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PRI's Environmental News Magazine

December 31, 2010

Air Date: December 31, 2010

FULL SHOW

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SEGMENTS

The "Hole" Story

(stream / mp3)

To kick off Living on Earth’s holiday storytelling special featuring tales from the Middle East and Africa, Yassir Chadly of Morocco plays his oud and tells the story of a village’s absurd battle with a hole. (12:20)

In With The Old, In With The New

(stream / mp3)

As Living on Earth’s storytelling special continues, Iranian-American humorist Firoozeh Dumas remembers her discovery of vending machines as a child new to the United States, and her rediscovery of Iranian food as an adult. And Mamadou Ndiaye, a musician steeped in the West African griot storytelling culture, performs his tale of how he struggled to blend hip-hop with his ancestor’s oral tradition. (15:30)

Surfacing

(stream / mp3)

In the third segment of Living on Earth’s holiday special, Yassir Chadly tells the story of how he found the answer to a lifelong question in the waters off the coast of Morocco. And Afro-Persian musician Saeid Shanbehzadeh speaks his truth through the “neyanban,” an Iranian bagpipe. (16:30)

Show Credits and Funders

Show Transcript

HOST: Steve Curwood
GUEST STORYTELLERS & MUSICIANS: Yassir Chadly, Firoozeh Dumas, Mamadou, Sana Ndiaye, Saeid Shanbehzadeh

[NEYANBAN MUSIC]

CURWOOD: From Public Radio International, this is Living on Earth. I’m Steve Curwood. This winter season, storytellers brought up in the Middle East and Africa.

CHADLY: I moved the dial and I get this French channel, and I start listening and who was singing? It was Ray Charles. And I say oh I love this, I want to do something like that!

CURWOOD: Stories on the oud…and strange experiences with food.

DUMAS: When you come to America as an immigrant it’s not like you get this booklet on America and Americans. And so there were so many things that just left us completely befuddled, you know like—figuring out what’s in all the boxes and cans in the grocery store? Because so many of them have a smiling person on them, and you know that’s not in there.

CURWOOD: And one man’s journey to bridge an old storytelling tradition with hip-hop.

NDIYAE: It’s not like they way it was before so like as we say, so like, as we say we are the 21st century griots.

CURWOOD: Memories and music from Senegal, Iran and Morocco on Living on Earth’s holiday storytelling show. Stick around!

ANNOUNCER: Support for Living on Earth comes from the National Science Foundation and Stonyfield Farm.

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The "Hole" Story

Yassir Chadly. (Yassir Chadly)

CURWOOD: From the Jennifer and Ted Stanley studios in Somerville, Massachusetts, this is Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood.

Our music is different this week because we’re taking a break from our usual coverage of environmental news to bring you our annual holiday special featuring…storytellers.

This year we hear from American artists who share a Muslim heritage. Born in Morocco, Iran, and Senegal—they bring us tales of radio transformations, immigrations, and fast-food temptations. Yassir Chadly is a musician, swimming instructor, and the imam of a mosque in Oakland, California. Yassir, welcome to Living on Earth.

CHADLY: Hi!

CURWOOD: Firoozeh Dumas is an Iranian-American writer of very funny books.
Hello Firoozeh.

DUMAS: Thank you.

CURWOOD: And I also have here with me two musicians and storytellers originally from Senegal in West Africa—Mamadou and Sana Ndiaye, of the musicial group Gokh-bi System. Hi guys!

MAMADOU: Hey!

SANA NDIAYAE: Hi!

CURWOOD: Yassir Chadly, I’d like to start with you. Please, tell us about the storytelling tradition where you’re from in Morocco.

CHADLY: Well I grew up in Casablanca. There is no Humphrey Bogart there, just a city near the ocean. Storytellers are in the streets near the markets and they sit, and you can choose which one you want to sit with. And, they usually are saying stories with instruments. If they make you forget that you are sitting on a rock, then they are good storytellers.

CURWOOD: Now, Yassir, I understand you have an oud with you. Yes, there is me and my oud.

[YASSIR CHADLY PLAYING THE OUD]

CHADLY: Can you hear that?

CURWOOD: Yeah!

CHADLY: It’s like the guitar is for Europeans, is the oud is for Middle Eastern people. In general, we call it a roouid since you don’t have an “ain” in the alphabet, they changed that “ayn” into oud, they say ooodd. And that changes from oud to lute, and then you have a lute.


(Photo: Yassir Chadly)

CURWOOD: Ah. So, Yassir, do you have a story you’d like to tell using your oud?

CHADLY: Well, yes, I just want to see what comes up.

[YASSIR CHADLY PLAYING THE OUD]

CHADLY: Once upon a time there was people concentrating on a hole. A hole that was a problem for the village because every time somebody walk and they fall there, they get hurt.

But the people, they didn’t want to get rid of that hole. They liked it. But they made a gathering to see what should they do to save people from falling. And one guy said, ‘lets put a nurse, a registered nurse in the hole, and if somebody fall then the registered nurse will take care of him.’

