diotimacomunità filosofica femminile

per amore del mondo numero 17 – 2020

Mondo senza confini

Community Storyteller Sally Shalabi in Jordan



الشلبية الحكواتية


In memory of Professor Rula Quawas


“Whoever thinks that all women are alike

is suffering from a disease of madness

for which there is no cure”

Shahrazad, One Thousand and One Night[1]


The first time I saw the storyteller Sally Shalabi “in action” was in 2015, not during one of her storytelling performances, instead she was working as a waiter at the Rumi Café in Jabal al-Webde in the capital of Jordan, Amman. I lived in Amman three years of my life, two of them dedicated to my PhD research[2]. When someone told me that she was Sally, the storyteller, I introduced myself and I immediately recognized that she was not only a storyteller, but a multi-tasking woman. Our conversation at the beginning of June 2015 confirmed many of my first impressions. She was a storyteller, she invented herself as a storyteller, but she was also a facilitator and trainer, a computer programmer, she was a cultural advisor for projects, and yes, she was also a waiter: her body was continuously moving in that moment I saw her for the first time serving the joyful and colorful clients at Rumi, one of the cafés in Jabal al-Webde where some of the artists and cultural practitioners often meet and discuss. Today, she defines herself as a community storyteller. In those same two years, she left secondary jobs such as waiter to become a full-time storyteller: “I wanted to be present, fully invested. Every sense of my being was pulsing was when I was doing storytelling. So, I left the café, the baby-sitting and … I have become a full-time storyteller,” she recalls in 2020, five years later our first encounter. If most times, the encounter with the artist made me immediately feel relaxed, this was particularly true with Sally, who gave a big contribution to my work and to the theoretical understanding of different modalities of creative agency.[3] Moreover, after our interview, I started to follow her and tried to attend many of her storytelling performances. Even during our interview, she would tell me a story to show me her work. And I completely fell in love with her way of telling stories, subverting roles and making it funny: her voice tells the story, sings, imitates the characters, her hands play the tambourine, and a few objects, such a ring or a hat, symbolize or refer to the story and its protagonists. As our conversations spanned over a period of more than 5 years[4], I had the privilege also to acknowledge Sally’s professional, personal, political, artistic path change and I have found this path or evolving of her profession a fundamental point both for the understanding of storytelling and the signification of feminist practices. While the research and affirmation of Sally’s storytelling and the professionalization of the storytelling in her life career decision made her a storyteller performer, the natural evolving of that was to become a community storyteller and thus contribute to enhance a community of storytellers: a community of listeners and story-keepers of the Middle East and beyond. I will try to trace through this article some of Sally’s work elements that needs first to be read against the history of storytelling, which has a long tradition in Jordan and, more broadly, in the Middle Eastern world.



The icon of storytelling Shahrazad, a feminist theme


Sally’s work should be analyzed against a long tradition of feminist storytelling. The icon of this figure is Shahrazad, who we generally connect to both storytelling and the Middle Eastern world and whose name is Persian in origin. The famous queen and storyteller of One Thousand and One Nights has been widely explored by literary criticism. But until recently, Shahrazad was an orientalist icon. This icon has been recently recuperated in the context of feminist literature and feminist literary criticism: some people, like the Lebanese writer Hanan al-Sheykh, see her as the first feminist in the Arab world, while on the contrary, another Lebanese writer, Joumana Haddad, sees her example as negative, as passive, as lacking rebellion. The real trajectory of Sally Shalabi comes from the legacy of modern feminist literature, through which also the Moroccan feminist sociologist Fatema Mernissi – who reconstructs Shahrazad’s trajectory in literature, narrative and imaginaries, as I will trace – Hanan Sheikh and Joumana Haddad reappropriate an orientalist – and misogynist – tradition and make it a feminist theme.[6]

