Saturday, 1 February 2014

My Last Day in Arabia

I'm home now, after ten days in the United Arab Emirates - after an invitation to speak at an International Theatre Festival in Fujairah.


1) Flying over Iraq at night - the air crystal clear - the desert is dotted with beacons of fire: oil wells. 
2) Flying over the Gulf of Arabia at night - offshore from Kuwait - the sea is dotted with little warm dots of yellow light - dozens and dozens of them. Supertankers.

3) The United Arab Emirates is a rich place. I imagine i'm in Rome at the height of the Empire. Citizenship is everything. To many citizens comes a life of leisure: the Emirates all have citizen housing programs which gift HOUSES to their people. Health care is free. There is no income tax. The perfect streets and highways are dotted with luxury automobiles - especially giant, gleaming SUVs. Citizens are defined by ethnicity, and only make up between 15% to 20% of the population (one can marry into citizenship - but this is rare). Men mostly wear long flowing white or tan-coloured robes, women mostly wear some combination of black robes and Western dress - but this is a country where other forms of dress are comfortably tolerated.
4) The people i meet and talk with the most are foreign workers - over 80% of the population. These are people from indonesia, sri lanka, asia, africa, iran, bangladesh, india, afghanistan and pakistan. They are there to work. They serve food, build roads and buildings, drive cars, clean houses, do basically anything and everything. They have little to no hope of becoming citizens. At 65, they will be asked to leave the country.
5) Dubai is clean and vertical and there doesn't seem to be a lot to do. There are fancy malls, exquisite skyscrapers (the Burj Khalifa - the world's tallest building - both impressive and lovely), and a plethora of luxury automobiles, beaches and gardens - all rising out of what was, just 20 years ago, mostly desert.
6) The Emirate of Fujairah - my destination - is a two hour drive from Dubai across the desert. It is the only Emirate with a port on the Gulf of Oman, rather than the Arabian Gulf. As a result - enormous pipelines are being built across the UAE to bring oil from Kuwait and Abu Dhabi to market via Fujairah's ports - avoiding the Straight of Hormuz, which is narrow, and vulnerable to closure from Iran. There is no oil in the ground in Fujairah - but there is plenty of oil in metal containers above ground - more than is imaginable. It is from this that this Emirate's wealth stems.
7) I begin to realize in a new way what power oil bestows on our planet to those who control it. 

But I'm here for Theatre:

1) The Fujairah International Monodrama festival has invited guests from across the world - the Middle East, North Africa, South Africa, Europe, Asia, South Asia and North America. I'm in Fujairah to speak on a panel about the future of theatre. All of our expenses are taken care of by the Festival - a level of generosity that is staggering.

2) The opening ceremony takes place in a 1400 seat, open air venue on the beach - a beautifully-built wooden structure modelled after the emirati ships of yore. It costs close to 1 million dollars to build. It is used once. It is torn down the next day.

3) I see shows from across the Arab World, and a few from international companies. The festival is for Solo Theatre - what is here (and in many parts of Europe) called Monodrama. The quality varies widely - and i gain an impression that curation for this festival is in its infancy - but the experience is eye-opening. I learn more about how varied the arab world is (i see shows from Kuwait, Tunisia, Algeria, UAE, Oman and Sudan). I see at least four really good shows (from Tunisia, South Africa, Algeria and Japan), and i meet some artists and presenters from distant lands whom i really like. Some of these connections will, i think, prove to be enduring. This is, for me, the most important outcome.

4) Unlike any other international festival i've ever been to - there is little to do when not in the theatre. There are only 2 shows a day (in two theatres in the town of Dibba - a 20 minute drive away), and we are all staying in a string of resort beach hotels in the middle of, well, nowhere. There is no city or town within walking distance. There is nothing to do but sit on the beach, or by the pool (or blog). Of all the other non-theatre guests - the language i hear most is Russian.

