FAQs

What do you think readers will enjoy most about your Kalila and Dimna books?

Lively animal stories that often pack an unexpected punch! These gritty yet amusing fables have fascinated children and adults all over the world for two thousand years. They carry a survivalist message from our ancient human past, when we all lived cheek-by-jowl with wild and domesticated beasts. For us, like our ancestors, there’s something valuable still resident in these ancient, cautionary teaching instruments.

What is Kalila and Dimna?

It’s a collection of fables, dozens of linked stories in five separate sections, mostly involving animal characters, one story slotting into another within a whole “over-story”. I personally consider this book equivalent to a rare, handmade piece of antique oak furniture featuring exquisite dovetail joints.

Kalila and Dimna is one of the oldest books on the planet and certainly one of the best traveled. It was born in ancient India and reached ancient Persia about 600 CE. One hundred and fifty years later it migrates into Arabic and Syriac, and slowly percolates into Spain and Europe. The first English version appears in 1570, called The Morall Philosophie of Doni.

How can one book have so many titles?

As it migrated across cultures it also changed languages, through translation. It starts out in Pali or Sanskrit being called The Jataka Tales, then The Panchatantra, then it reaches Persia where, as best we can tell, the name becomes associated with the main characters in its first section, two jackal brothers named Kalila and Dimna (Karataka and Damanaka in Sanskrit). Kalila and Dimna is the title given to it by Ibn al-Muqaffa, who translated the book into Arabic from the middle Persian (Pahlavi).

His version is the oldest one we have, from around 750 CE. There is no earlier text in either Sanskrit or Pahlavi. Kalila and Dimna survives today thanks to this early Arab scholar, in the same way that humanity owes other Arab scholars a huge debt for preserving Greek learning. What matters is that this treasure has survived. I’ve named my version in honour of Ibn al-Muqaffa, who preserved the book for us. His version is one of the earliest prose classics in Arabic, famed for its purity of style, brevity and engaging content.

Other titles in the book’s trail of transmission, after Ibn al-Muqafaa’s Arabic version, are (in modern Persian) Anvar-iSuhali (translated into English as The Lights of Canopus) and, (in various European languages), The Fables of Bidpai (or Pilpai or Pilpay). In short this is a book with a string of aliases: The Panchatantra, aka Kalila and Dimna, aka The Lights of Canopus, aka The Fables of Bidpai, aka The Morall Philosophie of Doni.

Where did these stories come from?

Originally they came from India, over 2000 years ago, where they were collected into a book called The Panchatantra, which means five discourses or sections. However Joseph Jacobs, the formidable 19th century folklorist, asserted that, because of their similarity with the Jatakas, or Buddhist BirthStories (and referring to them by one their many titles in Europe): “The Fables of Bidpai are the Fables of Buddha.” According to this contention, that dates them even earlier, to around 500 BCE, when Aesop’s fables were independently spreading from mainland Greece to the banks of the Nile.

We know that The Panchatantra migrated into Persia around 600 CE, and then into Iraq – about 750 CE – when its title changes to Kalila and Dimna. From there, thanks to the Arabs, they move into Spain and Europe under various titles, the best known being The Fables of Bidpai. When these stories cross borders, they also usually shift their carrier language. They start out in Pali or Sanskrit, become Pahlavi (middle Persian), and, in 750CE, fan out into Arabic and later more than 45 other languages in over 200 versions by the start of the 20th century.

How do they differ from the Arabian Nights?

Aside from being older, the main difference is that these are fables – usually with animals acting as the main characters. I don’t think that these stories are that different in their intent, but their impact can be subtler because they are cleverly indirect in their appeal.

By that, I mean that most of us hearing or reading them, assume they’re about beasts, lesser creatures – totally unlike us, those refined, highly evolved and vastly superior creatures called humans. I consider these stories to be “survivalist literature”, because they’re practical and often brutally realistic, revealing traits we often share with our animal origins, but prefer to deny, at least in polite society.

These fables inculcate worldly wisdom. They are not exclusively designed to indoctrinate goody-goody behavior. Historically priests or leaders of some religions (certainly Islamic, Judaic, and Christian) have been outraged by their nitty-grittiness, and tried to suppress or at least re-brand them with ironclad moralistic summaries, in order to promulgate a more locally acceptable ethical message. In much the same way, the fables of Aesop, in some commentators’ opinion, have been neutralized by trying to steer reader’s minds towards pre-digested conclusions with the catchphrase later popularized by the Duchess’s in Alice’s Adventures: “And the moral of that is . . .”

