Once a month, Ghada Seifeddine, a linguistics graduate student at the American University of Beirut, forgets about her shyness and takes the stage at Dar Bistro cafe in Beirut to tell personal life experiences. The best-received story she has shared was the one about becoming a woman — the day she first wore a traditional hijab — and her recent decision to wear something she feels more comfortable with, a turban. “I was surrounded by women who took off their hijab after wearing it for a long time. So I started thinking about how it relates to my identity,” she says.
Seifeddine’s performances are part of a spoken-word event in which short stories, in both English and Arabic and usually centering on a theme, are told live by the people who experienced them, reviving the old Arab tradition of storytelling.
According to Lebanon Traveler Magazine, storytelling has been slowly becoming a common evening activity in Beirut. The trend started when Dima Matta, a Beirut-based English-language university lecturer and storyteller, reintroduced the art form in 2014 through a storytelling group called “Cliffhangers." “We are a region known for its oral histories, the ‘hakawati’ tradition. Somehow, this heritage faded, and I really wanted to contribute to bringing it back,” Matta tells Al-Monitor.
Since then, similar initiatives spread around the capital, involving poetry recitals, creative writing and improvised theater. The one in which Seifeddine partcipates is a narrative oral storytelling initiative called “Hakaya” (Arabic for “Story”). The community was created in the spring of 2016 by four Beirut residents with a passion for spoken word. “We all felt that there were so many stories of everyday life from this region that are worth sharing in nontraditional ways,” explains co-founder Dana Ballout.
Hakaya follows a pattern borrowed from "The Moth," a US-based storytelling organization. The founders explain they chose oral narration because it’s a casual and direct form of storytelling that requires only a good memory and willingness to share. “It feels more real when I get to hear the words coming out of my mouth, as opposed to writing them,” says Seifeddine.
The community has grown through social media and word of mouth, becoming a small hub for sharing personal experiences from the region to strengthen collective memory and empathy. “We hope we are building a supportive community where certain topics can be freely addressed and people are not embarrassed to tell personal stories to a room full of strangers. There is something deeply powerful about this.”
Hakaya storytellers include people from all walks of life, ages and backgrounds, from Syrian refugees to Western expats, sitting together to share stories of struggle, transition, roots or new beginnings, depending on the theme of the night. The stories are as diverse as the tellers. Dima Aboulhosn, co-owner of the circle’s venue, speaks about leaving Lebanon at the height of the civil war and the hardships of moving to a foreign country. Abby Sewell tells about her abrupt decision to leave her life as a Los Angeles Times reporter to move to Lebanon to volunteer with Syrian refugees.
Haidar Amacha recalls being 14 years old when the wars — first against Israel and then the Lebanese civil war — took away his childhood dream of becoming a painter. Amacha became a volunteer child soldier serving the Palestinian cause. “I am from a village close to the border and Palestinians were pouring into our area. … I was witnessing a tragedy and my teacher said, ‘The moment came to liberate Palestine.’ … I entered the occupied land, scouted for three days and came back, thus starting my journey in the war.”
Most people just come to listen, but many of them eventually get inspired to tell their own stories. “After our scheduled storytellers, we open up the floor to others to come up and share spontaneously,” Ballout tells Al-Monitor.
Malak Jaafar was an audience member when a group of Syrian refugee children from the Bourj Hammoud Adventist Learning Center told their experiences of war last month. She was particularly moved by the story of a Syrian girl who described how one day, when she was grocery shopping with her mother, a rocket fell on the market and everyone, including her mother, scattered. “When they came back home, her mother realized she was holding a bag of vegetables she hadn't paid for so the next day they returned to the market and paid the shop owner. This story stayed with me. It shows that the details of life and humanity still find a way to survive despite the carnage of war in the region,” Jaafar tells Al-Monitor.
“Seeing the children’s reaction after they told their stories showed that it helped them process their emotions and trauma. These children were given a platform to share something traumatic that happened to them beyond their control. Being heard and applauded by a group of strangers who provided a safe and warm environment for these children I’m sure helped them a lot,” Jaafar says.
Ballout believes telling personal life-changing stories to a room of nonjudgmental strangers can be a therapeutic tool. However, she also stresses, “Hakaya is not a support group, but a place where personal experiences are welcomed and valued.” As a participant, Seifeddine sees something beyond storytelling in this monthly meet-up. “I think Hakaya is a means through which we can address traumas, identity crises and the social situation we live in. It has become a tool of cultural awareness in an Arab world that is sleepwalking through the wars and intellectual backwardness,” she says.
The community is expected to continue to grow as its one-year anniversary approaches in May. Some people worry about the safe space losing intimacy in the bubble of chaos that is Beirut, but participants remain eager to listen and share as many others’ experiences as they can.
Editor's note: This article has been updated since its initial publication.