Shalabieh Al Hakawatieh and her journey with the art of storytelling

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Sally Shalabi performing at Book@Cafe. (Photo: Nouha Maaninou/Jordan News)
On August 25th, Sally Shalabi known as Shalabieh Al Hakawatieh, a professional community storyteller, was doing the last soundchecks before her last performance of the “Ward” storytelling tour in Amman. Shalabi was present at the low-profile Books@cafe in Jabal Amman, which is known for bringing together people who enjoy reading, art, food, and drinks while taking in the scenery of downtown in the company of their friends, family, or colleagues. اضافة اعلان

Shalabi discovered her love and passion for the art of storytelling during her many visits to Damascus before the war broke out in 2011. She recalls witnessing one of the most famous Arab storytellers, Abu Shadi el Halak (Rashid Al Halak) telling epic tales every night at the Damascus Al Nafura café.

“He had a daily show that was always packed and we would sit and talk beforehand about our practices, he would encourage me, and it was quite lovely. My last encounter with him was in 2011”  said Shalabi.

Shalabi describes her beginnings as coming from mastering public speaking and presentation skills; after joining the Toastmasters Club in Amman, an international non-profit educational organization that promotes communication and public speaking, she came across a manual on storytelling, soon after Shalabi decided to switch from the art of speechcraft to focusing more on the storytelling art form.

 “I fell in love! I went into storytelling at first as a hobby, then I did children’s events and some volunteering, not knowing how and what this practice really was, except that I loved it and enjoyed it.”

“It’s not about the place I started from, but it’s about where I am today because that was about fifteen years ago, I started in 2005,” added Shalabi when describing her start in the profession. After switching her career path, she soon took on the stage name of Shalabieh Al Hakawatieh, a playful inspiration from her family name and profession.

The fact that she was fond of reading and because she grew up in a family that had its own traditions of storytelling shaped her imagination and talent, she said:  “When I became aware that I loved storytelling, I started to tell not just listen. I was also a ferocious reader, and our family is known for telling our family stories and anecdotes.”

In 2012, Shalabi felt burdened out of her previous profession dealing with human rights and gender issues and started to take on any jobs to practice the storytelling art craft. By the end of 2013, she made the decision to focus solely on storytelling and take it as her full-time profession. This decision led Shalabi to face difficulties that came with living solely through this vocation and she felt the need to enlarge her audience to include not only children but also adults who she felt would appreciate this art and not only in its traditional form like the older generation did.

She explained: “Storytelling is viewed in a narrow way where it’s seen as educational or just for children and that’s not what I do, I do so much more than what is practiced traditionally or stereotypically, what I do is more contemporary.”

From Shalabi’s perspective, following the introduction of the radio then the TV, then satellites, and finally the internet, there was a significant decline of people who sat and listened to someone telling a story.

“Previously the storyteller was not just the entertainer, that person was the teacher, the news bearer, the comedian, the horror movie, the action... Now people have a plethora of things to do and so in today’s landscape, traditional oral historical storytelling is not taking the same space that it used to, which just means that as storytellers we have to get more creative and more agile in how we present ourselves, and how we market ourselves and what we tell.” Shalabieh Al Hakawatieh told Jordan News.

During the interview, Shalabieh Al Hakawatieh insisted that the art of storytelling is to be viewed as a contemporary art form and not as a fragile historical item that should be protected and showcased as if in a museum, but it should grow by adding contemporary elements to it. She also added that the traditional folklore movement might be the problem holding back this art from growing and positioning itself as contemporary art that constantly evolves within the society that will pass it on with its own voice and perspective from one generation to another.

In her own words, she explains: “Heritage is a living thing, culture is a living thing, folktales are alive it comes from the people and lives with the people, and the people are people of today, we can’t say that we have to protect it and put it away and not touch it.”

As a contemporary storyteller, she updates her stories, telling the historical ancestral history but infused with her own values and way of saying things. “You know, in our stories usually the woman gets asked her hand for marriage, in my story she might be the one saying ‘will you marry me?’ My character may go out on a trip because she is curious, not because she is taken or the king wants her,” said Shalabieh.

Yazan Abu Saleem, a professional storyteller and theatre actor in Jordan, was present at Shalabi’s performance in Books@Café and told JordanNews: “I know Sally from the first edition of the Hakaya Festival, back in 2013, we met there and since had a constant relation as storytellers and friends.”

“The story of Ward that she is performing tonight, I know it and I tell it too, but I was very excited to listen to her approach of it. … Sally takes the story and modifies it in a way that impacts the shape of the story, ... I love her touch, she plays with the characters in a thrilling way that excites me to see more of her shows, I just enjoy listening to her storytelling,” said Saleem.

Saleem also described his storytelling colleague and long-time friend as a prominent artist in the Arab world that performs storytelling in her very own and unique style. He explained to Jordan News that after understanding the story, she modifies it in a way that makes it more adapted to her audience, then her spontaneity and her usage of gestures and expressions grasps their attention till she finishes.

“Her stories are usually legends, so when I hear a story for 40 or 45 minutes, if it’s not from a professional storyteller that knows how to perform it, I will feel bored, but I never heard Sally’s story and felt bored. On the contrary, I enter this magical world with my imagination, … although I know the story and I tell it myself, but every time I hear hers, I enter her world more than I enter the world of the story itself,” he said.

He also revealed that a good storytelling performance needs hard work and lots of training and practice to reach this level.

When asked about her approach in preparing for a new show, Shalabi said that she needs to first look for a good story, read it carefully and do her research, then it’s about finding any logic gaps, deconstructing it, and reconstructing it. She then tests it with trusted friends or through working with different audiences and asking for feedback.

Shalabi shared: “There is a research and development phase, a practice and rehearsal phase while continuously fine-tunning, then there is the performance, and I can tell you what you will hear today in the story of Ward is different from what I presented in Palestine last month. And the story will probably continue to be in development for another year until it sits in a way that I like, and then it’s closed. It takes about a year for the story to settle from its first performance to its final form. That’s in short!”

After this first and successful post-COVID-19 tour, that took her around many cities in Jordan, Shalabieh el Hakawatieh is now aiming to develop new projects, such as a story around Pella, Jordan, and another one from Palestine, but most importantly she is now writing her own take of the biopic of Al-Zahir Baybars, also known as Al-Sira Al-Zahiriyah, a long fictional folk story that goes back a couple of hundred years. It narrates the life of the Mamluk King al-Zahir Baybars. Shalabi has been working on it since 2016 and is now finishing the 16 volume out of 18.

“As I am working through it, I am reconstructing the narrative, and trying to find a way to re-tell it, we have within our hands the Syrian version or the Damascene one more specifically. I am working on it to produce a version that is mine, Shalabieh’s version! I usually tell from it during Ramadan, two or three stories. But I ultimately want to tell the whole narrative in a way that retells the story in alignment with the true original telling, but in a more contemporary way that is compelling and accessible to a new audience,” shared Shalabi.