Bag of tricks: Dubai's circle of magicians

The world of professional illusionists is an exclusive club where rivalry and secrecy are said to be rife. A peep into the Dubai circle finds some impressive and intriguing entertainment.

"Can you do a trick?" are the first words I say to James Harrington, and they don't go down particularly well. He is sitting in a Dubai cafe, doing something on his laptop, when I approach from behind. "Here," I say, taking a ring off my finger and pressing it into his hand. "Make it disappear or something."

There are a couple of things working in Harrington's favour: one, the cafe employs what's often called mood lighting, meaning it is kind of dark. Secondly, he's a professional magician, 10 years in the business. Wedding-ring tricks, you'd think, would be ho-hum. Yet he doesn't look entirely comfortable. "Right," he says, doing waggly movements with his hands. A couple of waggles in, the ring is gone.

For a few moments afterwards, we sit and regard each other across the table. Frankly, it's a little awkward. There are scores of professional illusionists working in Dubai, most of them of the ta-da! variety, people who shoot coins out of their noses at kids' parties. If you're looking for something more sophisticated, the number drops dramatically - to about a dozen. Of these, maybe six could be considered world-class illusionists. Harrington, a 26-year-old Englishman, falls comfortably into the final category. He is, as one local magician put it, a member of the "Big Three".

For a guy like this, palming a ring doesn't cut it. You want something bigger, something crazier. "Give me a hundred dirhams," Harrington says finally, as if sensing my disappointment. I have a Dh1,000 note on me, so I give him that. He tells me to write my initials on the bill, then he folds it and slips it into his fist. "Now wrap your hand around mine," he says. After a few seconds, he unclenches his fingers.

A butterfly would have been something. Maybe a stack of hundreds. Instead, another empty hand. "Impressed?" he asks. Erm, erm. "Would you be more impressed if I told you your money was in my wallet?" He produces a wallet, unzips one of the pockets and tells me to take out what is inside. I pull out a small, sealed envelope. "Open it," he says. I do this, too, and inside is a Dh1,000 note, with my initials on it. "Look again," he says. Also inside the envelope is a ring.

Professional magic is a relatively recent arrival to Dubai. In Europe, sleight-of-hand artists have been working for centuries. There are accounts, dating back 4,000 years, of conjurers wowing the Pharaoh's court in Egypt. The markets of ancient Greece were lousy with cup-and-ball operators. In Dubai, though, we're talking 20 years, tops. And it's only in the past five or so that things have really started to pick up.

Tomy Manjooran, who moved to Dubai in 1996, likes to say that he was the first magician to work here - at least officially. "I went to the department of economy and they were suspicious," he said, speaking from the magic-toy kiosk he operates at Al Nasr Leisureland. "I had a trick that seemed to multiply money. I showed them the trick, the secret, and they were happy. They gave me the first licence for a magician in the UAE."

While telling this story, Manjooran demonstrated the trick in question, which involves closed-hand manipulation of a Dh100 and Dh500 bill. Oh, that he really could produce money out of thin air, he said with a laugh. "I came into magic late, when I was 46," he went on. "I was doing business in India and I had some problems. I did the stock market and I lost too much money." An accountant by training, Manjooran had dabbled in magic before, but never professionally. In Dubai, he saw an opportunity "I started doing shows, and magic became a full-time job."

Along with running his retail interests - he has another magic shop in Ajman - Manjooran still performs regularly. But things have changed since he started out. There more magicians here now, many of whom are young, slick and savvy. "Do you believe in magic, sir?" Manjooran said to me while doing a rope trick. He wore a tie decorated with rabbits, dice and cascading coins, but this was conservative attire compared to the spangly confections he dons for actual shows. He cut the rope in two, then put it back together again behind a cupped hand. "You have to believe!"

Magic, unlike its cousin vaudeville, has survived beyond its 19th century heyday. This is largely because every generation since has produced performers who seem determined to wrench the form, or at least its trappings, into a contemporary vernacular. David Copperfield latched on to the glam-rock aesthetic of the 1970s. Siegfried & Roy exploited the stylistic excesses of the 1980s. Penn & Teller epitomised the too-clever-by-half irony of the 1990s. This decade has given us the darker, gothy schtick of Criss Angel.

While there's no one quite like Angel in Dubai, you do get the sense that magicians here are just as eager to escape the aura of music-hall schlock that has long hung over the field. Among the big guys in particular, there is little in the way of finger-wiggling, eyebrow-arching showmanship. No one here is going to lead off with "I am Mystico! Master of the magic arts!" Part of the reason for this is that magic has shifted away from the stage and into the boardroom. For the majority of serious magicians in Dubai, the bulk of their work is increasingly corporate - doing close-up magic at gala dinners or trade events. This sort of performance doesn't lend itself to sawing people in half, and it doesn't require the larger-than-life theatrical turns that have long been a staple of stage shows. The work can also be highly lucrative, paying Dh10,000 and upwards for a single appearance.

"If you're smart enough to sell to the corporate world, you can make a very good living," said Gaston Quieto, who travels the world doing corporate work. "At a trade show, rather than saying, 'This mobile is the best,' you can say, 'Watch me make this mobile disappear.' That makes people stop and take notice." Quieto, 33, is a flamboyant character. His promotional material shows him black-clad and bare footed, reclining on a backdrop of neon blue, his legs crossed at the ankles and his head tilted, a half smile on his lips, like he knows something we don't. Originally from Argentina, he sees himself as a hot-blooded Latin performer, Ricky Martin with a deck of cards. "I do physical things. There's a lot of movement, a lot of passion." His conversation, too, reveals a flair for drama. "For me it is weird," he said of his act. "I know I don't have real powers, but sometimes I know things and I don't know why. And that scares me. I'm being serious here."

