief.  The folktales reflected messages relevant to children (both males and females) and clearly intend to instill religious commitment, parental obedience and notions of wellbeing, health and safety. 

The folktales carry various values and symbols. The religious symbols are characterized by the physical act of keeping up with reading Qur’anic verses for salvation, and reminding the children and youth about religious duties and responsibilities. As for the social symbols, the folktales represent confining with socio-religious norms as far as staying away from committing what are defined as sinful and unsafe acts. The folktales assure that social and religious compliance are intertwined and this is the message particularly sent through “Al Jathoom” and “Um Al Soua’f  Wa Leef” where reading Qur'anic verses is a source of religio-social salvation.

Children’s wellbeing was also reflected through cautiousness from the sun-heat, drowning in the sea, deserted places and being sinful (committing sins portray the interconnection between religious and social values). Table-1 indicates the symbols, values and messages that the folktales conveyed, as viewed by Emirati community participants in this study.

Table 1 - Summary of Symbols, values and messages


Symbols, values and messages








Health and safety


Bu Diryan





Keep the sea clean as for the sea is resourceful.


Dangers of drowning.
Dangers that sailors and pearl divers were exposed to.

Physical cleanliness.


Um Al Soua’f Wa Leef”,

Ugliness of old maids.

Emphasis on the significance of marriage for females, in particular.

Ugliness of infertility.

Unmarried women are evil and are source of temptation.

Importance of Qur’anic verses for protection and safety.





Dangers of deserted places.

Fear of losing children in deserted places.

Himarat  Al  Qayleh

the elderly.

Parental obedience.






Dangers of the sun and heat.

Dangers of mixing with strangers.


Um Dways

Protecting families from disunity that is caused by sinful acts or committing adultery.


Keeping young men away from adultery and sinful acts.
Staying away from physical temptation and worldly pleasures.

Staying away from physical pleasures as a religious expectation.

Abiding by religious norms and expectations.





 Safety through staying indoors during storms and windy days.

Physical beauty leads to sinful acts and destruction.

Al Jathoom

Fulfilling religious duties and responsibilities








How appropriate are these folktales for children?


Participants indicated that these stories could be inappropriate for children because they instill coward attributes and fear in children (participant-1). However, participant-6 and participant-8 stated that these folktales are beneficial because they promote parental obedience, safety of children and protection from the sun-heat.  These folktales were also seen as amusing and that they aim at warning children from dangers (participant-1 and participant-5).  Participant-7 added that these folktales, mainly “Um Dwayes’, conveys the message for men and male adolescents to stay away from physical pleasures and beauty and from committing adultery. 

Participant-8 and participant-10 stated that “Um Al Soua’af Wa Leef symbolizes an untidy, shabby and scary woman. Participants added that “Um Al Soua’af Wa Leef” denotes teaching cleanliness among female children and female adolescence, in particular. Moreover, the folktale conveys a message relevant to the significance of marriage for females, in particular.

Participant-9 stated that these stories provoke a warning tone to keep children safe and protected, and added that the folktales were initially narrated to promote parental obedience and receptiveness to advice within the realm of health and safety.  Participant-10 and participant-11 concur that “Um Al Soua’af Wa Leef” portrays a message relevant to cleanliness, where mothers used to narrate this folktale prior to showering because some children hated to bath, and that it also transmits religious importance as it relates feeling safe and secure due to reciting Qur’anic verses.

Participant-12 mentioned that these folktales preliminary revolved around the notions of health, safety and cleanliness and the intention was not to instill fear or anxiety. Participant-13 situated the significance of the folktale “Um Dways” in keeping males away from being sinful. As for “Um al Soua’af Wa Leef”, participant-13 explained that this folktale has a religious purpose that denotes reminding children about reciting the Qur’an, especially in stressful times and in times of fear and anxiety.  Generally speaking, participant-13 referred that these folktales carry health and safety notions, where they warn children about deserted places and the dangers of the deep sea.  

