Mezrab’s Good Soul: Storyteller Marijn Vissers

By Caterina Luce Bonini

Collage by Amal

— “…On November 10th, in 1938, the Crystal Night, Kristallnacht, happened. On the same day in 1942, Germany invaded Vichy France during World War II. Some years later, on November 10th, 1989, Germans began tearing down the Berlin Wall. Finally, on the very same day in 1955, I was born.”

These were the words that introduced me to Marijn Vissers on November 10th, 2021, the day of his 66th birthday. That night, he opened a storytelling night in Mezrab, to a crowd of curious spectators. After his clever revelation, the crowd burst into a loud applause, which quickly turned into a collective “happy birthday to you”.

Founded in 2003 by Sahand Sahebdivani, Mezrab is a cultural association. Its events take place in a cosy yet spacious bar in Amsterdam-Oost that hosts artistic performances almost every day of the week. On Wednesdays and Fridays, the “house of stories” is famous for hosting storytelling nights, events where professional and amateur storytellers turn stories of their ordinary lives into tales that capture the crowd. Audience members can also take the floor if their name is extracted from a hat that is passed through the room in search of bold spectators. 

Out of everyone, Marijn Vissers is the most regular guest during these nights, and his role varies each time, blurring between storyteller, host, or presenter. “Most people think I’m the owner of the Mezrab,” Vissers explains, “because I’m old and I usually sit at the end of the bar!”. I myself had also been tricked by his appearance and his familiarity with the staff and many of the audience members. The way in which he spoke to the crowd that night radiated a professional closeness to the public. The bar was full, everyone leaned towards the centre of the room, where a spotlight shone on the microphone. His blue, flower-print shirt grabbed the attention of the audience, and his raucous voice echoed in the crowded room. His round features were distended in a friendly, innocent smile, and his iconic single curl was attentively combed in a circle on his hairless forehead.

Vissers is an influential personality in Mezrab’s organisation. He explains: “Officially, I have nothing to do with it, but of course, because I’m always there, I give my opinions.” He has close relationships with the staff and with the regular audience, and is known by everyone who attends storytelling nights. He is a respected figure in the storytelling community, and he has connections with many people in the Amsterdam storytelling scene, as well as globally.

His passion for storytelling is rooted in his family’s tradition of evening storytelling, so it has always come naturally. Throughout his life, storytelling represented a way to process and come to terms with reality. It is an important part of Vissers’ identity. 

He was born in Heesch, a small village in the South-Eastern part of the Netherlands. His parents, Dini and Jo Vissers, had a shop where they sold vegetables and flowers. His mother’s father was the storyteller of the family. In the evenings, he would tell stories to his 10 children. Vissers’ mother, Dini, inherited the storytelling trait. As an adult, she used storytelling to make reality less hard for her children. Their father had a drinking problem, which led to trouble at home. Vissers remarks: “Telling stories was sort of a safety net when I was a kid. I had my own fantasy world. I had the most beautiful adventures, and beautiful things happened there compared to real life”.

Storytellers’ success lies in their capacity to turn events into stories that can entertain, teach, amuse, or move the audience. The ability of a storyteller not only lies in how they tell the story, but also in how they choose it. They need to turn everyday life into something worth being told. “To succeed in storytelling, you need to be able to think in stories”, explains Kor Hoebe, a storyteller and comedian, and a close friend of Vissers. “A story gets good if there’s a lot of humanity in it, or if there’s a lot of action happening.” He relates that the best stories are the ones born from tragic events: “a benefit of being a storyteller is that you can turn all the shit in your life into a cool story. We actually turn lemons into lemonade!”. 

In Mezrab, the storyteller stands at the centre of the main room, and all around the audience sits on tribunes or rough wooden benches. The spotlight is on the speaker, who composes the tale with their voice. Storytelling does not come with a script, although some storytellers write down their stories to rehearse them. Storytellers act through their words, the expressivity in their voice, and their body language. They sometimes interact with the audience, asking questions or making jokes.

Storytelling is an art often related to the idea of the underdog. Its definition is still evolving, but its popularity has risen in recent years.It is an intimate form of entertainment, as the stories come from the speaker’s personal experiences. 