The story goes that Shahryar, the King, found out one day that his first wife was unfaithful to him and he cut off her head. Therefore, he resolved to marry a new virgin each day for three years and to behead the previous day’s wife, so that she would have no chance to be unfaithful to him. He had killed one thousand such women by the time he was introduced to Shahrazad, the vizier’s daughter. Learning of this violence and against her father’s wishes, Shahrazad volunteered to spend one night with the king. Once in the king’s chambers, Shahrazad asked if she might bid one last
farewell to her beloved sister, Dunyazade, who had secretly been prepared to ask Scheherazade to tell a story during the long night: “She had a plan: a very eloquent and very civilized plan to use her art to humanize him and stop this bloodbath.”[7] Through “a cerebral rather than physical seduction,”[8] the king lay awake and listened with awe as Shahrazad told her first story. The night passed by, and Scheherazade stopped in the middle of the story. The king asked her to finish, but Shahrazad said there was no time, as dawn was breaking. So, the king spared her life for one day to finish the story the next night. The next night, Shahrazad finished the story and then began a second, even more exciting tale, which she again stopped halfway through at dawn, “using her nutq – her ability to penetrate a man’s brain by using the right words.”[9] Again, the king spared her life for one more day so she could finish the second story. And so, the king kept Shahrazad alive day by day, as he anticipated the finishing of the previous night’s story. After one thousand and one nights, and one thousand stories, Shahrazad told the king that she had no more tales to tell him. During these one thousand and one nights, the king had fallen in love with Shahrazad. He spared her life, and made her his queen.
Fatema Mernissi, in her Scheherazade Goes West researched how One Thousand and One Nights could reach us today: the stories in the written form were traced to a Syrian manuscript dating to the early 1300s; little attention was paid to them by the Arabs, who scorned oral storytelling as marketplace entertainment and “a symbol of the uneducated masses.”[10] It was Charles Galland who translated the original manuscript from Syrian to French, where the stories enjoyed great popularity among eighteenth-century literate Parisians. The story was reborn in a vast number of modern and contemporary European theatre pieces, and in films, in ballets, in opera, in books and was a source of inspiration for many others. According to Mernissi, “Not until the nineteenth century, one hundred years after the Europeans, who had the written text as early as 1704, were the tales finally published in Arabic!” [11] So subversive was their power that her stories were only published in Arabic a century after appearing in French, and they remain a target of censorship. It is certain that scholars agree on at least one point: that the stories did not stem from one authorship, but were instead compiled from different sources, often rewritten to the local tastes of the audiences and gathered in a single manuscript which did not contain some of the most famous stories. The stories were only lost in the transcriptions, but also in translations or rather “orientalist” reinterpretations. Sir Richard Burton, a renowned linguist, fluent in Arabic, and a flamboyant social figure, chose to do some translating of his own. The result was a contentious, yet most popular, eroticized version of The Arabian Nights – a Victorian, pornographic bestseller. Contentious though they may have been, Burton’s translations remain, for some, the best versions we have today of the tales.[12] And yet, as the tales moved west, certain critics maintain that Scheherazade was irrevocably changed and today remains one of the most misunderstood female characters in folklore. Suzanne Gauch, in her forward to Liberating Shahrazad: Feminism, Postcolonialism and Islam, remarks: “No matter how many tales European translators included within the Nights, their inevitable relegation of Scheherazade to the silent shadows served the purpose of reinscribing stereotypes of the Islamic world as inherently misogynist and retrograde.”[13] And Susan Muaadi Darraj maintains that Scheherazade “suffered terribly at the hands of translators,” where she became disempowered and turned into a “sex kitten.”[14] It is not only Shahrazad and her transformative potential of storytelling that are criticized but also the female characters in her story, who are seen as misogynists and negative. Only recent feminist portrayals of women in Shahrazad’s tales trace a different understanding of them, underlining women’s multiple and intelligent strategies and knowledge.
But, what appears to my eyes the most important issue is to acknowledge in the diverse assemblage of stories the different range of qualities that women represent:

