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Retelling, revising: ‘Ana al-Hekaya’ conquers stereotypes through storytelling

Last Saturday, an evening of storytelling was held by the Ana al-Hekaya (I Am the Story) group at the American University in Cairo. The packed hall was buzzing as the eager audience waited to be told a tale. But, as the lights lowered dramatically, a silence fell over the room. The storyteller was about to take the stage.

Ana al-Hakaya was founded by four writers from the Qalat al-Raweya (The Novel’s Citadel) project, developed by the Women and Memory Forum.

In 2009 Ana al-Hakaya was established as an independent group of academics and writers with the aim to represent Egyptian woman with a positive image through their own feminist perspective.

The group also organizes workshops for reviving this image in the minds of a younger generation of writers, academics and researchers.

The stories they tell are based on actual experiences, researched by Pathways for Women’s Empowerment, one of the group’s projects, under the supervision of AUC’s social research center.

Sahar al-Mogy, novelist, academic and storyteller, narrated the first story, “Hata Yaktamel al-Kamar” (Till the Moon is Full) in a soft, sad tone to convey the helpless state of a rural woman who suffers from her husband’s negligence.

The story opens with the woman’s child asking, “When will the moon become full?” After pausing, the mother replies, “The moon cannot be full on its own, the whole world must give it the chance to show its beauty. The moon is moving, but if the world does not move with it, no one will be able to enjoy its light.”

Author Ahmed Heshmat’s descriptive story takes the moon as its main symbol in order to talk about the woman’s struggle. The moon represents all women, who need greater society to stand by her side and support her so that she can achieve her potential and appear as her full self.

“Kaydahom Shamaa” (Lighting Them as Candles) was al-Mogy’s second narration. “Kaydahom Shamaa” is a well-known Arabic expression conveying the idea of dedicating one’s whole life to please someone else. But the title has another profound meaning that al-Mogy slowly and skillfully revealed to the rapt audience.

Al-Mogy told a story of a mother who gave up playing the piano due to her disastrous marriage, which she bears for the sake of her children. But one day after she refuses to submit to her husband’s physical abuse, “her fingers light like candles.” This expression was perfectly expressed through the narrator’s gestures, inciting the audience to picture the mother bringing back the light of hope through playing the piano again.

At first, the two stories seem to have identical themes of female empowerment, dignity and free will. But at the heart of the second story is a battle, its ending conveying the necessity of standing up against oppression from men.

“Al-Sakka Mat” (The Waterseller is Dead) sheds light on the possessiveness of Egyptian men toward their women.

The story is a dialogue between an engaged couple. Dawlat Magdy, the narrator, used two different voices to cleverly switch from one character to the other. The man imposes restrictions on his future bride. She is not allowed to participate in household finances, she must wear loose clothes and abide by all his decisions without any negotiation.

Magdy’s sharp tone emphasizes the man's demanding personality. The woman's tone, in replying to her fiancé's demands, is sarcastic. “Al-saka mat” is another popular Egyptian proverb, illustrating the woman's total denial of her betrothed's old-fashioned concept of dominating woman.

“Gamal Ashmawy," the title of another story as well as the protagonist’s name, tackles another element of our patriarchal society.

Ashmawy is a newly divorced man who wonders why his wife has abandoned him through seeking khula (khula gives an Islamic woman the right to separate from her husband by returning the dowry).

Ahmed Heshmat, the storyteller, listed all the protagonist’s offenses, such as throwing his wife’s books out of the window, taking most of her salary and beating her. From the deluded perspective of the abandoned man, these things seem perfectly normal.

Despite the protagonist’s immoral actions, Heshmat succeeded in adding humor to his negative traits, making the story both poignant and hilarious, and effectively conveying the stereotypical Egyptian marriage and the heroic woman who abandoned it.

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