‘There was, and there was not, but even so there was …’ is one way an Arabic fairytale starts. Stories can take us to fantastic lands, to the underworld or a glass mountain, to a girl living at the bottom of a well or a prince with one arm and one wing. I was honoured to travel to Jordan, with The British Council Jordan and Apples and Snakes, to participate in the 7th Hakaya Festival. At Heathrow I bought dinars, covered in delicate calligraphy and illustrations. Dinars are the currency of the Arabian Nights, I was about to step into a story.
Raed Asfour is the director of Hakaya and Al-Balad Theatre. Hakaya is the Arabic word for traditional stories. Raed brought together storytellers from Palestine, Egypt, Morocco, Lebanon, Syria, Tunisia, Jordan, Sweden and the UK, to share genres and styles of storytelling, discuss our art, moan about funding, and dream-up ideas. Raed sees storytelling as a form of performance that can reach places where it is too difficult or expensive for larger performances to go. This year he sent storytellers to deprived urban areas, remote villages, public squares, refugee camps and neglected rural regions.
Storytelling has been termed ‘the poor man’s cinema’. It doesn’t need sets or lighting. It just needs a very good storyteller with a gripping tale and an audience who want to listen. Through voice and gesture, rhythm and silence, the story comes alive in the listeners’ imagination. Feelings, images, memories are communicated and triggered.
Raed believes that much more needs to be done for those whose lives have been uprooted. The festival opened with a performance by El Funoun Palestinian Dance Troupe. Prior to the opening, Raed brought six coaches from the Gaza refugee camp to a private performance. Everyone dressed-up as if they were going to a wedding, joining in this passionate and profoundly enriching performance.
I was lucky enough to be sent to the lowest place on Earth! We travelled through a landscape of stories, past: a vast mosque; Roman ruins; a Greek Orthodox church; the fort where Salomé danced with seven veils; deep gorges protecting rare birds; the lonely figure of Lot’s wife turned to a pillar of salt. I longed to stop, wander, write, collect, and tell these incredible tales. But we pushed on, to the far end of the Dead Sea, to the village of Ghor Al Mazra’a. There, Zikra Initiative believes that sharing art and culture is vital to development. My audience of children, teachers, parents, sat on cushions, mats, and walls. I told in tandem with wonderful Jordanian storyteller/translator Shalabieh Hakawatieh (Sally Shalabi). Hakawatieh means female storyteller, and her stage name plays with genders. The audience were engaged with both Arabic and English languages, joining in with repeating phrases, gestures, sound effects, and clapping rhythms. It is hard for a storyteller, a solo performer, to share their performance in such an intimate way, allowing another to get inside the story with them. But Shalabieh is so talented and sensitive, it was a joy. At times the translation flowed so seamlessly, I actually forgot who was leading and who following! Shalabieh repeated sounds and phrases, creating her own versions of my characters. Towards the end of the story the call to prayer echoed across the fields. One of the leaders of Zikra gestured to stop and wait. I thought the children might get distracted or run off. But we all sat still, in the setting sun, with the Dead Sea at the end of the dusty road, and listened. It was magical. Then I picked up the story where we had left it. The audience listened intently, receiving all I could give them. This performance was a rare gift, something I will never forget.
A story takes the listener to another place – a place that already exists inside them. Where forgotten things are remembered, sorrows spoken of, and wishes satisfied. Where desires and disappointments can be experienced and transformed. Telling and listening can bring healing. Thank you to all at Apples and Snakes and The British Council Jordan for making this remarkable exchange possible, it was incredibly valuable for us all.