Ihab was 12 years old when he first started writing poetry in Damascus, penning notes about a girl he had a crush on. “But as the war started to develop, and things got worse, the subjects changed,” he tells me.
Handsome and well-built, he could be mistaken for any other 19-year-old lad. But like most young Syrians, an early maturity and wisdom have been forced on him, which becomes apparent as we chat over a cup of tea.
After travelling to Germany in 2015 aged just 17, Ihab started writing about his experiences stuck in a refugee shelter, being a stranger in a new country, and seeing on the news how hostile the public were towards asylum seekers. A friend alerted him to the Syrian Storytelling Arena, and suggested he get in touch about performing.
Participants work with translators and their stories are performed in Arabic, English and German. They don’t just deal with violence and politics, but everyday themes such as life before the war, home and family.
“I was so nervous at first, I was expecting to be hit with rotten tomatoes,” he laughs. “But when I did it, it was amazing.
“Seeing people’s reactions and hearing the applause – it was like a drug.”
The monthly event is the brainchild of Rachel Clarke, who has worked as a storytelling coach and curator for many years. She became involved with the Syrian community in 2015 while helping teach German classes.
“We were spending eight-hour days together, and they started telling me their stories,” she tells me later. “I thought, ‘We’ve got to do an event’.”
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Both Ihab and Rachel say the power of storytelling lies in bringing people together and demonstrating their shared humanity.
“When I first met my German friends, they’d say to me ‘You’re different,’” continues Ihab. “Then when they came to the event and started listening to everyone’s stories, they started to recognise that actually we’re not.”
He tells me how, at the beginning of an event, Westerners and Arabs will usually gravitate to sit in separate groups. But by the interval they’re chatting, discussing the stories and getting to know each other.
And just as physical objects such as food or artefacts help preserve a culture, so do people’s words and memories.
“We bring places to life when we talk about them,” he concludes.
“Syria lives on in our hearts and minds. We’re never bored of talking about it.”