Lessons our stories teach us?

While we get ready for another storytelling night at the Mezrab this evening there’s a few thoughts that twirl around the brain. One is the recent experience of narrating part of the Indian Epic Ramayana together with classical Indian dancers and musicians. It’s a performance that usually doesn’t require narration, but since us Westerners don’t know understand the lyrics and don’t know how to interpret the intricate finger gestures and position of the eyes. It was great for me to dive into this story with so many elements that are close to Persian mythology and our tradition of writing/storytelling, yet so many more that are completely different.

Here’s a short impression that was made by the Tropentheater, the stage where we performed the story:


Another recent experience is being interviewed a few days ago for a student paper about the significance of storytelling. There’s different comments that I could say about that: Storytelling as a pastime, a way to connect, as a carrier of culture and cultural values, etc. However, there’s one issue that I glossed over a bit: The value that stories traditionally had in the old days in teaching us moral lessons. In Persian as well as Indian Mythology one function of the stories was to hold us a mirror of conduct. A blueprint if you will, of how a man, woman, ruler, warrior or any other person should think and behave. In the Ramayana the king sends his son into exile because of a promise he’s made to one of his wives. His son, Rama, accepts willingly and is followed by his wive Sita and brother Lakhshmana. We are presented an image of a pure king who is a man of his word (even though sending his son into exile means he dies of a broken heart), a pure son who obeys his father unquestioningly and a wive and a brother who are loyal. They are contrasted by antagonists who lie and cheat, clearly showing us what example to follow and what to avoid.

It is precisely this element in storytelling that I find fascinating and troubling. How do you deal with competing stories that teach us different value systems? How do you deal with evolving morals, like our ideas about the “obedient” wife? When we performed the Ramayana many children in the audience were of Hindustani descent (Indians of Surinam), a community that has held on to its identity while removed from the mother country by introducing each new generation to the ancient stories. In Iranians we see a similar trend, while children of the first generation of immigrants and refugees are being born abroad some find an interest in the old stories as a way to stay connected to the old culture. But does that mean we want our children to be like the characters in the Indian Ramayana or the Persian Shahname?

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2 thoughts on “Lessons our stories teach us?

  1. This is a question asked in each generation, right? When I was a child, the women’s movement in the US was having a re-birth. As a result, many little Jewish girls, like me, were acutely aware of the sexist assumptions/lessons in the biblical stories we were being taught. Many of us found new ways of hearing and interpreting the stories we were being taught. We found heroines in the margins of the stories, women we could respect… We found ways of retelling the stories so they included us. Storytelling should not be static — when static, it becomes dogma.

    1. Great comments Tori jan. The issue is especially pressing when the stories we deal with are part of the theological canon and are not just cultural expressions (though I’m sure for many in the audience of the Ramayana it had that meaning).

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