Wednesday,18 July, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1284, (25 February - 2 March 2016))
Wednesday,18 July, 2018
Issue 1284, (25 February - 2 March 2016))

Ahram Weekly

Once upon a time in Zamalek

Nesmahar Sayed tells the story of a story

Once upon a time in Zamalek
Once upon a time in Zamalek
Al-Ahram Weekly

The mobile rang, and Michele Mounir, the executive manager of a new storytelling workshop, introduced himself. “Am I pronouncing your name correctly?” he asked. “Yes”, I replied. Then he continued, “You’ve been accepted to attend ‘The story’s journey from an idea to the receiver’. The workshop will last for five days from 10am to 3pm at Al-Geziera Arts Centre in Zamalek district.” 


ON THE FIRST DAY, Enas Hosni, the director of the centre, which is part of the Ministry of Culture’s Fine Art Sector, welcomed the participants, explaining that hosting the workshop is part of the Centre’s commitment to encouraging creativity and talent. “As all the activities of the centre are offered for free,” she said, “the same goes for this workshop.” To convey a story to the listener by various means and techniques: this, according to Hosni, is the idea behind the event. “And so,” she told me, “the criteria for choosing the participants was that they should benefit and spread what they know among others – the ministry’s true rule. And that is why Roqaya, a young lady from Marsa Matrouh, was accepted. Roqaya started to learn how to read and write at the age of 18, now she is doing her masters in media and teaching others in her village so she is a model for benefiting from the workshop and helping others to benefit from it.”

Sponsored by Bayerischer Volkshoschulverband (VHS), the workshop is the German organisation’s second event in Egypt. “VHS,” says Dalal Makari, the German workshop coordinator, who is evidently of Arab extraction, “is one of the most important public schools and evening-class universities to develop in German society, serving both Germany and other countries in need as well.”

Launching the event was the veteran author Yacoub Al-Sharouny, a pioneer of children’s literature in the Arab world. His daughter Hala was the workshop’s Egyptian coordinator, and she felt it was important to open in his presence. Al-Sharouny published his first children’s story in 1959, and he was celebrating his 85th birthday that week – another reason to have him. He began his lecture holding cloth books and saying that God gave humans five senses, all of which should be used to introduce children to the world through the medium of books.

“These senses help the child to remember the experiences he or she goes through for the longest time,” he says, “and this is the role of the book. But the expressions of the voice, face and body language are the best methods for delivering the idea of the story.” He believes that increasing the child’s experience is the main process for educating the children. “The best example of this is the way mothers carry their children on their backs or on their waist in many African countries, in Japan and even here in the Egyptian countryside. This is how the child is exposed to life before they read about it in books. The kitchen, for example, is a wonderful museum for the child. The sound of water from the tap, the hot weather as a result of cooking and the sound of the utensils...” 

Al-Sharouny remembered his own grandmother playing with him and other grandchildren on the balcony. She would cover a piece of fruit in a handkerchief and have the children identify it by smell. “The feeling of the air, trees, cars and people that the child seed from the balcony help the child to receive the story and enjoy it because he or she gains more experiences through this simple process. Even moving through the rooms of the house,” he added, asking the participants to tell stories that they heard from other perspectives as a way of teaching a child how alternatives exist and developing talent among children. He also stressed the importance of entertainment as the main goal of the story, followed by education and edification as well as the encouragement of manners.

Al-Sharouny explained to me how, at the pre-school stage, the child enjoys the animals in the stories because – like it – they cannot talk, then comes the imaginative stories that work for older children, from nine to 13 years old. Starting at the age of 12, children begin to enjoy realistic stories and heroism. Children are extremely intelligent as a rule, requiring the storyteller to train, preferably in front of the mirror. “In this process the storyteller can develop their tone of voice and body language, part of the internationally acknowledged training method for expressing feelings and emotions within the story.”

As far as writing goes, Al-Sharouny believes that keeping a log of memories and events on a daily basis helps create a repository of experience and knowledge in different fields, which aids the writer on his task. The writer can the search for the key of a given story and figure out a way to tell it in the most economical way possible, avoiding direct moralising. He stressed the importance of logic, remembering how, when he listened to Cinderella, he saw no logic in her marriage to the prince. Then he wrote the story of Radubis, the Egyptian version of Cinderella gleaned from ancient sources, “which had both logic and optimism”.

