‘This is who we are, this is how we survive,’ Fidaa Ataya was referring to folkloric tales passed down through generations in Palestinian women’s spaces. It was at an evening of Hakawatiyyeh storytelling jointly organised by Palestine Writes and Al Bustan Seeds as a pre-event activity a few days before the Palestine Writes Literature Festival at University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia.
Fidaa was part of a trio of storytellers, the others being Hanna Salmon and Kavalya Atma. It was quite an enthralling performance. The animation and drama complemented by some background music and a bit of song captivated the audience.
The Hakawati is a riveting form of storytelling, that much was clear. Two stories in Arabic, even with English translation, is hardly enough for someone unfamiliar with the genre to understand the intricacies of this form of storytelling.
It is, apparently, one of the most ancient traditions of oral storytelling. According to Fidaa, some of the stories are over 2,500 years old. Storyteller Ahmad Yousuf has explained the form thus to Suchitra Bajpai Chaudhary in an interview published by www.gulfnews.com some years ago:
‘As intricate and complex as a weaving pattern, this motif-rich narrative style darts in and out of stories, offering unending drama where the storyteller begins one tale, deftly leaves it mid-way to pick up another and then has a third story emerging from a subplot of the first and so on. All this is done using the tools of allegory, folklore, satire, music and a visual spectacle of grand sweeping gestures and facial expressions to finally create an enthralling experience for his listeners.’
All of this was evident in the performance I was privileged to witness. What interested me most was something Fidaa said during the Q&A. I’m recapping from memory.
‘We’ve always told stories. Men and women both tell stories. Men would do it when they gather to drink tea, but it’s almost always about battles and kings and princes and heroic deeds. It’s different with women. We would talk about everyday things, the problems we had, issues about kids and so on. The kids would be running around while we talked. Invariably at the end of it we have resolved all the problems without even talking about them!’
She referred to this phenomenon as the Adam and Eve difference in storytelling. I immediately remembered something that Gabriel Garcia Marquez said in 1999. I can’t remember the publication, but some magazine or newspaper asked a number of eminent individuals in a wide range of professions a simple question: ‘what is the one idea that could save the human race in the new millennium?’ Marquez had an interesting answer: ‘women should take over the running of the world.’
All stories and all kinds of storytelling have functions no doubt. Grand stories of valour and sacrifice probably offer a sense of historical worth and, in harsh circumstances, a glorious past that gives some form of succour. Perhaps they do more, for there are lessons of all kinds that are embedded in stories. Notions of good and evil, matters of principle, the necessary sacrifice etc.
Adam’s tales, if you will, have a lot to do with testosterone whereas Eve’s stories are more about the here and now, that which must be done, can be done and the how of doing it all. In a word, pragmatic. Adam, in this sense, would also attend to ‘issues’ that are immediate but is as concerned about claiming bragging rights. Eve wouldn’t care who got to boast about it as long as the problem is resolved. I think this is what Fidaa meant when she said ‘we end up sorting problems without even talking about them.’
About twenty years ago, during a conflict-resolution workshop in Batticaloa where Sinhala, Tamil and Muslim women took part, each community talked about their respective woes. Tamil women complained about rape perpetrated by Sinhala members of the security forces and, in an earlier time, by Indian soldiers. They insisted that the LTTE would never rape anyone, to which some Sinhala women responded by asking how they would describe a sharp instrument being thrust up their vaginas. The Muslim women, if I remember right, talked about displacement.
At one point, one of the organisers, a young Sinhala woman, needed someone to take care of her infant while she moderated a session. She gave her baby to a Tamil woman who gladly undertook to keep her until the session finished, much to the shock of the other Sinhala women present.
‘How could you give your baby to them?’
The question was legitimate given the suspicion and at times outright animosities that have been expressed. The answer was legitimate too.
‘She’s a mother, none of you are.’
An Eve story, that. I think Fidaa touched on an important element in the matter of resolving the terrible issues that plague the world almost a quarter of a century after Marquez offered his views. ‘Over to Eve’ could very well be the defining slogan of this century.