Feature: Storytelling revives in Syria's Damascus amid economic hardships, instability-Xinhua

Feature: Storytelling revives in Syria's Damascus amid economic hardships, instability

Source: Xinhua

Editor: huaxia

2024-03-27 15:51:30

by Hummam Sheikh Ali

DAMASCUS, March 27 (Xinhua) -- At the centuries-old Al-Nofara cafe in the heart of the old city of Damascus, Ahmed Al-Laham, a storyteller, or the Hakawati, continues to captivate visitors with his traditional attire and timeless stories.

During the holy month of Ramadan, 65-year-old Al-Laham arrives every day at the cafe, where he makes his way to a tall vintage wooden chair. He carefully removes the thin cushion to retrieve a traditional garment, a sword, and an old hat known as a Tarboosh.

Dressed in his attire, Al-Laham takes on the role of a storyteller, wielding his sword to enhance his performance. With a dramatic flair, he not only reads but also acts out the characters, particularly when recounting tales of wars and battles.

Amid Syria's ongoing crisis, characterized by economic hardships and political instability, many Syrians are turning to traditional forms of entertainment for solace, evoking memories of better days. The Hakawati is gaining increasing popularity now as he offers an escape from the complexities of the never-ending crisis.

The Hakawati tradition dates back to a time when television and the internet were nonexistent. Men would gather in coffee shops to listen to tales of love and war, often rooted in pre-Islamic Arab history. These stories not only served as entertainment but also as a means of imparting wisdom and life lessons.

Today, as digital media dominates social interaction, the Hakawati embodies a nostalgic yearning for simpler times.

Al-Laham, also known as Abu Sami, sees himself as a bridge between the past and present.

"I present the past to the present in a way I want so that the new generations understand the values of the past," he said.

In Abu Sami's view, a storyteller can use stories to emphasize ideas, introduce new concepts or language, and convey a message to address modern societal issues. He said the storytellers need to have a deep cultural understanding and knowledge to help the audience better appreciate their tales.

After working more than 15 years as a storyteller, Abu Sami has honed his craft, transforming his chair into a stage where characters spring to life through his voice and gestures.

"The chair is like a mini stage, where the storyteller plays all the roles in the story so that people interact with the character," he explained.

At the cafe, Al-Laham strikes the sword against a small iron table in front of him whenever he speaks of moments of significance in the tale. Sometimes, he uses the strikes to attract the audience's attention.

The sword strike often evokes laughter from the audience, who would sometimes jump at the sound of the bang.

Tareq Suhail comes almost every day to Al-Nofara for stories, particularly the tale of Abla and Antar, which takes the Hakawati months to finish.

"This tale reminds me of my childhood, that's why I love to hear it every now and then. It gives me the chills, reminds me of the good old days, and keeps me away from today's complications," he said.

Saleh al-Rabbat, one of the owners of the Al-Nofara cafe, underscored the essential role of the Hakawati in the old cafe. He said the Hakawatis have been present at Al-Nofara for more than 100 years, entertaining customers with fascinating stories.

"The storyteller is a part of the old cafe and the performance of the storyteller has never stopped, because it is our heritage," he said.