What would the Edinburgh Fringe do without the Middle East? The region is the setting for all kinds of Fringe performances, from Oh What A Lovely Waron Terror's theatre of the absurd to the earnest student drama of Fever Chart: Three Visions of the Middle East. Writers and performers from Iran to New York tackled tales of the Arab world, with dialogue both comic and serious, but the common theme was conflict, a sad indication of the West's rather narrow perception of the region.
In The Israeli-Palestinian Conflict: A Romantic Comedy, the writer and performer Negin Farsad explores the notion of countries having human hearts and minds. She stars in her two-handed comedy with actor Mike Mosallam - a Lebanese-American and practising Muslim who regularly breaks off from rehearsals to pray. The play depicts Palestine (played by Farsad) and Israel (played by Mosallam) as two star-crossed lovers torn apart by political differences. Iran also has a walk-on part, trying to woo the beautiful Palestine.
Farsad's play, which she co-wrote with Alexander Zalben, is presented in a dingy, darkened club in the middle of the afternoon. Fifteen minutes before it starts, the 30-year-old Iranian New Yorker can be seen setting up her projector for the backdrop, resting it on an old telephone directory; as a Fringe star, you have to be your own prop mistress and stage hand. Farsad may be a very funny comedian and not a bad singer (there are some very bawdy songs) but she wants us to take the play seriously.
"We really want people to see the absurdity of the situation. These two characters - Israel and Palestine - are being torn apart by forces well within their control. It seems so eminently solvable, and yet they are unable to do anything. It's just like a relationship." Not all personifications of Middle East regions at the Fringe are fictional. In Poland 3 Iran 2, the performer Mehrdad Seyf is Iranian (and wears an Iran T-shirt as costume) and his fellow performer Chris Dobrowolski is Polish (and wears a Polska T-shirt as costume). Like many Fringe goers, most of the audience had just wandered in to the Thistle Bar venue by chance, attracted by the poster outside.
"What are we seeing? I've forgotten," said one to his friend. "I expected a dance, actually," said the other. The audience squashed in on tiny barstools, knees in each other's backs. It was a full house - 30 people, at least. Loud traffic passed outside the whole time, making the lines hard to hear. The dialogue between the two men opens in 1976, when the best ever Polish football team played against the best ever Iranian football team at the Montreal Olympics. The game featured the great Ali Parvin, nicknamed The Sultan, but nevertheless Iran lost two goals to three. The two men chat about football, their families and revolution (Iranian and otherwise) as if they were all the same sort of discussion. They show pictures to illustrate them, many family snaps, on a makeshift screen in front of us. The performance - part lecture, part stand-up comedy - has all the fondness and intimacy of the Fringe, where you sit closer to actors than at any other theatrical event. You were so near you could reach out and shake their hands.
At the end, the two men swap T-shirts, Dobrowolski wearing Iran and Seyf wearing Poland. Through personal friendships, we are led to believe, new international understandings are formed. Poland 3 Iran 2 is very funny. Seyf is short and stout, Dobrowolski tall and lanky, like a classic comedy duo. They play for the sort of laughs some Fringe plays reject. For no laughs at all, meanwhile, Fever Chart: Three Visions of the Middle East, "examines the conflicts of the Middle East by showing the individuals caught in the crossfire" in a more serious fashion.
"We wanted something that wasn't funny at all," says the co-producer Pascale Barget. "The fringe is usually quite funny, but this is nothing to joke about. It's no joke. We're forcing people to think." Fever Chart is a classic Fringe piece. A student production (Barget studies economics at Warwick University, England), it takes the form of three short stories based around the lives of people caught up in Middle East conflicts. It was funded by Warwick University Drama Society and a series of fundraising events, including a Middle Eastern feast. (It costs about £6,000, Dh34,000, to take a play to the Fringe, without paying the actors, directors, producers and technical staff a single penny.)
Fever Chart was in one of the newer venues, a back room of a Radisson hotel in Edinburgh's Royal Mile. Hotels have now replaced rundown community halls as the places providing small spaces for performances that expect an audience of 20 at most. Mobile phones went off throughout the performance; no one seemed to bother much. Fever Chart's acting was iffy, the direction clunky, but there were no shortcomings in the commitment. The small army of student actors belted out their lines. This is the real Fringe, with young people performing their hearts out before tiny audiences with props that can fit in a backpack so they can bring them up on the train.
But why do so many Fringe productions draw on the region as a theme - a region many of them can never have visited? Simply because, for our time, the Middle East is grab-able - you can take its stories and use them as your own. In Oh What a Lovely War on Terror, four Cambridge students going under the name of the Angels and Virgins Theatre Company, take the subject from a different point of view and, dressed in black leggings and white shirts, romp through the history of America's conflicts in and attitude towards the Middle East.
"It all started with the fall of the Ottoman Empire " is the opening line, and then all begin to argue over that statement and every subsequent one during an hour of hilarious historical episodes. The students found they didn't have to work much on the script. "It wasn't too hard to write some of these sketches. It often turned out that the reality was so absurd it did not need satirising. Many of the words and phrases are direct quotes from those involved," says director Toby Jones.
A more sombre affair, and one of the biggest hits of the festival, Lockerbie: Unfinished Business has been a huge success, winning a coveted Fringe First Award given to productions premiered at Edinburgh. Its story begins on December 21 1988, when Pan Am flight 103 came down over Lockerbie, Scotland. Two hundred and seventy people were killed in what became known as Britain's worst terrorist attack.
The English doctor Jim Swire's daughter was on board. Based on Swire's unpublished book about the atrocity and its aftermath, Lockerbie is a detailed account of the botched investigations and bureaucratic bumbling, and Swire's struggle to come to terms with and learn the truth about his daughter's death. Lockerbie's sober script entwines Swire's personal trauma with traumatic events on the world stage. When Swire says he wants "some peace", he means peace of mind, not a resolution of conflict.
This fusing of the personal and the political also took centre stage at the discussion chaired by veteran BBC reporter Allan Little at the staid Edinburgh International Book Festival, which runs in parallel to the Fringe. At "Can Humanity Ever Transcend Politics in the Middle East?", Gabriella Ambrosio, the author of Before We Say Goodbye (a novel about a female suicide bomber and her victim), gushed: "I want to understand the humanity involved in this story."
John Watson of Amnesty International Scotland echoed: "A novel like this can help to bring understanding of the other side. It's about understanding of the humanity behind all the conflicts we see." It took the hardened journalist Little to bring us all down to earth. In the emotion of Edinburgh and all its dramatic licence, some grip of reality was lost. Little said, "In the end, we need a political solution. It won't be solved just by emotion."
In the meantime, however, there will be more plays and performances using the emotional weight the Middle East provides at next year's Edinburgh Fringe.