Vissers confesses that for him, finding stories is not difficult: “I was always telling stories, my whole life. And everything, all my memories, are put into stories. That’s an automatic thing for me. Some people probably think in pictures, and I think in pictures and stories. That’s my memories.”

When Vissers was 14 years old, he went to visit his aunt Jetty van den Boom for the summer, who lived in Switzerland. There, he worked as a cook in a restaurant and had the chance to meet different people from all around the world. This first experience abroad sparked an innate curiosity for other cultures, which became an essential trait of his character. He was 18 when he graduated from high school, and his thirst for adventure led him to leave the Netherlands and work as a volunteer in an Israeli kibbutz for 6 months. He repeated this experience twice before setting off for South America with his aunt and his cousin for a year. His aunt worked for the International Red Cross in Peru, monitoring the living conditions of political prisoners in Peruvian jails. During that time Sandeiro Luminoso — “Shining path”, a Peruvian communistic revolutionary organisation — commenced its violent operations. Vissers sometimes went with his aunt to the prisons and witnessed her inspections.

Travelling fed Vissers’ passion for other cultures, and when he came back to the Netherlands he enrolled in a nursing school in Santpoort, near Haarlem. What interested him was not the profession itself, but rather the cultures he came in contact with: “for me it was more about the diversity of the patients and about the personal dilemmas that people face — that’s why I became a nurse in a psychiatric hospital”, says Vissers. After that, he worked in a trauma centre in Noordwijk, where refugees with PTSD were welcomed. He encountered stories of people that had survived war, rape, or homicides. The stories of people that had lived through such atrocities touched Vissers deeply. However, he could not tell the stories he came across, because the people close to him could not bear to listen to them — they were too heavy. In 2002, after 6 years in Noordwijk, Vissers got second-hand trauma from working there. After attempting to commit suicide that year, he was advised to leave his job.

It was during this time that he embraced his passion for storytelling and theatre. Six months after leaving his job as a nurse Vissers begand doing improvisation theatre. Often called improv, this is a form of theatre where actors do not have a script and they must improvise scenes on the spot. The characters and the story are created by the actors as the play unfolds in front of the audience. This form of entertainment is as much fun for the players as it is for the audience, and its genre is often comedy. “I used it to compensate for all of the heavy material I had”, explains. Vissers “It was sort of a compensating behaviour, to make life equal”.

In 2005, Vissers founded ImproBattle, an association which hires freelance improvisers to give improv workshops. They focus primarily on “difficult kids”, children with low access to education, often from challenging backgrounds. “They call me Mr. Curl,” Vissers says “because of the curl on my head!”. 

ImproBattle gives workshops in schools, community centres and various other institutions. “I started giving workshops to youngsters with problematic backgrounds because of my own problematic background as a young kid,” says Vissers. “I felt the drive to give them a good feeling and good self esteem, because during that time nobody was there for me”. Now, his organisation is growing and helps almost 3000 children a year. Doing this work, Vissers often uses storytelling, believing it intertwines with improvisation. “When you tell a story about something, you learn to live with it, you learn to embrace it”, he explains, “and that’s more more less how you get over a trauma — that’s why I use storytelling a lot in my work, but not directly —  we do all kinds of improvisation games and I can see how children bring out personal stories, without directly telling them.”

It was through the world of improvisation that Vissers encountered Mezrab. Rod ben Zeev, a fellow improv actor whoknew Vissers through his organisation, was aware of Vissers’ passion for storytelling. In 2009,  Ben Zeev invited Vissers to a Mezrab storytelling night for the first time: “the first night I didn’t go”, says Vissers, “I went to the second night. Since then, I’ve been addicted.” 

At that time, storytelling events did not give space to real life storytelling. Instead, fairy tales or folktales were preferred. In America on the other hand, storytelling based on real life was becoming popular. Ben Zeev, who was in close contact with the founder of Mezrab, Sahand Sahebdivani, hoped to shift Mezrab’s storytelling nights to real life stories. Back then, Mezrab was a very small organisation that mostly offered nights of live music. Storytelling happened only once a week, and few people were interested. 

