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Arab Nights

Baghdad - Late 1970s

Baghdad - Late 1970s

Baghdad. Late 1970s. I would come back from my primary school, eat lunch and have a siesta before waking up to watch cartoons. This was my daily routine as a six year old. I still remember that upon waking up I had to wear socks before turning the TV on. For some reason I couldn’t bear the idea of watching cartoons without socks on. Maybe I thought the cartoon characters could see me and they would disapprove of my naked feet.

Most of the cartoons were Japanese imports dubbed into Arabic. The cartoon that stands out in my memory is the adventures of Sindbad. Unlike the Sindbad of the one thousand and one nights, the cartoon version was a young boy with some kind of bird pet for company. There was one particular episode that I found equally fascinating and frightening. It was the episode where Sindbad meets an old man that asks to climb on his back so he may cross a river. However once the old man has his legs wrapped firmly around Sindbad’s neck he refuses to descend and Sindbad has to carry him everywhere. The old man metamorphoses into a scary looking goat. Eventually Sindbad gets the old man-slash-goat to drink some wine and by making him drunk, he gets rid of him.

When I was approached by director Poppy Burton- Morgan to select a story from the one thousand and one nights and use it to write something about the Arab Spring, I knew immediately that I wanted to use the story of Sindbad and the old goat. I read the original version and was surprised how violent and weird it was. In my version, Sindbad is a young man who flees his country in search of a job. He boards a boat that he hopes would smuggle him into Italy. But the boat is caught in a storm and Sindbad is shipwrecked and that’s when he meets a radical preacher that has been exiled by the tyrant that rules Sindbad’s country. This meeting has terrifying consequences for Sindbad.

Young, secular Arabs were the fuel behind the revolutions that swept through Tunisia, Libya and Egypt. However on the back of their success, Islamists parties have come to power. This is largely down to the fact that as opposition figures, the Islamist parties were the most organised and connected to the masses. There is a prevalent belief that Islam is the answer to the woes of the Arab world. The big question now is whether the Arab spring is going to turn into an Islamists winter.
It is certainly possible that these new governments might enforce regressive laws particularly in relation to women’s rights. However, that is not the only possible outcome. When I was researching my play the Prophet (which was shown at the gate theatre during the summer), I interviewed a member of the Egyptian Muslim brotherhood in Cairo who was keen to emphasise the modern face of his organisation. Provided the Islamists parties do not go down the road of rigging elections
then their influence on the political scene might wain as secular parties find their feet in this post dictatorial era.

Sindbad and the old goat is a cautionary tale about the Arab Spring. And so we could all hope that it would never come true.

Hassan Abdulrazzak | Monday November 26th 2012

Arab Nights - Chirine's Letter

Arab Nights - Chirine's Letter

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Just one week now until Arab Nights opens at the Soho in London - and this week it's the turn of Egyptian storyteller Chirine El Ansary to share her thoughts... This is an open letter to the respectable Egyptian citizen, a father, a mother, an aunt, an uncle... Those who carefully brought us up, with much love indeed.
Those who responsibly scolded us for lying, while meticulously teaching us never to be true to ourselves, explaining over and over again that 'who we truly were' was not acceptable and that in order to become decent members of this decent society we had to be shaped and reshaped, moulded and remoulded to fit in.

The respectable Egyptian citizen, a father, a mother, an aunt, an uncle,
who filled with fear and a destructive-protective instinct, desperately tried convincing us that there was no "way out" or rather that the only "way out" was in fact a "way in" based on permanent denial and everlasting compromise. Denial and compromise until Death comes in.
Not physical Death, but the insidious Death of the soul, the heart, the will...
Whatever you want to call "it".
"It" that makes us unique individuals and keeps us alive.

A few managed to resist.
They made difficult choices and had to bear the consequences : pointed fingers, loneliness, alienation, harassment, accusations of having betrayed their own society, of not being real Egyptians, of being influenced or manipulated. In the mean time, many others, too exhausted to offer more resistance, gave in.
They turned into puppets, reluctantly leading a life in which decisions and choices strengthened a rotten, corrupt system profiting a handful of worthless criminals.
See no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil...and rot...and die.

Kan yama kan,
Once upon a time
There was this lovely very young woman
There was this lovely very young man
She was learned in poetry, music, philosophy, mathematics, computing,
He was learned in poetry, music, philosophy, mathematics, computing,
She spoke several languages,
He spoke several languages,
She was and idealist,
He was an idealist,
The One Thousand and One Stories they knew made them want to speak the truth, Become freedom fighters.
They would save their country and change the World!
They were both Shahrazad.
Yes, he was Shahrazad too,
For is it possible to sacrifice a woman without sacrificing a man?

