Our story is quite a story… Shared Experiences from the “Hakawati” Project

In January 2014, Cultural Heritage without Borders CHwB[1] Sweden received funding from the Swedish Postcode Lottery to establish a collaborative project for the preservation and transmission of Syrian folktales. CHwB has solid experience in working with heritage as an active force for rebuilding societies and reconnecting people in post conflict contexts. Since 1995, various methods and priorities have been established in close collaboration with local communities in the Western Balkans. However, since this was a new context and a different type of heritage, CHwB needed to find partners who could bring in a knowledge of folktales and storytelling. Fabula Storytelling, a company of Swedish professional storytellers, and three other partners from the Hakaya network[2], namely, the Arab Education Forum[3] and Al Balad Theatre[4] based in Jordan, and ARCPA[5] based in Lebanon, accepted to join the project. This is how the Hakawati project, also known as Stories from Syrians, was developed.

Starting from the basic idea of collecting folktales from the Syrian refugees in Jordan and Lebanon, the project has slowly grown into a platform for collaborations and reflections on the importance of stories and storytelling in times of peace as well as in times of war and conflict. The Hakaya network has been working collectively since 2006 (and its members individually since at least two decades before) to reclaim the centrality of stories in learning, art and life. Both partners - the Hakaya network and CHwB- share the common conviction that stories, whether told by family members or by professional storytellers, Hakawatis, are an endangered heritage. Given the environment of violence, terror and displacement in Syria since 2011, we felt the urgent need to focus on the collection and transmission of folktales from the very ordinary people who have been uprooted because of the war. We wanted to gather the stories shared spontaneously by grandmothers and grandfathers with their families, or locally by community poets. In a context where hundreds of thousands of Syrians were forced to leave their homes and their country, it was more important than ever to preserve those stories from being lost when people were displaced and families were shattered, as well as to give a public platform to the voice of a people to whom the world has been oblivious for many years. Choosing to focus on folktales proved to be a softer way to approach people in this difficult situation, and made it possible to ask them to contribute to a project that was initially external to them but somehow became highly relevant to their very existence.



From Refugees to Narrators: Collecting the Stories

The collecting of stories was coordinated by ARCPA and directed by Paul Mattar. Under his supervision, a group of six young Syrian women and men received training on how to collect stories from the people in their own communities. They also learned how to record the stories (in video and audio formats) and how to write résumés catching the essence of the stories to complement the archiving process.

Before initiating the collecting process, we were uncertain about where to find people with good stories and how we could motivate them to contribute to the project. We were also not sure if we could find the right people, if they would be in a mental state conducive enough to share their stories, especially since they could be suffering from the very harsh conditions of their everyday life as refugees. After all, can oral history still be of importance when your personal security is at stake?

The collection phase of the project turned out to be more significant than expected. It seemed that by sharing these fictional tales, the unsuspecting narrators were preserving their sanity through human communication as the reality they lived in was too harsh to describe and the past was too difficult to discuss. Sharing stories also took the narrators back to a moment in their lives before the war, to the places and contexts where the stories used to be told. These were often places where narrators felt safe and comfortable, such as in their houses surrounded by family and friends. Narrators told us about sitting on their grandmother’s lap as children or just remembering how they used to be in their village of origin.

Despite the difficult circumstances many narrators faced in their everyday life, their eagerness to remember and share their stories took us by surprise. It was as if through the Syrian researchers who were interviewing them, they slowly developed the feeling that they were contributing to their collective future, something that was bigger than themselves: they were contributing to the preservation and transmission of their own intangible heritage. The story collecting somehow also gave an opportunity to people within the same community to meet in a different way, to share and listen to each other. The young Syrians who collected the stories experienced their own culture in a new way and had encounters with people in their own communities that they might not have met otherwise. This was particularly true for those who lived in refugee communities, and who got to know new people and established new networks within their vicinity.