Another one said, ‘that’s a bad idea. Why don’t we put an emergency car, an ambulance near the hole, if somebody fall we’ll take them to the hospital.’ And then, one guy come from the back, and he said, ‘all of these ideas are bad. Why don’t we build a hospital near the hole?’

And another one said, ‘No, that idea is bad, we already have a hospital. Why don’t we fill this hole with concrete? And then, we’ll make a hole right near the hospital so we still have a hole.’ [Laughs] So that’s the concentration of having a hole the whole time.

CURWOOD: [Laughs] You sound like the planet trying to deal with the question of climate change.

CHADLY: [Laughs] My idea was a people who insist and persist on an idea because they like the hole so much that they don’t want to get rid of it because they have this bad habit of always wanting to have that bad hole.

CURWOOD: So, Yassir Chadly, tell me, when did you first fall in love with music?

CHADLY: Uh, I knew I was going to be a musician when it was a hot day and I was in the Bedouin land of my grandfather, and it was very hot at noon--everybody was sleeping, the dogs are sleeping, donkeys are sleeping, everybody is sitting and finding the shade. And, I was by myself awake, I didn’t know what to do, so I started playing with the radio.

I know my grandfather and grandmother never moved the dial--they kept it always on the Arabic channel--but I moved the dial and I got this French channel and I start listening, and who was singing it was Ray Charles. I didn’t understand English or anything, I was very young, but he was singing Georgia.

[MUSIC: RAY CHARLES, GEORGIA]

CHADLY: And that touched my heart. I started crying, tears coming and I said, ‘Oh, I love this. I want to do something like that.’

[MUSIC: RAY CHARLES, GEORGIA]

CURWOOD: So let me hear a little bit of Georgia.

CHADLY: I mean, Georgia on the oud?

CURWOOD: Yes! Georgia on the oud. Georgia with Yassir, Georgia.

CHADLY: I never played Georgia on the oud. But I can play something similar to Georgia.

[YASSIR CHADLY PLAYS THE OUD AND SINGS IN ARABIC]

CURWOOD: Well thank you, Yassir! And, what do the words mean in English?

CHADLY: It was something similar to ‘Georgia On My Mind,’ this one, it says [speaks Arabic then translates]: Oh beloved of my heart where are you? Where are you all these months and all these years, I didn’t see you.

CURWOOD: So, let me ask you, Sana, now you’re holding an instrument that’s not too dissimilar from the oud. First of all, what is your instrument called, this one that looks like a banjo?

SANA NDIAYE: Yeah, this instrument is called a konting. It comes from the Diola people, which is my tribe. And, this instrument is a very old instrument--it has been created to bring peace, love and justice. I discovered this instrument when I was very, very young. My grandfather was playing this instrument, and as soon as I saw the instrument I just fell in love with it, and I just right away wanted to learn.

[SANA NDIAYE PLAYING THE KONTING]

CURWOOD: It’s the radio, so you can’t see that Sana’s playing something that looks very much like a banjo, but kind of the bottom of it is on steroids.

MAMADOU: [Laughs] This is the great-grandfather of the banjo.


Sana Ndiaye of the group Gokh-bi System playing the "ekonting." (Gokh-bi System)

SANA NDIAYE: Actually this instrument is the first banjo, so during the slavery time, you know, those people were captured, and then some of them, they brought some instruments with them, and you know, they were entertaining whoever captured them. That’s why this transformation came from with the banjo.

CURWOOD: So, Mamadou, you’ve played this yourself?

MAMADOU: No. [Laughs] Yeah, I tried but I couldn’t do it.

CURWOOD: And, Firoozeh, what did you bring today to play?

DUMAS: Well, actually nothing. I didn’t realize that we were supposed to bring anything, and I actually have no musical talent so I wouldn’t have been able to bring anything anyway. But, I can hum.

CURWOOD: [Laughs] Well, we’re going to hear from the konting later, but Firoozeh, you were born in Iran, but you moved to California with your family when you were about seven. And, you ended up writing about your experiences coming from the Persian culture and growing up in America in two very popular books, one is called “Funny in Farsi,” and the other is called, “Laughing without an Accent.”

And, you know, I have to say, when I think of Iran, the first thing that comes to my mind is not funny. I mean, how did you become an Iranian-American humorist?


Dumas is the author of the book "Funny in Farsi." (Photo: Stephanie Rausser)

DUMAS: Well, I do have to admit I think politicians have definitely set the humor bar very low. Which makes my job that much easier, because all I have to do is walk into a room and say ‘hello,’ and people say, ‘wow, she is funny!’

So, how I became a humorist is, I actually have a father who is very, very funny. So, when I became a mother and I started writing my stories for my children, they ended up being funny but I had absolutely no intention of them being funny. So, once I realized that the stories were funny, I decided to just take it one step further and to try and get them published to show the humorous side of an Iranian family, which you never see anywhere.

