Q&A on storytelling and tradition...and The Tale of the Sands

30maro_slide05You are creating wonderful stories about what our heart is telling us, but today more than ever we fail to reconcile our heart and our mind. Why are they tugging us in different directions? What do you do when your mind shouts louder than your heart?

As you say, I am telling and creating stories, and that’s what’s so central here. Storytelling appeals to the default setting of mankind, the core programming that’s in-built within us. We don’t really know why, but culture is arranged around storytelling – revealing information, ideas, and entertainment through stories. We can’t help but retell experiences in this way because we are programmed to do it. And, bizarrely, most people have forgotten that humanity operates with stories as their language. I sometimes find myself wondering whether other animals, or even insects, do the same and tell stories as a matrix like we do.

At the same time as live to tell stories, we reside in a world that’s so incredibly at odds with the realm our ancestors knew. Yet, in this mad frenetic, frenzied stew of life, it’s the stories and the storytelling that present themselves as a recognizable thread – a kind of communal backbone to humanity. We grasp hold of stories whether they be in the form of a book, a Tweet, a blog entry, a TV commercial selling soap, a movie, or even in the guise of a video game.

You mention your father very often in your works. Would you say that your story is a sequel to his? To what extent are our hearts beating together with those of our ancestors’? Does our storytelling begin where theirs has stopped?

I mention my father quite often because he was the central storyteller in my early life. I always come back to him for that reason, and because he had such a valuable and perceptive understanding of human nature. The stories we tell and retell have indeed all been told before – for countless centuries. And that’s what’s so magical: that the stories are a kind of intellectual and cultural grooming for humanity. We tell children tales as they drift to sleep, because they are so reassuring, like being stroked with a tender hand. And, we use stories to pass on ideas and information that are so central to the condition of being human. It always amazes me when I hear business leaders saying stuff like, ‘Wow, storytelling’s so in fashion right now.’ The reply is that it’s never not in fashion because storytelling is something which is completely tethered to civilization.

In many cultures there is a belief that we have invisible protectors. Have you ever felt such a power in your own life? Are there moments when feel “supported” by a higher power? And if so, how do you express your gratitude afterwards?

I can’t really comment on this, except to say that I feel certain things inside me, things that imbue me with a kind of power. When my father died in 1996 I wondered how I’d cope without him. But then I came to see he was inside me, just as his father was inside him, and so forth. I’m not being silly and schmaltzy about this but quite level-headed. It’s not so much an emotional thing to me as a practical one. When in a daunting situation, I say to myself, ‘This looks off-the-scale hard, but if I break it down and look within myself I’ll be able to disentangle it, and to make-do.’ To me, it’s all about searching for experiences that lie within us, the kind which are passed on like an invisible baton between one generation and the next. If you don’t know what I mean, consider the story of The Tale of the Sands, in which the desert reminds the stream that it was once in another form –and that to succeed it had to remember that form and use it once again.

Here is the tale:

The Tale of the Sands

Once there was a stream, a lovely cool, clear stream.

It was created from melted snow in the high mountains, and it flowed down through all kinds of rock, until one bright morning it reached the desert.

The stream was worried, but it knew that its destiny was to cross the sand. So it called out, “What am I to do?” And the desert answered, “Listen, O stream! The wind crosses my sands, and you can, too.”

The stream didn’t listen. He let his water roll forward. The first drops disappeared without trace.

‘“Desert! Desert!” he called, “You are sucking me up!” The desert was old and wise, and grew angry at the foolish young stream. “Of course I am sucking you up,” replied the desert, “because that is what deserts do. I can’t change. Please listen to me, and allow yourself to be absorbed into the wind.”

The stream was far too hot-headed to listen. He had his pride, and was happy being who he was. “I am a stream,” he shouted, “and I want to stay a stream!” The sand, growing in impatience replied again: “O foolish stream! You must throw yourself into the wind, and you will fall as rain. Your droplets will cross mountains and oceans, and you will be far greater than you are now. Please listen to my words!”

The stream did not believe the sand, and cried: “Desert, desert, how can I be sure you speak the truth?” The desert rose up in a sandstorm and called, “Trust me, O young stream, and think back, surely you can recall being in another form.” The stream thought hard, its waters swirling as its memory worked. Then, gradually, it did remember… it remembered a time when it was something else.

“Let yourself rise up!” cried the desert, “up and up into the wind!” The stream did as the sands ordered, and let himself rise in a curtain of mist, until he was absorbed in the wind. It felt wonderful, and right, as if it was meant to be.’

Please tell us more about your books. Do you just leave your life to lead you, or do you collect information in a particular way? Are your personal experiences sufficient to write a book such as In Arabian Nights for instance?

I write about things that interest me. And, I write for myself. Those are the two tenets of my writing career. I look at times I’ve written about stuff that did not interest me, or times when I was writing to please another, and I ended up failing. Success has come to me when I have been totally enthralled by a subject, an idea, or even a dream. Personal experiences are, in any form, a powerful medium. There’s nothing odd about that. But the big point is that even the smallest personal experience can be honed and crafted. It doesn’t have to be lavish and sprawling. It can be nothing more than a momentary snapshot of life, a snapshot that forms the most magnificent seed.

The dervish culture and the Sufi philosophy have many admirers in Bulgaria. Is it still alive in the contemporary Eastern society? And what is the path to becoming a part of this ancient wisdom, to accepting it for your own?

There’s a danger out there. I’m going to explain. During his lifetime, my father made available in the Occidental World a body of material and ancient wisdom that has for centuries been used in the East by Sufis and by others. He translated thousands of ancients texts, some as old as humanity itself. He fashioned these texts into a form that could be received in the West. Over the decades that his work has been out there, it has permeated all levels of society and has in many ways come to form a foundation in certain Occidental thinking. But the danger now is that this work is being lost in the East.

The scourge of Al-Qaeda and fanatical thinking is leading to an abolition of Sufi thought across the Islamic World. All you need is to look at what happened recently in Timbuktu, or in the Taliban’s Afghanistan, to see the proof. The answer is to reintroduce this work to the East. In our family we see this as an enduring responsibility, one that we must attend to in any way we can. It is astonishingly important to us – just as it should be to anyone with one foot in the East and the other in the West.

The question how to bring up our children is giving rise to much controversy lately. They are now living without the thread of tradition. Do you think that goodness, modesty, wisdom still hold good in our world? How can we pass these values on to them?

When we were children we were brought up to be ‘good’ people. It probably sounds stupid, but inner goodness is something that’s important to me. A great example of this is doing acts of anonymous charity. We have been encouraged to help people but to do so in such a way that they – and others – don’t know about it. I teach Ariane and Timur that being a good person – and giving more than you take – is the right way to behave. I’m not interested in tradition for the sake of tradition, so much as tradition that has real value, the kind of value that can open our eyes. I am a huge believer that children must travel and be exposed to different things well out of their comfort zone. They must learn to question things, and to observe the obvious in new ways. I believe strongly that children should be kept very much as they are – without being reprogrammed by the idiocy of adults. After all, children come to us instilled with the default setting and innate level-headedness of man.

What are you working on right now?

I am writing a novel called PARIS SYNDROME. And I am finishing the edits for another novel I wrote earlier in the year called CASABLANCA BLUES. I have seven other books in the pipeline as well.

Nothing makes me happier than working on several things at once.

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