Yesterday was the last day when the curfew in the Netherlands still had its power. Our friend Theo Langason wrote a poem inspired by the pictures of empty past-curfew streets from a few weeks ago (taken by Alborz Sahebdivani).
Have a read:
I have been told much this year of loss and its long arms felt it too reaching across oceans winding through streets around corners knocking on our doors and windows
even the smallest apartment has an echo when it is empty
I think of bodies water rivers in reverse wells run dry
the earth is mostly water and so are we
each of us a lonely planet bathed in darkness eyes fixed on distant stars long-dead stars
I think of our bodies full up with grief and pain and grief and somehow still finding room for joy and laughter and hope and all that water
each of us a body of water rivers in reverse wells run dry winding through streets around corners knocking on our doors and windows
hoping one day this grief this dark this empty will end
we’ve grown tired of echos and ripples and the proof of distance
hoping one day to return to the source puddles to the ocean bodies to other bodies soon
Some time ago two of our friends decided to collaborate: Alborz Sahebdivani ventured into the nature with his camera, and Margo van de Linde wrote poems inspired by his pictures. The end result is precious, and we want to share it with you, take a look:
These days dew drips off me while real rain rides into my veins.
I guess it was about time I experienced the integral.
Jagged edges don’t seem rough now, they are just the definition that’s needed for me to place myself within this frame as i see fit.
Soft as cotton she appears.
A careful arm extended, still spinning herself out.
Who would dare pass me by, pick me, preserve me in some container of glass?
I was made only for the admiration that sits on the whisp of air in your step as you pass me by.
And in that moment,
As i arched my back and extended my arms with hand and pointed finger towards any possible sky,
I knew: freedom has been, and always will be, right here.
So, 2020 turned out to be another name for Pandora’s box. So much came out of it that was painful, or just weird. From the almost war between the US and Iran, raging fires in Australia, murder hornets, the rise of far right, and obviously the pandemic. But you’re not going to read anything new on the Mezrab blog about all that which you didn’t know before.
Instead we’re just going to put here only some of the cool things we did do in 2020. Because honestly, that’s what the Mezrab is all about. It was formed out of a need to do what we missed in life. And boy, when that need was present this year we stepped up and did a whole bunch of stuff. So here’s in no particular order:
In 2020 we collaborated with a few different organisations. Some for the first time, some as a continuation of previous collaborations. First off, there was the Oerol festival which, like many other festivals, had to cancel doing live shows with audiences. Instead they turned the island into a laboratory for collaborations and experimentation. One of which was a project in which a live film and a story were performed, while the audience was able to vote on how the story progresses. Here’s Anastasis of Mezrab meeting with the One Seconds interactive film lab at Oerol: watch it here!
Another collaboration we did was with the Bostheater. This Amsterdam icon is a theater that in non-Corona times packs 1500 people to watch great outdoor theater spectacle. We were asked to come and do small storytelling shows there, as the place couldn’t afford to bring a huge audience. The result was a few amazing shows, some of which benefitted from the outdoor ambience, and some of which drowned in the rain (though the audience showed exceptional bravery and stayed till the end). For the Dutchies, you can read what the Theaterkrant had to say about it here.
Speaking about the Theaterkrant, they were also very happy to review the shows Mezrab made with Vis-a-Vis. A project called Almere 187 brought together regular people of the city of Almere who had never told a story before. In two evenings we worked on the stories to whip them in shape and bring them to the stage, alongside the stories of experienced tellers. Here’s what the Theaterkrant wrote (again, in Dutch).
But even if you can’t read Dutch here’s a few pictures of the event, taken by Anna van Kooij that can give you an idea of what it felt like to tell and listen at this intimate event:
That’s it for today, but we’ll be back soon with more news about Mezrab stuff!
So, happy new year everyone! Actually, I googled etiquette sites to find if it’s still ok to wish someone a happy new year on the 8th of January. The jury seems to be out, but in case you are offended by it, remind yourself that many Orthodox Christians only celebrated Christmas yesterday. So what’s time anyway?
At Mezrab we celebrated the new year with an amazing party in which staff and friends became the ancient Greek gods of olden times. Not a day too soon it seemed. Immediately after we revelled in Bacchanalian excess the year brought us apocalyptic fires in Australia and the Iranian and American drums of war in Iraq. Now here’s something interesting we observed (apart from the many political, historical and social angles that people more knowledgeable than us will talk about at length), in this conflict there was a HUGE need to create a narrative for people to follow.
In Iran the clear story that was created was this: The slain general Suleimani was a war hero who single handedly rid the world of the ISIS threat. The death of whom should be avenged. We have never seen so many government supporters in the streets of Iran since the death of Ayatollah Khomeini as the amount that came to mourn the beloved general. The people deserved revenge for the slaying of their hero.
For America the narrative was the direct opposite. Suleimani was responsible for arming and training Shi’a militias, adding to the instability and violence of the region. A terrorist leader who’s death was warranted. Any retaliation would be seen as a continuation of terroristic violence which would be answered by swift retribution. So, here we had two narratives that were mutually exclusive, and each would require a violent act towards the other to bring its narrative to a dramatically satisfying end. From the outside it’s easy to see how the narratives could lock each other in a spiral of violence.