Collecting the stories also triggered another immediate process of transmission as some young narrators ran to their grandmothers living in the camps with them to ask for stories. Their motivation to contribute stemmed from the idea of being filmed or by the possibility of making their voices heard in some way. The majority of the narrators were within the age group of 30-50. They heard these stories as children and felt that they were now the legitimate transmitters of local culture, linking the past and the future. Within a couple of months, the collection team gathered 260 stories for the project.[6] The researchers also reported back on their own experience about how telling stories had an almost tangible intrinsic power to unite and heal as well as to educate and teach us where we come from and how we can behave in a context where we may feel lost. Stories are a link that connect us to who we are and what we are made of.

Some contributors in the first phase of the project said that it was easier to contribute with a fictional story than with a real, personal story. However, even the action of telling that fictional story was a part of their own history and transported them to a moment back in time, which made them feel safe and happy as well as proud of the richness of the stories they carry within them without necessarily realizing. Through the project, they became aware of this intangible treasure that they carry with them despite losing so many other material items. No one will ever be able to take away the stories they carry in their hearts and minds. Every time they share one of these stories, they will transmit a part of their own heritage and of their personal history.

The collection process was sometimes also painful, opening wounds in the minds of the narrators and bringing back traumatic memories. They had to be given some time to feel safe enough to disconnect and release the stories. Difficult and personal stories are often buried deep down in the mind. Sometimes, we may need to listen to a fictional story that take us back in time to be able to open doors in our minds that can let other, more difficult stories out. The feeling that what we have to say matters to other people, that someone listens, cares and shares our values empowers us and helps us muster up the courage to share our stories. As a result, we become actively involved in the construction of our own communities in exile.

From Collection to Publishing: Selection and Methodology
The stories that were collected for the project represent many of the various themes and characteristics one usually finds in folktales. There were stories of kings, queens and princes, of djinns, bewitched animals and ogres as well as of ordinary people facing extraordinary situations. There were stories of wisdom and authority, magic, witchcraft, good and evil; stories of local (almost ethnographic) traditions, jokes, riddles and poems. However, what is noteworthy is that most of the stories were new and did not echo other stories heard in the region. The uniqueness of these tales placed an added value on the project not only for Syrians but also for professional storytellers and audiences from the region. No in-depth analysis of the stories has been made to date, but as is the case with many folktales, they all have in common a plot that releases feelings of fear, misery, pain and joy before conveying a moral or teaching a lesson in conclusion.

It is worth noting here that the researchers were not asked to look for “professional storytellers” but for regular people who could recall some stories they heard in their childhood; so, it was no surprise that not all 260 stories were necessarily original or complete. Some stories were simply a “summary” of a story or had some sections missing. However, given the large number of stories collected, we had the opportunity to select only the most complete and interesting stories. The lead researcher initially short-listed 55 stories for publication. This was not an easy task since he had to strike a balance between type of stories, places of origin as well as diversity in the subject matter and characteristics. His primary concern was to choose “good stories”, ones that we found exciting to read and listen to, and that we believed had a good chance of being continuously transmitted by their own force or with the help of the eloquent tongue of professional storytellers and some wild imagination. Another criterion when choosing a “good story” was ensuring that it had many layers and appealed to multiple generations.

The collection process was never meant to just archive the stories or put them away on a shelf but to make sure they remain a “living” testimony of the history of a nation and a land. Therefore, the next step in the project was making these stories available to storytellers regardless of age, gender, nationality or professionalism. To this end, the Arab Education Forum, Al Balad Theatre and Fabula Storytelling organised a one-week residency for professional storytellers from different parts of the Arab world during the seventh Hakaya festival in Jordan to go through the stories with them and get their feedback on which stories would appeal more to them and their audiences. Based on the preferences of those professional storytellers, 34 stories out of the 55 were selected and given to the editor, who is also an experienced Jordanian writer with Syrian roots. She first selected 28 stories out of the 34, and then together with the project coordinator, Serene Huleileh, and two Syrian actors/professional storytellers, May Skaff and Nemer Salamun, who at a later stage recorded the stories in Syrian dialect for broadcasting purposes[7], agreed on 21 out of the 28 stories to publish in the book.