CURWOOD: Now, I imagine coming to America as an immigrant there are so many crazy, strange things. For example, I think you wrote about, uh, trying to figure out a garage sale?

DUMAS: Yeah. It’s not like you get this booklet on America and Americans. There were just so many things that left us completely befuddled, you know like Grasshopper Pie. You know, there was no one to ask, and like, a garage sale, you know, of course, well what exactly is a garage sale? Or, you know, figuring out what is in all the boxes and cans in the grocery stores for instance. Because so many of them have a picture of a smiling person on them, and, you know that’s not in there. So, it was definitely the little things that got us.

CURWOOD: [Laughs] So, how did the grasshopper pie get you?

DUMAS: Well, we had, when we first came to America in 1972, Americans were so kind to us, and people were always coming and giving us baked goods, and I just remember one time we had this mom from my school who came to our house and she told us that this was a tradition and she gave us this Grasshopper Pie and she didn’t explain what it was and so, we took it and we did what we always did, and we looked it up in the dictionary. And we just looked up ‘Grasshopper’ and we looked up ‘Pie,’ we just threw it away. Which, I’m very sorry for because I’ve since had Grasshopper Pie and I think it’s very good. And there are no Grasshoppers in Grasshopper Pie. But, you know it was green and had brown flecks on it, so…

CURWOOD: [Laughs] No one told you that it had sugar and what else?

DUMAS: It’s like chocolate and mint.

CURWOOD: Yeah, there you go! But, desserts named after insects…not a good idea.

Related links:
- Yassir Chadly
- Gokh-Bi System
- Firoozeh Dumas

Back to top

[MUSIC:]

CURWOOD: We’ll be right back with Firoozeh’s story of swimming, lies and vending machines. It’s storytelling time, right here on Living on Earth.

[MUSIC: SONG FROM CHADLY’S ALBUM “AJEEB!”]

In With The Old, In With The New

Firooze Dumas. (Photo: Stephanie Raussr)

CURWOOD: It’s Living on Earth, I’m Steve Curwood, and you’re listening to our winter-season storytelling special. This year we feature American storytellers from the Middle East and Africa. We’ll here the sounds of the evolving Senegalese tradition of griots in just a little bit, but first we turn back to Firoozeh Dumas, a writer who moved to the United States from Iran when she was a child.

Firoozeh, let’s pick up where we left off talking about one of my favorite subjects—food. I understand you have a story about what happened when you and your family starting eating like Americans.

DUMAS: Exactly, so when I lived in Iran, my mother and I used to go to the markets and they were open air markets, very similar to farmers markets in America, it was all very straight forward, everything was just out there. Nothing was in boxes and cans.

And, if you wanted to buy fish, it was just right there on a pile of fish. So, we used to go and we’d buy ingredients. We’d come back and my mother spent every single day of her life cooking. She would start making lunch, which was for us, the main meal of the day, in the morning.

It would always start with onions being fried, and then from there it would be all the herbs, you know, all the parsley and the scallion and the cilantro being cleaned and chopped and fried, and then the meats, so there was this symphony of smells that used to always come out of our kitchen and by the time it was lunchtime, our house was just filled with these wonderful smells. And, my father would come home from work and we would all have lunch together.

When we moved to America, we all of a sudden discovered that there were all of these foods here that were already prepared. So, in Iran, if you opened our pantry or our refrigerator, all you found was basically raw rice or lentils, or in our refrigerator, it would be raw meat and limes. And, in America, we used to go to the grocery store and we would just buy these boxes and cans not quite sure what’s in them, and try them. You know, a lot of times people go to other countries and they discover the new culture through museums, well, we were not cultivated people, so we just ate our way through America.


Firoozeh Dumas. (Photo: Stephanie Rausser)

We used to go to Baskin Robbins and we couldn’t believe there were 31 flavors, and we tried every single one. I mean, back home, we were used to having either vanilla, chocolate or Persian ice cream, which is made with rose water and saffron and cardamom, it’s very good but I mean, all of a sudden we were here and we were having like blueberry cheesecake, you know, pumpkin pie ice cream. Our favorite American food was Kentucky Fried Chicken.

CURWOOD: Whoa.

DUMAS: We used to go there three times a week and my dad would come home with two buckets and we’d basically fight for all of the chicken skin at the bottom. And, my God we ate and we ate and we ate. Needless to say, by the time I was in third grade, and mind you I’d come here in second grade, so it was one year later, there was a lot more of me than when we had initially come to this country.

CURWOOD: [Laughs] I’ll bet!

DUMAS: We used to have relatives that would come and visit us and after a while they would say, ‘My goodness! Firoozeh has just exploded, there’s about three times more of her than there used to be!’ So, finally, my parents decided that I needed to lose weight. The idea that they came up with was this: at the YMCA, everyday from three to four was free swim hour.

