Monday, November 16, 2009

The Art of Story-Telling

"What is the most exciting story in the history of the Faith?"

This was the question that hung in the air at the youth conference.  I had asked it of a group of youth around 14 years of age, and they were busy talking amongst themselves about it.  I could overhear a few snatches of their conversation as they quickly narowed it down to the early history of the Faith, before the Garden of Ridvan.  Shaykh Tabarsi was mentioned, followed swiftly by their final decision.

"The martyrdom of the Bab."  Once that tragic event was mentioned, there was no more discussion.  It was, without any doubt, the most dramatic story in the history of the Faith, as far as they were concerned.

"OK," I said.  "I'm going to begin telling you that story in the way I usually hear it told and I want you to shout out the word 'boring' when you are bored.  Here goes."

You may be wondering what I was doing at a youth conference asking such a question (or maybe not, but I'll tell you anyways).  It occurred to me that many of us love to tell the stories of the Faith, but have no, or very little, training in story-telling.  This was before Ruhi Book 4 was commonly available.  Of course, now that I think about it, many tutors don't spend a lot of time on the dynamics of story-telling when tutoring Book 4.  Having done some acting, and having had some training in techniques, I like to share them with the participants, and that was what I was doing there.  My goal was to assist them in better "maintaining the interest" of their audience, whether it was on stage or in a one-on-one teaching setting.

And so I began, "On July 9th, 1850, in the city of Tabriz..." was about as far as I got before the resounding boom of "BORING" echoed throughout the room.

I asked if everyone was familliar with the story, and they were.  "Please continue telling the story where it is left off, and when someone says 'boring', go on to the next person."

We made it around the room in about 2 minutes.  By this point, we were all convinced that we needed to learn something about drama.  After all, if this is the "most exciting story of the Faith", we might have a bit of a problem here.

Most of what I covered is actually found in the Ruhi books, at some point or another.  I spoke of the difference between the outline of the story and the details, making sure that it is told in such a manner that the listener doesn't get confused or lost.  I asked them what skills they felt were needed, and they brought up such points as speaking clearly and loudly, using common words instead of obscure ones.  Someone mentioned the need to explain names and titles, as they can get confusing.

In short, a lot of excellent points were made, and then one final one was added: tell the story from an interesting perspective.

This may be my own bias, but I generally find the objective, unbiased, historical narrator perspective quite boring.  From their reactions, it seemed they did, too.

"I would like to share this story with you," I said, "from a different perspective, one I've never heard before."

I changed my position in my chair, sitting cross-legged now, instead of with my legs in front.  I looked at each of them, directly in the eyes, and spoke in a softer tone.

"Do you remember Anis?  The young man who was martyred with the Bab?"  They all did, although they had not known his name.

"How old was he?"  They had never considered this before.

I pointed to one of the youth, whom I happened to know, and said, "He was about your age.  We're not exactly sure how old he was, but he was about your age.  Just imagine," I said directly to my young friend, "going through what he did."

They were interested.

They now had something they could focus on, right there in their presence, and they had no idea where I was going with the story.

"Try and imagine that day, hot and dusty, in July.  The night before, your Lord and Master selected you to accompany Him today, the day of His martyrdom."

Now they were riveted.

I described, simply and succinctly, being dragged from the prison cell by the rough guards, and placed there, before the multitudes, with the Bab.  I spoke briefly of the initial attempt on His life, and how, when the smoke cleared, Anis was still standing there, alone, probably wondering what had happened.

"Imagine the smoke clearing away.  You feel the Bab is no longer with you, the ropes have been shattered.  You look around," and this was accompanied by appropriate motions, "expecting to see Paradise, and find yourself still in the square by the barracks."

I talked about the panic amongst the people, the hurried search for the Bab, and how the militia refused to  fire again.  I mentioned how they found the Bab, brought Him back to the square, and got a new group of soldiers to carry out the execution orders.

"Now you are standing there, in front of 750 large men, older men, all of whom hate you."  I stood up, spoke with a snarl, my face showing the anger.  I raised my arms, as if sighting down a rifle, stared, again, at each of the youth.  I could see they were intimidated as I drove this point home.  "They are ready to kill you for daring to follow the Bab."

"And now they tie you up, again.  Your arms are tied tight.  It probably hurts, because they are not concerned about being careful.  They raise you up, and place your head upon the Bab's breast."

Here I stopped.  I fell back into my chair, my eyes closed.  I spoke in almost a whisper, a sense of wonder in my voice.

"Can you imagine this?  I can't.  This is truly beyond me."

I opened my eyes, tears brimming over, looking over my audience once more.

"Can you truly imagine what it must have been like?  There, at that moment, the culmination of His life?"  Every capitalized word was emphasized so that there would be no confusion about Whom I meant.  "This is what He wanted.  This is what He lived for: to offer up His life's blood in the path of His own Lord, Baha'u'llah.  And you, Anis, are supremely blessed to be there, at that moment, with your head on His chest, listening to His heartbeat.  Listening to His final heartbeat."

The room was silent.  And mine were not the only tears.

I believe that it is very important that we learn the arts, whether story-telling or music, dancing or painting, or any of the other myriad forms of art.  When we learn to convey the power and majesty of our own faith in such a manner that it touches the hearts of the listeners, and brings them closer to the Word of God, we may begin to see more people interested in hearing what it is that Baha'u'llah has offered humanity.

So, dear Reader, how will you convey the exciting stories of the Faith?

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