ON THE SECOND DAY, Amal Farah, a story writer and publisher, started her lecture by asking about different kinds of hunting, then she asked the participants to shut their eyes and write down the first idea that came into their minds. “This process should be done on a daily bases, as the only way to catch ideas and write about them.” Creativity, according to Farah, is a process that requires practice, talent and good language. Shutting your eyes is a process that makes you enter into oneself and explore from the inside. “The best way to develop our feelings of beauty is to read philosophy as a way to know life...” She also stressed the idea of sustainable development while working with children. 

It was a point Mounir too reiterated. He volunteered to direct the workshop, he told me, because of his interest in development: “I am concerned with children as they are the seeds for tomorrow and we should enrich and develop them. That is why the main criteria for accepting participants was that they should be able to deal with children and make a difference with them after this workshop.”

In the second session of the day, Shawki Hegab, the veteran poet who has been in the world of children for almost 50 years, entered the Cinema Hall where the workshop took place with his wife Nahla Yassin and his daughter Sama. Hegab believes that writing for children is like ascending to another world that is both simple and difficult at the same time. But how to do this? “Keep the child inside you as you grow up and mature,” he advised. Childhood according to Hegab is the pure, innocent and clean vision of human life, which is polluted the moment it falls into the adult traps of evil, war and bad manners.  Yassin added that Hegab is an expert in converting a story into an attractive play for children, by which he educates them indirectly that a character does not have only one type. There is a fourfold rule that should be always be taken into consideration while writing for children, according to Hegab: simplicity, good will, depth and talent. 

ON THE THIRD DAY, the saying “like father like daughter” was demonstrated anew as Hala Al-Sharouny entered the hall carrying bags in which the same story can be told in several different ways. Opening her bags, she started telling stories using demonstration tools like handmade puppets and other materials. From one puppet three characters appear to tell the story of Snow White in an attractive and amusing style. “Humour is a major characteristic in dealing with children that can help the storyteller push the story forward to its goal.” It was Hala’s lecture that drove nearly all the participants to start making their own handicrafts, using scissors and colours to create different types of demonstration tools to tell a story.  Wonderful colours and tiny creatures gave a childlike, happy spirit to both participants and trainers. 

ON THE FOURTH DAY, a different kind of start proved shocking for some and amazing for others. “Let’s go to the garden outside and start our lecture. Exchange the life force and get the negative energy out of your body,” Makari said. According to her, this process helps to rid the person of negative energy that affects the actor or writer negatively and stands between the messenger and the receiver. “We have to clean the waste that accumulates inside us out so as to communicate with the receiver successfully,” she said. Later the participants went back to into the hall and listened to music, exchanging impressions and performing an acting exercise. Makari gave one of her own poems to a participant who acted out the words while reading before Makari commented on her performance. After the lecture almost all participants were motivated either to write or act.

ON THE LAST DAY, Iraqi director Alaa Al-Jaber gave a lecture on how to write a story for theatre. He stressed the importance of the idea, imagination, the details of the character and dialogue to make the audience attracted to the play from beginning to end. At the end of his lecture Al-Jaber said, “As this is the second workshop I’ve participated in as a trainer in two weeks, having met many young Egyptians, I can say Egypt astonishes us all the time with the amount of novelty that crops up and its ability to change.” He advised the participants to be optimistic and not accept what is wrong as a fact because this creates more negativity and frustration among people: “I feel that Egyptians punish their country more than it punishes them, so people have to change, taking into consideration that once one starts doing something, others can follow...” 

At the end of the workshop Hosni distributed certificates and announced that, while the increase in the number of participants from 50 to 80 is positive and wonderful, it negatively impacted the practical side of the training. She went on to surprise the participants after they received their certificates with some exciting news: “Hala Al-Sharouny, Amal Farah, Shawki Hegab and Nahla Yassin have agreed to train the participants next March for two extra days, focusing on the practical part that the tight schedule did not allow for.”

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