The Power of Storytelling in Conveying Emotion

Friday, February 20, 2015

It is near midday, and there is an event we are thinking of attending, titled Breaking the Silence: Monologues on Gender, Voice and Violence. It is part of a lecture series on Women, Peace and Security organized by the Permanent Mission of Liechtenstein, and it should be taking place in the General Assembly building of the UN headquarters.

It is the first time I attend such an event, and though I have entered the building before, I still do not have a strong grasp of the layout. We enter through the gates first, greeting the guards dressed in blue and passing all the tourists waiting in line, and then we walk into the small entrance building that is there solely for the purpose of security. We take off our coats, put our phones and bags into open plastic containers and place them on the conveyor belt before passing through the beeping arch and picking our things up again. It is not so different from an airport, although the security here is kinder, the exit closer, and the process more lax and streamlined.

The building itself is larger, with an information desk in the endless reception hall and much space around it. There is a ramp on the right, leading up to the General Assembly among other things, and there are elevators behind that; but we are going to the conference rooms, which should be straight ahead and further into the building.

The wall on the right is lined with paintings of the various Secretary-Generals the United Nations has had over the years – I think since its inception – and among them is Boutros Boutros-Ghali, the Egyptian politician and diplomat, to the left of Kofi Annan and Ban Ki-moon.

We find ourselves at the back of the building, passing through security once again with our IDs and entering an area with a lower ceiling and a wide corridor to the right lined with art. There is a large gold piece donated, unsurprisingly, by Saudi Arabia, and there are other pieces too, donated by various countries in Africa and Asia. We are already late, but the conference room numbers skip in strange intervals, with conference room number 5 nowhere in sight.

After meandering up and down the halls, and mistaking the quaint entrance to a dining hall on the fourth floor for the entrance to conference room 5, we finally find it, and open the door carefully to an event that has already started. We tiptoe across the room and sit down quietly, taking our coats off in the crowded room.

The event does not seem to be formal, contrary to our expectations. The person standing in front of the audience seems to be telling a story – a personal story? a testimony? – and everyone is listening intently as she gestures and describes.

The woman speaking, I now realize, is performing, because there is something in the way she tells the story – powerfully, but also in a measured and practiced way – that makes this fact clear. She looks down as she tells us of her kidnapping and rape, speaks dejectedly as she admits to her pregnancy, and gestures passionately as she describes her dangerous escape.

Behind and above her, overlooking the room we are sitting in, are several small glass rooms for interpreters, and I can see the word ARABIC printed across one of them.

The monologues are shocking, graphic and descriptive. The team is made up of both men and women, and each stands up to perform a short piece, speaking of gender-based violence, rape, kidnapping and sexual slavery. There is palpable tension and emotion in the room, and I feel the person in front of me shift very slightly, and the person next to me look down and back up again very quietly.

There is a power to storytelling that I do not think any other way of presenting has. The descriptions are graphic, yes, and the violence painful to hear, but the discomfort this evokes will impress itself upon the hearts and minds of those attending, searing their memories with new knowledge like an iron pressed against a crinkled shirt until steam is emitted.

When we leave the building to head back to our office, we are quieter than usual, and I cannot help but think that though we work in the United Nations, there is so much we are not doing to better the world.


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