Once upon a time in a Cretan village

?For years I dreamed of bringing new life to an ancient place that seemed to be fading away,? writes Stella Kassimati, chair of the Friends of Amari organization. The desire to breathe fresh air into a forgotten place as well as tradition explains why this group of Greek, English, Irish, Scottish, Dutch, French and Americans decided to set up a storytelling association in a rural Cretan location.

The village of Amari, dotted with ancient shrines and located in the geographic heart of Crete at the foot of the island?s highest mountain, Psiloritis (Mt Ida), is ?unspoiled by modern tourist development,? writes Kassimati. And these are no tourists. The association members are ?explorers, looking for inner as well as outer journeys.?

The community works to adopt sustainable practices, ?working alongside the local people and respecting the land? and aims to revive the surroundings, not only by making use of the area?s cultural heritage and natural beauty but also by ?developing our… community, which meets in Amari and has its base there,? explains Kassimati. What ties the community?s members together is storytelling. Many of its members and participants have studied storytelling or are storytellers themselves. Their vision is to establish an international school of storytelling at Amari.

Kassimati tells Athens Plus why the oral tradition is so integral not only to Friends of Amari but also to Greece?s larger cultural heritage.

What role did you play in establishing Friends of Amari?

It has always been my dream to serve Amari as my family has done for generations. Though I was born and raised abroad, we were brought up to consider Amari our home. Over the years I attended meetings of Amari associations. The main topic was what to do to bring life back to Amari. In the 80s I brought tourist groups for a visit to Amari. That didn?t work. In the 90s I lived in Amari and opened a taverna with the aim of giving it to someone to run. That didn?t work. At the turn of the millennium, I moved to England to study storytelling. Surprisingly, it was in the UK that new horizons and opportunities opened up for my dream for Amari. Now the Friends of Amari association, which I chair, is committed to the revival of both the valley of Amari and the lost art of storytelling that is so central to Greek life and culture.

How exactly did Friends of Amari begin?

In Amari, we often talked about what we could do for our village and we came up with some exciting ideas. But nothing came to fruition. In the summer of 2004, my teacher and colleague, storyteller Sue Hollingsworth and her late husband Jim came to visit me. I showed them the village and we visited beautiful homes, then neglected and dilapidated. Sue said how moved she was by the beauty of the village and how sad she was that Amari felt like a village that was dying. I said every death contains the seed of new life, waiting for the right moment to spring forth. Sitting outside the kafeneio, we talked about how life could be brought back to Amari, how people might return and how others might share the beauty. One idea led to another and we decided to take a step and transform a feeling into reality.

In 2006 a group of 12 people visited Amari to participate in an informal course. Following this, in 2007 a group of individuals ? who felt a connection with Amari and shared my dream ? founded Friends of Amari. In March 2008, an ?Introduction to Storytelling? course was held in Rethymno on Crete. The following month, we had our first fundraising event in the UK, a celebration of Greek food and stories. About 80 people attended and we raised 1,400 pounds. In the summers of 2008 and 2009, several groups stayed in Amari, attended courses and had a wonderful time. Many participants became members. We have been raising money for our projects at Amari and have refurbished a building that is now our center, ?Estia Amariou.?

How do Amari locals interact with the expats?

This is an interesting question and one that has been at the forefront of our discussions. I am a ?local.? My family has been in Amari since the 9th century, although I do not live there year round. The permanent residents of Amari have been suspicious, curious and welcoming. Some have observed us at a distance while others have embraced the newcomers with a warm Cretan welcome. Many of our members are learning Greek and our courses have always included lessons of basic Greek.

The old school building has been renovated; more than a dozen homes have been refurbished and new ones have been built; many people with ties to Amari are thinking of spending more time there. We want to achieve an intermingling of ideas and cultures by respecting the environment and learning traditional arts, customs, music and dances; where people learn by example and embrace low-tech village life. We are striving to increase awareness of recycling, of locally sourced products, particularly organic agriculture. All these things benefit the wider community, along with the financial benefits of increasing employment in the area and income by expanding the local market.

Why does storytelling play such an important role?

A community is defined by its stories ? the history of the land, the village and its inhabitants. In many villages on Crete, people have migrated to the towns and the old way of life is dying. So, too, are many of the stories. We believe that to revitalize a community is as important to revitalize the stories ? by telling the old stories and creating new ones. Many of our members are storytellers as we have strong links with the School of Storytelling at Emerson College in the UK. Our intention is to use stories to help us forge a path into the future. Storytelling engages the imagination and allows us to talk about things in a way not possible with bare facts. Taffy Thomas, the UK?s first laureate for storytelling, said, ?The stories people choose to tell and listen to are a statement of who they are, of their identity and it?s very important to have that.?

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