century ago, there was no television in Iraq, and there were very few
radios. Most radios could only be found at cafes and life was simple. In
spring and fall, people returned to their homes at the beginning of the
evening-right after dark. Workers would be tired from a long day of
work-hungry for their dinner. The evenings stretched late into the
night, and people stayed up visiting and chatting with their families
and friends until it was time to go to bed. In winter, the nights were
so long and cold. After dinner, people sat around the fire drinking tea,
watching the chestnuts roast in the hot ashes, and enjoying each other's
The storyteller sat on a chair. On his right he had a sword in its sheath, and on his left, he placed his large, heavy walking stick. He would read from his very large, old, volume of stories including: Antara, Saif bin Dhey Yezen, Abu Zaid Alhilaly, and many more. He used his stick and sword to illustrate some of the dramatic scenes. He told the stories of our heroes and legends with great passion. One of the most famous heroes, and our favorite, was Antara bin Shadad. Antara's story, as many of you might know, is a unique Arab tale, full of dramatic events, morals, and values told in numerous chapters. Antara was black in color because his mother was an African slave. He was a very strong, brave, honest knight, and a great poet. He was the perfect man in all accounts.
It is said that Shakespeare was inspired to create the character Othello after reading Antara's story. Antara fell in love with his cousin Abla, a very beautiful, free, young woman. She was renowned for her intelligence and beauty. She refused to marry numerous kings, princes, and chiefs of tribes. She was in love with Antara. Her father and Antara's father refused to let her marry Antara because of his color and his mother's status. When an enemy attacks the tribe and Abla is kidnapped by one of the other tribe chiefs, in desperation, Abla's father and Antara's father approach him and promise to let him marry Abla if he rescues her. Furthermore, his father promised to recognize him as his legitimate son, like all his other white free children, if he succeeds in his mission.
Antara remains an inspiration and a legendry hero in our history. He captures the hearts of the readers with his poetry which is filled with beautiful imagery and descriptions, and strong moral and ethical messages expressing strength, chivalry, and honor. The readers can easily sympathize with his pain and struggle for justice. His conduct is the embodiment of honor, bravery, and pride. For example, he never strikes anyone from the back; he never starts a fight, and he always warned those he fought and gave them a chance to retrieve and save their lives. These are the morals and ethics that our generation grew up with.
The last time
I heard a storyteller in Iraq was in 1952 in the city of Mosel.
Storytellers might have survived a few years after that date in some
parts of the country, but they had certainly disappeared by 1956 when
television was introduced in Iraq. Later, I heard a storyteller of a
different kind in Morocco, in 1981 in the city of Tangier. He was very
smart and wise. He was a strong orator. His story had a purpose and a
target audience. He started by saying, "Look my brothers, when God
created men he divided them into four kinds, all of them run, but three
run after a mirage, and only one runs toward the truth. One of the three
runs after women. When he sees any woman he chases her. These kinds of
people regard women as candy; and because he is still a child who did
not grow up, he always wants to taste all kinds of candy. This is
impossible, so he runs after a mirage and will never feel satisfied
until he dies. The second kind runs after money. Even if he gets a
mountain of gold, he wants more. The third kind runs after power, and if
he succeeds in becoming a king in his country, he looks for other
countries to invade. All these kinds of men are in hell. Only the fourth
kind, the one that runs after knowledge, will live a happy life. This
kind will go to paradise."
So your conscience will be clear and you will live a very happy life." Then he raised the yellow stone and said, "If you get this stone, your children will love and seek knowledge." Then he added, "All these stones will make you happy, but if you live happy, some people will envy you, and they will want to destroy this happiness. This is the nature of man." He raised the black stone and said, "So this black stone will prevent them from doing so. Buying it will cost you only a few extra dollars." I was astonished how he sold all this wisdom, intelligence, and eloquence for a very cheap price! I told myself maybe he keeps a contentment stone in his pocket.
If we return to history, we find that the profession of storytelling is very old, may be hundreds of thousands of years old. People in different places in the world had their myths and legends which they told to generation after generation. It is believed that the first written myth in history was the myth of the great flood. It has been established that it was first recorded during the Sumerian era. This myth influenced the major religions in the Middle East. The Sumerians wrote many other myths; the most famous was the story of Gilgamesh which is about seeking eternal life, but the most fascinating one is the story of Ashtar.
