Hands Up Foundation is now Action Syria

Al Hakawati الحكواتي (The Storyteller)

Storytelling is one of Syria’s greatest traditions and Al Hakawati holds a special place in Syrian culture. As a nod to this, Hands Up is presenting a series of stories online, told by voices you’ll recognise. All stories are published here and below for you to listen to and enjoy.

We can’t all meet in the pub, theatre or gym for now, but we can talk and listen from almost anywhere. Taking the tradition of storytelling in Syria as our inspiration, we are presenting these stories online told by some of the best-loved voices from wherever they are in isolation. First though, sculptor & archaeologist, Zahed Tajeddin, kindly introduces our series…

#1 David Dimbleby
First in our series is ‘The Slaying of the Corona Dragon’ penned and read by journalist and broadcaster David Dimbleby at his home in spring 2020. He wrote it for his grandchildren, as they adjusted to a world isolated by coronavirus and no school.

#2 Mishal Husain
Second comes from broadcaster and journalist, Mishal Husain, who you may recognise from the Today programme on Radio 4 amongst others. Mishal has chosen to read an extract from ‘The Battle for Home’ by Syrian architect Marwa al-Sabouni. The book provides a gripping account of living and working in war-torn Syria, and the role architecture plays in whether a community crumbles or comes together.

#3 Iain Burnside
Our third storyteller is the brilliant Iain Burnside, a pianist and broadcaster, whose voice you may know from BBC Radio 3‘s Sunday Morning back in the day. If you haven’t had the joy of hearing him play, put it on your bucket list. Iain has chosen to read two poems; ‘One Art’ by Elizabeth Bishop and ‘Tea’ by Carol Ann Duffy. Poetry has the most amazing ability to reassure and cheer, both of these poems deserve a wide audience, and we can’t think of anyone better to read them than Iain.

#4 Jan Ravens
Actor and impressionist, Jan Ravens, has generously agreed to be our fourth storyteller. She’s chosen a short story from Philippa Gregory’s collection ‘Bread and Chocolate’ published by HarperCollins. It’s a beautifully told tale, moving and humorous at once. You may well recognise Jan from BBC Radio 4’s popular and brilliant programme, Dead Ringers.

#5 Petroc Trelawny
Our fifth story comes from the brilliant TV & radio broadcaster, Petroc Trelawny, who you will usually hear on BBC Radio 3’s Breakfast. He reads an extract from ‘A Dragon Apparent’ by Norman Lewis, published by Eland, who have kindly granted permission for us to use it. Lewis was a journalist and author known particularly for his travel writing. ‘A Dragon Apparent’ covers his travels to Indochina (Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos) in the early 1950s during the protracted war between the Viet Minh and French colonial forces. The extract Petroc has chosen focuses on Lewis’ travels to Luang Phabang, the ancient capital of Luang Prabang Province in northern Laos where the Mekong and Nam Khan rivers meet. If you need to be transported to “a gentle, eccentric place of paradise” this is your ticket!

#6 Levison Wood
The sixth story from the intrepid author, photographer and filmmaker Levison Wood. Levison reads the introduction from his book ‘The Last Giants, The Rise and Fall of the African Elephant’, published by Hachette in February 2020. The book explores the evolution of elephants and how they can survive in today’s often cruel world. Levison tells of his own introduction to the African elephant aged 11 through to how these majestic and beautiful animals have motivated some of his latest work.

#7 Brigid Keenan
Prepare to be transported to the magical old city of Damascus. The seventh story is from the brilliantly witty author and journalist, Brigid Keenan. Brigid reads, ‘Lady Damascus’, a piece she wrote for a complication: ‘Syria: Through Writers Eyes’, published by Eland Books in 2006. Having lived in Damascus for six years with her husband in the 1990s, Brigid tells how she fell ‘in love with a whole city because of one house’. It was the exact moment of visiting this particular house, that opened her eyes to the ‘glittering beauty’ of Damascus, ‘rather than viewing it as a tourist’. Whether you have been lucky enough to wander Damascus’ streets or not, this story will take you straight there; through her exquisite descriptions Brigid conjures the Old City; its buildings and its people, in all its beguiling splendour.

#8 Samuel West
Our eight story comes from actor and director, Samuel West, who has chosen to read the magical tale of ‘Melisande’ by E Nesbit from his mother’s 1938 copy. It is pure joy and you are in for a treat! Samuel has worked on some wonderful projects for film, TV, theatre and radio, and more recently has been reading #pandemicpoems every day since the UK lockdown began (not to be missed, you can find them on soundcloud). Melisande is a fairytale with a twist; a princess’ christening and a wish that is granted, but not quite as simple as it seems. If you need some escapism, this is the one for you!

#9 Clare Balding
Our ninth story is an insightful and very moving piece from none other than broadcaster and author, Clare Balding. This extract covers her time in Wiltshire with the ‘Forget Me Not’ walking group, consisting of people living with early onset memory diseases. Walking and sharing stories go hand in hand and this reading is simply wonderful. Please share!

#10 Michael Morpurgo
Our tenth story comes from the magnificent Michael Morpurgo, who reads his short story ‘The Kites are Flying’ published by Walker Books
. It is the most touching and heart-breaking tale with a message of hope. ‘The Kites are Flying’ follows British journalist, Max’s trip to the West Bank where he strikes up a friendship with enigmatic Palestinian boy, Said, who doesn’t speak. The story is told from the perspectives of both characters, and while incredibly moving, there are brilliant notes of humour as each appraises the other. There is something extremely special about listening to an author read their own work, and this is no exception. 

#11 Anthony Sattin
Last but not least, our eleventh story comes from the writer & broadcaster, Anthony Sattin, who reads an extract from his book The Pharaoh’s Shadow (published by Eland Publishing in 2012 and available at all good bookstores!) titled ‘The Man who Laughed in the Tomb’. Conjuring up the sprawling cemetery in Cairo, Anthony tells how he met the enigmatic and colourful Abdu with his wife happily alongside the cemetery’s other residents. Please listen, enjoy and share.

We hope you’ve enjoyed every word of these fabulous stories. If so, all we ask in return is a donation to support Hands Up’s work in Syria and Lebanon, which is needed more than ever as the threat of COVID-19 continues to spread.

Huge thanks to all the celebrities for participating and to Nick MacDonald for his incredible editing.

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