Let me tell you a story, says Nemer Salamun. ‘The story of Sausana, a rebellious Syrian lily, whose dreams are caught between reality and imagination.’ Salamun projects his voice with ease like a trained theatre actor, his facial expressions exaggerated, bordering on satire. He pantomimes holding a little girl asleep on his shoulder, dreaming of fairy tales that her father tells her every night. But in her dreams, it’s the beginning of the Syrian revolution and the simple tales morph dramatically.
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Nemer’s hands move constantly and the lines come easily to him as if he is reliving those moments in 2011 when the play first opened in Alexandria with him on stage with his first born, then only a few months old.
He stands tall and confident, occasionally rising up on a chair and drawing the spectator to engage with him.
The 55-year-old director of the International School of Storytelling and Oral Arts at the Sharjah Institute for Heritage is every inch a storyteller, a hakawati, whose life is a tad rebellious, not unlike that of Sausana’s. Flitting between fact and fiction, satire and philosophy, he punctuates his story with dark humour attempting to give meaning to his life.
Playwright, creative provocateur, actor, trainer and writer, Salamun formally trained in performing arts at the Higher Conservatory of Dramatic Art in Damascus, the National Conservatory of Dramatic Arts and the Sorbonne in Paris, before earning a doctorate from the Department of Arabic and Islamic Studies of the Universidad Autonoma de Madrid in Spain.
‘My life as an actor and a writer has taken me from Syria to France, Spain and Lebanon and back to Syria again. I finally fled my country in 2012 at the height of the revolution,’ says Nemer, who calls Sharjah his home now.
The seed of the story
‘The story was born at the moment of creation,’ says Nemer. ‘It is like the seed of life. If stories disappear, the world disappears,’ he says, emphasising the need to preserve the art of storytelling.
So, although trained in performing arts for most of his life, the 55-year-old prefers to call himself a storyteller or narrator first. ‘Theatre is born from storytelling,’ he explains. ‘It’s difficult to trace the origins of the hakawati, but it’s generally believed that the hakawati (storyteller) is a millenary form of oral art that became well known in the Bilad Al-Sham (modern-day areas of Syria, Lebanon, Jordan and Palestine) at the beginning of the 19th century. It prospered in the cafés, especially in Damascus, where Arabian legends and myths were narrated. It continued until the invention of television, after which it became a near-obsolete traditional heritage.’
Old cafés, ancient tales
Growing up in Damascus Nemer experienced the joy of listening to these storytellers in the city’s old cafés. ‘I used to visit the famous Al Nawforaa café in the old city of Damascus where people would sip coffee and listen to a famous hakawati who sat on a high chair telling a story every day. People loved his Arabic tales and fables, the legends and the myths, and tourists would fill the place. It was something deeply ingrained in the culture of the city and it influenced me.’
Nemer does not always don the traditional storyteller’s hat. ‘I just pretend to be one occasionally,’ he says, with a laugh. ‘I have two styles, the traditional one where I tell popular stories, such as that of Aladdin and those from the One Thousand and One Arabian Nights; then there are stories that I have written, which I also tell.’
His recently published a book of short stories, Don’t Be Afraid, Death is by your Side, is a dialogue between death and a hakawati. ‘Death comes to take the soul of the hakawati but the man offers him some stories on the condition that he is let off if Death likes them. At the end, Death confesses to him that his time hasn’t come yet and that he only wanted to give him a fright.’
One of the stories in the book has hints of his characteristic dark humour and is about Death ‘wanting to tell a story. But when Death opens his mouth, there comes out the spirits of our ancestors like breath on a winter morning. It doesn’t allow Death to speak, but provokes us to remember the stories of those that we have lost.’
There is a lot that Nemer has lost and left behind — a ruined house in Damascus, a nephew murdered, a family left behind.
Nemer loved theatre as a child and was encouraged by his family every time he gave a performance. ‘There was this necessity to express myself,’ says he, ‘and my family would applaud me. I guess that’s how my love for dramatics began. Your childhood affects what you want to do later in life and talent should be appreciated.’
