Iante Gaia Roach 08.01.2013
Hanan al-Shaykh is arguably the leading female author of her generation in Lebanon; Nidal Al Achkar is arguably the leading actress and theatre director of hers. The pair came together on stage in May 2013 at Beirut’s Madina Theatre, for the first time, as part of the literature festival Hay Festival Beirut, to read stories from Shaykh’s recent adaptation of the One Thousand and One Nights: A New Re-imagining.
A large Lebanese and international audience gathered in the theatre’s foyer where Shaykh and Achkar conversed informally with friends and journalists, before leading them to the interior of the theatre, to an elegant yet sober stage, already graced by Mohammad Assaf’s enthralling tunes on the ney.
Achkar directed the reading and selected four stories for the occasion. The two artists alternated their enchanting storytelling flawlessly, beginning with the initial frame-story of King Shahryar’s marriage with Shahrzad, “a very famous story, which we had to read to provide the context for the others.” The story of the fisherman and the jinny followed, typical of the 1001 Nights in its portrayal of a poor man who finds his fortune; thirdly, the extremely funny story of the hammal and three women, chosen also to show how “people really enjoy sex in the 1001 Nights.” The three women invent the expressions “husked sesame”, “basil of the bridges”, and “inn of Abu Masrour” for their sexual organs, and the humorous hammal rivals them with the choice of “smashing mule” for his own. The content was so explicit and jocular that Shaykh could not hold back her laughter. Finally, the duo recounted the story of a loving husband and wife, who desire only one other despite many lures. The last three stories were linked with the first frame-story, and with each other via subplots.
Musicians Assaf (ney and rababa), Ali Kobeissy (buzuk) and Ali Alhout (bandir and percussions), who had previously worked with Achkar, accompanied the storytelling by improvising on traditional Arab tunes and motives, creating moments of great tension, expectation, and reverie… and even deliberately obscured Shaykh’s voice with their volume and intensity on two occasions, to the dismay of sections of the audience, eager to hear every single word.
Shaykh and Achkar go back a long way. “After Nidal graduated from RADA in the 1960s, she performed at the Festival of Carthage, and her talent attracted the attention of many critics” says Shaykh. Then a journalist, Shaykh interviewed her and followed her career avidly: “she is the person who began real, alive theatre in Lebanon, a theatre that dealt with Lebanese society and its problems from within, very different from the previous tradition. She was interested in Arab playwrights and made us realize that theatre does not only come from Europe, that there is much more to theatre than Shakespeare, comedy, the theatre of the absurd… She is an extremely courageous woman, and her play Edrab al-Haramiyeh (The Strike of Robbers in English), which was stopped by the government, is only one example” says Shaykh of Achkar.
In turn, Achkar reveals that she has been a fan of Shaykh’s “for a very long time, both as a woman whose personality fuses femininity and strength to the utmost degree, and as an author, with her modern and sophisticated style – an excellent example of al-sahl al-mumtana (inimitable simplicity in English) – and her stance. When she first wrote, her boldness appalled people, though unintentionally.”
Her adaptation of the 1001 Nights, commissioned by acclaimed English theatre director Tim Supple after an earlier collaboration with Shaykh, marks the writer’s first experience of writing in English. “Writing the book in both Arabic and English was a difficult and painful process. Some idioms would not work in translation, so I would have to re-phrase whole sentences in both languages to convey the same meaning. But I succeeded, and the book was published” says Shaykh. She adopted a tone similar to the language of the 1001 Nights, though closer to colloquial Arabic. “The greatest difficulty was finding the right tone, so I read the text aloud to myself many times.”
Supple chose to adapt the 1001 Nights into a play for a Western audience “because he has great integrity and knows that Westerners believe it is children’s literature, with Aladdin (whose flying carpet never appears in the 1001 Nights!), Ali Baba, Sindbad… I was writing a novel at the time, but I abandoned it and jumped onto the offer. I am very happy that I did so, as Tim led me to something I knew, but would not have returned to otherwise.” Shaykh read 6,000 pages in Arabic (the sum of the three authoritative editions of the work) before selecting stories with Supple, aiming to construct a new plot.
“The 1001 Nights is about very complex stories of humanity and touches all aspects of life: justice, injustice, gender issues, strife, the cunning of women, city-dwellers and people from the countryside, hate, love.. it also contains very bloody stories, of unbelievable darkness and wickedness, alongside highly charged erotic ones” explains the author. She was astonished by the combination, as she had never read the whole opus before. She continues: “another aspect I love is the relationship between humans and jinnis, which is not always confrontational: they can be on equal terms and develop great friendships and even love affairs.” Shaykh changed stories and linked them together in new ways, and heightened the war between men and women.
