The British Lebanese composer says the novel’s themes echo her own socially conscious approach to work
Composer Bushra El Turk on her adaptation of Nawal El Saadawi’s Woman at Point Zero
Different arts and generations meet as part of a new production at the Shubbak Festival.
The London-based Arab arts event, presenting works by some of the leading and emerging creative talents from this region, is hosting the much anticipated preview of an opera based on one of modern Arab literature’s most controversial novels.
Published in 1975, Nawal El Saadawi’s Woman at Point Zero revolves around an interview with an inmate on death row.
Firdaus recalls her childhood in rural Egypt, where she is forced into a loveless marriage to a husband 40 years her elder. Eventually running away from home, she becomes a prostitute before landing in jail for killing her pimp in self-defence.
Through rich and poetic prose, El Saadawi uses Firdaus’s plight to explore a range of taboos, from the role of women in patriarchal societies to female genital mutilation practised in the region.
From a journey that began with outright rejection by scandalised Egyptian publishers and its eventual publication in Beirut, to its subsequent translation in more than 20 languages and being hailed as landmark literature, Woman at Point Zero is now set to take to the stage.
Co-commissioned by the Abu Dhabi Music and Arts Foundation (Admaf), the production is set to debut selected scenes on Thursday at LSO St Lukes, London. If granted a full commission, the work will have its premiere next year.
At the helm of production is another pioneering spirit.
British Lebanese composer Bushra El Turk says the novel’s themes echo her own socially conscious approach to work. “I would describe what I do as almost like a kind of crying out,” says the 34-year-old. “I use difficult topics to shift perspective. I am not interested in preaching to the converted.”
The challenging themes of Woman at Point Zero mark a natural progression for El Turk.
Indeed, the seeds for the new work were planted at the end of her challenging debut opera, The Silk Moth, which deals with honour killings. Working with librettist Eleanor Knight, it debuted in the UK in November 2015; the one-woman production had the soprano (Israeli Arab performer Enas Massalha) starring as a mother questioning her role in the horrendous practice to determine if she is a victim or, in fact, complicit.
Sitting in the audience during the run was Merit Ariane Stephanous. Moved by the powerful work, the German-Egyptian soprano approached El Turk to collaborate on a new project.
Woman at Point Zero was chosen for its continuing relevance. “It is one of those books that is studied everywhere and the issues that it discusses are still valid,”
El Turk says.
“There is something powerful about talking to an audience that has no idea about certain topics and then making them realise that these things can actually happen on their own street.”
With British-Egyptian playwright Sabrina Mahfouz tapped as the production’s librettist, the trio set to work in February last year to adapt the novel to the stage.
El Saadawi fans should not fret, however, as El Turk says the production aims to complement rather than reinterpret the novel.
“I wouldn’t even say we are poeticising the book because it is already quite poetic,”
“It will be magnifying and highlighting these themes, in conjunction with music and movement. Where words don’t fulfil something, the music or movement does that.”
At the centre of the opera is Stephanous, who stars as Firdaus.
The soprano will be surrounded by El Turk’s multicultural music collective,
“They are an extension of her memory,” she says.
“They all have different roles and they are like vignettes around Firdaus.”
Working with choreographer and director Maria Korpias, who has worked with esteemed companies such as Opera Circus, Palace Opera and European Chamber Opera, El Turk’s eclectic score will be heightened by movement from more than a dozen musicians.
“We are creating a musical language, something that exaggerates the original musical gesture and turns into dance,” she says. “The musicians around the character are all wind instruments of an ancient kind. So you’ve got a Korean flute, you’ve got an Arabic nay, you’ve got even the wind that blows through the accordion, and the Japanese sho, which is a mouth reed organ and sounds a little bit similar to the accordion but much more piercing and high pitched. So I’m working with all these wonderful, inspiring musicians and their movements inspire the music and, in turn, the music inspires the movements generated on stage.”
It is this free-wheeling spirit that is the hallmark of all Ensemble Zar performances.
Since forming the 14-piece ensemble in 2011, El Turk has used the group for major projects, including playing the live score for what is regarded as the world’s oldest feature-length silent film animation, 1926’s German-produced fairy tale The Adventures of Prince Achmed, as part of the 2013 Women of the World Festival in London.
The Arabic section of the group was also recruited to provide the score for the 2014 Salma Hayek produced animation, The Prophet, based on Khalil Gibran’s seminal work.
Intriguingly, El Turk says she formed the group to “express the Middle Eastern artistic temperament, in its rawest form”.
She adds: “I use the word raw for a reason. It is the best way to describe the personalities that come out of the Middle Eastern art scene.”
“It comes out in the way they improvise and how there is no apparent leader. Everyone is their own leader. That’s what I hope to express with the ensemble.”
Born in London to Lebanese parents, El Turk’s artistic bent was formed at an early age.
Encouraged by her culture-loving parents, El Turk began learning the violin at the age of 4 and went on to earn a master’s degree in composition at the UK’s Guildhall School of Music and Drama.
With works performed and broadcast internationally, in addition to being selected by the BBC as one of the most inspiring 100 Women in 2014, El Turk is one of the select few, including the UAE’s very own Mohammed Fairuz, renowned Middle Eastern composers.
It is a distinction she views as bittersweet.
She says there are plenty of talented composers in the Arab world who are sadly not known or recognised.
In that regard, El Turk pays tribute to British music educator, Oliver Butterworth.
Through his co-directorship of the London-based Institute for Contemporary Middle-Eastern Music, Butterworth and his team have been documenting and archiving the scores of Arab composers based in their homeland and living abroad.
It is something regional cultural authorities should be doing, El Turk says, but have neglected due to a lack of interest.
“There is still that notion that ‘Oh, you’re not foreign, we’re not interested in you’. Instead they are much more interested in paying millions to get a Domingo [Spanish tenor Placido Domingo] to come and perform but they won’t fund their own people – who are famous elsewhere but not at home – to perform in their own country,” she says.
“It is a very strange perspective. You’re fighting to be valued in your own country.”
Hence the significance of Admaf’s involvement with the production and the overall Shubbak Festival.
The organisation, which is behind the Abu Dhabi Festival, had also co-commissioned a Shubbak Festival performance on July 7 by Lebanese pianist Tarek Yamani, who showcased his blend of jazz with Arabian gulf rhythms.
Admaf founder Hoda Alkhamis Kanoo says such collaborations are the most effective way to showcase some of the best Arab talent on an international stage. She also views the Shubbak Festival and Abu Dhabi Festival as kindred spirits.
“Both are working to promote and strengthen international cultural cooperation,” she says. “It is through these partnerships and collaborations that we can highlight the similarities and commonalities that truly bind us as humanity.”
Shubbak runs until Sunday; www.shubbak.co.uk