The good and evil of Storytelling

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So, here’s a little artist migrant’s conundrum that I feel. I love that storytelling is a respected art in my country of origin, and I’m incredibly happy that it has a yearly festival devoted to it. The national culture and education organisation for children and youth (Kanoon) hosts it in Tehran and every year they send out an invite to international artists to join. My mentor Anne van Delft has been in the past and came back with great stories of meeting local tellers and listeners. Good right? Well, look at this year’s invite:


This has got to be the most condescending invite I’ve seen for any art event in the world. For instance: The instruments applied should be appropriate to the audience and the story? What does that even mean? When is an instrument inappropriate to the story? Or the audience for that matter? The content and the performance of the story should not be modified after sending the videos and the text of the stories. Ah, there we go, we need full control over what you bring and how you bring it. We shouldn’t forget that Iran is still a dictatorship that needs full control over all aspects of life. Especially the cultural ones.

I don’t know why this fact, that I know so well, keeps stinging me every time I encounter it. Maybe because storytelling, even more than the other more known artforms, is so dear to my heart. Maybe because I want my colleagues to go, despite the obvious insults in the call for application. Because every single time a storyteller goes there’s a chance for connections and exchange of ideas that the childish rules of the application cannot limit.

And of course they are absolutely right, storytelling is a very dangerous profession. I enountered it myself again when two weeks ago I was asked to give a workshop in Utrecht. Of my ten high school students four were Muslim girls who had a hard time with most of the activities I gave them. They were not comfortable moving, they could hardly raise their voice, and when I asked them to tell me about simple events in their lives they could hardly bring up anything interesting that had happened to them. I’m ashamed to say I had more or less given up on them and coached two Dutch girls to tell their story in the presentation.

When I had a few minutes to kill between the workshop and their presentation I decided to tell them a story about how my parents had met. I told them of my mother at fifteen (their age) from a very conservative and religious background who despite the protests and strict rules of her own mother used her singing voice to seduce the bad neighbour boy (a drinking communist). After persevering for a year she managed to make him fall in love, overcame her parents who stalled the wedding for years and made that boy become my father.

Now normally I’m quite diplomatic when I tell that story, the one religious figure in this story (my grandmother), is obviously the antagonist. But I tell the girls how proud I am that my mother fights all that, and between all the stories of men chasing women I love this one story of a young girl chasing an older boy.

When it was time to do the presentations the two most conservatively dressed girls came up to me. One was (at 15!) wearing black flowing robes that only left a small part of her face uncovered. They begged and demanded for me to share this story with the other students. They wouldn’t take no for an answer, even when I explained that the point of the presentation was for the students to shine, not for the teachers to take the stage. In the end I told the story, all the while looking at the beaming faces of these girls. I think something clicked with them that day. Maybe it’s clear to them what it is, maybe it still has to develop, but this is the clearest example of why we do what we do.

Now, what would be an inappropriate instrument to tell this even better?

Sahand, Amsterdam

One thought on “The good and evil of Storytelling

  1. Thanks Sahand,
    It is great to hear these reflections. This anecdote at the end really stays with me, what seeds your words have sown in those girls’ minds.

    Keep on keeping on.

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