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Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 21 November 2018

Emirati playwright Saleh Karama Al Ameri is a man of many words

He talks about his love for theatre ahead of the first English-language staging of his play, Alms for the Poor, at National Theatre.
Saleh Karama Al Ameri. Mona Al Marzooqi / The National
Saleh Karama Al Ameri. Mona Al Marzooqi / The National

For Emirati playwright Saleh Karama Al Ameri, life is a symphony.

“My job is to listen and observe, then to interpret and let my imagination run with the stories,” he says. “I am not society’s conductor, but I want to be the one that listens well and forces others to hear this piece of music.”

Al Ameri has been listening for 15 years, and his views on ­society have become ­immortalised in 17 Arabic-language plays ­examining subjects ­ranging from human nature and the power of appearances, to the danger of adhering to the status quo and the value of human life.

“I am interested in human nature and I like to think philosophically; that’s how I write,” he says. “The pieces of the plays are all different, but the cornerstone is the human, so the plays are universal.”

Non-Arabic speakers will get a chance to enjoy one of his stories when his sociopolitical drama, Alms for the Poor, has its first staging in English from tonight until Saturday at the National Theatre in Abu Dhabi.

The 2013 drama, produced by Abu Dhabi-based theatre company Beyond the Veil, was written during a particularly prolific time for Al Ameri – it was one of five plays reflecting the societal changes happening in the region in the aftermath of the Arab Spring.

The idea for Alms for the Poor, Al Ameri explains, first presented itself in a cafe in Morocco in 2007.

“I was sitting in a beautiful, old cafe in Al Jadida, having some tea, when I saw a beggar come by,” he says, “I gave him a bit of money, and he said to me that it was too much. I told him it’s OK, take it, and then I saw him sit at one of the cafe’s tables and try to order a coffee. The waiter refused to serve him and kicked him out, and that just stayed in my head and grew.”

Alms for the Poor is the seventh of Al Ameri’s plays to be translated into English. Three of them were directed by Zakaia Cvitanovich, founder of the Beyond the Veil theatre company

Al Ameri says that Cvitanovich is the perfect director to stage his plays in English.

“Zakaia understands me, I always trust my work in her hands,” he says, after watching the dress rehearsal for Alms for the Poor last week. “Zakaia has an incredible imagination – it’s different. A playwright is always worried. The play is like my child, and I was worried how it will be interpreted, but Zakaia gets me.” His worry now is ­whether the audience will, in turn, understand what he is ­trying to say.

“When I write, I don’t do it to make my philosophy or message clear and out there. It’s hidden. It needs to be unearthed.”

Westerners, says Al Ameri, seem to appreciate his plays more than Arabs. “I feel like I am only recently becoming appreciated and respected in the Arab world,” he says. “But westerners and Europeans have been interested in my plays for much longer. I don’t know why.”

It’s a pity, he says, because when his plays are read and performed in the Arabic language, they have far more substance.

“The Arabic language is ­majestic, magical,” he says. “My messages are stronger in Arabic and my first love is theatre in ­Arabic.”

Al Ameri’s love affair with the theatre began at an early age. He cofounded the Etihad Theatre in Abu Dhabi in 1977 and has done everything from cleaning to working backstage on lighting and sets to acting in plays and directing them.

“It was my life,” he says. “I wasn’t ashamed of doing ­anything for the theatre. I even sold tickets and gave out pamphlets when we had a performance”.

This month, Al Ameri’s plays have been published – in Arabic – in an anthology of his work, The Plays of Saleh Karama, edited by Dr Jawad Al-Assadi. “Jawad is my mentor, my teacher,” he says. “He is a director as well, and has taught me so much. He has chosen 13 or 14 of my plays and published them in a book through the publishing house Dar Kanaan.” Only 1,000 copies of the anthologies have been printed, and Al Ameri will distribute 200 of those to friends and family. He hopes to promote it at the Abu Dhabi International Book Fair next year.

A proud father of eight, Al Ameri is perplexed that none of his children caught the theatre bug. Then again, he understands such passion comes at a price.

“I cannot force this younger generation into a life in the theatre,” he says. “It’s a different world – you need to be ready to sell your soul to be a part of it, you need to be OK with making no money and living poor as I have. But this is what I have always wanted. I am convinced of the importance of it, and I love it.”

• Alms for the Poor will be performed at the National Theatre, 17th Street, Abu Dhabi, from tonight until Saturday. Tickets cost Dh50 for adults and Dh25 for students. For more information email beyondtheveilad@gmail.com

artslife@thenational.ae