5) I notice the absence of women from panels about theatre, but the presence of women on the stage - an interesting contrast. The solo theatre form seems to open up a political space for arab women - or at least a space from which to speak.

6) A question begins to form in my mind: who is this festival for? There is no box office. No general public comes to see the shows - only guests of the festival.  But there are cameras everywhere. Everything is documented. A glossy brochure is produced daily detailing the previous day's shows. Each performance is more like a photo call than an opening. Theatre artists have never been so photographed. Is this all an enormous photo op? Will this further theatre in the Arab World in general, or UAE in particular? I am aware that i don't have the key with which to read what's happening around me.

My experience in Fujairah is settling into my memory in a surreal way. I have been to many international festivals on four continents, and not a single one compares. For one thing - most festivals take place in large cities, rather than in remote desert resorts. And most societies are structured in ways unlike the Emirates - where the Citizen exists in a stratum far above the enormous work force. I'm not in Kansas anymore.

And yet, and yet. I warm to the Emirati sense of humour - the men (i meet only one woman citizen, and, sadly, have no in-depth conversation with her) are quite lovely, relaxed and warm. The culture is looser than i had imagined - people arrive late, appointments are missed, it's not too big a deal. I learn and learn and learn. I speak with peers from China and Korea and Slovenia and Germany and France and Algeria and Sweden and Tunisia and Greece and Luxembourg and Lithuania and Ukraine. I learn about their points of view - their work - their sensibilities - their struggles at home. It is a rich experience.

My Last Day:

1) I speak with Constance, from Cameroon. She works the front desk at the hotel i stay at. She is a singer who hasn't sung for two years. She feels trapped in Fujairah - "Dead in Fujairah", she says, with a smile - living and working in an isolated beach resort, with no chance to further her singing. She dreams of moving to Europe, of finding a way to make music - even if only part-time. But the market in UAE is for Arabic singers,  she has a good job, and it is hard for Africans to move around this world. 
2) I speak with a Nigerian man who checks out towels by the pools. He has applied to emigrate to Canada four times, and has been turned down every time. He feels he owes a debt to himself, to his family, to his future - and that neither Nigeria nor the UAE can provide him with a real future. 

3) I make a brief appearance at the closing banquet for the festival. Rock concert lighting. Speeches. Hundreds of guests. I sit next to a Ukrainian theatre artist, and talk with him about what he is about to go home to. I ask if he will join the protests in the streets. "Of course," he says. He is a large, gentle, sweet man. He tells me about a production of Anouilh's The Lark (about Joan of Arc) his company did during the Orange Revolution. He is lit as if from within as he talks. He tells me the story of a show performed in rooms that were being used by the opposition to organize revolt - with protesters asleep on the floor - with chaos all around - and yet with a crowd slowly gathering to watch Joan of Arc, to listen to what she had to say about self-sacrifice for a cause. The performance ended with the entire room chanting "Long Live Ukraine." He smiles - simultaneously sad and ecstatic. Like Joan of Arc in the teddy bear body of a Ukrainian artist. As i write this, i think about the different worlds the two of us are returning to. My eyes fill with tears for him, thinking of the images from Kiev now filling the internet.
4) I speak with a Tunisian theatre artist - Meher Awachri - whose show is one of my favourites. He is the person i've chatted perhaps most with here. We agree we want to work together on something. It is this thing that happens when i travel. I meet artists from radically different backgrounds, and, without any effort really, we find ourselves talking deeply, easily. Something clicks. The Tunisian speaks about this too - how important it has become for him to acknowledge this ease of communication - and how this ease is the essential ingredient for collaboration. 

5) My drive to the airport in Dubai is 50 minutes late - but i have learned in ten short days to have asked for the car an hour earlier than i needed to. I begin the 24 hour trip back to winter - a nine hour time difference and a forty degree change in temperature between Dubai and Toronto. I'm happy to have come. I'm happy to be going home.