Storytelling takes on a new look in Beirut

Topics range from serious stories to lighter subjects such as childhood recollections of fun times, old houses and dreams.
December 24, 2017
Healing atmosphere. Audience at a storytelling event organised by Cliffhangers. (Photo courtesy of Dima Matta.)

Beirut - It is not about telling the epics of ancient heroes or old tales and fables anymore but the sharing of personal experi­ences and life-changing sto­ries. The tradition of the hakawati — “storyteller” — once the most popular form of entertainment in Arab countries, is taking a contem­porary shape in Lebanon.

“Times have changed. Right now people don’t want to hear about heroes and myths but want to hear about each other. We are all heroes in our way,” said Dima Matta, an English-language university lec­turer, actor and storyteller who reintroduced the art form in 2014 in Lebanon by establishing a story­telling group, the Cliffhangers.

“Storytelling has become a form of activism,” Matta said. “In one in­stance, the theme was about gen­der-based violence against wom­en. Stories revolved around abuse, harassment and sexual violence against females, a very heavy top­ic in which a lot of people shared very personal experiences.”

Cliffhangers’ storytelling events are once a month at various ven­ues, tackling a particular theme each time. Topics range from se­rious stories — social and sexual oppression and gender-based vio­lence of the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) com­munity — to lighter subjects such as childhood recollections of fun times, old houses and dreams.

The events consist of two parts. Four storytellers are featured in the first and the second is open to audience members who wish to share their own stories. Story­tellers choose whatever language they are most comfortable in, usu­ally Arabic, English or sometimes a typically Lebanese amalgam of the two.

Matta, who grew up listening to her father’s tales of Sinbad and then stories about the Lebanese civil war, said she considered the new storytelling events to be a sort of therapy in which strangers share personal experiences without fear of being judged or criticised.

“There is a healing atmosphere about these events because it takes a lot of courage to share personal stories,” Matta said. “I feel it is my duty to offer safe space for people and this is something I have estab­lished from day one. When you enter the space, no matter where it is, you will not be judged, you will not be insulted but you will be ac­cepted and understood.”

Matta recalled a young woman who shared her experience of be­ing sexually assaulted and later writing that the Cliffhangers meet­ing was the only safe place she felt she could share her story. She thanked Matta for providing the opportunity.

In another instance, a young man talked about suffering from anxiety, despite the stigma around mental health that exists in Leba­non. “At that point, a young wom­an spoke out and said, ‘I have anxi­ety too. It is really good to listen to you speak because now I know that I am not alone…,’” Matta said. “So there is a sort of comforting feeling about listening to another person’s experience and then relating to it.”

Hakawati musings used to be the most popular form of entertain­ment in the Middle East. A haka­wati was a teller of tales, legends and fables. He was at the same time a performer who earned his living by captivating an audience with his tales. Each village had its own hakawati but the great ones travelled around the country tell­ing their tales.

Traditional stories such as “One Thousand and One Nights,” chron­icles of legendary Arab heroes or stories from Holy Scriptures were the most common tales. By work­ing with accent, tone and pitch, the storyteller could mimic many characters in his stories.

The re-emergence of hakawati is one of various story-telling ini­tiatives gaining popularity in Leba­non, following the success of the Moth, a US-based storytelling or­ganisation.

“Unlike the (folkloric) hakawa­tis who told historical and fiction stories, these are true stories. The persons who have experienced the story and tell it themselves can give you better details and can bring you into the moment in a different way than (for instance) journalists who tell it on their be­half,” said Rima Abushakra, a for­mer journalist who founded Ha­kaya, another storytelling group, in 2016 with three friends.

“As a journalist, I felt like the best stories I came across never made it into the paper because of deadlines and word-count limita­tions. There are such powerful ex­amples of humanity and kindness and lessons learned which went untold,” Abushakra added.

At Hakaya events, the stories are as diverse as the storytellers. They include people of all ages, backgrounds and nationalities. An elderly mother told the heart­breaking story of losing her son in the fighting in Tripoli in northern Lebanon; Syrian refugee children talked about experiences of war. There are also uplifting stories, such as the one about a young man who overcome the odds and be­came an opera singer.

“Storytelling has made a come­back worldwide,” said Matta. “However, in Lebanon, it took a while to revive it because nobody really thought about it but once you offer something to people they did not know they missed, they re­alise that they miss it.”