Escaping the Exotic: Finding New Common Ground with the Middle East

After a couple of questions from his Amsterdam audience, all with a predictable Western bias, Ossama Halal could not bear it any longer. He intervened by putting his hands up in the air, and made an impassioned plea. ‘I want to be seen as a theater maker like all others,’ he said. Yes, recent events had forced him to flee his home country, to resettle in Beirut, and to re-establish his Koon Theater Group in that city with performers from other nationalities, to compensate for the members who had been unable to come with him. ‘But for my work, it really hasn’t made the slightest difference. As a group, we now fight over exactly the same issues as we did at home.’

Halal was probably very right. There was one problem, however. We had not come to see him as a theater maker like all others. We had come because he is from Syria. Because we thirsted to see Syrian theater, created and performed by the very people who have gone through the horrors there. And Halal’s Above Zero is not a show like all others, either. It may have been inspired by the work of Bertolt Brecht, as the program told us, but it is, most emphatically, about the war in Syria.

Still from Above Zero by Ossama Halal and his Koon Theater Group – Photo Passie in Beeld

Still from Above Zero by Ossama Halal and his Koon Theater Group – Photo Passie in Beeld

Add to that the fact that a major part of the audience consisted of other refugees from the Middle East, who had come to see and support their fellow Arab, resulting in passionate exchanges in Arabic – Halal doesn’t speak English – that overwhelmed the interpreter. It could easily have become a Babylonian confusion of tongues. But somehow, it didn’t. Maybe we did not understand each other completely that evening, but we certainly got closer. We bonded in a way only live theater can accomplish.

We can see the war in Syria every day on the news. But where can we see it through the eyes of performers who have lived through it? At Dancing on the Edge we can, a bi-annual Dutch festival focusing exclusively on performing artists from North Africa and the Middle East. The fifth edition was held from 4 till 13 November this year, in Amsterdam, Utrecht, Rotterdam and The Hague. It is one of the few festivals of its kind in the world, beside the Shubbak Festival in London, also bi-annual.

Dancing on the Edge was founded by Gary Feingold in 2007. A year later he was joined by Natasja van ’t Westende. In 2014 she took over as the sole director. ‘Gary started it as a pure dance festival, with artists only from the Middle East,’ she told me during an interview in the café-restaurant of De Brakke Grond, the theater in the old city centre functioning as Dancing on the Edge’s Amsterdam hub. ‘Later, we widened our scope to North Africa, and added theater shows, installations and context programming.’ Van ’t Westende, 41 now, explored the region long before 9/11 made it into a Western obsession. ‘I was just drawn to it, I cannot explain why. I went to Beirut in 1995, and was one of the first foreigners to visit the Palestinian camps after the civil war.’

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Natasja van ’t Westende

She got her Bachelors in cultural anthropology at Leiden University, then went to Sudan for two half-year stints. During the first one, she did the research for her Master thesis Female Wedding Singers in Great-Khartoum (Sudan): Negotiating Discourses on Gender, Music and Islam. During the second one she worked for the charity War Child, running drama workshops together with local artists. ‘I have always been involved in the performing arts myself, too.’ Along the road, she learned to speak Arabic. To this day she roams the area regularly, especially the Middle East, constantly looking out for the most interesting stuff. ‘The Arab Spring caused an immediate outpouring of performances. We avoided most of those works, as they were too narrowly political. The shows we select have to have artistic merit. We don’t do exotic folklore either.’

At Dancing on the Edge, she says, ‘we present cutting edge work, often from new generations’. That does not come from nowhere. ‘The Arab world has an ancient tradition of quite static spoken theater.’ The region also has a network of international festivals. Some of them are more traditional, like the Festival International de Carthage in Tunis, every year in July and August, which has been going on since 1965. Others are more avant-garde, like D-CAF (Downtown Cairo Art) every year in March and April, aimed at ‘reviving and reclaiming Downtown Cairo as a vibrant cultural centre’. The performing arts form its core, but it also presents film, music and visual arts. ‘And there is a lot of dance as well. Alexandria has Nassim el Raqs, a yearly festival of contemporary dance in April and May. Beirut has BIPOD, Tunis Dream City. There used to be a festival in Damascus. Baghdad and Damascus were the old hubs of the performing arts in the Middle East.’