What about just leaving the story alone and letting it do its own work, without pre-interpreting it for benighted heathens? One Aesopian scholar has noted: “The morals are little more than an insult to our intelligence.”

Are these Islamic stories?

Not any more than they can be deemed to be Hindu, Buddhist, Judaic, Zoroastrian, or Christian – to name but some of the religious cultures that have “carried” them around the globe for over 2000 years. It may even be that they pre-date the era of organized religion, from a time when magical shamanism prevailed and all of humanity lived cheek by jowl with wild animals, as some remote nomadic tribes do to this day.

These stories were adapted hundreds of years ago into classics of both Persian and Arabic, within an Islamic context. Before that, they survived in the Petri dishes of Zorastrianism, Buddhism and Hinduism. Later they migrate to Juadic and Christian environments. Religion, as a holding-pond for popular stories, represents but a time-bound cultural context, a moral style, if you will – itself in perpetual flux.

How old are these stories?

It’s really impossible to give a definitive answer to this question because our standard rules for literary measurement are the accredited dates of ancient texts.

We only believe what the eye confirms as existing on an accurately dated page. We have no equivalent test for veracity regarding evanescent material that enters the ear through the air. Thus oral literature – like song, poetry, dance and music – from whence all written prose derives, is viewed as primitive and swampy, even risky and unsophisticated by many urban literary types.

If a written text does not exist, then scholars can only speculate and argue, hammering away at truth’s door. By their test of evidence, nothing definite pre-dates the oldest surviving physical texts. The next best evidence is some accredited ancient text, call it text B, confirming that, yes indeed, text A existed BEFORE text B did – maybe even quoting bits from text A. This is quite common, but then scholars will argue among themselves about the reliability of text B, some saying that of course text B was written by a notorious libertine and liar, as evidenced by reports on his character defects in parallel texts C, D and E. Therefore, they will claim, any evidence about text A found in text B should be thrown out, because it derives from such an unreliable witness.

“And so it goes”, as Vonnegut so aptly put it. Round and round the mulberry bush the raucous arguments whirl. But if we look at your question of age in another way, in the context of music, say, we quickly understand that we also can employ common sense and abandon the exclusivity of literalism. We do not have to be so fiercely fixated only upon evidence-based reality.

Even in our post-modernist age such relativism makes us nervous, but such uncertainty cannot be avoided simply because one dislikes it. The oldest musical instrument we posses in the world is the human voice, engaged in whistling or singing. W. H. Hudson alluded to this in his wonderful South American novel, Green Mansions. So when did human music start? Answer me that, and we’ll know how old fables – stories about animals – are. And anyway, does it really matter, to be able to pin the tail on the donkey of such an exact date? What purpose does such temporal precision serve, in helping us, today, to experience ancient stories told to the ear through air, or, alternatively, fed to the brain through the eyes from a page or computer screen?

My own view, for what it’s worth, is that The Panchatantra and much of Kalila and Dimna is at least 2000 years old, but these stories could well derive from a murky oral tradition that’s much older than that, back to the origins of human song. To explore this wild idea, have a look at Steven Mithen’s book, The Singing Neanderthals.

What language were they written in before English?

Sanskrit, Pali, Pahlavi (middle Persian), Arabic, Syriac, Persian, Hebrew, Latin, Old Spanish – to name just the main ones that carried these stories from East to West. They also allegedly traveled to China, by the way, but I haven’t been able to verify the details of that migration.

Is there an order to these stories?

Yes, but this order is most stable in the first discourse of both The Panchatantra and Kalila and Dimna – the frame-story about the two jackal brothers. But even in this first discourse, there are significant remixes and variations as the corpus of tales travels by text or word of mouth across borders for centuries, to settle in Arabic by 750 CE, at the beginning of the Abassid dynasty.

In Appendix I of his 1997 translation of The Panchatantra, Professor Patrick Olivelle publishes a concordance of the story sequences that are found in seven different Sanskrit versions. Not one is congruent with another.

By discoures four and five, especially in the 15th century Persian version called the Anvari-i-Suhayli by Kashifi, the content, let alone the story order is all over the place. None of the different texts agree on much, and there are undoubtedly all sorts of spurious stories dropped in, some of them quite effective, but clearly from different cultural traditions. This erosion of the original order begins in chapter three and progressively increases.

