I was in transit at Dubai. People watching and collecting stories.
There were women in saris, men in dashikis, the pilgrims for Ummrah wrapped in their white cloths: traditional clothing a backdrop against the modern lines of the terminal. The airport’s status as an international hub was evident as conversations in different languages overpowered the cacophony of children yelling and running around.
It was the end of one chapter of my life. After living in Jeddah for months teaching ESL, I was about to embark on another. Music festival hopping in West Africa, to be exact. My family in Canada had asked me to start a blog to document my travels. Facetiously, I responded: I am not a writer. Rather, I was a collector of stories.
While my response at that time was flippant, upon further contemplation, I realized there was a distinction between the two. To me, there was a difference between telling stories — putting down one’s own experiences —, and collecting stories —taking other people’s experiences. This point was even more salient in travel writing as travelling for me was all about experiencing difference and connection simultaneously. I loved people. I realized I never said this when I was home; only when I was travelling abroad. I don’t know exactly what it was, perhaps it was the affection I felt from strangers that allowed me to open up and trust them and do things like hitchhiking and sleeping at strangers’ houses, things I could not imagine doing back home. I realized later as I got older, I held the romanticized notion of travellers venturing out into the hinterlands of the imagination and reporting back. But this reporting back bothered me. The hesitancy stemmed from the vast expanse between story collector to storyteller. I felt I was claiming ownership to the stories through my telling. I could not separate my stories from the stories of others. The boundaries blurred. How could I tell stories without including others? Should I only talk about inanimate objects and space? They also told a story of their own.
As a result, I began to hoard stories and became unwilling to share them. I was a curator of my personal museum; a collector through observation and listening; and a documentarian capturing insights into 4×6 photographs.
Years ago, I saw an interview on TV with Robert Plant—the lead singer of Led Zeppelin—about a Tuareg music festival in Mali. This story was added to my collection. It was buried deep in my psyche, until a friend in Jeddah mentioned it, reminding me of my desire to attend. Fast-forward a week from that discussion, and I started a journey that would take me to Timbuktu for the Festival au Désert—that exact Tuareg music festival.
From Dakar to Bamako to Mindelo to Chinguetti to Laayoune to Essaouira, I collected narratives through all my senses. I inhaled stories—pungent and bittersweet. Experiences filled up my belly, swallowed whole, later imprinting as memories, as artifacts. I recall: the recorded numbing silence of the Sahara desert; a mental snapshot capturing the spiritual ecstasy of frenzied dancing to Gnawa music; and the scratchy tail end of the Tuareg turban wrap against my mouth.
These experiences and memories shaped me. And the narratives arising from them unwillingly became a part of me.
I realized that we also become part of stories. We are enmeshed in them. They become our stories. I recognized that for the longest time, I was looking from a skewed perspective. I thought these stories excluded me in some way—that I was only a receptacle for other peoples’ stories. But I was contained in the story all along. This insight came to me after reading Amitav Ghosh’s travelogue, In an Antique Land, which weaves together a story of the people he encountered during his time in Egypt, and historical data he recovered from the archives. In this narrative, Ghosh positions himself as a mediator. In between the words, there was his commentary and his interpretation, and this became part of the story.
I found that similarly my experiences shaped my telling of a story. However, it was a reciprocal process. People I met in my travels were equally interested in me and my life back in Canada. In my conversations and interactions, we held a space. A space where each told our own stories, and through this connection, we were both story collectors and storytellers in our own rights.
In the end, the demarcation between story collectors and storytellers is not a stark one for we all collect and carry stories as writers before we become imbued with them and create. In fact, listening and reading—in essence, collecting stories—is the first step of writing. Read any advice on the craft of writing and it will claim, one, read more than you write, and two, experience life so you will have a rich fodder of material to write about.
Bilan Hashi is a Canadian of Somali origin, raised on 3 continents, and has travelled extensively, mostly to places off the beaten path. She is a writer and photographer whose work explores identity, gender, sexuality, and space. Currently, she is working on a short-story collection, and you can catch her musings on Twitter @itsmebilan.