Which meant that you could just go to the pool and do laps, the only problem was I didn’t know how to swim. So, my parents decided that I would go to the swimming pool for one hour and I would hold my hands to the side and I would just kick for one hour. Now, I was eight years old. Anybody can tell you that this is a really bad idea. But, my parents, God bless them, they really thought that this would really cure me of all of this extra weight.

So, everyday my father would take me to the YMCA, and I of course was very angry about this whole plan of theirs to go to the YMCA five days a week, so I would just sit in that pool and when it was about ten to four, I would make sure that I would go into the pool just enough so that I would be wet up to my neck. And, then I would get out and my dad would pick me up and I would be, of course, all wet, and so he’d say, ‘oh, how was the kicking today?’ And, I’d say, ‘I’m so exhausted,’ and he was so happy for me and every day he’d say, ‘wow, I can already tell you look so good and you’re getting stronger.’

God bless him, he was so happy for me and so excited, I felt horrible that I was lying to him everyday. But, I didn’t know what to do because I hated this whole kicking idea. So, one day, when my father dropped me off at the YMCA, I was in the locker room and I noticed that there were people coming from around the corner and they were all eating candy. So, I went and I noticed that there was this huge box with glass and there was all these candy bars in it. And, people were putting in coins and candy bars were coming out. So, this was my first introduction into the world of vending machines. So, from that day on, I would go to my mother’s coin purse after school and I would steal a dime and a nickel every single day.

And, I would go into the YMCA, I would go into their gym, and I would put a dime and a nickel into the vending machine and buy a Babe Ruth bar. And then I would sit there and I would eat it at my leisure, and then I would go in the pool to make sure that I was wet enough to be convincing to my father. And, then my dad would pick me up, he would once again go into his speech of, ‘wow, you look stronger, you look so good, I’m so proud of you,’ and, of course, I felt even more guilty.

So about two months of this goes by, and lo and behold my parents notice that, my clothes are actually getting tighter, and by then I was already wearing Sears size 14 pretty plus. They said, well, wow, how could this be happening? And my father said, ‘well, maybe it’s muscle. You know, muscles are bigger than…’

CURWOOD: [Laughs]

DUMAS: So, they gave up on the YMCA kicking idea, and at that point they actually took me to a weight doctor. But, you know, I never told them the truth about this until, literally, about thirty years later, when I one day said to my father, ‘you know when you used to send me to the ‘Y’ to kick for an hour?’ and he said, ‘yes,’ and I said, ‘well, I have to admit that I don’t think I even kicked once.’ And he was so surprised he said, ‘I can’t believe you’d lie to me,’ and I said, ‘yeah, Dad, I did.’ And, you know, God bless him, I felt bad all over again. [Laughs]

CURWOOD: [Laughs] Ah, yes. America…food in a box, in a can…and a machine.

DUMAS: I think they should have a sign in the airports that says, you know, ‘welcome to America, switch to elastic waistbands.’

CURWOOD: [Laughs]

DUMAS: I just want to add I do have a small waistline now. This is radio, but if people are visualizing what I look like….

CURWOOD: Hey, I still have my elastic waistband. Firoozeh Dumas on the humorous side of growing up Iranian-American. This is living on Earth’s winter holiday season storytelling special. And let’s hear from Gokh-bi System, the musical group pioneered by Mamadou and Sana Ndiaye.

Now Mamadou, you guys play a mixture of hip-hop with the music of Senegal’s griots, and as I understand griots are the keepers of West African oral tradition. Tell me more about it—what exactly is a griot?

MAMADOU: A griot is a storyteller. They used to follow the kings and the queens and get like the whole story of their lifetimes. That’s the reason why we didn’t lose our whole story because the stories were transmit from generation to generation.

You know, each generation had a griot that was taking care of knowing exactly what was going on. Because those griots were, they had a place that they could like the place the village. They call it the tree of talk.

CURWOOD: The talking tree?

MAMADOU: Yeah, everybody will come there and the king will come and transmit his message and stuff, so everybody knows what’s going on. So griots, in our culture are really important. Even though we didn’t write before, those stories were transmitted from generations. So, there’s a writer that you say that the griots were the ‘bag of words,’ without them stories will be lost forever.

CURWOOD: Now, you come from a griot family.

MAMADOU: Yeah.

CURWOOD: And this is something you have to be born into?

MAMADOU: Yeah, basically like you’re born in a griot family. So, you basically grow up in the music of ragman. You see your sisters dancing, your father is playing drums, your mom is like telling stories and stuff. So, you’re kind of like born in that and grow up in it.

CURWOOD: So, you must know a lot of stories then!

MAMADOU: I know some! You know, I will say that we are like, we are the 21st century griots, you know? Which means like, it’s not like the way it was before how people were really concentrating on that and respecting the whole griot tradition, because in the past, griot people didn’t have to work, you know, they don’t go to school. So, it’s sort of like the village itself, people in the village, they would take care of them--you know, provide them with food, money, clothing and stuff.

CURWOOD: So, you’re a modern griot, though.

MAMADOU: Yes.

