Mezrab, located just outside the city centre at Veemkade 576, hosts storytelling events that seem to be worth the struggle of cycling through the cold wind for many. Without being prominently present on social media, the storytelling-event hosted at the café still manages to fill the venue on regular basis. In an interview with the Director of Creative Services at Mezrab, Karl Romedius Giesriegl, who is from Austria and currently also working at deleatur.com, the Amsterdammer tried to find out what makes Mezrab stands out.
The history of Mezrab’s storytelling nights starts in a private living room in Joordan, smaller than its current location. It is the living room of Sahand Sahebdivani’s family who are asylum seekers from Iran. Sahand came to the Netherlands when he turned four because the Iranian revolution [of 1979] forced an increasing amount of people to leave Iran. According to Giesriegl, Mezrab’s storytelling idea originates from Iranian traditions. About 15 years ago, Sahand’s family started this tradition in the Netherlands in their private housing. As the event gained popularity, the audience quickly exceeded the capacity of the living room and a new location had to be found.
One of the possible key factors for the event to attract regular audience is the ‘old-schoolness’, people in Amsterdam have been missing a comparable event in the past. Giesriegl believes that storytelling is different from theatre because it is very active, and the audience actively lives with the character. The theatrical actors take roles and pretend to be somebody else, while the storytellers try to relate themselves to the stories they tell and become attached to it. “It is a true mood and feeling, and [I believe] the audience struggles with the [theatrical] storytellers”, adds Giesriegl.
Mezrab is also different from all the other ways of telling stories that Giesriegl has come across so far. In New York, a popular storytelling event is organized in varying locations and focuses on true stories rather than fiction only. In Edinburgh, traditional stories are told in a storytelling church on a regular basis. But according to Giesriegl, none of them are comparable to the one in Mezrab, which makes Mezrab one of the pioneers in the scene.
To spread their unique way of telling stories, Mezrab also gives storytelling courses to find and educate young talented storytellers, who are also provided ample opportunities for discovery by the Mezrab community through open mic nights. “They are the ambassadors of storytelling, so we really need them!” says Giesriegl. “And you would be surprised – they are around [in the city] and some of them are truly amazing! If the storytellers don’t pretend [and are authentic to the story], the audience really lives with them, no matter if they fail or not. Our audience is incredibly nice, if someone fails horribly or has a blackout, they get the warmest applause.”
Soon after Mezrab moved to its current location, it started organizing storytelling nights, comedy nights and improvisation theatre nights a month. Currently, they have 9 storytelling nights per month as a reaction to the increasing crowd and bigger place. The reason behind the limitations of the room and events is that “Storytelling doesn’t work in a big hall like comedy does. It needs to be personal, which would work out better in scenery like a living room”, he says. By organizing more storytelling nights, of which one is every Wednesday night, they try to create more spots for listeners and spread out the crowd.
For the storytelling nights, Sahand’s mother cooks delicious Iranian soup, together with Iranian rose-flavored ice cream. The money that finances Mezrab are donated by the audience from getting food and drinks, explains Giesriegl. “We don’t sell drinks very expensively, because we don’t want to rip people off. We love what we do, and we want to survive, that’s all.”