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Storytelling for Muslim Kids: Tales from the Magic Carpet

Tales From The Magic Carpet With Sita Brand

If you are looking for good stories for Muslim children, especially the younger ones, take a look at Tales from the Magic Carpet. Told in traditional style, these 17 short films tell captivating stories with morals and meaning from the Muslim world and beyond.

This week on Alchemiya we are looking at storytellers.  Storytelling is not just a timeless and universal art and tradition. It precedes the written word, meaning that all historical and cultural knowledge was stored in the memories of the storytellers, who then passed it on through centuries before it could be recorded in writing. 

There are many different forms in which stories can be told, created and experienced. However, in recent years the constant movement and bright colours of animated drama with characters, avatars and superheroes on demand, seems to have become the prevailing trend.

In this context, the idea of sitting quietly and listening to one other human voice tell you a tale seems almost radical. It seems even more radical when these tales are not only ancient or traditional but from a diverse international collection that takes you from Turkey, Persia, Malaysia, Russia and Pakistan to Iran, Ethiopia, Kazakhstan and Zimbabwe. 

Stories For Muslim Children
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Tales from the Magic Carpet introduces children to this world of stories told by international storyteller Sita Brand. In each episode Sita sits in front of us, directly telling the story with images from each tale weaving in and out to illustrate her words. We meet different characters including Mullah Nasruddin, who feeds his coat, Lazy Tok, who can’t be bothered, clever Masha, who tricks a bear, and a man from Zimbabwe who sees with his ears. 

Traditional tales like these have the power to unite us. There is always a life lesson to learn or a moral to ponder and each of these stories encourages us all to stop, slow down and think about what we have heard. It is quite a contrast to clicking quickly on to the next thing in a world where we seem to be bombarded with too much information and not enough knowledge.

Tales from the Magic Carpet emerged from Settle Stories, an organisation founded by Sita Brand, who is now its Artistic Director and CEO. Sita studied drama at university and after an extensive career in the arts, she moved to the small market town of Settle, in Northern England. Always passionate about traditional myths and folktales, it was here in 2010 that Sita started Settle Stories. She wanted to explore how new technology could be used to share these stories with wider audiences and since then Settle Stories has assembled a beautiful, living library of international folk tales, each with a message that is timeless and universal.

Stories For Muslim Children

Settle Stories also holds storytelling workshops and retreats, works closely with schools, collaborates with artists and writers and co-creates projects that bring hidden stories into focus enabling the vulnerable and disinvested to have a voice. 

We caught up with Sita and asked her about her story. 

Can you tell me a bit about your career before Settle Stories?

My first job after graduating was as a storyteller! I then worked as an actress, a theatre director, theatre producer and arts consultant.  I was living in London for decades but following a period of ill health I decided to move to Yorkshire where I could be surrounded by beautiful, nurturing countryside and fresh clean air. I then started Settle Stories and launched the Yorkshire Festival of Stories which now runs every year. 

How do you find and/or choose the stories you are telling in Tales from the Magic Carpet?  

Most of the stories I have known for a very long time but I read constantly so I am always finding and looking for new ones.  

What for you, are the greatest values of this kind of storytelling? 

A story is an opportunity to make sense of the world and nothing is more important to me than a story well told. Storytelling helps children to concentrate, it helps their language skills and it inspires the imagination. Stories such as those in the Magic Carpet also work well because they are essentially about the human predicament. They have a message about what it means to be human and what is the right way to behave and to treat other people. There is a huge value in parents and children watching stories together and talking about them afterwards. It helps children understand the world and how it works or should work! 

What was the process, from start to finish, of producing Tales from the Magic Carpet

 It took ages! First and foremost was all the reading and the notetaking and the preparation for telling the story in the best way possible. Then came the search for illustrators from all around the world. For each of the stories I commissioned six to eight original illustrations so that the visual impact of each episode is as unique as the story itself. I have had illustrators from Indonesia, Pakistan, Georgia and other countries which is great because it means that the illustrations are as international as the stories but this commissioning process also takes a lot of time. 

The next thing was to prepare the set for filming. When we did the first series we took a very long time working out how the set should look and creating the right atmosphere and ambience for telling these stories.  The films are best for five to nine year olds so we also spent a long time studying children’s programmes, like those on the BBC’s CBeebies channel, to ensure that Tales from the Magic Carpet looked professional and had a clear identity. 

The filmmaker is also a fine artist so he was a great person to work with on lighting and designing the set. We wanted it to be beautiful! I brought in many different things from my home to see how they looked and when everything eventually fell into place we could begin. To keep costs down, each series is filmed in one (very long!) day, so everything has to be ready to go and super-efficient. Thorough preparation was the key to the success of this process. 

After filming there are several weeks of editing time, and inserting the illustrations, before the final story can be produced and put out there. 

What are you working on now? 

I have identified fifteen new stories that I would like to tell and am currently in the process of commissioning illustrations for them.  I am also preparing for next year’s Yorkshire Festival of Stories which will run from February 12th – 28th. The festival will be live online and it is all free! I am also working on an exciting new idea for a series called Tales from the Dales…. but that’s a story for another day.

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Short film, Nobody’s Metaphor follows four teenage Muslim girls as they learn to fence and express themselves, challenging discrimination in the process. It is a powerful documentary with much contemporary relevance, especially for our young women.
Nooreh is an award-winning film set in a village on the India-Pakistan border. Told from the perspective of an eight-year-old Muslim girl, it is a subtle and powerful story about the effects of conflict on children.
On A Wing and A Prayer is a heart-warming documentary that follows Monem Salam's attempts to get a US pilot's license. A film about a resilient family as American and suburban as The Simpsons, but Muslim!
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