Q & A with author and storyteller, Mehded Maryam Sinclair

I’ve always been fascinated by stories, the ones I read and the ones I hear. Most of us are used to hearing stores being read. But how many of us have heard stories being told? Storytelling is different from just reading a story.  I thought I would find out more about the world of storytelling from storyteller and author, Mehded Maryam Sinclair. 

She is the voice behind three audio CDs, The Bowing of the Stars, Miraculous Happenings in the Year of the Elephant and A Mercy to the Worlds; each of which tell the story of a different Prophet of Allah (peace be upon them). Mehded Maryam is also the author A Trust of Treasures (which I wrote about here) and Miraculous Happenings in the Year of the Elephant. She is currently working on production of another audio CD and writing a book. During the coming weeks she will be doing storytelling performances in Islamic schools located in several major U.S. cities.


Ummah Reads [UR]: Welcome to the blog Sister Mehded Maryam. Please tell us a little about yourself.

Mehded Maryam Sinclair [MMS]: I am a little old grandmother living in Amman, Jordan. I have 5 grandchildren alhamdulillah.

UR: When did you first know that you wanted to be a storyteller?

MMS: I’ve always wanted to be a storyteller.

UR: What is storytelling?

MMS: Storytelling is living, actually. Things happen to us, occur to us, inspire or puzzle or scare or delight us, and we immediately want to tell someone about them. Once they are told, shared, understood, they become different. Did you ever have the experience of telling a personal story on different occasions in different times to different people who happened to ask, and then on a particular time, your telling was deeper, more profound, maybe even made you choke up or cry when you never had before? This is an indication of how much a transaction storytelling is. The quality of a person’s listening has a huge impact on the teller.

UR: What’s the difference between reading and telling stories?

MMS: When you are telling a story you are in a creative moment that includes you, your listeners, and Allah. You are looking at them, they are looking at you, and your words form a bridge from your state and experience and feelings to their states, inner images and experiences. And Allah is orchestrating. When you are reading, obviously Allah is just as present, but you are dividing your time between the page and the essential solitude of reading, and your listeners. If the words you speak are authentic, that is, you don’t need to read them because they belong to you, they are rolling off your tongue without help, they will have a different impact on your listeners.

UR: Can you explain the oral tradition of poetry and telling stories in Islam?

MMS: I actually have not researched it much. One thing I have delved into slightly is the conflict between the scholars and storytellers and I must say that even though I consider myself a storyteller I come down on the side of the scholars on that one. The astonishing thing about our Islamic culture and traditions is that from the very beginning the knowledge was gathered, preserved, protected and developed by the most extraordinary efforts of scholarship the world has ever known: witness the memorizing of the entire Qur’an by most of the first Companions as it was being revealed and lived over 23 years, or the memorizing of thousands upon thousands of hadith along with their with their chains of transmission by hadith scholars in the later generations, or the painstaking Qur’anic interpretations in the light of other disciplines like politics, geography, sociology, and history that is the science of tafsir.

When this rich lode of pure knowledge is available, why muddy the waters with distortions and lies? Other religious traditions resort to distortions and lies because their true knowledge is lost; it is a habit of mind…we’ve lost it, let’s just make it up. Islamic knowledge is not lost, thanks to the incredible efforts of individuals who give their lives to learn and preserve and carry forward. And with the medicines of that knowledge, real transformation is possible. What has one gained, who has lost Allah, and what has one lost, who has gained Allah?

I don’t by any means intend to disparage fiction or even fantasy here. Both are really important, but for what? Not merely to entertain, for that is not why we are here. But fiction and fantasy can be surprisingly effective carriers and deliverers of Truth. But it is critically important, especially today, that you differentiate clearly for your listeners whether the story you are telling is make-believe or one that actually happened. The problem is not necessarily the fiction or fantasy per se but the failure to delineate fact from fiction. Another note about fantasy is that this delineation becomes very difficult to maintain when the setting of the fantasy is indistinguishable from normal everyday experience. In other words the delineation between fact and fantasy becomes totally lost within the story. This is one of the problems with a lot of the fantasy being written today, and with the Harry Potter series, for example. If you examine the fantasy of earlier times, Tolkein or CS Lewis or MacDonald, you will see that the delineation is very obvious throughout, and the over-arching values of the victory of good over evil, of the fitra over the fitnah, are very clear.

