As you swagger into the gate of the building (you are an international performer, remember?), an enchanting puppet show ushers you into the festival space. The mascots are huge. I imagine the men operating them and dancing along the entrance must have eaten some Ugali wa Wimbi in the morning. Beautiful, colored banners draw you inside. The décor is a story lover’s fantasy come true. When you enter the building, you find yourself face to face with Aladdin’s Lamp, bronze with some faded out marks where for sure it must have been scratched during his escapades with the Djini. When you tear your eyes from it, you find them drawn to Pinocchio, sitting by the window, his nose red and long from all the lies he must have told over time. There is a traditional Persian tent house, its’ furniture mainly composed of brightly colored rags. There is a puppetry booth, and other out- of- story characters decorating the area. By the time you are able to pull yourself from the place, it is 8 am, and the performances are ready to start, with a good number of people already in the auditorium. You are perplexed, and humbled.
KANOON in Tehran is only a 5 minute walk from Laleh International Hotel. The name stands for Intellectual Institute for the Development of Children and Young People. The IIDCYA is an Iranian institution with a wide range of cultural and artistic activities in the field of mental and cultural development for children and young adults.
It highly values the use of artistic methodologies to carry out its functions. While oral storytelling is key to the realization of KANOON objectives, they also infuse other art forms such painting and puppetry. The KANOON centre was the main festival venue.
The audience mostly consisted of school-going children, teachers and storytellers both Iranian and from other countries. There were 37 storytellers from around Iran, who would be competing for various prizes. These were finalists from the regional competition that happened earlier across the country. And they did not disappoint.
If you thought oral storytelling is a dying art, think again. The performances were awesome, for lack of a more suitable word. I wish I could have a re-do here in Kenya for our audiences to enjoy them as much as I did. My performances were slotted for the second and third festival days so I was privileged to watch quite a number of the other performances. Storyteller after storyteller took the stage and left us thoroughly entertained, impressed and stimulated. By the end of the first day, I knew that weee, I had to have some extra rehearsals in my room that night. Hata kama ni kujiamini!
The international storytellers told in different languages – English, Arabic, German and Spanish – teaming up with their translators. The team work was magical, and it was hard to imagine that the tellers and interpreters had only rehearsed together for a day! It was insightful to see how different the individual telling styles were, yet they all engaged wonderfully with the crowd – Rikke from Denmark with her smile that just warmed up the audience, Suzzanne from Australia all dressed up looking like the Story Fairy ready with her magic wand, Enrique Paez from Spain doing a reading from his book while Marion (Scotland) and Deepa (India) accompanied their telling with playing instruments. Beatriz Montero, also from Spain, had her book launched at the festival while Mike Lockett from the US facilitated a workshop in addition to performing. Daniel from Chile engaged the audience as his Designated Percussionists with his rendition of the Night of the Cricket. Nobert from Germany was amazingly captivating, telling his story aided by visual paintings – dude was so good he ended up being asked to do two more unscheduled performances. For those of us who think storytelling is for kids, you should have seen the way the all- adult audience at the closing ceremony were catching and feeding each other fish as they paddled along with this growing-up bear who was worried that his boat was sick because it was shrinking! I also loved Fatimah’s story (Lebanon) about the fight between good and evil. Kinda reminded me of the saying that the wolf you feed is the one that manifests itself in you. The duo telling with interpreters was quite well crafted and energizing.
The piece that was chosen for me to perform was Tablee Mahsus (The Magic Drum). It is a piece that I created very early in my story performance days. I loved how the audience sang along,” Haee haee haee haee haiya haiya haiya, haee haiya”. My sidekick, Sara Rad Jamali was great in getting them to sing.
