Sami Mustafa: Fairy Tales that Tell Your Story, and Cultural Transmission over Space and Time

Some of my happiest memories as a small child are related to my father telling stories during the long, cold nights of a winter when there were power cuts due to the Yugoslav wars. Those were the happiest moments during those unhappy times.

My father’s strong bond with his seven children was a foundation of safety and is an inspiration for all of us, brothers and sisters. He inspired us to love, to care, to respect and feed others, to repair things, and me in particular, to write and create stories. I was 19 in 2003 when I made my debut documentary, Welcome to Plemetina (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cg1_TnTUC00), my first collaborative story to be shown to the public. Since then, I have made more than fifty short and feature documentaries. All of the films were influenced by, and resulted from, the consequences of the Kosovo War in 1999, with stories that were unknown to most people. I was driven by the desire for change, mutual respect and solidarity, wanting to transform ‘racial’ differences into human ones through film, especially in Kosovo, where all the communities lived in separation in the aftermath of the war.

My father passed away in 2010, and almost a year later I moved to live in France with Charlotte, a girl who is not from the Roma community but who has become one of us. Six years on, I myself became a father. Manon was the first to be born, and was followed by Alice two years later. With each, it was true love at first heartbeat—a love story to the sky and back. As I look into their eyes, I’d like to remember my own infant memories, my father and mother gazing at me. So I feed, carry, wash, clean, hold, cook, warm, freeze and unfreeze, and watched the first moves, tears, screams, laughter and steps, and heard the first words—and it was only then I realized that I had learned the power of cultural transmission and that I actually cared. It was in France that for the first time in my life I had begun to live without a Roma community around me—and it seemed an impossible mission. Passing on Romani to our children is another challenge—one that shouldn’t be a single person’s job, especially when you are surrounded by a French-speaking community.

This collaborative collection of folk tales transmits culture to us all, Roma and non-Roma alike: they have metaphors to enjoy, stories to interpret, social interactions and behaviours to understand. Such stories are passed on from one generation of heroines and heroes to the next—as we are all the protagonists of our own narratives. Though the stories our father told us children were based on what he himself had done, they became transformed into folk tales in the act of storytelling, and we will now never forget them.

Two things motivated me to collect Roma folk tales: 1) Almost every child in contemporary society spends a lot of time on their smartphone or tablet, and the parents often look forward to these quiet spells  so as to do some housework or simply take a break. There is no space left to tell stories, it has ceased to be a cultural practice. 2) Some of the stories that my father used to tell me as a child are now forgotten.

These two phenomena spurred me on this journey of Roma folk tales. To make access to these tales easier, and gain the trust of people so they are happy to relate them, I asked three young Roma in three different regions of Kosovo—Djemalj Mustafa in Plemetina, Elvis Avdiu in Lipljan, and Ekrem Mustafa in Gjilan—to visit their neighbours, friends and family, and request them to share their stories. I myself took to messaging apps to find out if friends and family in the diaspora (mostly in Germany) had more tales—hoping some would be the same as those my father used to tell us. Together, we collected fifty folk tales, from which I selected seven.

The selection principle was simple, because I chose those stories that reminded me of my father. In many of the tales I encountered the same words, metaphors, phrases and lines that my father would use—and that is something I find invaluable.

As culture is in constant shift, I thought it might be interesting to adapt these stories to different milieus, while keeping the plot and the mythology. While writing, I changed the characters’ look, fleshed out the descriptions, made the meaning deeper, and replaced male heroes with heroines.

When I was done, I chose young Roma artists to illustrate the stories. I invited Flaka Kokoli, an award-winning animator from Pristina, to head a ten-day workshop for the illustrators, Enisa Mustafa, Selma Emini, Samira Emini–Berisha, Amina Berisha, Hana Kirsten, Sabina Mustafa and Dashnim Berisa. Each artist chose a story to illustrate during the ten days of the residency, with the guidance of Flaka Kokoli and her colleagues, Ari Xharku and Fatlum Neziri.

Text: Sami Mustafa

Sami Mustafa was invited by curatorial team of Manifesta 14 to develop a storytelling project in the Center for Narrative Practice. The outcome of the project is the book published in Albanian, English Romanes, and Serbian.

Manifesta Booklet Final Romanes & English Version Manifesta Booklet Final Albanian & Serbian Version