On Storytellers

“The key to a healthy society, is a thriving community of storytellers…storytelling is a commodity, it’s a staple, there is no life without stories.”Franco Sacchi, Italian filmmaker.

Check out his TED Talk, it really is inspiring. Who knew that Nigeria had the third largest film industry in the world; Nollywood? And it seems to be that these movies, which are 90% of the films consumed by Nigerians, are done for the sake of storytelling. There are similar, universal themes abound, but the art is in the telling: the ability to relate that story in their own way, to make it personal, native and familiar.

I have always been entranced by Jordanian storytelling, which I feel doesn’t get done quite often enough. On trips to Karak with my father, I am often surrounded by ancient relatives who weave tales of nostalgia. Tales that will probably never be told again. Never.

I mean, think about that for a moment. So much of our local history and heritage is oral. And so much of those stories are about to fade away. Think about that.

I am someone who has always been in love with the way films tell stories. Spending the last week at the Jordan Short Film Festival, I saw a great deal of Arab short films. Some were good, others not so much. Some were creative and original, others not so much. One thing most of them had in common was that they were too busy inventing new stories, most of which could not effectively be told in 20 minutes.

For once, I would love to see a Jordanian film, shot documentary style, where people just told stories. Stories about the past. Stories about a family. Stories about their misspent youth. Stories about a neighborhood. No glamor or complex plots, just, stories.

Maybe a series.

There is in fact a community of storytellers in Jordan but I wish there was just this big (metaphorical) campfire for them to be told around.


  • Sounds like a job for the Arabian Monkey! She seems a great fire-starter.

    I was just thinking about this yesterday, all the stories I heard from an Ajlouniyya neighbor as we made ropes of date filling for ma’moul every Christmas in East Amman. It struck me that there may not be many Jordanian young people who have access to these stories, or don’t see their value now, how weird that I know them as an outsider.

    It is time to document the OLD stories, before another generation passes

  • Are the people in the “community of storytellers in Jordan” locally defined as story tellers? Is “storyteller” an actual identity and understood as one of the roles in society? I’m an outsider looking in, and I’m curious. I wonder how Jordanians themselves perceive someone who tells stories. Do Jordanians perceive the story teller as someone who passes on the history, morality, and identity of a given group, or simply an enjoyable talkative person to listen to, or both?

  • Naseem,

    I would love to join such an effort, I think of it as a duty that we need to fulfill.

    Many similar or stronger efforts were done on the Palestinian front, motivated mainly by the cause to document the arab origins and arab culture of the land.

    Jordan doesn’t face a dangerous and critical identity issue as of Palestine, but efforts need to be done to document, as you said.

    Count me in, this is not my field anyway, but am strongly willing to contribute.

  • Nas, it is sad that the birthplace of the oral tradition has lost some of that storytelling fire. When we came for a visit about 10 years ago, El 3atal brought our new video camera and did conversations with the older members of the family (his teta, her borther in Jerusalem, etc.). It was nice that he did as teta’s brother died just a couple of weeks later.

    He captured them telling their stories. I’d like to see him extend it and improve it with the middle generation (his folks). Maybe I’ll get him to do that if he’s ever not busy for long enough.

  • How about if we get cheap easy-to-use video cameras (like those Flip cams), give them to kids and ask them to go and interview their grandparents? Grandparents love to tell stories and they offer a fascinating version of history as they experienced it. We can teach a child how to make a simple film and let their assignment be to get their grandparents to tell stories – their life stories, the stories they know, the history of the neighborhood through their eyes, their journeys…

    Google Storycorps, it’s an interesting project that does something similar but with radio.

  • With every elder that dies, an entire wealth of memory and oral heritage gets buried away… forever!

