Arab Arts Focus turns the Fringe spotlight on the Middle East

Asif Khan is a scene from Love, Bombs and Apples
Asif Khan is a scene from Love, Bombs and Apples
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Chill Habibi is cast as a relaxed cabaret, and something of a taster for the formidable Arab Arts Showcase on the Edinburgh Fringe this year, of which it is a part.

Chill Habibi

Summerhall (Venue 26)

***

THEATRE

And Here I Am

New Town Theatre (Venue 7)

***

Love, Bombs and Apples

Summerhall (Venue 26)

****

Taha

Summerhall (Venue 26)

****

Your Love is Fire

Summerhall (Venue 26)

***

CHILDREN’S SHOWS

Jihan’s Smile

Summerhall (Venue 26)

****

“Kick back, have a beer, have a dance, hear some stories,” is the billing. It does not get off to a promising start: an inane quiz where two contestants are called to the stage and asked to name the weirdest things they’ve eaten with hummus.

The line-up includes the Scottish poet Hannah Lavery, with work laced with four-letter words, lines like “f*** you Scotland”, repeated with great meaning. What this is to do with Arab culture, beyond some loose association with the theme of food, is anyone’s guess. There’s no serious attempt to introduce Lavery, or explain why she’s on the stage.

This amateurish approach is all the more incongruous because the content of the hour, it turns out, is quite seriously good. There’s a reading of a moving, lengthy poem by Iraqi playwright Hassan Abdulrazzak, about the ship that no-one wanted, a sad story of the wandering of Syrian refugees that draws us in.

Actor Amer Hlehel, of Taha – whose work, like Abdulrazzak’s, appears elsewhere in the showcase – reads in Arabic from the work of the Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish, against the music of Kareem Samara, who goes on to create a mesmerising loop of music using the oud , the pear-shaped string instrument, and percussion.

It is hard to review a night like this, with a changing slate of guests through the festival – Liz Lochhead is on the billing for a couple of nights; Josie Long and others are popping up. But less time for hummus, please, and more for the artists.

Visa nightmares have struck off one production from the AAF this year, severely hobbled another, and apparently swallowed a good deal of its budget. And Here I Am is a last-minute substitution for the cancelled show. It is a fascinating piece of work, which by most standards would qualify for somebody’s spirit of the festival award.

Actor Ahmed Tobasi is playing himself. He was born in Jenin refugee camp during the first Intifada. At the age of 17, after the Israeli assault on the city, he was imprisoned for four years in a desert prison for being an active member of Islamic Jihad during the resistance. He had been shot in the hand by a sniper. In prison, and after emigration to Norway, he refinds his passion for performance – the dream of becoming the Palestinian Leonardo di Caprio – with the help of Juliano Mer Khamis, the part-Jewish director who founded the Freedom Theatre of Jenin and was later assassinated.

There is a powerful, hard-edged physicality to Tobasi, funny and authentic, when he plays himself fighting, dancing, being thrown to the floor of a prison van, drumming fountains of water into the air. The show is artfully produced. His impressions of other characters – Mer Khamis, Israeli interrogators, the Islamic Jihad boss who would send him on a suicide mission – are less persuasive. But the script is skillfully honed by the soft-spoken Abdulrazzak, who happens to have a PhD in molecular biology from University College London.

I have seen Love, Bombs and Apples, his second play in the Arab showcase, twice – here at Summerhall, and formerly at JW3 , the Jewish Community Centre in London. It is a witty and insightful exploration of the lives of three Muslim men, in the Middle East and Britain, performed by Asif Khan, though he needed to scale back his projection in the close-up space of the Anatomy Lecture Theatre.

Taha, which comes to Edinburgh from the Young Vic, is a charm. Amer Hlehel wrote and performs in the story of the life of Palestinian poet Taha Muhammad Ali, who was born in Galilee in 1931, and fled with his familyto a displacement camp in Lebanon. It moves on as the wryly moving story of a late literary developer who published his first book in Arabic at the age of 52.

Your Love is Fire was surely intended as the flagship of the AAF, billed as the most significant showcase of work from the Arab world ever to arrive at the Fringe. It is a minor tragedy, then, that two of the four Syrian cast were unable to travel here from France. Director Rafat Alzakout opted to go ahead, with the script being rewritten as late as last week.

The quality of the performances and its staging is clear even in its bare bones. In the claustrophobic setting of a Damascus apartment, with bullet-pocked walls, makeshift beds, Kaldoun, played by Mohamed Al Rashi, is questioning whether to avoid military service, and flee. He and Hala, with Louna Abou Darhamain in a stand-out performance, are in conversation with the disembodied writer of their own drama, who has himself fled to Beirut.

Finally, Jihan’s Smile. Jihan is a sad and sleepy-eyed princess; she has stopped smiling because of “the situation” in town, and the colours have drained out of life. Her father is enlisting everyone from far and near to try and cheer her up, full of fear and hope, trying to offer reassurance when he has little for himself. Neither a voluble Italian painter nor a Chinese dragon will do the trick. The cast move between Arabic and English, in this first-time translation of an Arabic folk tale from this Palestinian theatre company. Their English pronunciation needs to be fractionally louder or more declarative for its young audience, but it’s a charming start to a Fringe morning.

Chill Habibi until 27 August. Today, 9:30pm. And Here I Am until 17 August. Tomorrow, 1:30pm; Love Bombs and Apples, until 27 August. Today 1:30pm. Taha, until tomorrow. Today, 11:50am; Your Love is Fire, until 27 August. Today, 11:30am; Jihan’s Smile, until tomorrow. Today, 10:15am.