Tell me a story | Aeon

The storyteller Abderrahim El Makkouri holds a photo of himself performing in the 1970s. Photo courtesy of the author


Tell me a story

Even in our digital age, live storytelling has a spellbinding effect more potent than any DVD box set

by Richard Hamilton + BIO

The storyteller Abderrahim El Makkouri holds a photo of himself performing in the 1970s. Photo courtesy of the author

My first job was as a lawyer. I was not a very happy or inspired lawyer. One night I was driving home listening to a radio report, and there is something very intimate about radio: a voice comes out of a machine and into the listener’s ear. With rain pounding the windscreen and only the dashboard lights and the stereo for company, I thought to myself, ‘This is what I want to do.’ So I became a radio journalist.

As broadcasters, we are told to imagine speaking to just one person. My tutor at journalism college told me that there is nothing as captivating as the human voice saying something of interest (he added that radio is better than TV because it has the best pictures). We remember where we were when we heard a particular story. Even now when I drive in my car, the memory of a scene from a radio play can be ignited by a bend in a country road or a set of traffic lights in the city.

But potent as radio seems, can a recording device ever fully replicate the experience of listening to a live storyteller? The folklorist Joseph Bruchac thinks not. ‘The presence of teller and audience, and the immediacy of the moment, are not fully captured by any form of technology,’ he wrote in a comment piece for The Guardian in 2010. ‘Unlike the insect frozen in amber, a told story is alive… The story breathes with the teller’s breath.’ And as devoted as I am to radio, my recent research into oral storytelling makes me think that Bruchac may be right.

A couple of years ago, I wrote a book about the storytellers of Morocco, collecting more than 30 tales in the process. When I read some of them aloud to one of my friend’s children, these stories came alive in a way that I had not expected. The gurgles and shrieks of delight from the bunk beds encouraged me to put more into the performance. It was like the relationship between an actor and his audience, each emboldening the other in a virtuous circle. My own daughter is only four, and for the past few years I have read to her almost every night. Beneath the duvet, a wide-eyed face hangs on every word, correcting me if I have the audacity, incompetence or sheer laziness to miss anything.

Why do we love stories? And why do we love hearing them spoken aloud, in person? Psychologists and literary scholars have devoted a good deal of thought to the first question. Perhaps, they suggest, fiction helped mankind to evolve social mores. In a 2008 study by the psychologist Markus Appel, professor at the University of Koblenz-Landau in Germany, people who watched drama and comedy on TV as opposed to news had substantially stronger beliefs in a just world. Stories do this ‘by constantly marinating our brains in poetic justice’, according to Jonathan Gottschall, author of The Storytelling Animal (2012). On the other hand, perhaps storytelling is a sort of flight simulator that allows us to practise something without getting hurt. Keith Oatley, professor of psychology at the University of Toronto, believes that stories are an ancient virtual reality technology: we get to imagine what it would be like to confront a dangerous man or seduce someone else’s spouse without suffering the consequences.

Whatever the evolutionary explanation, narrative seems to occupy a very central position in our thought patterns. In an extraordinary experiment in 1944, two psychologists, Fritz Heider and Marianne Simmel, made a film in which lines, triangles and a circle moved around on the screen. Out of 114 people who saw the film, only three reported seeing just random objects; the others all made a story out of it, and attributed personality traits to the shapes, such as ‘shy’, ‘spoiled’ or ‘crafty’. Our brains seem wired to try to seek out a narrative. It is how we make sense of the world.

In a 2001 study by Robin Mello at the University of Wisconsin, children were asked for their responses to stories they heard in class. To her surprise, Mello found that the children focused less on the story’s content and more on how it was told. They enjoyed the way the teller made up funny voices for the different characters, and said reading the stories silently from books was boring. Stories may be how we make sense of the world, but the heart of the story is the human voice.

In the House of Commons in London this summer, an actress read Agatha Christie’s story ‘The Kidnapped Prime Minister’. Around 50 people listened, rapt. This unusual event was the culmination of a process that started last year when the journalist and writer Elizabeth Day began to read aloud to a few friends at an art gallery in Mayfair. She was overwhelmed by the appetite for what she calls ‘adult Jackanory‘ (after the BBC’s long-running storytelling show), an interest that was strong enough to launch spin-off events in New York. Those who attend her ‘Pin Drop’ storytelling sessions talk of a strange feeling of other-worldliness and calmness that lingers with them long after they leave. One man said it made him feel like a ‘defenceless child again’.