“Shahrazad makes this message clear at the end of the story “Qaman al-Zamar,” when she states, “Whoever thinks that all women are alike is suffering from a disease of madness for which there is no cure.” The women in The Arabian Nights play an active and subversive role against the tyranny of fathers, husbands, and kings, most often using words and cunningness to convince men of the wrongs they are committing just as Sharazad’s stories teach King Shahriyar to repent of killing the daughters of his subjects. The women of The Arabian Nights reach far beyond the images of wicked adulteresses and nubile harem girls to include an assortment of strong and intelligent women, who seem to have mostly gone unnoticed by modern readers.”[15]


These examples of incomplete transcriptions, misinterpretations, fake translations, censorships, re-adaptions and inspirations are not peculiar only to Shahrazad in the history of literature and of the oral storyteller. Yet, Sally Shalabi’s attempt, through her storytelling, is not only a retelling the same stories of One Thousand and One Nights.

Counting on the vast and rich tradition of popular tales, local folktales, Arab folktales and world folktales, and writing new ones, she plays and replays from a feminist perspective with the power of telling stories, making choices, constructing the characters. Part of her process is to rework the stories, starting from the very deep relationship she builds with the stories and the characters, and how they resonate in her, by then making small or large shifts in them. Another element of how she makes the stories hers is in the choosing of which story to include and which story to exclude in her repertoire. In doing so, she tries to tell a different narrative, a female and feminist narrative of popular storytelling:


In the storytelling, there are a lot of things happening, in the dynamics of me being a woman, what does it mean what access I have? (…) I first read the story on my own and then commit to an interpretative reading. I take a story structure and I play with it. I can flesh out a character, I can make it longer, I can give them a voice, I can give them life, I can make a character flat, and it is not a paper, not a novel, it is the oral tradition: stories are alive. When they get written they get flattened. The stories are full of feelings and changes, it is very beautiful because they are alive, stories and characters are alive. (…) There are some stories, where the woman is passive, a pretty woman just trying to get married, and this is not just the narrative we want. Of course, I can change it; I am the storyteller and I did change it. When the stories do not work, I reconstruct them. It is prepared in order to have the woman rescue herself, and the community altogether, so it shifts the dynamics of what it means to tell the story, and the stories have more power.


Sally further explained that this does not mean that female characters are overturned in something she wants, but just she poses the question, making more problematic their roles and also enlightening the hidden values behind what can appear a passive function, there is instead a universal value-function of a character, a reason behind that we need to discover or reevaluate.


Female bodies in public performances


In the framework of the patriarchal and neoliberal authoritarianism, which is common to most of the countries in the Middle East, female bodies are one of the sites of contestation. This does not differ from western neoliberal capitalistic and patriarchal societies, but it has its own specificities and contexts. Especially after the 2011 Arab uprisings, the discussion on the body came up again as a central topic. Control, subordination, and (sexual) violence over bodies, which should remain docile and modest, are at the core of discussions. The explicit gender violence of regimes, such as rape in Syria as a weapon of war and sexual assaults or harassments in Egypt, to mention only two well-known cases, reverberate in the streets as a fear and a warning for women not to engage in politics and in the public sphere. The control over women’s bodies (whether discursively or physically) becomes an important element in the exercise of power over particular communities.[16] Although gender discriminations are still very present and gender equality is a long way off, in Jordan the same kind of extreme violence is perpetuated less explicitly and directly by the authoritarian State, but invades the private sphere. I believe that authoritarianism, as well as other power configurations, imperialist policies and neoliberal capitalist economies, “are pervasive with their (trans)national articulations of sexism, racism, and heteronormativity,”[17] becoming then responsible for all kinds of gender violence. Verbal or physical harassment is quite common in the streets and women often do not feel comfortable and try to denounce it:[18] it is not however as dangerous as elsewhere in the Middle East and a public sexual assault would rarely happen, nor would a “regime rape”. On the contrary, gendered hate speech in politics[19] and in public, domestic violence and so-called honor crimes are still some of the most problematic issues. The State would maintain control of an uncontrollable violence in the streets, but still strongly moralize on women’s possibilities to enact. This is also why the streets, the (supposed-to-be) religious and traditional norms control the way women dress, speak and walk: “the society/tribe/family decides how women should dress and behave” and so how women’s bodies should not “transgress expected gender behaviors.”[20]


The public discussion in Jordan about female bodies did not reach the same level as it did in Egypt and in Tunisia, where two women, Alia al Magdi in Cairo and Amina Sboui in Tunis, exposed their naked bodies online to make an artistic (Alia) and a political (Amina) statement and so risked their lives.[21] Instead, in Jordan the debate is very much more concentrated on honor crimes and recently also more on domestic violence, social and cultural taboos. The public transgression of the modest female body can be simply connected with not being shy enough.