CURWOOD: So, I guess you’ve found a way…I understand you’ve found a way to balance the old and the new and it has resulted in your musical group the Gokh-bi System, which is what--part traditional Senegalese griot music and hip-hop?

MAMADOU: Yup. It’s called ancient-meets-urban.

CURWOOD: Ah. So, tell us your story of how you got to be where you are now.

MAMADOU: Yeah.


Mamadou Ndiaye performing with Gokh-bi System. (Gokh-bi System)

[PLAYS KONTING, SINGS]

MAMADOU: My name is Mamadou. [Sana sings in Senegalese in the background] Son of Mata and Fatuguay. I was born in Dakar, Senegal, West Africa. And I went to the village, to visit my uncle and his four wives. I stay with one of them who was a big deal in the griot community. And she, and four friends, they would go to village and village, town to town, telling stories, singing, dancing for money, materials, and something to support the family.

Those days was good. There’s always something going on from dancing, singing, telling stories, I didn’t want to go back to the city. And, I had to stay there for seven years, but after I had to go back to the city to pursue high school. Life was tough there. Because I’m from in a neighborhood called Guinea-Ray: means other side of the track.

And, when you say other side of the track, you can have an idea of the life we are talking about--poverty, no clean water. My parents had to struggle everyday to bring something on the table. So it was really tough, and in the same period, my father was laid-off in his job. So it was really, really tough.

And I had to live with eight brothers and sisters. And, at the same time, one day in the 90’s, I discovered hip-hop, I was just listening to the radio, and I heard it like that. I was so touched, so blown away by the message itself, because it was talking about the life we were living at that time, the same stories that I was going through. But, mostly, the connection that hip-hop had with Tassou, which is like the way that griot people was communicating with each other. Something like this: [Speaking in another language and clapping]. Just like that.

So it was a big connection, between griot people and rappers. So I think that’s why I think we call ourselves the 21st century griot. And, at that time, I wanted to drop out of school, because knowing, like, all the things that I was going through in my life, so from there I had to go to the open market, buy women’s clothes, had to prepare them, iron it, and sell it back. And I had another job and making drums and stuff--that job was a hard one, because you had to cut the tree in the forest, bring it in the city and dig a hole in it so it can have the sound of the drum.

And, after awhile, just, you know, rehearsing, doing stuff with my friends to develop that musical style that I always wanted to be, because since I was living in the city to the village, I always had a feeling like, ‘wow, I want to do this and share my stories with the rest of the world.’ And when we start, like, doing our stuff, we wanted to have our own music, have our own sound. And, the only way we could get that is to bring our traditional instruments in it because we understood that hip-hop is about reality, like what you’re living in.

And, the only way to show that was to bring our own tashina, so I met Sana, playing this beautiful instrument called a konting, and after we worked for a little bit, we had to present it to our friends- they were so disappointed of us, they was like, ‘wow, you guys think you can make it with this old instrument and these drums? I don’t think so.’ But, we didn’t say anything, we decided to keep doing what we do because we believe in that, we believe that we could do something special with it. And, after four years of working, we record a song called “sibore”

[SONG CHANGES TO “SIBORE”]

MAMADOU: Which means like, ‘lets go back to the roots.’

[MUSIC: SIBORE]

MAMADOU: And, at that same time, we meet a producer called Tony Vacca he’s from the U.S. And, we present him with our CD and he falls in love with it. Six months after that, we had our first invitation in the US. And, a lot of people wanted us to just come here and just stay--do something--because as they always think we will never make it with the music business, but we stick to our story and keep doing what we do.

And, we do that too, and we went back home, and we got invited again and again so many times. So this day, we decided to live part time here, part time in Senegal. And it does work for us, and we’re doing our thing, touring the world, and thank God, we stick to our story.

CURWOOD: And that’s Mamadou and Ndiaye’s story of how a modern griot came from Dakar, Senegal to Massachusetts, USA. Mamadou and Sana Ndiaye from the Musical group Gokh-bi System. Any comments from you other storytellers who are online here? Firoozeh?

DUMAS: Well, I just want to say I love the fact that there is so much music involved with the storytelling. Had I known, I would have maybe brought, like the theme song to a Kentucky Fried Chicken commercial or something.

CURWOOD: [Laughs]

DUMAS: But, I’m enjoying this! I love hearing this!

CURWOOD: Yassir?

CHADLY: Yes, I felt like I wanted to play the oud with that instrument to keep them company. I wanted to play the bass of my oud, because that has high notes, I wanted to play lower notes and join them--they were so on a roll--it was wonderful!

CURWOOD: Let’s give this a try. Sana, you want to lay down the line that you were playing, and Yassir, see what you can do with this. Go ahead Sana.

[YASSIR AND SANA PLAY THE OUD AND THE KONTING TOGETHER]

Related links:
- Firoozeh Dumas
- Gokh-Bi System
- Yassir Chadly

Back to top

CURWOOD: We’ll be back in moment for stories of why from Morocco, Iran, and Senegal. Keep listening to our storytelling special, right here on Living on Earth.

