In honor of its new exhibition, Roads of Arabia: Archaeology and History of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, the Sackler Gallery recently hosted Eid al Arabia: A Cultural Celebration. The morning began with a symposium on archaeological discoveries in the Arabian Peninsula, followed by a day of activities for families. These included sessions on Arabic calligraphy; storytelling by Surabhi Shah; concerts of traditional Saudi music; and an archaeology program for budding explorers. All told, nearly 3,000 people traveled the roads of Arabia, digging a little deeper into the art, history, and culture of the ancient kingdom.
In honor of Nowruz, Xanthe Gresham returns to the Freer|Sackler on March 4, to tell more exciting tales from the Shahnameh. Bento caught up with the London-based storyteller who has been described as ‘The Aerial Artiste of the Spoken Word.’ Xanthe has worked extensively for the British Museum performing epics from Iran, Iraq, and Ireland, Native American stories, and stories for numerous exhibitions such as The Magic of Persia.
Bento: Tell me about the power of storytelling.
Xanthe Gresham: Storytelling is pure enchantment. It actually is magic and you perhaps only realize how magical it is when you need it. I could go on forever about the power of this enchantment but I’ll tell you two stories. Firstly, I was working as a primary school teacher in a difficult inner city school in London and I was working my socks off. I would get up in the early hours, work until at least 9pm and only stop working at 4pm on Sunday. And I failed, and failed, and failed again with the children. I call it the ‘trying to sell a kitchen’ syndrome. If somebody calls you up on the phone to sell a kitchen, even if you want a kitchen, you don’t want to buy it from them. I was trying to ram knowledge down the children’s throats. And then I told them a story. It was for myself. I’d given up. A storyteller, Ben Haggarty, had come into the classroom the day before and he had enchanted me, never mind the children, and I wanted to have a go. It was for myself. I had fallen in love with the art. The children had never listened to me. They hated listening to me but now they rocked back on their heels, relaxed, their jaws went loose and they listened for 20 full minutes.
I was stunned. It wasn’t me. I had failed so many times before. It was the story. The children taught me I was a storyteller. They didn’t want anything else from me—the stories made us both happy. They comforted us, made us laugh, took us away from curriculums and deadlines and made us the best of friends. It was a long, hard lesson, hard enough to last a lifetime and worth every minute.
Second story: Life went pear shaped. I lost everything and there was nowhere to turn but stories. They were all I trusted. I love that story of Azar Nafisi’s on your blog where she quotes her father talking to her as a child about the Shahnameh, “We have no other home but this….this is our home, always, for you and your brother, and your children and your children’s children.” That says it all. It actually makes me think of the painter Marc Chagall who said, “Everything safe on the canvas.” I think the other story on the blog about Firdawsi and the silver and the gold is wonderful. You can’t take treasure with you when you die but stories never leave you. They dissolve like pearls in your bloodstream; they diffuse into your cells and become encoded in the cells of your children. I don’t have children and yet I have thousands, because of the stories.
Bento: When did you realize that you were a natural storyteller?
Xanthe: I’m always realizing it, I hope.
Bento: There are a lot of strong women in the Shahnameh. Is there a story about a strong woman that you can relate to?
Xanthe: I love the story of Queen Humai, I’m going to tell it on Sunday at the first session of storytelling. I also love Tahmina, [who] turns up in Rustam’s bedroom having rescued his beloved horse and states her case like a lawyer:
‘‘My name is Tahmina,’ she says, ‘I come from a line of lions and fairies and I will kiss you if you dare me. I so adore you and with such passion, I don’t want to be like the weak girls in fashion, who sigh and cry and don’t get what they need. I would have your child if you agreed. Rahksh is your match in strength but I in wit!’ She spoke so wisely, Rustam never doubted it—she was black eyed, rose-cheeked, a rare gazelle—he had to admit he was under her spell….’
Bento: What makes a good storyteller?
Xanthe: The story makes the storyteller and vice versa. That’s all there is to it. It’s all about love—wanting to tell and wanting to be told
Bento: Were you told stories from the Shahnameh when you were growing up?
Xanthe: I wasn’t. But I’ve made up for it, especially thanks to places like the Smithsonian and the British Museum where I can listen to the stories along with the audience. And all audiences are different and because of that the stories are always changing and I hear different aspects that sometimes hit me so strongly I almost forget what’s coming next. Working with Arash Moradi, who did hear the stories as a child is great. He will often tell me a new detail, or song in rehearsal. We’ll tell Bijan and Manijer on Sunday in the third session and he told me all about Rustam finding his instrument, the world’s first tanbur in a tree and taking it down, his fingers finding the frets, and playing. And then he played me Rustam’s tune. That was a special moment for me—it shows how the Shahnameh is not just a book, it’s alive, like a tune on the air, like words dancing between the audience and the teller.