“So, you know what it’s like when you’re really drunk and…” (Pause, looks around.) “Well, maybe you don’t all know what it’s like.”
It is the last night of the sixth edition of the Hakaya Festival in Amman, and storytellers — including some on stage for the first time — are telling stories that have emerged from various workshops. Palestinian actor and storyteller Hanin Tarabay is performing a story heard at one of them.
It is a moment of both connection and disconnection as Tarabay realizes that some audience members don’t indeed know what drunkenness feels like. The audience is varied, including not just festival participants and the usual culture crowd, but also refugees from camps in Jordan.
Tarabay is telling someone else’s story of friendship. Of a drunk new year’s night and a friend who is there at a time of drunkenness and lack of self-control. The two friends laugh about this night for some time after, and now she remembers it when she misses him. In the audience, I feel a huge sadness at this moment, but chastise myself for my sentimentality. Tarabay then carries on, telling us she misses her friend painfully since he died of cancer. The mastery of the storyteller is that she introduces the loss before it is articulated.
Hakaya was set up by a network of organizations and individuals who met in 2004, on the premise that stories and storytelling are central to individual and collective growth. Though funding has been sporadic, meaning a smaller festival this year, the network has continued to develop momentum, with the Arab Education Forum and Al-Balad Theatre in Amman playing a central role.
For Egyptian theater actor turned storyteller Arfa Abdel Rassoul, it is the details of stories that are their appeal. Explaining why she likes to focus on everyday details, she almost sounds like an anthropologist: “It is here you see the nature of a moment — historically, economically, socially, politically, for example how do people manage when electricity is cut or for two weeks without water.”
A story does not have to feature a strong character, she explains. One of her series are “just the simple stories of a simple girl who grew up in a popular neighborhood of Alexandria during the Nasser period.” “The Stories of the Grocer’s Daughter” are her own, and she says they paint a picture of a time when social life and relations were different.
As part of Egypt’s Warsha Theater Troupe, in Amman Abdel Rassoul was working with a group of young Gazan women in a project organized by Warsha and Theater Day Productions (TDP) in Gaza. Initially, TDP set out to work with women collecting and performing stories from other women, but soon the focus became women and war. This, it seemed, was what the women wanted to talk about. And although they are about detail, these stories are not banal. They point to how small daily concerns continue to exist, in morphed form, even as Israeli warships do their dirty work.
The Gazan group performed a mixture of their own and collected stories. They say that in Gaza the response has been overwhelming. One of the group, Mariam al-Ostaz, remembers that after one performance back home, women who had watched ceased to simply be the audience, and began to share their own stories. “I don’t think my stories are more than theirs. Some of them are a lot older. So it was great that they started to tell some of their stories, and they did it without us asking.”
In four days in Amman, the funniest story I heard — that made me laugh most — was not really funny at all. One woman, Ola Salem, told her own story. After years of believing she may not be able to have children, she’s blessed with three. Then war comes, the bombardment fierce. She keeps her children with her at all times. They barely leave the house. “Whoever moves away from me dies,” she warns. She is with them every waking — and sleeping — moment. If one child is hungry, they all go to the kitchen. If one child needs the toilet, they all make their way to the bathroom.
The story induced laughter not because it was funny but because Salem told it in a funny way. Salem says she did not consciously choose to add humor. “It came like that,” she says. “When I remembered the days of bombardment, not immediately, but after a little while, I would laugh at myself. I told it from that moment.”
Abdel Rassoul says she was deeply moved by the experience of working with the women from Gaza. “They told the stores with a strange power. They told the stories with the control of being habituated. They’ve gotten used to it. In the midst of war and bombardment, women cook and bake, bring up children — life continues even as death is continually present.”
Manal Ghneim — of small stature and quiet voice, except when onstage — was one of a number of storytellers participating in Hakaya who works with women on their own stories. Ghneim got into storytelling through working with children in the West Bank. She used to read translated stories to them, but since attending a storytelling workshop in 2008 — “quite by chance” — she has started to narrate other shaaby (popular) stories from Palestine and elsewhere.
“I had been introduced to storytelling not long before, and then I had a group of boys who were naughty and difficult to control. I narrated a story to them,” Ghneim remembers. “Then it was as if I had sprinkled them with magic, and I realized there was something in it.”
Most often she finds that the stories the children ask to hear again and again are shaaby Palestinian stories: the children relate to them, recognizing their language and movements, but the fantasy element allows for distance. “The stories are great for discussing emotions and fears. The children are able to talk about themselves, their own fears, at a safe distance,” she says.
Ghneim also gets the children to work on their own stories, but most of that work she does with women, believing that they have less space for expression and are taught to undervalue themselves: “It’s not just Arab society or Islam, but there is a disgust of women. And when a woman is valued, she is called ‘so-and-so’s daughter’ or ‘okht al-rajaal’ (sister of the men), so you are not respected because you are a woman.”
Through stories, Ghneim says, women can recognize the strength they already have. Her claims are not big — stories are small gestures, she says. “What can stories do in the face of hundreds of years of women being told that they are weak and worth nothing, by other women, men and society as a whole? But I find myself in this work and the women seem to find themselves as well.”
The prevailing approach to storytelling in the storytelling world is as follows: we all have stories, whether our own or heard from others. We can all be storytellers, but that does not make us all equally good storytellers. Enter the role of workshops and training — where people learn and share skills, but fundamentally bring out the storyteller they have inside of them.
Speaking of the gap between everyday stories and performance of stories, Sudanese participant Iili says, “We are all telling stories but not on the stage. The only difference between the one on stage and the one on the chair is that the one on stage has made a decision to be there.”
Iili came to the festival to improve his writing. He writes short stories and directs films, but had never performed a story. He was nervous, but “discovered a small storyteller inside myself.”
He wants to bring Sudanese performers next year. It would not only be about sharing the Sudanese experience, he says, pointing out that storytellers benefit from both learning and meeting people at the festival. Meanwhile, he has plans to gather stories from around Sudan, encompassing different identities and languages. “The history of Sudan,” he says, “is not really known inside or outside of the country.”
Stories make both a big and small claim to knowledge and truth: small in that a story does not claim to represent more than a person’s experience, and big in the sense that it claims experience is where truth lies. A story makes a claim of a complete truth — and that as a personal truth, it cannot be disputed. But as a personal truth, it also acknowledges its own partiality. The stories of Syrian and Palestinian refugees are painfully insightful about the experience of fleeing, the destruction wrought by war, displacement. But they do not feature the figures and facts of the bigger picture; they are the stuff of feeling. Stories are about the knowledge in the everyday, the detail, the micro.
Or as Warsha director Hassan el-Geretly puts it, storytelling is “a kind of celebration of life and freedom and all these things, a kind of exercise of life in giving value to it by reflecting it, telling it — I think this is a way of giving value to life. Life being basically the only thing you have.”
Hakaya is an annual festival focusing on writing, gathering and performing stories. This year’s festival took place between September 8 and 12 in Jordan.