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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

The "Hole" Story

Air Date: Week of
Yassir Chadly. (Yassir Chadly)

To kick off Living on Earth’s holiday storytelling special featuring tales from the Middle East and Africa, Yassir Chadly of Morocco plays his oud and tells the story of a village’s absurd battle with a hole.


CURWOOD: From the Jennifer and Ted Stanley studios in Somerville, Massachusetts, this is Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood.

Our music is different this week because we’re taking a break from our usual coverage of environmental news to bring you our annual holiday special featuring…storytellers.

This year we hear from American artists who share a Muslim heritage. Born in Morocco, Iran, and Senegal—they bring us tales of radio transformations, immigrations, and fast-food temptations. Yassir Chadly is a musician, swimming instructor, and the imam of a mosque in Oakland, California. Yassir, welcome to Living on Earth.


CURWOOD: Firoozeh Dumas is an Iranian-American writer of very funny books.
Hello Firoozeh.

DUMAS: Thank you.

CURWOOD: And I also have here with me two musicians and storytellers originally from Senegal in West Africa—Mamadou and Sana Ndiaye, of the musicial group Gokh-bi System. Hi guys!



CURWOOD: Yassir Chadly, I’d like to start with you. Please, tell us about the storytelling tradition where you’re from in Morocco.

CHADLY: Well I grew up in Casablanca. There is no Humphrey Bogart there, just a city near the ocean. Storytellers are in the streets near the markets and they sit, and you can choose which one you want to sit with. And, they usually are saying stories with instruments. If they make you forget that you are sitting on a rock, then they are good storytellers.

CURWOOD: Now, Yassir, I understand you have an oud with you. Yes, there is me and my oud.


CHADLY: Can you hear that?


CHADLY: It’s like the guitar is for Europeans, is the oud is for Middle Eastern people. In general, we call it a roouid since you don’t have an “ain” in the alphabet, they changed that “ayn” into oud, they say ooodd. And that changes from oud to lute, and then you have a lute.

(Photo: Yassir Chadly)

CURWOOD: Ah. So, Yassir, do you have a story you’d like to tell using your oud?

CHADLY: Well, yes, I just want to see what comes up.


CHADLY: Once upon a time there was people concentrating on a hole. A hole that was a problem for the village because every time somebody walk and they fall there, they get hurt.

But the people, they didn’t want to get rid of that hole. They liked it. But they made a gathering to see what should they do to save people from falling. And one guy said, ‘lets put a nurse, a registered nurse in the hole, and if somebody fall then the registered nurse will take care of him.’

Another one said, ‘that’s a bad idea. Why don’t we put an emergency car, an ambulance near the hole, if somebody fall we’ll take them to the hospital.’ And then, one guy come from the back, and he said, ‘all of these ideas are bad. Why don’t we build a hospital near the hole?’

And another one said, ‘No, that idea is bad, we already have a hospital. Why don’t we fill this hole with concrete? And then, we’ll make a hole right near the hospital so we still have a hole.’ [Laughs] So that’s the concentration of having a hole the whole time.

CURWOOD: [Laughs] You sound like the planet trying to deal with the question of climate change.

CHADLY: [Laughs] My idea was a people who insist and persist on an idea because they like the hole so much that they don’t want to get rid of it because they have this bad habit of always wanting to have that bad hole.

CURWOOD: So, Yassir Chadly, tell me, when did you first fall in love with music?

CHADLY: Uh, I knew I was going to be a musician when it was a hot day and I was in the Bedouin land of my grandfather, and it was very hot at noon--everybody was sleeping, the dogs are sleeping, donkeys are sleeping, everybody is sitting and finding the shade. And, I was by myself awake, I didn’t know what to do, so I started playing with the radio.

I know my grandfather and grandmother never moved the dial--they kept it always on the Arabic channel--but I moved the dial and I got this French channel and I start listening, and who was singing it was Ray Charles. I didn’t understand English or anything, I was very young, but he was singing Georgia.


CHADLY: And that touched my heart. I started crying, tears coming and I said, ‘Oh, I love this. I want to do something like that.’


CURWOOD: So let me hear a little bit of Georgia.

CHADLY: I mean, Georgia on the oud?

CURWOOD: Yes! Georgia on the oud. Georgia with Yassir, Georgia.

CHADLY: I never played Georgia on the oud. But I can play something similar to Georgia.


