Can We Revive the Art of Public Storytelling in Damascus, Beyond?

Reading the AFP story “Father and son tell Syrian tales on the brink of extinction” is a bit like following up with Naguib Mahfouz’s Midaq Alley, sixty years later.

In Midaq Alley, as you may recall, we learn that the times are a changin’ in part when a poet—who is seated in a coffee house—begins his recitation:

He was interrupted by someone who entered at that point and said roughly, “Shut up! Don’t say one single word more.”

The poet tries again, but:

The cafe owner shouted in angry exasperation, “Are you going to force your recitations on us? That’s the end—the end! Didn’t I warn you last week?”

The poet, who had been reciting for twenty years in this spot, had found his last source of livelihood in this cafe. But now it’s over. The cafe owner tells him:

“We know all the stories you tell by heart and we don’t need to run through them again. People today don’t want a poet. They keep asking me for a radio and there’s one over there being installed now. So go away and leave us alone and may God provide for you.”

More than sixty years after the publication of Midaq Alley, Damascene Rashid al-Hallak is one of the few hakawatis left in the Arabic-speaking world. Al-Hallak, the AFP reports, says he has a repertoire of 180,000 stories (!) “including the epic tales of Antarah ibn Shaddad, famous for his pre-Islamic era poetry, adventures and romantic trysts, and renowned King Zahir Baybars who battled the Crusaders and the Mongols.”

Al-Hallak apparently still holds his own against Ramadan soap operas, but fears he may be the last remaining cafe storyteller in Syria.

The profession does not pay much: The tips that customers leave al-Hallak at the Al-Nawfara cafe, where he narrates nightly, come to about 120 dollars (660LE) a month. (Not enough to support a family, no. But probably better than self-publishing a novel.)

The AFP says there is a silver lining. They note that a new campaign, launched by the Syrian cultural ministry and UNESCO, is looking to protect “human living treasures” like Al-Hallak. According to Imad Abufakher, of Syria’s culture ministry, “We want to make an inventory of the cultural elements threatened with oblivion so they are not forgotten.”

But this doesn’t sound like much of a silver lining, really. Inventoried or no, if the storytellers disappear, they will certainly be forgotten.

And forget inventories: AFP notes that Al-Hallak and his son, a shadow puppeteer, face problems the culture ministry could easily rectify. For instance, the two can’t be admitted into an arts syndicate because they lack academic credentials. And without membership in a syndicate, they can’t perform in cultural festivals.

I would love to see a future in public storytelling in Damascus (and in Cairo). In Cairo—assisted, in part, by cultural organizations, storytelling has seen a bit of a resurgence, according to Al Masry Al Youm. The paper wrote, in a recent piece on storyteller Abeer Soliman:

Soliman represents a growing trend of preserving and reviving storytelling in Egypt. She is joined in this mission by Al-Warsha theater troupe, Qalat al-Rawia, Ana al-Hekaya, and many others.

It’s not the same as an old poet in a cafe, of course. But cultural forms, they always are a changin’.