June 26, 2017

The Other Story: Highlighting Our Shared Humanity

Fatima Al-Banawi, founder of The Other Story, sets up the story collection stands during one of the project's pop-ups. (Fatima Al-Banawi)
by Mai Alfarhan

Fatima Al-Banawi is known for her role as the protagonist in Saudi Arabia’s first ever rom-com movie “Barakah Meets Barakah.” But beyond acting in this story, she has started a project collecting other people’s stories in Jeddah. Fatima’s experience as a psychological caseworker at the Family Protection Society in Jeddah coupled with her exposure to a vibrant public space while studying abroad in the United States, compelled her to start The Other Story. Fatima utilizes public spaces like cafes, parks, and malls to collect stories and ultimately create anonymous, short, and handwritten story collections. These collections travel through the city in the form of live performance pieces and art exhibitions, and through other activities that bring the community closer together around a central theme.

AGSIW spoke to Fatima about her initiative, the process of collecting stories, and The Other Story’s future vision.

Exhibiting stories from the collection is an integral part of the story collection stands. (Fatima Al-Banawi)

AGSIW: Tell us more about what inspired the creation of The Other Story.

Fatima: A series of events and engagements in my life inspired me to initiate The Other Story, starting from my move from Jeddah to the United States to study in a master’s program in theological studies at Harvard. I focused on Islamic studies and women’s gender and sexuality. When I went back to Jeddah during break, I found it difficult to tell people what I was studying there in simple vocabulary.

While at Harvard, I was the only Saudi at the Divinity School, so the only medium I used in my communication with my colleagues and professors when they asked questions about Saudi Arabia was through telling stories. You would assume that people in such a prestigious school would have some understanding of Saudi Arabia and its culture, but this wasn’t the case. I have encountered people who have had many misconceptions about women in Saudi Arabia and thought the country was complex. One observation I noticed while in the United States was how vibrant the public space was, unlike Saudi Arabia where it is very private. So storytelling was something that I knew I wanted to utilize in telling stories about my people, and their identity, culture, and religion.

Fatima hangs stories on a wall in preparation for the workshop “Stories Connect.” (Fatima Al-Banawi)

Throughout my academic journey there, I engaged with literature and saw how novels and films are portraying Arab culture; both novels and films are based on stories, which is something that I had kept in mind. I myself have felt misrepresented when participating in media platforms that have written or made documentaries about Saudi youth. I then decided to be the agent of my voice and deliver what I find representative, acknowledging that this is not to be generalized. When I tell my story, it is my story and when you tell yours, it’s yours. Opening up the platform for a lot of people to relate to you and to feel that your story is also kind of like theirs.

Upon my return to Saudi Arabia I put my studies in practice engaging with people instead of seeking a desk job. I had this idea in mind but did not believe it would be possible until I walked into a cafe, spoke to girls sitting at the next table and collected stories for the first time in Jeddah. I went back home with three stories from medical students and I was very happy. It felt possible. I knew I could always go back home with more stories.

AGSIW: What do you mean by “Other” in “The Other Story”?

Fatima: The other and I are not different. They are actually one; I am you, you are me, in our story under one theme. I use themes to categorize stories, for example: Oppression is universal. If I am oppressed in one country and you are as well oppressed in another country, we can relate, feel, and empathize with one another. These stories bring the other in you into my eyes.

The other is not only the other person’s story, but it is the other tale/narrative. It is up to the reader to interpret it the way that speaks to him or her.

AGSIW: You only accept stories that are anonymous, handwritten, and no longer than a single page. What’s the rationale behind it?

Fatima: They are anonymous because we are still a very shy society in Jeddah. We are using art as a platform to come out, speak, and engage. Also, I would like for the audience to experience the story without adding names to it so that they receive the story raw and unaffected by judgments about the other.

They are handwritten for the intimate and vulnerable self to surface (to be experienced in the curves, tilted lines, perfected lines, mistakes, little drawings on the margins, and mood shifts). And, because your handwriting is the first thing you learn in school. It is individualistic and identifies you; it is like your ID.

Stories are kept intentionally short because I collect stories from people who are usually running to do something and on the go. It is a fast life and writing is not like talking; you want to put your thoughts down, think of them, filter things, and be okay with other aspects. If I tell you to write for longer than a page, people are likely to refuse or postpone this task to another day. Some of the strongest stories in the first collection we made were just a single line long.

AGSIW: Once you collect stories, where do you go from there?

Fatima: After people put their stories in the story collection box, I take them into the story room where I categorize stories into themes. Not existing themes that I came up with previously, but rather themes inspired by the stories I collect. From the 2015-16 collection, I have about eight themes. After themes are made, I produce artwork on the collection through something called the performance series. Each performance piece is made of script that I personally weave in a collection of stories where I create characters that are based on the accumulation of say 20 different stories.

In February, we participated in an exhibition called “Flow,” and our performance piece was named “I Am You.” I took 15 stories together, and then I told one story about the protagonist from day one in his life until he fell in love at the age of 34. This person is fiction, but all his life is made of different real stories of people. The audience was touched by this performance because it was real and close to people. Performers were from the community who had full-time jobs outside theater; some were doctors, bankers, etc.

Other activities we hold are art exhibits, workshops, podcasts (to be developed), and a forthcoming book for The Other Story.

A participant performs during the workshop “Stories Connect.” (Fatima Al-Banawi)

AGSIW: The first cycle of story collections has been taking place in Jeddah. Where else do you envision The Other Story heading?

Fatima: I definitely would like to expand to more cities in the future. I am already in touch with different people from other cities who expressed interest in hosting The Other Story and collecting stories themselves. In the meantime, I would like to have different cities exhibit the story collection that was collected in Jeddah. I would like for the stories collected in Jeddah to visit other cities as a first stage. Once Jeddah’s stories are out and engaged with, the project can expand to invite people in those cities to contribute to the story collection. I believe that once those stories – of ourselves or of our cities – go outside, we are also opening a channel to go inside.

To read more about The Other Story visit the website and follow The Other Story on Instagram.

Mai Alfarhan is a research associate at the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington.