Nationality: Trinidadian (Arab ancestry)
Residence: Trinidad and Tobago
Date of Performance/Collection: 3/19/2014
Primary Language: English
Other Language(s): Arabic, French
“Instead of growing up on Cinderella, my sisters and I grew up hearing the tale of Sitareh. The story is very similar, but for some reason, I just didn’t enjoy Cinderella as much as I did Sitareh. So here goes. Once upon a time, Sitareh, the young daughter of a courtier in the Shah’s palace, lost her own mother at a very young age. Her father, the courtier, deciding that she needed a new mother, went ahead and married another woman, who had two daughters of her own. Excited to not be alone, Sitareh was eager to meet and live with these three women. Unfortunately, while they were very sweet to her in her father’s presence, the moment her father left on a trip to a neighboring kingdom, they began to show their true colors. In a quick succession of events, Sitareh becomes essentially their maid. They take advantage of her kind nature because her father isn’t around to do anything about it, and she submits to it quietly, waiting for her father to return. So, obviously, as is normal in these kinds of stories – the Shah has a young son, the Shahzad (prince), who is around the same age, maybe a bit older, than the three girls. One day, the Shah decides that his son is old enough to get married, because people got married really young in those days. Like at sixteen. So the Shah arranges an event, not a ball, exactly, but more like a talent show of all the eligible bachelorettes in town. Of course, this includes Sitareh and her stepsisters, who decide that the poor girl isn’t to attend this event. The stepmother, evil as she is, supports this decision. Because she sucks, and she knows that Sitareh is more beautiful and talented than her daughters, and would snap up the Shahzad in an instant if she were to attend. Sitareh, however, really wants to go – if not to marry the Shahzad, then maybe to just get out of the house and stop doing so many chores. So she begs and begs until her stepmother gives her a chance to go, with one caveat. She has to complete this impossibly long list of chores, just like in Cinderella, and find suitable clothes to wear. The stepmother obviously doesn’t think that the girl can do it all in time and find herself an outfit among the rags she has to wear, because her horrible stepsisters have stolen all her pretty clothes and jewelry. Against all odds, though, Sitareh does finish these tasks – I don’t remember exactly what they are – and manages to, in the time she has left, put together an attractive bedlah outfit, with a pretty veil of many colors, which she constructed out of her variety of rags. However, in a jealous rage at how beautiful she looks, the stepsisters lock her into the house and go to the event themselves. Sitareh, upset, turns to her sitar (a string instrument) and begins to sing on the terrace of her house to express her feelings. The Shahzad, who is bored with the party and quite frankly appalled at the girls who have come, happens to have escaped the party and is passing by her house when he hears her voice. Completely entranced, he is pretty disappointed that he can’t see the singer’s face. He calls out to her, and in her embarrassment, Sitareh runs from the terrace and retreats back into the house. As she does, the wind snatches up her multicolored veil and sends it fluttering straight into the Shahzad’s hands. By the next day, he hasn’t decided on any of the girls who attended the event, and instead has his heart set upon the mystery girl with the beautiful voice. He tells his father, who agrees reluctantly, and goes to return the veil to the girl. The stepmother and stepsisters, getting wind of his plan, shut Sitareh away in her room and decide to claim the prince as one of their own. The prince arrives at the house, eager to find the girl, but is disappointed that she isn’t there. However, Sitareh, clever as she is, starts to sing her song from the previous night, upstairs in her room. Hearing the strains of her voice, the Shahzad quits the living room and runs up the stairs, bursting into the room to find the beautiful Sitareh clad in her rags. He gives her back her veil and asks for her hand in marriage. She, obviously, agrees, and they get married. Out of the kindness of her heart, she forgives her stepsisters, who in turn get married to the sons of two ministers. And everyone lives happily ever after!”
The informant revealed the reasons for her affection with this particular story – “I like this story more than Cinderella for two big reasons. The first is that it reminds me of my Arab heritage and my roots because of the setting and the various elements. Also, more importantly, the version my grandmother told me was very empowering, in that Sitareh accomplishes everything independently in the story, without taking the help of a fairy godmother, or any magical elements. I think she told it to us in this way because she wanted us girls to feel like we could have everything we want in life simply with our own efforts. That’s what I really like about this story. An interesting note is that this story is one of the many tales told in versions A Thousand and One Arabian Nights, which in the legend are told by the queen Scheherazade, who, like Sitareh, created her own opportunities and came out on top.”
This story is, very obviously, a version of the “Persecuted Heroine” taletype, of which the Cinderella story is the most popular and famous example. One can see a lot of Vladimir Propp’s 31 story functions appear in this story, including the smooth opening, the absentee parents, the problem for the heroine, her confinement, her subsequent escape, and the eventual resolution of the problem. However, this version retains a lot of elements of the culture from which it sprung, including such components as Sitareh’s veil (standing in for the ubiquitous glass slipper of Cinderella) and the sitar which she plays. What is interesting, as the informant mentioned, is that Sitareh doesn’t seem to receive help from any external magical entities (one of the more prominent Propp’s functions), instead accomplishing everything due to her own efforts and her singing voice, which engineers this story not only into a märchen, but also a moral story with a powerful message to young women, regardless of whether or not this was just a characteristic the version the informant’s grandmother told her and her sisters to encourage them to achieve whatever they want to by themselves and for themselves. An intriguing parallel is drawn by the informant between the heroine of the tale, Sitareh, and the heroine of the larger legendary narrative, Scheherazade. Both of them are clever and strong young women who take a unique talent, for Scheherazade, her story-telling abilities, and in the case of Sitareh, her beautiful singing voice, and use it to get exactly what they want, all through their own efforts. The themes explored by this story, therefore, are pretty empowering and progressive, especially in the time at which they were supposedly told. Of course, if Scheherazade was the one who told the tale, one would expect the tale to have a strong female heroine much like herself.