For the second part of a short series in which we’re reflecting on Syria and Syrians before the Civil War, the places we travelled and the people we met, we want to share a piece we did about the storyteller Abu Shady, who we last interviewed for a feature in 2009.
The portrait above is one of the portraits Terence took that day we interviewed him. While we were in Damascus that trip, Terence printed the photo and we took two of the framed images to the café, one for Abu Shady and one for the café owner, Abu Ahmad, who promptly hung his on the wall to the left of the throne where Abu Shady sat to spin his tales. If any readers have visited Al Nawfara and seen Abu Shady or Abu Ahmad since then, we’d love to hear from you.
Abu Shady, Syria’s Last Storyteller
Abu Shady, the last of Syria’s hakawati or traditional storytellers, is looking especially distinguished in his red tarboosh and broad cummerbund when we meet him at Al Nawfara, an atmospheric café in Damascus’ old city and the venue for his nightly storytelling performances.
He is looking like he has lived every one of his 65 years and appears considerably less sprightly than when we met him two years ago. That Abu Shady could be Syria’s last traditional storyteller has been on everyone’s lips here for years, along with worried words about the art dying with him.
“I love being a storyteller more than ever,” Abu Shady assures us. “I still enjoy my profession, of course.” When we last talked to him, he told us he was grooming his son Shady to take over after he passed away. Now? “No,” he shakes his said “I don’t recommend it to my son as a profession. It doesn’t pay enough money! I don’t want my son to take over.”
Ironically, the storyteller’s son is now a storyteller of sorts. The younger Shady specializes in the craft of karakoz, a form of traditional puppetry, and as Abu Shady sips his glass of chai and smokes a cigarette before his performance, his son is in Aleppo at a festival telling stories with his puppets to small children.
Stories have played a vital role in Middle Eastern culture for thousands of years – since history’s most compelling entertainer, the legendary Persian storyteller Scheherazade, set out to captivate King Shahryar night after night with riveting tales, in a bid to halt the beheadings of queens, three thousand of whom had been killed before her.
Transfixed by Scheherazade’s stories, each one more bewitching than the next, the King not only allowed her to live, but one thousand and one entrancing nights later, all the wiser and kinder from her educational tales, the King made Scheherazade his Queen.
Like Abu Shady, who sits with pictures of fictional heroes Antar and Abla — whose epic story takes 300 nights to tell — hanging on the wall behind him, Scheherazade had collected thousands of stories from the myths and legends of history that preceded her.
And like the book of One Thousand and One Nights that tells her tale, Scheherazade herself used a narrative framing technique to engage her listener, where a larger story sets the stage, framing a sequence of shorter stories, or stories within stories, that engage and amuse the audience. Like a television serial or soap opera, it’s a story without an ending and it keeps the audience coming back for more.
“When I started storytelling, it started as a hobby, and gradually it became my job,” Abu Shady tells us. A job he has done every night for the last 30 years, sometimes twice a night, leaving to perform at another restaurant immediately after he finishes at Al Nawfara.
When we last saw Abu Shady perform, in 2007, at a simple chicken restaurant in the old working class neighbourhood of Mirdan, his audience had dwindled to a dozen regulars and it appeared the general public was losing interest in this art.
“Now, all everyone cares about is television, cinema, the Internet… especially the younger generation,” he told us despondently at the time. “They’re not interested in traditional storytelling. It’s a dying art.”
But now, two years later, at Al Nawfara, the café is filling quickly after the sunset prayer. These days, the tiny tables are crammed nightly with people here to see Abu Shady.
There are regulars who come night after night, who sit in chairs lined against the wall, smoking nargileh, the pipes rarely leaving their mouths – except when they repeat in unison the phrases from Abu Shady’s stories like a Greek chorus.
There are also guidebook-clutching tourists, local Damascenes, and Syrians from other parts of the country who have come especially to see Syria’s last traditional hakiwati. Everyone has an inkling that they are experiencing something special — perhaps something that one day soon will no longer be around.
“Abu Shady is very popular again,” Abu Ahmad, the busy, larger-than-life owner of Al Nawfara tells us. “There has been a revival. These days people phone to book tables.”
“Storytelling has always been something special, but now there is renewed interest,” he assures us. “There is a fascination with everything old again. There are serials on TV and films set in Old Damascus.” But still the specter of no one taking over from Abu Shady looms large over the spirit of the café.
“Of course I feel sorry that there is nobody to carry on after me. But it’s not my responsibility to find or train someone,” Abu Shady confides. “It’s only my responsibility to maintain the tradition while I’m alive. Anybody could do it really, anybody with talent — a special talent. Of course I could train someone, but what for? It doesn’t pay anything. It is an art.”
