Once upon a time: legendary Pakistani storytellers disappear

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Shogran (Pakistan) (AFP)

Mohammad Naseem’s eyes shine as he shares the legend of a secluded alpine lake nestled among the snow-capped peaks of the Himalayas as a rare crowd of onlookers hears one of Pakistan’s last ‘storytellers’.

The story of Saif-ul-Malook – the winding saga of a brave prince who falls in love with a fairy – is just one of 50 great tales passed down to Naseem from his father.

“Usually people tell me I’m crazy when I tell these stories,” says Naseem, whose long white beard and traditional cape give him the timeless appearance of an old-fashioned storyteller.

The 65-year-old trader says it would take days for him to recite all the stories he has memorized and steeped in the country’s “history, culture”.

But few are still listening.

Naseem says he didn’t bother to share the stories with his six children and that his friends are no longer interested in hearing them as social media, video games and soap operas have almost eclipsed his old art.

The TikTok video platform is now a major source of entertainment for the country’s youth, very popular in part because it is accessible to illiterate users in rural areas – just as legends of old were.

“When I die, these stories will die with me,” Naseem sighs outside his northern Pakistan store in Shogran, where winter snows have blanketed the mountains.

– The storyteller’s bazaar –

The city of Peshawar – in the province of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa where Shogran is located – has long been the stronghold of the country’s oral history, its Qissa Khawani or “storyteller bazaar”, a hub of the Silk Road where travelers and locals gathered to hear a thread.

The bustling border capital was once “the Times Square of the region” because of “the excellence of its storytellers,” says Naeem Safi – a consultant at an Islamabad-based institute dedicated to Pakistani folk heritage, where tapes of stories told at the bazaar were archived.

“The writing was not very popular. Knowledge transfer was done verbally. Storytelling was fundamental – people considered themselves educated if they had heard enough stories, ”says Safi.

Before tuk-tuks and buses blocked its narrow lanes, the market was littered with Silk Road caravans of wandering traders who often stayed overnight after the city’s sixteen gates were sealed at dusk.

In the evenings, the merchants would hear the town’s famous storytellers – who shared stories about the dangers of the road, news of wars and local traditions.

The storytellers were “the communication tools of the time, they were the messengers,” said Ali Awais Qarni, a researcher in history and literature at the University of Peshawar.

“When they told the truth, they always added a little poetry and color to it,” he said.

“People listened to them for hours. Sometimes a story could last a week or a month. ”

The tearooms and bazaar lounges have been replaced with neon signs on garish structures that now dot the streets cluttered with traffic.

“There may still be storytellers, but the tradition is gone. It has transformed into other forms of storytelling, ”added Safi.

– Dying art –

Longtime Peshawar resident Khwaja Safar Ali, 75, remembers his youth in the city when the arrival of the caravans was greeted with enthusiasm.

During the day, “we ran between the legs of the camels,” he recalls.

And in the evening, “we would all sit down together and listen to the storytellers.”

“They told us about Kabul, the USSR, Uzbekistan. We learned of the existence of these countries through them. ”

Modern transport eventually killed off the caravans, which even by the 1960s had become an increasingly rare sight in the region.

Storytellers continued to perform for smaller circles, but were gradually replaced by radios and then televisions.

This fall, one of Peshawar’s few remaining storytellers died at the age of 86, said Jalil Ahmed, a tour guide who frequently took his clients to hear the recitations.

The narrator once owned a small hotel where caravanners stayed and listened to stories “for pennies” on steaming cups of green tea.

“But now the only way to see storytellers in Peshawar is to go to the cemetery,” Ahmed sighed.

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