At the port of Amsterdam / There are sailors that sing / The dreams that haunt them / Away from Amsterdam – Jacques Brel
I don’t think about my childhood much, but I remember books with illustrations of curved swords, wild animals, and exotic hats, names like Gilgamesh and Enkidu. I remember my father laying on the floor of our bedroom at night and telling my brother and me stories from One Thousand and One Nights.
Storytelling is a privilege I took for granted as a child — less so now that I am a gadget-saddled millennial. It took a family coming from as far East as One Thousand and One Nights to remind me, and many others in Amsterdam, of its value.
The first times I went to the Mezrab cultural center it was still in the basement, by the Eastern Docklands. I’ve always liked the area, its ethereal architecture contrasting with the coziness – the Dutch would say gezelligheid – that characterizes most of Amsterdam. Meters away from the cold waters of the Ij and a few lazy houseboats, the basement itself had this submarine quality to it, with low ceilings, exposed piping and unpolished interiors. The room where the storytelling took place, though, had an entirely different vibe to it. Carpets, pillows and an inviting smell of soup suggested a living room rather than a performing venue. This feeling was reinforced by the Sahebdivanis, the Iranian family that ran the place. After fleeing Khomeini’s regime, back in the 80s, they settled down in the Netherlands as refugees and wound up spearheading their own little revolution in Amsterdam.
“I became a storyteller because my father is an amazing one,” Sahand tells me. With glasses and a soul patch, the cheerful first-born is the host, unquestioned ambassador and general mastermind of the Mezrab. His smiley, red-headed mother, mustached father and brother discretely take care of the rest, with the help of a growing number of volunteers. When Sahand was ten, Sahebdivani Sr. opened a short-lived cultural center for the Iranian community, which stayed open long enough for his son to see a performance by an Iranian-French storyteller and to fall in love with the craft. He turned these informal evenings of poetry, music and stories, which the tight-knit clan hosted in their Amsterdam West living room, into the first incarnation of the Mezrab, a small café in the quaint Jordaan district. It was really just a way to give storytellers a home.
A “mezrab” is a plectrum used to play a traditional Persian instrument, and, like said instrument, the Sahebdivanis’ creation resonated across the city. It took more than a decade, but since 2004 the center has expanded three times. The current venue is just next-door from the basement I first went to and only slightly bigger, but now it has a proper bar, a kitchen and a sign outside. The mixed program has also exploded into a constellation of different themes: true storytelling, improv, comedy, music. And it has created a movement: a dozen other venues now host their own storytelling formulas across Amsterdam. “You need separate nights,” says Sahand. “There needs to be a very crazy, active scene that reinvents itself every time.”
Amsterdam’s worldliness bears no relation to its size. This onion of a city used to be a trafficked harbor and, until this day, it is often a station rather than a destination. The event-per-square-meter ratio is impressive, but groups tend to be impermeable to each other, running parallel like layers of an onion. Storytelling, however, brings people of different walks of life under the same roof: middle-aged locals, expats, second-generation immigrants, refugees, hipsters. That is, I believe, the ingredient that made the Mezrab so indispensable.
The atmosphere has changed over the years, but some things stay the same. There are the regulars, of course. Among them are Martin, a distinctively sardonic brit always wearing a trench coat; Turkish medical student Esra, one of the few female regulars; the always grinning Kor, a spirited Dutchman with Polish ancestry (which, of course, makes him a German on average).
The most consistent regular is perhaps Marijn Visser, a corpulent 60-year old man with a single, Tin Tin-esque curl on his otherwise shaved head. I meet him at Café Dauphine, by Amstel Station. Marijn has had quite a life: dyslexic and bullied as a child, he later grew up to be a world traveler, a psychiatric hospital worker and an improv actor. Apart from telling stories, he works with difficult youths and marginalized people. It’s no surprise he turned to real stories rather than fictional ones.
“I was first invited to Mezrab’s true storytelling night by its founder, Rod Ben Zeev,” he recalls. “Initially I said no and just went to see, but I’ve been going almost every Friday ever since.” Marijn thinks everybody has a story to tell. He uses them to connect with kids in juvenile prisons, unemployed immigrant women, and refugees. “Not so much to learn why they fled their countries,” he specifies. “But rather what makes them their own person. It’s a healing process.”
