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Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 12 December 2018

Landmark debut for Arab performers at Edinburgh Fringe 2017

Taking place across three Fringe venues from August 4 to August 27, this dynamic programme of Arab work will include 10 performances by artists from Lebanon, Egypt, Syria, Palestine and Morocco

Actor Asif Khan plays all three parts in Love, Bombs & Apples. Courtesy Arab Arts Focus Edinburgh
Actor Asif Khan plays all three parts in Love, Bombs & Apples. Courtesy Arab Arts Focus Edinburgh

For the first time, contemporary Arab theatre, performance and visual arts will be showcased at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival.

As the Fringe marks its 70th anniversary, the Arab Arts Focus ­Edinburgh (AAFE) has organised the first all-Arab selection of contemporary theatre, visual arts, dance, a late-night cabaret and a series of talks to run through the largest arts festival in the world.

Taking place across three Fringe venues from August 4 to August 27, this dynamic programme of Arab work will include 10 performances by artists from Lebanon, Egypt, Syria, Palestine and Morocco.

Ahmed El Attar, AAFE producer and artistic director, is excited about the opportunities the programme will bring for Arab artists to perform on an international stage and the works’ potential to challenge recent damaging discourse about Arabs and the region.

“It’s really no secret that the Arabs are being stigmatised all over the world right now. There is one-sided discourse about the Arab world all over the news; the bombings, the terrorism,” El Attar says.

“The Arab world is 350 million people. Not a few thousand, not a few hundred thousand, and they have a life – and this life has different sides to it and not just one side. It’s very important that we can allow audiences across the world to hear these different voices in order for us to start this different dialogue.”

The first performance in the showcase, Love, Bombs & Apples, is set against the backdrop of worldwide political instability, with the looming threat of civil unrest.

The one-man play, written by Hassan Abdulrazzak and directed by Rosamunde Hutt, brings together the stories of three men.

An ambitious piece, it tackles with humour the problems facing Arab, Muslim and Jewish communities in today’s multicultural landscape, through three vignettes.

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The one-man show features Asif Khan in all three roles: a young actor who falls in love while under occupation in Palestine, a young British Muslim man jailed under suspicion of terrorism after writing what he believes will be a post-9/11 bestseller and a third youth who is seduced by the modern Western technology over joining ISIL.

Born in Prague and currently ­living in London, Abdulrazzak is of Iraqi origin.

Despite holding a doctorate in molecular biology and having worked at Harvard and ­Imperial College ­London, ­Abdulrazzak says he is “hooked” on theatre.

His breakout play, Baghdad Wedding (2007), inspired by the 2003 Iraq invasion, was critically acclaimed and performed internationally.

With Love, Bombs & Apples, Abdulrazzak hopes to challenge stereotypes.

“When you see a Muslim on television, chances are he’ll be praying or doing any sort of religious behaviour. He could be involved in terrorism somehow, or abusing the women in his life.

“I wanted to take these notions and channel them through people who oftentimes have these ridiculous aspirations or inclinations, but end up getting caught in the larger political events around them,” says the writer.

Another act in the AAFE that seeks to push boundaries is Jogging, performed by Hanane Hajj Ali.

Hanane Hajj Ali in her show Jogging, inspired by her daily life. Courtesy Arab Arts Focus Edinburgh
Hanane Hajj Ali in her show Jogging, inspired by her daily life. Courtesy Arab Arts Focus Edinburgh

The 50-something Lebanese performer jogs every day to avoid osteoporosis, obesity, anxiety and depression. She will appear on a bare stage, dressed in black, and address questions about her identity as a woman, wife and mother.

“The common element in all of my performances in ­Lebanon has been shock … After once playing the show in a part of Lebanon that was ruled by a group averse to the ideas that I was presenting, an audience member walked up to me and asked if I was afraid for my life, as people had certainly been killed for less in the ­country,” recalls Hajj Ali.

“I answered by asking: ‘Why should I be afraid? Am I not portraying real life? All I’m doing is using my artistic background to portray reality’.”

The inspiration for the work comes from Hajj Ali’s role as a citizen and an artist. It is based on her daily life in Beirut and the workouts she did to resist stress and osteoporosis. During her runs, Hajj Ali says she reflects on her life and how Beirut has changed and is transforming.

She advocates the need for freedoms, saying: “I wanted to use [the play] as an avenue to affirm that if our minds are repressed in any way, then one can’t really do theatre, or be a good citizen for that matter. I named it Jogging: Theatre in Progress because, in my mind, theatre needs to remain as an open avenue for discussion, critical thinking and experimentation.”

Amer Hlehel’s Taha is based on the late Palestinian poet Taha Muhammad Ali’s life. Courtesy Arab Arts Focus Edinburgh
Amer Hlehel’s Taha is based on the late Palestinian poet Taha Muhammad Ali’s life. Courtesy Arab Arts Focus Edinburgh

Other standout pieces include Taha, which is based on the life story and poetry of a celebrated Palestinian poet, the late Taha Muhammad Ali. The play, by Amer Hlehel, explores the emotion, humour and resilience of the artist and how his story parallels that of Palestinians who have stayed in their homeland since the 1948 war.

The Second Copy: 2045 is a conceptual performance-art piece set 28 years in the future, following the end of a series of devastating conflicts. Set up as a ­documentary, ­Moroccan artist Youness ­Atbane reflects on the history of his country’s art between 2000 and 2015. The work ­analyses the present from a distance and questions the link between objects, documentary and fiction.

The programme also features two dance performances, Maykomsh and Running Away, a double bill of contemporary dance from Palestine and Egypt that focuses on identity, homeland, body politics and societal pressures, questioning what it means to be an Arab today.

The acts in the AAFE programme have been chosen on artistic merit and to explore the questions of identity. Many of the pieces tackle ­serious and traumatic topics.

El Attar wanted to create a balance and to remind audiences that there is more to life beyond the news headlines.

A late-night cabaret runs throughout: Chill Habibi presents the best of theatre, comedy, dance and music that Egypt, Syria, Palestine, ­Morocco – and Scotland – has to offer.

Late-night cabaret show Chill Habibi. Courtesy Arab Arts Focus Edinburgh
Late-night cabaret show Chill Habibi. Courtesy Arab Arts Focus Edinburgh

“The topics are heavy and are about displacement, migration; even if they are in some cases treated with light and ­humour, they are still heavy. Our life in the Arab world is not just heavy – amidst all this, there is fun,” El Attar says.

“I mean, people in ­Damascus are still going out to bars and restaurants and having great meals. I’m not saying life out there is great, but they are getting on with their lives. There is a side of the Arab world that people don’t really realise. They sing and they dance, so we wanted to portray that that side existed and exists throughout different hardships.”

With this mix and through incisive programming, the AAFE aims to go above and ­beyond the mission set by the ­founders of the Fringe, to provide society with a platform of the expression and ­preservation of the human spirit through art.

The AAFE performances and talks can be found across Summerhall, Dance Base and the New Town Theatre, Edinburgh, from August 4 to August 27. For more information, visit www.edfringe.com