Preview: Arab Nights, Part 1 of 3 (on Language)

Metta Theatre create theatre that insists the audience are included in the telling of a story. From 21st November, they’ll be at Soho Theatre with their production of Arab Nights, a collection of short performances that respond to recent ongoing events in the Middle East and North Africa, giving the audience ultimate power over the protagonist, Shahrazad.

The line-up includes works by Hassan Abdulrazzak, writer of Baghdad Wedding, Egyptian Storyteller Chirine El Ansary, writer and journalist Ghalia Kabbani, live artist Tania El Khoury and Palestinian human rights lawyer and Orwell Prize-winning writer Raja Shehadeh.

The works take their inspiration from 1001 Nights and explore issues that vary from the “security wall” bordering Palestine to the Louboutin’s that belong to President Assad’s wife. We spoke to  Raja, Tania and curator of the event, Poppy Burton-Morgan about the powers of myth in dealing with contemporary politics.

What do you think of the language used in Britain around the subject of the uprisings in the MENA region?
Tania: The uprisings further impress upon the world the need to understand the MENA region and its people on its own terms. Unfortunately, that continues to not be the case as terms like Arab Spring, Arab Awakening, and a host of other phrases used to describe recent developments seek only to perpetuate the plotting of the region and its people on a linear trajectory in which the West is advanced and the rest is behind trying to catch up.

It is not so much about appropriateness or style. It is about the ways in which the language being used seeks to blunt the sharp critique that the uprisings offer about the status quo of the MENA region, the role of Western powers in propping up such a status quo, and the insistence that everyday people in the region are incapable of charting their own path, knowing their own interests, and asserting their own preferences.

Poppy: Semantics is a tricky thing – to allow us to maintain any kind of discourse on the subject we need a shared set of terms by which we can debate. But equally, generalised catch-all terms can and do perpetuate  ignorance. I struggle with the term ‘Arab Spring’ – implying as it does a finite time period (with events having started long before Spring 2011 and continuing to unfold even as I write this in ‘Winter 2012’). One of the ‘Arab Nights’ writers is Iranian, but Iran is not an ‘Arab’ country. And there are significant populations of Arab Christians in the ‘Muslim World’. Ultimately I think it’s vital that we keep interrogating these terms and that we don’t necessarily accept the language of political scientists as the best way to represent the diversity of the subject. Language is often an imprecise tool and equally a constantly evolving one – yesterday’s ‘politically correct’ term can be today’s ‘morally abhorrent’.

Next QuestionOther than its setting, what appeals to you about the tales of Shahrazad? will post tomorrow (it’s a long interview)

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