No sooner has the plane touched down in Fes than the text messages start to arrive. News has just broken that a bomb has exploded in a café in Marrakech – only 250 miles away. The final death toll will be 16. Fortunately, here in Fes, the second largest city in Morocco, the atmosphere turns out to be peaceful. Even so, the incident is a bleak reminder of the reasons for coming to this particular city in the first place.
I am here to see rehearsals of One Thousand and One Nights, an epic two-part production that will be the centrepiece of the Edinburgh International Festival's drama programme. Had things gone according to plan, I would have flown not to Morocco but Egypt, where director Tim Supple had intended his multinational cast to gather for eight weeks of intensive rehearsals.
But then came the violent protests against the regime of President Muburak. Suddenly it didn’t seem such a good idea to send a group of performers from all over the Arab world through Egyptian passport control. Instantly, the medina – or old town – of Fes, with its warren of narrow alleyways, its beautiful Islamic palaces and its market stalls selling lamps, carpets and slippers seemed like a much better fit for the One Thousand and One Nights. The actors and musicians lost some rehearsal time but at least they were safe.
With this company, that is not something anyone can take for granted. It was Supple's vision to create a version of these ancient stories that reflected their Arabic origin. That meant not only going back to the earliest – and grittiest – versions of the stories before they were romanticised by the west, but also finding actors who understood the culture from which they sprang. In a lengthy research period, supported by Toronto's Luminato festival, he journeyed through Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, Egypt, Syria, Lebanon, Palestine, Jerusalem, Yemen, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Oman, Iraq and Iran, meeting performers as he went.
Little could he have realised that the Arab spring of 2011 would leave so many of these countries in political turmoil. After the first stirrings of protest in Tunisia at the end of 2010, the appetite for revolt spread throughout the region. Now, this production of One Thousand and One Nights, which he had been dreaming of for several years, was becoming both the reclamation of an ancient Arabic literary work and a living expression of a rapidly changing world.
Assistant director Sophie Austin says she has never done a job that was so affected by world events. "Every day in the news something else happens that affects us," she says in a rehearsal break in the magnificent, if dilapidated, Palais El Mokri. "It can be very dramatic. We didn't see the revolution in Egypt coming and the project was hanging in the balance by a very thin thread. The cast are a long way from home and their families are experiencing real difficulty. It’s made us all stronger. Everybody who is here has decided to come here – it's not a frivolous thing, they've had to make a real commitment."
For the performers, this is not a theoretical thing. Mohamed Sami and Ahmad El Sawy were staying in Cairo's Tahrir Square when violence erupted. They saw first hand what revolution means. "We stayed 18 days in the street for the revolution," says El Sawy, composer and oud player in the five-strong band. "At midnight the day before we couldn't have imagined that tomorrow there would be a revolution. It was a peaceful day. The young Egyptian people, who didn't belong to any political party, just decided through Facebook to go peacefully with flowers in the face of the police. We went out with flowers and they shot us. We were carrying the dead bodies. It was full of blood. It was a mess."
So matter-of-fact is his description, you could almost forget the danger the two of them were in. "It could have been us," he continues. "It was dark at night and they cut the electricity. There were snipers on the roofs everywhere and we were standing there."
"It was a big trauma," says Sami, the violin player. "We had friends who died. But it was a very short revolution."
When I ask whether it was worth it – worth the loss of 860 lives – neither man hesitates. "Of course," they say in unison.
"The old government wanted to make us keep our distance from each other, to make us believe everyone else was bad," says El Sawy. "From 25 January, we discovered that we are good. We are not bad. We can care about each other. The government divided the people, but when we sensed there was something dangerous, we all became one."
Thanks to the power of social networking, the cast of One Thousand and One Nights also became one. As each country rose up, so those who had already experienced revolution passed on what they had learned. "During our revolution in Egypt the Tunisian guys gave us advice on Facebook about how to deal with the gas," says El Sawy. "You put Coca-Cola on your face with lemon and onion. All of us took advice from the Tunisian people and went to the street and we didn't feel anything. After that, the revolution started happening in Syria, so the Egyptians wrote to the Syrians that they had to use Coca-Cola."
It says a lot for Supple that he has kept the company together in such trying circumstances. Even without the revolutions, it wouldn't be surprising if the pan-Arabic cast had regarded this Sussex-born, Cambridge-educated director with suspicion. How easily he could have struck them as some white colonialist imposing his vision on their culture. "Everybody here is free," says El Sawy. "The actors have a big hand in what happens on stage. He doesn't come to us saying, 'I'm the big director.' I wouldn't be here if he had that attitude."
Over dinner after a 11-hour rehearsal, Supple admits he is both central to the project and an outsider. "I'm treating One Thousand And One Nights as a classic work of folk culture which I believe belongs to everybody," he says. "I don't think Greece owns the Greek dramatists or the Brits own Shakespeare. You've got to respect those roots, but for me it's a double perspective. In my inner core I don't see myself as British or European, I see myself as a human who can be aligned to anybody or can exist anywhere."
In their earliest incarnation, the stories appeared in India before being modified in Persia and taken on by the Arab world. They were passed on orally for centuries and written down only in the tenth century, adapting to local cultures as they went. The versions we know today date from the 13th century, but they have mutated since then, not least when they were popularised, sanitised and added to by the Europeans in the early-18th century. "On the one hand, I'm saying these stories are open to us all, but on the other hand I'm saying they need to be observed and experienced in their Arabic self," says Supple. "It is connected to its source, but opened up and discovered through the prism of an outsider's perspective."
One Thousand And One Nights (Parts 1 and 2), Royal Lyceum Theatre, 21 August–3 September.
© Mark Fisher 2011
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