But there’s an additional problem here: the earliest confirmed text we have is the Arabic by Ibn al-Muqaffa, so how can we possible know what the original order was, if we have no older texts in the book’s two preceding languages – Pahlavi and Sanskrit? You can begin to see why this material has been such a rich field for vigorous scholastic debate for well over two hundred years. And I’m not even mentioning the long artistic tradition of illustrating these stories, a separate subject about which dozens of other scholarly books have been published

How much do the stories different between versions?

On the simplest level, the zoology and the botany change as the stories cross borders. Jackals become foxes, crocodiles change into turtles or tortoises, the jungle becomes the forest, the types of trees change to accommodate familiar landscape for the local reader. However there are other more fundamental changes made by various translators or re-mixers of the material. One of the most famous is an entire extra chapter in the first book added by Ibn al-Muqaffa, the convert from Zorastrianism to Islam, who gave us the Arabic version from the lost Pahlavi version.

Why did he do that?

He was in a delicate position politically, to say the least, straddling the bloody overthrow of the Umayyad caliphs by the Abassids, surviving briefly as a political adviser to both sides. The chapter he added was in conformity to the morality of his time; Dimna goes on trial, is jailed and put to death. We know this addition is spurious from of the inferential evidence from the pre-Islamic versions in Sanskrit.

In general the tagging on of morals to these and other fables, in my view, is often a clean-up operation carried out by the priest-police, the rabbi/mullahs indoctrinating people how to behave rather than allowing them to think for themselves.

Be that as it may, Ibn al-Muqaffa was the story-writer who ultimately salvaged this material, and created one of the earliest prose classic in Arabic when doing so.

What was the original format of these stories?

No one knows for certain, for the reasons I have already given. Maybe they were told by fools to kings, to help them see themselves, like stand-up comics do for us today. Maybe they had spiritual overtones, as stated in The Jatakas about the Buddha, which later degenerated into more superficial political ones.

Oral tradition?

Yes, I think so. They were carried by word of mouth, story-teller to story-teller, amateur fireside tradition in small community groups or by professional performers. But at least one Sanskrit scholar believes they began as text, from the pen of a legendary guru/genius named Visnu Sarma. Neither contention can be proved; they’re just opinions based on interpreting clues. No confirmatory text exists.

If so, when and why were they written down?

To record and store them, of course: to fix them in a replay device called text. Just as the imagery of cave paintings 25,000 years ago helped our ancestors remember important hunting events, giving them magical power over an uncontrollable environment. Think of these manuscripts as tortuously scribed vellum or paper prototypes of the iPod. In their day, manuscripts were revolutionary technology, functioning far more effectively than the previous option of lugging around a heavy basket of data stored on clay tablets.

When? Well, the earliest text we have is Ibn al-Muqaffa’s Arabic one of 750 CE. But we also know from The Shahnameh, the late 10th century Persian classic by Ferdowsi, that these stories existed before that. I say over two thousand years; others say around 300 CE. Who knows, and does it really matter?

Do these stories have some of role in a royal court?

Traditionally, yes. They comprise a genre of educational literature termed, later in our European context, ‘Mirrors for Princes’. One can think of them as the earliest How To Books. Literature handwritten by scribes was extremely rare – only available to royalty because they alone could afford to commission them and employ the technicians to read them aloud at the royal whim. Many great kings, like Ashoka, were illiterate. There are several versions of this type of literature in various languages, Nico Machievelli’s The Prince being the one best known in Europe. But in Sanskrit they are much older, even than The Panchatantra itself, some believe – for example, Katutilya’s Arthasastra. Doris Lessing and Dr Christine van Ruymbeke discuss this matter at some length, in the Introduction and Postscript of my 2008 Saqi edition.

If a man’s home really is his castle, however, even if it be a hovel, then we can also consider this survivalist material applicable to everyone, king and commoner alike.

How did you go about making your own version of these stories?

First I read every scholarly translation I could find, in total about eight or nine books from Sanskrit, Persian, Arabic, Syriac. I read them over and over again for years, because these ancient languages, put into English, varied considerably in style and content. The Thomas North version of 1570, the first into English and entitled The Morall Philosophie of Doni was a crucial anchor point, helping me see how all the other versions differed from it – and from each other.