Not anymore. The wars in Lebanon, Iraq and Syria have ravaged everything, including cultural life. ‘The conditions are especially bad for dance, if only because dancers need to train every day. Infrastructure is generally poor; there is a fundamental shortage of studio’s and training courses.’ Dancing on the Edge tries to help where it can. ‘We co-produce – this year we staged four world premieres. Beside the festival, we run an academy, offering Arab and North African performers scholarships, residencies and workshops led by professional choreographers in places like Het Huis Utrecht and Korzo in The Hague. Also, we sometimes send coaches to work with them in their home countries. And we run an extensive program of group talks and exchange meetings.’

I joined a couple of these during the festival, and found them invaluable as an introduction to performers I hardly knew existed. As an education for myself, a way of bridging the gap of understanding. I started out asking them the same questions Ossama Halal didn’t want to answer. What are the conditions in your home countries? Is there any funding for the arts? Is there an audience at all? What about censorship? Gradually, I learned to move away from our exotic angle. ‘We are artists,’ Tunisian actor and director Meher Awachri pointed out to me. ‘We are not in Europe to report on the present state of our countries.’ What they are actually exploring, is a common ground beyond the merely topical, just like avant-garde performers from the West. They see peculiarities in our culture that we have come to overlook, combine them with what they bring from theirs, then start fooling around with all that material.

In Plastic, Dancing on the Edge’s opening show and one of the four world premieres, Awachri offered a funny look at the stereotypes Westerners hold about the Arabs, and vice versa. ‘During one of my international projects,’ he said during an exchange meeting about the Arab theater world, ‘I challenged my group of performers of different nationalities to talk about the cultural differences between us. We then gave them shape in the form of comedy. After that episode, we had left them behind. We could concentrate on our commonalities, on our mutual bonds.’

Still from Plastic by Meher Awachri – Photo Passie in Beeld

Still from Plastic by Meher Awachri – Photo Passie in Beeld

Awachri has moved to Berlin. ‘In Tunisia I can stage any show I want. The big problem is a fundamental lack of money.’ Egypt has problems of its own, most notably a very oppressive government. ‘One festival in my country admired my work, but didn’t dare to present it,’ Egyptian dancer Hazam Header said during the exchange meeting. ‘European authorities cooperate with ours because they see the Islamic State as the bigger evil. They completely ignore the crimes committed by the Egyptian state against its own citizens.’ Still, like most Egyptian performers at Dancing on the Edge, Header chose to stay in Cairo, where he runs his own group, NÜT Dance Company. ‘I can show my work in private theaters.’

We tend to look at Arab performers from an ‘us against them’ perspective, ignoring the huge differences within their own world. ‘Dance and physical movement allow us to cross the borders between languages and cultures,’ Header explained. ‘We humans all have the same body. It is the perfect instrument to make the other feel what you want to say.’ That may explain why most of the shows presented during Dancing on the Edge were predominantly physical, with hardly any text, although not your typical dance.

Arab, Iranian and North African performers have found their own ways to deal with the huge obstacles facing them on their home ground. War, oppression, poverty and exile has made them creative and resourceful. Their practice is not just mired in misery, as Natasja van ’t Westende emphasises. ‘Social media and digital technology have enabled them to get acquainted with foreign traditions, and to reach out to new audiences. They have long moved beyond a simple dream of going to Europe or North America, to finally live and work in peace and prosperity. Today they are much more confident and self-conscious. They find their own perspectives, mixing global and local artistic practices and traditions.’