Kan yama kan
Once upon a time
There were all these older experienced good Egyptian citizens
Who knew Wrong from Right
Who knew Evil from Good
Who knew Ugliness from Beauty
They had a strong sense of Morality and had to protect it, no matter what,
Even If it meant the collapse of Integrity and Humanity
Even if it meant turning the hope-filled roads into dead-ends.

Conservatism, Fundamentalism, Wahabism, Salafism, Bla-bla-ism,
So many isms that we like to accuse.
But what about the sweet respectable citizens, who carry no "isms" but nevertheless twisted the truth and accepted the unacceptable?

They who for decades turned a blind eye and a deaf ear on the horrors that were taking place, condemning the few who dared speak,
thus making possible the inconceivable, Snipers
Thugs
Expired tear gas
Cold blooded murders for Security's sake
Street children turned kid soldiers
Officially approved rapes
Virginity tests they had somehow been silently conducting for years.

Chirine El Ansary | Wednesday November 14th 2012

Arab Nights - Ghalia's Thoughts

Arab Nights - Ghalia's Thoughts

Just two weeks now until Arab Nights opens at the Soho in London - and so this week I'm sharing Syrian author and Journalist Ghalia Kabbani's moving thoughts and musings on her contribution to the production...

Ghalia Kabbani | Friday November 9th 2012

How can I express what is happening in Syria through 'One Thousand and One Nights'? This was the question which jumped to my mind after a call from the director Poppy Burton-Morgan to contribute to her play which reflects the atmosphere of the Arab Spring.

Once I started thinking of the proposal, I imagined Scheherazade trapped throughout those years inside the stories, threatening her with death night after night. Does my country Syria not live with this fear daily? Hasn’t every Syrian who lives in Syria been ready to be arrested, tortured and killed at any moment, for decades?

Who says that Scheherazade is destined to continue telling the stories striving to find the time to save herself from her executer? Who says that Syria and the Syrians have to continue to show their false loyalty and live in fear of a hypocritical system, under the influence of a tyrant while the world around them is embracing freedom and democracy?

 

 

 

 

I am going to write about Syria to free Scheherazade from that historic burden of being a ransom for other women, and so she is going to be my symbol for Syria, who also has to offer her duties as the continuation of loyalty.

Freeing Scheherazade from this daily fear is the symbol of my play. I had to recall all of the metaphors which I had read or heard, and have entered our popular vocabulary, such as when we call a woman who is showing off ‘sitt elhosn' - the lady of beauty” and we use Shahrayar as symbol of control, and the example of  “brave Hassan” to describe a young man who lets no obstacle stand in his way. And let us not forget the stories of the Djinnis and the tales in the palaces (including those of maids and slaves), and whatever else can fill the imagination.

All these are expressions we use in our conversation and proverbs without being aware of their reference back to these tales. Even expressions of love and sex, they are stored in the collective memory, and people believe that they are their own, unaware that they belong to these tales.

Scheherazade and Syria share more than one element in common. There is the oppression and fear and the children Scheherazade bears while she is telling her stories for year after year. With every child she conceives, she suffers, as her child could lose her at any moment. Her children grow up watching their mother living in fear of the daily possibility of death, as every day she searches her imagination for a new tale. So why doesn’t the time come for the turn of her children to free their mother and face up to the tyranny of their father Shahrayar?

Is this not what the children of Syria, in Daraa city, who were arrested did? Some of them were sent back as disfigured corpses to their parents - like Hamza Al Khateeb - whose parents received his corpse with his genitalia removed. “He was trying to rape women!” That was the official reason for killing him. A thirteen year old child was accused of rape because he and his friends wrote on his school wall: “people want to bring down the regime.”

They were only children. Children who were aware of the modern technology of satellites, internet, smart phones, instant news, scandalous photos and the stream of information reaching people despite the control of the regime. Those children watched the Tunisian President Ben Ali and President Mubarak of Egypt falling from power. Since the people there gathered in squares seeking the freedom denied to them for decades, the children of Syria asked: why are our parents suffering quietly from fear every day, and why do they whisper their views? Why don’t they express them loudly? But more importantly - why are they asking their children to do the same thing, teaching them hypocrisy in life! Children brought up to hide their true opinions, repeating at school the slogan that supports the Baath Party, saluting the president’s life ‘He is our leader forever'. After images from Tunisia and Egypt revolutions flooded the country, children of Daraa asked: why does Syria not have a Tahrir Square, a place for revolution?

