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Arab Voices: here/there/then/ now

Global Exchange
A fishbowl lens looks in on six actors at the center of a black stage lit above by blue lights.
(From left to right) Lameece Issaq, Maha Chehlaoui, Ethan Hova, Daoud Heidami, Hadi Tabbal, and Aysan Celik rehearsing a scene for FOOD AND FADWA, written by Lameece Issaq and Jacob Kader.

Late last November, racecars buzzed across Abu Dhabi’s sleek Formula One motorway cheered on by hoards of well-heeled fans – a familiar display in a city internationally recognized for glitz and glamour. But less than fifteen miles away – even as the city’s most high-profile annual event looped around a race track – a much less common sight unfolded in this city derided for its lack of arts spaces and cultural venues: audiences packed into small black box to witness theater.

And packed they did – for four days, audiences crammed into a theater in the UAE capital to see Arab Voices: here/there/then/now, a festival of staged readings presented by the NYU Abu Dhabi Theater Program and the NYU Abu Dhabi Arts Center. Curated by NYUAD Theater Program Head and Program Director for The Lark Middle East/U.S. Playwright Exchange Catherine Coray, the groundbreaking festival brought together six plays, presented by 17 Arab and Arab-American playwrights, directors, and actors.

Featuring diverse stories of life from Syria, Lebanon, Egypt, and Palestine, the subjects of the plays delved into topics of wide breadth – including presenting stories of conflict and war through fresh lenses like food and even football. Foot, written by acclaimed playwright Ismail Khalidi (Tennis in Nablus)  – explored the life of Palestinian footballer Tareq Al-Quto, killed in the early days of the Second Intifada in 2000. Several of the plays, Foot included, celebrated their Middle East premiere.

For the United Arab Emirates – where both the country and the form of theater are new – the very concept of a theater festival was relatively pioneering. Before the country’s founding in 1973, theater was largely contained to traveling hakawati, traditional storytelling troupes. Even today, besides the smattering of community theater troupes and international tours of big-budget productions, theater continues to be a relatively nascent form. (The NYUAD Arts Center opened in 2014. Previous to that, the NYUAD Theater Program was the first entity to produce theater on Saadiyat Island, the developing cultural hub where the NYUAD campus is located). So a festival of staged readings like Arab Voices was an entirely innovative concept for the country as a whole.

“Teaching and curating at NYU Abu Dhabi has been a gift for me and I’ve taken to heart the mandate of linking our students, and our entire community, with theater artists from the surrounding region.” said Coray.

Despite the lack of theater, the Arab Voices festival received a tremendous audience response. Featured in the country’s largest English-language newspaper and profiled on a popular local Arabic-language radio station, tickets for the festival swiftly sold out. At a matinee performance of Oh My Sweet Land – exploring the Syrian refugee crisis through the story of one remarkable woman – solo actor Ayşan Çelik received a hearty standing ovation from a full house, and the majority of the audience stayed to listen to a Skype talkback with Palestinian playwright Amir Nizar Zuabi (I Am Yusuf and This is My Brother).

“I want to thank you for writing this,” was a verbatim refrain repeated at all of the talkbacks, with audience members passionately expressing their gratitude for playwrights’ realistic depictions of the region, care and nuance with language, and lack of sensationalism in subject matters as a whole.

“We lived it day by day. And the scene where you are talking about rationing food and distributing different amounts, it’s something we did live. And we witnessed firsthand….so it was a really representative play. And I thank you (for that),” said one Palestinian audience member in attendance with his entire family during a talkback for Food & Fadwa, a play by Lameece Issaq and Jacob Kader about a Palestinian family living in the West Bank.

But it wasn’t just audience members who expressed gratitude – the artists were equally thankful to have the ears of the polyglot audience, taking the opportunity to workshop new translations with diverse Arabic speakers from throughout the Gulf, Levant, and North Africa. Language played an integral and intentional role in many of the productions. For Food & Fadwa, Arab Voices presented the premiered of its Arabic surtitles programmed and workshopped with Jordanian Wafaa al-Fraheen, a surtitles director, translator, and artist who works primarily in Kuwait.

And for The Hour of Feeling, a play that elegantly reckons with immigration and identity in the Middle East against the backdrop of the 1967 Arab-Israeli War, Arab Voices afforded the opportunity to work a new Arabic translation of several pivotal scenes. Playwright and director Mona Mansour even used the talkback to turn questions back on the audience, engaging Arabic speakers in a nearly 20-minute linguistic forum on dialect with diverse audience members from the UAE, Jordan, Iraq, and Lebanon.

On being able to preform this new translation of The Hour of Feeling for the first time, Lebanese-American actor Hadi Tabbal told The National, "It felt like coming home. Though I’d always performed it in English, I’d thought the words in Arabic."

“This whole thing is such a great experiment. I think we’ve had a profound week,” Mansour exclaimed at the talkback.

Other Arab Voices artists enthusiastically participated in the talkbacks as well. Director Dina Amin, who workshopped Egyptian playwright Sameh Mahran’s The Boatman – an absurdist look at law and politics in contemporary Egypt--was equally a fixture at the forums, encouraging dialogue and helping to establish artistic relationships across national borders.

Many of the plays and playwrights – Mansour included – previously received support from The Lark and were eager to build on the progress they’d made there. In residence for a week during Arab Voices, playwright Amahl Khouri workshopped She He Me, a play about gender and sexuality in the Middle East, with dramaturg Jocelyn Clarke – previously developed at The Lark in 2015.

And several of the plays presented at Arab Voices swiftly moved forward with exciting futures. Khouri’s She He Me had its European premiere at the Open Borders Ensemble Festival in Munich in December. And Zuabi’s Oh My Sweet Land will be produced in New York by Kate Loewald (a guest at the Arab Voices festival) at The Play Company in fall of 2017.

As for the future, several of the artists involved in Arab Voices are eager to collaborate on future projects, including Lebanese actors and producers Aliya Khalidi and Dima Matta. Along with Arab Voices: here/there/then/now curator Catherine Coray, and co-producer Gaar Adams, they are looking to present a version of the festival in Beirut later this year, including a new Arabic translation of Khalidi’s Foot.

In her Arab Voices program notes Coray wrote: “This project began with my fellow Arab-American theater artists, whose passion for illuminating the humanity of our cultures of origin is at the heart of Arab Voices, and is driven by the ever-increasing need for an antidote to the fear and alienation we often encounter.”  She later added: “I believe theater has the greatest capacity for engendering connection and understanding among people from diverse backgrounds through the stories it strives to tell.”