Preserving an oral tradition

Writer raced to save tales of Kurdish storytellers

Email|Print| Text size + By Milva DiDomizio
January 31, 2008

T o get material for her first book, "A Fire in My Heart: Kurdish Tales," Boston writer Diane Edgecomb traveled to remote, mountainous regions of the Middle East. Next Wednesday at Framingham's Amazing Things Arts Center, she performs and talks about her journey.

Edgecomb met some Kurdish refugees in 1999 and was impressed by their strong oral history. With politics and modernization threatening to render the old ways obsolete, Edgecomb set out to record their stories, doing most of her work in Turkey between 2005 and last year.

Accompanied by a guide and translator, Edgecomb spent hours listening to and filming the tradition bearers. "This isn't just a project to create a book," said Edgecomb. "I'm documenting the tellers and creating an archive." The book, released this month, is the first volume of Kurdish tales published in English, and also includes recipes, games, and color photos.

For Edgecomb, getting the job done carried a sense of urgency. "There were moments where you realized, 'Oh I'm just a few months too late,' " she said, describing the experience of arriving in a village only to find the storyteller had recently suffered a stroke. "It was a bit like a chase with time, trying to get to people fast enough."

Along with the disappointments, there were pleasant surprises. "We found one teller whose family for generations had been in the mountains," said Edgecomb. "A nomadic family, and only in the last year had they come down to the cities." The man related epic tales of Rusteme Zal, a legendary figure of Kurdish folklore. "He went on for two hours with just one story and then he told me that was only the outline," Edgecomb said.

Of the pieces she's collected, a yarn about why the moon has dirty spots on its face is a favorite. There are also humorous themes. "They love telling stories about the fox . . . tricking people and tricking other animals," said Edgecomb. "Those are very funny stories. Also beautiful fairy tales, wonderful wonder stories, which go on and on and on."

At one juncture, Edgecomb discovered a smoke can be worth a thousand stories. "We had been told that this person's grandmother knew so many stories," said Edgecomb. "We had been promised that if I gave her one cigarette, I'd get one story, and if I gave her another, I'd get another story." Anticipating success, Edgecomb arrived with a carton of Marlboros. "Unfortunately, she couldn't remember any stories. We were in this closed room and she had already smoked almost an entire pack and still could not give us a story."

But then, she said, an amazing thing happened. "Although she couldn't give us any stories, people were saying to her, 'Grandmother, don't you remember this story, don't you remember that story.' As they did that, they remembered that they knew the stories, and they started telling the stories, and as they did she would correct them.

"My whole carton of Marlboros was gone by the end, but we got the stories."

Diane Edgecomb takes part in the Amazing Things Arts Center's Outspoken Word Series at 7:30 p.m. Wednesday, 55 Nicholas Road. $6. 508-405-2787,;

NELSON AND JEANETTE'S SWEET MUSIC: Jeanette MacDonald and Nelson Eddy were a 1930s movie phenomenon. "They were the biggest thing around," said Mark Morgan, artistic director of the New England Light Opera troupe and creator of a new musical about the pair.

"There's a great romance about them," said Morgan. "And some very sharp comedy." Those are among the qualities Morgan aimed to capture in "Yes, Yes, Jeanette," which premieres this weekend at the Christ Episcopal Church in Needham.

Morgan plays Eddy, who was a major singing star before turning to Hollywood. But MacDonald's story is the one that captured him. "She started out as a Broadway singer, then did the movie thing, then did a number of operas at the end of her career, which no one did in her time," Morgan said.

MacDonald's professional peak was their eight-movie stint, the focus of Morgan's show. Edward R. Murrow's 1957 interview with MacDonald and her husband, Gene Raymond, serves as a frame. Dialogue and archival footage are interspersed with scenes and songs from their movies, which include "Naughty Marietta" and "I Married an Angel."

During the course of his research, Morgan discovered a bit of controversy. "There's a huge raging debate between a group of people who believe that MacDonald and Eddy had this long term romantic affair," Morgan said, "and a group of people who believe that's complete nonsense." When word of Morgan's show reached their fans, e-mails started pouring in. "It really is quite amazing that people feel that passionately about this," said Morgan, adding that the question is not addressed in his musical. "We don't take a stand on it," he said. "People can believe what they want."

While Morgan feels the issue is irrelevant to the significance of the duo's work, he acknowledges their onscreen electricity. "They do have a chemistry together," he said. But he also believes it was aided by well-written screenplays and good music. "In a lot of ways it's the material itself that supports the rapport between them onscreen."

For Morgan, MacDonald's charm and vitality account for her enduring appeal. "There is something incredibly engaging about her," he said. "I've heard this from any number of people, people coming to this project and discovering her for the first time and really sort of falling in love with her. There is just something magical about her."

He looks forward to gauging audience response. "It's going to be especially interesting," he said, "because you'll get all of these people who are really fans of them and those movies, and others who won't really be knowing what to expect. To see and hear their reactions to the material from an artistic standpoint is very exciting."

"Yes, Yes, Jeanette! A Musical Fantasy on Jeanette MacDonald and Nelson Eddy" will be performed Saturday 8 p.m., and Sunday 3 p.m. at Christ Episcopal Church, 1132 Highland Ave., Needham. $28, $25 seniors, $5 children and students. 978-887-2045,

THE BOAR IS BACK: There's an old legend about a studious young man who saves himself from a wild boar by shoving a book in its mouth. He and his cronies then slay the beast and feast on it all winter.

Carol Devendorf, artistic director of the Milford Performing Arts Center and director of the Boar's Head Feast and Festival, opening tomorrow in nearby Hopedale, finds layers of meaning: "It's a celebration of life, death, rebirth, and life again."

The folk legend also reflects the turning of the seasons, and the festivities that help people get through the cold months. The center adopted those ancient themes a decade ago for its first Boar's Head Festival, and the event has become a tradition. "Each year we have a different script set in a different time period," Devendorf said. "But that structure, that ritual of celebration, is always the basis for it."

This year's edition, "Land of Hope, Isle of Tears," chronicles the stories and songs of immigrants meeting on a Christmas Eve at Ellis Island.

The players are selected through open auditions. All are welcome to try out for the cast, which features a blend of old-timers and newcomers.

A lavish dinner accompanies the production. "We try to match the feast to the play," said Devendorf, noting that the first festival set in medieval times required guests to eat with their fingers. "This year we can use utensils and plates," she laughed.

She says the event is significant on many levels. "I think it helps remind people about the importance of just how closely connected we are to nature," she said. "And it's entertaining. It's fun. In the cold and dark of winter it's just great to come out and get a good meal and be well entertained for the evening."

The Boar's Head Feast and Festival is performed tomorrow, 7 p.m., and Saturday, 1 and 7 p.m., at Hopedale Unitarian Parish, 65 Hopedale St. $30, $25 seniors/children, advance purchase $5 off; includes meal. 508-473-1684,

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