February 27, 2020. An opportunity to report a storytelling event shows up at 7. It comes to my knowledge that Wereldhuis is a center in Amsterdam that gives asylum to immigrants in the Netherlands, and organizes activities of different kinds. Wereldhuis therefore becomes a meeting point, where individuals from various parts of the world share their cultures, traditions, and above all, stories. Their tales mirror the relentless desire that humans have to genuinely be heard. And so I was ready to get immersed into this new experience, more than willing to listen to them.
The program of the evening was to hear stories told by refugees from Senegal, Iran, Iraq, and Syria. They all came from countries with a large history of serious political tensions, which remain unsolved. Yet, here they would have the opportunity to share their perspectives, the “how did I get here” that we sometimes see on the news, but which frequently omits their personal experiences. After taking some photos and talking with both organizers and refugees, all members of the audience proceeded to their seats. And there I was, now with a free mind and no expectations. The event took an unexpected turn as we found out that many refugees had canceled due to personal issues. Still, we were not disappointed. To my surprise, the same spectators were the ones who took the lead of the event, and we ended up hearing extraordinary stories from ordinary citizens, all with the same thematic, self-improvement.
The first person to walk onto the stage is a man – Marijn Vissers. To newcomers like me, he explains that he’s a Dutch storyteller, who continues to tell stories with great passion now in his fifties. He then starts talking about his childhood, and how after being a victim of bullying for years, he finally managed to confront his abusers. Marijn leaves the stage, and Ojas comes after him, telling us about his New Year’s resolution to quit smoking for an entire year. Among other jokes, Ojas tells the audience how even in his sleep, his craving for smoking manifests. But against all odds, he manages to control it, and ultimately ends up achieving his own goal of quitting cigarettes. The audience applauds, smiles, then enjoys a small break. While waiting, I chat with Moussa, a refugee from Senegal who seems to understand Spanish, and Federica, an Italian volunteer who offers me some vegetable soup made by the refugees themselves. After some chat, we are asked to take our seats again. The second part begins.
Standing on stage, Andrea talks about her Mexican roots. She inspires the audience with the story of the women in her family, and how they embraced the challenge of fighting for their right to education in a family of many male siblings. The story ends with her grandmother being able to succeed in her goal, becoming the first woman of her family to attend University. Soula finally takes over and closes the night with a comical note, telling a story about her youth in Greece, where being a lesbian is a motive of reproach for her Muslim religion. The audience applauds. I check the time – it’s 9 o’clock. Laughing certainly makes time fly.
The art of telling a story
What advertisements fail to explain about storytelling is that, once you get to genuinely listen, there is no way back. It is the story that speaks for itself, where storytelling becomes a form of communication that conveys an experience which has been lived and now narrated by someone who looks at things with different eyes. Telling and listening to a story is an art where empathy and sustained attention are more than essential. At some point, it becomes inevitable to get immersed in the show. But there is an aspect to it: you can only experience this sensation if you surrender yourself to the words of the other person. And for that, one must stop focusing on oneself, and devote to the story and the person who dominates the stage. You give him the importance that his story deserves for ten minutes. And that is where the challenge lies. Listening to what any other individual has to say, and somehow make it yours.
Storytelling is in fact a paradox. To tell a story, one must deliberately become vulnerable, and that is an act of bravery itself. We all want to play the role of an omniscient narrator, the one who sees and knows everything about stories we do not own. It is tempting to assume that our understanding goes beyond what people themselves are trying to say about their own feelings and experiences. But that is the beauty of storytelling, because to tell stories we also need to listen to them. And let me tell you, it is more than satisfying to get rid of any concern we may have at the moment, and instead become part of an event that entertains, teaches, and alleviates. Because once we do listen, not only we will experience how gratifying it is to enjoy a shared complicity, but we also end up embracing it. And this is something we must learn to value, as this shared knowledge eventually transcends in the long-term one.
Cover: Andrea Valdivia
Note: This is an older article being republished due to technical issues.