Long before books began to spread, the art of storytelling was very common. The storyteller was received in cafes and popular neighborhoods, and featured at celebrations and weddings. The art of storytelling expanded and took on many forms, often combined with poetry and singing.
Mohamed Hussein Hilal, a professor of literature experienced with popular storytelling, describes some of what makes storytelling a unique art – tightly linked with its audience; the storyteller must become a friend, father, or son of the audience in order to be allowed to tell his stories. According to Hilal, the original storytelling comes from myths believed by the people and turned into parables.
The book fair included an unconventional programme of professional storytellers working in many forms. Sheikh Amin El-Deeb was the first such performer. In a language that mixes poetry with slang, he told his stories with two focus points: the Arab identity and the challenges of poverty. He started using threads of a poor young woman's life, describing her dowry, made of extremely simple essentials for cooking and cleaning, and a bare house. The story moves onto the daughter, Bat’a, who takes a different route in life, living away from the family, learning languages and dressing differently. The mother receives a suitor for her daughter but makes enormous demands, including a huge house, loaded with furniture and appliances, the modern day stuff and even a mobile phone. The suitor explains that he does not have the means for such demands, and instead offers his simple life, so the mother rejects him, giving him a hard time and comparing him with Haj Metwally (the famous character from a television series who married four women), saying even he would be a better suitor, with his money. The story always ends with a moral, whether it is the need for justice or the call for modesty.
The professor of literature Sahar El-Mougy – experienced through the project of Women and Memory (telling personal testimonies from Egypt's recent history) since 1998 – then took her turn. Her team, the I'm The Story group, which splintered out of Women and Memory, started by looking at the texts written by Mahfouz, Taha Hussein and others, telling parts of it from the perspective of one of its characters. The story is a re-writing of characters who weren't so significant in the books but now take on a life of their own and tell different stories. From Palace Walk, by Naguib Mahfouz, El-Mougy captures the figure of the maid in the big house, Om Hanafy, who rises early in the morning. Om Hanafy then starts her story, wishing Mahfouz had given her a big role in his novel, and was angry he never even mentions her name in the first chapters; so she came to him in dreams asking him to give her a larger role, and he added more details about her in later chapters. Om Hanafy pleads with Mahfouz for an even bigger role, nagging him to add pieces here and there, yet she was still dissatisfied. She decided to leave the novel and live her own life; she was the only liberated character who didn't have to stick with the demands of the head of the house, and was thus able to go out and visit friends and other characters, and also joined the demonstrations with Saad Zaghloul. Om Hanafy wasn't happy with Mahfouz giving such small role to some of these characters like Om Yassin, but she had to go back to the novel, and that was El-Mougy's finale.
Another form of storytelling is the mawwal, which is a story told in song, the progress of which depends on puns at the end of each line, used weddings and other entertainment. Mohmed el Shahat from Qalyoubiya started his mawwal with very diverse topics, extracting lessons from everyday life and current affairs. El Shahat performed a mawwal on Egypt and the revolution, stressing unity and refusing corruption and injustice.
The highlight of the event was by far the only lady in the crowd, Hajja Rawda Shiha from Sharqiya. A unique figure with a lot of experience in popular storytelling, she herself became a teacher for people who want to learn, both men and women. Standing in the middle of a crowd of men, she was a teacher giving the lessons and wisdom at a time when knowledge was passed orally, capturing an image of a time when the Egyptian woman was playing a role in arts. She first sang at al Hussein during the moulid or saint’s anniversary, together with other women, and later joined a bigger band that toured all of Egypt. She started singing one mawwal, in a strong voice, beginning with praise for the Prophet Muhammad. Responding to a demand by the crowd, she started another mawwal, this time reminiscing about old times and how good the past was, travelling with the song from one part of the country to another, remembering loved ones and recalling at every place the saints of the local place, promising to walk back to then if her wish is granted.
The event, though seemingly irrelevant to books, speaks equally of literature, but this is literature in its more popular ancient forms traditionally passed from one generation to the next. The art of storytelling is now being rediscovered by various organisations trying hard to sustain it.