At the end of the 1990s, a group of academics, writers and researchers interested in feminism began a storytelling project. Now, more than ten years later, these women continue to tell their stories with the magic of their soothing voices, exciting tales and the intoxicating music of the oud.
Believing that art is the best way to carry a message, and reviving a very old Egyptian tradition, the founders of Ana El Hekaya (I am the Story) began writing and telling tales with Qalat El Raweya (The Female Storyteller Said), a project initiated with the Women and Memory Forum.
With Qalat El Raweya, the points of departure were the tales of One Thousand and One Nights and Egyptian folklore. They would read the stories and write their own versions from a gender-sensitive perspective.
In early 2009, four of these storytellers formed their own group, Ana El Hekaya to further explore feminism and storytelling. The four are Mona Ibrahim, Professor of Poetry at Cairo University and Editor in Chief of Tiba, Sahar El Mougy, novelist, columnist and Professor of Poetry at Cairo University and Soha Raafat, Professor of Novel at Helwan University as well as Seham Saneya Abdel Salam, an anthropologist, translator and actress. They are also joined by Eman Salaheddin, a musician and composer.
Launching in 2009 with the core group of the four writers, Ana El Hekaya flourished as its members increased, and they performed in several venues. The core group asked about twenty new women to join Ana El Hekaya, all of whom have different professions, some have a background in writing and others don’t. Their first and major project in 2009 was to read major works of Egyptian literature that have influenced our society, and write their own stories from a feminist and personal point of view.
The group first began work on Naguib Mahfouz's Palace Walk, which has become iconic with its characters El Sayed Ahmed Abdel Gawad and his wife Amina. Next, they selected Taha Hussein’s Do'aa El Karawan, which tackles honour killing. Then they read Al Haraam by Yousef Idris and Ana Horra by Ehsan Abdel Qudous. The stories produced in the workshops are witty and creative from a unique perspective; some of them were published in a special feature in Akhbar Al Youm newspaper.
Ana El Hekaya has performed in important cultural venues such as Beit El Seheimy and the Cairo Opera House in celebration of International Woman's Day in 2010. They have also conducted several workshops with young writers of both genders and performed the stories from these workshops in November 2010, which was directed by Caroline Khalil.
Ana El Hekaya held a workshop for young writers and bloggers at the end of 2009. With these young men and women, they read case studies about Egyptian women and stories by feminist writers, after which the young writers wrote their own stories. The second part of the workshop took place in the summer of 2010 with a selection of writers from the first workshop. More reading of cases and writing of stories followed.
These stories were told in a recent storytelling event called 'Fi Intizar El Nour' (Waiting for the Light) at the Oriental Hall at the American University in Cairo to an ecstatic crowd.
As the music from Eman Salaheddin's oud and the other instrumentalists introduced the first storyteller; one by one, the members of Ana El Hekaya took the stage to tell their stories.The original storytellers were joined by younger members and they all told stories of Egyptian women in our current times showing strength and resilience. Humour, sadness and shocking elements are mixed with the lives of the characters in their stories.
Another performance of 'Fi Intizar El Nour' is expected to take place in the near future. This is a performance you wouldn't want to miss: for more information, visit their Facebook page.
As a storytelling group, Ana El Hekaya continue to weaves stories from old fabrics thought to have been past their prime, and bring them back in surprising new colours and shades.
*Photos by Muhammad Taymour courtesy of Ana El Hekaya