Recollections of a Storytelling adventure
In 2012 a request circulated through Australia, inviting storytellers to Iran for the 16th International Storytelling Festival: ‘these tell-tale days of storytelling.... will be cherished like the rainbows glittering in the sky.’
I wrote to say I’d be honoured to travel to the land of my hero, legendary queen of storytellers, Scheherazade. Prior to 1935 Iran was known as Persia and in younger days I decked myself in harem outfits and hung saris from the ceiling, fancying myself as this most famous of narrators.
Before I could say 1001 nights, I was jetting off to Tehran to embark on an extraordinary experience that included a visit to Golstan Palace, comprising seventeen palaces and museums. I learnt of the numerous, varied traditions and cultures that had infused modern day Islamic Iran.
The festival was in Tabriz, capital of East Azerbaijan Province, once a major trading market on the Silk Road. A stop off at the old Abbasi Caravanseri (near Jolfa) and I imagined how stories from east and west converged on this very site.
I marveled at the strength and generosity of the women but was overwhelmed at how their educational opportunities were constrained. In September 2012 more than 20 universities introduced new rules banning female students from almost 80 degree courses. Nonetheless the first Iranian to win the Nobel Peace Prize was a woman, Shirin Ebadi, in 2003 for her efforts for women and children’s democracy and human rights.
One thing that’s stayed with me was a visit to a school to tell stories. Young girls nearing puberty were decked out in pastel coloured veils and cloaks, adorned with ribbons and flowers: next stage, the hijab. I reflected on my Catholic education: being adorned in a veil and white dress, a little bride of Christ. It had me pondering on our similarities rather than our differences.
It changed my flippant view on Scheherazade lounging in harems, to ponder on another Nobel Prize winner, young Malala Yousafzai, who fights for the right for women to be educated.
Anne E Stewart