[SANA SINGING]

ANNOUNCER: Support for the environmental health desk at Living on Earth comes from the Cedar Tree Foundation. Support also comes from the Richard and Rhoda Goldman Fund for coverage of population and the environment. And from Gilman Ordway for coverage of conservation and environmental change. This is Living on Earth from PRI, Public Radio International.

Surfacing

Yassir Chadly. (Courtesy of Yassir Chadly)

CURWOOD: It’s Living on Earth, I’m Steve Curwood. This week on our holiday special there’s no environmental news—just stories. Our guests today are storytellers who came from the Middle East and Africa and who now live in America. They speak a variety of languages, and share French as well as English. And we’ll turn now to Yassir Chadly for another story. Yassir, I understand this is a very personal story about seeking the answer to a question planted inside of you, back in your childhood in Morocco.

CHADLY: In my childhood the division between men and women was very clear. Women, they get with each other, men are with each other. And, the houses are ruled by women, and around mid-afternoon, all the ladies, they get together to have their café latte, their mint tea, and cookies, and they make themselves and they gather together like that. And, when the ladies came to my mother’s house, my mother once told me to show the ladies something funny so they can laugh.


Yassir Chadly. (Courtesy of Yassir Chadly)

So she said, ‘Yassir, where do you come from?’ And, I just respond proudly, ‘I come from my father,’ ‘and, where did your sister Najira - where did she come from?’ I say: ‘she comes from you,’ and then everybody laughs and I don’t know why they were laughing. I was so serious about it, because I knew I was going to be a man, I don’t know how, and I knew my sister was like my mother. And then years passed like that and my mother gave birth to my brother and I said, ‘oh, you’re the one who gave birth to me then,’ and then I asked her, ‘why don’t you ask me first, do you want to come to this world, yes or no, then leave the choice to me then I can chose to come here or not to come.’

And I was telling my mother, ‘if you ask me do you want to come here yes or no, I probably would be happier to say, ‘no, I don’t want to come here.’ I had this question, and the nagging question she said, ‘not me, ask Allah, I’m not… you came through me, but I didn’t… Allah brought you here.’

And, so, that changed my question. I’m focusing on why Allah brought me here--that question pops up when I was just eight, maybe nine, so I asked people and they think I was crazy to ask such questions, so I kept it with me. So, I used to go to the country to help my grandfather in his farm.

And my job there was to trim the hooves of the donkeys when they are young because the hooves keep on growing and growing if you don’t trim them. And then also I used to ride them bare back, so they can get used to carrying people. Of course, the teenager donkeys they never liked to have somebody on top of them. So the re-bail and we have this fight between each other and I was a teenager, the donkey was a teenager also, and at the end we become one, we become friends and stuff like that. And then I took my little donkey all the way down where there is nobody and I look around and I can see only the horizon all over the place.

And I say, ‘ok, now, I’m going to ask this question to Allah.’ And then I get down from my donkey and I spoke loud, I said, ‘why did you bring me here?’ Like that. And then I could hear the answer, very gentle, saying to me, ‘just to witness,’ that’s all. That’s a very simple answer. But I didn’t like that answer, it was too short and it didn’t have any point. I wanted to ask if I am here for a real purpose doing something, but to witness, what is that?

Then I kept that idea, or that answer in me, and I went back to Casablanca. And, near Casablanca, we have ocean that has nice waves and the water is warm and clear, so clean. And, I used to go there to do body surfing, just surf with the waves and I enjoyed doing that, and I enjoyed teaching that to all my neighbors, all the kids, I swim with the Moroccan National Team. And so, I was able to swim fast enough to catch the wave and then ride with the wave, it was such an enjoyable thing. And then one day I went there and the ocean was flat like a rug. There was no waves.

‘Ah,’ I say, I walked all this way I was there walking one hour to the beach there is no waves. What should I do? So I decided I am going to lay on my back and feel those little tiny waves going under my back, and enjoy that, so I floated on my back, and feel the water and listen to the vibration of the water sounds and I’m enjoying that position like that--with my arms way open, and my legs in a ‘V’ so I can float and look at the sky, and I close my eyes.

While I was doing that, I felt my body growing out of dimension. Rising and rising like yeast in the bread, growing and growing and I couldn’t stop my body from growing. It was growing, growing until it became as big as the whole Atlantic Ocean, and I couldn’t bring myself back from that. And I felt that the ocean and me were one. And then I realized the unity of everything- there is something that is similar with me and everything else--even the ocean.

At that time, those verses I was hearing made sense to me. When it says: [speaking in Arabic], it says everything is one. And I said, ‘ah, now I understand.’ And to witness means to look, this ocean is a treasure. Everything is a treasure and people are treasures also. And that’s what opened for me the wave towards Sufism--that’s the road for it. And that’s my story, thank you for listening.

