Husain Haddawy’s The Arabian Nights and Zora Neale Hurston’s Mules and Men - Revealing the Conflicts, Desires and Dreams of the Collector
"For the translator, who stands astride two cultures, possesses two different sensibilities, and assumes a double identity" —Husain Haddawy
Magic, love, sex, war, gods, spells. These are all common ingredients in the folktales of almost every culture. Many people say that folktales are windows to cultures. That might be so. Often readers do not realize, though, that folktales also reflect aspects of the collectors. Zora Neale Hurston’s Mules and Men and Husain Haddawy’s The Arabian Nights, in addition to offering insight into southern African-American culture and Arabic culture, reveal the collectors to the audience; the collectors’ desire to reconcile with their past, to be accepted by their reader as legitimate representatives of that culture whether by being an insider or both insider and outsider to the culture, and to be heroic cultural interpreters with the goal of educating and informing the reader.
There are many reasons and motivations behind Hurston’s compilation of African-American folktales, but one that is often overlooked is her personal need to reconcile her intellectual, White, Barnard-educated life with her traditional roots in Eatonville, Florida. In her introduction Hurston writes:
From the earliest rocking of my cradle, I had known about the capers Brer Rabbit is apt to cut and what the Squinch Owl says from the house top. But it was fitting me like a tight chemise. I couldn’t see it for wearing it. It was only when I was off in college, away from my native surroundings, that I could see myself like somebody else and stand off and look at my garment. Then I had to have the spy-glass of Anthropology to look through at that. (Hurston 1)1
She compares her past to a "tight chemise," indicating that the African-American culture she grew up in was such an integral part of herself that she could not see herself and how influenced she was by the stories of Brer Rabbit and the Squinch Owl until she was in college. By going to college, she no longer has this tight chemise on, signifying that she has changed enough to understand that she is distinctly a different person from before, but that the past has shaped her significantly. By using the simile of the tight chemise, Hurston suggests that culture can be worn and can be taken off. She attempts, through the "spy-glass of Anthropology," to rediscover the culture of her childhood. Somehow only by becoming an outsider and using the academic perspective of Anthropology can she obtain an accurate view. Clearly, she desires to reconcile with her past and by collecting folktales and hoodoo stories she achieves precisely this. Writing Mules and Men was essentially a rite of passage, instrumental in both Hurston’s personal growth as well as her career as an ambassador between traditional southern African-American culture and the...