One of my absolute favourite books is Italo Calvino’s “If on a winter’s night a traveller” – first published by the renown Italian publishing house Einaudi in 1979.
The novel is a hauntingly entertaining chain of inceptions based on the ultimate need of any reader, or simply of anyone who is listening to a story: the urge to answer the classic question “what happens next?”
The very ordinary heroes of Calvino’s book – a man and a woman who meet in a bookshop while trying to find the missing part of a novel they both began to read – are after a story that never comes to a conclusion, but instead keeps drawing the readers to more and more unfinished stories, and eventually to one another.
You don’t need to love books to be familiar with the charms of stories. It wouldn’t surprise me if right now you were biting your nails in impatience for the next episode of Game of Thrones to come out, or if you were about to give in to that clickbait link on your Facebook wall, trying to find out what really happened. You could as well be working on a way to promote your brand, maybe writing a post for your company blog.
Give Google the word “storytelling”, and you will get well over 44 million results. Combine the term with “marketing” and as many as 25.5 million search results will come up.
We can reasonably call storytelling a hot topic, to the extent that nowadays the term is being borrowed by business disciplines far beyond advertising. You will be surprised, but even “data storytelling” is a thing!
As corporate communication keeps shifting from old-school sales oriented marketing to brand narratives that involve target audiences in more personal ways, in our deeply conversational world storytelling has become a trending marketing strategy.
The reason business people grew interested in storytelling is simple: good stories are powerful, engaging devices. Since mythological cavemen times, stories keep founding families, communities and nations; they define relationships and create lovers, friends, often enemies; some of these stories end up making history, be it intentionally or not.
Corporate communication is using them to give more soul and truth to what is offered on the market by making it more relatable and individually meaningful.
Besides all of the above, stories are the oldest and most successful form of entertainment.
An increasing number of people are choosing to spend their nights out at the many storytelling events that can be found in more and more cities around the world.
Amsterdam, of course, has its own, but the most popular, multicultural and possibly the oldest is Mezrab.
This cultural centre is quite a legend amongst Amsterdam expats, especially those interested in the city’s underground scene. It’s certainly through one of them, only a few months after moving here from Rome, that I first heard about the storytelling nights at Mezrab.
Rumour had it that people gathered in this hidden basement every week, sat down on the floor, listened to stories or boldly stepped up to tell theirs, delicious soup was served and once in a month the event was held in English (believe me, this latter is a remarkable and appealing attribute for most of Amsterdam’s expats). It turned out to be a true story.
Mezrab was founded in 2004 by the Sahebdivanis, an Iranian family who fled here from Iran in 1983, escaping the ayatollah’s regime.
The living room of the Sahebdivani family was often crowded with a miscellaneous group of friends (and friends of friends) from all around the world. They would share evenings of music, poetry, stories and food.
That living room soon became too small to contain a growing number of friends, and in 2004 what had by then become the Mezrab had to move to a small café in the city center. Not for too long, though: since then Mezrab had to move three more times, to give room to its ever-growing community and is now an established destination for storytelling enthusiasts in town.
The name suits the story of this place perfectly: the Persian word mezrab means ‘plectrum’, a tiny thing that produces a big resonance.
I attended one of those storytelling evening last year and I must say it was magic: it felt almost like joining a secret society. The place was definitely off the beaten track, located in Amsterdam Eastern Docklands, an almost surreal area that reminds you of a different soul of the city, where a sweet scent of sea enfolds a laboratory of modern architecture and futuristic engineering (the neighborhood includes four artificial islands).
In the basement of one of those modern buildings lining up along the waterfront, a crowd of people was sitting on a floor covered in carpets and cushions, patiently waiting for the show to begin; some were waiting in line for Mrs Sahebdivani to serve them (vegetarian!) soup. Mr Sahebdivani was helping her, pouring tea from a samovar. The tiny lady was taking her time, carefully disposing slices of bread around a bowl, smiling at every guest, adding a final touch – some Iranian secret ingredient – on top of the soup. Oh, that soup!
I took my bowl to my seat and equally enjoyed the food and the show with a couple of friends, in the coziest basement I have ever been in.
Very recently, the cultural center has undergone a major mutation: it emerged from that basement to a fairly sized venue at the same address. They also started Mezrab Storytelling School.
I was kind of taken aback when I entered the latest reincarnation of Mezrab, last week: spacious, nicely decorated, featuring an equipped podium for concerts, four volunteers working at a proper
I was there to meet Pedram, my first flatmate in the city, whom I hadn’t seen in ages and who – by the way – also happens to be Iranian.
As I entered the place, I took in its relative fanciness. For a moment I asked myself whether the same magic I had experienced before could be possible in such a different venue. But that doubt evaporated over the time I had to queue for Mrs Sahebdivani’s soup: she hadn’t changed her ways and the soup was just as delicious.
