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The art of storytelling

On Monday, Oct. 9, Emmy Award-winning actor, rapper, and activist Riz Ahmed came to Princeton to speak about his South Asian and Muslim identities in the spheres of society and art. Ahmed broke ground for his performance in HBO’s “The Night Of” as not only the first South Asian man to win any Emmy at all for acting, but also as the first Muslim or Asian to win the award in this category.

And while we can attribute a number of different labels to Ahmed’s career and defined role within society — actor, musician, rapper, activist — he is ultimately and most definitively a storyteller. Sharing experiences of his own Pakistani identity, Ahmed spoke of a time after the attacks on Sept. 11 in his early childhood when a man pulled a knife on his brother and himself on the streets of Wembley, shouting “Paki” at the two young boys on their way home. Even at his current levels of celebrity and achievement, Ahmed still gets stopped by the TSA nearly every time he flies. Only now, according to Ahmed, security agents may awkwardly recognize him in the middle of his pat-downs at the airport.

This ability — whether it be through television, film, music, writing, or any other expressive medium — to convey and connect the experiences of one human to another in the most basic and simplest of ways carries the pure power and potential of storytelling. By sharing our own stories, our own uniquely individual experiences, we are able to feel the sort of empathy that is so lacking in today’s world.

I am Iranian-American — the son of two parents who came to the United States from Iran in the aftermath of the 1979 Iranian revolution, and I grew up in Texas for my entire life. In the most honest terms, my own life and upbringing have not been touched by excruciating hardship or pain, crushing trouble, or heartache. I don’t mean to say this to boast about the privileges that I have experienced in my life in any way; I don’t describe myself in this way with any other intention than sharing the most honest and accurate view of my own experience in this life.

I have not come up against the walls of racism or sexism or misogyny or bigotry or any other gross form of hate that treats one differently because of an external factor of the self or identity. These evils have not directly crossed my own path, but my heart still feels pain at any mention of them, at any utterance of these disgusting truths of life, because I have heard and listened and understood the stories of those who have felt these forms of hate.

No one is the same; not one of us can even claim to know or truly feel all the intricate complexities of another’s experience. But if I hear your story, if I’m able to take in your perspective instead of my own, if I can come to see the world in a slightly different light with an understanding of your unique experience, then the differences that separate my experience from yours aren’t as pronounced or insurmountable. Little by little, I can sense the feelings of your heart, see the glimpses of your experience, and come increasingly closer to an awareness of the vast yet beautiful aspects of life that make us each different from one another.

Telling a story holds two meaningful components. The first is a choice within the self — the motivation and inspiration that one feels to share a unique narrative to the mainstream body of voices. Such a personal decision to speak, to share, and to contribute a matchless lens to the multifaceted eye of the world demands confidence and a conviction in the truthfulness and importance of each human’s unconditionally personal experience. It requires an investment in the assets of an individual, in the unfiltered, raw, and imperfect telling of experience.

“Embrace the specificity of your experience,” as Ahmed put it. “Trust the inherent validity of your own experience,” he added. Our stories are ours and ours alone; no other human can compare, and no other human can offer a narrative quite like our own.

In this way, storytelling not only demands an internal confidence and conviction to share, but also a deep commitment to the integrity of your own heart, your own identity, and your own personhood. “Don’t apologize, qualify, or hide who you are,” said Ahmed. The flawed, wholly imperfect aspects of the human experience can shed much light on the truths of our experience. The most intrinsic parts of our human experience stand as the most resonant, the most inspirational facets of storytelling.

Apart from the internal, storytelling carries with it a profound significance for the external, for the connections and bridges formed between us through the telling of stories themselves. It depends upon the will of the storyteller to share, but its insightful impact falls equally upon the audience to truly listen. Such an audience depends not only on the openness of ears, but also the openness of the heart to understand the inherent truths within the story of a fellow human.

The experiences of the people closest to me who — more often and more constantly than many perceive — encounter hate because of their racial or ethnic identity, who face harassment and assault simply because they are women, who fight against bigotry as Muslims in a world increasingly marked by Islamophobia, pierce my heart. These stories, based in the truth, uniqueness, and singularity of their telling, spur me to feel and to become so crucially aware of the particular experiences of my fellow humans. They inspire me to fight these evils, to extinguish these forms of hate, because I can see and understand and feel — even if only in some small way — the inherent experiences of those around me, however different or singular they may be from myself.

Storytelling is more than simply entertainment; it is the basis for our empathy as humans, and it is the most powerful way to connect and relate with one another in the simplest and human of ways. There is a current tendency in today’s political and societal climate to divide humans from one another — a general pattern that we can distinctly and most clearly see in the conduct and rhetoric of President Trump against minority groups of all kinds in the United States and abroad.

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Language like Trump’s shuts out the possibility of empathy that we so desperately need in today’s world. And it is this type of empathy that is most effectively and most genuinely reached through storytelling, through the sharing of the heart with one another. In any way you can, tell your story. Tell your story because I know that I, along with many others, want to see what you see, to feel what you feel.

Kaveh Badrei is a sophomore from Houston, Tex. He can be reached at