Insights and Analysis

Traditional Afghan Tales Return Home

September 7, 2011

By Sally Mallam

I was in my teens in England when I first heard the Afghan author and educator Idries Shah telling tales to his children, family, and friends. He had collected hundreds of these traditional stories from oral and manuscript sources in and around Afghanistan.

These stories were an integral part of his exuberant recollections about Afghanistan where he often recalled the fruit trees grew the best fruit, where the mountains, flowers, and valleys were the most beautiful and where the men, women, and children were brave, honorable, and wise – or were learning to be so.

Over the next three decades, a career in publishing eventually lead me to the United States where, as director of Publishing for the Institute for the Study of Human Knowledge (ISHK), an educational nonprofit founded more than three decades ago, I developed a line of educational books for middle schools and professionals. In October 1996, I visited Idries Shah in London and asked him what happened to the stories he used to tell his children. So many of his stories had subsequently been published in collections for adults, but I had not seen these children’s stories in print anywhere.

Two years later ISHK started Hoopoe Books which then began publishing Shah’s children’s stories from Afghanistan. During the first year we published the first four titles as illustrated children’s books in English and Spanish-English bilingual editions. Hoopoe currently lists 11 of these titles along with a literacy curriculum aligned to Head Start and other U.S. educational standards. To date, more than 600,000 Hoopoe books have been distributed in the United States and are used in schools and educational agencies across the country. The books have won awards and were featured in a lecture at the Library of Congress, which selected one for its 2002 Christmas list. The media and educators commend the stories not only because they are a joy to read, but because they encourage children’s thinking skills, perceptions, and social-emotional development. They also emphasize the concept of peaceful negotiation, rather than confrontation.

Anyone who becomes familiar with them, though, knows that these tales are for all ages. As Lynn Neary said on an NPR “All Things Considered” program: “These teaching-stories can be experienced on many levels. A child may simply enjoy hearing them, an adult may analyze them in a more sophisticated way. Both may eventually benefit from the lessons within.” I am still learning from them.

These stories, like many original folktales, were created centuries ago as an educational tool. In the West, the “Disneyfication” of many stories – to select and retell only those elements within an original that have a strong emotional appeal – has lead to the demise of the story as a developmental instrument. Unlike contemporary versions of Aesop’s tales – originally in the same genre – these are not simple moral tales. Instead, their plots and the movement, actions, and thoughts of the characters provide a framework for the growth of richer thought patterns and behaviors as children move forward with their lives.

In “The Old Woman and the Eagle,” for example, an elderly woman tries to change an eagle into a pigeon, just because she has never seen an eagle and knows pigeons well. Children, who are all individual “eagles,” readily respond to the lessons this story contains: they learn along with the young eagle. Adults can easily recognize that the old woman’s efforts mirror a common pattern of human thought: altering the unfamiliar to make it acceptable. “Neem the Half-Boy,” which will be translated and published this year, introduces young children to the idea of potential growth and psychological wholeness. The protagonist must overcome a series of difficulties in order to “become whole.” He learns that it is best to negotiate with a fire-breathing dragon rather than threaten it. Immersing a child or an adult in these themes stimulates new thought patterns providing more possible choices to respond to the events and difficulties in their lives.

In 2005, I began thinking how valuable it would be to return these wonderful stories to Afghan children in Dari and Pashto, the primary languages spoken there, but this time in book form to be used as an aid to literacy. I hoped they would accomplish several objectives: help teach Afghan children about their rich culture and perhaps reinvigorate their ancient story-telling tradition; alleviate the influence of extremism, since thought patterns developed through familiarity with these tales are incompatible with it and result in a flexibility of mind that will not coexist with extremist beliefs; and form a bridge between the more conservative elders who may well remember the stories and the younger generation who need to become literate in order to participate in a modern Afghanistan.

In early 2009, the final piece fell into place when I was introduced to Dr. Farid Bazger, president of Khatiz Organization for Rehabilitation (KOR). Farid became our indispensible partner. KOR prints and duplicates all our materials in Kabul and administers our teacher training program. In addition, KOR distributes our Dari-Pashto bilingual and English language books, teacher guides, CDs, and cassettes throughout Afghanistan.

Afghanistan students read Hoopoe books

Students read children’s books published by Hoopoe Books that feature traditional tales by Afghan author Idries Shah. Photo by Jon Jamieson.

A lucky break came when the daughters of a lieutenant with the Provincial Reconstruction Team in Paktika Province decided to help their father find books for local children. They found our website,, and our traditional Afghan stories in Dari and Pashto bilingual editions. Their father spread the word, which lead to the suggestion that we submit a Public Diplomacy Grant proposal to the U.S. Embassy. We did, and thanks to this grant, we are now able to print 1,729,980 copies of these tales in Dari and Pashto; 735,900 copies in English; 114,300 teacher guides to accompany the books, and produce over 16,000 audio versions of the six stories in Dari, Pashto, and English in cassette or CD.

These are distributed by more than 50 organizations in Afghanistan, including The Asia Foundation’s Books for Asia program. In addition, this grant provides 5-day teacher training programs, and funds to produce and distribute radio broadcasts of the stories for local radio stations.

The response from Afghanistan has been extremely encouraging. Many of the older generation recognize the tales from their childhood; they have been accepted by elders even in the more conservative parts of the country, encouraging the education of both boys and girls. This is an excellent beginning, and we hope to do very much more.

From 2011 to 2012, The Asia Foundation’s Books for Asia program will distribute 1.2 million Hoopoe books to schools throughout Afghanistan: 600,000 in Dari and Pashto, 600,000 in English, 36,000 Teacher Guides and 1,428 CD audio versions of the stories.

Sally Mallam is the executive director of Hoopoe Books – an imprint of The Institute for the Study of Human Knowledge (ISHK), an educational nonprofit with offices in Los Altos CA and Cambridge MA. She can be reached by email at [email protected]. The views and opinions expressed here are those of the individual author and not those of The Asia Foundation.

Related locations: Afghanistan
Related programs: Books for Asia
Related topics: Education, Literacy


  1. There are not enough words to express the gratitude I feel that people make the effort to save our vanishing cultural heritage. God bless you all.

  2. If more US money went to projects like this, less would be needed for military and security efforts.
    The problem would be solved at its roots – upbringing and education.

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