Iranian maker Nassim Soleimanpour proves her point. He badly wanted to travel, but for years, he couldn’t: as a conscientious objector to military service in his country, he was denied a passport. Soleimanpour transformed that handicap into his biggest asset. In 2011, he came up with White Rabbit, Red Rabbit. Actors and comedians in various other countries Soleimanpour would have loved to travel to, were handed the script shortly before they had to go on stage, and read it there for the first time. The audience members were given Soleimanpour’s Iranian email address and encouraged to leave their smartphones on, so they could send him pictures and messages during the performance.

And they did, in droves. White Rabbit, Red Rabbit became a worldwide hit. The show is still touring around the globe. Soleimanpour now has a passport – in the past, Van ’t Westende helped him with his visa problems. Gaining world fame can help and hinder an artist in his home country in equal measure. Soleimanpour got to coordinate an important Iranian theater festival – a sign of official recognition. Still, he now lives in Berlin, like Meher Awachri. At Dancing on the Edge he presented a new show called Blank. Again, another unprepared actor reads the script on stage. But Blank takes the concept one step further. The actor invites a member of the audience on stage as well, and starts to explore his or her life, with the help of the other people in the room.

Van ’t Westende had also invited Nachtgasten (Nightfolks), a Dutch group of actors who have developed their own form of theater interacting with the public. During Dancing on the Edge they worked together with festival performers like Awachri, and they took part in a group talk called Why Theatre?! This form of intercultural exchange Van ’t Westende wants to make into a mainstay of her festival. ‘My shows always start with a very practical premise,’ Soleimanpour told us during the talk. ‘I devised White Rabbit, Red Rabbit as a way of travelling around the world while I couldn’t. Recently I wrote a show in German because I had to learn the language, if only to be able to buy a bread at the bakery around the corner.’

And also, he added, to return the generosity of his audience. ‘They buy tickets to my shows without having the foggiest idea what they are going to see. When I hear back their stories, I myself become the audience in my own show. I had this wonderful experience when I was finally able to attend a performance of Rabbit, in Brisbane, Australia. The woman sitting next to me recognized me from the picture in the program, and greeted me very audibly. “Sssshht!,” I heard myself exclaim. How weird is that! I had not even introduced myself to her! I had become caged within my own show.’

Van ’t Westende plans to tour Blank more widely after her festival. ‘It was not one of our co-productions, but we do have the rights for 2016.’ Uncaging Arab, Iranian and North African performers to a Western audience remains an urgent necessity. The mainstream Dutch media paid scant attention to Dancing on the Edge. ‘We already carry so many stories on refugees,’ one national newspaper offered as an excuse. In spite of this indifference and the resulting lack of publicity, the 2015 edition managed to sell about 10,000 tickets to its shows and various other activities – 2,000 more than in 2013. And that on a shoestring budget of 300,000 euros, provided by a number of public and private art funds in Holland. ‘We attracted lots of students and performing professionals, but also a fair share of regular, older theater goers. About a third of our audience had strong connections to North Africa and the Middle East. Sixty percent of our public was below forty. That is a good score for a dance and theater festival.’

All these theater lovers readily allowed for the rough edges or lack of development in many of the shows presented by Dancing on the Edge. Most of these are caused by hugely challenging working circumstances. Van ’t Westende often has to allow for these as well, in spite of her high artistic standards. ‘A lot of my working time is taken up by visa problems,’ she says with a smile and a shrug. ‘In 2013, we managed to bring in performers from Gaza – don’t get me started on that story. Many Arab and North African performers are young men under 35, who are considered the highest-risk category by Dutch immigration officials.’

And it is much worse at the other side of the travel route. ‘Halal conceived Above Zero with five live musicians. But they live in Beirut, and most of them are not allowed to travel outside Lebanon.’ So, for Dancing on the Edge, Halal had to compromise by using a soundscore. Two of the DJ’s doubled as actors, sometimes hesitantly. One Dutch dance professional who witnessed the result clearly saw through that. ‘Just imagine,’ he remarked to me admiringly after the show, ‘what this guy Halal could do within a proper working environment.’

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