The electricity had gone off, but this was a good thing. There was to be no tv tonight: there was something better in store. Everyone, six children and two men, sat cross-legged in a circle, all eyes on Salameh, his face glowing in the light of the single candle, stuck to the bottom of an upturned can. I suspect his face was also glowing because he had an audience, because Salameh is a Bedouin storyteller.
It was a cold autumn night in the Sinai mountains, Egypt. Mohamed took me on the back of his clapped-out motorbike far out of town and into the desert to a tiny Flintstone-esque Bedouin village. The old motorbike had barely stayed together, and I had to hold my feet as there were no footrests – but the motorbike ride was all part of the adventure and the anticipation. We bumped along through the sand and rocks, deep into the thick darkness of the desert, black mountain silhouettes looming on either side of our dusty road, and the Arabian sky so clear and the stars so bright they seemed two dimensional. Just another magic night in the Sinai desert….
The old art of storytelling amongst the once nomadic Bedouin tribes is diminishing as modern life gives way to tv and other distractions. Once upon a time, the storytellers would sit around their camp fires, a pot of tea brewing quietly on the hot coals, and retell old fables in their poetic Arabic tongue. Many of these fables contained advice or wisdom hidden within the story and it was a way of passing knowledge down through the tribe. Mohamed Eid has taken it upon himself as a project to visit the various Bedouin tribes in the Sinai peninsula collecting these old stories from the storytellers in an attempt to preserve his Bedouin heritage. So far, he has a few hundred: it is his own version of 1001 nights.
But the storytellers do no often tell their stories anymore. There just isn’t the occasion. Or they are just not in the mood. So how do you get a storyteller in the mood to tell a story? Mohamed has a couple of cunning tricks. He will start to tell an old story himself and make a few mistakes. This will annoy the storyteller who will correct him, until he realizes it is just easier to tell the story himself and will take over the telling. The other trick is to provide an audience. By bringing along a tourist or two, the storyteller feels humbled by their presence and is then willing to entertain.
Salameh’s face glowed in the candlelight, his voice rose and fell with the story, his eyes stretched and squinted, his hands occasionally gesticulated, but the lines on his face told the story by themselves. The children’s eyes were glued to him as they hung on his every word. As we sat in that dark little room, around the candle, the teapot sitting in the middle on a small gas flame, I was totally enchanted by this old mans tales. Even though I did not understand a word.