It is in this context that using the body to do a performance contrasts with the dominant morals and narrative of women’s bodies. Even when they are not sexualized, female bodies should not overstep the limit of their spaces. In this sense, storytelling performances become a space, not only a voice, where the interiority of the body presence bares her soul to the public. Sally, for instance, moves comfortably and with a loud voice because it is her body becoming the space that expresses her resistance to the gender norm. Storytelling embodies another kind of cultural resistance which tries to deconstruct the female body-connected dichotomies, such as body/mind and the virgin and modest/shameful and floozy woman. Moreover, oral stories are also connected to the idea of polyphony and interaction with the audience and interlocutors, which belong particularly to a transnational feminist perspective. This open and rich interaction with the audience also corresponds to a kind of affirmative “approval” of this body politics, which is of course more spontaneously accepted by the people even if it does not fit with public morality and religious norms. Women artists’ creative agencies, in the context of the urban creative middle and upper class in Amman, commit to resisting marginalization through their bodily performances in the public sphere, exercising a profession and reframing and reconstructing it, like Sally does through her practice of community storytelling.


A Community storytelling – retracing memories, within body and class questioning


In her attempt to shift dynamics of delicate gender issues, Sally’s work as a storyteller remains, inventing and reclaiming a position, an occupation which is traditionally for men, at least in the occupation of the space that it requires. This is the reason why Sally, as a woman who is a storyteller, chose a name that feminizes her family name, Shalabieh, شلبيّةfrom the original “Shalabi” شلبي; as reclamation of her name and of her profession; she also feminized the masculine form work “Hakawaty” حكواتي (storyteller) into the feminine “Hakawatiyye”, حكواتية. As a storyteller and creator, she practices her right to change the meanings which were traditionally conceived. Hakawatiyye is also the plural form of the word storyteller in Palestinian-Jordanian dialect, so she also plays a word game to tell: “I belong to my family – whose name I re-appropriate and feminize- and to the family of storytellers as well”. Sally has been used in the past two years the definition of Community storyteller to describe her Community based storytelling. Her work has transformed into a deeper approach not just to make kids entertainment, but involving children and families’ audiences as well as adults in different contexts and for longer periods than just a spectacle. Diving into the Levantine oral traditions of stories, Sally keeps “find the stories who reflects who I am, who my community is and take this beautiful old stories and bring to our communities again, reconnecting with ancestral memories, with that wisdom that exists in our communities.”[22] But also Sally is looking for XXI century telling when there is more consent and female gender roles are more dynamic and not fixed in dichotomies. The art of storytelling (fann al-hakee فن الحكي) becomes then the ability to take the listener into this experience, a journey into a world: for that moment, the listener enters in the story world, build a relationship with the protagonist, an imagination is moved inside the community of listeners’ own mind, who are living that experience for that moment. Sally’s community of listeners don’t see her perform, but they see a story through her and they enter a story world: this is the art of storytelling, the ability to transport an emotional and visual experience.