The stories were edited and published in classical and colloquial Arabic as well as in English in the anthology Timeless Tales (Ar. Hakayatna Hakaya [Our story is quite a story]).[8] The purpose of this anthology was not to capture these stories in written form or to establish an archive, but rather to build a platform through which the voice of the Syrian people could continue to be heard of, and their stories could continue to be transmitted; showing that despite the terror and destruction that have been the reality of many, there is also a shared cultural and human memory, and that the ability to enjoy and share stories remains. The anthologies were distributed in conjunction with live storytelling performances to encourage the people who listened to the stories to read and hear more. Through each of these steps, a new layer has been added to the stories whether by the editor or translator, or by professional storytellers, or even by the artistic medium itself.

The decision to include colloquial Arabic in the book was based on the importance of connecting the stories to the places where their narrators came from. The editor of the anthology has made sure that the locations where the original contributors of the stories come from in Syria are clearly stated in the book, as they are part of the heritage transmitted through this project. However, the dialect used in the book as well as in the recordings, which can be found on Soundcloud, is that of the Damascus region, reflecting the dialect of the professional storytellers who recorded the stories.[9] The recordings with the original narrators telling the stories in their own dialects also provide a significant research material for dialectologists in the future.[10]

The anthology has received great acclaim and has been well received in Jordan, Lebanon and Sweden, and has been widely distributed at performances in refugee camps in Jordan and in marginalised communities in Lebanon. It was also distributed in Swedish embassies to Syrians who were applying for visas to go to Sweden. The anthology was later published with a Swedish translation by the CHwB team in 2015.[11]

Transforming Spontaneously Told Stories into Artistic Expression
Although the selected stories have been preserved and transmitted with a book, the essence of a folktale lies within its creative force of transformation by being relayed through a live performance. Hence, storytellers were encouraged to adapt the stories to their own context, adding and removing parts to suit their purposes, and to use their own language/dialect. The important thing here was that the story would engage the storytellers who, in turn, would transmit this engagement to their audience.

The purpose of the abovementioned residency organized in Jordan with Arab storytellers was two-fold: to assist in the selection of stories for the anthology, and to incorporate some of these stories into the repertoire of professional storytellers as an integral part of their own memory and culture. Twelve professional storytellers from Palestine, Jordan, Lebanon, Syria and Sweden tried their hand at these stories in different ways and performed some of them at the festival organized immediately after the residency programme. Through their voice and the anthology, these stories continue to live on in the hearts, minds and traditions of Syrians and host communities in the region and elsewhere in the world to this day.

Further performances were carried out in Jordan by professional storytellers connected to the AEF and Al Balad Theatre, who toured in camps and host communities. In Lebanon, ARCPA organised performances in marginalised communities during the Al-Jana spring festival. These performances have contributed to creating a more positive view on Syrian heritage both in Sweden and in host communities in Jordan and Lebanon. More importantly, they have also contributed to the empowerment of the narrators and of Syrians who came and watched these performances. Distributing the anthology together with the performances have helped the stories to reach audiences beyond the ones who have seen the performance.

In Jordan and Lebanon, the performances served other purposes, as well. For instance, they offered an opportunity of entertainment to Syrian refugees of all ages living in camps to escape from their daily routines. They also gave them the opportunity to connect with their country of origin, and in certain cases, inspired them to continue telling these or other stories themselves. Each story will be different each time it is told, depending on the mood of the storytellers and their interaction with the audience.

In Sweden, the bilingual (Swedish-Arabic) interaction between a Swedish-speaking and an Arabic-speaking professional storyteller was a tangible and immediate example of an interactive tool to work across boundaries of culture and language and across age divides. This observation was particularly obvious in schools where Swedish and Arabic speaking kids attended the performance together. In addition, using two languages consecutively instead of subtitles triggered a great interest and engendered ideas about how it could be used in other contexts.

In a context where the Arabic language is increasingly associated with prejudices of violence and terror, especially following the Syrian crisis, this bilingualism have also had a positive impact on the Swedish audience by giving them the opportunity to listen to Arabic in a very different and lighter context. The performances have showed us that oral transmission is the most direct and effective medium of communication between human beings with immediate and obvious results. The performances in Lebanon, Jordan and Sweden have also showed that such stories carry the power to change attitudes and eliminate prejudices and offer new possibilities for communication in these different contexts.

