Telling Stories at Mezrab
Primarily a home to oral storytelling, Mezrab has become one of Amsterdam’s most diverse venues, both in terms audience and programming. Situated at Veemkade 576, on the bank of the IJ, the venue also hosts comedy nights, theatre performances, underground music and more. On a typical night Mezrab is a hive of buzzing curiosity. Founder Sahand Sahebdivani estimates that 50-60% of the audience on any given night are return visitors. You can really sense that when you’re there, the events feel like large family-and-friend occasions you happen to have found your way into. It’s just that this family congregates around performers who love to tell stories. This passion comes from Sahebdivani, who is Iranian born though has lived in Amsterdam since he was three. He explains: “In my family there is this huge love for literature. I even remember teachers at school jokingly apologising to me that their lessons were getting in the way of my reading.”
Once upon a time…
The renaissance of storytelling in Amsterdam began over fourteen years ago, in his literature-loving home, where informal evenings with friends were arranged so that they could share poetry and stories, as well as Sahand’s mum’s cooking (this is a practice that has survived the years, her homely food is a fixture at Mezrab). Even with an absent marketing plan, the evenings became so popular that a transfer to a small cafe in the Jordaan was necessary, followed by a move to an art gallery. The ‘space’ finally settled into its current location at the start of 2015. Since then, it has grown from a one man organisation into a mixture of employees and volunteers, totalling thirty people.
Although known for promoting a very traditional form of artistry, Sahand is quick to point out that he’s not a luddite; he loves Netflix, he bonds with his brother over video games (he describes these as “contemporary forms of storytelling”). However, with most of these digital activities being undertaken in isolation, he thinks that the physical relationship between the audience and the performer, and between the audience members themselves, is what has made Mezrab so popular. “That’s something very valuable that people really miss.” Indeed, “connecting with the audience” is a vital element that storytellers must achieve in order to be reinvited to the platform.
Mezrab also hosts music events, mainly international acts that would find it hard to get booked elsewhere in the city. It’s also helping encourage budding storytellers, offering them guidance through the storytelling school Sahand started with his close friend Raphael Rodan. The Rodan-Sahebdivani partnership has also resulted in theatre shows, including ‘My Father Held A Gun’, the Gold Award winner at 2017’s Amsterdam Fringe festival.
All but one of the monthly storytelling nights are in English, and the tellers tend to be an international bunch. In one night I attended, India, Australia and the Netherlands were all represented. This is a central component to the collective vision around Mezrab.
Sahand’s own story is transnational in nature. His father was member of the resistance in Iran, before arriving in Amsterdam as a refugee with his family in the 80s. The family’s worry that they would be “relegated to some obscure corner of society” in the Netherlands, as Sahand says it was, has thankfully proved to be unfounded. However, there are still relatively few spaces in Amsterdam dedicated of multicultural explorations. “Amsterdam has so many different nationalities, yet doesn’t manage to open spaces that really bring all the different nationalities together,” he says, “as someone who grew up in Amsterdam feeling very much connected to all these different groups, it was the most natural thing in the world to connect these people.” He also cites his family’s revolutionary politic as an inspiration. “My father feels this pride, because in a way all of that knowledge and the wishes of the generations before him, through me, found their way to Amsterdam. There is a lot of idealism in this place.” That idealism has lead to some conscious business decisions, such as serving only vegetarian food, and to remove the cigarette vending machine. Unfortunately, they haven’t yet found a popular replacement for Coca-Cola.
Promoting Radical Spaces
While Amsterdam in 2017 can evidently be a home to experimental and welcoming spaces such as Mezrab, Sahand laments the decline of the city’s underground scenes, both artistic and political, during the previous two decades, during which time there’s been a conscious political effort to ‘clean up’ the city (often, this has resulted in gentrification). He has childhood memories of heroin addicts loitering at the door to his home, nevertheless: “When we came here it felt like everything was possible. There was no money but everyone was doing something. There were so many cultural initiatives, it felt very vibrant and alive. I do feel that at the moment we’re more well off, but that we’ve funneled all of that well offness into the latest hip coffee bar... nothing against them, but I had a dream that life would give me more than just a good coffee bar.”
‘Mezrab’ means ‘guitar pick’ in Persian, the tool used to help soundwaves ring out. From its intimate beginnings in an Amsterdam living room, Mezrab’s influence is certainly crescendoing. Storytellers that started on its floor-level stage have founded their own storytelling nights, such as at the Volkshotel. Even when on holiday, Sahand can’t escape its impact. “I was in Lithuania, and I was sitting having an ice cream and three young women, around twenty years old, came up to me and they said: ‘thank you for opening the Mezrab.’ On the other side of the fucking continent!”
Photo: Karl Giesriegl