Nine storytellers (three of which improvised) told their true story, introduced by a presenter, this time the funny (despite claiming to be from No-fun-couver, aka Vancouver, Canada) Ryan Miller.
A warm and diverse audience crammed around the stage, taking active part in an intense evening of brilliant, inspiring and moving stories, told by their very protagonists. A live audience adds the fundamental ingredient that digital/ marketing/ brand storytelling may mimic but can never recreate: presence.
Despite the size of the crowd (from 100-120 in the basement, the average guests number raised to 150 in the new Mezrab), it still felt like being in the Sahebdivanis’ living room.
After the show I had a very pleasant chat with Sahand Sahebdivani, founder of Mezrab.
I complimented him for the new beautiful venue and asked him whether he was worried that such a breakthrough could change the peculiar atmosphere people were used to.
Always! Always when we move I get to ask myself: “how can we preserve the spirit of the last Mezrab?” and every time I think we are going to destroy it. We had to move because the place got too small or because of contract issues and every time I thought that we were never going to get that spirit back.
This time there is even a bigger change: it’s not just me and my parents; I have two partners and 30-40 volunteers to help me.
I am sure it’s going to be different from the previous Mezrabs – this is not the same of number 3, number 3 was not the same as number 1, but it’s going to be valid in its own way and I’m not afraid of change. Let’s find it out together!
Sahand, nowadays storytelling is being borrowed by all kind of disciplines, from videogame design to brand management. Do you see a risk in this ancient art becoming a buzzword?
I have mixed feelings about this: on one hand I completely understand why they call what they do “storytelling”, but on the other hand that word has nothing to do with what we do, so in that sense it confuses people.
Even a few days ago I heard that one of the film schools in Amsterdam is offering storytelling courses, but of course what they teach is a new type of scriptwriting and has nothing to do with what we do.
After all what you do here is tell true stories. With so many fake stories being fed to the public everyday, it might be not as easy as before for audiences to distinguish engineered stories from the true ones and eventually to suspend disbelief when they come to events like this.
Where does the truth of a story lie?
The truth is in the person who stands there. There is a lot of truth in someone who allows himself or herself to open up in front of an audience, and the type of stories that they tell doesn’t even matter.
The fact itself that they open up …or don’t (sometimes there is a truth in there as well) is what is true. There is a truth in the storyteller that goes beyond the fact that they are telling so-called true stories. One could tell a fable or a myth or an old story and be more truthful because they say it from their own self, they say it from whom they are inside.
What do you think of the micro-stories, the instant narratives we are so exposed to through social media?
I see interesting things happening through new media and even beautiful art.
I don’t have a problem with new media. This fragmentation of attention span, that is an issue, because for example now when I perform I see smartphone-lit faces of people checking their Facebook or twitter. They think I can’t see them because I am in the light and they are sitting in the dark…
It’s like a disease and I see it even among my friends.
BUT I also notice that some people see nights like this here as a remedy for that. Some people are so consciously happy that they can just come and allow themselves to enjoy a long evening of storytelling! Our storytelling nights can be as long as 3 and ½ hours. Sometimes when you go to a theatre and I want to work on something [a show] that is longer than 1h 45m they are like “Why?”
But people are paying something like 17 euros, I would like them to get more!
In Mezrab they pay nothing and get over three hours. They keep saying it’s too long, too long.
I realize that people are now looking for that, instead: they want to relax, listen to stories and in the break talk to each other, meet new people, hang out with friends and then listen to more stories. There is a sort of counter-movement that we didn’t invent: apparently people needed it. …Though I have to say this is our 4th location and it’s the first one where people actually have phone reception, in the other ones there was no signal!
My blog is called As Soup As Possible; your mother’s soup is a steady ingredient of Mezrab storytelling nights. What does it add to the formula?
Oh, it’s integral! It’s crucial! This couldn’t work without the food of my parents and the main reason is that this started because when I was a kid [in Holland] I would go to events and people would have catering and intelligent discussions afterwards, but when you go to Iranian events or visit any culture that has that hospitality people are always feeding you and everyone is there together eating, enjoying, singing songs, dancing…
I though “this is it, this is what art is about, it’s a community thing, it’s not: ok, here we have the stage, there the catering …”.
The Mezrab didn’t even start as a public event, it started in the house of my parents. I would invite a few friends. We had an Irish guy who played Greek music, a Serbian guy and an Iranian guy, three musicians. My father would do some poetry, my mother would sing and I would invite more friends to add to that and five people would become 10, 15, 20. My parents would cook and would cook much more because here you can only make soup, but at home… you know how Iranians cook, right? They make lots, …lots, and …lots of food! So I knew that when it became something public this hospitality needed to still be in there and it is part of it. It couldn’t work without.