In France in the early nineties, while studying theatre, Nemer specialised in mono drama (one-man acting) and was influenced by Franz Kafka. ‘I think it was Kafka’s The Metamorphosis and his A Report to an Academy that had a deep impact on me and influenced my professional path.’ During his time in France he maintained close ties with his family in Syria and visited his country as an independent artist performing plays there.
Breaking the wall
Nemer moved from the mono drama to interactive theatre at the Sorbonne where he worked on the idea of the spectator becoming a creator. ‘I believed in engaging with my audience. My performing philosophy was to break the fourth wall in theatre — that imaginary wall between the actor and the audience. I became the creative provocateur, transforming my audience into creators. I would take people from the audience and put them on stage and we created a little play inside our play.’
But while the creative role of the audience worked for Nemer in France, in Syria, before a more conservative audience, such interactive productions failed. ‘I wanted to do it within a closed culture, but there was that wall and when I tried to break that, I was hugely insulted and criticised for it. Also, the regime in Syria did not give me the freedom to improvise. Everything that was being performed was monitored by the authorities.’
In 1999, Nemer arrived in Spain and it was here that he rediscovered the hakawati while working as the director of the Municipal Theater Workshop of Segovia. ‘The theatre workshop had a section on storytelling — and it once again triggered my love for the art form. I saw it as a way out of the monodrama. I think I suffered with the monodrama because it was not for everyone. I was not able to grow my audience and, in the end, it would turn to be a story with that fourth wall between the actor and the audience. There was no space for imagination. The hakawati gave me that space to involve the audience.’
It was finally in 2005 in Lebanon that Nemer started practicing the hakawati professionally and later in the Gulf in 2006, where he specifically practiced the art for creating stories for children.
As a well-known figure in the world of performing arts, Nemer believes that efforts should be made to keep the tradition of hakawati alive. For him, the lost art of narration is almost like the slice of life he left behind in Syria, one that has disappeared with time and the ravages of war.
Burying the past
In 2012 when Nemer finally left Syria, he took on a new nationality and a new name in Spain — Dario Paz Orontes — which he uses on all official documents even today. ‘Dario Paz is the shroud or the burial sheet of Nemer Salamun. I changed my name when I had the chance to do so, but it is something symbolic. It means I have buried my past. If you don’t have your name, you have nothing. Nemer is still the creator, he is the hakawati, but it is Dario who earns a living.’
Nemer arrived in Sharjah in 2017 and a year later he feels at home in the emirate with his wife Susana Haering Keenan, an Arabic philologist, and their three daughters aged eight, six and two. ‘I came to Sharjah to survive. It’s been difficult in Spain to get work so when I got the opportunity in Sharjah, I accepted it. There is a lot to do here.’
During Ramadan last year, Dubai experienced the magic of Nemer’s storytelling at the special pop-up libraries in City Walk, Al Seef and Boxpark. This year has been busy for Nemer, laying out the plans for the International School of Storytelling. He plans to revive the hakawati step by step. ‘Here the hakawati tradition is dying,’ he says. ‘We don’t have a new generation of storytellers. Our plans include storytelling workshops at schools and universities to discover new talents and train new storytellers. We want to create a centre of psychological therapy through storytelling. This would include education through storytelling with the collaboration of different experts.
‘There are plans to have an international storytelling laboratory that would consist of professional storytellers from all over the globe who can collaborate on different workshops and activities to train other storytellers and to have an international storytelling festival with prizes. Stories are not just for children. They are for everybody and we need to give back to society a new generation of storytellers.’
In September 2019, the International School of Storytelling will be hosting the Al Rawi festival or the festival of narrators where the theme will be One Thousand and One Arabian Nights. ‘There will be debates and conferences around the stories as well,’ says Nemer, who believes that there is a lot to share and learn from traditional storytellers from Palestine, Egypt, Morocco, Lebanon, Syria, Tunisia, Jordan and South America.
For Salamun, who has experienced and seen much around the world, “life is a waiting room” and “while you are born and are waiting to die” there are stories to be told. The Stories of a Rebellion Syrian Lily is just one of them.
As I get up to leave, the story of the little girl still fresh in my mind, Nemer stops me. ‘Esha,’ he says, ‘everything I told you was a lie. If you want the truth never ask a hakawati.’