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Helen Bode
Helen Bode

Helen Bode is in her second year of the Creative Writing MA at Birkbeck. She sells coffee by day, is writing an adventure story set in Tasmania by night and is currently pursuing her dream of learning to play a lap steel guitar.

Interview with Sahand Sahebdivani

I first met Sahand in Amsterdam in 2007. He ran a cultural café in the Jordaan called Café Mezrab. Every month he held storytelling evenings in English, Dutch and Farsi. The tiny café would become crammed with people who had stories to tell, or who just wanted to listen, and it was difficult to walk on the narrow footpath outside as it was packed with bikes all locked up to each other. He let writing groups meet in the café, and I joined a fiction group, which Sahand sometimes came along to, through Words in Here, an international collective of writers who produce the annual literary journal Versal.
Sahand will be in London on Saturday 29 June to present his latest musical story event, Poppies and Pomegranates. I spoke to him about his life as a modern day storyteller and about the show.


How did you get into storytelling?

Sahand SahebdivaniThere were a few things that conspired to make me become a storyteller. One is a show the Dutch storytelling legend Anne van Delft created. I was 14 at the time and she was recruiting immigrant children to make a show with. We toured all over the Netherlands, with this strange activity, telling stories, I had no idea you could do that for a living. Suddenly all the great stories my dad would tell me almost daily became material to perform. The final ingredient was meeting and being hired by the director of the children's department of the Dutch anthropological museum, Tropenmuseum. There, storytelling was integral to the way the material was presented to the visitors. I was twenty when I started that job and I would give three shows a day, four days a week, for a good three years.

Ideas of storytellers, for me, hark back to medieval figures. What's the life of a modern-day storyteller like?

We're reinventing it as we go along. A lot of people have no idea what it means. Sometimes you're booked for a lot of money but get a call a day in advance with the question whether they should provide the books you'll be reading from, so you realize they have no clue what they've brought in. You tell stories where you can, that means schools, festivals big and small, with other storytellers or as a lone story act inbetween poetry readers and bands. Most storytellers have other jobs to support them, I'm one of the few who performs full time (also counting my music acts).

How does storytelling as an oral tradition relate to written stories?

They're as different as they're apart, in fact one could argue one negates the other. My great grandmother was a great storyteller who knew hundreds of stories that she had stored in her head because she couldn't read. My father has less stories but still has a better memory than I have. In a way, the availability of books and easy access to stories means less need to memorize or perform stories. Also, writers feel the need to write their "own" material, while a lot of storytellers are happy interpreting and performing material that's already there. Even when we talk about our own lives we're not "writing".

Music plays a part in some of your shows, can you talk a little about that?

My dream has always been to incorporate music in my stories, in fact I became a musician to be able to do so. However, it took me a decade to find the form for it (in the meantime either performing as a storyteller or a musician), the trick is to find musicians whom you trust, who know when to support the story, when to take over and when to disappear. The magic happened when I met the group Ajam in London. These guys (and gal) mix Iranian folk music with their own contemporary sound, similar to my approach to stories. I want to play with them as much as I can.

You fled Iran as a refugee when you were a child. How does your current work relate to the situation there now?

The political situation and the reasons why we fled is an important part of my work. The Iranian revolution, the Iran-Iraq war, the persecution of dissidents, all of that creates so many stories that need to be told or they'll be forgotten. But more than that, the country that I fled is, culturally, an incredibly rich country, but currently ruled by Ayatollahs that want to turn it into a religious mono-culture. That means large parts of our culture are ignored or consciously destroyed. The best antidote is to keep telling our stories and the truth about what's happening.


You've got a show coming up on the 29th of June in London, can you talk a bit about what we can expect?

On the 29th I'm doing a show called Poppies and Pomegranates. For this show I'll reunite with the brilliant boys of the Ajam band. It will be a mix of ancient Persian stories of love and betrayal, as well as some of my own adventures as a young Iranian man in the Netherlands. It's going to be an intense ninety minutes. 



Poppies and Pomegranates starts at 8pm on Saturday 29 June 2013 at The Nursery, Arch 61, off Great Suffolk Street, SE1 0NR.



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