I learnt recently of the the death of el-Hakawati (the storyteller of Damascus) – Syria. Abu Shadi -Rasheed Al Hallaq- died after spending many years delivering tales of chivalry and bravery, of fighting for love and honor, before the audience of 500-year-old Al Nofara Cafe, one of the pillars of heritage in old Damascus. Al Nofara Cafe kept the Hookahs used by major Syrian figures in the last century.
Readers might have a better picture of what el-Hakawati means when they hear the name of Scheherazade, the famous storyteller of Arabian Nights. el-Hakawati is an old cultural profession almost known in all Arab Countries, though storytelling dates back to the dawn of humanity. el-Hakawati can deliver his tales in cafes, houses and streets. Stories were mainly fantasy but might mention characters or incidents appeared in history, for instance, one of the favorite stories to the people is the tale of ʿAntarah ibn Shaddād, a poet, a knight and a slave that gained respect by his personal traits and extraordinary courage in battles, but as in every epic there is an ordeal, and his ordeal was the forbidden love he had for his cousin Ablah. el-Hakawati might perform the tale, using excitement moves in climax scenes, sometimes he adds to the story as the audience might get intense and object on the course of events demanding to change them. The heroic acts of Antarah are told in exaggerated manner, similar to Hollywood and Bollywood movies, as Antarah exterminate all of his enemies solely; and when he is caught, he will always find a way out.
I was about 20 years old when I tried to interview el-Hakawati with a corespondent journalist in Damascus who made young naive aspiring journalists to write the stories and he took the credit, promising to allow me to put my name one day. Anyway, I went to Al Nofara Cafe, sat on one of the small tables. The cafe is usually crowded, serves only Sheesha (Hookah) and heavy black tea that we Syrians call: Brewed tea. I talked a bit with Abu Shadi, and he told me how he visited many countries in the world to perform his storytelling before people. He also told me how he is not getting the respect he deserved in Syria, I agree as his profession was seen as funny rather than realizing the importance of storytelling, building on this tradition and developing it into modern and more sophisticated one. However, the Syrian regime never liked modern stories that are not its own version, so better let the stories of the dead dwell and let our abilities to process meanings remain in the abstract world of traits that do not exist anymore.
In the last couple of years, Abu Shadi suffered like all Syrians. He fled to Lebanon when the situation got worse in Syria, and returned back later to die in his homeland.
el-Hakawati died taking with him the old stories amidst the ordeal Syria. I pray that when one day stories are told again in my country, they would be about real present day heros that generate hope and perseverance to do better, rather than creating old fantasy stories to shift our concentration toward an utopian illusion away from the present solutions we need to search for.
Rest in Peace Abu Shadi, your stories will be always remembered.