Gradually a master template began to emerge, though only for the first two chapters. The whole work, all five chapters with more than eighty fables in dozens of variations, was just too massive and too complicated, like a huge 11 dimensional chess puzzle; I had to chunk it down into something more manageable for my brain.

Also in that period I was an apprentice story-teller, before 1980 when I helped to start The College of Storytellers. Being an active story-teller was crucial to being able to experience the living structure within these stories, to understand how they worked and slotted together, how they were engineered. I told them to people, and acted them out in a mirror by myself in Scotland before writing them down. If I had only viewed them from a literary perspective, merely as a story-writer poised to impart them from page to brain to page, I have no doubts whatsoever that I would have failed to capture them. The activity of story-telling and story-listening brought them alive in my heart.

How did you find out about Kalila and Dimna in the first place?

A friend, Pat Williams, told me about it in 1974. Because its history is so complex, I tracked down different Kalila and Dimna versions, and Pat lent me yet another one. I started to work on one of the stories, but I had no idea what I was getting into.

Later I found out the original idea came from Idries Shah, who was an inspirational mentor of both story-telling and story-writing. So ultimately, he was the source. I chewed and tussled with the book like a wild dog for years, totally obsessed, apart from my day job as a wholesale picture-framer.

But there’s a problem in describing my progress in this way that I’d like to identify and adjust. In a narrative biographical structure like I’m recounting aloud to you now, which you record and then edit into sequential paragraphs, and later someone else reads – everything seems to fit neatly and make sense, to follow an orchestrated and tidy chain of clear events. It’s not like that in anyone’s life except afterwards, with the benefit of 20/20 hindsight. This false-clarity is a problem with story-writing, especially journalism, where we are seduced by the linearity of print to suppose that a cause and effect logic thus leaps off the page, encouraging us to believe fill-in-the-dots nonsense like: “Wow! How amazing that everything worked out for this fellow, one scene dissolving smoothly into another.”

I assure you that such a perception is utterly wrong. Look around you if you assume reality is a tidy arena always within human control. Thus there’s been little operational skill of mine aside from bone-headed persistence, trying to keep aboard the wobbly skateboard that life assigned. You don’t plan these events. They happen to you if you’re lucky enough to keep sane – which my friends will assure you is a dubious premise.

Woody Allen is quite correct when he says that “80% of any job is simply turning up.” That’s all I did: Turn Up, and then put in a max of 20% effort on those rare occasions when I wasn’t feeling lazy.

What makes you qualified to do these stories?

Years of reading? Familiarity with animals from an early age? My mother claims I emerged from the womb in Texas with a book in my hand. That’s obviously hogwash. But I was certainly always interested in stories as a kid. My father, a New Yorker, was an accomplished raconteur, a historian who became a diplomat, and thus knew quite a bit more than most people about the world beyond the Euro-American pale. His father was a keen amateur actor who would recite long, dramatic poems as his party piece in the Twenties. On my mother’s side things were much more rural and, to my mind, raw and exciting. Her father was without doubt my strongest childhood influence. He was simultaneously the local doctor and sheriff in a small town in north Florida. By contrast my paternal grandfather was a rich stockbroker on Wall Street. Add to this improbable genetic porridge the fact that by the age of twelve, because my father’s job took us all over the place, I had attended more than a dozen schools in the US, Brussels and Manila. Later I went to Harvard, studied literature among other things, including criminology and photography, but quit before graduating. So the answer is sheer luck . . . or destiny, depending how you look at it.

Can you read some of the older versions in the original?

No, not in any of the original languages. But then very few scholars can master more than two of the four languages that carry the earliest remnants, say Sanskrit and Syriac, or Arabic and Persian. In any case perfectly adequate translations from all sources, representing decades of work, exist in English. The problem to my mind isn’t to be able to read the stories in the original (which would be delightful, especially to appreciate the subtleties of different cultural nuances); the problem is to be able to fathom the entirety of the Kalila and Dimna phenomenon, its stupendous and far-reaching literary impact on so many civilizations across the world. And most galling of all, perhaps, is that no one in truth can claim to possess the original version: it’s a world classic, just like the number zero is – or the game of chess, both also probably born in India. This book of fables now belongs to humanity, regardless of where it originates.

Why did you use contemporary expressions in your version?

