Culture & Society
Written By: Huda al-Kibsi
Article Date: Aug 4, 2007 - 11:44:51 PM
Carolyn Han teaches students the art of writing stories.
Scores of folk tales originated in Yemen before spreading throughout the world, but now they are in danger of being forgotten, said Carolyn Han, the author of From the Land of Sheba; Yemeni Folk Tales, this week. Han believes that most of the folk stories around the world traveled by camels from Yemen. “Remember, the seed of civilization is from this part of the world. The Waraqat al-Henna (Henna Leaf) story in Yemen is the Cinderella story told in different parts of the world. The essence is the same, but it is told in different ways,” Han said. Yemen is changing quickly.
It is no longer the way it was in the days of old. Rapid change and an altered cultural identity threaten the continuation of Yemeni folk stories, she said. In other places in the world, stories are written down. There is a tradition of writing everything down and saving them. Yemen, however, has an oral tradition. “Stories are told, but they haven’t been written down,” she said. Han came to Yemen to collect Yemeni stories in 2001. In 2004, she came to live in Yemen. In 2005, she published her book, From the Land of Sheba: Yemeni Folk Tales in the US. She is writing another book on her experience living and teaching English in Mareb.
“I hope children read about Yemen and see the beauty I see. It is a very serious task to write these tales,” said Han. Han was teaching young people about story writing as part of a workshop led by British writer Matt Whyman. The Story Writing Workshop was held from July 29 through 31 at the British Council. “Those young people are the ones to save the stories. If they do not write them down, people will still tell them but fewer and fewer people will. Let us make sure that that would not happen. Let us make sure the stories are written down for every one in the world, for all of us because we are connected,” she said.
Han’s hope is that all Yemeni children will write their stories so they will not be forgotten. “We now live with television, the Internet, and a changing society. Yemen is changing all the time. People do not have the time to sit and tell children stories. In another ten years, the folk tales will be forgotten. It is our responsibility to keep the stories and write them down. We shall work together to save Yemeni stories,” she said. “Yemen, right now, has a negative name in the world. The last thing the world read about Yemen was about the tourists killed in Mareb. It is up to you to change that.
It is your responsibility,” she told the children. She wants every child to write. She said she is telling others what she needed to hear as a girl. Han wanted to be a writer ever since she was very young. “Maybe at six years old I wrote stories. I thought they were really beautiful stories. I wrote and wrote and put them in a box because my mother, father, and teacher were too busy to read my stories. But I did not stop writing,” she said. When she was 10 years old, Han stopped writing. “I decided that I was not a writer. Because no one said ‘you can do it.’” Han stopped writing for 30 years. “The girl inside me wanted to write, but she was afraid, because no one would listen.
I did not say anything for thirty years. I did not even speak much. I thought nobody cared; nobody would listen.” Maybe people listened, but Han did not think they were listing. She believed she had nothing to say. “I went from America to China to teach English. I needed to go outside of my culture to be heard. People in China were so willing to listen. They said, ‘tell us more.’ Now I feel like I am heard. I needed not to stay in my culture because people were too busy. Nobody encouraged me.”
Han started writing again in China in 1980. The country was developing very fast. She saw that things were going to change and that stories in China would be forgotten. She wrote three anthologies in which she collected Chinese stories. “Because what happened was that money became time. People had no time to tell the stories because mothers and fathers both worked. The children had televisions. Grandmothers were busy. I saw that stories will be lost,” Han said. Whyman has crossed the Middle East and Russia with the British Council hosting critical writing workshops. He said that it is a craft. It takes along time and practice to be a writer, he said.
“We are here to encourage them to really practice their craft to be professional writers. During a workshop like this, we aim at encouraging these children to be confident as writers and to be able to express themselves as clearly as they can. We are always writing, because if you can write clearly and confidently this could help you throughout your life,” he said. Whyman sees that it is a unique opportunity for him to come from the UK to Yemen. “It is not something that may happen so often.
I came from a different country, religion, and experiences, but our job is a good story. We like to tell stories. It is a great way to meet the Middle East and to discuses and share experiences; approve and encourage them to refine their own crafts,” he said. Children were taught the skills and structure to write a story, and then they had the opportunity to write their own piece. At this particular time, Whyman is more interested in the process that they go through to be writers, rather than what they are writing. “I am more interested in are they staring out of the window for five minutes before they start writing. If they are, what are they thinking?” he said.
Han found that folk tales are the same all around the world. She traveled from China through Afghanistan and across the Middle East asking people to tell her stories. “The stories are the same from the north to the south,” she said. She says that we are human, and need to find out who we are. When we tell a story that we heard before, we are reconnecting with the past, she said. “By recollecting stories, we connect with thousands of years ago to find who we are today, and who we will be in the future,” she said.
“The stores are like the thread. They sum us all together.” Sarah Saleh al-Habshi, 10, one of the participants, is on her way to becoming a writer. She likes to write, especially poetry. “I used to write a lot, but I stopped because school took all my time.” When Sarah heard about the workshop, she decided to go back to writing and benefit from this workshop. “I want to be a writer and publisher,” she said. “You have the tools, mind, and heart,” said Han. “What you need to do next is have the ideas, sit down and work on your craft every day.”