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Stories smash borders: Jordanian storyteller challenges stereotypes

A Palestinian-Jordanian woman revives the traditional community art form, challenging crowds with stories about gender and memory
Storytelling at Souq el-Soudfeh, Amman (Photo courtesy of Sally Shalabi)

AMMAN - Once upon a time in a far-away land, a little girl lived happily with her family in a prosperous city lying on the coast. Bright and curious, the girl loved reading books more than anything else. She would lose herself in the stories she read, travelling far on the magic carpet of her imagination.

However, when war tore apart the country where she grew up and grave danger cast its shadow over its people, the girl’s family decided to return to the nearby kingdom they initially came from in search of peace and shelter.

The little girl grew up to be a powerful woman whose stories move the hearts and minds of everybody who encounters her.  

This modern fairytale is the real-life story of Sally Shalabi, a Palestinian-Jordanian who left Kuwait at the age of 10 and moved back to Jordan with her family as the Gulf war took place in 1990-91.

Fluent in both English and Arabic, Shalabi is a well-established professional in the private sector. Her job matches her outgoing personality and takes her around the world. Yet, as if she were in a fairytale, soon she came across what later turns out to be a life-changing opportunity.

The twist in the story happens when 23-year-old Shalabi joins a local branch of Toastmasters, an international public speaking club that trains its members to excel at leadership and communication. Thanks to this experience, Shalabi becomes a professional public speaking trainer and finds her voice as a storyteller during a Ramadan event for orphans in 2005. It is there, at the orphanage, that her artistic name is born and Sally Shalabi becomes “Shalabieh al-Hakawatieh” (the pretty storyteller). “It’s a word-play with my family name,” she says cheerfully.

Al-Hakawaty (the storyteller) has had a prominent role in the Middle East since ancient times. Storytelling was a popular community art form which not only entertained, but also ensured social cohesion and cultural reproduction. The stories narrated and brought to life by al-Hakawaty were a tool for the transmission of cultural values from generation to generation and they criticised deviance and reinforced social norms.

While al-Hakawaty has lost popularity in the last few decades due to the rise of television and the internet, modern performers such as Shalabi have breathed new life into traditional storytelling while making it contemporary and relevant to the current issues the region is facing.  

Storytelling at the The Citadel Plaza in the City of Karak (Photo courtesy of Sally Shalabi)

Storytelling for social change

One of her favourite stories, which she wrote herself, takes place in the city centre of present-day Amman. Against all odds - and all societal stigma around women’s presence in public spaces - a local woman goes downtown to sell her wares at the local market. Soon the leader of the bastas (street vending carts) in the area decides to expel the woman from the marketplace and begins to harass her daily. While she continuously attempts to defend herself and her right to be there, it is not until another man takes her side and claims to be her brother that she is left alone.

The happy ending of the modern tale leaves a bitter taste. Yet it is through stories like this that Shalabi transforms storytelling into an instrument for activism. By leaving space for interpretation, her stories facilitate conversations without resorting to preaching. “I talk about politics, but I do it subversively through stories about magic, monsters and witches,” she says, confident that being blunt in storytelling is far less interesting. “Nobody knows where my politics lie and I prefer it that way.”

For Shalabi, who both collects folklore tales and constructs her own, choosing which stories to tell is crucial. She says her stories are based on either biographical or social events illuminating broader issues. Community conflicts and struggles lie at the heart of her storytelling, yet they are disguised and invisible as if under the spell of a magic wand.

“There was so much going on in the basta story,” she recalls with visible discontent. “The municipality was trying to get rid of the street vendors. There were tons and tons of them, so downtown was being cleansed. I was part of an art residency at the time, and how we as artists responded to the issue also antagonised me, so I constructed a story around gender, around gentrification. There was an IKEA that opened at the same time and people went crazy about it, so all of that became part of a story without talking about any of that.”

Souq El Soudfeh shoppers listening to a story (Photo courtesy of Sally Shalabi)

Telling Time

“There’s this story about borders,” Shalabi tells Middle East Eye as she sips her coffee, undisturbed by the noise and chatter in the fancy coffee shop in Abdoun, a relatively affluent district of the city, where we have met. “I travel four or five times a year to different parts of the world,” she continues, adding how exhausting and frustrating it is “to travel with a brown passport as a woman who looks white”. “Once they see your passport you are treated differently.”

A story she has developed touches on all of this. “What is it like to get a visa? What does it mean to go to Palestine, Syria, Lebanon? Can you? Can’t you?”

“The absurdity of all that,” she says, is the backbone of a performance which is all too real for millions of people in the region since “superficial borders” were established a hundred years ago with the signature of the Sykes-Picot Agreement.

While initially her performances mostly targeted children, Shalabi has now shifted to addressing adult audiences. Storytelling for grown-ups, however, has proved an intriguing challenge. While age-appropriateness is essential when telling children's stories, the need to be mindful of what she says in front of adults is also an issue.

“There are many red lines [in our society], it’s interesting where these lines lie and it’s important to cross them intentionally.” While she finds herself in situations where she needs to censor herself, conformity is not a part of her repertoire. Perhaps exactly for this reason, her shows are always well-attended, people standing up throughout her performance once all seats are taken.

With sophistication and humour, Shalabi takes on the frustrations of living in the contemporary world while navigating multiple identities:“a woman, an Arab, a white person, someone with the privilege of education and travel,” and creates a social experience that both heals and awakens. “My storytelling comes from a desire to access history, ancestry, tradition, not necessarily lost, but inaccessible,” she says.

She knows there is a part of her memory she cannot access “because of the trauma of war and the trauma of migration, not just my ancestors, but also the 1990 [war] - one that I myself went through.” Revisiting stories she heard as a child and bringing them to the stage, however, does make a difference. “In bringing these stories and memories to others, I bring them to myself,” she adds.

The woman storyteller

Farmers and handicraft markets are venues Shalabi often finds herself performing in. If you ever find yourself taken in by the crowds in one of Amman's monthly open-air initiatives, and a welcoming female voice accompanied by a tambourine announces that "It's time for a show. It's time for a story," you should not hesitate, but get closer.

To perform at a place like this is not an everyday occurrence, and for Shalabi, it remains a matter of courage. “It’s always a little intimidating because you don’t know who’s going to sit and stay and who’s not, or if people would want to come and listen at all.” Yet people’s reactions have been largely positive and the fact that she is a woman has not put her at a disadvantage.

“I have never been harassed,” she declares. In fact, for Shalabi, performing in public as a woman is a privilege. Since “nobody expects it,” she is met with curiosity and given the gift of undivided attention. According to her, beyond first impressions, the identity that comes out during her performances is the spirit of the storyteller, not the woman.

Although Shalabi's artistic persona overshadows her “womanliness” during performances, her gender identity often dictates her creative choices. As a storyteller you do not merely digest and reproduce stories. “I think the privilege of being the storyteller is that I can reconstruct [the stories] and tell them as I choose,” she explains with enthusiasm. Stories that have always annoyed her by portraying women as a “tool,” suddenly lose their stifling sturdiness and become subject to change.

The process of re-imagining possibilities carries the signature of both biography and history because “you always tell your own story”. Yet personal narratives are inevitably situated in particular social contexts which allow some stories to be heard, while silencing others. Instead of leaving the woman in her story to remain a princess waiting to be rescued, Shalabi makes her a captain who brings others together against the forces of evil and rewards them for their effort. And this is definitely a story many want to hear.

This article is available in French on Middle East Eye French edition.