The combination of using oral history research methodologies and working with professional storytellers have proven to be a great success since the stories live on not only in Jordan, Lebanon and Sweden (the three countries where the book was distributed and activities were organized) but also in Egypt, Tunisia, Morocco and Palestine, among others, where professional storytellers have received the book of stories, heard the stories on Soundcloud, and started to include them in their repertoire. Jaradeh w Asfour has been told hundreds of times in many locations, and every day, we hear of a new storyteller who is telling this story in his/her own way. Furthermore, since the publication, we have received many requests to  translate the stories into French, German and other languages as well as requests from researchers for more stories. The book is available online for download[12] as well as the recordings to make sure that the stories are disseminated as widely as possible.

The main message that the recipients of the book and listeners of the stories have come out with is: Syrian refugees have a rich heritage through which can contribute to their host communities and that should be recognized and appreciated. Given the rise in racism and discrimination against refugees in host communities, both in the Arab world and in Europe, such a message cannot be underestimated. The propaganda that is being spread amongst host communities that Syrian refugees are taking something away from the locals -jobs, resources, and opportunities- can only be countered by disseminating such stories.

Another unique aspect of this project that ensured its wide success is that it is not simply a publication for libraries, bookshops and schools; it is a living project with the contributions of professional storytellers and direct stakeholders. Syrian refugees gave us the stories that they liked/remembered; professional storytellers chose the ones that they felt were relevant today; the writers/editors worked on fine-tuning the texts and turning them into two versions: classical (for anyone and everyone to be able to read) and colloquial (for those who wish to tell it in an accent as close to the original as possible), as well as providing an English version (to make it accessible to the world). The performances accompanying the launch of the book, and various pre and post residencies with professional storytellers, who have been telling these stories, have ensured that these stories are brought to life once more.

Turning towards Personal Stories
At the end of the first phase of the project in November 2015, CHwB organised a workshop in a village in Sweden, which hosted a high number of refugees in a short time, with a small group of refugees and representatives from the local municipality. The performance helped open new doors in people’s minds for sharing their personal stories. There were stories of displacement, of reasons for leaving home, of emotional wounds that would never heal, stories of fear and guilt, of imprisonment, of love outside the boundaries of traditions, of losing someone close, of finally giving in to waiting powerlessly for asylum in a cold and hostile environment.

On the other hand, during the book launch event in Amman, Jordan, one of the audience members expressed his disappointment that the stories were not “personal” stories of Syrian refugees. We explained that the title was very clear: Folk tales told by Syrian refugees, and expressed that it was difficult at the time to ask refugees for their personal stories for various reasons, primarily for fear of reprisal, but also due to the restrictive timeframe of the project. Folktales are “neutral”, or at least are deemed so, and since they are transmitted from one generation to another, they are not considered to be “political”. At least the political interpretations of the stories that we have collected cannot be connected to any of the powers currently contesting sovereignty over Syria.

CHwB did recognize the need to convey such stories, especially in the Swedish context, where right wing parties and the fear of “the other” have been on the rise. However, they were unable to pursue such a project due to lack of funding. Nevertheless, this comment resonated with the Arab Education Forum, and when the opportunity arose through the “Home Arts Homecoming” project led by the Arab Theatre Training Centre in Lebanon and supported by Sida, they secured the necessary funds to continue with a second phase of the project with 2 new books in the “Timeless Tales” series. This time, it was decided to collect both folktales and personal stories. However, this was not such an easy or straightforward task as we had envisioned.

Turning towards personal stories was a way of acknowledging what people have experienced in their lives. Oral history and testimonies from displaced individuals and refugees have been used over the past few decades as a tool to tell an alternative history other than the mainstream chronicles that only tell historic events from the perspective of the winner and only focus on public figures and major events. However, ordinary people’s stories are never inscribed in history, and as such, we cannot say that the mainstream accounts are in fact a reflection of what truly happened at any point in time, no matter how hard they might try to be objective.