I’m story-writing for today’s audience. This updating has offended some people wedded to older translations, which in certain cases I freely admit do indeed capture more accurately either the brevity or the range of metaphor in the original source language. But which source language? Arabic? Sanskrit? Persian? Each one claims its own classic version of The Panchatantra, aka Kalila and Dimna. I’m for transparency here; let the reader choose. Read all the translations; learn all the classic languages; find your favorite; stick with it.

However I would like to point out that I’m by no means the first story-writer to re-configure the original material. Even in Sanskrit there are at least two works,The Kathasaritsagara by Somadeva and the Hitopadesa by Narayana, each of which, nearly a thousand years ago, recast some of The Panchatantra for local audiences. So my activity can hardly be considered shockingly revolutionary.

Have you been to the countries where these stories are still popular?

Some: Turkey, Tunisia, Morocco, Pakistan. I wouldn’t say they’re always popular, however. An Arab acquaintance of mine in London, when I told her what I was doing, threw up her hands in horror. “Kalila wa Dimna!” she exclaimed. “But it’s so boring, so tedious. Why bother? What a waste of time!” This was because, when she was young, she’d been forced to read this revered book by Ibn al-Muqaffa in classical Arabic. A very rough equivalent today would be to force-feed a rebellious teenager in Kansas on Chaucer’s Canterbury Talesin Middle English. Let’s just say it might be a struggle, and not one to everyone’s taste. Chaucer, to be popularized today, has to be re-mixed for BBC TV in modern dramatic settings, or cast as a raunchy musical. Both of these options have worked extremely well, and have no doubt adapted Chaucer for a more robust survival beyond our era.

Have you talked to living story-tellers of these stories?

Certainly in Morocco, in Fes, where most evenings you can find story-tellers plying their trade in Baghdadi Square, sometimes encircled by as many as two hundred people of all ages, mostly male, but a few older women too, at the front, cackling away at the obviously risque parts. But I don’t speak Arabic, so the best I’ve managed to do is get a friend to enquire at the end, and the response is always something like ‘Stories of Kalila wa Dimna? But yes, of course I know them!’

But whether they actually tell them there, I’m not qualified to say. You’ll need to ask an international story-telling expert like Ben Haggarty at crickcrackclub.com, an amazingly rich site, by the way, or people at the Scottish equivalent: scottishstorytellingcentre.co.uk. Ben and many others have steadfastly devoted their lives to reviving the art of the living story performance, a phenomenon that is more fluid and perhaps riskier than acting from a conventionally memorized script. More like the activity of stand-up comics, in my opinion.

I also am friendly with an Iranian family in London, and even their youngest child at seven already knew several of the fables and was quite happy to tell them to me in not inconsiderable detail.

In Europe the master French story-teller Abbi Patrix has been performing his musical version of the third section of Kalila and Dimna, ‘The War of the Crows and the Owls’ since the 1980s. It’s also available as a CD from Amazon.

Of course, too, when I was a practicing story-teller back in the 1980s, with the College of Storytellers, I would wheel them out from time to time, as a default if I couldn’t think of anything else to tell. A couple of my colleagues, too, used them, notably John Patsalides, who got very good reactions from his version of ‘The Bedbug and the Flea’.

What’s your relationship to the academics who specialize in these stories?

At present I only have one such relationship, with Christine van Ruymbeke, Soudavar Reader of Persian at Cambridge University. We share a mutual interest in the story-telling aspect of these fables.

I find it illuminating that the only other expert who makes a clear distinction between story-writing and story-telling is also a woman: Chandra Rajan, who translated The Panchatantra in 1993. I’ve never met her, but her introduction expresses a viewpoint that, in my opinion, is unique. There are a few other scholars in sympathy with this distinction, notably G. H. McWilliam in the detailed introduction to his translation of Boccaccio’s The Decameron, and Robert Irwin’s stupendous The Arabian Nights: A Companion.

There are, no doubt, many others I’m ignorant of, as this is a huge field. Nevertheless, the current scholarly convention is to assume that narrative literature, the words that enters the eye from text printed on a page or computer screen, has the same neurological effect as story-telling in the flesh. Indeed many intellectuals assume that story-writing is indistinguishable from story-telling: that they are one and the same phenomenon.

At this point I think we enter a blind-spot of our civilization, something so obvious that we simply cannot bear to examine it more closely, namely our attitude to story-telling and, indeed, fables themselves.

