Wednesday, September 27, 2006

The storyteller

During Ramadan, most Syrians, as most Arabs, spend the post-iftar food coma in front of the television to watch the latest telenovelas, in a ritual that has become as much a part of Ramadan as fasting. Television networks roll out their latest miniseries -- which usually fall into one of three categories: historical, religious or romance -- for the one-month fast holiday. Families gather in front of the television after breaking the daily fast at sundown.

One man continues to provide old-fashioned entertainment every night at a coffee shop in the shadow of the Grand Mosque in Damascus. Rashid al Halak Abu Shadi, apparently Damascus' last storyteller, starts after the 'isha'a prayer -- at around 8 p.m. -- and continues for about an hour. At the end, the cafe staff passes a tray for contributions to the storyteller.

Abu Shadi, his gray hair showing from under his Ottoman-era red tarboosh, tells serialized Arab epics of warriors, princes and princesses, told and retold for centuries. The other night, his voice was raspy and strained as he weaved a tale from the time of the medieval, Cairo-based Fatimid Caliphate. The room was packed with mostly men, seemingly familiar with the story, laughing and applauding.

The storyteller – al-hakawati – for his part, kept our attention by waving his saber, which could probably hurt someone if used properly, and occasionally, to emphasize a line, striking it against a metal table in front of him.


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