Next to the walls of the Ummayad Mosque two old Damascene coffee houses are still in business. One of them, Al Nawfara, is home to the last professional storyteller in Syria: Abu Shady (pronounce it ‘Shah-di’).
Storytellers were a part of life in the Middle East as far back as the 12th century. If you’ve read Pamuk’s ‘My Name is Red’ you’ll realise they were common in Turkey too. Abu Shady revived the tradition at the Al Nawra in the 1990s after they had been without a storyteller for over twenty years. Now he takes to his ‘stage’ (a small dais) every evening after sunset prayers, and performs for the very appreciative crowd of coffee drinkers and narghile smokers.
Of course it’s all in Arabic, but even if you can’t understand the story you can certainly appreciate Abu Shady’s delivery (punctuated with banging of his stick on the floor), and enjoy the banter with regulars in the audience. And, of course, join in the applause which doesn’t just come at the end, but whenever someone in the crowd shouts ‘Let’s hear it for Abu Shady’ – we presume that is what they were shouting!
A tray is passed around for contributions for Abu Shady, so if you do go to listen to him you can tell your friends you heard the last ‘hakawati’ (Arabic for professional storyteller) in Damascus.