Famous for his dramatic narration of heroic tales in Syrian cafés, the traditional storyteller is today threatened by TV culture and a change in attitudes.
Seated in a high, ornamented wooden chair in the middle of Noufara café in the Old City of Damascus, Abu Shadi slowly raises his sword before fervently striking the copper table in front of him. Silence fills the room for a brief moment as the audience turns its gaze on the old storyteller. “The battle is finished… Antara survived!” Abu Shadi exclaims, as he draws his spectators into a magical world of heroes and villains.
Before radios and TVs found their way into people’s homes, hakawatis like Abu Shadi could be found all around old Damascus. The traditional storyteller’s narratives were recounted in cafés after sunset, captivating both young and old and giving them something to look forward to after the long workday. “The day seemed to go on forever when we were waiting for sunset,” Khaled al-Masri, a hakawati aficionado, said. “We couldn’t wait to hear the next chapter of the story.”
The hakawati’s stories were not just fiction and fantasy. The heroes were kings and knights such as Baybars I (1233-1277), noble Muslim leaders like Saladin (1138-1193), and pre-Islamic heroes like Antara and his beloved Ablah. “I loved listening to hakawati tales because they were all based on true stories,” Safwan Bounsi, a local who remembers the hakawati’s heyday, explained. “It was fascinating to hear about the victories of Saladin, especially when we knew that this hero was buried just a few meters away from our house!”
To tell a tale however, the hakawati needed more than just reading skills. His great talent lay in his ability to leave his audience spellbound by the story and desperate to hear more. To do this, he would use different dialects and animated body language to bring his characters to life. He would even walk around the room, interrupting the story to ask the avid listeners for their opinions about the story’s characters, speculating about the lessons that could be learnt from the tale.
The hakawati’s readings also focused on the social issues of the time. His short stories offered wise words of advice which addressed the neighbourhood’s collective problems and helped people deal with the hardships of life. “The hakawati was a social guide,” Abu Shadi explained. “People respected him and listened to his advice.”
However, the spread of modern technology such as TVs, radios and computers drove the hakawati tradition to gradual extinction so that the profession was hardly practiced anymore by the 1970s. Today, shiny flat screen TVs and trendy pop songs have replaced the old narrators who once took centre stage in Damascus’ local cafés.
It was only in 1990 that Ahmad al-Rabbat, the owner of Noufara café, decided to revive the dying tradition and ask Abu Shadi to perform readings in his old coffeehouse as a modern-day hakawati.
Although Abu Shadi had often attended hakawati readings with his father as a child, the thought of becoming a storyteller himself was a daunting prospect. “I first told him that it was impossible,” he explained. “I had never been a hakawati before!”
Abu Shadi has since become a renowned modern hakawati, performing in several traditional Syrian cafés and at international festivals in Lebanon, Jordan and Dubai. He explains that the storylines have changed and that certain traditional elements have been lost. He slips some English and Spanish phrases into his narratives and flirts with his female audience. The evening’s narrative is usually interrupted at the climax by his mobile: “It’s only my wife,” Abu Shadi smiles. “The story itself is no longer enough to keep the listener’s attention,” he said. “Without making some jokes, the audience won’t listen for long.”
In addition, the content of the stories is no longer interesting for the younger generations, who fail to find tales of pre-Islamic chivalry and 13th-century victories inspiring anymore. “Obviously, we are more interested in contemporary events and the current problems in Syrian society,” a young hakawati spectator said.
With little money to be earned in the hakawati industry and the Syrian Government seemingly indifferent towards preserving this old tradition, Abu Shadi sees little hope for storytellers in the future. “I do this job because I love it,” he said. “But the younger generation is not interested in such a low-income job.”
According to Thafer Mustafa, a regular customer at Noufara, most cafés have little interest in employing hakawatis anyway. “All they want is for customers to pay and go,” he said. He added that in the past, listeners could order a cup of tea and stay for two hours just listening to the hakawati’s story. But now, the menu is more expensive and anyone who wants to listen to the hakawati’s stories on a daily basis ends up paying a fortune. “Attending once a week isn’t enough to understand a long story such as Saladin’s,” Mustafa said. “It’s like watching four out of 30 episodes in a TV series.”
“With his traditional outfit, the hakawati is seen by many as a folkloric puppet that is used for mere entertainment,” Mustafa added. “People come to the café just to laugh at the hakawati’s jokes and maybe take some photos of the last Mohican of his profession.”
Abu Shadi however, has no intention of stopping. “I’ll keep telling my stories until the last table in Noufara cafe is empty.”
This article was published in Syria Today magazine.