Perhaps if it was not for the children in Daara and what happened to them, a revolution would not have erupted to ruffle the waters which have remained stagnant for half a century.

To express all of this, I did not want to use one of Scheherazade’s existing stories as a theme, instead I decided to create my own using the style of “the nights”, a story generated from another, with the help of my recollection of tales added to by new thoughts on the current situation in Syria.

I imagine a female writer, Rana, who lives inside the country and wants to work with a group of children to produce a work inspired by “the nights”, she contacts Ayman, her friend who lives in the Diaspora, asking him to provide her with an electronic copy of “the nights” because her Internet is slow and it is not easy to access it through her PC. but Ayman can’t find a valid copy of the stories. So Rana, working from memory and folklore, starts to create her first story about Scheherazade which leads to a story of “Lady of Damascus”, the daughter of a Brocade cloth maker: (a fabric well-known for hundreds of years exported from Syria and worn by the royal families in Europe).

As Jasmine is the symbol of Damascus it occurred to me to have it as the signature of the 'Lady of Damascus' embroidered upon the cloth, just as Brocade is the symbol of the authenticity of Syria’s history.

When the 'Lady of Damascus' is accused of killing her children, it is the unique weaving of brocade, which she has taught her children that saves her. She recognises the shroud she asks for while waiting for her death, is weaved and signed the same way she taught her children, so they prove her innocence years after the Queen of Djinnis has abducted them.

Back to Scheherazade as we see her in the play - bearing three children who grow up while she tells her stories. I thought that it is time for an end to this daily threat of death. The children have grown up with her anxiety every night. So they face their father Shahrayar with their decision: it is their turn now to tell their own stories, they are the new narrators, and they will carry their mother’s burden. It is time for Scheherazade to sleep undisturbed.

Arab Nights - rehearsals

Arab Nights - rehearsals

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The rehearsals for Metta Theatre’s upcoming show Arab Nights started last Monday at English Touring Theatre in Waterloo. This was the stage of my work with Metta Theatre that I was most looking forward to, as I love being in rehearsal rooms.

These however are only the second professional rehearsals I have been able to observe and the process was extremely enlightening. It was also a relief to realise that professionals are allowed tea breaks too! The process started with a meet and greet with the company and the cast, and then straight into a read-through of the script, which was being videoed throughout to send to our six authors.

Hearing the script (which is six separate tales) read out loud by the actors and pulled together in its order really made the experience seem real, and the power of the work’s message was clear, even read sitting down in a circle with scripts. The rest of the first day was dedicated mainly to text work, so Poppy and the actors could start discussing how they had responded to the various authors’ plays, as well as getting to know our rehearsal spaces facilities, and working out a mark up, and what props each scene would require.

The next rehearsal I attended was mainly focussed around work on The Tale of The Dictator’s Wife by Tania El Khouri, and was attended by Tania herself. It was interesting for me to watch the three creative components of a play - playwright, director and cast – interacting in one room about the work. Tania told the two actors involved in her piece how she visualised her characters, and described to Poppy and Will the set she imagined for her piece. Poppy and the cast then worked on the movement of this tale. The tale is set on an extremely innovative set of an ipad/bed which the character of the First Lady must manipulate realistically. The session involved quite a lot of everyone in the room lying on the floor with their legs in the air, and I started to understand why actors don’t wear skirts to rehearsals!

I have also been in the rehearsal room while the company worked on one of the most complicated and also most beautiful tales The Tale of the River Brides by Chirine El Ansary. I watched as Poppy and the cast discussed back-stories for the characters and weaved speeches through a megaphone and a drum into a tale set on an aeroplane. I was impressed how simply by the way the actors were placed and how they moved the studio became transformed into what was clearly an aeroplane.

Yesterday Sue Buckmaster, the Artistic Director of Theatre-Rites, who is a leading expert on puppetry, attended rehearsals. She was there to help the cast learn all the rules of her art. I have loved puppetry since I was a small child but have never understood at all how it was achieved. It was almost magical to see how the company and Sue worked together so that what at the beginning looked to me like a book with a scarf round its neck, by the end uncannily evoked the figure of a bent over old man, and how that too could suddenly (with the help of a shoe box) be transformed into a goat!

All in all the rehearsals of Arab Nights so far seem to me to promise an innovative and moving play, with the power to tell a story using in some instances only shoes as both props and characters, and having the opportunity to watch the show develop has been a thrilling experience for me.

