Two weeks ago I had the honor to be the 1st American selected to present at the Kanoon International Storytelling Festival in Kermanshah, Iran. Grateful does not even begin to express my feelings regarding this blessing. Two weeks later my heart and mind continue to process the experiences in Iran; the kindness extended, the incredible warm welcome, the curious and honest questions, the hugs, the love and yes, the Stories shared.

Poetic Welcome from a Child’s Heart

I am hopeful that this post will shine light on the importance and value of Story to build bridges between peoples & cultures. This statement was heard at every event attended from the mouths of the Executive Director of the Festival to the dignitaries from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Education: “Story is the way to bring us together, Story is the way to share our humanity and our hearts, Story is the answer to so many of the world’s problems.”

And the other solution: Kindness. Kindness from each one to another.  It is deeply appropriate and a synchronicity that Kindness turned out to be such a huge theme of the festival as it is my way of living; those who know me well, know I never leave home without my Free Hugs sign or small bottles of bubbles to share. Those who know the Stories I share know that nearly every one of them speaks of kindness and understanding. Being immersed in 7 days of kindness from strangers, of kindness from a country where my own country could learn a lesson or 3 about how to embrace someone from another culture, expanded my heart, mind and soul in ways I am still processing.

A few highlights:

First there are 1000 thanks yous to Minoo Abdollahai who first extended the invitation to present in Iran. She then worked tirelessly to present my resume, my story and my credentials to the jury who then deliberated and selected the Storytellers. Minoo pushed for me to come, she worked very hard on my behalf and she never, ever gave up. Even when it was less than one week before the festival, she continued to have patience and perseverance. I am honored to now call her friend. I am grateful for all of her efforts to bring me to the Kanoon Festival. Without her persistence I would not have made it to Iran. Thank you Minoo!

Custom’s Agent: The Customs Agent at the airport, opened my passport, looked at my photo, looked at me, looked at my Visa, smiling gestured for me to go over to another Agent. That agent also looked at my photo, my visa and then smiling stamped my passport and said, “Welcome.” Not a single question. Now, true, I was invited in an official capacity by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, but can you imagine this happening here in the US? No questions, no suspicious, simply smiles and welcomes. We have much to learn from Iranians.

Bubbles Shared: She was perhaps two and tired and cranky. She began to cry. I reached into my bag and pulled out my bubbles and slowly scooted over to her. I blew bubbles and within two minutes she stopped crying and was smiling while she happily popped bubbles. Within 10 minutes she climbed down from her chair and was sitting in my lap while her mother snapped photos with her cell phone. The Power of kindness to connect us one to another.

Iranians are very poetic and deeply value culture and arts as a way of expression and understanding.

Over 1700 individuals worked to make this festival a reality!

Kanoon hosts the Storytelling Festival in a different city in Iran every year, so that every region experiences the Power of Story. This year we were in Kermanshah in western Iran near Iraq. This part of the country has many Kurdish people. In Iran the Kurdish culture is valued and celebrated.

Each day of the Festival Monday to Thursday was a combination of performances all day by Storytellers, Musicians, puppetry, Song sharing Traditional Stories from 20 Storytellers from various regions in Iran as well as the following countries; Armenia, Australia, Brazil, Canada, Colombia, Kenya, Lebanon, Morocco, Philippines, Syria & the USA.

Each of us Storytellers were perfectly matched in personality and Storytelling style with a translator who not only translated our Stories, performing with us on stage, but also translated all of the dignitaries beautifully poetic speeches about the power and value of story to connect us and they translated all the other performers for us too.

Maryam Bahmani was my translator, she had never performed on-stage before or performed as a Storyteller. None of them had told Stories before, all of them rose to the occasion. Maryam performed right by my side, every gesture & expression shared. She became my Iranian sister.

Here’s the link of us performing together: One Man’s Kindness

Each Storyteller also performed at a Kanoon School in another town/village… the reception received was incredibly warm and friendly. Women and girls surrounded me, hugging me, kissing my cheeks asking for photos with me and asking for my autograph. They also performed for us, traditional Kurdish songs and Persian poetry as well as a Kurdish epic poem in song form.