At this point my friend Pedram chipped in with a confession: You know, I think the first time I came to Mezram, years ago, it wasn’t even for the storytelling: my main intention was to try the soup!
Pedram later told me how he also appreciated that Mezrab had no intention of being a “folkloristic” Iranian place, only celebrating Iranian oral tradition, but incarnated a true cosmopolitan spirit.
Nevertheless, I could not help asking Sahand a question about his country of birth.
The history of Iran is very tragic and complicated. You left the country when you were only a toddler and you probably know it only through the stories your parents told you about it. How did these stories contribute to the idea you have of your origins.
I was very lucky about two things.
One is that my father has an amazing memory and knows an incredible amount of stories. He knows historical stories, mythological stories, but also a lot of stories from his family, because in his family this was a thing. And not all Iranian families have it. Sometimes people think: “Oh every Iranian is a storyteller!” It’s not true. My mother is an amazing singer, but don’t ask her to tell a story.
So I was lucky that my father had the memory, had these stories and he had the wish to share them with me. And when I would ask him about something, even painful subjects, he would still tell me.
I know that he was imprisoned and I heard that in Iranian prisons people would get tortured, so I asked him and he didn’t lie to me.
The second thing that really helped is that my father speaks the language really beautifully, and when you grow up with someone who speaks that way you have this wish not to lose the language. Of course my Persian is not as good as it could have been if I was raised in Iran, but because my father’s language was so beautiful, from a young age I realized I needed to try to keep this language.
These two elements together, helped me keep some kind of connection with Iran and its history, its people, although I haven’t been there for almost 32 years.
I really enjoyed the evening. The stories were compelling and told in very personal styles. What is the role of style in storytelling?
There are schools that teach in a particular style. You hear someone tell a story and it goes [he takes a dreamy expression and stick out his arm, pointing at the horizon] “the sun…above the river…”. And I can tell exactly what school they come from, what teachers they have. This is horrible because they are just making copies of themselves.
At the Mezrab Storytelling School I teach with Raphael [Rodan]. He is an Israeli, I’m an Iranian, we are completely different in personality and style, but as much as we are different, we want our students also to find their own style and we would like to support them in this. We just started as a school and we don’t know yet whether we are going to succeed, but for us this is the most important thing.
Of course maybe one person will have a stronger self, another will try to copy someone they like, but the aim is to find your own way. That’s what makes storytelling so unique.
Tonight you could see 9 different individuals and in nothing they are similar, nothing! In other art forms, styles are more important, but in storytelling you can really be an individual.
This time, as well as the first time I was here, most of the storytellers on stage were men. Is it always the case and do you think there is a reason for that?
It’s actually a very sensitive topic for us, because when we started we had a much better gender balance; maybe not 50/50 but close to it. Actually in terms of visitors, we have many more women. If we look at the Facebook statistics, it is 60% women like our page.
Tonight on stage women were one third, and it was even a good one: sometimes there are only 2 women over 9 storytellers. It’s something that I’m concerned about. It wasn’t like this before, I think the busier Mezrab got, the less women dare to get on stage.
Of course I am not a gender specialist nor a sociologist, but as far as I could see, when a woman is doubting if she is good enough to get on stage she tells herself “let’s not do it, let’s not embarrass myself. I will practice a bit and then one day I will do it”. Of course that means that most of the times you will not practice. When a man is the same level, he thinks “F**k it! I’m good enough!”. Or “maybe I’m not good enough, but what can happen?”
So men are a bit more careless, which in art helps a lot. They think ‘let’s do it’ and then the one time they do it and they are horrible, at least they get the experience, and the next time they are less horrible.
This is something we are very conscious about and we are trying to change it, so for instance now we have some storytelling classes that are free or nearly free for women; besides, at the school, we have a majority of female students.
We also have one night that we should do every 3 months, where we invite more women on stage and even the men who get on stage have to tell something about their feminine side. We are working on it!
For instance, there is this regular storyteller, Ezra, from Turkey. One of the female storytellers of tonight, Hannah, who told a story about her anxiety attacks went up to Esra, after the show, and told her that because she was on stage so often, she gave her the courage to do it.
I know that now more women are inspiring each other to tell stories and hopefully this will grow.
Ladies (and gentlemen) with great stories to tell, don’t be shy and save the date! The next storytelling night at the Mezrab will be May 15th.
If someone asks you whether you are going to get on stage and you are still doubting, you can always say you only came for the soup …Or you might as well ask the bartender on duty to pour you some courage and give it a try.
After all, the worst thing that can happen is just another story!