The International Storytelling Festival 2016, Iran through my Kenyan eyes

Representing Kenya at KANOON, Tehran

Representing Kenya at KANOON, Tehran

End of November 2015. Early weekday morning. You are in a matatu on your way to town. As you approach Westlands, heavy traffic greets you. What to do? You log into Facebook and scan through your timeline. A tired joke with the hashtag Stolen, some feel good posts, a controversy brewing over here…. Then you see it. The poster. Call for storytellers to take part in the 18th KANOON International Storytelling Festival. In Tehran. Iran.


You are a storyteller. You love travelling.
The call out is for storytellers from all over the world. Hmm, the worst that could happen? You inbox.

“Hey Minoo, I would love to be part of the festival.”


“If you are a professional storyteller, please send your cv and 3 videos from live performances of stories for children and young adults that have both moral and pedagogical qualities. That is what the panel will use to make decisions on who to invite.”

You have no good videos of your performances in the house. You reach out to Cinematic Solutions who film Sigana Motomoto, a storytelling-for-Tv program that you usually feature. They finally edit some videos for you. You submit the application. On the last day, the deadline date. You forget about it. You infuse yourself in the holiday celebrations. Que Sera Sera.

January 18th. You receive THE email.

Dear Wangari,
Congratulations! You have been selected to take part in the 18th International Storytelling Festival……. The festival will be on February 16 -19. However, you will be expected to be here at least 1 day earlier…..

From the applications, the panel had shortlisted 55 storytellers, then narrowed down the number to 11. You are one of the 11.
The next few days passed by in a blur. By the time I was coming back to Planet Earth, one week was gone. Less than 20 days to go. Applying for visa. The realization that I would have to be away from my 13 month daughter for a whole 8 days. Dozens of emails marked ‘Urgent’ to act on. Googling where Iran is – bordering Iraq and Pakistan? Just perfect! Shopping for scarves and long sleeved tops.

I was soon off to the airport, taking my flight to Dubai (7 hours), where I would take a 2 hour connection to Tehran.

The Kanoon Storytelling Stage

The Kanoon Storytelling Stage with flags of all participating countries

I had a 5 hour wait in between – thankfully they had WI-FI. What would we do without Wi-Fi?

I walked around the airport and got talking to some of the others in the lounge. They were quite friendly, especially the young lady with a small girl who reminded me of my daughter, who gave me recommendations of Iranian foods that I would have to sample. And the Iranian guy who resides in the UK but was going home to visit his ailing dad. He said,” I really hope you love my country, it means a lot to me.”

As I waited, I decided to play ‘who-could-be-the storyteller’. From the communication, I knew that there would be a teller from Chile, two from Spain, one from the USA, one each from Denmark, Scotland, Lebanon, Australia, Germany and India.

So, how do you spot the storyteller?

It would be that person who alternates between speaking to everyone in the waiting lounge, one, two and sometimes three at a time, and burying their head in a book. Or just sitting quietly on their own. They would probably be quite observant, their eyes scrutinizing and sometimes staring, picking up bits and pieces for their next story. They might have some eye catching feature (don’t we all).
I singled out the short eccentric guy with the easy smile who was shifting between walking around and snoozing on the seat. Don’t blame me. He was indeed wearing a weird coat! And the couple who were so friendly to everyone that I wondered if they were recruiting for something.

We were soon checking in, and even sooner landing at Al Khomeini International Airport. That is when it hit me that even though I knew that someone would pick me from the airport, I had no idea who this woman or man would be! As I walked out, I saw this guy holding a sign saying ‘KANOON’. He barely spoke any English. He looked a bit confused as I approached him, then his eyes lit up. He removed a sign with my name from his pocket. After a bit of finger pointing and nodding –him tapping the name card, pointing to me and my enthusiastic nodding – he took me to the waiting bay and signaled that he was going to wait for someone else. Turned out to be one of those I had spotted – Daniel, an extremely funny Chilean Storyteller.

On our 30 minutes ride to Tehran city centre, I learnt some phrases of Persian and Spanish – Salam, Chetori, Ola, Sopekher. The ride from Al Khomeini Airport to Tehran CBD was most beautiful by night. No traffic, quite colorful and spiced with the English-Spanish-Persian bits of conversation. Interestingly, the time difference between Kenya and Tehran was only 30 mins, them being ahead of us. We got to our hotel at 5 am.

All too soon, it was time for breakfast. I went down to the restaurant. Starving, I filled my tray to overflow and walked towards an empty table.

“Hello, are you a storyteller? “Someone asked.

“Yes I am,” I replied turning towards the table where a group of people sat.

(Aside: I should carry out a research on how to ‘know’ a storyteller)

Bright faces full of curiosity, some of the other storytellers welcomed me and we were soon chatting away like we had known each other forever. We later had a meeting with all the international storytellers and our translators. The national language in Iran is Persian. A big section of the population does not speak English so we had all been assigned interpreters who would not only assist with the performances but also act as tour guides and assist in conversations within and around the festival. I was paired up with Sara, a warm spirited English language tutor who turned out to be an amazing resource over the next days. I felt like they had even taken into account our personalities when assigning translators to us!

The Storytellers and their Interpreters L – R: Wangari (Kenya), Sara, Neda, Deepa (India), Elnaz, Marion (Scotland), Melika and Fatimah (Lebanon)

We later had a tour of city. Tehran, the Iranian capital city has a population about 17 is an interesting blend, lots of traffic that is also quite organized with loads of bodabodas parked in assigned spots next to the roads. There are small relaxing parks with water ponds and benches to sit on cropping out of nowhere right next to the road where people chatted away.

Have you been to Nairobi’s Garissa lodge in Eastleigh? Now, imagine a better organized Garissa Lodge where you can buy absolutely anything, from pots and pans to wall hangings to clothes and genuine gold and silver jewelry. Then multiply everything by about 5 times. including the crowds. The carpet Centre was very impressive and busy with carpets of all sizes and colors hanging from balconies on walls, spread out like very inviting beds. The guy who was selling carpets at our stand was very entertaining. He would tell a story for every carpet – the marriage carpet gifted to a new couple that took 7 years to make, traditional desert home carpet that is so intricate it can take up to 14 years to finish. He then brought us fresh juice and cakes that simply melted on your mouth. Crafty guy. Mark you, all this time he has not even mentioned the price! The rugs which were all handmade were amazingly beautiful. They not only sooth your feet when put by the bedside in the morning but also delightful to look at. We were all entranced. Tip – should you go there, please travel with at least one empty suitcase. And enough dollars to buy some of those super rugs.

We were later transferred to the Laleh International Hotel to plug in a few more rehearsals with our translators with Minoo Abdoolahi, the Head of the festival’s International Affairs team coming around to see some of the performances. I retired to bed at around midnight, eyes wide open, impatient to see what the new day would bring.

The next morning after breakfast, we walked to the KANOON Centre where the festival was being hosted. We were greeted by puppetry artists, tall and colorful as they danced along the entrance. The festivities had begun.

(This is a two part post. My actual festival experience will be captured in the subsequent one)

Comments (4)

  1. Wonderful expression of the feelings and all the senses. I felt like I was back there myself! I loved your descriptions and could feel all your enthusiasm and excitement! It is how I felt too! Nearly exactly when I was there in 2015~ A beautiful country of such kind and hospitable people! Hugs to you!

  2. Pingback: The international Storytelling Festival, Iran through my Kenyan eyes – Part Two – wangarithestoryteller

  3. Lavanya Prasad

    A wonderful story in itself. Now I can’t wait to read the second one!

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