By Kathryn Kraft*
I love a good story. Stories can make me laugh or cry, burn in anger or melt in love. I tell stories when I’m trying to make myself understood, and I understand other people so much better when they tell me stories. So I am always on the hunt for a good story, and though it is easy to dwell on horror stories, especially when considering the events in the Middle East during the past few years, I’ve been encouraged by a number of fantastic stories as well.
Research into storytelling in recent years has confirmed that stories have power. Stories have been used in places like post-Apartheid South Africa to help break down racial barriers and begin the long road to reconciliation. Stories have been used by therapists to help people recovering from trauma to better process difficult memories. Stories have been used by big businesses to help get their teams excited about a new project. And an inspiring story can be a powerful fundraising tool.
A few months ago, I did a storytelling training for employees of an educational organisation working in Syria. At the beginning, one of the participants told me why she wanted this training: “We know that what we are doing has a deep spiritual impact, but we don’t know what it is. We are hoping that if we tell more stories, and tell them better, we will be able to capture what we are doing.”
Indeed, I have heard some stories that give me chills when I think of the deep spiritual impact they represent. I met a young man who told me that he and some friends had to quit university because of the war in Syria. After that, they got together and started their own informal wartime project. They knocked on all their neighbours’ doors asking for donations, and once they had gathered a truckload of food and clothing, they crossed enemy lines into a neighbourhood under siege and gave it all to families that were on the brink of starvation. They did this every few weeks. Though this youth was disappointed that he had not completed his education, he had a lot of fun helping people less fortunate.
A young woman living in a refugee camp told me that she had fled Syria a few months previously. Most of her family was with her, she said, except for her oldest brother and his wife. They had stayed behind in their village and refused to leave. I asked her why: isn’t it dangerous? She said that her brother owns the village bakery, and he couldn’t let their neighbours starve. He’d be the last person to leave the village, she said, because whenever he could get his hands on a few kilos of flour he would bake bread and distribute it to anyone still stuck in the village. When there was no flour, he and his wife would collect clothes and blankets and use the bakery as a distribution centre. There was no convincing them that their own safety was more important than their role in caring for their neighbours.
These stories do capture something spiritual. They capture strength of heart, selflessness, commitment and love for others. These were stories told by devout Muslims, but I as a Christian have found that I can learn from their stories about how to behave in a more Christlike way.
Sometimes stories show how our own values change over time. A staff member of an international organisation in Palestine told his supervisors a story last year that broke their hearts: He had encountered a teenage boy in a refugee camp who was being teased by some of the other boys in the camp, and this teenage boy was so angry at his situation that he trained in martial arts and beat up the other boys. This story presented a bleak outlook for peace in Palestine.
But then six months later, the same staff member told a different story: He had met another teenage boy in a similar situation, who also studied martial arts, but this boy chose to focus his new-found discipline and focus on helping younger kids in the camp, playing games with them and teaching them valuable life lessons. We talked about these two boys, their different responses to a difficult situation. We all agreed that we want the youth in Palestine with whom we work to be more like the second boy.
And sometimes stories capture lessons that we, perhaps, all know deep in our hearts but don’t want to admit. One of my favourite stories comes from a little village in northern Africa where hardly a month in the last decade has passed without violent inter-tribal fighting. One Saturday, on market day when all the farmers come in to sell their meagre wares, a motorcycle hit a woman who was carrying her vegetables to market. The woman was killed. By the tribal customs, the woman’s family should take revenge by hunting down and killing the motorcyclist, as well as some of his family members. Alternately, a local council could decide the motorcyclist’s fate, which would most likely include, at minimum, his execution. The family agreed to let the council of respected elders review the case. The council considered the situation: a young woman whose future and whose ability to contribute financially to her family’s needs was lost, an accidental killing by a man who demonstrated remorse, and a community that had seen way too much bloodshed already. They concluded: the man should apologise to the victim’s family and offer to pay them retribution. Everyone accepted the verdict and peace returned to the village.
It was a member of a peace-building team who told me this. I asked her why it was a good story. She said: “Because it shows how powerful an apology can be! When we ask for forgiveness, the conflict can disappear.” With a story and interpretation like this, I sometimes wonder what would happen if we devoted ourselves more to good stories in this troubled region?
Kathryn Kraft serves as Support Faculty for the MENA Cultures module of IMES’s Master of Religion in Middle Eastern and North African Studies program. Dr. Kraft has lived and worked in various Arab countries since 2001. She has a MA in Middle East studies from the American University of Beirut, and a PhD in Sociology from the University of Bristol, England. She has worked in a variety of fields including research, peace and reconciliation, emergency relief and social development. In addition, Dr. Kraft lectures in International Development at the University of East London.