But here’s where mastery in storytelling saved the day. Iran retaliated with a barrage of missiles on American targets in Iraq. Before it attacked it warned the Iraqis, who told the Americans. The early warning meant that damage was minimal, possibly resulting in zero deaths. In Iranian media they talked about 80 dead Americans. Iran’s story ended with a resulting victory. If you kill our general you will pay times eighty. Any report of zero deaths obviously is western propaganda. America had a satisfying ending to their narrative as well: Iran was too weak to do any actual damage. They huffed and they puffed and amounted to nothing. Both have the ending they desired.
Of course we hope that with this episode the stories are actually finished. Anyone who watches Netflix knows some writers can’t resist the temptation to add episodes and seasons where they are not needed. As storytelling teachers we are advising the writers of these war tales that dragging on this narrative will lead to bad reviews and a serious loss of life.
A week ago we got an interesting mail. It was written by a Mezrab fan with political view points that we assume are a minority in the Mezrab (not that we ask people about their politics when we let them in). We’re very happy to have received this letter, as we believe it can spark an interesting debate. For sure we are happy that the fan didn’t take his frustrations home, but took the effort to share them with us. So before we write anything back, what do you think? Any opinions? Mail them to us so we can keep the conversation going.
(The mail was translated by us from Dutch)
Hi Mezrab people!
Yesterday I was in the audience of the storytelling night. It was so much fun! I’m anyway a great fan of your events. There’s only one thing that bothers me.
It’s the way in which people with a right-wing political opinion are made fun of and ridiculed. Here’s one of many examples that a host used: “applaud as if Trump has just been impeached”, but of course there were more.
My question is: How can you preach inclusivity if so easily you can make fun of people with a conservative political view? I personally love Trump and vote PVV/FvD in the Netherlands. Can you imagine how you would feel being in an audience yourself and constantly being ridiculed for your views? How does that gel with your policy of inclusiveness and diversity? Don’t you think that scares off people with a different political opinion? And how does that help going against the phenomenon of people living in bubbles?
I bet your motivation and reasoning is: “But Trump/conservatives/pvv are the ones who are hateful/racists” and you’re entitled to that opinion! But that’s only your judgement, not that of the vast majority voting for those parties/opinions.
I would love to have a really neutral, open and diverse storytelling night in which everyone is welcome. You too, right?
We had such a blast at Oerol. It was the logical continuation of what was started last year, when we did short stories at one of the main festival areas. This year we did the short stories too, but also ran our own stage, on which we played for over 3000 audience members. For those not in the know, Oerol is one of the biggest location theater festivals of Europe, putting on shows in the forest, the dunes, on the beach… And this year we got to both enjoy and co-create this festival.
It was also a little victory for the Mezrab Storytelling School, from which recently twelve students graduated, of which eight got on stage at the festival. If you want to have a little impression of what it was about, have a look at some of these pictures we took. As well as a read of the articles in which we were mentioned:
The Leeuwarder Courant (incidentally, the oldest daily paper in the Netherlands) wrote about My Father held a Gun, but also our students.
The Theaterkrant dug into the Ontheemden with a glowing review:
Finally there is this review in the Theaterkrant which is about the overall Oerol experience. We are mentioned in the last paragraph as the perfect example of programming that brings in a younger and more diverse audience:
“I’ve found the most Mezrab possible place for you” says my friend Raffi. And indeed, the little corner cafe with its performance basement has all the elements that make my heart race. On the wall there’s a lovingly drawn icon of the city of Beirut, a sexy picture of Che Guevara (which you can appreciate in earnest or ironically), toilet walls covered in intense underground comics, and most importantly, a programming schedule that includes feminist talks and drag shows for which double the amount of people show up that could comfortably sit in the place. There’s European women sitting at tables with Arabic men to learn the language (why not the other way around? Do Arabic women not teach? Do European men not want to learn Arabic?) and French, English and even German is routinely answered by the staff. The Lebanese are as linguistically versatile as the Dutch it seems. One of the perks of having the little country syndrome.
The manager, Hussain, tells me that the ones who don’t get it think this is a hipster place. It’s bullshit of course. Being Hipster means buying overpriced food uptown. This is a place that is consciously anti-fascist, anti-sexist and anti-homophobic. Set up by owners who all do other things in addition to owning the place: Being a painter/sculptor, a carpenter, a DJ…
Apparently it is also one of the many little battlefronts in keeping Beirut for the Beirutis. If you worry about gentrification in Amsterdam (and you should) then Beirut will break your heart. Whole neighbourhoods are left to delipidate, after which the blocks are torn down and replaced by luxury high rises. But that’s a worry for the outside. Inside, an open mic starts that moves you with how similar is the need to express in different countries.Spoken word pieces are read directly from the screen of a phone. Stand-up comedy is tried in both Arabic and English, two young men even try a rap battle (with no music but with one of them choking), and all range from pretty bad to quite ok. It’s in this setting that I do a bit of storytelling. A personal story of revolution. It has elements of comedy and poetry in it, enough to make a connection with what’s happening, but still very much its own thing. When that’s done there’s one feeling that remains. Can we do this? Can we share our stories without pouring them into the mold of comedy or spoken word? When the host tells them I’ve been invited to do a full storytelling show on Saturday I’m sure more than a few will show up. What’s more exciting for me is what happens after. When I return, will one or two have decided to tell their stories as… you know, a story?
