Abu El-Ajab: Preserving the Land of Storytellers

“We won’t be forgotten. We’re the world’s shiver. It’s cold out there and whether you like it or not, we’re coming in.” With the anger, passion, and rightfully brutal honesty so characteristic of his poetry, Palestinian-American poet Remi Kanazi performed these words before a packed house at Ramallah’s Café La Vie. It was an exciting event to be a part of, especially in the context of a country which possesses a rich oral history. I’ve been catapulted into such creative spaces since being here in Palestine; into the vibrant world of its artist community. Besides this most recent poetry night, I’ve been mesmerized by the intricate and strikingly elegant flow of dabke, jammed out with local musicians on percussion, and been blown away by the photography of young Palestinians. Dance, Music, Poetry, Photography… Art. Through these diverse forms of self-expression, Palestinians continue to exemplify their prowess for storytelling; keeping their cultural landscape fertile through traditions of oral narration.

Abu ‘Ajab knows something about this. He is the oldest storyteller of his kind in Palestine. With the help of his Sunduq Al-‘Ajab (the Wonder Box), Abu ‘Ajab has been telling stories to children across Palestine for the last 16 years; recounting traditional Arab folklores about epic heroes such as Antar, Abla, and Abu Zayd Al-Hilali. He adjusts these ancient stories to appeal to kids today, hoping to pass on important life-lessons and the wisdom of their ancestors. “These stories are meant to instill the values and principals of humanity; to make them smile and learn in an entertaining way and engage them in analyzing the world around them.”

Abu ‘Ajab is a legend around these parts. Better known to his family and friends as Mr. Adil Tartir, Abu ‘Ajab is a kind, welcoming man, with a gentle smile that lights up his eyes and colors his cheeks; his face is framed by his wavy, silver, shoulder length hair and a brilliant bicycle mustache. I first met him on my way home one afternoon. “Ahlan, Ahlan, tafadali” (Welcome, welcome, come in), he said to me, guiding me into his magnificent underground fortress of storytelling. I found myself engulfed by large, exaggerated costumes, colorful masks, musical trinkets, and an interesting apparatus that looked like a puppet box, but that I had ultimately never seen before. Beaming, he told me that it was the “Sunduq Al-‘Ajab.” “Look inside!”, he invited. I leaned in and cupped my hands around the sides of my face, staring into illuminated windows. As Abu ‘Ajab turned the handles of his magic sunduq, I watched in awe as colorful, hand-made illustrations passed through, transporting me to another time and place.

Mr. Tartir has built his life’s work around invoking such reactions from audiences such as myself. For over four decades, he has been connecting the past to the present through his work in theater. He was only 18 when he and a group of friends established the theater group “Ballaleen” (Balloons) in 1967. When I asked him if the ’67 war propelled its creation, he said, “Sure, it was one of the factors. But it was also simply because of our individual talent and interest in the performing arts. And, it was also a way for us to express ourselves and share what we wanted with the world about our challenges, concerns, and dreams.”

Years later, the group created a new company in 1975 called “Sunduq Al-‘Ajab.” It was the first theater group of its kind since the 1920s and spurred a new era for theater in Palestine, especially since it was the first time actors worked solely in theater as professionals. Through its performances on a wide array of socio-political ideas, the group transformed the field. “The theater was a way for people to rebel, to resist, to express themselves and the struggle (against the Israeli occupation).” Over time the group’s members eventually moved on, but Mr. Tartir remained, continuing to enhance the field of theater in the country.

It was in 1994, through his own vision, conversations with several elders, and after a number of attempts, that Mr. Tartir – also a skilled carpenter – constructed the actual Sunduq Al-‘Ajab. His move to create this age-old storytelling device and perform especially for children stems not only from his passion for theater, but for his desire to protect the history and traditions that shape his identity as a Palestinian. “The occupation has stolen many things from us,” he told me one evening as we sipped on ginger tea. “(It stole) our food, our history, our culture. We can not let them steal our stories too. We must preserve and protect our stories, because they belong to us, to our people, to our society, who have been around for thousands of years.”

Since its formation, Israel has attempted to trample on these stories through their denial of the existence of the Palestinian people. In the June 15th, 1969 edition of the Sunday Times, Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir is quoted as saying, “There was no such things as Palestinians… It was not as though there was a Palestinians people in Palestine considering itself as Palestinian and we threw them out and took their country away from them. They did not exist.” Israel continues to espouse this belief; that Palestinians had no national identity prior to Israel. Not only does it continue to oppress the Palestinian population through state violence, but its robbery and systematic denial of Palestinians’ cultural landscape defines its socio-political claims to the land.

In 2001, poet Zeinab Habash wrote, “With music, we transform into butterflies/With drawing, we color life/With poetry, we embody fantasy/ With persistence, we entice the impossible.” Whether through poetry, dance, music, or theater; whether through contemporary spoken word pieces, or through theater performances dating back centuries, Palestinian artists continue to share stories which tell the world that they “will not be forgotten,” and remind their own people, “Persist Palestine. Persist.”

“The Unforgotten Land of Storytellers” was originally written for MIFTAH, the Palestinian Initiative for the Promotion of Dialogue & Democracy.

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1 Comment

Filed under culture, human rights

One response to “Abu El-Ajab: Preserving the Land of Storytellers

  1. I love this video, I met Adel Tartir for the first time in 2006 and was amazed by his energy and commitment to his practice. Thank you for making this!

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