Mary Franklin | Tuesday November 6th 2012

Arab Nights - Mary's thoughts

In September I was absolutely thrilled to be offered an opportunity to work in the professional theatre world. I am interning on Metta Theatre’s latest production Arab Nights, which will be at the Soho Theatre from November 21st. My first task was not an unpleasant one, but an invitation to lunch at Will and Poppy’s house (the directors) to meet the cast and company, and lovely baby Noah. Everyone was very friendly and already I felt that I had learned a huge amount about what it actually takes to put together a production.

Since then I have been kept busy with a number of tasks. One of these was working on a timeline of the events of the Arab Spring (which the play is based around) for the freesheet. The events described in the play are such horrific stories I was convinced they were fiction. It was eye opening to realise that things like virginity testing (described in The River Brides) are real life events.

I was also set to work to find a rehearsal space for the company and given a preferred location and budget. This meant travelling around London to view spaces which has been enormously useful for me to find out what is out there and for how much, for later in my career. I also emailed a few people I knew about doing post show discussions and it was wonderful to get such a positive response about the play and its concept.

Every Monday I attend the company Production meeting, which each time manages to be both frighteningly professional and a lot of fun. Having only directed student productions the idea of having people who would actually do your publicity for you is very exciting. This week I had the task which I have possibly enjoyed the most, which was a ‘text reading’ with one of the three actors. I was daunted by this instruction as I wasn’t sure exactly what a ‘text reading’ was and a Google search did not help much. However when I met the actor I confessed I had never done one before and in fact wasn’t sure exactly what it meant, he admitted he was in exactly the same boat so there was no need for my worries. What we did do was read through the text, with me reading the other characters to check his pronunciation was correct. I have frequently found that a play on the page is not only much less powerful than spoken, but hard to read and almost incomprehensible. To hear Arab Nights read out loud, even in a cursory way really gave me an idea of what the production itself will be like, and how resonant and striking the script is.

We go into rehearsals on Monday so I will spend the weekend sourcing as many shoe boxes as possible (the reason will be revealed when you come to see the play) and I am greatly looking forward to being in the rehearsal room, and seeing how Poppy directs the actors. All in all I am immensely grateful to Metta for giving me this chance to see how a play is formed and also for the wonderful experience that is proving.

Mary Franklin | Friday October 26th 2012

Arab Nights - Tania's musings

Arab Nights - Tania's musings

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Only five weeks now until Arab Nights opens at the Soho in London - and so this week I'm delighted to share Lebanese Live Artist Tania El Khoury's thoughts and musings on her contribution to the production. And for those of you especially interested in 1001 Nights her piece - both powerful and very funny - also has echoes of a great tale within the ancient Nights canon called 'Abu Kassim's Slipper'. It seems the precedent of shoes as powerful objects of provocation is even older than we realised...

The multi-functional shoes

I stared at the newspaper's photo of the shoes that Asma El Assad purchased from Louboutin. This must a joke. Even for a play, I wouldn't write that the character of a brutal dictator’s wife buys a designer pair of shoes with nails coming out of them. Does she use them to poke the eyes of political prisoners? Surely she doesn't wear them to a dinner party thrown by queen Rania or any other freakishly smiling royal.

Being a dictator’s wife who is busy buying shoes while the people are dying is beyond a cliché. Shouldn't a modern and educated westernised first lady find herself a more unique passe-temps? Imelda Marcos, the wife of the former Philippino president did it before her. She left behind over 1000 pair of shoes when she fled the country.

Shoes in the Arab world played a part in politics long before the Assads' shopping basket was leaked to the media. They serve a specific task, to be thrown at the faces of dictators, war criminals, state media representatives and any other enemy of the people. If the world was a better place, these revolutionary shoes will be worth more than the entire collection of Louboutin.

Dictators in the Arab world also use shoes as a political tool. Last year, Nazeeha a friend from Bahrain was arrested for reporting on-line that she had witnessed the killing of a civilian by the police. She was tortured by having one of her shoes shoved down her throat. This story didn't make it to Vogue but Asma El Assad did.

Tania El Khoury | Wednesday October 17th 2012

Metta likes connection...

Metta likes connection...

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The more observant among you may have noticed that we haven't blogged for a while...or in fact at all this year! Ooops. We shall use the at least partially valid excuse that we've been quite busy having a baby. But as well as having a baby we have also been busy (perhaps too busy) making some theatre. Our two major projects this year are a new opera about Locked In Syndrome (a condition where the body is cut off from the brain leaving the patient fully aware and in tact cognitively but physically entirely paralysed) called Flicker, and a collection of 6 short plays responding to the events of the Arab uprisings, within the framework of the Arabian Nights, called (somewhat unimaginatively perhaps) Arab Nights.