    Once upon a time in the 70s, someone who had the right idea did a wide audio documentation project of oral history, heritage, culture across Jordan. I think the original collected material was 1200 (not sure of exact number) audio cassette hours of material on all sorts of topics, occasions, and from diverse types of people. The project was worked over a few years. In 2003 I stumbled upon them in a forgotten room for the Min of Culture, under years of dust and soot and behind a pile of stored stuff. The index cards properly numbered and labelled, but in a box separate from each tape. Many tapes were missing, but 800 or so were still there. For a heritage project we were researching back then, one of the action points was to digitize the collection and make it publicly available. A couple of samples were cleaned and digitized and given to them on CD to show what can be done. Back then, the Min of Culture was very protective over the collection, but were not doing anything with it. We tried to approach them independently to digitize, but it was like communicating on the nation’s secret files. Nobody got it and no one to communicate with and get anywhere. I never heard back on the project from the commissioning org, so have no idea what they did with that action point nor if they are collaborating with Min of Culture on this.

    The Flip, mobile camera phones and any digital recording device do the job these days. There needs to be an organized collection and labeling effort, as well as logging and making the material available.

    One easy way to do is for us all to reach out to anyone around us and help them document (vid or audio) stories and oral heritage, and simply upload on our vid sharing sites, blogs and social networks for the time being, until a more organized effort/project can be put together.

    I’ve been doing that with a couple of specific communities in the south – the bedu of Beidha and Rum. It’s a personal project that’s been going on for a few years whenever I’m down there. Don’t have a mega plan for it yet, but at least there’s material being collected. Already a few of the bedu I’ve taped have passed away.

    There’s been tons of talk about kicking off oral storytelling initiatives by a few orgs, but I don’t know of any that took flight. I figure individual or small collective efforts are the best/most efficient for now. This kind of collection could eventually be useful to writers and filmmakers of course. Interesting for radio programming, podcasts, etc. The possibilities are endless once the documentation is there.

    What we also ought to do is revive the hakawati culture.

  • That’s an interesting discussion taking place here… Hakaya is one of our current projects which you can take a look at here http://www.hakaya.org/ the Oral heritage is certainly an essential part of our culture and living…. if you have stories that you want to send us, or you know storytellers or have innovative ideas that you believe can help us document this oral heritage and stories..or live it and integrate it again into life… into learning and living… . feel free to send us…

  • Nadine, I heard about those oral history tapes done by the Min of Culture twenty years ago and I also heard more recently that people were trying to find them (or what is left of them), so if you have a contact for that, please share!

    I will definitely visit Mais’ Hakaya website. I hope someone is going to publish some of these stories in collectsion. I went recently to Hakawati bookshop (for kids) and found all kinds of folktales from Egypt, Syria, etc but very few stories from Jordan specifically. Understanding that many stories cross modern states boundaries, I’m sure there are wonderful local tales from places like Ajloun, Karak, Salt, Irbid, Ghor, etc.

    The Storycorps is a great project – see their website – they set up booths all over the US – in malls, outside municipal buildings – whereever people go to do their daily routines. In these booths visitors can record their personal family histories or memories or stories, or whatever and be part of a huge national collection.

    An earlier effort to save and document a unique, adapted way of life was the Foxfire project done in Appalachia in the 1960s-70s. They used school kids to interview their elders and neighbors and they photographed, drew and wrote about how the very “poor” people of the Appalachian Mountains survived their tough situation by making up ingenious tools, stories, recipes, songs, etc. There are at least three volumes of the work they did and also a website that shares how to conduct similar types of projects — have a look.

    I think the metaphor of a camp fire is very important – people need a place, time and quiet space for stories to unfold. Film is great but so is face to face, old-fashinoned story telling with that ambiance of a safety zone around the fire. It is by nature inter-generational – so people of all ages should mix. It’s also somehow related to food and sharing a meal. So, when can we have a Campfire restaurant-hangout where people come to eat local “slow food” (not fast food) and tell stories? (For the lucky ones, that place already exists at your teta’s lunch table!)

  • Kathy – the Min of Culture office where we found the tapes has left the building. They were in a small building across from the Radisson SAS, Min of Culture offices for music courses. Building has since emptied out. The best reco I can offer to try and trace the tape collection is to write a letter to the Minister or Secretary General’s office with details of your project and request. Or show up in person at the Ministry and chat with some employees roaming the halls to get a lead on where the tapes could be. Sorry I’m not much help!

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