A storytelling workshop at Manchester International Festival is helping to pave the way for a similar event in Abu Dhabi - and facilitating a cultural exchange. Bianca Brigitte Bonomi reports Young visitors to the UK's Manchester International Festival this week were invited to participate in a unique storytelling event. A collaboration between the Abu Dhabi Music & Arts Foundation (Admaf) and the UK festival, the storytelling - or hakawati - event marks the first time that Admaf has participated in Manchester's cultural programme. It follows the launch earlier this year of a new partnership that aims to explore the art of storytelling from the UAE, Lebanon, Egypt and the UK.
"As one of the UAE's leading arts and cultural organisations, Admaf is delighted to bring our storytelling programme to such an important and innovative public event as the Manchester International Festival," says Hoda Al Khamis Kanoo, the founder of Admaf. "We are proud to be able to share a special part of Emirati culture with a new audience in an environment that fosters and encourages creative learning."
Aimed at primary school children aged between eight and 11, the storytelling workshop was held inside an installation created by Zaha Hadid Architects at the Manchester Art Gallery. Hadid, whose recent commissions in Abu Dhabi include the Sheikh Zayed Bridge and the performing arts centre in the cultural district on Saadiyat Island, transformed one of the exhibition spaces into an intimate chamber music hall for performances of JS Bach's solo works.
"The Zaha Hadid structure gives the venue intimacy and warmth," says Kanoo. "It brings the audience closer together. The structure is ideal for the storytelling event because it invites you to dream. It takes the audience to a world of fantasy and imagination, just as Aladdin takes us to an exciting journey with his flying carpet." The project underscores the important role of storytelling in different societies. The art of hakawati continues to be practised widely today and remains a popular means of disseminating Arab heritage and civilisation to a new audience. By hearing folk tales and fairy tales and being introduced to characters from Arab and Islamic heritage, children are able to appreciate how the culture has been shaped through the ages.
Organisers hope this type of traditional storytelling will promote cross cultural awareness. "The idea of spreading Arabic culture in the UK is a fantastic one," says the Lebanese born storyteller Alia al Zougbi, who fronted the event. "The stories show the Arab world in its most positive light," al Zougbi says. "They counter much of the negative media perpetuated in the West. It is really important to start with young audiences because if you are exposed positively to something at that age it stays with you later on in life. These children will think twice before accepting a negative perception or image of the Arab world because they have had a positive experience of it."
"Storytelling carries the tradition and culture of different people," Kanoo adds. "By reviving this art we hope to create an opportunity to exchange knowledge and cultural values - the ability to relate to each other and, above all, to encourage the youth to dream and create." "Stories help us to understand each others' culture, share in the various rich heritage and learn about the history of each other," she says. "They empower us to challenge a globalised world."
The project is creating a real buzz in the storytelling community. "This is a really imaginative initiative," says Madeleine Grove, a UK-based, award-winning storyteller. "Our hunger and thirst for story unites us across all boundaries of race, religion and even age. Teenagers and youngsters have an instinct for it. This age group demands truth and nothing else will do. "Where can they find it? Where are their heroes? Where are the solutions to their impossible dilemmas? Where can they learn about courage, tenacity and surviving through adversity? The answers lie in the old stories; stories that appear fresh and modern though ancient. If a story has been told and retold for hundreds of years, you can be sure it's got power. It resonates at the deepest level of our beings. We need stories like we need food and drink. Part of us dies without them."
Many of the stories shared as part of the Admaf project have a strong moral function. One tells of a poor fisherman who discovers an archaic urn in one of his nets. When he removes it, a genie is released and the fisherman is gifted with the urn. "If you cry into the urn each night, your dreams will come true," the genie tells him. Every night the fisherman cries into the urn and every night his tears are turned into pearls until he becomes the richest man in the world. His wealth attracts a beautiful woman, but once they are married, she demands more and more material goods from her husband, increasing his reliance on the urn's pearls.
"And so," al Zougbi tells the enraptured schoolchildren, "he was richer than any other man but he cried every night for the rest of his life." She asks the children what the moral of this story might be. There are murmurings of "money can't buy you happiness" and "be happy with your lot" until one eight-year old-boy raises his hand. "The lesson is that you should be more careful when choosing a wife," he says.
It is this kind of unscripted honesty and spontaneous quality that makes the storytelling event so successful. The students are invited to contribute to the tales, and Arabic words are interwoven with English to heighten the sense of cultural crossover. "These stories will help the students with their classroom communication," al Zougbi says. "They demonstrate that children can have fun through the Arabic language and Arabic stories. The way to win someone over is always to make that person laugh. They will listen to you then. I hope that the children in the audience with Arabic speaking parents now feel more empowered due to their heritage. I know the English speaking kids like the tales just as much and get just as much out of them."
Throughout the performance, the children remain excited and enthusiastic, evidently enjoying the experience of being transported to exotic lands and ancient times. "When my father and mother tell me stories about pharaohs, I get so excited that I feel I am a pharaoh myself," says the nine-year-old Abdelrahman Hatab. "I play and swim in the Nile and I ride horses. The stories make me feel like I want to go back and live in the past and that is the is the best feeling in the world."
"When I listen to stories about ancient Muslims I feel like I am living in their time," adds Ammar Hatab, Abdelrahman's older brother. "When these stories are being told, I feel the sound of their music and they make me want to dream, laugh or make peace. Our Egyptian stories affect our lives in so many ways because they are about our ancestors and we look to our ancestors for guidance," he says.
Lindsay Wong, 12, says: "I think storytelling is an amazing way of keeping culture alive. It opens doors to many possibilities, transforms the way we read stories and allows us to really visualise them. It also helps the listener to become a much better writer." The stories can be a vehicle for political and social commentary. Using a Moroccan story about a squirrel and a hedgehog as a starting point, al Zougbi adds embellishments so that the characters become symbols for the tensions between the East and West.
"The story explores the notion of migration and the status of refugees," she says. "The underlying question is how these separate characters can negotiate living together. When I asked the children to workshop ideas around the characters, they were able to find compromises. That bodes well for the future." The event is paving the way for the launch of the Abu Dhabi Storytelling Festival in 2011. The project will include artist exchanges, educational programmes and the development of international cultural events.
"By bringing us together I hope that we will break every boundary, every stereotype," says Kanoo. "I hope our outreach will help us in a better future and understanding. Above all, storytelling will definitely make a difference in the creative minds of the young, to inspire them to tell their own stories. "With such a strong educational mission, we are keen to build upon our participation over the next few years - both in Manchester and in Abu Dhabi - through a series of commissions, workshops and performances that will culminate in the 2011 Festival. We are delighted to have the opportunity to join such a vast array of artists from around the world covering the cultural spectrum, and look forward to an ongoing relationship with the city of Manchester and the UK."