Qatar’s storytelling tradition

I loved this assignment for High Life magazine, to look into how Qatar is preserving its oral history and traditions of storytelling. Original story page here.

In the Place of Snakes, on the grassless plains west of the Qatari capital, Doha, businessman Hasan Al Khalifa* tucks his feet underneath him and directs his eldest son, Abdullah, out to the paddocks behind the house.

“Before, we had nothing. Only talking,” Hasan says to me, eyes twinkling above a pepper-and-salt beard.

“Home and family counted as school, and stories were part of the job of parenting. Women would tell stories about the home, relationships. Men would tell stories about the world outside. But now, things are moving too fast.”

He looks out to the palm groves at the edge of the courtyard. Shadows move imperceptibly across hot stone.

Then Abdullah returns, bringing a tin bowl brimming with white froth. From similarly open-hearted encounters across Arabia I know the taste of camel’s milk, fresh from the udder. Warm, sweet and refreshing, it is deliciously clean on the tongue. The mark of a man here is how he treats his guests. Hasan leans over and encourages me to take a date.

In other countries, food is a motivation for interaction. In the Arab world, hospitality is the motivation, and food simply the expression.

But Qatar is an unusual place to be drinking camel’s milk. As commonly perceived, this astonishingly wealthy nation has – like its Gulf neighbours Dubai, Abu Dhabi and the rest – no culture of its own, so is spending its billions building museums and galleries in an effort to buy a place in world culture.

Qatar was never a centre of urban civilisation, it’s true. It also lacks a tradition of artistic sophistication. But don’t be too quick to judge. Not all civilisation is urban.

Qatar feels like a work in progress, whose most interesting aspects are only now, slowly, being revealed. How does a small country in the midst of social change that has catapulted it from desperate poverty to, literally, the richest nation in the world in the space of two generations keep hold of its roots? Wealth and a reliance on imported labour have changed Qatari society forever, but has everything familiar been jettisoned? How can Qatar remember where it came from?

“The best people for that are the older generation,” says Mohammed Abu Hindi, of the Qatar National Museum (QNM). Abu Hindi heads the rather grey-sounding Research and Collection Department. But in truth, his work at the QNM – which is due to open late next year – breaks new ground.

The buzzword is ‘intangible cultural heritage’. Adopted by UNESCO in 2008 to sit alongside the already recognised concept of World Heritage Sites, ‘intangible cultural heritage’ refers to all those elements of culture that don’t fit into display cabinets: stories, poems, songs, recipes, ideas, and so on. With only a few objects to display, culled from the handful of archaeological digs undertaken in this tiny country, and no literary tradition to draw on, the QNM is all about intangible cultural heritage.

Rather than collecting artefacts, Qatar is collecting stories.

In the QNM’s case, this takes the form of oral histories. Over the last three years, researchers have gone out into the back streets and the villages to talk to those who remember the way things used to be. They’ve so far gathered around 150 interviews, men and women, Qataris and foreigners, some on video, some audio, and a few – since, for reasons of cultural modesty, some Qatari women refuse to allow their voice to be recorded – only in transcription.

These memories tell of the hardships of life before oil wealth, and what happened when the big multinationals first arrived.

One of those who remembers is Khalifa Al Sayed.

“In the 1960s Doha was a cluster of villages,” he tells me. “You’d bring your donkey to the souk, to pick up sugar, salt, kerosene. It would be rice for breakfast, lunch and dinner. I worked for Shell at that time, fifteen days straight on an oil rig. Every night there was nothing to do except tell tales.”

For Al Sayed, those evenings were a chance to hone storytelling skills picked up as a youngster.

“At home my grandfather would build a fire, make milky ginger tea and then tell stories,” he recalls. “When it came to my turn, I would tell them better!”

Now a journalist and playwright, Al Sayed has built his career on stories, some straight retellings of the past – the oral history being catalogued by the National Museum – but many drawn from the rich wellspring of folkloric tales that underlies Arab culture. He regularly goes into schools, encouraging the next generation in the same way he was encouraged himself.