Day herself described the appeal as ‘halfway between thinking and meditation’. She believes that reading aloud is more intimate than theatre because all the scenery and props have been stripped away, leaving only the listeners’ imaginations: the theatre of the mind. Day thinks the readings have tapped into a long-forgotten tradition that we still feel in our bones. Speaking from my own experience, just one session left me emotionally drained and speechless, as if I had just emerged from a cinema after a particularly powerful film. For days afterwards, I kept thinking about the characters in the story.

‘it’s very powerful and waves of emotion sweep through the audience. It is a collective cathartic experience’

Sally Pomme Clayton is a writer and performer who spearheaded storytelling as performance in the UK in the 1980s. She told me: ‘When I’m performing, I have this sensation that I am trying to bring the audience together, almost to be one ear. When you can bring them into that one place, it’s very powerful and waves of emotion sweep through the audience. It is a collective cathartic experience.’ She agrees with Bruchac that recordings can never catch the essence of that experience. ‘The audience bring their own inner lives to the event,’ she said, ‘and it makes this magic happen. It cannot be captured in any way. It’s nourishing, uplifting, inspiring and hopeful… The audience is living the experience of the characters, suffering with them and having some possibility of hope or transformation at the end of the story.’

This idea of profound identification with a character matches something I heard from Abderrahim El Makkouri, the master storyteller who gave me the first Moroccan tale for my book. For decades, he has performed in the main square in Marrakech, the Jemaa el-Fna, competing with fire-eaters, snake-charmers and monkey-keepers. Abderrahim says that when he is in full flow, his listeners become so immersed in his tale that if he says ‘the hero draws his sword’, the audience ducks to avoid the imaginary weapon. And he might be surprised to learn that science has an explanation for this effect.

In 1992, the neuroscientist Giacomo Rizzolatti and his colleagues at the University of Parma in Italy implanted electrodes into a monkey’s brain to try to find out which neural areas were responsible for commanding a hand, for instance, to grab a nut. They found that a certain region of the monkey’s brain lit up not only when it grabbed a nut, but also when it saw another monkey do so. Many scientists now believe that we have the same so-called ‘mirror neurons’, neural networks that activate when we observe someone else experiencing an emotion. Their hypothesis suggests that when, for example, we watch a film or a play, these neurons fire in our brains. We experience the same emotions as the fictional characters, as if we were experiencing them for real.

But whatever mirror or microscope we hold in front of the brain, there is still no doubt that something very profound happens to us when we listen to a story. ‘A need to tell and hear stories is essential to the species Homo sapiens,’ wrote the American novelist Reynolds Price in the essay ‘A Single Meaning’ (1978). ‘[It is] second in necessity apparently after nourishment and before love and shelter. Millions survive without love or home, almost none in silence.’

There is nothing as captivating as listening to a human voice saying something of interest. It connects us to one another and the past in a peculiarly and perhaps scientifically unfathomable way. For example, the Reader Organisation, based in Liverpool, is another UK group that arranges book readings. Its founder Jane Davis recalled that, during its sessions, a 60-year-old woman who was suffering from a chronic debilitating disease felt an easing of her pain.

By comparison, the consumption of stories via electronic media can leave us feeling peculiarly undernourished, dissatisfied and unfulfilled, as if we had just gulped down fast food. Despite an insatiable desire for more, we rarely feel uplifted, and it’s not often that we think about the characters for days afterwards. Storytelling is the oldest, purest and most direct form of human communication. Modern technology is no substitute for this unique compact between narrator and listener.

A few years ago, Moroccan television broadcast a series of programmes to find the best storyteller in Morocco. Like the UK TV show Pop Idol, contestants performed before a panel of experts who criticised them, à la Simon Cowell, for not putting enough passion into a scene or not delivering a strong enough punchline. The show was a surprise hit, and no one was more amazed than Abderrahim El Makkouri, who nearly won. But the actual winners were not really storytellers. They were a group of troubadours who performed a bawdy slapstick sort of comedy, sometimes with monkeys.

