I watched two videos tonight on TED from two very different storytellers.  One is from a fiction writer named Elif Shafak, who delivered the most eloquent speech I have ever heard on stories and the politics of identity.  The other was from a psychotherapist named Naif Al-Mutawa  who designed “The 99,” a new comic-book empire of Islamic superheroes now collaborating with the Justice League, thanks to a deal with Marvel Comics.  Barack Obama recently praised Dr. Al-Mutawa at a conference celebrating entrepreneurs for his depictions of positive Islamic role models.

[I should interrupt myself here—if you plan on watching these amazing videos linked above, do so now.  I will continue to spoil their surprises.]

Elif Shafak is an amazing woman. I must start there.  Her presence and composure is comparable to the grace of Sophia Loren.   I haven’t read her books, but watching her speak has brought her books to my short list. Ms. Shafak’s words are cool raindrops falling on my face on a hot day.

Elif Shafak was born in Turkey, and in one of her novels a character refers to the slaughter of the Armenians as “genocide.”  For that, she was persecuted in a Turkish court for defaming Turkey.  In her TED talk, she spoke of the connective way that stories bind humans through imaginative experience, and the ways that we fail to draw the lines between fact and fiction.  After all, the character who dared to utter the word “genocide” was fictional.

Ms. Shafak urges us to draw those lines carefully, to remember when a story is just a story.  She spoke of her time as a child in an international school, and the way that she became a walking representation and a target for anti-Turkish sentiment.  Because she is a Turkish woman, some people expect to find a stereotypical perspective within her fiction.

She said she spoke in Harvard Square with two other writers—an Indonesian and a Fillipino.  “Like a joke,” she said.  The panel was advertised under the banner of Multicultural Literature—anything written outside of the West.  In this way, she felt others would (if given the opportunity) deny her right to explore the avant garde and the far reaches of her imagination.

Ms. Shafak cautions us against blurring the line between fantasy and reality, and asks us to understand the distinction.  Stories move in circles, and when we define something we draw a line around it that boxes it in.

On the other hand, Naif Al-Mutawa reminds us that we have the power to create new political realities out of the stories that we tell.

Dr. Al-Mutawa spoke of reframing—the term from family systems therapy that asks us to shift our perspective and to look at something a new way.  His 99 heroes give children a positive take on Islamic archetypes without proselytizing in the slightest.  His mission is cultural, not religious.

Gary Engel said that Superman represents the true assimilated immigrant who has managed to successfully merge two cultures through his dual identities.  Dr. Al-Mutawa seeks to help children to heal by creating Islamic heroes who have merged their own identities—like all good superheroes, his characters are tortured with internal conflicts.

Both Ms. Shafak and Dr. Al-Mutawa have found the political and social power of stories through their success.  Stories are social collateral—by sharing a story with you, I show a tiny part of what I have to offer in a relationship.  We barter our emotions through the stories that we tell—especially those we tell ourselves.

Although Ms. Shafak has encountered the power of stories, I don’t think that she has used it to its full potential.  If I can paraphrase the comic book V for Vendetta, artists use the truth to tell lies, and politicians use lies to tell the truth.  Ms. Shafak is an artist.  Perhaps the only distinction between artists and politicians is the extent to which one desires power more than the other.  Each wields social collateral through stories, visual and spoken.

Dr. Al-Mutawa is more political in his reach for influence, although I believe his motives are pure simply from the joy in his face as he speaks of the impact his work has on children.  It is a shame that one rarely sees pure love on the faces of those who lead us in our politics.

I will end this in the same way that Ms. Shafak ended her speech: with a poem from the Sufi philosopher Yunus Emre.

Come, let us all be friends for once
Let us make life easy on us,
Let us be lovers and loved ones,
The earth shall be left to no one.

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