CURWOOD: Thank you Yassir Chadly. Now, we’re speaking with Yassir Chadly, he’s an Imam, a musician, a storyteller from Berkley, California, and also on the line is Firoozeh Dumas, she’s an Iranian-American writer of very funny books, and Firoozeh, when you heard this story about him not wanting to come here and trying to figure out why it is that we’re put here on earth- what did you think of?

DUMAS: Well, as a writer, I have a very strong sense of destiny, because when I go and I speak to people about what I do, I mean, I mainly try to spread the idea of shared humanity through humor. And, wherever I go, and I travel quite a bit in the United States, I always feel like I was meant to be there saying what it is that I’m saying. Now, do I think that everybody asks themselves ‘why am I here?’- no. In fact, I wish more people asked themselves that question, because I think that there are a lot of people living their lives without any introspection.

CURWOOD: Now, Mamadou, what about this notion of ‘why are we here?’

MAMADOU: Yeah, I think it’s a question that everybody asks themselves- you know- you live, you grow, you learn and you know. That’s why he felt the unity. Me, not coming in the same part of the world, even though we’re coming in the different parts of the world, we’re still united by something.

CHADLY: We share French together.

EVERYONE: Laughs.

MAMADOU: That’s true.

CHADLY: We can speak French to each other. That’s the benefit for being colonized by the French- we have this language.

MAMADOU: Yeah, that’s true.

CURWOOD: And, Firoozeh, you’ve gone French through the altar, I guess.

DUMAS: Well, my husband is French. Unfortunately, he’s not related to Alexandre Dumas, that would have been a great marketing hook for me, but no, alas, no relation.

CURWOOD: [Laughs] Let me ask you, Firoozeh, I imagine getting used to the holidays here in America, it must have been somewhat confusing to an Iranian family new to the U.S., and you have a story celebrating the humor in that confusion as Persian culture meets American culture, could you tell us that right now?

DUMAS: Ok, so when we came to America in 1972, holidays like Halloween for instance, weren’t what they are today- it was much more low-key. And, we actually came to America I believe it was late September. So, when our first Halloween rolled around, we had no idea what it was. And, I was in second grade, and I remember one morning, Heather Hensley’s mom showed up and she had a costume for me, because lo and behold there was a Halloween parade that day at school and she had figured out that I was going to be the only kid without a costume.

So, the next thing I knew she put this handkerchief around my head, she put a bunch of bracelets on my wrist, she gave me this sort of flowing outfit and she says, ‘you’re a gypsy.’ Which I realize now is just politically incorrect, but at the time, it was a very, very kind thing that she did for me, because I would have been horrified to have been the only kid without a costume. So anyways, I marched around the basketball court with all the other kids, and I just assumed that was the extent of Halloween.

So, that night we’re in our home and somebody knocked on our door. And, up to that time, no body had ever visited us in the evening. And so we all answered the door and it was a bunch of kids in costumes. And they all said something and we didn’t quite understand what they said, so we just kind of stood there and they said it again, and so, one of the kids said something about wanting candy. And, we were very confused, we didn’t have any candy in the house, and we said, you know, we’re sorry. And we shut the door, and a few minutes later somebody again knocks on the door, we open it.

It was a different group of kids dressed up as ghosts and hobos and, again, they said that phrase that we couldn’t catch, and they said that they wanted candy. And so, at this point, we said, well, hold on, we don’t have candy but we have something else. Now, Iranians, always have fruit in our house, so we went and we got the bowl of fruit that we have in the living room, so we started giving out apples and oranges and bananas, and after awhile we actually ran out of the fruit, so my mother went to the fridge, and one thing that we Iranians always have in our house--and I can say that right now in my fridge I have two pounds of this- is pickling cucumbers. So, we just started handing out pickling cucumbers.

CURWOOD: [Laughs]

DUMAS: And, then we ran out of those. And so we turned our porch light off, and when kids knocked we just didn’t even answer it. But it wasn’t until years later when I thought about that and I thought: ‘you know, those kids who came to our house that night must have thought that we were the worst house on the block.’ I mean, who would give out pickling cucumbers and apples and oranges and bananas, so I just want to apologize to any kids that actually trick-or-treated in 1972 at our house, because no body had told us that we had to buy candy. But, having said that, I think have the habits that I have developed in this country, I think that if my mother had bought candy, I probably would have eaten it before Halloween, so…

CURWOOD: Firoozeh, how did you deal with this waistline ultimately?

DUMAS: [Laughs] Well, ultimately, I grew up and I stopped eating junk food and I ate the way I used to in Iran.

CURWOOD: Ah, well, maybe I should try that. Maybe that would help.

DUMAS: [Laughs]

CURWOOD: I understand now that you just moved to southern California from the Bay Area, and I imagine it’s not so hard to find Persian food around L.A., huh?

DUMAS: Are you kidding? It’s hard to find American food down here now.

CURWOOD: Uh huh!

DUMAS: There’s great ethnic food down here--some questionable driving skills though- but I have to say, half of those are my relatives, ok. So…

CURWOOD: [Laughs] And, as I understand it, there’s a Persian specialty store there?

