Sunday, 22 July 2012

The Lost Art of Storytelling

First things first, Ramadan Mubarak!

Ramadan is a month of many things - fasting, charity, prayer and more. It is a month of forgiveness, change and reflection. It's also a month of stories.

After a long day of fasting and the refreshing and thirst-quenching iftaar meal; Muslims the world over prepare to go to the evening prayers at the mosque. Following the regular Isha prayer, an extra set of congregational prayers follow.

At some mosques, these prayers will - throughout Ramadan - complete a recitation of the whole Quran. Others will choose specific verses on a particular theme to recite. The Quran is full of many things, and stories are abundant. The stories of Prophets, of the pious and villainous, of past nations and forgotten histories.

For an hour, sometimes more, believers lose themselves in remembrance of God through these stories. I feel justified therefore to call Ramadan a month of stories.

Which takes me to the topic of this post.

Now, a lot of the following is based on second hand knowledge. As I understand, many channels in the Middle East produce high-budget TV shows for Ramadan - as it is a prime viewing month. Often these have a religious theme, sometimes based around the Seerah (life of the Prophet) and subsequent companions. If you've ever watched The Message, you'll get a feel for the genre of historic epic these shows fall into. Controversially, the latest high budget show is based on Omar ibn al-Khattab. This is controversial as Omar ibn al-Khattab is one of the closest companions of the Prophet, and Islam being an aniconistic tradition has objections with the pictoral representation of religious leaders. The notion of actors portraying these key figures has also generally fallen into the same taboo. Nonetheless, the new series on Omar ibn al-Khattab has had approval from a number of eminent scholars whose integrity and knowledge is beyond question.

My gripe is not with the validity of representing key figures, but with the debasement of storytelling.

I am disappointed that storytelling has devolved into something that has so much emphasis on the visual. There is absolutely no substitute, in my opinion, of the power of the oral story. It can be told by a single person but its possibilites are many as each listener receives, understands and transforms it with their imagination into something unique and deeply personal.

This isn't to say Hollywood blockbusters with huge budgets that deliver the visual image to the viewer directly are without merit. They're enjoyable, fun, and an art form.

However, the wisdom of not representing the Prophets and their companions visually in my opinion is to allow the individual to form a direct (spiritual) relationship with the individual. As a child, being told stories of the Prophet Muhammad formed my impression of him. It created within a desire to know him more, to know him better. I can never imagine his face, I couldn't begin to. But I know his character, his speech, his behaviour. I know that if I were to meet him one day, he would greet me with both hands and a warm embrace. He would give me his attention fully, a bright smile on his face and an eagerness to talk to me. I know this because this was how every person who had met him described their meeting with the Prophet.

God forbid one day a TV channel decides to cast an actor for the role the Prophet, and my kids grow up imagining the face and mannerisms of a thespian instead of knowing the Prophet through his character.

There is a flip side of course - television series and movies allow the story of Islam and the life of Prophet and other key Muslims to reach a wider audience. Clearly, this is true.

But is there only one way to create a television series or movie? The Message showed that it could be done differently. It wasn't without its faults, but it tried to develop a new storytelling technique.

Great movies with good stories do not need big budgets. The most gripping movie I've ever seen is called The Man From Earth. Pretty much the whole movie is set in a living room with a handful of actors. Yet the story it tells is immense, and it tells the story in such a way that the imagination is allowed to run wild. The story spans aeons and is epic in its breadth. I would in fact recommend you download it online and watch (completely legally, the director of the movie welcomed it being spread online).

During my undergraduate days, while in the Islamic Society on campus, we decided to tell the biography of the Prophet Muhammad as part of Islam Awareness Week. With the guidance of a visionary director and an amazingly talented stage director, the ISoc put on a two hour play based on the Prophethood of Muhammad. And yes of course, not a single actor portrayed the Prophet or a companion of the Prophet, yet the story was still told and told well. It is possible.

With a bit of consideration and thought, and a whole lot of creativity, I truly believe that the stories Muslims hold dear can be told while still respecting the sacredness of the figures we esteem.

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