The cultural differences between the UK and Pakistan have long been a cause of consternation rather than celebration. With immigration scares and Islamophobia on the rise, the potential to learn from each other’s differences and discover similarities is rarely fulfilled. So it is a welcome change to hear about creation rather than destruction. Trading Stories: Scotland and Pakistan is a collaborative project between the two countries organised by Highlight Arts. It brings together two illustrators – Mehreen Fatima and Kate Leiper – and two storytellers – Shazea Quraishi and Ian Stephen – who meld their ideas together to create something new.
For the illustrators, this takes the form of a scroll. Leiper enthusiastically describes how she was inspired by Pakistani truck art during her trip to Lahore. We also learn about Fatima’s natural technique of miniature painting, using a squirrel tail brush and shell palettes. The combination of Fatima’s intricate painting and Leiper’s dreamy watercolours has created an impressive scroll, which tells traditional tales from both Pakistan and Scotland.
This is where the storytellers come into the picture. The main theme of Stephen and Quraishi’s discussion is that folk stories from both cultures often follow the same route: separated lovers, tragic endings and supernatural beings fill tales from both Pakistan and Scotland. Stephen tells a story from Pakistan about a wise woman who outwits a fakir. His Scottish accent mingles with the Pakistani legend, creating a live collaboration as he speaks. He even changes the ending slightly to something that he finds more fitting. As they discuss afterwards, this does not invade the story, but adapts it according to his own mindset. There are many different versions of popular tales such as this one, and modifications can work to keep them alive rather than to damage them.
Stephen gives two possible reasons for why stories from countries separated by land, sea and culture can be so similar. Either the tales have travelled through the sea route, with sailors telling them to other sailors who likewise pass them on, or they are a product of universal human psychology; proof that essentially we are all the same.
This discussion confirms the importance of art as a binding agent between humans, and emphasises the importance of events like the Edinburgh International Book Festival in bringing us together.