Plunging into a desert world
During the past few months, I was given the opportunity to be part of a vanguard of international show makers in Saudi Arabia. This was not only one of the most unique experiences in my life, but at the same time also a really hopeful encounter with a culture that Westerners usually just frown upon. Read more about the show here. I want to share with you a few incomplete observations.
The video above was filmed during the evening’s call to prayer in Ta’if, in the Saudi Arabian desert approx. 150km East of Mecca. This was two days before the start of Hajj (one of the holy seasons of Islam). In this moment, I started to realise what it meant when practicing religion is not only an individual right, but a national law. It’s everywhere. Saudi Arabia is a kingdom promoting Wahhabism; the Arabic calligraphy on the Saudi-Arabian flag says: „There is no god but Allah; Muhammad is the Messenger of Allah“. It’s a country fully dedicated to one interpretation of the Qur’an. Especially in Islam, which is by definition the teaching of a particular kind of tradition and behaviour, performance is predominantly read within these cultural confines, and social change may be defined as a re-interpretation of these.
While the ultra-conservative Muslim country is in the process of opening up and finding ways to review its history within the confines of Sharia law and towards I would say a more humanist understanding of community (which in itself is provocative enough), it still lacks many of the influences shared by its surrounding Arab kin.
Turning Arabic performance cultures into show theatre
Led by both Western and Saudi specialists, the show was conceived as a large-scale spectacle dominated by video storytelling. I would say that it was the show makers‘ goal to find ways of what is commonly known in the West as forms of theatrical expression that would take up Saudi viewing habits. There is much to be said about what these entail, which might be another blog post.
Although the country shares its Arab identity with its neighbours from the Middle East and the Magreb, forms of cultural expression are heavily influenced by geo-strategic power politics and local histories. Amongst these, the voices by those who are not (yet) seen are increasingly un-muted – women and also young men, who strive to create their future.
Saudi Arabia’s population is to a large part made up of people below 35. Besides meeting and working with strong Saudi women, I also met their Allies, like that guy who was the first man put a woman on the Saudi stage a few decades ago, before conservatism tightened back up. Our work was constantly influenced by questions of how can we use performative methods to allow for diversity within the confines of Sharia law. While the hijab, the sharia itself, and death penalty on being gay or using drugs remain protruding symbols of Saudi nowadays, I could not evade the feeling that there is a lot going on underneath this dominant cultural fabric.
Besides cherished encounters with many knowledgeable cultural advisors in and outside of Saudi Arabia, the most memorable moments for me entailed several meetings with what we referred to as ‘Arab cultural dancers’, who represented 11 Arabic countries. They were based in the nearby „Souk Okaz“ folk festival and performed on the stages of their country’s representations on the Expo-like festival site. In one of our rehearsal tents, they presented their local folk dance styles to us. Despite the ongoing war between Saudi and Jemen, Jemenite folk dancers presented for us as well. Other groups were from Lebanon, the Emirates, Tunisia, Morocco, Libya, and beyond.
Reading the dancers’ bodies behave to their local musical styles, parading a diverse melange of costumes, musical instruments, and, indeed, weapons, to rhythms we were not as familiar with taught us so much about Arab diversity, politics of the body, and performance. While one group presented to us, others prepared on the other side of the tent, practicing their breakdance and vogue moves mashed up with local Arab dance styles. The diversity was astounding. It seemed totally natural to them that such Western commercial dance styles existed alongside with their folk dance vocabulary, and, it seemed, neither of which was more dominant. In that context, the Saudi Arabian group presented itself as one of many.
Launching into the Future
Let us go back to the storyboard. During our work there, it became increasingly obvious how hard it was for the Saudis themselves to imagine what their future might look like. While Western scenarios of futures mostly involve Orwellian or Tron-like future-tech dystopias, Saudi Arabian folks start at a different place. I had a feeling that they are casting Western cultural markers onto their own traditions, but try to evade the loaded imagery of Western futurism. The prior lack of free development of art and thought (and a subsequent lack of tales about technology and science fiction) is now compensated not by, what I leaned, a bland copying of Western markers of development, but in fact a reliance on local Arab cultural markers and a narrow focus on the Utopian powers of sustainable and green technology.
Besides these technological futures, what are Saudi’s cultural expressions of future? What will this future look like? During my stay, I didn’t receive a definite answer, but learned how to ask the right questions and to use local performance styles to create, maybe, one stepping stone towards such a futuristic imaginary. The people we worked with offered us a glimpse into a cultural system that only from this autumn will introduce a limited amount of Visas for non-Muslim tourists, walking this fine line between Sharia law and a carefully conducted opening.
This future, that tries to be distinctly different from ours, it seemed to me, just can’t wait to happen quickly enough. While conservative forces hold onto the frightful interpretation of the country’s religion and the religious police keeps patrolling the streets, there is a huge urge to go forward and to stretch these confines, to write a history towards this horizon that yet needs to find its expressions in art and performance.