Reviving the tradition of storytelling in Lebanon

The BibBus in the Beqaa-Valley
The BibBus in the Beqaa-Valley | © Katja Volkenant

Launched in July 2017, the Goethe-Institut Libanon’s BibBus, which travels across the Cedar Country, contains 2500 books and games.
The day the library bus pulls up in front of the Women Now’s centre in Majdal Anjar in Lebanon’s Beqaa, a group of children had eagerly waited outside, despite the cold.

Before Lebanese storyteller Randa Abu Husn can start the session, two of the 12 children ask to read a story. Twelve year-old Taha does so with evident pleasure, standing near the Soubia (stove), book in one hand, making accompanying gestures with the other.

Story teller Randa Abul Husn Story teller Randa Abul Husn | © Peter Eid Taha loves Abu Husn’s storytelling sessions and their creative component that contribute to fulfilling the bus’s mission, which is to provide sustainable access to education to marginalised children. All the books the bus stocks are in Arabic and also include a wide range of titles originally published in other languages. Werner Holzwarth’s ‘The Story of the Little Mole Who Went in Search of Whodunit’ has proven to be the most popular book with young listeners so far.
During the sessions she runs, Abu Husn uses a variety of techniques: at times she tells stories that the children follow attentively, with sparkling eyes. She often also uses drawings to spur the children’s imagination and to get them to string together a story or tells traditional stories such as “Abla w Antar”, to connect her young audiences to their literary heritage.
That day, she shares Oliver Jeffers’ book ‘How to Catch a Star’ before giving the children cards on which they stick a ladder and a star, then draw a figure going up the ladder, towards the heavenly body.
The session ends with the children returning books and choosing new titles among the 50 in the BibBus book box.

The BibBus on the road The BibBus on the road | © Katja Volkenant After Majdal Anjar, the bus heads to Emm Ammar, a gathering, surrounded by agricultural land, where Alphabet, a local NGO, tries to provide basic education. The children attending the sessions live and are educated in makeshift dwellings. Here too, the hunger for stories and creative activities is great.
Sponsored by the German Federal Foreign Office, the BibBus also visits the Maarouf Saad Foundation in Sidon, and Basmeh and Zeitooneh in Tripoli and works closely with project partner Assabil, which promotes reading skills and makes books accessible to schools without libraries.
 “Through games, theatre, interactive readings and puppetry we try to spark the children’s creativity, help improve their reading skills,” Assabil’s Executive Coordinator Ali Al-Sabbagh noted.

Colouring Activities Colouring Activities | © Katja Volkenant “Our library bus, the Kotobus has been travelling around Lebanon for 10 years and been working in public schools, refugee camps and gatherings and generally marginalised areas. We have had some success stories with illiterate Syrian children that our facilitators have been visiting regularly for one year, using visual education.”

While there may have been differences in styles, storytelling has an old and illustrious tradition in the Levant and Arab world. In Syria and Lebanon traditional storytellers, known as hakawati, would be found in cafes, perched on a high seat.
Lebanese storyteller Jihad Darwiche underlined that hakawatis did not tell tales but, like Abu Husn sometimes does, epic stories, such as “Abla w Antar”, in episodes ending on a cliffhanger to make people come back for the next instalment. The hakawati would know how to weave morals into a story, masterfully used metaphors and played with dialects. Once through with his repertoire, he would move on to another locale. According to Darwiche, Lebanon’s last Hakawati died in 1972.
“My mother was a gifted storyteller. Her repertoire included tales, legends, stories and proverbs, told in dialect,” Darwiche pointed out. ”This was my informal, general education, which taught me about social relations, structure of narration and also taught us to memorise as there were no books at home, and my mother was illiterate.”
“The power of a story is fuelled by human experience that precedes us. As soon as I address someone in front of me, this person will start thinking about how the story will develop – there always is an interactive and usually also universal dimension in the stories we tell.”
Darwiche has made it his life’s work to keep this epic, ancient tradition alive, training storytellers and performing around the world and at the annual Festival du Conte et Monodrame. 
The popularity storytelling is experiencing globally and in Lebanon, Darwiche argued, revolved around telling personal stories. “Since the beginning of the civil war, free speech is squashed. The civil war left scars – but the power of speech is extremely important.”

“There is a revival of and a need for storytelling,” Dima Matta, an English and Creative Writing instructor at the University of Balamand who initiated Cliffhangers, put forward. “In a way, storytelling is a form of activism; it is resistance against silence, against governments that do not offer us public spaces or safe spaces, against forgetfulness. There is something empowering in sharing our own personal stories.”

Cliffhangers Event Cliffhangers Event | © Whard Sleiman Cliffhangers was founded in 2014 whereas Hakaya Storytelling, another active group in mostly Beirut, goes back to 2016. Matta intended to rally students to share stories and to revive and keep alive the oral tradition Lebanon has of telling stories. “Over the years, the audience grew more and more diverse,” she said. The monthly events, often based on socio-political themes, allow for audience to participate.
 “We might be alone on stage when we tell a story, but it is definitely a community act,” Matta declared. The night that stands out to her is the LGBTQ+ storytelling event that was part of the first Beirut Pride in May 2017 when 400 people crowded the roof of Station, listening intently to the storytellers, cheering, applauding, and sympathizing. The open mic session went on for a couple of hours.
Just as contemporary storytelling has become an important platform for people to gather and share personal, at times cathartic narratives, one can only hope that feeding young minds with books and stories will spark their love for books and provide them with all the other benefits of reading and storytelling.

“It feels as if bringing books and telling stories is not enough,” Abu Husn conceded, leaving Emm Ammar. But then, pulling ‘How to catch a Star’ out of her bag, she remarked that the book had a simple, clear message: “Try to reach for your dreams and you may reach them in unexpected ways.”