Can you imagine a time before instagram, snapchat and facebook? actually, can you imagine a time before Tv, cinema and radio? what would people do with their free time? where would they get their entertainment from? The answer lies in the ancient art of the hakawati. a professional storyteller that would visit villages to bring entertainment to anyone willing to listen.
The hakawati history is quite ancient. Nobody really knows when the first story was ever told. whether it all started in a dark old cave or just simply around a fire, We may never know! But one thing for sure is that it’s this tradition that led our ancestors to tell bedtime stories to their kids, creating this unique bond between parents and children. But why were our ancestors so enchanted by this man telling tales? How did this job become part of our culture? We wanted to find out.
Back in the day, the hakawati was what cinemas and televisions are to us today. In popular cafes and villages, people of all ages and social classes would gather around him, sit in silence and listen to captivating tales. From fiction to reality and improvised legends, the storyteller’s purpose was to bring to life some of the most interesting sagas from the 1001 nights.
They were all about adventures, love and betrayal and the listeners were wrapped up around every word!
At the center of each story was a hero or heroine who’s in trouble and would overcome great adversity powered by virtues such as courage, generosity and perseverance. Anything to keep the audience glued to every word.
The hakawati’s style was to keep his audience coming back for more by telling a tale within a tale. They would start a story, leave it mid-way to pick it up another day. Sort of like Game of Thrones? Yes! It is said that in Aleppo in the 18th century, the great hakawati Ahmad Al-Saidawi told the story of King Baybars over 372 nights, and had to bring it to an end only after the Ottoman governor begged him to! That goes to show how much influence and respect the Hakawati had at the time.
Centuries ago, it is said that raconteurs were considered to be the second most important citizens after rulers who, in their turn, would use them to pass on a message to the masses. Yes, we had influencers before twitter and Instagram!
Ask any elder today, and they would all tell you how memorable those moments were. The Hakawati wasn’t just a person telling stories, he was a father who gave morality lessons, who taught life, explained situations and gave advices to whomever was willing to listen. He was an escape for people from the harsh realities of the time.
Even today, Parents and teachers still narrate to children the epics of Ali Baba and the 40 thieves, the adventures of Antar and Abla and many more. While these tales are based on historical events, they have been re-imagined and enriched by a long line of inventive narrators. Their stories have shaped our culture and childhood and still live with us to this day.
Even though the tradition started diminishing this past century, some countries still enjoy this popular and ancient activity. In Syria, the hakawati still comes to a traditionally preserved café in old Damascus called the Nofara, where many people gather around and listen quietly to his different tales. In the UAE, this culture has happily been rediscovered with the famous Ahmad Yousuf, the hakawati of modern times that has revived this ancient art in the gulf.
Ramadan has always been a time of year closely linked to culture, storytelling and spectacles. And it’s safe to say that Ramadan musalsalat are the hakawati of modern days!