The experience of the space where the body enacts for a performance, the act of telling and sharing stories which becomes a community building practice, derives also from the Hakawatiyye’s personal story. As a Palestinian-Jordanian woman, the historic trauma of migration and the uprooting of the Palestinian people, was part of Sally’s life. Whether was her grandmother displaced in 1948 by Israeli occupation, her mother in 1967 by Israeli occupation again and herself in 1991 during the occupation and invasion of Kuwait by Iraq, Palestinian people’s memories are being constantly challenged. The focus on the current trauma and the need of telling the contemporary story of violence against the Palestinian people have made some of historical heritage to be removed and forgotten. Storytelling has become the way to heal that, individually and collectively. Sally said: “Thanks to remembering things about my childhood, researching on a tradition of Levantine stories, I do have a deeper memory now that links back to ancestors, in my bones and my DNA, to my grandmothers’ stories, something that is held in our communal story and wisdom and through that I found my resistance. I found my healing. Re-gift the community with this connection with the past, find a story that speaks to me and to my community. I have found so many layers of wisdom that transcend the time that we are in.” During the three seasons, she performs in (spring, summer and autumn), Sally created a structure that allow people to come back and these people become the community of listeners. The repertoire of stories is growing, the art communal stories and even global stories or a contemporary story form a repertoire which is always expanding. The community of listeners learn how to listen to a story and share with the storyteller some verbal or visual rituals: some verbal expressions to begin the story or to pass the word to the listeners: as for example the way she calls on the citizens of the city of Amman, “ya ahl al-madina”, “oh people of the city” which is different to other storytelling moments outside her city. So, every time she starts her story with her community of listeners, she begins with “ya ahl al-madina”[23]. The majority of the stories also starts with the classical “Kan ya Makan”, i.e. “Once upon a time”. Sally attempts to create intimacy with the listeners at so many levels: she arrives to the place an hour before to feel the space and get a sense of it, she uses fabrics as a table class, as a backdrop or to put in a chair and sit on it or just holding it in the hands, always the same fabric for the community to recognize and reckon with the space and ultimately through the fabric with the stories. She makes a circle to tell the story in a circular feel. The community of listeners get to know each other’s, when they didn’t before, get to know the stories, and they become keepers of the story. This is how a community of listeners grow: re-gift the stories back in the community and keep it alive as for a story to live it has to be told. This is particularly true for the Palestinians who have told stories of occupation, of Nakba and Naksa[24], and so risking to lose the stories of the past: “we need to keep telling the stories and bring them back, it’s very dangerous to lose them”. As part of her storytelling work to keep these stories alive, Sally is not alone. A community of story-keepers in Jordan and Palestine is reunited around the Hakaya Festival and the al-Balad Theatre in Amman, Jordan. The Hakaya Festival is a regional network and in its thirteen years of editions has expanded and evolved around a core point: the centrality of stories in communities. The strength of the community of story keepers comes from different forms of collaborations and partnerships, also a necessity due to the competition of the media. So around Sally’s community of listeners, a community of story keepers has built a structure of communal level and practitioners who work in support of the storytellers. In their last attempt to build the Hakaya Festival during the global Covid-19 pandemic, they are integrating multimedia forms and strategies to mix the need of being together and respect restrictions.


Sally’s research in community storytelling building connects also to personal issues and questioning that has found its way to women’s minds, alongside a desire to be transferred to other people’s minds, including bodies and female/male divergences in education, as well as women’s place in society. Sally’s stories emerge from this contested space, which she re-appropriates with her talent and feminized profession and storytelling. Sally’s personal story regards how she understands the centrality of her body in her struggle. Her words communicated to me how she came to understand the significance of her own female body as political and intimate at the same time. In Salma Shash’s article about two prominent figures, such as the Egyptian feminist activists, Doria Shafik and Latifa el-Zayyat,[25] the author re-reads Doria’s and Latifa’s biography and autobiography respectively with an eye on the position of their bodies. Even if in their life and political activism they did not transgress the mainstream expectations of the female body norms, their private and intimate diaries become important testimonies to understand how the bodies are relevant. In this essay, we again acknowledge how “the authoritarianism is a gendered structure (and) woman’s political activism is primarily perceived and explained through their gender”[26] and especially when the repression becomes physical in the violent context of imprisonment, then they start to understand the body as the strongest tool of resistance: “In realizing that they controlled her body, she realized that she controlled her feeling of shame”. Contextualizing the analysis, I wish to enlighten the significance of the body in a woman’s process of understanding of the self and how female professions where the body comes to be exposed becomes an essential passage of the process. Re-signifying gender roles does not require specific competences, except that of mobilizing our bodies in the research and the process of the self through our personal stories.


