The Spring 2011 European Storytelling Tour offered many moments bridging cultures together, the most powerful occurred in Eskilstuna, Sweden where I presented for the Storytelling students at Malardalen University. The students, all female except for one, hailed from Scandinavia, Russia and Iraq.
We began by introducing ourselves sharing country of origin, why we were interested in storytelling, as well as a favorite story that impacted our lives. Students shared folktales, their own life journeys, one student spoke about an illness, another about gypsy life. The last to share was Abbe from Iraq. He expressed how his family fled Iraq during the start of the war when he was 11 years old, his Uncle was killed, his father maimed. He continued saying he loved Sweden, was so grateful to be studying there and felt accepted by everyone. He looked at me when speaking of fleeing Iraq and I could see and feel discomfort in his eyes. I wanted to apologize right away, but realized it might sound insincere.
So instead, we launched into storytelling, how it has existed since the dawn of time, how it has been used worldwide as a teaching tool for character education, ethics, philosophy, religion, preserving family history and culture, exchanging culture and so on. I was mindful of the need to connect even more to Abbe after what he had shared with the group about his experience with the war.
We acted out several stories together focusing on kindness, cooperation and tolerance including The Lion and the Wise Old Rabbit from India. In summary, the lion bullied all the animals in the jungle and they decide to make him stop. Rabbit tells lion there is another lion who has come into the jungle, even bigger and stronger and he is in the well. Rabbit takes lion to the well. Lion not being so smart sees what he thinks is another lion which is actually his own reflection in the water. The audience becomes the lion’s echo, repeating the rant as he shouts, “Hey you! Who do you think you are? I’m king of the jungle! No, you’re not! Yes, I am! Roar!” He becomes so angry he jumps down into the well to fight the “other lion.” When he reaches the bottom of the well, he quickly realizes there is no other lion. The rabbit laughs and walks away.
This ending is not a satisfying conclusion, in my opinion. It simply continues the cycle of negative behavior. The group created new endings focusing on breaking the cycle of violence. Their endings were clever and more positive; one utilized the strength of the lion to help chase off hyenas who were terrorizing the other animals, another brought in an even bigger lion (composed of three of the animals in disguise) who taught the bully lion how to behave in a more positive and friendly way.
The group acted out several other folktales together. We also shared many personal stories of our own life journeys. I shared how I had been bullied as a child until I was 14 years old and found theatre as a release and way to be accepted. We shared moments in storytelling where we experienced connections between cultures; we discovered that several of the stories shared by class members had versions within other cultures represented in the class. We focused on the connections between cultures and their stories, how in the end, we are more alike than we are different. We are all human.
The day flew by and then Abbe said he had something he needed to tell me. I asked if he wanted to speak in private, he said, “No, I want to say this in front of the class.” I took in a deep breath, not sure what he would say. I had hoped we connected through the stories.
Abbe continued. “Before I met you, I hated all Americans for what they did to my country. I thought all Americans were the same, that they were not kind people. But then I met you and listened to your stories of kindness and compassion. And you shared how your life was not always easy. Now I think differently. Now I realize there are good and kind Americans, Americans with big hearts, like you. Thank you.”
You could feel the positive energy permeate the room. I thanked Abbe and replied, “I am not sure it is culturally acceptable, but I would really like to give you a hug now.”
Abbe smiled and said, “that would be good.” We hugged and smiled at each other.
It was the most powerful moment I’ve experienced so far in life as a storyteller. That moment proved once again how stories connect us all together. How if we share our stories together, if we listen to each other, we can learn, we can build bridges between cultures. We can build friendships and relationships where perhaps we thought it not possible. May the power of story positively impact you!
I would love to hear your stories about connecting with other cultures, please feel free to comment and send in YOUR story!