UR: How important is storytelling for children? What some of your thoughts on why we need to not just read stories but hear them as well?

 MMS: Of the five senses: sight, touch, taste, smell, and hearing, it is hearing which is experienced first in the womb.

It is reported that Muhammad, may Allah bless him and give him peace, said, “Be an ear.”

The first word of Mawlana Jelaluddin Rumi’s Masnavi is, “Listen.”

If a child has a hearing defect which cuts him off from audible language in the womb, he will not learn to speak.

That’s how important listening is.

Just by listening, the normal child learns an amazing command of his/her native language within 3-4 years, even correctly manipulating grammar structures to express meaning in speech. Just by first listening and then diving into speech, mistakes and all, and then gradually the mistakes fall away. Obviously the ones who have a rich listening life, with lots of storying and storytelling and singing and chanting and being read to, will be even more successful, and their success will become even more evident in the later phases of language acquisition: reading and writing.

I think it’s vitally important not to stop at the idea of telling children stories or providing them with a rich audio diet, either. They should be encouraged to tell as well. Let’s say you go with them for a walk. Come back home and make the walk into a story. Get them to “story” their experience: to remember it, sequence it, expand it, reflect on it. “We put on our coats because it seemed chilly. We got outside and started walking, so we took them off again. Out there Mama told me the story of the sun and the wind. The wind tried to get the coat off the man. He couldn’t. The sun got him to take it off, just by smiling at him.  We saw a cat. I didn’t want to come back inside. I like the sun.”  Even the simplest of things can become stories. “We sat by the window and drank hot chocolate. It was sweet. I was happy,” is a major beneficial story for a 2 yr old.

This kind of activity can literally change your state and your child’s state. I remember finding this when sleeping with my granddaughter one night, who woke up in a fright. I consoled her but she was having none of it until I started telling her a story. I had no idea what I was telling her, just something like “There was a girl on a ship, and the wind was lightly blowing, blowing, blowing. The waves of the sea were gentle and carried the boat like a treasure chest. It was night and the moon was bright in the sky…” really, I saw then that it didn’t really matter where the story was going in that context. I believe that what was healing for her in that moment was the sound of my voice, and the images, and the unconscious agreement that “story” always entails, come, let’s go off together, somewhere wonderful…and then, of course, I was off the hook pretty quickly, because he was asleep in a matter of a very few short minutes.

I can remember with my own sons years ago, easing their upsets by getting them to tell the story of what happened to them. 


UR: What are some stories for children that you have available at present?

MMS: Miraculous Happenings in the Year of the Elephant won an award, alhamdulillah, from the Islamic Foundation. It is available as a picture book and as a CD. I might mention a friend whose 2-year-old went through a phase of wanting to listen to the CD over and over again, and insisting on having it playing at bedtime. The language is not simple – it wasn’t written for 2-yr olds, (and the CD is not a ‘reading’, but a ‘telling.’ By that I mean that the Photobucketlanguage it was written in had become part of me so that by the time I produced the CD, I had embodied the language and had very little need for the printed text) but he was attracted to the sound of the voice, to the drum, to the sound effects. Then a few months ago I saw his mother reading the book to him at age four, and I realized that had he not done all that listening it would have been hard for her to engage him with the language. But he was right with her, hanging on every word. His previous listening experience allowed him to enter language far beyond him.

I remember a friend from Toronto telling me that in her summer camp group of 11-year-olds, not one had ever been told the story behind Suratul Fiil. I find this tragic, and it is why I do what I do, may Allah help us and increase our efforts for His sake and the sake of His Ummah.