Some of the most touching moments I witnessed at Mezrab did in fact involve people dealing with painful personal experiences: a Syrian refugee recounting his random imprisonment and subsequent torture back in Damascus; a storyteller paying a moving tribute to his younger brother, who prematurely passed away just days earlier. Marijn even recalls seeing a former soldier open up about killing innocent people in Iraq. “At the end we all loved him. It made him human.”
Luckily, not all true stories are tragic, some are just embarrassing. Michael Jaeger, an epicly-bearded German with a deadpan delivery and a few years of storytelling under his belt, combined a background in psychology with an eagerness to express himself publicly. He launched Soulstrip, a confession-themed storytelling night that took place in a temporary gallery space deep in the bowels of the Red Light District and has now resurrected in a pop-up bar in the same neighborhood.
Guests talked about being sex workers, having feuds with gangsters in the Red Light District of the 80s, the thrills of first time same-sex, romantic escapades with a cam girl and more. It was pretty intense, although Michael’s favorite example is of a now-legendary Italian guy who once took Mezrab by surprise with a personal love story, nervously narrated in broken English. It included a serenade and an infidelity confession, but what really won everybody over was the guy’s determination to tell it, despite his obvious linguistic difficulties.
Pushing your boundaries is inherent to Michael’s notion of storytelling. “I was really afraid of public speaking. At university I had a terrible time giving presentations,” he reveals. Then, like many before him, he came across Mezrab, tried the spotlight and got hooked. “I loved it so much, I was relieved.” He sees that as a form of therapy as well. “People open up and feel more connected,” he explains. “I see it as embracing vulnerability and uncovering things that are hidden. The more you do it the more people want to do it.” And that doesn’t only mean connecting to strangers: I learned some pretty intense things about my friend Paul – with whom I had previously travelled throughout Scotland and shared countless beers – only upon seeing him perform at Soulstrip (the first time he went up he was too scared to even tell me, but now he’s a regular and a co-organizer).
Many of the true story regulars come from the improv scene or from stand-up comedy, which makes for some great, fast-paced performances. But the storytelling stage offers them a freedom they can’t find where laughter is expected. Soula Notos, for example, is a compact yet frenzied performer of Greek origins who already had 10-years of stage experience when she first tried out storytelling in 2010. “One good thing is you focus on the story, you don’t have the pressure to be funny,” she told me over the phone. “The humor comes up, but you can also be sad. I like it, it’s more diverse.” And it’s not just that — it’s how deep you can go. “It’s a safe environment, it inspires me to be more open. I would never have told the stories I told at Soulstrip in another space. I use some of the bits on other stages, but here the audience is so close and the space is so small. It’s a gift.”
Making a scene
Some of the old-school Mezrab fans are not too fond of the increasingly personal and comedic turn the Fridays have taken. They miss the old days, when there was still the time and the atmosphere for Sahand’s mother to sing a traditional song. Sahand himself, who does a mix of traditional and personal storytelling, admits it’s a pity many fans of the new style aren’t so interested in the old anymore. But he tries to look at the bigger picture. “The audience always reacts well to creativity and innovation. If you do comedy at a place where they heard folk tales for many years, one group is going to love it, while another is going to think that’s not the place for it.”
But diversity is at the core of the Mezrab experience, that’s why opening up to an international audience was an early and effective intuition. “Amsterdam is a city of expats and students, so we put together an English night very early on,” Sahand explains. Counting 176 nationalities, diversity is the reality in Amsterdam. But it’s not reflected in the storytelling as much as he would like it to. “We have plenty of British and American expats, but I want to see Syrian, Russian, Polish, and Kurdish storytellers.”
His own career as a storyteller was a continuation of his father’s path, Sahand explains. Before taking his family to the Netherlands, his father spent four years in prison for translating forbidden books and organizing demonstrations. Sahand himself is an outspoken critic of the Iranian regime, his radio show was banned in the country and he even performed in Israel, which makes him a traitor. For these reasons he has never visited Iran, although he passionately follows what happens from a distance. In Sahand’s view, choosing to be an artist in Iran is an act of rebellion in itself. So storytelling has a great potential toward political emancipation. He wishes for younger generations to rediscover their folk traditions, and make them relevant to their own time, like his Italian squatter friends who rediscover their roots by playing folk music like pizzica and tarantella.
Sahand’s main challenge now, is to make storytelling a sustainable profession in Holland: “The biggest challenge is to create a new generation of storytellers.”
That’s why a year and a half ago Mezrab started offering classes. Courses go from three days to three months of intensive training, geared towards people who really want to pay their rent through storytelling. “For me it took a long time because I had to invent the profession,” says Sahand. “In the UK they have a hundred clubs, so they can make a tour every year and make a living, strictly as storytellers.” He hopes that by teaching people how to tell stories as professionals the quality will go up and the Netherlands will develop the same type of network. “But it’s a chicken-and-egg-problem: if there are no professionals there is no scene, if there is no scene there are no professionals. So we have to do both at the same time.” In the meantime, Sahand is performing internationally, winning national awards and bringing storytelling to new stages like TEDx Delft, in order to show the practice is not as old-fashioned as it looks to the rest of the country.
Predictably, the nationwide scene is not quite as young and diverse as it is in the capital; the performers tend to be older, the general vibe more nostalgic and canonical. However, the city is not an island and neither is Mezrab. For the past eight years, in fact, Amsterdam has had its own festival, connecting it with wider national and international contexts.
I met creative director Arjen Barel at his office, in an educational center for children and marginalized adults in Osdorp. In the late 80s the district was a breeding ground for the first hardcore rap group in the Netherlands, the Osdorp Posse. Today it’s a pleasant multi-cultural neighborhood with its own theater, built on the shores of an artificial lake.
Arjen tells me how he fell in love with storytelling after seeing the world-famous Ben Haggarty perform at a festival he was promoting in Utrecht. A couple of years later, the only festival left in the Netherlands was in Maastricht, so he and executive producer Marlies ter Haar decided to make their own. Initially Arjen worked with a programmer until he had the chance to take the creative reins himself. “It was an important moment, because I felt the stories at the festival were a bit too much about princesses and dragons,” he says. “You can tell a folk story if you know why you’re telling it. That’s why our main drive became looking for stories from the neighborhood and its diversity.” Of course, the festival still invites international performers and Dutch ladies with fairytales. But Barel also produced (for example) a performance about a second-generation immigrant with an identity crisis, titled Moroccans don’t cry, and another about the life of Said Bensellam, a former kick-boxer and bouncer who turned the respect of the Amsterdam West underworld into an inspiring career as a youth worker. Plus, he and his team increasingly work with amateurs, teaching them what he calls “applied storytelling” — using stories to express the multiplicity of Amsterdam’s human spectrum and fight prejudice. Old Dutch women love it, but it’s also helping young Moroccans rediscover folk tales from their homeland.
One of the first stories I heard Sahand tell was a traditional tale about a homeless man starving on the streets. Passing by a restaurant, he smells a soup so delicious he crawls up to the window and inhales deeply. The cook sees him and, noticing how much he loves it, demands payment for the smelling alone. They take the issue to court and, after both parties have explained their reasons, the judge throws a coin on the floor, in front of the cook. But when he tries to reach for it, the judge says the coin is really for the homeless. What he gets for the smell of the soup is the sound of the coin.
When I think of Mezrab I always think of soup. Not only because of that one story, but also because Sahand’s mother keeps serving it to this day, just like she did in the basement from the venue’s early days. There are a couple recipes, but my favorite is the green one, with mint, lots of legumes and fried onion and garlic on top. It’s the kind of hearty meal that really puts you in the mood to sit down and listen to a story.
I ask Sahand about it, as a light ending to our interview, but he replies very seriously. “You can’t create a community, if there is no food. And I wanted to make the food made by a parent, make it intergenerational.” It’s like the folk storytelling tradition, he says. “If you only keep it within your own generation you won’t learn anything from the past and you won’t leave anything for the future.”