Intro: In response to Sujatha Fernandes’ talk on The Uses of Narrative in Organizing for Social Justice on October 4th, current OHMA student Nairy AbdElShafy reflects on how individuals choose to curate their own stories, when given the space and agency to do so and how this serves as a representation of their own culture and history.
In this technological age, we’re pressed daily into curating our stories and sharing them with the world. In our discussion with Sujatha Fernandes prior to her talk on how technology is affecting the dynamic of curated storytelling, she referred to how digital technology has us presenting curated versions of ourselves and in turn, consuming curated stories of others, abbreviated by a twitter character limit.
This is not totally new. As an Egyptian, I have grown up with the legacy of the pharaohs. They presented themselves to the world as strong, tall and powerful. Isn’t this a strong reflection of their era’s principles and power struggles? If you dig deeper, though, you’ll find a period that depicted short pharaohs, even overweight ones. And that was representative of the era’s vision for realism and breaking the cycle of power.
A current trend within organizations: many actively seek to use curated stories for marketing and advocacy purposes. Sujatha mentioned the rise of content strategists, helping your organization better tell your story. There’s a whole model for how your story should look, how you present yourself, your life goals, aspirations, challenges, crisis point and what you’re asking the audience to do: support your cause, become impressed or inspired? Working with grassroots activists, Sujatha found that many individuals feel tired after sharing their same curated story over and over- with a sense of being disciplined into a particular model.
I can’t help but wonder, what happens when individuals are given free reign to make up their own story? Would they present themselves as you perceive them? Or differently? Would their projected image of themself fit with yours?
Would it influence your view?
Our professor, Nyssa Chow, encourages us to ask our narrators: “What do you need to tell me/ I need to know so I can understand you?” Asking individuals to tell us their own stories in this open way without an agenda or a set curated model would almost always prove to be one of the most powerful tools to understand them and their society.
“What a culture will most readily tell about itself, what people feel to be the safest form of self-presentation, can be very revealing”
- Alessandro Portelli: “Oral History as Genre”,The Battle of Valle Guila: Oral History and the Art of Dialogue
Through my volunteer work in different projects collecting first hand narratives, I was always curious by the choices individuals made, on how they wanted to present themselves. I was the local coordinator for the collection of stories in Faces of Nuba, a project aiming at documenting Nubian culture and displacement in Aswan, asking different Nubians about themselves and life in Nuba. My team and I explained to the island’s inhabitants the idea behind the “oral history” methodology and how they can choose their own story to tell about Nuba, and the experiences they want to share. One of our interviewees surprised us by being very adamant about the “visuals” of his representation. He wouldn’t let us interview him or take any pictures until he had his props ready.
He believes there’s an image of Nubians to be upheld, that recognizes their history and heritage. His traditional Nubian costume, and the image of the great Nubian king should always be remembered. The welcome sign is to show Nubians’ hospitality to visitors from all over the world. To him; the Nubian language must be protected. This is how he presents himself as a Nubian to us, and the world.
Another workshop I volunteered in documented the stories of the lives of Syrian asylum seekers and refugees in New Damietta, Egypt as a part of different local workshops documenting heritage narratives. A woman I interviewed -to whom I explained she could choose to talk about any aspect of her life in Egypt- decided to talk about the difficult processes she had to go through to finalize her daughter’s legal paperwork for school. She expanded on her journey all over Egypt: walking, riding cars, buses and trucks, to get permissions, stamps, getting their passports and residencies renewed, with her daughters and son beside her, laughing, saying she calls herself: Bent- Battuta (the female version of "Ibn- Battuta" the explorer/ traveller) because of all her paperwork adventures.
This story is a true reflection of her strength, resilience and persistence and a mirror of Egypt’s bureaucracy, as a system that even Egyptians experience and which is amplified ten-fold for foreigners and refugees.
I could only wonder how an organization would have wanted her to curate her story. Would they have asked her to point out that she was a single mother? Would they have given her the space to identify herself as an adventurer and an explorer, rather than a victim?
How would you curate your own story?
Nairy is a social activist with a passion for community service and social work. Currently a Fulbright Scholar to OHMA program, she draws from her experience in volunteering and working with refugees through different local NGOs in Egypt and international humanitarian organizations to attempt at a documentation of identity and movement narratives for social change.