Being a woman is a political identity more than a gender identity and I play with that identity and the boundaries: what does that mean? And I understand the privilege that I carry and also the disadvantages. What being a woman mean is a personal story and history, in my case as an only daughter with three brothers, I had to work twice as hard, and I have always found it inequitable and unfair. As a child and as a teenager I was always struggling and it was not just in my family, the society and patriarchy and misogyny, and it never made sense to me. You have to tidy up, to wash the dishes, to make the bed, to help your mother…and half of the work for my brothers. As a child and a teenager and the early adult, constantly I tried and try to push this border, putting an end to the social construct, in a body that aligns, my life is always about pushing these boundaries, and how do you cross that line? It is always an attempt to understand how you can push this border: confrontation, dialogue. (…) As a storyteller I am still at the beginning, I still try to feel my voice; I am waiting to tell my own story that is more contemporary and personal and more … questioning in people’s mind. My body is always in my work; how you embody life, performance is about placing your body, your physical body in the space, but how do you place that body? How can you take up space? How can you look at it? It is interesting that in telling a story there is a hiding and a listening. There are some times when I am more ready to expose my body, the inside of my body out. Now I can very much see the transition; I am in the process of transitioning out, I think the layer of hiding (is going) … the name that I changed, Shalabieh, I have my stage name only. Now it is in a stage of emerging, my internal body, myself, and my physical body. Then I will be ready to tell the story of the self… When I am ready to tell a story, I take up space, both emotionally and physically: when I enter, I enter. It can be intimidated, always a balance as well, drawing people inside. I am apologetic of taking up spaces because growing up with brothers, I constantly had to negotiate for rooms, constantly negotiate for being seen and heard. Now, I would like to be seen and heard; I have the right to be seen and to be heard. I would like to do that in a non-competitive manner, I do that with a smile, by creating a subtle feeling that you can do that without losing the boundaries. I am going to be friendly. But the boundary is there. It is a constant negotiation as well. There is a constant awareness of body at the same time. When I walk in the streets downtown, there are a lot of people and there are men standing and you have to pass through, usually you do not pass between them, but you walk on a side. I used to do that. Now I keep walking. I do not do it anymore. I take up my space. There is no talking but… it is a constant negotiation of our bodies and spaces. A negotiation of privileges.


And again, she has added in 2020: “I simply use my feminine and female power, I don’t have to fight, I take up spaces. I do attend more communal space, and also an all men café can become such a familiar space, by attending it for a long period and not fighting for it. At the point that when I have to perform, I am already familiar to the space. It creates a different dynamic; this space becomes safe and the gender demographic of space is changed. I claim spaces, but this has shifted over the years”.


The intersectional nature of discriminations of body politics reveals that not only gender, but also class and political economy affect them. Far from ignoring that, Sally uses her storytelling smartly enough to criticize and dissent from the political decisions in the city and the political economy of her country. As a soft tool, storytelling and that softness and irony in Sally’s stories are an indirect way to attack politics. The indirect way is not a way to protect herself, rather again a way of leaving space to the imagination to create an opinion about current issues. In 2014 the Greater Municipality of Amman decided to remove the street vendors and their small “tables,” which are called in Jordanian dialect the “bastas”, over which many people try to sell their commerce downtown. They are regulars in downtown and they are just like shops. Through these kinds of decisions and interventions, the municipality and government want to “Westernize” the city, to create an aesthetic downtown and a more appealing town for a certain class. Weirdly enough, the richest and newest part of the city is called “Western Amman”. It was the time of the first edition of Spring Session, an art educational program in Amman, in 2014 in King Ghazi Hotel downtown. Spring Sessions and Sally Shalabi decided to do an intervention about this decision which would have left many people unemployed. This idea was not so easy to realize because it would have intersected many lines: the lines of political, artistic, and social interventions. So, Sally wrote a story, a short one, only one page. But in only one page she wanted to stress all the problematic and intersecting issues that came up through: class, gender, capitalism, neoliberalism, and worker exploitation. The story was very simple and for the intervention in public she used the object of contention in that case: the flat pack “basta,” which is also the name of the intervention.