So, I did a thing. In this week’s mail I send out I included the following paragraph:
What an exciting time to live in! There’s elections happening left and right, and more right. Like the one in which the Netherland’s latest enfant terrible Thierry Baudet made a speech about the flapping of the wings of the pigeon of Minerva. Logically we’re concerned about his politics, but we are an inclusive place and always get excited when a politician references mythology. So we decided to invite him to the storytelling open mic later this month. And he accepted!!! We will not give him any preferential treatment though, he gets 8 minutes like everyone else. No matter how big the mythological zoo he decides to bring in his story.
If calling it the pigeon instead of the owl of Minerva didn’t clue you in, then the date the message was sent might have: April 1st. So no, we didn’t invite right wing populist Thierry Baudet to perform in the Mez. The mail did create an avalanche of messages though. Some had guessed it was a prank, others thought we had really invited him. A minority of those who thought we invited him and mailed us thought it was a daring move. Either to diversify the voices that we have on stage, or to show him a thing or two about what storytelling is about. Most people however wanted us to reconsider, and not give a platform to a xenophobe and climate denier. (Though the mails we received were nothing compared to the avalanche of mails congratulating us with a successful prank the day after we confessed).
Beyond the prank there is of course an interesting debate to be had about who to invite to tell stories on our stage. We didn’t invite Thierry, but would we?
A while ago a friend came to a storytelling night and and hearing a particularly irksome performer posted this on Facebook:
May god(s)/the universe save us from the most privileged people who still shamelessly believe them proudly sharing stories of their privileged position within the society can somehow “save” the world.
The message sparked quite a little debate on her wall and in private messages between us. While we had both been annoyed by the performer we decided that we didn’t want them not to perform, if only for keeping the Mezrab from becoming an echo chamber of voices we agree with, shielding us both from different view points as well as the audiences that might want to hear them. The last thing this society needs is more fragmentation, sitting in our respective camps while shaking a fist into the air. We also agreed that we could stomach these voices if there had been put enough effort in finding enough other voices, of people from various backgrounds, genders, and sexual orientations.
There is a big difference though, between inviting people from privileged backgrounds who might be a bit clueless and inviting active supporters of a xenophobic party. Here I personally would still choose to invite the teller. Or at least not say that we can’t. Not for them to propagate an ideology we don’t support, but because I am interested in the stories that make up even this life. How were their parents? What did they dream of growing up? How did heartbreak feel for them? Sure, we might feel uncomfortable hearing some of it, but storytelling isn’t just about feeling comfort.
Finally, would we invite Thierry to tell himself? To that the answer would be a categorical no. When the person has become the party, humanising the person is humanising the party. There is enough media that do that job, every time they go to his house and have him play a bit of piano. We would however enjoy seeing him in the audience, to hear the beautiful multitude of voices that we have on stage.
Hey, let’s talk music for a bit. I know a lot of people think of us primarily as a storytelling space. It’s even in our website description, where we call ourselves Mezrab — The House of Stories. However, when we started the Mezrab in 2004 music was as important, if not more important than our storytelling events.
So, this blog has not been updated for exactly a year and a day. Now we can pretend that year didn’t happen. Which is nonsense of course. Because the whole reason the updates didn’t come was a result of us having our busiest year ever. Just looking at the storytelling we went from six days a month to eleven. Who would’ve thought when we started 14 years ago that Amsterdam could support a place having so many storytelling nights a month? By this summer we will expand the nights to fifteen. Add to the ones we do the ones that other people in Amsterdam organise (I’ll post a list soon), and I think slowly but surely we can call Amsterdam the Storytelling Capital of the World. Holy crap. Did I just type that out loud? I mean, it’s been in my head as a thought. But it’s not so unreasonable to write it:
We have a school that teaches students in storytelling, but there’s also a collaboration with the Amsterdam Academy for Theater and Dance to involve storytelling in the curriculum of the theater students.
Both of these attract visitors from outside the city, or even the country.
The direct result of speaking the thought out loud is the feeling of responsibility: if we are the storytelling capital of the world, what do we need to bring to this scene? One answer comes clearly to my mind:
Regular high level solo shows of accomplished national and international artists. All the regular nights that Amsterdam has are nights in which a social experience is the main draw. People come and meet, see a variety of tellers. None of these nights bring in an audience for a single production. So, now that we have made that first bold statement, here’s another one: We will make going to a high quality storytelling show popular in Amsterdam! A bold statement for sure. But who ever said the Mezrab is afraid of a challenge.