Following on from Part 1, here are two more questions from the interviews with Poppy Burton-Morgan (director), Raja Shehadeh and Tania El Khoury on their show Arab Nights at Soho Theatre which is inspired by the 1001 Nights stories and the recent and ongoing uprisings in the MENA region.
Other than its setting, what appeals to you about the tales of Shahrazad?
Poppy: I love the mixture of magic and fantasy with social satire and political commentary. With the original tales, there is a perception in Britain that the 1001 Nights are rather ‘soft’ stories for children but the original tales are full of sex and death, and satirising of oppressive regimes. Also I find the character of Shahrazad herself a huge inspiration – a brave young woman using the power of her words (rather than brute force or her beauty/sexuality) to confront and eventually transform an oppressive tyrant.
Raja: First and foremost they are wonderful tales, highly entertaining and so well narrated. Then there is the world in which they take place, a lighter more permissive, bawdy world colourful, rich with imagery and without the narrowness, pettiness and abnormal fragmentation that blights the Middle East of today.
Tania: Not a lot appeals to me about the tales of Shahrazad. I wrote my piece independently of 1001 nights. It’s the director’s concept of putting the different pieces in the setting of the tales of Shahrazad.
Why is myth useful here?
Raja: It allows me to free myself from the constraints of present-day reality and see it as absurd and unsustainable. I can express the yearning that is felt by many in the region to transform the way things are now. It also helps to overcome the fatigue that stifles ambitions and makes it harder to even dream of a better future.
Tania: In thinking about the past two years in the MENA region, one has to consider the ways in which a number of myths about the region were disrupted and shattered. For too long, there was the myth of the endlessness of authoritarian regimes, the myth that what had transpired over the past twenty years, sponsored and celebrated by international powers, was reform; the myth that the United Kingdom, the United States, and other Western powers were committed to principles of democracy, and the myth that the peoples of the region were complacent and accepting of the status quo in their countries, and so on.
All of these myths were shattered. Dictators were forced to flee. Regimes were brought down. The people spoke loudly and acted in unison. The fallacy of Western democratic commitment was exposed through the UK/US’s support for regime change intervention in Libya and regime survival intervention in Bahrain. All of this was clear to those of us with critical perspectives prior to 2011, but unfortunately mainstream coverage, commentary, and analysis perpetuated such myths.
Final Question: Can you tell us something about the place of dictators and control in these short performances?