Supple’s play, which premiered at the Luminato Festival in Toronto in 2011 and enjoyed a very successful run at the Edinburgh International Festival during the same year, is expected to tour further afield in the West. “I hope we can tour it to Lebanon and other Middle Eastern countries, but I am afraid it is too explicit to be accepted here” comments Shaykh, who is currently completing a new novel titled Two Women. It is about two Lebanese girls, a Muslim and a Christian, who meet in the West, where they both live, spend their vacations together, and make important discoveries about their sexuality, gender, and life in exile. The author plans to then return to her previous, uncompleted novel.
Shaykh, whose Shi’ite family comes from Nabatiyyeh, grew up in the Ras el-Naba’a neighbourhood in Beirut. She left Lebanon soon after the outbreak of the civil war, eloping with her future husband (a Christian) to Saudi Arabia and later England, where she has lived ever since. Her family discovered about the marriage in the press!
The author dispels common myths about her strict Shi’ite upbringing and her position as a feminist Arab author. “My father was devout, but not a fanatic – just imagine that he let me go alone to Egypt to pursue my studies at the age of 17! Though he wanted me to wear the hijab, I rebelled and convinced him that it wasn’t for me. I used to think he was strict, but now I realize how much freedom he gave me. He was very loving and a little naïve, he would believe me in everything. For instance, he once saw me holding hands with a boy, and I convinced him that the boy was simply helping me to cross the road unharmed. Initially, he was upset about my marriage, but he came to love my husband (whereas the rest of my family was happy and relieved, as they feared no one would marry me, with my strong character!). My husband’s family had no qualms whatsoever about our interfaith marriage.”
Asked whether she would define herself a feminist, Shaykh replies forcefully “they pigeon-hole you! Maybe I am, I don’t know. My novels talk about women, strife, society issues – yet so many male Arab authors do the same and are not called feminists!”
Strong female characters appear in many of Shaykh’s novels – such as Ruhiyya and Asmahan from Beirut Blues, her favourite book, “even though Arab readers tend to prefer more melodramatic works such as The Story of Zahra and The Locust and the Bird, which is about my mother. My female characters come from here, from there, from everywhere. Some are women I met, others are members of my family, some I thought I knew, but I don’t know if they really exist. Ruhiyya from Beirut Blues, for instance, a character I adore, was inspired by Billie Holiday, the nickname of my mother’s dress-maker, who smoked cigarettes and was very outspoken and extremely alive.”
Shaykh reveals that she wished to return to Lebanon in 1982-83, “when the situation was really not very good. However, I thought of my children, who were very young at the time. I wanted them to continue living in a peaceful world, and feared they wouldn’t learn anything but fear from living in a state of war. I believe in secular society, and after a long experience of the UK’s real democracy I don’t think I can live anywhere without similar political conditions.”
Nonetheless, the boundaries of freedom of expression in the Arab world have never stopped her from “writing what I feel like writing: I am audacious, I do not censor myself, and luckily I have a Lebanese publisher, who was very interested in my adaptation of the 1001 Nights and did not censor it even though I warned him that it was very daring.”
Achkar recounts her previous experience in staging the 1001 Nights, in Amman and Tunisia in 1984. She had started the theatre company Arab Comedians in Amman that year, aiming to “open Arabic books with all sorts of fantastic characters.” She played the part of Shahrazad (and many other characters), coming on stage astride a donkey, surrounded by wailing women. “The donkey wouldn’t move and then began galloping all of a sudden. The director then revealed that he bit the donkey to make it move!” remembers Achkar.
Achkar, who is not only an actress and theatre director, but also an author and founder of Madina Theatre (in 1994), has been a seminal figure for modern and contemporary Lebanese theatre. She announced that she is currently working on two big projects.
She will act in a new play which will be directed by Madina Theatre director Nagy Souraty. It will premiere in October 2013. “All I can tell you about my role is that she’s a timeless woman” she says with mischievous eyes. She will also be directing a big show in 2014, which she has adapted from ancient Sumerian texts, brought to her attention by her father some 40 years ago. “The play will deal with the Sumerian universe, from its beginning with the creation of the first cities and the search for eternal life to its end. According to Sumerian traditions, the universe was created by a woman.”
On her experience as a woman in the arts in Lebanon from the 1960s onwards, Achkar says “it has been a continuous struggle, yet easy because my very open family, all my friends, and all the writers have been with me from the start. I had a golden beginning and was able to continue thanks to my confidence and the love my family gave me, even though it is a tough world. I enjoy the struggle and I enjoy succeeding and being the first woman to found an open, civil society theatre, which fosters freedom of expression”.
The combined efforts of the seemingly delicate Shaykh and the dramatic and clearly forceful Achkar, who have both contributed immensely to the development of theatre, literature, and the condition of women (whether artists or not) in Lebanon and beyond, created one of this year’s best and most enchanting theatre and storytelling performances in Beirut. One hopes that they will continue collaborating and achieving such ‘inimitable simplicity’, the result of constant striving, and that they will continue to take Beirut audiences along on the journey with them.
An edited version of this article appeared online on NOW Lebanon on 14th May 2013.