Since then, Vissers has become an essential presence at the storytelling nights. He has witnessed the evolution of Mezrab from being a very small circle of people, to becoming one of the centres of European storytelling. When Vissers first  joined the Mezrab, it had a different location. Mezrab moved to its current address in 2013, to the basement below what we now call Mezrab . “The basement had very low ceilings, and the Dutch always complained about it,” says Vissers. When the Mezrab activity moved upstairs, the place seemed too big for their events. “This is too big, I told Sahand, we’ll never get it full!” Vissers recalls saying. Against Vissers’ earlier predictions, the events held by Mezrab are very popular now, and they had to progressively add storytelling nights to the planning. Before the pandemic, Mezrab hosted about 170 people per evening for the storytelling events.

Over time Vissers’ presence became essential for the community. “He is an expert on how to create communities and how to keep them together” says Karl Giesriegl, co-owner of Mezrab. “He is part of Mezrab and he is also the mezrab, because he created it with us.” Giesriegl remarks about the nature of Vissers’ storytelling, saying it is very specific, and that he has a very charming way of telling stories. Vissers immediately grabs the audience’s attention. He makes people sympathise with him, because he never tries to hide his vulnerabilities. His honesty, authenticity and originality are what make him unique, according to Giesriegl, both in storytelling and in life. 

Hoebe relays that one of the first stories Vissers told in Mezrab, which was also one of his classics, is a story about the queen. The story goes that once Vissers had been asked by a friend to let the children he teaches improv to perform in a theatre play. The play was Hercules, and the students would have played the refugees. Vissers insisted on inviting the queen to the premiere of the show. It was even guaranteed that she would come. The night of the performance, Vissers opened the curtains to sneak a glance at the audience, but he did not see her sitting in the front row, where a seat had been reserved for her. Vissers  and the kids were all very disappointed at the thought that the queen had not shown up. Vissers cursed out loud, while all the microphones were on. He then went on stage with the  kids and asked them how they felt about being stood up by the queen. They answered while on stage, in front of the audience. The comments were naturally quite negative, especially because some of the refugee children were not allowed to stay in the Netherlands anymore, for which they publicly accused the queen. At one point, one of the children recognized the queen in the audience, sitting in disguise. After the show, she went  backstage to talk with the children. She was furious with Vissers: she had never been introduced in such a disrespectful way. At that point, Vissers gave her a friendly clap on the shoulder and told her: “So you’ll never forget about me!”.

Another night, Vissers told a story about how he confronted his father. One night, he faced his father and told him about the problems he caused for his family with his alcohol abuse. After their conversation, his father got into a serious accident while drunk, giving him a handicap. The experience motivated him to set up an organisation for disabled people, an occupation he held onto for the rest of his life. In the end, his father became an example for Vissers, because he found a way to redeem himself and to have a positive impact on the world. 

When Marijn told this story in the Mezrab, 8 grown men approached him afterwards because they had similar issues in their families. “One of the main reasons I tell stories in Mezrab is because a lot of people come to me afterwards and say: ‘oh my god, I had the same experience!’ or ‘oh my god, hearing your story helped me a lot!’- and that’s the best present you ever get” Vissers shares. “You have no idea how much you affect people by telling your stories. There’s always someone in the audience that had more or less the same experiences you had, so they come to you and thank you for the story — and sometimes they start telling stories themselves! That’s one of the biggest reasons why I love being there.”

Vissers is an essential character in Mezrab’s community, both for the quality of his stories and for his ability to connect with people. Indeed, his network is huge, and he always gets invited to hold workshops all around the world. This allows him to combine his two passions, storytelling adìnd travelling, which are blended one into the other. His friend Kor Hoebe sees Vissers as an example: “His interest in cultures and attention for others — that’s what I really admire about him. I think he’s one of the richest people in the world. Not in terms of money, but in terms of cultural capital and social skills.”

Editor’s note: This profile is part of a collaboration between The Herring and AUC’s journalism course. The story was written, edited, and fact-checked by students of the journalism course. Some content may have been altered by The Herring’s editors for clarity and style.

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