Empires Cafe is an unconventional spot for a venue to unveil its festival programme, especially when the venue in question has a very nice cafe in their own building. But there’s a reason why we are gathered in this unfamiliar, but very pleasant Turkish eaterie for the launch of this year’s Storytelling Festival programme, and not just because Director Donald Smith has a nifty story to tell about Nasreddin.
It is, in fact, to celebrate the intercultural flavour of a festival which this year runs under the subtitle Stories Without Borders. Middle Eastern and North African stories are a particular focus in a programme that is “celebrating the things that unite human beings,” as Smith puts it, rather then dividing them.
It’s timely (and Smith admits he didn’t realise how timely when work started on the festival) given the refugee crisis which has swollen into an issue of trans-continental panic and not a little hostility. It means that a storytelling event like Syrian Journeys (29 Oct), which sees a traditional “hakawati” (storyteller) weave old narratives into new ones taken from the blog Qisetna: Talking Syria, take on an added significance. “If we had approached the Syrian government we wouldn’t have got very far,” remarks Smith when asked about how the event has been possible, “but it’s amazing the network of storytelling that takes place.”
There are also tales from Cyprus (Visions of Nicosia on 24 Oct), India (The Bridge on 25 Oct), Morocco (An Evening at Jemaa el-Fnaa Square on 25 Oct) and Jordan (Rabeea and Tareq Al Nasser on 30 Oct), and a particularly fascinating cross-cultural event on the opening night (23 Oct) where Raphael Rodan and Sahand Sahebdivani explore the possibilities of turning enmity into friendship in Iran vs Israel.
That’s not the only dimension to the festival, though. “Place is important, but so is seasonality,” says Smith, introducing another strand. The Festival has teamed up with Samhuinn Fire Festival for their annual celebration of the Celtic New Year around the Old Town. There’s the Guisers Trail for those who find modern day Trick or Treating gets on their wick and prefer their Hallowe’en a little more trad. There is also a revival of the ancient tradition of remembering the dead in A Hearth For Old Stories, in which storyteller Margot Henderson sets a place at the fireside for those who are no longer with us, as part of To Absent Friends, a people’s festival of storytelling and remembrance.
Yet another strand of the Festival involves gardens, and partnerships with the Royal Botanics, Gorgie City Farm and Leith Community Croft. Or for those who prefer their storytelling in a more traditional setting, around the hearth, the Open Hearth events every evening at 8pm offer storytelling and music from home and abroad.