Seeking Hakawati Storytellers in Damascus

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Traditional storytellers, or hakawati, are a dying breed in the Middle East. Reporter Carrie Giardino visits the last full-time hakawati in the Syrian capital of Damascus.

MADELEINE BRAND, host:

The holy month of Ramadan began this week. The pace of life throughout the Muslim world usually slows down because of the holy month's dawn-to-dusk fast. But at night cities light up with street festivals lasting into the wee hours. And on Ramadan nights, storytellers known as hakawati have entertained cafe patrons for generations. Carrie Giardino reports.

CARRIE GIARDINO reporting:

On the edge of a large shopping bazaar in Damascus, people gather in the Cafe Naforda(ph) to drink mint tea and local soda from cans labeled to resemble their American rivals. Ceiling fans slowly churn the warm air that smells of the sweet apple tobacco the cafe patrons smoke through water pipes. A hush falls over the scene as the hakawati, or storyteller, begins his performance.

Mr. ABU SHADI (Hakawati): (Arabic spoken)

GIARDINO: The stories are traditional epics told in Arabic and known to all the local patrons. But the storyteller, Abu Shadi, also uses props and bits of English and German to keep the many Western tourists entertained.

Mr. SHADI: (Arabic spoken) I like to say thank you for coming here tonight. OK? (German spoken) Danke schoen.

GIARDINO: Tonight's story is the tale of Sultan Baybars, medieval Egyptian ruler who fought the Crusaders. Abu Shadi draws a sword and smashes it down on one of the cafe tables as he recounts one of Baybars' battles.

(Soundbite of sword smashing on table)

Mr. SHADI: (Arabic spoken)

GIARDINO: Traditionally these Ramadan evenings are male-only gatherings, with the hakawati telling classic tales of Arab heroes, vanquished invaders and forbidden love. Each night a chapter of the tale is told, ending on a high note of suspense to encourage the patrons to return another night to hear more.

Mr. SHADI: (Arabic spoken)

GIARDINO: Abu Shadi dresses each night in traditional baggy trousers, vest and a red fez. He frequently interacts with the cafe patrons, who yell out during the performance to contribute to the tale. Abu Shadi may not be classically trained in the art of storytelling, but he is credited with keeping the tradition alive in this age of videos and satellite television.

Mr. SHADI: (Arabic spoken)

GIARDINO: In neighboring Lebanon, efforts are under way to reignite the storytelling tradition. The director of Mano Theatre(ph) in Beirut, Paul Matar(ph), says it is still an important art form today.

Mr. PAUL MATAR (Director, Mano Theatre): It's very important to have this oral transmission because it's related to freedom. When you write a poem and you fix it on a paper, you can't move it anymore. It is a prisoner; the poem is a prisoner. Your imagination is imprisoned; it's finished. While storytelling--or the oral transmission in general gives freedom to the teller and gives freedom to the listener as well.

GIARDINO: The hakawati tells traditional Arab tales that he has committed to memory. But Matar says he and his colleagues are teaching young people in Lebanon the art of storytelling, so that they can tell their own stories.

Mr. MATAR: Now we consider that every grandmother or grandfather or every elder person in any village that tells chronicle stories are considered as storytellers. In our theater, a young girl--she just told how she lived the war. She's just telling her story her way, and this is also storytelling.

GIARDINO: Since 2000, Mano Theatre has held an annual storytelling festival in Beirut, and Matar says attendance and participation in the event has grown each year. And one Beirut university has begun offering classes in the traditional storytelling method. For NPR News, I'm Carrie Giardino in Beirut.

BRAND: DAY TO DAY is a production of NPR News with contributions from slate.com. I'm Madeleine Brand.

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