As Western children grow up hearing or reading stories from Aesop’s fables, Arab children have something similar to it called: Kaleela wa Dimna (Kaleela and Dimna) that comes from the Abbasid caliphate in Baghdad (750-1517).
The book was written by Abdullah Ibn Al Muqaffa (723-759), a Persian author and thinker who lived and worked in secretarial posts during the Umayyads Caliphate before it was over thrown by the Abbasids.
He then worked for the new Caliphate for the uncle of the Caliph Al Mansur, who charged and executed him of heresy at the age of 36. Many historians claim that the real reason behind Ibn Al Muqaffa’s death was Kaleela wa Dimna, where he used animal fables to illustrate social and political attainments.
The writer claimed that he’d translated the stories from a Persian book written by Borzauy, a physician who worked in the Sassanian court in the 6th century. In Kaleela wa Dimna, he includes a whole chapter that describes Borzauy’s journey to India to bring the Sanskrit book that has the fables told by Baydaba the Brahman wise philosopher to king Dabshaleem as a mean of advice (original names not mentioned in the book, only the Arabic translation of them).
However, modern day researchers refute Ibn Al Muqaffa’s claims of the book being translated as — historically speaking — there is little evidence of the existence of the king or his philosopher. Another evidence is that the stories have “an Arabic feel” to them with many verses of the Quran or sayings of Prophet Mohammed (PBUH), which attests that they were composed by the writer at that time.
The reason of his translation claim could be his fear of the Abbasid caliphs — famous for eliminating whoever they considered a threat to their rule — as the book included the do’s and don’ts of a successful ruler.
The importance of the book originates from it being the first to introduce literary prose narrative to Arabic literature. But to many Arabs — like me — who grew up hearing those fables at home or studying them in school the main dilemma was: why was it called Kaleela wa Dimna in the first place?
Well, I got the answer recently when I decided to read the original book. Kaleela wa Dimna (drum roll, please) are the names of the jackals whose story is the first thing you read, after a super long introduction by the writer about the origins of his book (childhood mystery solved!).
Their story is the most interesting one between the fables, yet the longest — therefore it never made it to our Arabic syllabus back in the 90’s. And like many ancient books, there are fables within the fables — the preferred writing style that captured the imagination of the older generation of readers but not the modern ones, with shorter concentration span thanks to digital screens! — that could be confusing or boring at times.
The book is divided into chapters that are named after certain animals such as: the owls and the crows or the cat and the rat. Each chapter starts with King Dabshaleem asking Baydaba to relate a story about a certain topic (e.g., people who hold grudges and how to avoid them) that would have those animals as the main characters.
Ibn Al Muqaffa’s voice could be heard throughout the narrative which makes it special, particularly when he insists on not taking the book at face value (entertaining animal fables) but to seek and understand the moral of the story that enhances one’s perspective and wisdom. Next week I’ll be sharing some of the stories from the book that are well-known to many Arabs.
(Rasha al Raisi is a certified skills trainer and the author of:
The World According to Bahja. firstname.lastname@example.org)
Rasha al Raisi