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“The Gal Who Will Use the Recording Machine:” Insights into the Sarah P. Jamali Collection

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1951 Library memo from Luther H. Evans (Librarian of Congress, 1945-1953) that reads: Mrs. Korson, Folklore Section: The wife of Dr. Mohamed Fadhel El-Jamali, Bagdad [sic], Iraq, Former Minister of Edu., Former min. of For. Affs., probably at present president of Parliament (?), is the gal who will use the recording machine. Please draft any necessary correspondence. LHE 
This blog post is part of a series called “Hidden Folklorists,” which examines the folklore work of surprising people, including people better known for other pursuits.

One of my favorite ways to explore our collections is to leaf through the folders of the correspondence file cabinets in our reading room, where I often come across fascinating letters sent between the Center (as well as Library leadership) and wide-ranging institutions, organizations, and people from across the world. Pushed by my interest in the AFC’s international efforts, I stumbled upon the 1955-1956 Annual Report of the Archive of American Folk Song (now the AFC archive), which was sent in 1956 by the Archive’s Head, Rae Korson, to the International Folk Music Council (now known as the International Council for Traditional Music) in response to their “Archives Containing Authentic Folk Music Questionnaire.” The report highlights a project in Baghdad, Iraq, centered on Iraqi folktales – “Arabic material said to be comparable in quality with that found in Arabian Nights” – recorded by a Mrs. Sarah Powell Jamali in 1953. Instantly, my interest was piqued – not only due to the recording project’s time period and geographic focus, but really because it was run by a gal.

Born in 1908 in Weyburn (Saskatchewan), Canada to American parents, Sarah Powell Jamali may mostly be known as the wife of the former Iraqi Prime Minister, Mohammed Fadhel Jamali. As summarized in his volume of memoirs, Inside the Arab Nationalist Struggle: Memoirs of an Iraqi Statesman, which was typed up by Mrs. Jamali in the 1970s, he was a “distinguished figure in the turbulent world of Arab politics in the aftermath of World War II,” beginning his career in the Ministry of Education, “where he rose by 1942 to become Director General.” Over time, he served as “Director General of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and then Minister of Foreign Affairs in no less than eight Iraqi Governments between 1943 and 1958, was twice speaker of the Iraqi Parliament in the period 1951 to 1953, and served as Iraq’s Prime Minister in 1953-54.” Sarah moved to Baghdad in 1932 as a teacher of English, after meeting her future husband during their studies at the University of Chicago and again later at the Teachers College at Columbia University in the late 1920s. It is evident that one shared interest of theirs was the discipline of pedagogy. In a 1953 letter from Sarah to the then Librarian of Congress, Luther H. Evans, her affiliation is listed as Head of the English Department at Queen Alia College, which was an institution for girls, founded in 1942, and part of the University of Baghdad.

This story unfolds in a series of delicate, onion-skin letters, and follows the winding path taken by the actual recording equipment that Sarah used: an Eicor tape recorder, two microphones, a generator and battery, valued in total at $400 in 1952. It appears that she was first put in contact with the Archive through Ralph Solecki, a Smithsonian researcher who had taken part in an early 1950s University of Michigan anthropological “expedition” to Northern Iraq. More specifically, as the Chair of the University’s Department of Near Eastern Studies stated in a 1950 letter to the Archive: “[T]his expedition, financed by the University and the Carnegie Corporation, is penetrating comparatively little known areas of Northern Iraq and adjacent portions of Iran.” For this, Solecki requested – and ultimately borrowed – the Eicor recording machine from the Archive to document folk and traditional music of the region, recordings that eventually became the Ralph Solecki Collection of Folk Music of Iraq (containing Kurdish folk music).

The equipment loan was supported by the Archive’s Head at the time, Duncan Emrich. (Rae Korson was Emrich’s assistant previous to becoming the Head of the Archive herself from 1955 until 1969.) In seeking approval from the Chief of the Music Division, Harold Spivacke, Emrich wrote: “This seems to be an excellent opportunity to cooperate with a university expedition as well as to obtain unusual material from a country which is not as yet represented in the Archive.” Indeed, as discussed in another post of mine, the 1950s ‘Emrich era’ was one in which the Archive’s international holdings expanded significantly, reflecting how high a priority this was for him. Soon thereafter, the Eicor machine and its accompanying parts most likely sailed to the Middle East aboard the S.S. Exeter, which departed New York Harbor on February 16, 1951.

