A traditional Hakawati troupe of actors are bringing to life the mythical characters of Arabia through poetry.
A UAE-based storytelling group breathes life into familiar tales
Legendary tales of heroism, romance and destiny fill the pages of one of the most famous and fascinating collections of stories in the world, dating back to sixth-century Arabia.
The stories within the book One Thousand and One Nights (Arabian Nights) have been translated into numerous languages and interpreted through various theatre, television and musical productions.
On Sunday, a traditional UAE-based Arabic storytelling group, Al Hakawati (the Storyteller), will perform one of the book's familiar tales, Al Tanboori's Luck, as part of this year's Abu Dhabi Festival.
Deep in Sharjah's Heritage Area lies the National Theatre and a week before their first performance, Al Hakawati's actors, directors, designers and writers gathered to talk about their forthcoming show, their third for the annual festival.
Behind them a small stage made up the rehearsal space, with the traditional Arabian-themed set almost complete and puppet doll props ready to go.
Al Tanboori's story follows a rich trader from Baghdad and explores how certain decisions affect his life, bringing him bad luck and leading him on a destructive path.
The production is separated into three short stories that lead up to the main tale. The cast is made up of 11 actors from all over the globe, including Egypt, Russia, Morocco, Syria and Ukraine.
Ahmed Yousef, the Egyptian founder of Al Hakawati, wrote, directed and stars in the play as the main character, Al Tanboori.
"To be a successful Hakawati, one should be able to act as well, I believe. This is because every character demands a different voice. It is also one's own personal experiences in life that affect the storytelling," said Yousef, who launched the group 13 years ago.
Yousef first began performing as a one-man show, but interest quickly spread among the local theatre community.
"We wanted to revive the heritage [of traditional storytelling] and we did so through a contemporary renewal of the idea. I started by reading from Arabian Nights, the Quran and historical stories," he said. "I added colour to the characters through voice and incorporated music and traditional costume. Performances depended on our financial capabilities."
The tale of Al Tanboori contains more comedic elements than the group's past performances.
The group's first showing at the Abu Dhabi Festival was in 2009, bringing to life the story of Al Jawhara. They were sponsored by the Abu Dhabi Music and Arts Foundation.
"The story is based on a 500-year-old historical event, when the Portuguese entered the Arabian Peninsula, following the decision of the king to conquer the Islamic world," said Yousef. "The Portuguese entered the area now known as the Emirates, with warships fitted with 100 guns. They destroyed villages and killed many people."
Following an open casting call, 15 people auditioned to be part of the play, which also created a fictitious hero, "like Robin Hood".
In 2010, Al Hakawati put on a stage adaptation of the frame story of One Thousand and One Nights, about the Persian king Shahryar, who marries a new wife every night and executes her the following morning.
His most recent wife Scheherazade, the governor's daughter, manages to persuade the king to delay her execution by telling him a story every night and leaving him wanting more.
Last year, the group performed Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves across the Emirates, with their shows even featuring dancers on stage.
Al Hakawati's set designer Sami Abdelhalim said that for Al Tanboori, they are making use of many traditional Hakawati styles, such as a projection box, which the storyteller uses to tell a tale by winding images along. Puppetry and shadow play will also be employed.
Abdelhalim also plays various roles in the production.
"I play small roles, in addition to my main character, Tanboori's judge in Baghdad. I play a merchant, pearl diver, fisherman and a monkey with horrible luck," he said.
"Since the story focuses on the idea of luck, we look at those who are lucky and those surrounded by bad luck."
The set, consisting of the governor's house, Tanboori's house and the court, took him two months to build.
Tanboori's wife will be played by Abeer Gilali, who has been acting for the past 15 years. She joined the Al Hakawati group last year.
"The couple are very rich. He is a trader in Baghdad and stingy. She is only concerned with money - in keeping and increasing it," said the Egyptian actress.
"This type of storytelling comes from our hearts and we want the next generation to appreciate it. We have moved into a technological age and we want to pull them back. If we can do this, it will be an achievement."
Their last performance of Ali Baba saw an audience filled with children and university students, which Gilali says is evidence of the growing demand for traditional theatre performances, even among younger viewers.
Despite the fact that the group performs in Arabic, Yousef said it does not deter non-native speakers from watching their shows.
"The majority of the audience are Arab, but we have found that different nationalities come and watch the plays," he said.
"We concentrate on the visual message, so it reaches people who do not understand the language."
Even for Marhabo Minavarova, the group's Ukrainian costume designer, not knowing the Arabic language has not put her off being involved in the production. "I am very happy to be a part of this work. In my country, we have traditions that are also very old and clothing that bears resemblance to Arabic design. My grandfather is a historian and told me many stories, so working with Al Hakawati was easy for me," she said.
Rehearsals for the team began more than two months ago. Almost every night since then, they've been gathering together inside the Sharjah National Theatre.
For Maher Mzowak, it will be his second performance with the group.
"Acting is fun. I play various characters including the good monkey, fisherman, shopkeeper and policeman," said Mzowak, from Syria. "We tried street theatre last year, with almost 30 performances, making the Emirates the first in the GCC to view it. It was very successful and we have ideas to create more performances."
Also from Syria is the actress Roula Al Halabi, who plays the fisherman's wife. She joined the group two years ago.
"Hakawati is a unique idea because it maintains ties between cultures," she said. "We can talk about anything, including how people in the past used to live and spend their time.
"It is exactly like stepping back into the past. It's great to watch, too."
• Al Hakawati will be performing Al Tanboori's Luck tonight at 7.30 at the Cultural Centre, Madinat Zayed, Western Region; on Thursday at 7.30pm, at the Al Nokhba School for Boys Theatre, Mirfa; on Friday at 7.30pm, at the Men's Wedding Hall, Ghayathi, Western Region and on March 22 at 7.30pm, at the Cultural Centre, Ministry of Youth, Culture and Community Development, Fujairah. Free admission. For more information, visit www.abudhabifestival.ae
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