Arab Arts Focus: New Stories, Common Grounds

We look at the diverse programme of Arab theatre, art and comedy at Summerhall as part of this year's Edinburgh Festival Fringe.

Feature by Catriona Acheson | 02 Aug 2017

War, displacement, brutal regimes: the shocking images we’ve come to associate with the Arab world in the media would lead many of us in Scotland to believe that we have little in common with the people who call it home. And yet, according to Ahmed El Attar – the programmer behind this year’s Arab Arts Focus season at Summerhall – this couldn’t be further from the truth.

The season brings together a diverse programme of theatre, dance, comedy and more; participants are drawn from countries across the Middle East, North Africa, and the various places around the world where Arab artists and performers base their lives and work. It aims to open up dialogues that will challenge the prejudiced and often one-sided view adopted by the West towards the Arab identity.

The West is particularly guilty of stigmatising Arab identities, El Attar tells me over Skype. The hard-line, often hateful attitudes we adopt towards those outside our immediate sphere of understanding are fuelling the conflict that divides us. “The more you meet radicalism with radicalism, the more you end up with a bigger problem”, says the Egyptian arts veteran. “It’s very important that we start showing other sides of the Arab world, because then we can start having different conversations and discourses […] beyond the terrorism, beyond the violence.”

The arts, he believes, are the key to opening up mutual understanding between our polarised worlds, because they can show us just how alike we really are. “The arts are basically the way humanity deals with its issues”, he explains. “With war, but also with simpler and yet more complicated issues – like love. Love is a very complicated thing, and it’s as distressing. I’m not saying love and war are equal, but, you know, when you’re living one and the other, sometimes they feel like the same.”

It may be surprising to hear someone compare the political trauma endured by much of the Arab world in recent years to a struggle as universal as love, but this search for common ground very much underpins the shows featured as part of Arab Arts Focus. The programme touches on stories as diverse as a middle-aged woman’s relationship with exercise in Jogging by Hunane Hajj Ali, the history (and future) of Moroccan art in Youness Atbane’s The Second Copy: 2045, and the search for a little girl’s lost smile in Jihan’s Smile by Al Harah, a theatre company operating from the heart of the West Bank in Palestine. There can be no doubt that this unique selection – which is both whimsical and challenging, heartfelt and hard-hitting – will defy the expectations of audiences from all walks of life.

So can theatre and the arts accomplish something that our news and media never can? “I totally believe so, yeah”, says El Attar. “The news is there to inform about an event in a certain time and a certain space, like, ‘Aleppo got bombarded, fifty people died and a hundred injured.’ It does not, in most cases, allow for a deeper understanding of the human elements involved in this. Because there is always a human element, on all sides; from the people who are bombing to the people who are being bombed.” Once we look behind the headlines, then, performances such as those in the Arab Arts Focus programme reveal deeply human experiences that may not be so alien to us after all.

This very much characterises the approach taken by playwright Mudar Alhaggi and director Rafat Alzakout in Your Love Is Fire, which offers a wholly new perspective on the war in Syria from those who have experienced its horrors up-close in the most personally affecting way. Instead of trying to depict the conflict that has torn a country apart in all of its horrifying totality, the Germany-based team of collaborators chose to focus on the tragedy of being an ordinary citizen attempting to cling on to a sense of normality and personal dignity amidst atrocities too terrible to comprehend.

The keenly anticipated play tells the story of a solider on twenty-four hour leave, at home with his girlfriend and her flatmate. It seeks to amplify the unheard voices of those quietly waiting for peace, and grappling with an inner conflict over how to make sense of what is happening around them. This hidden psychological struggle carries a violence entirely of its own, as audiences will no doubt discover.

Another stand-out show on the programme is TAHA, a one-man performance exploring the life and work of Palestinian poet and national treasure Taha Muhammad Ali. Like Your Love Is Fire, this piece confronts an impossibly complex, politically explosive situation using the introspective, emotional experiences of ordinary people as a point of departure.

The poet, who died in 2011 but whose powerful work continues to resonate with audiences across the globe, was forced to flee Palestine with his family during the 1948 Arab-Israeli war, before returning a year later to find a world that had become utterly unrecognisable. His subsequent poetic work confronts issues of memory, lost love, and the complexities of coming home with remarkable honesty and humility. Writer and performer Amer Hlehel combines the compelling narrative of Taha’s own life with extracts from his poetry in Arabic and English, in a show that promises to leave a lasting impression on the audience.

There has been surprisingly little Arabic theatre in Scotland until now, but Ahmed El Attar feels that the Arab Arts Focus programme is likely to resonate with Edinburgh audiences thanks to the role Scotland itself has played in refugee narratives. Whilst not all the shows on the programme are about the experience of refugees, Ahmed hopes to encounter open-minded theatre-goers who will be receptive to cultural exchange and dialogue.

“I’ve learned in all of my trips [to Edinburgh] that actually Scotland is a refugee-hosting country. I mean, since the Second World War, or the First World War even, and it’s something I didn’t know”, El Attar says. “When it comes to the Syrian case I think [we] will find an audience that already have a background or already have a kind of relation to immigration. I’m interested in that, and the result of that.”

Scotland’s involvement in refugee resettlement – having accepted over a third of the UK’s intake of Syrian refugees by May 2016 – is another factor that makes this year’s Arab Arts Focus season particularly timely and relevant. Powerful explorations of the forces that unite us are needed more than ever as Scotland seeks to define its own responsibilities and values at a pivotal moment in the history of relations between East and West.

Arab Arts Focus offers a valuable opportunity to reframe the conversation surrounding the Arab world, and to convey the diversity and importance of its many narratives and identities. Audiences are guaranteed to encounter challenging and eye-opening new material, and an overall message of international solidarity and common purpose will reverberate through Summerhall this year thanks to this exciting programme. “That’s the whole point of doing something like this”, El Attar concludes. “It’s that people realise, after all, that there are a lot of similarities – we’re all looking basically for the same thing. We’re all in the pursuit of happiness, whatever that might be.”