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Fatima Al-Banawi: What’s your story?

Sitting in a crowded café, waiting on a roadside traffic stop, boarding a plane, sitting at the waiting area for a routine medical checkup, carrying your groceries at the line to the cashier at a supermarket, did you ever wonder who this person in front of me is? Who is this person speaking on the phone in the car next to me? Who are those people laughing on the other side of the road? Who is this woman carrying a child as she heads in to the pharmacy? We are inquisitive by nature and want to know of our surroundings. People are an integrated part of these surroundings and we simply want to know more! We sit in these settings and think about the people next to us drinking their coffee, are they drinking the same coffee as I am, we wonder. Wonder if they liked or disliked the bland cheesecake? Wonder how the guy got that scar on his eyebrow or why does this girl wear bright red lipstick in the middle of the day or why this kid has a bandaid on his knee? A million questions roam our minds as a natural reaction to our surroundings and we all want to know each other’s stories and how we came to be.
Arabs have been telling stories for hundreds of years; it’s a trait and tradition being handed down from one generation to the next. As the years passed, and technology surfaced and conquered, the art of storytelling is dying and we (as a society) aren’t doing enough to keep it alive. But there is one young woman with a project that is innovative and inspiring, it’s also a welcoming breath of fresh air taking the participant in the project away from all that is distracting; just you, an empty page of paper and a pen. Fatima Al-Banawi’s “The Other Story” is a project that is breaking some taboos and giving you the participant a chance to zone out and write a story, any story, as long as it’s something.
Arab News interviewed Fatima, an inspirational mindset that is out to hear your story and mine.

Tell us about “The Other Story” project.
The “Other Story” project is literally as it is a handwritten true story using only one page. It’s a simple yet heady combination because what I’m asking strangers to do is tell me something that can be extremely personal, emotional, intimate, their own personal narrative. Time isn’t important and the setting doesn’t matter either, a story is just a story. I started the project in September of last year and I’m still collecting until this day. It’s written by the people of Jeddah, we live and share Jeddah which means we share its story, the making of it and what’s to come up next. That’s the core of the project.
I’m relaying these stories and there’s also a social responsibility from my part to partake in the book by providing knowledge from my years of education, not critique, but more commentary on the different aspects of societal development on a personal level. Knowledge needs to be shared by all.

Let me get this straight, you just go up to people and say “hi, I have a project I’m working on and I want to hear your story,” that’s it?
Technically, yes! I’d sometimes be at a café for example and see a group of people sitting by, I’d approach them, introduce my project, hand them blank sheets of paper if they accept and have them place their stories in a box or envelope. I don’t ask for names or even handle the papers so I don’t have a personal attachment or interest per se.

How did you find the reactions or these participants? Do they understand the concept of the project and volunteer with no questions asked, giving in to it as it should be done?
Absolutely! People from all walks of life had a part in this project; people that you’d think would undermine such an initiative or pass by and think nothing to it, the best part of writing these stories is that it’s all anonymous! You never know who or why they’re taking part but it’s very much appreciated.

That’s interesting and very promising to know. I can’t say that the art of storytelling is dead because we have so many writers trying to make a mark in the world of Arabic literature, but it’s the personal stories that we’re lacking. You’re going deep aren’t you?
It’s part of what I grew up with, loving every art form there is as well as my time at Effat University studying psychology and getting my masters from Harvard which is to study humans from a psycho-social aspect. Every story stands on its own without editing or any filtering, it will be published exactly as it is and what I can do at most is define natural themes to these stories and collect them in that sense.

So your undergrad was in Psychology from Effat University here in Jeddah and then you went to pursue your master’s degree in Theological Studies at Harvard. You’re gathering stories which is a type of art and you’re also a consultant focusing on studying the development of humans at different stages of their life. Two very different yet interconnected approaches you’re taking, how did you find middle ground from your take?
I was connected to the arts from a very young age and at the same time I knew I wanted to pursue a degree in psychology because I loved the human mind, I loved studying every aspect of society, how social issues emerge, its effects on us as humans and how we as individuals or a collective find solutions to these issues. It’s complicated but interesting and I knew I wanted to know more. I found art to be the means of expressing my emotions, for example as a child, I’d grown to want to take in as much art, film and literature classes as I could during my years at university and with that, I started seeing another picture to the educational path I’m pursuing which was psychology, then theological studies combined with a form of art does actually make sense. As you mentioned story telling is art and when it’s in the written form, it’s also a method of expression. As a consultant, I am able to look into these words, catch a glimpse of who this writer is and maybe even go through the same emotions he or she is going through with the stroke of their pen. They’re very complimentary to each other and crucial as well.

Why are you passionate about gathering these stories?
My time at Harvard was very rewarding. We were 18 different denominations, so similar and yet people would try to address things differently and make them seem as if they’re from a different world. It was interesting how people would approach me and talk to me because I was the only Saudi at the time, people were curious and this was an Ivy League school, so you’d think people would know or understand a little bit about the outside world, but that wasn’t really the case, they were honestly curious! I look at it from two angles; one would be the underrepresentation of this place, Jeddah, and its uniqueness. Many of my colleagues were inspired by Jeddah and its significance. Jeddah is organically very inclusive of all sorts of humans, I saw something in the people as I spread my empty pages, I happen to live here and Jeddah is built on multi-cultures, its unity is in its diversity, it’s what makes it special.

In what way do you see this project as one that can be productive?
My grandparents always told us stories, so did my friends’ grandparents. I noticed that it’s never about the next generation, it was always about them. It’s as if our stories are at a loss because of an internal buzz that just wouldn’t stop. Taking some time off to jot down some sentences that go on to become a story, it’s therapeutic in some ways and a form of meditation in others. What I’m hoping and striving for with the “Other Story” project is to provide a chance to a means of self-expression without any boundaries or critiques, it’s just you, your paper and the reader wondering who this writer is and relating on some level to the written words.

Do you think it runs deep with some? Having to write stories about topic (x) for example, do you see emotion at times as they’re holding on to that paper writing along its invisible lines?
I do, I see emotions in the stories, I see their facial expressions as they place their paper in the box, I see it reflected in their handwriting and I would get a lot of mixed responses. While some felt shy or apprehensive from their own stories, it’s at these times that I reassure them that it’s all anonymous. Having worked as a case worker at the Family Protection Society, it’s important that you have them understand these technicalities don’t count, no one will know who they are and it’s safe to express emotions in every stroke of their pen.

What have your life experiences taught you in connection to this project?
I’ve learned that families and people evolve, they continue to change. Whether it’s by reflection or by experience or by therapy, whatever the medium is for change, it happens. Empathy and forgiveness are important things to consider in your own personal change and that can happen by writing your own story or by reading someone else’s, growth will happen eventually.
People are getting to know each other and are connected one way or another and I think this project turned book can be a platform for it.
After sitting down and talking to Fatima for an hour, there’s a certain positive aura surrounding her and in some way a very interesting positive take to a society’s contribution to a taboo act, the act of writing one’s personal emotions and speaking about them in written form. The “Other Story” project is still undergoing and you can add your story by visiting the project’s station at The Humming Tree Community Center and do follow the Instagram page to know more about what’s coming up next.

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