Participant-15 and participant-17 explained that “Um al Soua’af Wa Leef” reflects a religious meaning, within the context of encouraging children to read Qur’an to get rid of emotional stress, anxiety and fear to attain salvation from sins.  Moreover, participant-16 and participant-17 indicated that the folktales in general aim at scaring children to protect them from dangers of the sunstroke, sea and nature.

In addition, "Um al Soua’af Wa Leef” aims at disciplining children.  Participant-17 added that these stories highlight the significance of parental obedience. Participant-18 felt that these folktales enhance the opportunity of parental communication, where children are indulged in active learning through folktales narration, rather than being engaged in technology games that promote passive learning. Participant-18 considered that spending time with children for the telling of these stories is beneficial as it is where interactive communication can take place between the child and his/ her parent. Participant-2 explained that the folktales strengthen social ties between the child and her/ his parent; through narration of folktales, the child is bonding socially with his/her parents.  Within this issue of the scope of folktales’ appropriateness, participant-3 observed that, provided we (parents) explain to children that narrated folktales stories are fictions, these stories continue to be important because they (folktales) teach children obedience and conforming to orders.


From another perspective, the danger of the folktales may be situated in the mixing of facts with fiction where scientific facts are distorted and children are disillusioned (participant-3). Participant-4 observed  that these stories reflect cultural messages by relating the natural symbols of palm trees and the sea to religious symbols related to reading the Qur’an regularly and keeping up with religious duties. While this relation directly portrays safety and health messages, nevertheless children need to acquire religious faith through constructing religious knowledge and understanding the religious practice rationale. They should be developing a characterization of religious practice and be undertaking good deeds for goodness’ own sake rather than through negative reinforcement, out of fear and as a counter reaction to punishment.

Similarly, Participant-6 commented that these stories help develop create a “cowardly” disposition among children. Participant-7 did not see the folktales as amusing at all, but was concerned that these folktales are scary and might cause children to be sleepless, cowards and develop phobias from nature. Therefore, they would refrain from learning life skills such as swimming, or exploring nature as a learning experience.

Participant-5 stated that these folktales are un-educational, harmful and fearful and are full of misconceptions and fallacies that may mislead children, where they (children) are unable to draw the line between fact and fiction.  Participant-5 added that these folktales emit a non-religious message, where children will believe in the power of nature rather than God’s power, especially in the “Bu Diryan” folktale; where “Bu Diryan” is envisaged as controlling the seas and the underwater and having absolute power, which denotes a non-Islamic religious belief.Participant-14 noted that “Um Dways” emits a message relevant to physical beauty, where women should not focus on physical beauty to attract men but on spiritual inner beauty, where “Um Dways” represents physical beauty that leads to destruction.  The notion of “Halal” (allowed by Islam and not forbidden, religiously speaking) and the notion of “Haram “ (not allowed by Islam and forbidden, religiously speaking)were referred to by participant-1;  this narrator indicated that “ Um Dways ” features the notion of wearing makeup and revealing women’s beauty which is “Haram”: hence this story is mainly narrated to girls in order to keep them away from the “Haram” in a scary and fearful manner and that it is, therefore, anti-feminist.

Participant-13 added that these folktales primarily aim at gender-based discipline. These folktales revolve around disciplining girls socially; however, the stories do not address notions for disciplining boys. This reflects gender discrimination and dualism in terms of behavioral modification and social/moral discipline. Moreover, the notion of fear and punishment are highlighted in the folktales instead of behavioral modification patterns. Conclusively, these folktales not only indicate negative reinforcement and discrimination, but they also enhance anxiety among children due to the content that endorses scaring children from the darkness, the sea and nature; this was evident in the folktales narrated.

Another important message derived from the findings indicates the significance of these folktales in terms of teaching the children the distinction between fictions and facts.  The initial distinction between fiction and fact is an important concept for children, as fiction-based children’s stories are supposed to play an educative role, in terms of constructing logical and scientific knowledge from a range of possible and potential situations and elements. However, the folktales narrated strongly emphasize fiction and this may leave room for fact-fiction distortion, as the factual lessons are explained only through fanciful situations., Thus, it is debatable whether the narrated folktales enhance any scientific constructive knowledge. An aspect of dualism in disciplining girls and boys is also marked. This is featured in the stories by keeping boys away from sinful deeds; nevertheless girls are not mentioned in this realm, since their obedience and correctness are taken for granted.  On the other hand, cleanliness and hygiene are addressed in the folktales as a female gender concern.  Similarly, the concept of marriage; its significance is highlighted for females rather than males through the folktales. The dualism transmitted in the folktales carries distinct gender expectations on the social, moral and physical/ biological levels. In all of this dualism and dual behavioral expectations, there is an absence of instilling reflective practice among children, especially in the development of their understanding of where deeds and behavior are either good or bad, or why they are bad or harmful.  Why is something evil?  How can the child correct his/her behavior?  How can the child develop a desirable attitude, as far as learning good habits?  How can a child improve his/her attitude or behavior? In general, the stories revolve around behavioral conditioning and social modelling rather than reflective practice for behavioral modification. This may impact the socialization process of a child in terms of what is good and what is bad on a social development level.

The findings did not show any alignment between these UAE folktales and the cultural index determined by the UAE Ministry of Youth, Community and Development, which necessitates the construction of children’s literature within the scope of UAE cultural index as an educative content; to be integrated in language art subjects.Therefore, based on the research findings, the researcher has re-constructed three folktales that are in the process of being professionally published, to be shared with cycle one UAE public schools. These stories are entitled “Um Dways and Bu Diryan”, “Um Al Saaf Wa Leef” and “Hemarat Al Qayleh”. “Um Dways  and Bu Diryan” and “Um Al Saaf Wa Leef” are stories that target children between (8-10) years old and “Hemarat Al Qayleh” addresses children between (7-8) years old.  These re-constructed stories aim at promoting the local heritage, from a perspective of the oral literature and folktales genre, and at enhancing a culture of Arabic literacy among children through the UAE folktales genre. The re-constructed stories are adapted from the original folktales and the main themes and morale are portrayed to address the concerns identified by this study. Amendments are incorporated in order to present the stories appropriately to the age group each story intends to address, to promote literacy learning through engaging and interactive content and to present a format that is free of fearful experiences. These re-constructed stories are written in classical Arabic to promote literacy skills in the Arabic language across different literacy strands. The appropriate features of the narrated folktales are integrated throughout the hidden messages and morals conveyed in the newly constructed stories, whereas signs and symbols of fear and punishment have been downplayed.


Stemming from the findings, the folktales researched portray fearful and inappropriate messages. The researcher noted a need to construct children’s literature that will contribute to UAE children’s literacy, within the cultural index desired by educational authorities and that can be integrated in language art subjects including social studies. Moreover, children’s literature for the primary years needs to be employed within the perspectives of children’s self-reflection to develop positive desirable behavior and attitudes within the Emirati cultural index.  Considerations for composing children’s literature need to be made, as far as being educative, enriching and reflective and within the framework of knowledge construction and processing.  Folktales act as a double-edged sword.  While they represent the cultural heritage, simultaneously they can portray negative notions, inappropriate attitudes, negative emotions, stereotypical images, emotional distress, fear and violence.  Nonetheless, children’s literature is an attractive, entertaining and enjoyable educative means; therefore folktales need to be utilized in order to promote culturally meaningful and worthwhile children’s literature being integrated in language arts school subjects. A call for more children’s literature based on folktales is for more attractive and engaging means to literacy.


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Rida Blaik Hourani

Volume 18, Issue 1, The Looking Glass, August 2015

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"Folktales, children's literature and national identity in the United Arab Emirates.
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