The Palestinian question is a case at hand; this is the reason why over the past 40 years, several individuals and organizations have made it a point to collect personal stories and narratives from Palestinians who lived through the Nakbeh in 1948 and the Nakseh in 1967 and everything in between. Having been relegated to an archive that is either written or audio-visual, the stories were only accessible to researchers for the most part. In 2016, the Hakaya network started looking for ways to bring these stories back to life even if their narrators did not wish to tell them in public, or sadly were not alive to do that. Two professional storytellers along with a musician and a singer, tried turning an oral history narrative about the journey of two Palestinian refugees into a storytelling and musical performance. Kheir ya Teir was first performed during the Hakaya Festival in 2017 and the production later toured in Palestine and Bahrain. In this production, which was based on a book published by researcher Dr. Faiha Abdulhadi, the artists experimented with different ways to see how such a story could be narrated to the public without infringing on a person’s right to have his/her story told as it is, and without creating an atmosphere of sadness and apathy, which after all does not achieve the objective of such a performance: keeping the story and the cause alive in people’s minds and hearts through the experiences of the average person and understanding what the journey of a refugee means.

Based on this experience, and the question posed in the first phase of the Timeless Tales project, the Arab Education Forum decided to dedicate a book to the personal stories of Syrian refugees. However, it was clear that the scope had to be very wide: Which refugees were going to be interviewed? What kind of stories were we looking for? Did this mean we were taking sides in the conflict? Would we be forced to do that based on our selections and/or interviews? The first batch of stories collected by Al-Jana (11 stories) proved this point in addition to another very pertinent one, namely: did we want to be simplistic and look at the atrocities of war and migration, which is self-evident, or did we want inspiring stories? Following many discussions on the topic, the AEF have decided to focus on Syrian performing artists for two reasons: first, because their refugee trajectory is bound to be unique and full of inspiring stories – both sad and happy; and second, because the overall project within which Timeless Tales books II and III will be published aims to build resilience in Syrian performing arts and artists.

Six researchers were selected in Lebanon by Al Jana to work under the supervision of Paul Mattar, and a researcher[13] was contracted in Paris to work under the supervision of Faiha Abdulhadi, who provided all the researchers with training on oral history research techniques. They collected 30 testimonies from Syrian artists who fled the war sometime during the past 8 years. The most difficult part of the interview process was getting the artists to accept telling their stories and having them actually go through with it (some artists gave the initial approval but later changed their minds). It was clear from the beginning that, unlike traditional oral history projects, the anonymity of the narrators had to be protected not only in the project documents but also in any future publications.

It was evident from the 30 interviews (11 in France and 19 in Lebanon) that when someone asks and then also takes the time to listen to someone’s story, it makes the narrator feel that what s/he has to say matters to other people. This feeling that someone is interested in their story, be it fictional or factual, starts a process of empowerment for the narrator. The feeling of “I’m able to make a difference” and “what I have to say matters” also has the potential to promote social cohesion and peace building in the long run.

Stories: An Intangible Heritage
The transmission of stories, both fictional and factual, belongs within the framework of intangible heritage. When shared in a difficult context, such as the Syrian one, this intangible heritage becomes an even more important tool for reconnecting societies and people. Through this project, professional storytellers and their audiences have brought their cultural identities back to life in new and difficult circumstances, such as refugee camps. In fact, hearing and sharing the stories that they know from home has made refugees aware of their own history and identity. It has made them realise that although the circumstances are new, their identity has not been changed, and that it could be revived and confirmed through oral transmission and storytelling (fictional or factual). In some of the host communities where the stories were told and performed, it was noticeable that people developed a more positive attitude towards Syrians. It is also important to mention within this context that Syrian refugees carry memories and traditions that in some cases have disappeared or are no longer in use in neighbouring countries. This does not only refer to stories but also to crafts and agricultural practices for instance. Such knowledge can be an important asset for people in host communities.

If attitudes change, then maybe laws and practices can change, as well, to improve the living conditions of Syrian refugees. People remain central in the transmission and safeguarding of intangible cultural heritage; and only through the empowerment of people, who are the transmitters of this heritage, will it be able to survive. Within this context, it could be enlightening to refer to a report on intangible heritage written in 2017: ‘The current situation in Syria is going to bring on a socially and ethnically inclusive redefinition of Syrian cultural heritage including marginal or grassroots initiatives for its preservation’ (Châtelard, 2017).  However, it is highly probable that in the current situation, such a redefinition might have to take place in exile.