The story starts with a young woman taking her basta downtown and setting it up. The men who have bastas and the little kids who sell wares across downtown start to harass her verbally or accidentally brush against her basta. It was constant but it did not stop her. Until one day, a man decides to come, bring his basta and sit next to her and he said: “She is my sister.” And with the word “sister” the street changed. They would become friends until the day he asked her where her special basta comes from. She supposed that everybody knew that it is from the new store Ikea, but the man does not: “What is Ikea?”


This short story aims at interposing all the critical elements which can appear in the streets: the gender roles and norms in the street, but also in the commerce; the political decisions of removing a very common street commerce; the knowledge about the global neoliberal stores arriving in the city and the common popular ignorance about these stores killing small commerce. Bridging class and gender, as well as politics and economics, and the mechanisms which guide them, it attempts to show the intersectional nature of different paradigms. The woman is adamant in her position and her steadfastness is rewarded by a man who wishes to let her continue her work. The phrase he pronounces in order to protect her from harassment and annoyance – “She is my sister” – underlines how gender roles are often framed in a socio-familial form of respect and how both men and women use the norm as a strategy to resist or reinvent roles and their positions. It is a political story in the sense that it criticizes the status quo, but it also witnesses a permanent search to rethink systems of political thought in a more inclusive way. I think also Sally wants to show the spontaneous solidarity and trust which is established between the young woman and the man, who is unfortunately the only one to support and protect her. This also corresponds to the simple reality of women’s lives: apart from formal and social inequalities, a natural, concrete and just interaction does not separate women’s and men’s lives as it can appear to in a mono-representational narrative. On the other hand, we can see how the harassment is not only the fruit of the patriarchal mentality but it reflects also the sense of injustice that political neoliberal economies engender. So, the municipality’s decision on the downtown basta cleansing, the gentrification process and the rise of new stores such as Ikea store provoke also frustration, which is unfairly addressed to women.


Sally’s attempt, in the context of Spring Sessions’ program as well as every week with her contemporary tales, is to embrace a larger understanding of problematic dynamics, especially sensitive to gender, class and policies. This continuous work constitutes a potential transformation of social and gendered imaginaries beyond hegemonic cultural codes. Through a perspective of generational and long-term changes, this work contributes to create new gender visions and transformations in society, because it enhances a new imagination, an alternative agency and alternative values built with and within the community it embraces.




[1] A. Blythe, “Beyond Sherahazhade: Feminist Portrayals of women in The Arabian Nights”, in Nonbinary Review, 6, 2015,http://nonbinaryreview.com/archive-2/issue-6-1001-arabian-nights/beyond-shahrazad-feminist-portrayals-of-women-in-the-arabian-nights/.

[2] During the original research and fieldwork carried out in 2015 and 2016, I met and interviewed 21 women artists, following their cultural initiatives and artworks, and the results are part of my doctorate dissertation Celebrating Women Artists in Jordan: Reframing Gender Roles as Resistance at the University of Palermo in partnership with the University of Jordan where I worked together with Professor Rula Quawas. As part of the Visiting Scholarship at the University of Jordan in 2015 and 2016, I have also attended Professor Rula Quawas’s academic courses such as “Arab Contemporary Women Writers”; “Research in Literature” and “Feminist Theory”. These feminist classes together with Jordanian students inspired the journey of my research. This paper is dedicated to Rula’s memory and legacy.

[3] Interview with Sally Shalabi, 8th June 2015, Amman. All the long written parts in italics in the article are long quotes from this interview.

[4] After finishing my PhD research, I continued to follow her work and transformed our conversations for my PhD work in journalistic interviews in 2018 (https://www.al-monitor.com/pulse/originals/2018/02/storyteller-brings-new-twist-to-old-tales.html) and lately in 2020 (http://radio-commons.eu/en/on-air-english/exploration-artivism-in-middle-east/) in a podcast interview about storytelling involving other female narratives circles experiences such as Casa di Ramia in Verona, Italy.

