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By Georgie Bradley
It started in a café in Muscat. Looking at it from the outside in, it looked like your run-of-the-mill gathering with friends who have known each other forever. And technically, it was just that: friends sitting and chatting.
Except that within this close orbit of friends, a revelatory performance of never-before-told storytelling was underway, helmed and hosted by 29-year-old Omani Abdullah Al-Mawaali, a self-proclaimed serial story-listener and teller.
“I love the enlightenment process of hearing other people’s stories – I grew up an introvert; I never left my room. I used to draw caricatures all-day and develop scenes around them,” he says.
But now, podcasting has pushed the pencil to one side – at least literally. His passion for the medium was born once he discovered This American Life and The Moth, two podcast series that string together stand-alone stories or narratives built around a set theme. “I listen to stories all day, every day, no exaggeration – I’ve been hooked for five years. I’ve learned so much about the world and the people in it.”
The kind of story that strikes his chords the most though, is a story from a familiar voice – the voice of Arabs. “Every once in a while, I’ll hear a story from the Middle East, and I instantly feel a unique connection, so I pay more attention because it doesn’t come by that often.”
And that was the impetus for Abdullah to unearth the untold truths around him, starting with the people (by virtue of being his friends) he should know the most about.
“I kind of emotionally blackmailed them,” Abdullah laughs. “We gathered in a café and each one of us took turns to talk about things they’ve never uttered before. By the third gathering [still in cafes at this point], strangers began to attend.”
Steady steps were then taken to actualise and elevate True Story Tent to what it stands for now: a safe and non-judgmental space for letting out what has been held within the tomb of a person. As word spread of this new outlet seeking to pioneer a new wave of the Middle Eastern narrative, the pressure was on for Abdullah to MC from top to bottom.
“The ‘putting on’ of an event gave me so much anxiety at first because it’s a lot of logistics to get right and done in time. But as it has grown, I actually really like it now. The last gathering [which happens every two months or so] was sponsored by Talabat. Within seven minutes of announcing the gathering we were fully booked,” Abdullah says. A gathering sees around 50 people in attendance now.
So, how does a typical True Story Tent gathering unfold? “Anyone who wants to share a story has to write their name on a piece of paper, put it in a bowl and I then I’ll pick one at random.”
Those who brave the mic share stories that may seem parochial before revealing a universal or even regional truth. The emphasis is on communicating with the audience, with sharing an experience, a memory, a moment of grace.
Not everyone is a master of storytelling – but they don’t have to be. The stories possess a remarkable emotional depth and sincerity that forgives the odd stumble or crack in composure. The podcast is “a by-product of the gatherings” and is edited by Abdullah himself, who is a technical director for live shows on Oman TV by day.
Head to the podcast’s episode list and you’ll see they are not random musings. They are closely focused, finely tuned narratives that have the force of an epiphany, while disclosing the panoramic landscapes of someone’s life or the disparate worlds they have inhabited or moved through.
Episode #7: “I Hid My Period” stars Dana Al Gosaibi from Jeddah, Saudi Arabia (the first of True Story Tent’s overseas gatherings) whose story is raw, wry, rueful, comic and confiding in tone, with slips of sarcasm and snark. It’s brilliant, if taboo and it differs from where the narrative currently exists on this topic.
But this is the point of True Story Tent – which includes an unexpectedly hilarious account of an Omani taekwondo instructor who had an ethereal near-death experience that flipped his outlook on the daily grind – it’s about shredding convention and making room for every voice out there.
No tale is out of bounds – assuming the storyteller has the willingness to be vulnerable and is prepared for what lies on the other side of the story’s release to the public. Abdullah does forewarn of the potential consequences to consider, but encourages the sharing experience for the greater good of humanizing the region and its people: “We’ve had it all, from suicide attempts to a mugging in Tijuana on a Tinder date.”
The format of the podcasts weaves the live storytelling with the Skype conversation that Abdullah has with his subjects. “I edit everything, it’s actually my favourite part,” he says. True Story Tent’s aural experience is piercing and very visual; the episodes have truncated edits in the right places and elongated silences for paused thought, in others.
“But there is no set format for True Story Tent,” notes Abdullah. The podcast is constantly evolving, and if the saying that ‘you’re only as good as your last show’ chimes with Abdullah, he’s already striding towards new zeniths.
In the future Abdullah plans to merge True Story Tent with meditation – his other lifeline. “I want to see what these worlds can do together. Both are very powerful parts of my life.” And both have the ability to bare the soul, letting authenticity unfurl which is so wanted amongst Arabs, Abdullah says, who admits that “even Arabs are against each other. We need to share more, learn more, know more”.
To find out more about True Story Tent and to listen to their podcast episodes, click here.
The views of the authors and writers who contribute to Sekka, and the views of the interviewees who are featured in Sekka, do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions of Sekka, its parent company, its owners, employees and affiliates.
Georgie Bradley is a British-Greek editor and journalist based in Dubai after a lifetime in Bahrain – which she still frequents on a monthly basis. She is also a certified crisis counsellor for women victims of domestic violence, having volunteered for Women’s Crisis Care International in Bahrain. Elevating the voices of the region’s change-makers is what makes her tick.