In late August 1951, Solecki wrote to Emrich to announce that the expedition was over and that the equipment was ready to be sent back to Washington, D.C. In his letter, he alludes to previous conversations he had with Emrich about Sarah Jamali, and the possibility that she would next use the recorder to document Iraqi “stories, proverbs, poems, and songs,” as she explained in the aforementioned 1953 letter to Luther H. Evans. It appears that Sarah was also encouraged to reach out to the Library by John Marshall, a representative of the Rockefeller Foundation, who must have met her on a visit to Baghdad in the early 1950s, a point to which I will return later. In Sarah’s letter to Evans, she notes that she and Marshall agree that the project’s “immediate aim is to register the living folklore of Iraq, beginning in Baghdad and working outward as opportunity arises,”  and that “the bulk of the material would be Arabic; the Kurdish folklore would receive secondary consideration.” Evans replied enthusiastically and noted that “ten tapes and two empty spools” would be sent to her as a “starter,” all of which she received in August 1953. A year later, Emrich wrote that two tapes were given by her to the Archive, the recordings that comprise the Sarah P. Jamali Collection.

The now-digitized recordings total a little over an hour. I was fortunate to have Muhannad Salhi, Arab World Specialist in the Library’s African and Middle Eastern Division, listen to the recordings, which he confirms as folktales in colloquial Arabic distinct to Iraq. They are often humorous and involve romantic and/or familial plotlines. For instance, one story tells of a “woman who would not marry her cousin, because she is married to another man, a man who comes at night and leaves at night and no one knows who he is. The family suspect he is a jinn [spirit], so they appeal to the king of the land, and in the end it turns out that the king is the man!”  Salhi adds: “Another one is about a miserly husband, whose new bride outwits him and basically kills him.” Jamali has since written that when arriving in Baghdad in 1932, “I began to study Arabic, and was soon able to understand the folktales which people told on many occasions. I was impressed by the amount of folklore to be heard on every side, and I longed to collect some of the stories before they died or were forgotten.”

“On 14 July 1958, a chapter of Iraq’s history was closed when the Hashemite monarchy fell,” reads the opening line of Mohammed Fadhel Jamali’s memoir. For Jamali, that morning was chaotic, but he escaped with his life, despite reports to the contrary. As he recounts in the memoir:

The world media reported that I had been killed by a mob in Baghdad. Actually, some other unfortunate person was mistaken for me and lost his life. On the morning of 17 July, however, I was arrested in the wilderness north of Baghdad. In the course of the following months I was interrogated, tried and sentenced by the Special High Military Court of Iraq. I was condemned to death, sentenced to 55 years of imprisonment, and fined over 100,000 dinars (equivalent at that time to 100,000 pounds sterling). The death sentence was imposed for my supposedly having plotted against Syria […] In fact, I have never conspired against Syria nor against any other Arab state. I am a Muslim Arab nationalist who believes in the right of the Arabs to be free and to unite by democratic processes.

Title page of Folktales from the City of the Golden Domes

Fueled by concurrent Pan-Arab nationalist movements in the region, the 1958 coup d’état sought to end the monarchy and remove government officials who were viewed as sympathetic to Western imperialism, including Mohammed Fadhel Jamali, who was an advocate of strong ties with the United States. After spending three years in prison, he was eventually allowed to leave Iraq, taking up residence in Tunisia until his death in 1997.

For his wife, the 1958 Iraqi Revolution brought another kind of imprisonment: “I suddenly found myself confined to my home in Baghdad with lots of time on my hands,” she wrote. Sarah turned to her love of collecting folktales and, with time on her side, began to translate into English certain stories that she had recorded. The resultant 1965 publication, Folktales from the City of the Golden Domes, contains twenty-four tales, with one in particular, “The Miser who Married,” that tells the story of a clever, young wife outwitting her penny-pinching husband and eventually shocking him to death in the end – one of the tales in the AFC collection, as confirmed by Salhi.

Her book also contains a heartfelt preface in which she mentions that she often recorded her mother-in-law, Bahiya Jamali, who was “an excellent storyteller.” She writes: “[A]nd she often entertained us with her art. When I asked if she would let me record her stories; she agreed; but she was shy about letting any of her family know what she was doing, since she was fairly certain of their disapproval.” This was probably due to the fact that it was generally “felt that folktales were just superstitions and therefore out of place in a progressive, modern society.” Nonetheless, I suspected that the recordings in the collection were of Bahiya Jamali, since the same woman’s voice is heard throughout them.  I was able to confirm this with Sarah’s sons, Abbas F. Al-Jamali and Usameh Jamali, and her granddaughter, Fatima Jamali, with whom I have been in recent contact.

Oh, and the recording machine? The equipment was passed on to Sarah and, around the same time, it was arranged that it would live permanently at the University of Baghdad, after she was done using it. Funding in the amount of $400 from the Rockefeller Foundation made this donation possible; this was a gift to the University from the Foundation, which reimbursed the Archive for the equipment. Emrich was very supportive of this donation, believing the University should have the capabilities to record culture. Perhaps he shared the same thoughts as Sarah, who ends her book’s preface with the following:

These are some stories of long ago that have lived on until today, but soon there will be no more of the old storytellers to pass them on from generation to generation. If they live at all, it will be in the pages of books or as voices on tapes and records. However, I hope that the new generation will love folktales so that they may live in the future as long as they have lived in the past.


  1. What a wonderful and inspirational story bringing to light Sarah Powell Jamali’s work!

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