Abderrahim’s love of stories goes back a long way. His mother died when he was a baby, so he was brought up by his grandmother. He sought solace and escape in her stories and then, for decades, Moroccans sought the same from him. When he started performing in the 1970s, there were 18 storytellers or hlaykia in the Jemaa el-Fna. Now he is the only one. He told me that he is trying to teach his son Zoheir to be a hlayki too. But since the documentary Al-Halqa (2010) was made about the two of them, Zoheir has suffered some sort of mental breakdown. His father thinks he might have got carried away with being a film star and could not cope when it all came to an end. It seems like a metaphor for the storyteller in general. The hlayki is exposed to modernity and it is killing him.

Perhaps stories help us defeat our own inner demons. In the end, what could be more important than that?

Abderrahim has seen other storytellers come and go. One of his former colleagues has become a beggar, and another is shining shoes. Abderrahim went to see the local mayor but the man threw him out of his office. When I asked the master storyteller what might happen to his trade, he replied: ‘Only God knows.’ Folklorists say that all stories can be reduced to a hero overcoming a monster, although it might not always be a literal one. Perhaps stories help us defeat our own inner demons. In the end, what could be more important than that? Will Zoheir overcome his demons, take over from his father, and save the storytellers from oblivion? Only God knows.

Here’s the first story that Abderrahim told me, called ‘The King and his Prime Minister’. A king accidentally slices off part of his finger. His easy-going prime minister remarks: ‘It’s good’. In a fit of temper, the king puts the minister in prison. Later, the king goes on a voyage and gets kidnapped. He is about to be sacrificed when the high priest notices that his finger is disfigured, which makes him unsuitable for sacrifice. The king is thus spared and goes free.

When the king comes home and releases the prime minister, he turns to ask:

‘How was your time in jail?’

‘It’s good,’ the prime minister replies.

‘How can prison be good?’ the king asks, amazed.

‘Well,’ the prime minister replies, ‘if you had taken me on your voyage, you would have escaped but I would have been sacrificed.’

Every time I read this story it takes on a different meaning, like a gemstone held up to the light from different angles. At first I simply thought it was funny. Then I decided its message was that things will work out for the best, even if it does not always seem so. But my translator told me that the story is really about sacrifice and refers to the tale of Abraham and Isaac. A Jewish friend said she had heard the same story from her Rabbi and someone else said they had come across it in Buddhist thought. The prime minister also belongs to a long line of comic characters, or ‘wise fools’. In Afghanistan he is called Nasruddin. I recently came across this quote from the 13th-century Sufi poet Jalaluddin Rumi, which seems to sum it all up: ‘From the point of view of man, a thing may appear to be good or evil. But from the point of view of God, everything is good.’

Perhaps it is in this accepting spirit that many people, even as they feel sad about the demise of the Moroccan storytellers, ultimately say ‘So what?’ The world has lost many things, from dodos to snuff boxes, and we cannot lament them all. Why is storytelling so important? When my daughter can read for herself, she might not want me to read to her. The same has happened on a global scale. When societies learn to read they no longer need storytellers to read to them. But then, not that many societies even learn to read and write. Out of an estimated 6,000 languages spoken in the world today, two thirds never had a written form. On average, one of those oral languages dies every two weeks. When a language that has never been written down dies, it is as if it has never been. We have then lost a unique interpretation of the world and our existence. This reminds me of a saying in Marrakech: ‘When a storyteller dies, a library burns.’

Abderrahim rarely performs in the main square any more. I asked him why and he gazed at a point in the distance. ‘Look, there is no room and it is too noisy.’ Nowadays, he said, Moroccans would rather watch DVDs or use the internet than listen to him. Modernity and electronic media in particular is killing the storyteller. ‘When electricity came,’ as they say in Ireland, ‘the fairies flew out the window.’

Bruchac warns that we ignore the power of oral narration at our peril: ‘If we imagine that technology can take the place of the living human presence experienced through oral tradition, then we diminish ourselves and forget the true power of stories.’

But maybe, just maybe, some are fighting back. In France, for example, the original troubadours died out in the 14th century. But there are now around 200 storytelling festivals every year, according to one of the country’s most prominent performers, Abbi Patrix. In Britain, we cannot boast of such a revival, but the success of events such as Pin Drop suggests our hunger for stories is undiminished. The raw power of that extraordinary and immediate presence is always there to be discovered once again.

Rituals and celebrationsStories and literatureLanguage and linguistics

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