Here’s an example: The Bedford Anthology of World Literature – The Ancient World, Beginnings to 100 C.E. (Boston, 2004) is a textbook of over 1650 pages, the first in a massive series of six volumes. On page 12 we read this statement: “It is difficult to overestimate the role of writing and literacy in the history of the world.” Be that as it may, it would also appear that it is more than possible for academic educationalists to under-represent the role of pre-literate story-telling in the history of the world, not to mention the world today, riddled as it remains with illiteracy and dyslexia. Aside from the single page just cited, oral literature vanishes entirely from this vast curriculum of world literature. Never mind suspect fables from India; no mention is even made of Aesop, or the universality of jokes – presumably because oral transmission is deemed irrelevant to students exclusively wedded to textual reality.

Very few scholars, either folklorists or linguistic experts, approach Kalila and Dimna either as performance story-tellers or as story-writers. Their main focus is on updating specific texts, usually on translating from one of the original languages like Sanskrit or Arabic into a target modern language, or on meticulous categorizing and theorizing about the taxonomy of story-types or their psychological metaphysicality. This may be very valuable activity from an archaeological and intellectual perspective, but few scholars can transmit the vibrant, heart-felt experience of these precious artifacts to a modern audience. Most scholars are publishing for other scholars. Story-tellers and story-writers try to entertain a wider, more multi-disciplinary audience.

For example in the last 25 years there have been new translations into English from different Sanskrit, Pali and Arabic texts. I have no idea how many other translations from these three languages have targeted Japanese, Armenian, Italian, Spanish, French, German, Portuguese and so forth – maybe none. But my point is we’re dealing with a very established industry, over a thousand years old – the continuous worldwide textual proliferation of The Jataka Tales, Kalila and Dimna and The Panchatantra into a multitude of languages.

What do you think we should learn from these stories?

There is no “should”, no rigid didactic imperative – only the option, the long-term possibility of catching a flexibility of perception that offers an individual basis for adaptability and survival. One may learn to avoid being always trapped in one’s culture-bound belief structures, because every local environment is morphing, whether you want it to or not. What works now seldom works for long. Conditioned belief stemming from indoctrination, although invariably reassuring, doesn’t possess the same quality of truth as a belief based on a fluid, accurate perception.

What is most foreign about these stories?

There are two in my opinion. One, the fables are linked together in multiple layers within an overall dramatic sequence, called the frame-story, like Scheherazade telling the king a new story every night to keep alive in The Arabian Nights. The five sections of Kalila and Dimna converge into a singularity. These fables don’t exist as disconnected dots – as standalone, isolated stories: which is our convention for such material.

Secondly, they seldom have overt morals attached to them, in the way that we have been conditioned to expect for generations, because of our long exposure to the religiosity grafted upon Aesop.

What story do you like the most?

I’m afraid I don’t have any favorite tales because I experience them rather like tools in a tool box, or different fresh vegetables in a basket. Each does something useful, under specific circumstances, helping me (and I hope others) navigate my way through situations and stay healthy, even alive.

For example, on the most puerile, basic level, if I find my self trying very hard to do something that doesn’t work, and then push myself to try even harder and harder, yet still fail to achieve my goal, I might just recall the story of the Cormorant and the Star – that is actually sense, with a gasp of self-recognition, the absurd experience of a bird diving again and again into the water trying to catch the reflection of a star that it assumes is a fish. Re-living that story-flash under such circumstances might (there is no guarantee!) help me remember that there are some things one simply can’t do, usually because one’s vanity stops one from questioning a starting assumption. (Is that tempting brightness over there really a fish? Do I have all the required skills and tools to reach my target even if it is a fish?).

So if you accept that each story has a vaguely useful instrumentality, a kind of built-in guidance factor, has a job it potentially can do within circumstance that might occur from time to time, then I cannot really say (reverting to the analogy of the toolbox) ‘Oh, I like the chisel better than the hammer, but the hammer better than the pliers. And as to the tin-snippers and the screwdriver – well I just hate them both!’

What stories do you think provide particular insights?

