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Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 23 June 2018

Shouldn't we do more to promote storytelling traditions? 

In some regional traditions, stories are viewed as helping people arrive at a deeper understanding of things, writes Justin Thomas

Children need inspiration and support to be able to tell their stories. Silvia Razgova / The National
Children need inspiration and support to be able to tell their stories. Silvia Razgova / The National

“Can you storify; can you communicate in story form?” I imagine this question being asked of my children in a few years when they are old enough to enter the job market. There is presently a growing appreciation for the ability to present information in a way that engages emotion and leaves the listener with a clear sense of the whole picture. We value people who can storify.

The best TED talkers storify. The great stand-up comedians too, are master storytellers. Even politicians, physicians and business leaders can benefit from this talent. In his book, The leader’s guide to storytelling, former World Bank executive and master storyteller, Stephen Denning, argues that the ability to tell the right tale at the right time is a critical skill for leaders and a powerful tool for effecting positive change.

With the proliferation of digital alternatives, however, the smartphone, the iPad and the audiobook, I imagine oral storytelling is dying out in some families. Ironically, just as the demand and appreciation are increasing, the opportunities to develop this valuable skill are diminishing. In an article titled “what use is storytelling”, published in the education journal, STELLA, we are reminded that oral storytelling is the oldest and most universal art form on earth: before literature, drama and education there was storytelling. Before books, theatre and schools there were storytellers.

As a profession, storytelling appears to have originated in the Middle East and has given the world such gems as Alf layla wa layla (A thousand nights and one night). In the Arab world the professional storyteller, known as a hakawati, once held a prominent position. The oral tradition was highly valued, and the hakawati was a respectable and often celebrated social function.

The stories told by the hakawati might be used for entertainment, to educate or to make some moral point. In some Middle Eastern traditions, stories are viewed as helping people arrive at a deeper understanding of things that are difficult to communicate in a didactic manner. A story might be understood on different levels by different people at different times. Some of a story’s benefits might even lay dormant in the mind of the listener until a significant life experience allows them to see the story in a new light, perhaps helping them make better sense of a difficult situation.

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Seen in this light then the hakawati seems to combine the role of teacher, moral instructor and, perhaps, even psychotherapist and life coach. Today, however, you will struggle to find a traditional hakawati anywhere in the Arab world.

Although no longer a profession, the skills of oral storytelling are still very much alive and are, perhaps, even making a comeback. The growing popularity is reflected in the annual Hakaya festival, held in Amman, Jordan, now in its 10th year. The festival aims to make stories and storytelling central to learning, art and life in general, as well as providing training opportunities for beginners and even advanced storytellers.

The lessons I remember most from school, college and university are the ones delivered by the teachers who could storify. Isn't this a skill we should be actively teaching to our future teachers. Storytelling is undoubtedly an activity that can add much value to our education system, at all levels.

The American poet, Muriel Rukeyser, famously said, “the universe is made of stories, not of atoms”. It is through telling and retelling stories that we gain and gift (to others) a better understanding of the universe.

March is the month of reading, observed across the whole UAE. This is a great initiative aimed at reconnecting people with the thoughtful and artfully composed written word. To compliment this worthy initiative, I would love April to become storytelling month. A time when the oral tradition of telling stories to small or large audiences takes a prominent place in all our lives. When was the last time you narrated a tale from memory or created one on the fly?

Dr Justin Thomas is an associate professor at Zayed University