Sahand Sahebdivani: ‘The Main Thing That Storytelling Does Is It Makes You Human’

Veteran storyteller Anje Robertson. Picture taken by Bas Uterwijk and available in the Mezrab's facebook page.

Veteran storyteller Anje Robertson in the previous Mezrab. Picture taken by Bas Uterwijk and available in the Mezrab's Facebook page.

This is the second of a two-part interview with Sahand Sahebdivani about cultural exchange, storytelling and identity. In the first part, Sahand explained the history of the Mezrab, a cultural center in Amsterdam that he founded, as well as the tradition behind storytelling and the impressions of the world that the stories we hear can give us.

In this second part, Sahand expands on these ideas as well as what it means to be a cultural hybrid.

Global Voices (GV): It seems that the Mezrab is also all about cultural exchange through stories. How do you think telling stories can bring us closer to groups of people who we believe are different from us?

Sahand Sahebdivani: The main and foremost thing is that it humanizes us. We see the Other through this lens of “cultural character”. When we don’t know Venezuelans and we think of Venezuelans, we think of Chavez, we think of oil, dictatorships. We think of all these cliched images. We don’t see a person with human aspirations. With Iranians it’s the same. They think of the Ayatollah, they think Ahmadinejad, they think of oppressed women. The main thing that storytelling does is it makes you human. Now, funnily enough, now that people talk about this, imagine a person that comes on stage and tells a story. You know, whether is a story from their culture or a personal experiences. And I would that in the Mezrab 70% to 80% of the stories shared are personal stories.

A lot of people think that it is the stories that give a different image of the country. But they don’t realise […] that the story is quite unimportant. What is more important is the fact that that person is standing before you with all his or her nervousness and is telling you the story. So the fact that that person is standing there and tells us about the first time they fell in love or whatever, it doesn’t even matter the story they tell. You can’t even see the stereotypical Iranian or Venezuelan or Russian or Polish. You see a person who’s struggling with standing in front of an audience and trying to tell this. They’d be struggling with the language […] This makes them so human, which is more important than whatever story they’re tell. You can forget the story… But the experience of seeing that person as an individual will stay with you. And I think this is the most important part of the work.

"Ryan Millar warming up the crowd for the storytellers." Picture taken by Bas Uterwijk in  2013 and available on the Mezrab's Facebook page.

“Ryan Millar warming up the crowd for the storytellers.” Picture taken by Bas Uterwijk in 2013 and available on the Mezrab's Facebook page.

It’s not so wide that you have a perception that goes on/off in an easy way. Probably the people who have never experienced, let’s say foreign cultures. The first time that they come to the Mezrab, or the first time that they hear these stories. Maybe they have these perception changes.

For people who hear these stories regularly, it feels like it’s more of a process that explores the nuances of the human experience.

GV: If, as you said, it's the very act of telling a story and not the story itself that makes people human, how do you think new technologies are influencing or affecting traditional storytelling? 

Sahand: I don’t think new technologies are affecting storytelling at all. Technologies are constantly re-inventing the way we tell stories. From the moment we went from regular stories to the novel, to theatre to film. And now we have the Internet, we have stories that are enhanced by apps online, we see things on 3D, we can look up things in our iPhones, people who mix some kind of weird mix, like characters from a series can have a Twitter feed that is twittering to you, and it’s a fictional character, but you feel the friendship with them. So, there are all these things happening with the technology. Which can influence the way we experience traditional storytelling. But funnily enough, while this exists, people are going back to storytelling and they’re going back to … away from these developments. It’s a parallel thing. Technologies do develop these new ways of telling stories — I love it and I do that as well — but at the same time people haven’t lost the need to just get together and be in a room where they can just sit and enjoy.

What I also see is that people want to hear personal stories. But that’s a cultural change rather than a technological change. People really, really enjoy personal stories. It takes them more effort to get the mythical stories, let’s say… That is a change I have experienced.

GV: But what about the discovery of others through online stories?

Sahand: This is what we’re doing all the time. We are all day, everyday connecting with stories. To talk about storytelling and technology is to say that there’s also a thing in technology that is not storytelling. It’s all storytelling. All has been storytelling, every computer game, for instance, tells a story, even if it’s this stupid Mario running around, it’s still a story… The scope is so big […] We’re constantly surrounded by people’s stories. We’re constantly bombarded by people’s stories.

"Contrary to what some might think, it's really the audience at the Mezrab that makes the night. These are the kindest folk you'll meet in Amsterdam." Picture taken by Bas Uterwijk in 2013 and available on the Mezrab's Facebook page.

“Contrary to what some might think, it's really the audience at the Mezrab that makes the night. These are the kindest folk you'll meet in Amsterdam.” Picture taken by Bas Uterwijk in 2013 and available on the Mezrab's Facebook page.

GV: You seem to be a figure that embodies the possibility of harmony between seemingly different cultures (Dutch and Iranian). Could you share with us your experience as a cultural hybrid and how that colours your view of the world?

Sahand: First of all I would say that in a certain way of looking, I am a cultural hybrid, maybe successfully so in the sense that I don’t see that there’s a conflict between my cultural identities. But I also have to say that we’re all cultural hybrids. I cannot think of a single person who’s not in a sense a cultural hybrid. Even when you look at Europe, and Europe on the world map is such a tiny place. The amount of ethnic mixing that has been happening in Europe, and the amount of times that the borders have moved… The amount of religion that has mixed here… Even if the person still lives in the same place that they great grandfather moved to, he or she is a cultural hybrid.

Take the movement from town to cities. I live in Amsterdam, for example. And in my eyes, many Dutch citizens moving from small towns to the capital are immigrants in my eyes. Somebody moving from a small to a big town can be much more of an immigrant than, say, my family, which has lived in a big cosmopolitan city for generations.

Just to be aware that your personal identity can have so many facets. That all the time you’re switching between one and another. When you see this you realise that national identities are not such a big issue. It’s not such a big thing, especially if you live in a world where the Iranian intellectual and the Dutch intellectual would read Kundera or García Marquez; so for me is not such a big thing to read these books whether I am in Tehran or Amsterdam.

GV: But there will always be friction, no? 

Sahand:  Of course, it is an over-simplification to say that there is never a conflict. But it’s not such a big issue. It’s a big issue if we make it an issue. We’re so desperately looking for an identity, and I think this is true whether you’re Dutch, or whether you’re Venezuelan or Iranian, that your construct of your identity becomes more of a prison than what your identity actually is.

And I see this when I see Iranians who are living abroad, going around… “This is how I have to be Iranian.” I know this one guy who would not go to the Mezrab because it’s not “Iranian enough. Because Sahand has made too many compromises towards the West.” What does that mean? That you will only attend to places that are absolutely Iranian? That’s bullshit. There will only be like four places in the Netherlands that you can go to.

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