There is something in common between all myths of the ancient world. They all included a struggle between good and bad, love and hate, truth and lies, either with or against humanity. The myths of Mesopotamia had strong moral messages. For example, there is a similarity in the quest of the Greek Prometheus who defies the gods. His adventures focus on stealing fire to help people; and that of Gilgamesh who seeks to unravel the secret of life and death. After numerous near fatal adventures, Gilgamesh finds the plant of immortality, but a snake eats it while he was taking a short nap. Then Gilgamesh concludes that an alternative to immortality is to live and try to make his wife and children happy.
Mesopotamia continued to be the center of story telling. History books suggest that during the Abbasid period, the profession of storytellers was very popular. At one time, religious leaders, philosophers, artists, and politicians united in an attempt to prevent the storytellers from telling their stories. This was driven by envy, greed, and self interest. At that time, attending storytelling gatherings was very popular. The listeners filled public places on Friday, the day of rest and worship. This led those groups to ask the Caliph to issue a decree preventing storytellers from practicing their profession. The philosophers said, nobody comes to their serious study sessions, the artists and the singers said their customers decreased as well. The most persistent were the religious leaders who claimed that the storytellers distracted people from remembering and mentioning God. The Caliph told them you all gave me limited personal reasons and I want common public reasons. If you provide it to me, I'll prevent them from telling their stories. But no one gave the Caliph an important reason as he asked, so storytelling flourished, and the number of new stories and novels greatly increased during that period.
At that time,
one thousand and one hundred years ago, the short stories appeared as an
independent genre of literature, they were called "Maqama". Many writers
wrote short stories. Alhamadany and Alhariry were two very well known
writers, and if you read some of their short stories today, I believe
that you will find them very enjoyable. At the same period, the great
novel "Alfu Leila wa Leila" appeared. This novel was named "Arabian
Nights" in Europe, and was later translated to most of the world's major
languages. It inspired many great writers around the world for more than
a thousand years. This novel was unique because it depicted the lives of
all Arab societies and classes, providing us with their education,
problems, kindness, cruelty, love, hate, and all other aspects of their
lives. Women were forbidden from reading a few novels in some religious
societies; one of them was "Alfu Leila wa Leila". This novel described
some sexual relationships, not too explicit, but because the writer was
interested in depicting the true lives of his characters. His writings
attracted and continue to attract readers, researchers, and
intellectuals for more than twelve centuries. Many kingdoms died, many
kingdoms prospered, some conquerors succeeded and others failed, but
storytelling continued to flourish in Iraq. The storytellers were now
called writers and novelists.
artists, poets, and writers with gifts and favors for supporting its
cause and ideology. If they were not inclined to support the government,
they were advised to remain neutral.
But even this did not last. When the UN imposed its embargo and sanctions against Iraq, the intellectual's privileges were the first to be cut by the government. Under the new circumstances, the wages of most Iraqi intellectuals ranged from 5 to 8,000 Iraqi Dinars, the equivalent of three to four dollars a month. This income was not much different from that of the majority of the rest of Iraqis during that period. This hardship lead writers and artists to resort to selling their families' jewelry and valuable items, their household appliances including their refrigerators, air conditioners, furniture, and televisions in order to maintain even a subsistence standard of living.
became a familiar scene for Iraqis. Due to economic hardships, Iraqis
including intellectuals and non-intellectuals sold their internal organs
to feed their families. Many of the intellectuals left Iraq to other
countries, in hope to avoid these harsh realities. Most intellectuals
welcomed the changing of the Baathist regime in 2003 or stayed neutral.
After a few months, they realized that unfortunately this era is not
much better than the last one. Now, the whole society was under the
control of the militants. A new kind of pressure was imposed. The
militants issued many lists containing names of writers and poets that
they proclaimed should be killed or punished because of their
cooperation with the previous regime. One of the names on one of the
lists was Attwar Bahjat, a newscaster of Al Arabia TV channel, who was
assassinated. Thousands of professors, officers, doctors, and writers
were also assassinated.
� Arab World Books