Sunday, November 01, 2020

The political significance of Palestinian storytelling

By Maria Correia - July 30, 2018
Section: [Main News] [Features]
Tags: [culture]

“Through my stories, I believe I am keeping my country in the heart of the new generation.”

The practice of storytelling has a meaningful role in Palestinian life and identity. The performance art has a long history and significance, and is now a tool to unite young Palestinians with their roots to their land.
Speaking to two established Palestinian storytellers, this is what they had to say.
Becoming a storyteller
Denes Assad is a Palestinian storyteller from Caesarea village. The village was destroyed in the 1948 Arab Israeli War, so she is now living in Haifa. She has been a professional storyteller for 15 years.
Hamzeh Aqrabawi is from Aqraba village near Nablus. He has been doing storytelling professionally since 2016, and has since partaken in storytelling activities and groups globally.
What was emphasized was that it’s not an easy job.
According to Assad, storytelling is like singing or acting; you can practice it to become better, but you need an inherent gift or talent for it. She said that it is a profession that requires constant work and drive for self-betterment. Assad’s father was a teacher but she has later come to realize he had the gift of storytelling; she said she owes her talents to him.
She explained to Palestine Monitor that she owes her career as a storyteller to Katrice Horsley, a storyteller from England, who she met in Ramallah. After meeting, Horsley took Assad to Birmingham to take part in a storytelling festival. It was her first time telling stories outside her own family context. She then kept at it, and has participated in multiple workshops and festivals all over the world, to learn more about the practice.
Aqrabawi said that for the first years of doing what he does he did not consider himself a storyteller. He said he felt weird assuming that title when all he was doing was something that everyone does in the village he’s from. It was because he considered it more a passion rather than a job title.
“I really like stories and telling them but I didn’t fully consider myself as a storyteller and kept insisting on that.” He only introduced himself as a storyteller in 2016, despite having done storytelling for years.
“In my village, everyone tells stories. My mother tells stories 24 hours a day. My father used to tell stories on the farm. And they didn’t assume this title; so why should I?”
Choosing a story
Assad talked about the responsibility of the storyteller in choosing a story and the way it’s told; the teller must always adapt the presentation according to their audience. Nowadays, it’s also common to take old folktales but implement them in a modern context and contemporary events.
Denes Assad storytelling in traditional Palestinian outfit. 
Both Aqrabawi and Assad emphasized that due to a variety in audiences, there needs to variety in expression and content of their stories.
Aqrabawi talked about combining historical stories and imagination; a form of creative storytelling for him is combining real stories from the Nakba to then turn it into an artistic work.
Assad said that for adults it’s easier to mix things up. You can bring up themes that evolve around divorce and violence or pregnancy. With children the scope becomes more limited. Assad spoke about a time she had 300 potential stories in her repertoire but only 15 of them were suitable for her audience.
The key was to be sensitive to the group’s values, culture and religion when choosing the story. So as the storyteller researches for stories, their own identity can help them know what is appropriate for which audience. So Assad being a woman has made her research for stories about injustice against women easier, which in return makes her stories about similar topics more relatable to each audiences needs.
History and significance of Palestinian storytelling
Both Aqrabawi and Assad emphasized the significance of storytelling within a Palestinian context. A word that came up frequently was communication; communication between individuals, cultures, and generations.
Palestinian storytelling is significant because it seems to act as a link between the listeners to Palestinian identity. It’s an important element of Palestinian heritage.
Historically, storytelling in Palestine came in two main forms; one was more female dominated, occurred mostly in private spaces, and consisted of folktales. The other was more male dominated, and the stories narrated focused primarily on historical events. Some of these stories took months or even a year to finish.
The public form of the practice has always been very male-dominated. Assad was the first female to become an official Palestinian storyteller.
A third type of storytelling is more informal, which usually consists of men of a village gathering at night listening to someone tell them stories in their home during harvest time. But the men telling these stories don’t assume the title of storytellers.
As technology progressed, people became increasingly dependent on narration through radio and television, momentarily making storytelling in its traditional form quite invisible. Gathering still occurred, but no longer to listen to an individual tell a story but to listen to a radio channel or watch a Bedouin TV show.
Today, when a teller narrates a story about Palestine and its history, heritage and culture, it brings the younger generation that hasn’t lived in a free country closer to their roots. It’s about ensuring Palestinians are able to own their stories and cultures, and not let it be taken by Israel. Assad compared it to the on-going debates about the origins of hummus and falafel.
To Aqrabawi, the role of a storyteller is to incite hope in their audience. By having a positive ending, and the good always winning, the storyteller is able to raise people’s imagination and steer them towards hope.
Assad gave a sample of her storytelling in Arabic; in it you can pick up names of Palestinian villages, cities, and rivers, which are now on the other side of the wall. “This is Palestine before the wall. The kids today don’t have the whole Palestine in their heart, so through stories I am able to bring it to them. This is my message.”
To Assad, stories are a way to keep Palestine in the hearts of those who have lived their entire lives under Israel. Because of the Occupation, Palestinians can like 30 minutes away from the sea but never see it. By telling stories about Palestine’s valleys, rivers, and the sea, she is keeping her country alive in the hearts of the new generation.
Lead image: Hamza Aqrabawi at the Tamer Institute.

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