Edinburgh Fringe sets the stage for Middle East performers to tell authentic, personal stories
A Greek tragedy in Arabic. A one-woman comedy called Shallow Halal. A Palestinian circus piece on the Israeli occupation — this year’s Edinburgh Fringe festival, which opens on Friday, once again brings a slate of shows about the Middle East to the stage in the Scottish capital.
Fringe performers have always found a rich vein of inspiration in the region. But the shows, from terrorist tragedies to children’s oriental tales, for the most part have been presented by outsiders, portraying the Middle East either as a place of conflict or of wondrous, glittering, turbaned history.
But at this year’s Fringe, the Middle East will be seen in a different light, as artistes from the region take centre stage to present portrayals of their homelands.
The personal experiences of those who come from the region is the inspiration behind many of these performances.
Egyptian-Welsh comedian Omar Hamdi says: “I’m different to some comedians in that everything is based on my real life — not an edited caricature of my life, but my actual real life.
“But I don’t stop there. I use my life as a springboard to try to understand big issues such as ethnicity, politics, masculinity.”
He says it is his background that makes his show, In the Valleys of the Kings, stand out.
“Doing comedy has made me realise how different I am,” he says. “On one level I’m just a normal guy who can go out for lunch and have a chat. But on another level, I’m completely different — the books I’ve read, the films I’ve watched, the places I’ve visited, the people I’ve met. My influences are different to every other comedian here.”
It’s not that performers from outside the region can’t create shows about the region — they just do it differently and with a different, more distant perspective.
Sajeela Kershi is bringing two shows to the Fringe. Immigrant Diaries is storytelling and stand-up provided entirely by a group of immigrant performers, while Shallow Halal is her one-woman show. “Anyone could have made this show — but I doubt they would have the same true stories as mine, which include being a Taliban hostage, near-death third-degree burns on my first birthday, or getting held at airport security trying to convince them that the notebook I’m carrying is full of comedy material not the minutes from an ISIS meeting,” she says.
Audiences also respond to the power of her personal tales.
“When you share a true story, you are literally standing there naked with your heart on your sleeve,” she says. “That is possibly the most powerful performance, the most generous thing you can give an audience.”
But it is more than the life history of the performers that makes these performances so powerful, according to Michael Malek Najjar of the University of Oregon, the author of Arab American Drama, Film and Performance.
“These performers embody the cultural knowledge that has been handed down for generations, whether that be through their linguistic abilities, their knowledge of cultural forms, or because they are transmitting their personal experiences living under war.”
The story behind Antigone: An Arabian Tragedy shows what a difference influences and background make to a production.
What began as two separate plays — a year-long project by the One World Actors Centre, Kuwait, to produce Jean Anouih’s Antigone in English and in Arabic — became one.
“The English and Arabic versions took on completely separate identities,” says Eleni Rebecca, who plays the English-speaking Antigone.
“The English version is steeped in traditional history, concentrating on the Celtic rebellion in Roman-occupied Britain. The Arabic became contemporary, resonating with cultural themes of honour and sacrifice in the modern Middle East.
“With such differences in the characters and approaches to the production, the decision was made to discover how they mirrored each other through combining the texts into one unique bilingual play.”
How will these performances, imbued with personal experience of the Middle East, its culture and language, be received by critical Fringe audiences? Najjar says these authentic productions are more likely to get five-star reviews.
“Performers from outside of the region or with no cultural ties to the Middle East will most likely work in translation,” he says. “In doing so, they are losing the rich language the plays are written in, or they are learning cultural forms very quickly, rather than being steeped in those forms for their entire lives.
“It’s entirely possible for outsiders to perform these plays — but they can never really be equal to those performed by Middle Easterners.”
The Fringe programme still has a scattering of shows by “outsiders” who use the Middle East for illustration or inspiration. These performers defend their decision to draw upon the region.
“I created Bismillah! An Isis Tragicomedy not through any personal connection to the subject matter,” says playwright and actor Matthew Greenhough. “I’m neither a soldier nor a Muslim. What I am, though, is a youngish person in Britain, and suffer through the same feelings of disenfranchisement and disconnection with society that I think most young people experience to some extent.
“This, I think, led me to write the play. I think that the problems that lead young people down that path are in no way unique to one religion, race or culture in Britain. I feel I have a personal insight into this mentality.”
Story Pocket Theatre’s Arabian Nights aims to take the audience to “a wonderful world of mysterious marvels”.
Co-director Adam Forde says: “Middle Eastern culture has a rich and ancient history, and it is wonderful and appropriate for anyone to explore that culture and the stories that have come from it.
“Theatre companies throughout the world have been exploring Arabian Nights for centuries. All interpretations are different and all will be different, regardless of geographical or cultural origin.”
But according to Ashtar Muallem, one of the two Palestinian performers of the circus piece B-Orders, outsiders have to do their research properly.
“I don’t mind non-Palestinians making shows about the region when the topics are studied in depth, when non-Palestinians have contact with Palestinians and have been there.
“It is very hard to talk about something you don’t know, leaning on clichés for instance, because it could be insulting to the people concerned and very superficial. It will not serve the purpose of better knowing the other, but of enforcing the preconceived ideas one already has.”
Many of the Fringe performers are moved to tell their stories because they believe Middle Eastern people continue to be portrayed as a clichéd set of caricatures.
“B-Orders is important to us because through it we tell human stories from Palestine, stories that are not told by the media,” says Muallem.
“Palestinians are not only ‘death numbers’, and our sole problem is not the occupation. Yes, we are victims of the occupation, but we fight to go against these norms.
“We are different individuals, we have our human stories and we fight within our society to find our place and gain our respect.”
Kershi is also fighting stereotypes.
“Shallow Halal is about how I’m fed up of Quran- hijacking extremists, Richard Dawkins-spouting atheists and finger-pointing social media, and anyone who thinks they have a right to speak for an entire group of people,” she says.
But if the performers should be speaking from their own personal experience, their stage should be the world. “It is vital that these plays continue to be performed outside of the Middle East,” says Najjar. “They represent the voices of the people of this region.
“They are a counterbalance to the continual, often negative media coverage. While popular artforms often portray Middle Easterners as violent terrorists bent on the destruction of the West, plays from this region dramatise the lives of everyday citizens who are struggling under the most difficult circumstances to survive and provide a better life for themselves and their children.
“I sincerely believe that if these plays were better known by those outside of the region, we would have a greater understanding about the people of the Middle East.”
Middle East performers have been set a mission and are rising to that challenge.
“We are very glad and honoured to perform at the Fringe this year — as Palestinian artists,” says Muallem. ‘We are coming to present our art and tell our human, universal stories. We use all our resources and energies to go towards the world.”
• For performance dates and tickets details for all of the shows, visit www.edfringe.com