On the face of it the two projects couldn't be more different, but this week I have been struck by how they speak to each-other in terms of connection. The opera - for which I am writing the libretto - is being based on the verbatim transcripts of interviews with patients and staff at the Royal Hospital for Neuro-disability and after months of meetings with the staff, last week Jon Nicholls (the composer) and I finally met with some of the patients. Some of them are completely Locked In (and can only blink their eyes to communicate - as in the book and film 'The Diving Bell and The Butterfly') and others partially locked in with some degree of movement in their hands - such that they are able to use assistive communication aides, most commonly a light-writer which allows them to type sentences that are sometimes then translated into speech by the same computer. But as you can imagine this is an incredibly long and tiring process for them, and it can take up to half an hour for them to communicate one sentence. But perhaps the most striking thing about these interviews, aside from the patients' somewhat surprising optimism about their condition and situation, is how hard they were prepared to work to make a connection and communicate something to us. And relatedly how a large part of this act of connection and communication is (although helped a lot by the technology) actually still hugely non-verbal and conveyed through their eyes and through touch.

Meanwhile I have been making connections - again with the help of technology, albeit the simpler form of email - with the writers of Arab Nights who come from Egypt Iran, Iraq, Lebanon, Palestine & Syria and who mostly still reside in these countries. It's an amazing thing to have forged relationships with these writers - some of whom I may well never actually meet in the flesh, or 'in the real' as one of the writers so poetically put it. And yet through email, Facebook, Twitter we share stories, pictures of our children, the minutiae that make up a life. As well as transcending borders, and languages, to create these plays together it feels like we're also making very human connections that I hope will continue long after the production itself is over.

And between the meetings and the emails and the connecting with people on the other side of the world and with people locked inside their own private worlds we also fumble towards the connections you try to make with a tiny person - who now four and a half months old is desperate to make his own connection to the world and everyone in it.

Arab Nights - Raja's week

Arab Nights - Raja's week

So we open our latest production - Arab Nights - six weeks today at the Soho Theatre in London (crikey - that's soon!) - and to celebrate the six diverse and wonderful voices that make up the play they are each going to write a little something for the Metta blog. First - the wonderful novelist and all round lovely human being that is our Palestinian writer Raja Shehadeh...

Just back to Palestine after a seven week absence in the UK promoting my new book, Occupation Diaries. Slight feeling of let down after the exciting time going from one literary festival to another. As expected found the garden in a dismal state, with only the shrubs barely surviving the heat and dryness of a hot Palestinian summer.

But before plunging into work on the garden, at my law office and on my various writing projects, had to take my wife to Makassed Hospital, a Palestinian hospital in East Jerusalem, to check on her arm which was broken during a hiking trip to Skye last July. Heard from the Orthopedic Doctor about the difficulties the hospital faces because of the closure of Jerusalem.

Fortunately I don’t need to go often to Jerusalem. But most of the hundreds of the hospital’s employees, doctors, trainees and patients come from the Palestinian areas around Jerusalem and must get a permit from the Israeli military to get to work, to train or get medical treatment at this specialized, training hospital which has better facilities than any in the rest of the West Bank. They have to endure the daily ordeal of crossing the checkpoints around the eastern, mainly Arab part of the city. I cannot imagine how they endure this ordeal twice every day of their working week. In Arab Nights I wrote how Jerusalem now has not one but two walls. Within the older Ottoman-built wall today (Friday October 5th) there were confrontations between extremist religious Jews and Palestinians inthe precinct of the Al Aqsa Mosque.

Every day no less than 20,000 Palestinians cross one of the gates in the concrete wall newly constructed by the Israeli government around the expanded area of Jerusalem. They do so in silence, a heavy silence at that. Except, that is, for the orders they hear from the Israeli soldiers whom they do not see, just as though they were invisible Djinnis.

It was only natural then that when Metta Theatre proposed that I participate in writing a play that uses the style ofArabian Nights I found this the perfect style for presenting the surrealistic reality under which we live in the Occupied Palestinian Territories.

We in Palestine are part of the rest of the Arab region. The revolutions taking place around us give us hope. It is this hope makes it possible to endure what appears for the time being to be a desperate situation, here. As the Palestinian character in Arab Nights endures his ordeal before the wall he remembers the scaling by Palestinians and Syrians of another border, a few months earlier, during the Arab Spring, when they crossed the Syrian- Israeli border daring to traverse what was thought to be a minefield.

It sounds like magic and in some ways it was. And yet it happened. One episode in the play leads to another, just like in our turbulent life in this unstable region. From despair to hope, to dreams, to frustration just like the life here that I returned to after my few weeks in the UK.

Raja Shehadeh | Friday October 5th 2012