DUMAS: Well, there’s actually several Persian markets but there’s one near my house. And every single morning, my French husband goes to buy sangek, which is this large flatbread. My husband grew up, ironically, having fresh baguettes in Paris, and now it’s just two sangeks later, he is completely converted.

CURWOOD: I want to try one, I’ve never had one.

DUMAS: I’ll Fed-Ex you one if you want.

CURWOOD: [Laughs] Oh, ok! Thank you. And what about those Persian pastries, where do you get those?

DUMAS: They’re (laughs), there’s a story here, which is called Assal, which is honey, it’s Assal, so it’s A-S-S-A-L. So, which, I probably would not have named it that, if it were my store, because I think anytime you have ‘ass’ in a name, it’s not good. But, hey, it’s crowded all the time- so that has not kept the customers away.

CURWOOD: Okay. Quick round table, we’re just about out of time here. I’m going to start with you, um, Yassir. Why tell stories?

CHADLY: That has many, many answers in this one. Stories could be to shorten the road of somebody traveling in this journey. If they are in a dark tunnel, you can shorten the tunnel by giving them a story to get them out from that ego tunnel. And, some stories are good for taking depression out from the heart. You know sometimes when somebody is sick and you give them only water, and you tell them, ‘this is some kind of medicine,’ and they drink it believing it’s a medicine and you cure them- I don’t know the name for that idea-

CURWOOD: Oh, well, the technical name is placebo, but I think the real name is love.

CHADLY: Love, yes. Some stories can be a placebo, as an art form that can break the dividing walls between people.

CURWOOD: Mamadou, why tell stories?

MAMADOU: In the past, telling stories was a way to bring people together in the village. Because, every night, like the parents would call all the kids, put them together, and tell them stories, and I think there’s another way, there’s a way to bridge a gap between the past and the new generation. Because, you gotta know exactly where you come from to be able to know where you are going and where you’re at.

CURWOOD: Firoozeh?

DUMAS: Well, stories reveal our shared humanity. And, we need to be reminded of that. Especially these days, because so often people just know other cultures through what they see on the evening news, and of course, only bad news is news. So, we sometimes forget that people from other cultures are human just like us and have the same sadnesses and joys. And as an Iranian, I feel it is very important to tell stories because most Americans just associate bearded men and hostages and pretty much that’s about it when it comes to my native country, and for me it is very important that people see that there is so much more. There is so much shared humanity, so I really look at storytelling as an instrument of peace.

CURWOOD: Well, I wish we could keep on swapping stories, but unfortunately we’re out of time. So, I’d like to thank all of our storytellers today for sharing the warmth of their stories and memories with Living on Earth. Yassir Chadly…

CHADLY: Thank you and goodbye!

CURWOOD: Firoozeh Dumas…

DUMAS: Well, thank you for having me.

CURWOOD: And, Mamadou and Sana Ndiaye…

SANA NDIAYE: Thank you for letting us be part of this.

MAMADOU: Thank you very much.

CURWOOD: Well since Firoozeh didn’t play any music for us today, we thought we’d leave you this week with the music and voice of a talented musician from her homeland. His name is Saeid Shanbehzadeh, and he plays traditional folk music from the southwestern coast of Iran, which blends the sounds from his Persian, African, and Arabic roots. His specialty is the Iranian bagpipe, or neyanban.

[NEYANBAN MUSIC]


Saeid Shanebehzadeh playing the "neyanban." (Shanbehzadeh Ensemble)

SHANBEHZADEH: My name is Saeid Shanbehzadeh. I come from southwest of Iran from a city called Bushehr.

[NEYANBAN MUSIC]

SHANBEHZADEH: In our city we have a very rich culture with music and dance. You know, in the different ceremonies, we use the music. In the funeral, in the wedding, during the work- I readapt the ceremony on the stage. This music it is- it’s coming from the people- I did not made it, this songs- it is the sound of the people. I am neyanban player, the one kind of the bagpipe, the bagpipe of South Iran. The ‘ney’ it is the material- it is the bamboo- and the ney says two things- he can say the reality and the people they can discover something if they listen to it.

[NEYANBAN MUSIC]

SHANBEHZADEH: When we play, I try to be real and say the reality. And the reality really it is this: this music, literature, poesy, architecture, all of this, this is the reality of our nature. And, I’m too happy to share this part of our reality to the world.

[NEYANBAN MUSIC]

Related links:
- Shanbehzadeh Ensemble
- Firoozeh Dumas
- Gokh-Bi System
- Yassir Chadly

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CURWOOD: Living on Earth is produced by the World Media Foundation. The producer for today’s program was Mitra Taj. We had help today from Noah Flatt, Tim Malone and Tim Harris. Our Technical Director is Jeff Turton. You can find us anytime at l-o-e dot org, and join the conversation at our Facebook page- PRI’s Living on Earth. I’m Steve Curwood- thanks for listening and happy holidays!

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