Riddles: A Living Part of Arab Folklore

Fatme Sharaffeddine Hassan
Azerbaijani folk art based on the poem “Layla and Majnun” by Nizami Ganjavi.

Folklore is a term that comprises the wide range of the oral traditions of a specific group of people. It is not easy for folklorists the world over to agree on one definite interpretation of the term. For example, in his book “The Study of Folklore,” Alan Dundes states that the term folk refers to a group of people who share at least one common factor, such as geographic location, religion, type of work, or economic status. Dundes adds that “a group formed for whatever reason will have some traditions which it calls its own.” Moreover, the study of people’s traditions and lifestyles within the diverse branches of folklore helps us rebuild periods of history that are still ambiguous to present day scholars. Folklore represents the sum of a societies’ creative power. One form of Arabic oral tradition that is a part of Arab folklore is the riddle.
Prior to the appearance of Islam, Arabs relied heavily on the oral transmission of knowledge, wisdom, and culture from one generation to the next. After Islam, Arabs build a very extended empire and became largely urbanized. The field of oral tradition and folk literature, however, is so rich that it continues to exert strong influences on Arab cultures. People still use old proverbs, riddles, jokes, and Quranic and poetic verses to describe feelings and opinions even in the most urban environments. 
The riddle is a strong part of this immensely rich oral tradition. Riddles go back to the times when Arabs lived as nomadic tribes. These tribes were frequently competing for living resources, and so conflicts often arose. Riddles were sometimes used as a means of settling these conflicts, or as a method employed to save a prisoner’s life or to gain his or her freedom.
Ancient Arabic riddling required a great deal of knowledge of the language, since almost all the riddles were poetic. It has been found that many riddles of today, often composed of one statement or question, are in fact based on old poetic riddles. The following is an illustration of such a riddle:
Wa qadin qas qada fi l’ardi ‘adlan bihi kaffun wa lasya lahu bananu
Ra’aytu al-nasa qad qabilu qadahu wa la nufqun lahu wa la bayanu
A judge who rules fair on earth has a fingerless palm. I saw that the people have accepted his ruling though he does not talk nor does he know metaphor. (The balance).
The popular riddle that is based on these ancient verses is:
Fi shi ma bifakkir wa la byihki, bass bi’ul lhaq. Shu huwi? (Al-mizan).
There is something that does not think nor talk but speaks the truth. What is it? (The balance).
In Arab societies, riddles are exchanged all year long, mostly at night. The exchange of riddles increases during the winter time when evenings become long. Riddles are a pastime, with the older people starting riddle sessions while the listeners gather around the speaker in a circle. Moreover, riddling sessions become very popular during the holy month of Ramadan, when Muslims fast from sunrise to sunset. After dinner, many people gather in town squares and exchange riddles and jokes. It is not uncommon for young people to split into two competing groups along gender lines.
Riddling sessions often start spontaneously without prior arrangement. Sometimes a person who has demonstrated a knowledge of riddles is asked to start posing riddles to the group. In “male-only” groups, riddling takes the form of competition, often with material rewards such as a dinner invitation, given to the winner.
If a stranger to the community is present at a riddling session, and if he is the riddler, the group will not allow him to leave before posing an equal number of equally difficult riddles. It has been noticed by Mouhammad al-Najjar, author of “Kuwaiti Riddles,” that in riddling sessions the priority to pose a riddle goes to elderly people, whereas the priority to solve it is given to children and young adults. In older times, however, priority to solve riddles was given to the elderly even when the young knew the answer. Respectfully, they had to wait for the older person’s response before offering their own.
It is commonly believed that men are more into “poetic” riddles (rhymes and puns), whereas women employ more “prose” riddles. Many men, especially older men, find “prose” riddles embarrassing. This is based on the stereotypically perceived difference in intellectual ability between men and women.
Children are the most avid requesters of, and listeners to, riddles. Even in the presence of television and video games, riddles are still popular among children. Their riddling sessions can become very competitive, especially when character traits are attached to riddle solving ability. For example, the riddler would pose the riddle and say: “If there is any good in you, solve this riddle,” “If you are a real man, solve this one,” or “If you are your father’s child, solve this.”
The first function of the riddle is entertainment. Riddling is an easy and fun way to spend time and relax from the burdens of life. Riddles are easy to remember and retell, and there often is an aesthetic sense to the answer. A second function of the riddle is education. They require thinking, close attention to detail, and quickness of wit. Riddles help the listener, especially children, to compare the different objects of the riddle and they also enhance imaginative thinking and memory. In addition, riddles are informative. They contain pieces of information that reflect relationships among objects, animals, humans, and natural elements. Riddles allow for social interaction by serving as a fun topic at social events, and at the same time can create a challenging and enthusiastic atmosphere that engages participants for a long time. Paradoxically, al-Najjar says that in Kuwait some old people refuse to consider riddles as a source of knowledge. They believe that knowledge can only come from experience and age, and that riddles are only a playful way of spending time.
Perhaps political instability in all Arab countries contributes to the continued strength of the oral tradition. In times of suppression and political turmoil, people tend to shy away from written, and therefore traceable, expression of their feelings and opinions. Riddles and jokes are especially suitable for expressing one’s opinions in a hidden way. Moreover, the fast spread of riddles and jokes ensures that the identity of the inventor remains obscure.
This article appeared in Al Jadid, Vol. 2, No. 3 (January 1996).

Copyright © 2022 by Al Jadid