Paola Balbi’s gripping storytelling sessions command undivided attention from her audiences Image Credit: Supplied

Dubai: A new group of Hakawati or storytellers is out to revive the custom of telling traditional tales during Ramadan.

With Ramadan round the corner, the Storytelling Company, the first organisation in the UAE to promote the ancient art of storytelling through the work of acclaimed professionals, has prepared a sumptuous repertoire of after-Iftar tales to delight residents and visitors alike in a countrywide initiative.

Paola Balbi, famed Italian storyteller as well as pioneer of the Stortyelling Revival and artistic director of the International Storytelling Festival in Rome, told XPRESS, “In the local tradition, Bedouin people had an amazing repertoire of stories. Each community in the past had its own set of storyetellers, but the idea that being a storyteller is also a contemporary job for artists who dedicate their studies and life to it is still very new in the UAE. That’s why I wanted to bring the concept here.”

‘Real hunger’

She said in an era dominated by screens, there is “a real hunger” to listen to stories narrated live by someone face-to-face with riveting eye contact.

“The word storytelling is often used in an inappropriate manner. It doesn’t signify book reading, storywriting or public speaking. It involves a much more powerful action - pure storytelling, somebody standing in front of you and telling you a story with the authority to do so because he/she has studied the story deeply, has lived with the story, is connected to the oral tradition and is ready to deliver it to you.”

Balbi, who is passionate about storytelling, said, “One very important thing to underline is that traditional storytelling is not an activity targeting kids, but rather the whole family or adult audience. This is what we do: we tell stories, we are trained to do so and we want to reconnect people with their roots and values through them. We are the contemporary version of the Al Hakawati (storyteller in the Arabic tradition).”

She said the Storytelling Company’s objective during Ramadan is to tell stories to as many people in as many places as possible - restaurants, hotels, schools, private homes, social gatherings as well as charity and corporate events.

“We would like to celebrate and promote the UAE’s cultural diversity and richness by telling ancient stories connected with the roots of the people living here. Storytelling can be food for the soul and make the heart travel,” said Balbi.

So what are the stories one can expect?

“As storytellers, we research and tell all kinds of stories related to the intangible heritage of oral tradition. We will focus on stories belonging to the Arabic tradition: folk tales such as the Syrian “Camel prince” or “The woodcutter’s sister”; Emirati tales such as “Aisha and the snake” or “The girl and the saluki”, Palestinian tales like “For a drop of honey”, comic stories like “The talking fish”; stories with a positive message like “The skinny wife of the sultan”.

She said, “We will also tell stories from Mediterranean cultures to show how people have created a dialogue between different cultures since a long time. A funny thing about the oral tradition is that you can find the same story with variations in many different cultures.

“This shows that our ancestors travelled and that cultural exchange is not a modern idea.”

She said programmes are also tailored to suit different events.

Anyone can benefit from the initiative by booking into the iftar preceding the storytelling session. For instance, the company we will be telling stories after the iftars at Sudfa Restaurant in JBR. 
“Among other dishes, the restaurant will be serving what in a famous story of the Arabic tradition is called “meat of the tongue”. We will also be having sessions post-iftar at Alliance Francaise on Oud Metha Road on May 24. We have collaborated with tens of schools across the UAE so students can benefit,” said Balbi.

Those taking part in the iftars are free to enjoy the stories at no extra charge.

But there is a cost for those roping in the company for private events.

For more details, go to the Facebook page of “the storytelling company”.