Traditional Meal Under Carpeted Tent: We were treated to a traditional meal under a fabric tent, the floor created out of carpets woven by local Kurdish women using no patterns, they create whatever comes to mind.

We ate a lentil soup, aash reshteh

Fried dough: bezhi; the story is they will place a gold ring inside one of the bezhi and whomever finds it receives good luck for a year! That night they did this ritual and Patti Warnock the storyteller from Canada was the one who found the ring! 😉

They took us all out to dinner one night for… Traditional BBQ, ribs, and I mean it, they are very into their BBQ ribs, as a vegetarian I did not partake, but loved the salads shared! 😉

They took us to see Bisotun, UNESCO, World Heritage site of carvings in the side of the mountains & Taq e bostan. This is one of the reliefs – the gigantic equestrian figure of the Sassanid king Khosrau II (591-628 CE) mounted on his favourite charger, Shabdiz. The love of his horse was legendary! — in Taq-E Bostan, Kermānshāh, Iran.

I was interviewed by Iranian newspapers, radio and TV, all of the interviewers were curious as to what I thought of Iran before I arrived and how I felt being there. I was honest in saying, I knew to expect kindness, everyone I know who has traveled there shared the incredible hospitality received and the kindness extended.

Sadly, here in the US there is such a misperception of Iran; all we see are some of the extremists, and there are extremists everywhere. Iranians are Persian and Persian culture is all about hospitality, caring and kindness. It is important to know the history, which many Americans do not know. The current situation in Iran was in some part created by our own government’s decisions in the 1970’s; deposing a decent leader and replacing with a more extreme ruler. So, if you see a woman in a head scarf and you see what you think are extreme views, remember that our own country had a part in creating this. Please read some of the history.

The head scarf; it is a sign of respect to wear it. I believe it is very important that wherever one travels, one honors local culture and customs.

The Closing evening ceremony; they performed a beautiful story about the coming of rain after a drought, a Kurdish traditional dance through puppetry and there was also Kurdish singing and music. There is a deep reverence for story. They are now translating 8000 stories into more modern Farsi from ancient Persian and creating a beautiful book series geared toward children. They unveiled the first 70 books translated to preserve and bring the old traditional stories to today’s audience. Amazing project!

Each dignitary shared again the Power of Story to build bridges between us, the sharing of hearts and smile and the call to action to each one of us to be an unofficial Ambassador and share our experiences in Iran around the world. They deeply seek to create understanding, it was heart and mind expanding.

One last Story: A Soldier’s Story: I spotted him in the auditorium, about halfway back on the right side. He locked eyes on me and gestured with is hands. I wasn’t sure what he meant. And then I watched over the next few minutes as he made his way row by row closer and closer to the stage I admit it I was slightly panic stricken. I quickly reflected back over the week. Had I done anything wrong? Were there any international incidents? I could think of nothing.

He continued moving forward until he was out of his seat, rushing the stage waving his cell phone back and forth. And then I heard him. “America. America I love you. Photo. Photo.” I smiled and nodded my head, “yes, yes, please. Come here.” He gestured back to someone, it was his daughter, he gently guided her in front of him and then pushed her towards me. She looked to be 7 or 8, wide smile. I opened my arms and embraced her. the soldier snapped the photo. Then he gestured for who I assume was his wife to come take a photo with me too. And then he gestured to himself. Yes, yes of course. And I’m thinking, if a soldier can cross this bridge and take a photo with an American Woman Storyteller, who are we to not cross the bridge. And I started to cry…. happy tears, frustration tears. We all need to strip away the labels, the uniforms, the suits and see the human being underneath. See the human and the heart. And just love one another. And be kind to one another.

It is very important to build bridges between peoples and cultures; truly everyone is a human being and whatever differences there are, let us not be afraid, but celebrate and seek to understand the differences.

Here’s to the power of Story to connect us and build bridges between. May we seek to understand. May we seek to listen and learn and love.

And if anyone would like to hear more, I am happy to share more details of my experience at your business, community group, church, library, special event, school, university or wherever you would like to build a bridge between through Story. or call me 215-541-4535

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