Fringe preview: Arab Arts Focus

Lebanese actress Hanane Hajj Ali in Jogging, her one-woman show at Summerhall
Lebanese actress Hanane Hajj Ali in Jogging, her one-woman show at Summerhall
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In a long overdue showcase, the Arab Arts Focus sets out to challenge preconceptions with the most wide-ranging slate of work from the Middle East in the history of the Fringe

On her daily jogging route through Beirut, Lebanese actress, director and cultural activist Hanane Hajj Ali typically takes in some of the dwindling, and much loved, open spaces that remain in the city, places that still enshrine its cosmopolitan character. The famous Sanayeh Garden, saved from developers’ plans to turn it into a parking lot, or the Corniche, a cherished seaside promenade. And sometimes, she says, “I give myself to the unknown”, losing herself in the city in the manner of Baudelaire’s flâneur, the gentleman stroller, the “passionate spectator” of Parisian streets.

Hanane, who is in her 50s and has remained in Beirut through civil war and invasion, jogs to fend off osteoporosis and depression, with her head covered in the hijab. In Jogging, her one-woman show at Summerhall, she recreates the veiled journey – and her flâneur’s meditations on the character of Medea, who killed her own children to take revenge on her husband. They range to her own relationship with a child suffering from cancer, and the cases of two modern Beiruti women who killed their children for very different reasons. “While I jog in the city, I also jog between these stories,” she says.

Jogging comes to Edinburgh as part of the Arab Arts Focus, mostly centred on Summerhall, with a dozen shows from across the Middle East region promising to be the biggest, most wide-ranging slate of Arab work at the Fringe in its 70 years. Edinburgh is no stranger to contentious content from the region, particularly Palestinian and Israeli, and Syria’s civil war and the refugee crisis have spurred new interest in the region across the festivals. But the Arab Arts Focus, in a long overdue showcase, sets out to challenge preconceptions.

The Second Copy: 2045, from Morocco’s Youness Atbane, plays with time and form in absurdist style as a documentary made in 2045 looking back at the history of contemporary art, mixing visual art and choreographed performance.

“This is the kind of work that people don’t expect to see coming out of the Arab world,” says Ahmed Al Attar, director of the D-CAF festival in Egypt, now coordinating the Arab Arts Focus here. “At the end of the day, we want the audiences to see something different.” The key offering from Egypt is also dance, with young artists breaking away from traditional text work.

“We are sick of the reductive discourse,” says Al Attar. “The Arab world is 350 million-plus people, it cannot just be presumed to exist in Daesh or the civil war here or the bombings there. It’s a lot more than that, many layers; we would like the audience in Edinburgh and other places to engage with this kind of reality, and start seeing another side of things. It gives a completely different light on what life in the Arab world is and what Arabs are today, and can start a different kind of conversation.”

Universal themes – the struggles of sexual awakening, artistic aspiration, parenting – come strongly through the Middle Eastern settings. Love, Bombs & Apples, from the Iraqi playwright Hassan Abdulrazzak, is a one-man show adroitly performed by Bradford-born actor Asif Khan, both wittily comic and discomforting. It tells the stories of three young men, from the sexual misadventures of a Palestinian actor in Ramallah, to a Pakistani-born Briton whose struggle to give birth to his first novel ends in his interrogation on terror offences.

The one-man biographical play Taha is the story about the late-blossoming Palestinian poet Taha Muhammad Ali, who built his family business on the best-known souvenir shop in Nazareth. His poem Revenge is seen as a classic of the conflict; the production is full of pathos, rather than polemic. “It is my first time in Edinburgh, and you always hear that it’s the biggest theatre festival, a real festival,” says Taha’s writer and actor Amer Hlehel. “All my friends have done Edinburgh before; they always say this is a real experience for a theatre show to be there.

“Real artists, no matter where they are, where they are from, are free souls, and I know the Arab world now looks really very grey and sometimes very black and dark. We are living in a very hard period, a very hard time. This will be a chapter in the history book that we are passing now, but still an Arab is a human being and when you feel like that and you do art, then you feel it is coming from love, from your soul.”

On a more practical level, the showcase will expose the artists to the ordeal by fire that is Edinburgh; the gruelling daily performances, the hour-long slot (both Jogging and Love, Bombs & Apples have been shortened), truncated get-in and get-out times. Al Attar says he opted for a regional showcase because no single country would deliver a high-quality slate of shows; serious cultural funding for an independent arts sector is not exactly common across the Middle East. Sadly, Jogging’s Hajj Ali observes, Edinburgh may be a rare chance for regional acts to see each other’s work. “We never had the opportunity to see each other, because of the wars and so on, so paradoxically a festival like Edinburgh will be a golden opportunity.”

Al Attar has high hopes for Your Love Is Fire, a piece written and performed by Syrian emigres in Europe, about how Syrians have lived since the war, staged as a play within a play. He believes the Syrian artistic community, faced by terrible tragedy but also in some sense freed by it, are likely to produce some of the most exciting work coming out of the Middle East. “They are a great enrichment to whatever societies are landed – Syrians are smart, they are well educated, they have taste,” he said. “We should look closely at what the Syrian artists are doing in the next couple of years. But my wish is they don’t fall in the trap of the Lebanese artists of the post-war period, where everything was about the war. It works for a while, then it becomes more of a problem than the reverse.”

Brutal wars and the refugee crisis have spurred Middle eastern interests across the festival; other productions include the Requiem For Aleppo, a one-off fund-raising performance at the EICC, with 12 international dancers and a score drawing on Arabic poetry and music, which reprises a sell-out show at Sadler’s Wells in London.

But the Arab Arts Focus’s broad tent includes Chill Habibi, in Summerhall, a changing cabaret piece of contemporary work from various acts, and merging Scottish voices including playwright David Greig, who has worked with artists from the region for 15 years. He is thrilled by the opportunity to grow the region’s contribution and see it through a different lense.

“Perhaps in the past there was a tendency to present work from the Middle East as being worthy, and if you come to see it you will end up feeling distressed and upset by that, but that’s good for your soul,” he says. “The aim of Chill Habibi is to create a late-night feeling of ‘relax and enjoy yourself’, a little bit less moral scourging and a little bit more connecting over a beer and a fag and a really brilliant piece of music or poetry or story.”

The goal is throwing people from the Arab world and beyond together, he adds, and to “create a proper Fringe”.

*For more information on the Arab Arts Focus, visit ttps://festival17.summerhall.co.uk/events/arab-arts-focus/