x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 26 July 2017

Bring magic to the Arab masses without suspicion

An Emirati illusionist hopes to disprove misconceptions about magic, pointing out its entertainment value and insisting it is not anti-religious.

Moein Al Bastaki, an Emirati magician, performs an illusion in which he sets a wallet on flame. Jaime Puebla / The National
Moein Al Bastaki, an Emirati magician, performs an illusion in which he sets a wallet on flame. Jaime Puebla / The National

DUBAI // Moein Al Bastaki was not aware of the controversy that becoming a magician would bring to his life.

But Al Bastaki, 34, is adamant he can change the perceptions of magic and illusions among Gulf Arabs.

“Coming from an Islamic background I faced a lot of difficulties,” he says. “This concept of being a magician is totally wrong and, in the Quran, it’s totally against it.”

Al Bastaki’s story dates back to 1986, when he was only 6, growing up in Dubai.

His grandfather would frequently travel to India for trade.

“There he met a group of people called fakirs performing on the street,” Al Bastaki says. “He became interested and asked the head of the group to teach him a few tricks.

“He then came back and showed them to me and, although I couldn’t understand how he did them, I was mesmerised.”

Then, and now, magicians were not common in the Arabian Gulf.

“I didn’t know what magic was and in this region, we didn’t have lots of magicians that we could relate to or aspire to be like,” Al Bastaki says. “But internationally, you find a lot of magicians and kids love magic.”

His passion grew after his father opened a video rental shop. David Copperfield was one of the magicians he saw.

“I would watch all of them, wanting to do what he did,” Al Bastaki says. “I explored a lot of options, taught kids at school some tricks and did my first performance for the family at 9.”

His uncle, who supported his dream, would give him Dh5 after each performance. But his father disapproved.

“When I told him I wanted to be a magician he gave me a good slap to my face,” Al Bastaki says. “He said, ‘Go study and forget about it’.”

His father was not the only one against it.

“My sister and her husband are very religious so we’re both extremes of the spectrum,” Al Bastaki says. “Some part of my family are still against it.

“I did performances on YouTube and always had this fear, so when I became really good I hid my identity because I didn’t want people to know who I was, where I was, my background or who was my family.

“I knew what they were thinking and their mentality about magic.”

His first TV performance in 2006 helped to mend his relationship with his father but fuelled anger among other Gulf Arabs.

“I managed to vanish a man from his house and make him appear in the studio,” he says.

“You can do normal card tricks and no one will say anything, but when you do something that is beyond logic and that your mind can’t digest, then that will get attacked.

“In the Quran, it is mentioned not to believe in magicians. Even if you are doing an illusion, it’s wrong in our religion.”

As the performances increased, so did the abuse. “A radio station had a one-hour show attacking me and the programme,” Al Bastaki says.

“It’s something that the Arab world has not got used to seeing. When I levitated someone they called me a sorcerer and said I should be sentenced to death.”

Abroad, his work has been applauded. He has performed for John Travolta, Diego Maradona and Mike Tyson. But his goal is to convince locals of his skills.

“Most people in the Arab world try to copy magicians from outside but there is only one David Copperfield,” Al Bastaki says. “You can’t be a No 2 of someone else, you should be a No 1 of yourself.

“I’m bringing the Khaleeji identity and adapting it to my magic tricks by including kanduras and shishas in my acts.

“I’m bringing to life an art that is not very famous in the Arab world because some people have a wrong perception of it, but my market is the Arab world and the Arab people and I want to be one of my people.

“I want them to know what it is and to embrace it.”

cmalek@thenational.ae