What impressed me about the Iranian storytellers was their vocal prowess. Now, most storytellers I know, me included, are very generous with their body movements when performing. A good number of them will be caught up in the storytelling spirit and drop a chant or two alongside their telling, accompanied with a jig that make me embarrassed of my two left feet. Some of them have been known to get into a full blown dance, fully armed with a sisal skirt that surprises both you and the audience into declaring them the conquerors of the girl’s heart during a rendition of Waridi ( Githanda Githae, I won’t mention any names).
On the other hand, Iranian storytellers, both men and women, are quite composed. Until they open their mouth. They substitute our generous body movements with outstanding vocal prowess and well-crafted costumes. Such that 15 – 20 minutes just while away with you glued to the lone form, standing or sitting at the centre of the stage. Hanging on to their every word (not realizing that your grasp of Persian is nonexistent) then you thank God for the butterfly whisper of your interpreter translating a sentence here and there into your ear.
My favorite Iranian Storyteller, was Somayeh, from the city of Yazd who told the tale of The Golden Girl and the Beast, a traditional tale of the beast who had once covered the sun, and the girl who brought back light to the world. The two female characters in the story were twins, one with black hair and the other with golden hair. And the hijab covering her head reflected this, half black and half golden and the hem of her top designed in a way that opened up to a beautiful golden sunflower (the story ends with the golden haired girl transforming into a sunflower).
Quick Facts about Iran
1. Officially known as the Islamic Republic of Iran
2. Bordered by Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and Iraq
3. Most Iranians speak Persian, not Arabic
4. You do not have to wear a full hijab. You can wear your jeans, decent length long sleeved top and a loose scarf on your head
5. Modern architecture such as the Milad Tower lie side by side with ancient monuments. If you find yourself in Tehran, check out the Golestan Palace
The world is, really, just a storyteller away. It was interesting to meet new storytellers who have a connection to other storytellers that I know. The people I met at the festival were amazing. Truth is, knowing that Iran is an Islamic nation (the Islamic Republic of Iran) I was a bit apprehensive in case my manners or lack thereof … were found wanting. But the people I met in Tehran, both within and outside the festival space, were quite friendly. What raised a few excited chatters was the color of my skin (oh, apparently I have ‘olive skin’ but do I say) with quite a few ladies from the festival asking my interpreter to ask if they could touch my skin. Ati they could not believe I did not do have to do anything to get such a dark ‘tan’. Smh.
The organizers ensured there were lots of interviews and platforms to give feedback on how the festival could be made better. One shared feeling I got from the international storytellers was that they would have loved to have more performances within the festival. As it was, most of us only had one or two slots. It would also have been great to do a couple of performances away from the KANOON centre – maybe a school, a cultural centre or such.
It was not all work and no play.I loved that the organizing team had thought about windows for us to peep into ‘normal’ life in their town.We had a visit to the Tehran Milad Tower, presumably the tallest communication tower in the world. Standing at 1,427 feet, the tower acts not just as a viewing point for the city but also hosts numerous artistic displays, murals and artifacts for sale. One of the floors has an exhibition of gifts and trinkets that the city has received from other cities in the world. Among the china and gold plated stuff, there was this gem from Nairobi City Council!
We also went out to a restaurant sampling Iranian food which we washed down with their folk music. It was very beautiful and melodious, the kind that makes you want to stand and shake something.
I had to be reminded not to stand up and start dancing! Being that this day also doubled up as my birthday, I was over the moon. On my last day, we were taken around town to do some last minute shopping. Soon, I was packing up and leaving to catch my flight back to Nairobi. Etihad Airways, your ground crew at Dubai were exceedingly annoying, but that is a story for another day.
The International Storytelling Festival, Iran, is a super mind-opening experience. If you have had the blessing to be bitten by the story-bug, be on the lookout for their call to participate. The call out is usually around October/November while the festival itself takes place in February. It happens in different regions within Iran – I was in Tehran, others have been to Karmanshah and Tabriz – so it would be great to hear your experience once you come back.
The story is over, but the crow has not reached his home yet.
(This is a two part post. You can read Part One here)