The Arabian Nights
Tell Me a Tale: The Tradition of Storytelling
“Kan ya makan fi qadim al-ziman…”
“Once upon a time…”
Storytelling is a tradition as old as humanity itself. From ancient cave drawings to today’s 3-D movies, telling stories seems to be an inherent part of being human. After all, the Iliad and Odyssey, two of the most foundational texts in Western civilization, are attributed to the blind storyteller Homer, who sang the poetry to listeners around a campfire – and the stories of Scheherezade are thought to have originated as oral folktales.
Though we might generally think of telling stories as a way to entertain, most historians believe that storytelling began as a functional tool. Before books, stories were a way for people to preserve important events. Before scientists, creating stories about incomprehensible events, such as natural disasters, helped people understand the world and its intricacies. Before law and organized religion, stories served as models of morality, teaching people how to behave and relate to others. Since books could not be widely circulated until the invention of the printing press in the mid-15th century, literacy was a low priority for most ancient peoples. Oral tradition and storytelling were the only ways for information to survive generations.
Storytelling holds a particularly important place in Arabic tradition. Across what is now considered the Middle East, storytellers called al-hakawati entertained in ancient times, even before the era of the Roman Empire. Always given the place of honor, al-hakawati performed for groups of listeners at cafés or in homes, relating and enacting popular sagas and legends. Though early al-hakawati probably told stories based on truth, what could be a half-hour account was transformed into hours and hours of narration, complete with as many vivid (and imagined) details as possible.
Al-hakawati used many techniques to enliven their stories. Sometimes they told tales in rhyming Arabic, and sometimes the storyteller used different rhythms according to the action he was relating. They drew on local knowledge and legend, weaving community wisdom into their stories to make them more relevant to the audience. Some also employed dramatic gestures and character voices, as well as pauses and silence to create tension.
However, the full responsibility of telling the story did not rely solely on the al-hakawati – the audience was expected to be fully involved in the act of the story. It wasn’t unusual for factions to form and audience members to take sides, cheering or booing as their favorite characters rose or fell. Listeners would even bribe the storyteller so that the “right” character came out on top. Often, storytellers would cut off at a cliffhanging moment, only to be shouted down by his listeners demanding to hear the end – as in this recollection from Palestinian-Israeli writer and politician Emil Habibi:
“I remember that at the entrance to the Syrian market in Haifa was a two-storied café in which the storyteller would seat himself among the nargillah smokers and tell his tales. Periodically, he would appear to interrupt his tale when, for example, the hero Antara was captured, and the listeners would get up and threaten that they would not release him until he released Antara.”
The tradition of al-hakawati has survived into the 21st century; however, as with many traditional arts, it has suffered greatly from the rise of TV, radio, and the Internet. Today, in Syria, one man claims to be the “last hakawati”: Abu Shady. Since the early 1900s, Shady has been performing nightly in the Al-Nawfara Coffee Shop, and he hopes to keep the tradition alive even after his story ends. Check out the “last hakawati’s” stories below, and explore an age-old tradition that is a pillar of culture all over the world.
This age-old tradition was also on founding Artistic Director Zelda Fichandler’s mind when she started Arena Stage 60 years ago. Zelda had “the idea to take the theater back to its tribal beginnings … when someone said, ‘Gather round and let me tell you how it happened.’” In building her original theater in-the-round, Zelda drew heavily on these traditional methods of storytelling, in an effort to unite “audience and play in one room, in one emotional environment.” Now, as the set for this production of Mary Zimmerman’s The Arabian Nights, Arena’s Fichandler Stage will once again be the home for the ultimate night of storytelling.
Extras & Insights is funded, in part, by a grant from the National Endowment of the Humanities.