x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 21 July 2017

Embracing the Middle East

The actor Maryam Hamidi's one-woman show, The Chronicles of Irania, asks her audience to realise some of what they've been told
The actor Maryam Hamidi's one-woman show, The Chronicles of Irania, asks her audience to realise some of what they've been told "is lies".

Iranian women offering tea in Qajar period costume, political -prisoners howling from their cells, parents whose children have been -murdered by terrorists, the -retelling of -ancient eastern myths and legends: at this year's Edinburgh Festival Fringe, the Middle East is everywhere. From stand-up comedy to -political theatre and one-woman plays, it has inspired performance after -performance until it seems there is not a single one that doesn't -reference the region in some way. It is as if on the British arts scene the Middle East has become a byword for conflict, misunderstandings and miscarriages of justice. Even The Assassination of Paris Hilton, an exuberant performance played out entirely in the ladies' -toilets at the Assembly Rooms venue, has a Kabul line in it. One blonde, buxom American teenager who is in on the assassination plot says to another: "I mean, that's why they hate us - the Taliban, I mean. Because of Paris Hilton. Right?" According to Maryam Hamidi, whose one-woman play, The -Chronicles of Irania, has been -critically acclaimed, the reason for this Middle Eastern creative -influence is because we are in "a decade that has been dominated by the relationship of East and West. Yet the Middle East is still -mythologised. It's not really given a face, a texture, a smell." The Edinburgh Fringe has given plenty of opportunities to redress that imbalance. It hosts in excess of 2,000 shows with more than 18,000 -performers and is now the largest arts festival in the world. The Middle East is not, of course, Edinburgh's traditional fare. In the 1970s and 1980s, the ever-so--English middle-class dinner -table was the stage setting for much conflict. From writers Neil Simon to Alan Ackybourn, plays used the angst of Britain's white and -relatively wealthy elite to highlight the human condition. Today, though, a drama tackling -misunderstandings and miscommunication between -people won't be set in a Victorian pile in North London, but more likely a desert prison. Political plays with a campaign -behind them are popular at the Fringe. The Other Side, a play which also offered a post-performance discussion group, claims to present an "agenda-free insight into the -personal impact of the ongoing -conflict in the Middle East". But whatever the claim, this is -political drama with a -message. It could also more accurately be -described as docudrama, based closely on recent events. In November 2000, a young woman in Israel dialled a wrong number and was connected to a Palestinian refugee on "the other side" - the Gaza strip. This random -conversation led to the Hello Peace initiative, with thousands of phone calls taking place between those -divided by conflict. The Other Side opens with the true statement of an Israeli settler whose seven-year-old daughter, Katherina, was killed in a suicide bomb: "My name is Rami Awaad. I'm a 37-year-old graphic designer living in the city. I am a settler and before -anything else, I am a human being." The directors themselves declare: "Underneath the politics, religion and conventions that divide us, we are all human beings. We laugh, we cry, we bleed the same blood and feel the same pain." This plea to see the person also lies behind Hamidi's The Chronicles of Irania. Hamidi is determined to explore misconceptions about the Middle East. She believes the West sees the East as populated "either with terrorists or Ali Baba and the 40 Thieves and Aladdin". Her play addresses these myths through the story of one woman, Khadijeh. "It's very different, going on a journey with a person rather than an agenda or an idea. But through Khadijeh's journey we are able to -explore big issues. We will -follow a life, but we will gain a door into -another place. We will open -debate," says Hamidi. The Chronicles of Irania opens with Khadijeh offering the audience cups of tea: "Not like your tea. PG is it? No this has cardamom, spices?" Already, we are both welcomed and reminded that there is a huge gulf between us - in the taste for tea at least. "You are very welcome," continues Khadijeh to her guests, all sitting very, very close to her in the tiny, temporary hut that has become a theatre, an intimate venue very -typical of the Fringe. "But I must ask, are you a spy? Is anyone here a spy?" And the pocket-sized -audience's comfort, as they clasp their warm tea, is immediately -dispelled. The play is riddled with juxtapositions and contradictions. Despite her -exotic dress and spicy tea, -Khadijeh lives in Britain. -Hamidi, an acting graduate from -Edinburgh, came to the UK with her family 23 years ago when she was three years old. She did not return to Iran until 2002, but has been back several times since. "From my perspective, as an -Iranian brought up in the UK, I'm looking at it as both from the -outside, as well as it being within me. That's what I'm looking at, how you can find your core within the UK," she says. The Middle East diaspora has fuelled much of Edinburgh's -creative energy, including the -comedian Shappi Khorsandi's stand-up routine, The -Distracted -Activist. Khorsandi is British -Iranian, having arrived in the UK when she was seven. When I tried to get a ticket for one of her late night shows, added to her schedule as her earlier -performances all sold out, I was told it would be practically impossible as people were "clawing for them". This is to listen to a woman whose name most non-Iranian -Britons would struggle to pronounce. Khorsandi herself frequently refers to such ignorance in her jokes. "People say to me: 'You're -Iranian. Do you speak Arabic?' No. Why would I?" ---- Khorsandi and Hamidi speak from personal experience, but anyone who has a Middle East -connection now exploits it to meet the -festival's craze for all things from afar. The Australian stand-up comedian Rob Brown's show, What a Load of -Kabul!, draws on his stint -training security forces in Iraq. You can even have An Audience With John Smeaton, the Glasgow airport -baggage -handler who grappled with a -potential bomber in 2007, at his one-man show at the Fringe. As one member of the audience whispered: "Only in Edinburgh ?" And only in Edinburgh is there such opportunities to confront and correct. In Chronicles of Irania, Khadijeh says: "It is really -important that you realise some things they have told you are lies." A festival exhibition at Edinburgh Central Mosque, organised by the city's Muslim community, aims to counter those lies. It should be -subtitled 100 Things You Always Wanted to Know About Islam But Were Too Afraid to Ask. The exhibition itself offers some questions to kick-start the debate - does Islam want women to be -public and political? What does Islam say about war? Why is Islam often -misunderstood? New -panels have been recently added to -address -issues of current concern: freedom and responsibility, Islam and the environment and united against terror. On the day I went, it was packed. Liz Smith had come from nearby -Pennycuick to try to learn a bit more about her Muslim neighbours. "I've always been curious," she said. "All the negative portrayals of Muslims of the last few years. It's good to be here and learning." This year's Edinburgh Fringe is playing a large part in that -educational process. Towards the end of The Chronicles of Irania, Khadijeh turns to her audience, only a few feet away from her, and says quietly: "You have listened very well. Thank you." ? The Chronicles of Irania: www.amomentspeace.co.uk ? The Distracted Activist: www.offthekerb.co.uk/shappi-khorsandi ? The Other Side: www.sceneproductions.co.uk ? www.islamfestival.com ? www.edfringe.com