CURWOOD: Well thank you, Yassir! And, what do the words mean in English?

CHADLY: It was something similar to ‘Georgia On My Mind,’ this one, it says [speaks Arabic then translates]: Oh beloved of my heart where are you? Where are you all these months and all these years, I didn’t see you.

CURWOOD: So, let me ask you, Sana, now you’re holding an instrument that’s not too dissimilar from the oud. First of all, what is your instrument called, this one that looks like a banjo?

SANA NDIAYE: Yeah, this instrument is called a konting. It comes from the Diola people, which is my tribe. And, this instrument is a very old instrument--it has been created to bring peace, love and justice. I discovered this instrument when I was very, very young. My grandfather was playing this instrument, and as soon as I saw the instrument I just fell in love with it, and I just right away wanted to learn.


CURWOOD: It’s the radio, so you can’t see that Sana’s playing something that looks very much like a banjo, but kind of the bottom of it is on steroids.

MAMADOU: [Laughs] This is the great-grandfather of the banjo.

Sana Ndiaye of the group Gokh-bi System playing the "ekonting." (Gokh-bi System)

SANA NDIAYE: Actually this instrument is the first banjo, so during the slavery time, you know, those people were captured, and then some of them, they brought some instruments with them, and you know, they were entertaining whoever captured them. That’s why this transformation came from with the banjo.

CURWOOD: So, Mamadou, you’ve played this yourself?

MAMADOU: No. [Laughs] Yeah, I tried but I couldn’t do it.

CURWOOD: And, Firoozeh, what did you bring today to play?

DUMAS: Well, actually nothing. I didn’t realize that we were supposed to bring anything, and I actually have no musical talent so I wouldn’t have been able to bring anything anyway. But, I can hum.

CURWOOD: [Laughs] Well, we’re going to hear from the konting later, but Firoozeh, you were born in Iran, but you moved to California with your family when you were about seven. And, you ended up writing about your experiences coming from the Persian culture and growing up in America in two very popular books, one is called “Funny in Farsi,” and the other is called, “Laughing without an Accent.”

And, you know, I have to say, when I think of Iran, the first thing that comes to my mind is not funny. I mean, how did you become an Iranian-American humorist?

Dumas is the author of the book "Funny in Farsi." (Photo: Stephanie Rausser)

DUMAS: Well, I do have to admit I think politicians have definitely set the humor bar very low. Which makes my job that much easier, because all I have to do is walk into a room and say ‘hello,’ and people say, ‘wow, she is funny!’

So, how I became a humorist is, I actually have a father who is very, very funny. So, when I became a mother and I started writing my stories for my children, they ended up being funny but I had absolutely no intention of them being funny. So, once I realized that the stories were funny, I decided to just take it one step further and to try and get them published to show the humorous side of an Iranian family, which you never see anywhere.

CURWOOD: Now, I imagine coming to America as an immigrant there are so many crazy, strange things. For example, I think you wrote about, uh, trying to figure out a garage sale?

DUMAS: Yeah. It’s not like you get this booklet on America and Americans. There were just so many things that left us completely befuddled, you know like Grasshopper Pie. You know, there was no one to ask, and like, a garage sale, you know, of course, well what exactly is a garage sale? Or, you know, figuring out what is in all the boxes and cans in the grocery stores for instance. Because so many of them have a picture of a smiling person on them, and, you know that’s not in there. So, it was definitely the little things that got us.

CURWOOD: [Laughs] So, how did the grasshopper pie get you?

DUMAS: Well, we had, when we first came to America in 1972, Americans were so kind to us, and people were always coming and giving us baked goods, and I just remember one time we had this mom from my school who came to our house and she told us that this was a tradition and she gave us this Grasshopper Pie and she didn’t explain what it was and so, we took it and we did what we always did, and we looked it up in the dictionary. And we just looked up ‘Grasshopper’ and we looked up ‘Pie,’ we just threw it away. Which, I’m very sorry for because I’ve since had Grasshopper Pie and I think it’s very good. And there are no Grasshoppers in Grasshopper Pie. But, you know it was green and had brown flecks on it, so…

CURWOOD: [Laughs] No one told you that it had sugar and what else?

DUMAS: It’s like chocolate and mint.

CURWOOD: Yeah, there you go! But, desserts named after insects…not a good idea.



Yassir Chadly

Gokh-Bi System

Firoozeh Dumas


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