The Question of Sustainability: Institutional and Individual Sustainability
Even though intangible heritage is the product of individuals interacting with other individuals and groups, “supporting organizations” also play a crucial role in ensuring the protection, preservation, and continued life cycle of this heritage. However, important as this role might be, donors and supporting organisations have the power to influence the direction of activities, and grassroots organisations might sometimes be forced to adapt their projects and activities to fit with the strategies of donors. For example, it is not unusual for donors to set unrealistic time frames for projects about preserving intangible heritage in situations of conflict; however, the unreliable contexts of conflicts often mean that there will be delays and surprises along the way.

Over the past few years, donors and International NGOs have shown an increased interest in storytelling and intangible cultural heritage in general, which has led to more funding opportunities for organisations working with storytelling.[14] This is a good step forward since stories do have a healing impact on both individuals and communities if collected and used responsibly within the framework of a well-designed methodology. However, this requires a degree of responsibility that some organisations may not have the necessary skills for, and it also implies a very clear idea of why these stories are collected in the first place.

Organisations need to ensure that the people in charge of collecting stories are well prepared and have a clear understanding of the context, their responsibility and duty of care in relation to the narrators. They need to learn how to create a safe space for narrators and manage their reactions (as well as their own) to avoid doing more damage than good. This is particularly true when collecting personal stories as they are often more difficult to share than a folktale. We also cannot know how a person sharing a story will react to the feelings that story may evoke.

Narrators and organisations working in grassroots contexts have criticised the lack of “Duty of Care”. As international actors are often in a hurry when on field mission, they sometimes collect stories in a hurry, frequently leaving narrators without any support to deal with the wounds that have been opened after sharing their difficult stories. What is more, there is usually no one there to collect the stories that often come in a second layer, after the first stories have been told. In such cases, the collection does more harm than good, and other actors around the narrators often deal with the healing process. Such missions also miss out on stories that lie deeper within the narrators’ minds; stories that may in fact be crucial to the positive process on both individual level and community level.

Another issue to address is what to do with the stories once they have been collected. Should archives be open and accessible and to whom? How do we protect the narrators? Different organisations have different aims in collecting stories or testimonies related to certain themes and topics. This is problematic because what happens to stories that are not compatible with those themes or topics is unclear. In this regard, it would be a positive action for instance, if organisations working on stories from Syrian refugees worked together to improve the processes mentioned above.

The often insecure models of funding for heritage projects affect the quality of stories, as well. For instance, in the case of the Hakawati project, there were people and stories that could not be included only because there was not enough time to perform a thorough research and/or a follow-up phase. Time is also an issue within the complex contexts of conflict as both people and infrastructure are damaged and cannot be expected to always deliver on time. For instance, we know that folktales can be used as allegories of resistance. Yet, no analysis on this has been made so far in this project. It could be an interesting area to investigate in the future. Do we have any such folktales in our collection? Can we look for them? They can also be important for creating safe spaces to heal, and to deal with difficult pasts.

Unsustainable funding particularly affects the quality of archives as it usually does not give collectors enough time to find sustainable and suitable solutions to classify and archive the collected material. In addition, archiving is often the weakest skill for the organisations that collect stories; so, it would be useful to find a sustainable and accessible solution for the future. The works to preserve and transfer knowledge about intangible heritage require more long-term, sustainable support to be able to develop and thrive. So long as we focus on whether our visions and missions fit into the new trends, policies and strategies of funding, it will very difficult to plan or find something that goes beyond being just a project. Each time we have a new project, we build more competence; we must rethink the formulation of projects that often remain the same in their essence. Sustainability depends more on the writing skills of proposal writers, and less on the contents of projects.

In today’s Syrian context, the shrinking space for civil society, the dichotomy between government areas and opposition areas, and the donor policies in this regard constitute a complication for future strategies. Since organizations working on intangible cultural heritage are often too small to be able to apply for funding on their own, they almost always need to be integrated under a bigger umbrella or network. There are such networks in the MENA region, such as Tamasi to which some partners in the Hakaya network also belong.[15]  However, opportunities are quite rare as there are only few donors that consider intangible cultural heritage to be worth funding.

