Once upon a time…

Storytelling has evolved from tales around the camp fire to an enormous volume of written fiction available at the touch of a button. But there is a suggestion that the oral tradition is enjoying a resurgence

Tap tap tap. Swipe. Tap tap tap. Ping! Look around any coffee shop or train carriage, even – rather dangerously – any road crossing, and you’ll most probably see rapt faces staring at a smartphone, tapping furiously at the screen on some mysterious and unquenchable quest for knowledge (or cat videos). You may even be guilty of these behaviours yourself.

The traditional art of storytelling is not in competition with new media but is actually evolving in a way that is using these new platforms to engage with many more people than would otherwise be possible

But in an era most often characterized by information overload and hyper- connectivity, it is refreshing to find the simple art of storytelling is enjoying something of a revival worldwide, not least in the United Arab Emirates. On a global scale this revival can be seen in the increasing popularity of World Storytelling Day, which aims to get as many people telling and enjoying stories in as many different languages and geographical locations as possible.

According to Dr Rosalind Green of the University of Essex in the United Kingdom, whose specialist subject is storytelling, “the role and status of the traditional storyteller has changed enormously through the ages, especially given the rise of global literacy.” She goes on to describe storytelling as a basic human function: “We are all storytellers, all narrative animals. The major difference rests in the purpose of the telling. A traditional storyteller was (and still remains in certain cultures) part educator, part memory-bearer, and part entertainer.”

In the Emirates, the resurgence of storytelling is being encouraged by a range of government and university initiatives. An example is the work undertaken by the Abu Dhabi Music and Arts Foundation, which is committed to upholding the oral heritage of the United Arab Emirates.

Its founder, Her Excellency Hoda Al Khamis Kanoo, who is also the founder and artistic director of the Abu Dhabi Festival, stresses the crucial part played by the legends and myths handed down from generation to generation in keeping cultures alive.

“Traditional Emirati storytelling is part of society’s oral heritage. While it is important to preserve and uphold this important art form that has carried these tales on the ears and lips of our forefathers, it is also vital that we endeavour to uphold and advocate the practice by using other appropriate, respectful and relevant platforms in line with the 21st century. From open air site-specific exhibitions, to online broadcasts and beyond, we are embracing today’s technology to develop new and exciting ways to foster an appetite for such traditions.”

This organic tradition is reflected in the work undertaken by Zayed University students who, under the guidance of master storyteller Abdulaziz Al Musallam, Director of Heritage and Cultural Affairs at the Sharjah Department of Culture, researched the tales told to them by their parents and grandparents and created new versions documenting the roots of Emirati tradition as well refreshing them to give a contemporary context. After intensive workshopping, the first collection of stories was unveiled in 2013 along the Corniche in Abu Dhabi.

Storytelling in its traditional form is a means of connecting with history and tradition but it is easy to wonder, in the digital age of the 21st century, whether this traditional art form can compete with all the new channels of media. In fact, all the evidence seems to show that the traditional art of storytelling is not in competition with new media but is actually evolving in a way that is using these new platforms to engage with many more people than would otherwise be possible. And in this way it is touching the hearts and minds of a new, global generation.