“The art of storytelling is in how I express the things that I say, how I incite people to react,” he continues to explain, “The rhythm, my facial expressions… I need to perform well, to show anger, sadness, love – to make people feel angry, to feel sad, to feel love, and to laugh. And from the stories people get advice and they gain wisdom.”
Abu Shady shows us a ruled notepad with neat lines of handwritten Arabic. “I tell stories in classical Arabic but not everyone understands it, so now I am translating all the stories by hand into the common spoken Arabic,” he explains proudly, albeit somewhat wearily.
“It has taken me six months to write these 30 pages and I’m not finished yet… this is just one story, one long story — dating to before Islam. Nobody has translated these before. I’ll translate as many as I can before I die. I’ll translate them right up until my death,” he says and looks up at us and smiles.
Stories remained popular in an oral form in the Middle East until the 18th century and the Ottomans started to put them to paper, yet the culture has always favoured oral narratives and longer forms, which is why theatre, cinema and television here are heavier on dialogue than they are in Western cultures.
The stories Abu Shady tells at Al Nawfara are indeed like television serials or soap operas — one story can last a whole year. “When I’m telling a story, I try to engage the audience and hold their attention. Especially the foreign tourists, because they don’t always understand Arabic, and this old classical Arabic… not even all the Arabs understand this. I use a little English or German when I can, to grab their attention. I teach them a word of Arabic and get them to repeat it.”
It’s time for tonight’s performance to begin. Abu Shady takes to his small stage and sits on his throne-like chair. He begins with a quiet prayer, a call to God to help him perform tonight. And the regulars who sit against the wall repeat their own thanks to God.
Abu Shady starts telling his tale. While the locals know the story — some having heard it from when they were children — they still enthusiastically repeat phrases, while foreign visitors who don’t understand are equally engrossed.
It’s a story about three men living in Ottoman times who are determining how to deal with a strong man who has arrived in town and is throwing his weight around.
Abu Shady brings his sword crashing down on a metal tray table, causing us all to jump in our chairs, including two young foreign women who sit immediately in front of him. “Mafi mushkala,” he tells them, with a twinkle in his eye, “No problem.”
The girls giggle. The young women are stirring their tea. Abu Shady has a twinkle in his eye again. “You’re stirring it the wrong way,” he tells them, with a sly smile.
Every now and then Abu Shady interrupts his own narrative. Sometimes it seems spontaneous, at other times planned. When the waiter passes in front of him distributing glasses of chai he slams his sword down loudly again. “Tea! Ashtray! Water!” he shouts, as we imagine the strong man might in his tale, and everyone laughs.
At one point, a mobile phone rings and we all look around. Abu Shady stops his story and puts his cell phone to his ear. There’s laughter all around. He speaks in Arabic for a moment before returning the phone to his pocket, then apologises, “Sorry,” he says, “It’s my wife.” The crowd roars again.
Aware that many people have been photographing him, Abu Shady stops to bring his own tiny camera out of his pocket and takes photos of the crowd. Once more, the audience breaks into laughter.
Abu Shady’s performance is much more interactive than when we saw him last. Indeed, now his stories are post-modern, multi-form narratives, and it’s a multimedia extravaganza Abu Shady-style. The old storyteller appears to be buoyed by the resurgence in interest in his dying art.
“I get a thrill out of listening to Abu Shady,” says Saad Kaakarli, a 50-year-old Syrian-American. Kaakarli emigrated to the USA in 1979, living in Detroit and Ohio. A contractor now living in Saudi Arabia, he returns to Damascus regularly and is planning to return to Jebel Qassioun, his birthplace.
“As a child I used to skip school to come and watch the storyteller,” Kaakarli tells us. “Since I returned I really get a kick out of coming to listen to him. This is entertainment! It’s theatre. Abu Shady — I love him. He’s my man!”
The moment Abu Shady finishes his storytelling for the night, people get up from their seats and leave. Abu Ahmad pulls the cord to a curtain on the wall and reveals a flat screen TV.
The televisions flicks on, but by now the café is almost empty. Music videos and football are no competition when Damascus’ last great storyteller is performing.
But the 150-year old Al Nawfara was popular way before television was invented. Owner Abu Ahmad says his family has had the café for 75 years, his grandfather and father ran the place before him and his sons are primed to take over when he too passes.
The first storyteller who worked at Al Nawfara was born in 1885 and died in 1956, and storytelling is now again part of the success of the café, he explains. “But what will happen to the café without a storyteller?” I ask.
“Well,” Abu Ahmad says, “Let’s hope God sends us another.”
A shorter and slightly different version of this story appeared in Gulf Life magazine in 2009.