 PhotobucketThe Bowing of the Stars, Moments From the Life of Prophet Yusuf, peace upon him is a double CD. Every sentence of this was examined by one of Jordan’s top tafsir scholars and accepted, adjusted, discarded, or reformulated. He was working from five major tafseer works. It is accompanied by a recital of Sura Yusuf by the scholar himself, Sheikh Ali Hani.

 A Mercy to the Worlds – the Coming of Muhammad, may Allah bless him and give him peace CD was translated into Arabic and presented to the then Grand Mufti of Jordan, who suggested a couple of small changes and then wrote,

The teaching of the life of Muhammad, may Allah bless him and give him peace, is obligatory, and Ms. Sinclair has transmitted these meanings in a way based on the needs of her young listeners, a way sure to inspire love and longing for him and his Message. – Sheikh Nuh Al-Qudat, Grand Mufti of Jordan

A Trust of Treasures – A Praise-Song to the Power of the One is a picture book illustrated by Angela Desira, published by Kube UK in 2009.

 And coming soon, inshaAllah:

Wings – the Journal of a Young Muslim Girl book to be published by Kube UK early 2011.

The Bowing of the Stars – Moments from the Life of Yusuf, peace upon him, book illustrated with original watercolors by Jordanian artist Buthayna, published early 2011 by Turath/Huma UK

Moments from the Heart of the Holy Qur’an, The Prophet Musa, peace upon him audio CD

UR: What advice can you give to young people who wish to become a storyteller?

MMS: First, dua. If the Best of Creation made dua to fix his sandal, what are we doing? Spend some time reflection on what it is you’d like to accomplish with stories, and what kinds of stories you think are important. Then take it all to Allah, and beg Him to accept it, ask to be shown how to proceed.

Start telling! Find a story you love, and then pretend you can be present in the world in which it occurred. Identify why you love it. If it is a fictional story, be ready to make that very clear to your listeners. You can watch the whole thing unfold, like a fly on a wall, or as if through a crystal ball. Try to understand what the characters might have been feeling, and find those feelings in yourself. In doing this reflect that the human being, of all of Allah’s creation, is the one creature that has the power to enter the consciousness of any other particle of creation…with the power of imagination you can slip to the sea-bottom and watch the fluorescent eels. You can slip beneath the feather of a great bird and soar over the mountaintops.

If you want to tell the true stories of our tradition, of the prophets, or the companions, the work needs to have an element of what I have just described, but there are other principles that must be followed first and foremost. You must be totally dedicated to preserving the Truth. This means you have to dig, and in the right places. It’s not enough to stick just to the English sources, unfortunately, because they reflect translations of only small parts of the vast treasury in Arabic. If you know Arabic or can learn it, there is nothing that will serve you better. I only know enough Arabic to buy carrots, sadly, so I am constantly begging the friends and scholars around me for help and alhamdulillah they are generous and patient.

Anything you say must be in accord with what the scholars have shown us is the meaning and import of the story. It is not for us to insert ourselves into the lives and experiences of the prophets and companions and interpret them according to ourselves. We may suggest possibilities but they must be based upon and not in any way contradict what is known and verified in the sources. For the prophets, we must not attribute words to them that are not verifiable by direct quotes or meanings in the sources. The standard for telling from the life of Muhammad, may Allah bless him and give him peace, must be even more stringent, since our entire aqida and fiqh and ibadah are based on his sayings and doings. It is not permissible to attribute anything whatever to him that is not verified in the sources. May Allah protect us and guide us to work in ways that please Him and serve His Plan.

Please visit my blog at www.nuralqasas.wordpress.com, my (unfinished) website www.stories-of-light.com.

UR: JazakumuAllahu Khairan Sr. Mehded Maryam for your enlightening responses. It was a pleasure and honour to have you share your experience. Your work is truly inspiring adults and children to understand the moments and lives of some of greatest people who lived!