Sipping sweet coffee, Al Sayed paints a word-picture of the days before oil, when the Gulf relied on pearls. Ships from Kuwait, Bahrain and Dubai, often with crew drawn from as far afield as Iraq and India, would gather at Qatar’s pearling grounds. During the day divers would hunt for oysters. By night, songs and stories would go round, telling legends of sea-monsters, stars battling in the sky, sailors transformed into fish and human destiny guided by the appearance of a jinni (genie – a fiery spirit) or a ghul (ghoul – a shapeshifting demon). Stories would change with each retelling, mixing cultures and traditions.

Outsiders know the 1001 Nights – Aladdin, Sinbad and all – but just as potent were local stories that would circulate in every family, grandparents yarning to grandchildren about the exploits of tribal ancestors.

“These stories open up a different world,” says journalism graduate Mariam Dahrouj, who spent 2010 travelling the country with two friends, Shatha Farajallah and Sara Al Khalfan, to document stories of Qatari life before oil. They published voice recordings and transcriptions on a website they called Swalif, a dialect word meaning chit-chat. Plans are afoot to resurrect the site, and possibly to incorporate their work into the QNM’s archive.

“Stories were the only way to preserve our culture,” says Umm Khalaf, another of Qatar’s traditional storytellers. “My mum would tell stories all day, round the house.”

Now in her sixties, Umm Khalaf has become something of a local celebrity, retelling traditional stories to new audiences at festivals and even on TV. Many rely on archetypes shared in the European tradition – wicked stepmothers, Cinderella-like girls outwitting older sisters, odd little Rumpelstiltskin characters, and so on.

I ask Umm Khalaf for her favourite. On cushions in a traditional goat-hair tent, dressed in orange silks, her face concealed (from me, a man) behind a batoola face-mask, she grins and embarks on a complicated telling of the legend of Bu Darya (meaning “Old Man of the Sea” in Farsi), a water-genie who would kidnap unwary pearl divers and sink ships.

I don’t catch it all, but the wide gaps in my understanding of Qatari dialect are filled by Sheikha Nora Al Thani, alongside me. Aunt to Qatar’s ruling emir, Sheikha Nora directs the Qatar Heritage and Identity Centre (QHIC); while the National Museum devotes itself to oral history, the QHIC’s mission is to collect folktales.

I roam Doha for several days with writer Autumn Watts, who teaches Qatari students and is working with QHIC to collate stories for publication. At Qatar University we meet sociology professor Dr Kaltham Al Ghanim, who has been collecting stories for 25 years.

“Stories represent our cultural identity,” she says. “Hollywood has crashed into our lives, and people watch movies now instead of listening to stories – but it’s very important for the next generation to be more confident about what they have.”

That lesson is being taken to heart: filmmakers across the Arab world are starting to find a voice. In 2012 a team of animators in Doha under director Rahab Elewaly produced “Rain”. This twelve-minute short, based on one of Khalifa Al Sayed’s folktales about how a traveller stranded in the desert finds hospitality, was made in a distinctive silhouette style reminiscent of 20th-century animator Lotte Reiniger.

Over coffee amid the bustle of Doha’s Souk Waqif, Elewaly explains how she was able to draw in British musician Nitin Sawhney to write the film’s compelling soundtrack.

“There’s just something about telling a story that lets everyone’s imagination run wild,” she laughs.

The fine line where oral history shades into storytelling is also where Mohanalakshmi Rajakumar works – though she completes the triangle of Qatar’s ongoing quest for stories by helping to foster the development of creative writing. A professor of English, her Qatari Voices anthology of stories by 21 local writers represents pushback against conservative resistance to the unfamiliar freedoms of fiction-writing. Her own novels have followed, as has Sophia Al Maria’s The Girl Who Fell To Earth (2012), which Rajakumar characterises as “the first Qatari memoir – a really important book.”

“Writing is becoming a way of remembering,” Rajakumar says. “Where people are reticent, fiction becomes another way to tell a truth.”

Back in the Place of Snakes, Hasan Al Khalifa stokes up the fire while we sip bitter cardamom coffee and chit-chat about his father’s poetry.

As the sunset fades, a breeze brings the sound of chirping from the palms.

“We have nothing but stories,” says Hasan.

And I think – that’s really all that any of us have.

*Some names have been changed