The project covered in this paper has empowered people on several levels; the young researchers have gotten a better understanding of their own communities and have made new types of connections with people. They have also acquired a skill that they can use in the future; they have made a difference by collecting these stories, enabling them to be transmitted and thereby survive. By telling stories, the narrators felt that their stories made a difference, and they have contributed to the preservation and transmission of the Syrian heritage. The anthology, along with the professional storytellers who took part in this project, has transmitted some of the stories back to Syrian refugees and their host communities. The professional storytellers took active part in the process of preserving Syrian oral traditions beyond their performances, and regardless of their own origin, they committed themselves as human beings to the transmission of these stories for the future.

One remaining issue from the project is the archive consisting of the stories that were not published. They are available via CHwB, the Arab Education Forum, and ARCPA/al-JANA. Not all stories were suitable for publication, but all of them should be made accessible for transmission and future use. More work can be done in the future on how to use that archive, as well as other stories that will be collected from Syrians and others. Another important task is to transfer the knowledge about this heritage both via educational materials within research institutions, and -more importantly- via live transmission of both folktales and factual stories.

‘Through preservation of oral traditions, we aim at preserving our humanity.’


Châtelard, G. (2017, November). Survey Report, Intangible Cultural Heritage of Displaced, UNESCO: Intangible Cultural Heritage Section.

Hakaya (n.d.). Timeless Tales, Soundcloud. Retrieved from https://soundcloud.com/hakaya-2

Magnusson, A., Boqvist, M.  Kayed, H., Mattar, P., Huleileh S. & Mais Irqsusi  M. (2015, January). Timeless Tales. Stockholm: Cultural Heritage without Borders Sweden Kulturarv utan Gränser. Retrieved from http://chwb.org/wp-content/uploads/2015/02/CHwB_SyriskAntologi_eng_low.pdf

Timeless Tales/Hakayatna Hakaya (2014). Stories of Syrian Refugees.

UNESCO Convention Kit of ICH, https://ich.unesco.org/en/kit

[1] Cultural Heritage without Borders is an independent non-governmental organization dedicated to rescuing and preserving cultural heritage affected by conflict, neglect or human and natural disaster.

[2] See www.hakaya.org

[3] See www.almoultaqa.com

[4] See www.al-balad.org

[5] See www.al-jana.org

[6] 260 stories were collected by six young Syrians from 72 narrators (40 men and 32 women). Some narrators were reluctant to put their identity or their origin on record, but we know from our researchers that the majority of the narrators came from Damascus and its countryside as well as from Suweida, south of Damascus. The remaining stories are from Idleb in northern Syria, from Homs and Quseir in Mid-Syria, and from the Golan in Southwestern Syria. The age range of the narrators was between 9 and 83 years old. 14 of them were 9-19 years old, 7 of them between 20-30 years old, 17 between 30-50, 14 between 50-70, 6 were older than 70, and 14 people did not want to divulge their age.

[7] https://soundcloud.com/hakaya-2. The recordings were funded by Fabula Storytelling within the framework of their SI-project ”Living Stories II”.

[8] The stories were edited in classical and colloquial Arabic by Zuleikha Abu Risha and proofread by Nemer Salamun. They were translated into English by Serene Huleileh and edited by Irish storyteller Jack Lynch and reviewed in collaboration with CHwB Sweden.

[9] Nemer Salamun and May Skaff.

[10] The original recordings can be found through ARCPA/Al-JANA in Lebanon. For further information, please write to: [email protected].

[11] Project funded by Jacob Wallenbergs Stiftelse, särskilda fonden.

[12] See http://chwb.org/wp-content/uploads/2015/02/CHwB_SyriskAntologi_eng_low.pdf

[13] Hadeel Karkar, Palestinian PhD student living in Paris.

[14] Syria Untold (https://syriauntold.com/category/testimonies/), Qisetna (https://www.qisetna.com), Syrian Oral History Project (https://www.sitesofconscience.org/en/what-we-do/connecting/special-projects/syrian-oral-history-project/), Syrian Oral History Archive, Syrian Women Oral History Archive, Özlem Eser on Syrian women refugees.

[15] See https://tamasicollective.org/en/.