[5] L. Sorbera, “Challenges of thinking feminism and revolution in Egypt between 2011 and 2014”, in Postcolonial Studies, 17(1), 2014, pp. 63-75.

[6] Moroccan writer, sociologist and feminist Fatema Mernissi: F. Mernissi, La Terrazza Proibita, Giunti, Milano 1996 (first published as Dreams of Trespass: Tales of a Harem Girlhood, Perseus Books Group, New York 1994) and F. Mernissi, L’harem e l’Occidente, Giunti, Milano 2009. The Lebanese writer Hanan al-Sheykh who wrote a retelling of the One Thousand and One Nights. The other Lebanese writer, Joumana Haddad, wrote instead I Killed Scheherazade.

[7] H. al-Shaykh, Interview NPR Staff, “Scheherazade: From Storytelling ‘Slave’ To ‘First Feminist’”, in NPR books, http://www.npr.org/2013/06/09/189539866/scheherazade-from-storytelling-slave-to-first-feminist.

[8] “Scheherazade goes West: Different Cultures, Different Harems. Fatima Mernissi, Author”, in Publishers Weekly, http://www.publishersweekly.com/978-0-7434-1242-1.

[9] “Scheherazade goes West: Different Cultures, Different Harems. Fatima Mernissi, Author”, ibidem.

[10] F. Mernissi, Scheherazade Goes West: Different Cultures, Different Harems. Washington Square Press, New York 2001, p. 55.

[11] F. Mernissi, ibidem, p. 56.

[12] R. Irwin, The Arabian Nights: A Companion, Tauris Parke Paperbacks, New York, 2004, p. 34.

[13] S. Gauch, Liberating Scheherazade: Feminism, Postcolonialism, and Islam. University of Minnesota Press, New York 2006.

[14] S. M. Darraj (ed.), Scheherazade’s Legacy: Arab and Arab American Women on Writing, Praeger Publishers, Westport CT, 2004.

[15] A. Blythe, ibidem.

[16] N. Al-Ali and N. Pratt, Women and war in the Middle East: transnational perspective, Zed Books, London and New York 2009.

[17] N. Al-Ali, “How to talk about Gender-Based Violence?”, in in Kohl: a Journal for Body and Gender Research, 2(1), 2016, pp. 7-11.

[18] Four of Professor Rula Quawas’s students made a video to denounce sexual harassment on campus. The video provoked a national and international debate, and a campaign to support Professor Quawas who was removed as Dean of the Faculty because she supported her students making the video: http://www.jadaliyya.com/pages/index/8086/sexual-harassment-video-that-led-to-removal-of-rul.

[19] Such as the case of Hind al-Fayez in the Jordanian Parliament in December 2014: http://edition.cnn.com/2014/12/08/world/meast/jordan-female-parliament/.

[20] A. Al-Najjar, A. Abusalim, “Framing the female body: beyond morality and pathology” in M. Said (El), L. Meari, N. Pratt, Nicola (ed.), Rethinking Gender in revolutions. Lesson from the Arab world, Zed Books, London, 2015, pp. 86-106.

[21] Both cases are reported in the mainstream media; as for scholarship, see again Rethinking Gender in revolutions. Lesson from the Arab world, ibidem.

[22] Skype interview on 1st September 2020.

[23] It is possible to listen to Sally Shalabi’s stories on “Shalabiyat” the Storytelling Podcast on soundcloud: https://soundcloud.com/shalabiyat.

[24] Nakba refers to 1948 violent displacement of Palestinians from their lands and Naksa to the 1967 Israel-Arab war ending again with occupation and displacement of Palestinians.

[25] S. Shash, “Battles with Desires: Centering the Body in the Personal Narratives of Doria Shafik and Latifa El-Zayyat”, in Kohl: a Journal for Body and Gender Research, 1(2), 2015.

[26] S. Shash, ibidem.