Q: I hear that one of Iraq’s most famous folk tales was actually written by a German guy…What’s up with THAT?

A: Iraq, like most Middle Eastern lands, has a great tradition of oral storytellers, and has contributed some of the most famous folk tales from the region. But one, usually called "The Stork Caliph," was actually first written in the early 19th Century by a German fairy tale writer named Wilhelm Hauff. According to Web sites that compile Iraqi folk tales, versions of the story were then adopted by storytellers and spread widely throughout the Middle East.

Here’s the story, in a nutshell. A long time ago in Baghdad, there lived a Caliph who was loved by his people. Every afternoon, he disguised himself and his closest advisor as common people, walking through the bazaars. One day, he bought a snuff box from a man who turned out to be a wizard, himself disguised as a street peddler. The Caliph and his advisor found a magic powder inside the box, with a promise that it could turn them into storks, along with a magic word that would turn them back to their human forms.

The two took the powder, and enjoyed a day of soaring above Baghdad. At the end of the day, though, they realized they’d been had – the wizard intentionally gave them the wrong magic word. The Caliph’s brother usurped the throne and began a terrible reign. The Caliph and his advisor, still in stork form, found the wizard, overheard him giving the real magic word, and turned themselves back into humans. They retook the palace and banished the Caliph’s brother to a life at sea, with only toads and snails – stork food – to eat.

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