RIYADH: Saudis have long enjoyed the thrill of a holiday like Halloween in their own way, whether through watching horror films or exchanging scary stories. This year, we look into some favorite local legends and tales about things that go bump in the night.
Oral storytelling has always been an important part of our society’s cultural fabric, even before the invention of the novel and print. For millennia, hair-raising tales have been utilized as a means of imparting moral lessons, helping people make sense of the world, or simply discouraging undesirable behavior in youngsters.
Every nation has horror stories and folklore from its past passed down from one generation to the next. Saudis do not wait for special occasions to share terrifying tales; all it takes is the appropriate mood and audience to transform any get-together into a storytelling event.
Nawaf Al-Huwaimel, a popular Saudi storyteller and TV presenter, explains: “Horror tales have been around for a long time, as have comedic genre stories and love stories. Saudis love the sideburns of horror, the sideburns of the jinn tales in gatherings and outings, the feeling of anticipation and fear that a person takes pleasure in.
“With the birth of stories and novels, the horror genre became a big part of storytelling and had a great demand from narrators.”
The tale of Humar Al-Qaylah, or the Midday Donkey, is one that has given goosebumps to many in Saudi Arabia and the wider Gulf region.
The popular narration describes Humar Al-Qaylah as being a grotesque combination of human and animal, with her head and legs said to be that of a donkey.
The gist of the story is that the beast Al-Qaylah comes out into the open during midday, harming those it encounters along the way.
Like many others, the tale of Humar Al-Qaylah was told to frighten and prevent children from going out at noon as parents and family elders feared the safety of their children from the heat during the day.
Munerah Alotaibi, a 53-year-old retired teacher from Riyadh, recalled how the story affected her when she was young: “I imagined Humar Al-Qaylah as this half human, half donkey, a combination that definitely prevented me and my siblings from going outside … it is funny now that I think about it. People then were very imaginative to come up with such tales.”
Mohammed Almohsen, a 66-year-old businessman from the Qassim region, said: “My teenage son watches TV series with dragons and beasts, fascinated by the creativity of the writers who come up with such tales.”
He added: “Yet this level of imagination and creativity is not new to me as I am from a generation that heard several tales with beasts, with a level of imagination that exceeds what we see today in fictional TV series.”
Saudis love tales of jinn despite it being scary, and this storytelling is a big part of social gatherings. Nawaf
Al-Huwaimel, Saudi narrator and TV presenter
Stories of ghouls, or ogres, have existed for centuries, dating back to the pre-Islamic era. A ghoul in these stories is said to be a demon-like being or a monstrous humanoid that dwells in cemeteries, a village cave, orchard, or other uninhabited places.
It can also be a shapeshifting demon that can assume the guise of an animal, luring people into abandoned places to slay and drink their blood, then take the form of the person they recently ate.
It makes an appearance in several legendary Arabian tales including “One Thousand and One Nights,” “Sinbad the Sailor” and the “Tale Of The Envious Vizier.”
Stories change over time and sometimes they are adapted to the culture and region. For example, while the ghoul was originally considered to be a monstrous creature, the popular animated film “Shrek” depicted an ogre as a cranky but kindhearted friend on the quest to save a princess with the help of a talkative donkey.
“The ghoul that I know and grew up hearing about, and the ghoul my son knows are two different things,” said Lamees Alamri, a 35-year-old accountant based in Riyadh.
“I remember being scared and trying hard to imagine what a ghoul looked like when people speak of it, and my son remembers it as one of his best childhood memories.”
Imagination is a typical and large element of horror folktales, along with other elements such as isolation, superstition, rural settings, and creepy character names.
According to Al-Huwaimel, “The narrators’ delivery of the tales and how they set the environment and the circumstances of the tale to be similar to the environment and circumstances of the listeners intensify the level of fear among the listeners.”
Stories certainly can be more scary when they feel relatable or familiar. He explained: “Although the tales are fictional, the narrators bring them closer to you, making the temporal and spatial circumstances of the tale very close to you.”
Rural settings or abandoned buildings are an important element in Saudi horror and urban legends, with one of the most popular ones being the tale of Umm Al-Saaf and Al-Leil, which is a famous tale among Saudis in the Eastern Province.
The story is about an old witch with fluffy hair who talks a lot at night. The witch in the tale is followed by cockroaches and is called the mother of cockroaches. She is said to live on palm trees and their branches. When a wind blows strong enough to shake the branches, Saudis joke that Umm Al-Saaf and Al-Leif is at the top of the palm tree getting ready to abduct the children roaming around in the area.
The tale, like the tale of Humar Al-Qaylah, was told to frighten children and prevent them from leaving the house, particularly when the weather is windy and rainy.
“The surrounding has an impact on the composition of tales told by our ancestors. In the case of Umm Al-Saaf and Al-Leif, the famous witch from the tale resides at the top of a palm tree,” said Hilah Al-Subaie, a retired history teacher, based in Dhahran.
“Palms are very common in the Eastern province. Al-Ahsa for instance is famous for its large date palm trees.”