For me they all do, or can, when the time is ripe for a specific unfolding. Sometimes you have to wait for your own experience to catch up with the story. It may take years for the penny to drop, and give you that dawning ‘Aha!’ experience. There’s wonderfully quirky poem by Christian Morgenstern, translated from the German by Walter Arndt, exploring this idea:

Delayed Action Jokes

Korf invents a kind of shaggy-dog tale
With its trigger set for hours ahead.
Everybody hears it with a yawn.

But as if a secret fuse had smoldered,
Deep at night you will abruptly waken,
Blithely bubbling like a brimful baby.

Why jackals?

In India and Africa they’re consider smart and clever, like foxes are in Europe.

What was the hardest part of modernizing these stories?

There were two for me. First, I had to select what my intuition told me were the most effective set of stories from several sources. I’d pick and choose from different translations and sequencings from Sanskrit, Persian, Syriac or Arabic – trying to figure out my running order. Some critics have complained that they considered this method impure, a corruption of the classic story-writing that pre-exists in one or another translations from those four languages. Usually, however, they only know one of the texts, and often can become somewhat partisan if you point out how theirs varies from the others.

Secondly, I had to perform the same exercise with regard to the so-called frame-story, the over-arching narrative within which the whole book (as well as each sub-section or discourse) functions. This required much more imagination, because in all translations the frame-stories are where the narrative becomes its most vague and contradictory. In short the dots are not so connected here, and you have to fill in the gaps, for better or worse.

Once these elements are roughly in place, I start telling the stories to myself and to others, and then eventually I’m ready to sit down and let them tap themselves out on a keyboard. It works best if I assume they’ll be writing me rather than the other way around; I am just the channel, as long as I can make myself sit down everyday and visualize my characters’ moving bodies and listen to their voices.

Are these stories for children?

They are for adults and also for children, as was the original. I think parents should read or hear them first, however, and then decide when they might be appropriate for their offspring. I emphatically do not believe, however, that they are exclusively baby-food for children, and deplore the many soppy and sickly-sweet versions that try to pass themselves off as such.

Are they educational?

I think so, provided you mean helping one to learn how to think for one self. Again, I emphatically do not think they are for memorizing in order to condition people into being laborious hypocrites, that is, only collecting them as artifacts but not knowing how to use them. I once met a man who had collected over a hundred modern cameras into illuminated display cases, but never took a single photograph. In fact he was quite horrified when I suggested he might do so.

Are these happy stories?

Well, in my versions I’ve tried to make them funny and entertaining, even when they’re describing brutal events. Certainly Chapter Two, the frame story I entitled ‘Zirac and Friends’ indicates that cooperation among different creatures is possible and can be beneficial.

But I have to say that I personally appreciate the realism of the Chinese expression, “Eat bitter,” as in “She has eaten a lot of bitter all her life.” As I understand it, this is not only a compliment about an individual’s fortitude in enduring tribulation, but also a comment on her luck at having been denied easy passage. Life’s not designed to be all beer and skittles; it’s for problem solving. If anyone thinks they will always avoid suffering during their lifetime, they may be in for a rude shock. Perhaps these stories will help prepare them for the inevitable shabbiness of this world. After all, one definition of a realist is: “an informed optimist”.

Your first book using this material was published 30 years ago. Why are you revisiting it now, delivering your 2nd volume in 2010?

I was educated to a soft attitude about work, one that assumes simply doing a job automatically leads to success. I lacked stamina and needed more life experience to re-start this project. I’m a slow, lazy learner. Before now, I simply didn’t know enough. My wife can confirm this.

Has anyone made these stories into animated cartoons?

Yes, the Arabic edutainment channel, Al Jazeera Children’s Channel, broadcast its first cartoon series Kalila wa Dimna in late 2006. The series, which was took two-and-a-half years to make, cost the channel US $2 million to produce.

Do you think the Arab/Western relationship affects how people see these stories in the west?

I think it’s a more generalized East/West relationship than an Arab/West one, for these stories undoubtedly originate in India, even if we cannot pin down an exact date or conclusive text. And yes, I think the steady leveling of our western economic monolith opens all of us to the survival wisdom of a more global vision. As Dorothy says to her dog in The Wizard of Oz, “Toto, I’ve a feeling we’re not in Kansas anymore.”

Have these stories ever been popular in the West?

Yes, if you accept that they’ve been bubbling along quite happily in European written and oral versions since they first reached Greek in the 11th century and Hebrew, Old Spanish and Latin in the 13th. Not many secular western books have been continuously in print for 700 or so years.