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Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 23 June 2018

How storytelling reveals who we are and creates bonds between us

Whenever I walk in the old Abu Dhabi neighbourhoods, endless memories are uncorked of missing sandals in mosques and losing my father’s 10 dirham note 

Mohammed Al Hashmi and Rashed Al Mallah trade stories at a Dubai Mall coffee shop after iftar. Satish Kumar / The National 
Mohammed Al Hashmi and Rashed Al Mallah trade stories at a Dubai Mall coffee shop after iftar. Satish Kumar / The National 

The other day I had an enlightening conversation with a street performer about his craft. It began with the man in question being slightly affronted by the description I gave of what he does.

Nemer Salamun, a writer and stage actor, has been performing and hosting storytelling sessions across the UAE for several months now.

This Ramadan he can be seen at various markets in Dubai as part of the Hakawati (ancient art of Arab storytelling) project, where he reads a mixture of classic and original Arabic stories to children.

While he admits the sessions are more of a “performance”, it is his other projects that intrigued me the most. Since settling in the UAE seven months ago, the Syrian has been conducting creative storytelling therapy sessions.

Clients, mostly adult men, seek him out to discuss their ills through the prism of a good tale.

“That’s the power of stories,” he says. “It can give you that distance, yet at the same time provide you with an intimate space to discuss what you are feeling in a safe and creative way.”

This exchange triggered further conversation around the hidden and dynamic roles that stories play in our lives, and how these tales can rejuvenate and demoralise in equal measure.

It also made me acknowledge how they have shaped my own life, whether it is the ones that I have read, told or made up over the years.

One of the earliest memories I have of telling a tale dates back to my first stint in Abu Dhabi. I was about 5 years old and we were living in a small apartment near Najda Street. Money was tight back then; there was no internet and international phone calls were a luxury.

One ingenious way that my mum used to keep in touch with the family was to record greetings on cassette tapes. And, because the tapes were able to take about an hour of recordings – and mum didn’t like good money going to waste – I was assigned a 10-minute slot for my musings.

I realise now that what was I doing back then was spinning a story – there was a setting (the school), something would happen (I played football or had a Kiri cheese sandwich with an orange Suntop), and there was a conclusion (we won the match or I wished I’d had a falafel sandwich instead).

During my high school years my stories began to elicit feelings foreign to me. Of course, I am talking about romance. As a teenager in Australia I fancied a daughter of a family friend and we would exchange long flowery emails about our day. There were often stories showcasing my bravado and intellect (real or made up) as I navigated the schoolyard.

I recall filing our exchanges in an obscure file on the family computer and I would read them during quiet nights in. It was at this time that I first experienced “butterflies in my stomach”. Then there were the stories that didn’t serve me much good. Those depressing tales of a future of failure and loneliness. I spun a fair few of them myself, late at night while working as a security guard at a chemical factory.

“I will die in this uniform doing this job,” I would tell myself. “This is it, four years of university to end up in a patrol car chasing rabbits.”

Those tales, when played back, were enough to cause me a minor depression, something I eventually shook by quitting and backpacking across Europe for six months.

And now, here I am back in Abu Dhabi, meeting people and sharing their inspiring stories as a journalist. Abu Dhabi continues to inspire me. Whenever I walk in the old neighbourhoods that shaped my childhood, endless memories are uncorked of missing sandals in mosques, losing my father’s 10 dirham note and the red sports car that for some reason I thought belonged to the neighbourhood gangster.

They all work together to form a series of stories that I tell my friends and colleagues at times to provide insight into this great city and to my personality. This is what stories do, I have come to realise. Pieced together they form a mosaic that provides a colourful, and true, reflection of who we are.

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Read more from Saeed:

The three golden rules when eating an iftar buffet

Finding kindness across the UAE during Ramadan

How speaking in Arabic will add colour to my vocabulary this Ramadan

Abu Dhabi has become a home very far away from home for many expats

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