Land Rover©MENA, Flickr.com
We were in the Land Rover on our way to a children’s cultural festival hosted by a village school.
“I say, Ali, how often do you listen to those stories on your phone card?” my husband Frank asked as we wound our way through the hills. My family and I had been living in this region for a number of years and Ali, a local man gifted in storytelling, had become a close friend.
“Every day,” he answered. “Every morning I get up and listen, listen, listen.” Ali had been invited to share a short story during the program. The other passengers in the Land Rover were our children, looking forward to a lazy day in the sunshine.
"Tell us what you're listening too, Ali," my husband continued.
"I'm listening to the part about the Prophet Abraham right now," Ali explained, as he launched into the story about Abraham's descendants, namely Isaac, and the deception Jacob played to steal his brother's blessing. On and on Ali went, recounting chapter after chapter in accurate detail, entirely from memory.
My heart swelled with amazement and joy as I listened to Ali and with pride as I watched my husband. Frank mostly played the role of uninitiated listener, but I noticed his questions were always timed over the places Ali left out an important detail or two. It was only when Ali got rather mixed up between the story of Abraham’s servant meeting Rebekah and the story of Jacob meeting Rachel – both of which happened at a well near Haran – that Frank switched his role to that of "expert" until the two stories got untangled.
By the time we got to the village, Ali was telling us about Joseph interpreting Pharaoh’s dreams!
The festival program began on time, by local standards. My children and I joined a crowd of young students sitting in folding chairs in front of the stage. There was singing and dancing; the children too performed songs and skits. As the music rolled, groups of men began to trickle into the school yard and occupy the empty space behind the seated audience. Before long, I noticed little knots of women bashfully slipping closer and closer, one bush at a time, on the high hill above the school building.
After an hour or so, the ranks of women in the "balconies" had swelled to quite a crowd, and they'd forgotten their shyness and were openly enjoying the entertainment in the school yard below their perch.
This was a multilingual event. Some items were in Arabic, others in various other languages the children had learnt in school. There were also songs and speeches in the local language, the heart language of all those gathered there.
At last it was Ali’s turn. It was the first time I, personally, had seen him with microphone in hand in front of a large group of people. I was impressed by his calm command of the situation.
"Well, do you want to hear a story?" he asked the children in his, and their, beloved native language. "Yes!!!" they chorused enthusiastically.
And away he went, faithfully recounting the parable of the rich man and Lazarus.
Tears pricked my eyes as I looked around at the crowd, little children to old people, all sitting within range of the microphone, and all listening to something which they had likely never heard before. It was over soon, Ali stepped down, and the program continued.
It was long past nightfall by the time the entertainment was over, chairs and equipment packed up, supper served, and we began the hour-long journey home. Two other men had joined us in the Land Rover. It wasn't long before Frank asked Ali if he had any more stories to tell us. Such a question for Ali is entirely rhetorical! He was immediately ready with his current favorite, Ruth.
"It's a long one!" he warned his fellow passengers with a laugh.
Ali started at the very beginning and went all the way through, pausing only when one of the passengers needed to answer the phone. Each time he hung up, the man turned to Ali, "Okay, keep going," he said. "You were at such-and-such a place."
Tears again pushed against my eyelids as I listened. The children slept. The engine roared in the background. Ali’s voice was the center of the moment, and the men followed the story closely. What a holy moment!
"Well, there you have it," Ali laughed contentedly as he relaxed in his seat at the end of the tale. "All 18 minutes’ worth!"
"That is a good story," the other men agreed.
"Yeah," Ali said. "But nowadays, there aren't many people left who want to hear these stories. Everyone is too busy with the internet, his phone, and all that."
"Where did you get this story?" the other man asked. "Well, I listen to them a lot," Ali answered ambiguously.
"It's a well-known story where I come from," Frank put in. "My father used to tell it to me."
The other passenger spoke up. "That story is not just any story," he pointed out. "That's a historical account. It has actual places in it. Like Bethlehem. That's a real town still today."
"You are right!" Frank answered in mild surprise. We had helped in the preparation and recording of these stories, and I think this was the first time anyone had recognized this place name as being an actual, physical location.
As we pulled into town, I found myself reflecting on the events of the day, and I felt I saw His coming reaching further into this dark place. I felt a bit like Mary in Luke 2 pondering all these things in her heart.
I wonder what this is the beginning of...
Reproduced with permission from Wycliffe Global Alliance.