When asked if he ever saws ladies in half, Quieto replied, "If I do, I do it with a twist." He went on to demonstrate a trick that involved making a Dh100 note disappear, then producing a tomato out of nowhere and cutting it open, revealing the self-same Dh100 bill inside. He also performed a so-called mentalist turn, correctly identifying a word I had looked at in a copy of The Da Vinci Code. "This is my third reading of the book," he said afterwards. As for how he'd done the trick, Quieto wasn't talking. "My job," he said, "is to make you feel something you've never felt before."

Mentalism is all the rage right now. Max Maven and Derren Brown, two of the field's biggest names, have become mainstream celebrities, with hordes of alarmingly devoted fans. In Dubai, the field is relatively sparse. Praveen, a former naval engineer from Kerala, is one of the few here who could be called a genuine mentalist. He used to be a conventional card-and-coin artist, though he seems reluctant to talk about this. "Mentalism is a more mature type of magic," he said. "The gasps I get now are different from the gasps I got before."

Sitting in a cafe at Mercato mall, Praveen demonstrated a series of routines that were every bit as astonishing as Harrington's envelope trick. Over and over, he correctly named colours I'd secretly chosen, or anticipated choices I'd yet to make. At one point, he picked up a teaspoon, placed it in the palm of his hand and watched as it formed an L-shape, apparently of its own accord. When he was done, he handed me the spoon for inspection. It was real, and it was bent.

In his home country, Praveen is a notorious figure, and not because of his spoon-bending prowess. Early in his mentalist career, in 2001, a slightly more elaborate stunt had led to him being vilified in the Indian press, facing accusatory stares in the street. "It could have been a nice thing," he said. "It could have got me a lot of mileage." It started with the Amazing Cousins, an act he had formed back in Kerala. To publicise the act, Praveen arranged to do a version of an old predict-the-headline routine. The trick calls for sealed envelopes, trustworthy witnesses, locked safes and - importantly - lots of media coverage. While Praveen had all of these bases covered, he had no control over the events that would dominate the headlines on the date he'd chosen to reveal his prediction. So it was, at a public ceremony, the mayor of Kochi opened an envelope and read out the words that Praveen had penned (or so it seemed) three days earlier: "Amboori landslide, 38 people dead."

"Obviously," Praveen said, "there was no thunderous applause." Being blanked onstage, though, was the least of his worries. "The public response was terrible. People were saying I could have warned the victims in advance, that I could have saved them." Magicians love to tell stories like this - only not usually about themselves. One old standby has a performer putting a knife in a brown paper bag and then, having made a switch, crumpling the bag up. Only... whoops! As the blood flowed, the story goes, the audience applauded. When the magician explained that he'd really hurt himself, that he needed an ambulance, the applause intensified. The guy who told me this story did so with a smile that seemed to say two things: 'I'm glad it didn't happen to me' and 'I'm glad it happened.'

More than any other branch of the entertainment industry, magic tends to invite secrecy, paranoia and rivalry among its practitioners. At times, things turn ugly - accusations of theft arise, feuds are instigated. "It's not like you have magicians driving around with tinted windows, throwing packs of cards at each other," Harrington said. "But it can get a little uncomfortable at the conventions."

"Do my illusions ever go wrong? Of course they do." Phil Fenton said this while performing a card trick, and it didn't seem to be going well. A bulky, plain-speaking 54-yea-old from the north of England, Fenton has been doing magic since he was a boy. "I'm an entertainer, it's in my blood," he said. "I open the fridge door at four in the morning and I'm there for three hours." As he spoke, he produced a series of cards: "Is it this one?" It wasn't, and it wasn't the next one, either.

For a magician who was about to botch a trick in a national newspaper, Fenton seemed remarkably sanguine. "Every magician has what we call an out," he said, fiddling with the deck. "You have to have a plan-B." A moment later, he produced a king of diamonds, my card, which was marked with a black X. "I do comedy magic," he said, putting the cards away. "If you laugh, it's comedy, if you don't, it's magic."

Fenton smiled, pleased with himself. "You were getting embarrassed for me," he said. "I could feel it." He was right. It was the same kind of embarrassment I'd felt for Harrington earlier, after he'd made my ring disappear. Both magicians, it turned out, had been doing the old underachiever routine, a ploy that magicians use to deflate expectation and build tension. Harrington called it "the sucker move." Here, it seemed, we were getting close to the heart of what professional magic is.

In the end, magic isn't about the personas or the props. It isn't even about the tricks. The fact is, despite the apparently endless variety of routines out there - the vanishings, the levitations, the teleportations - they are all based on fewer than a dozen basic illusions. Even the sleight-of-hand magicians use, while impressive to behold and tough to master, amounts to little more than window dressing. The only thing that really distinguishes one magician from another is the ability to grasp - and therefore manipulate - the way people see the world. A good magician is a performer, a great magician is a psychologist.

There's a video on Harrington's website, of a show he did a while back. The most interesting thing about the film isn't the magic, but the responses it provokes. Along with the whoops and wows, there are times when people put their hands to their chests, their smiles hardening into expressions of discomfort. A good magic trick does this. It violates our natural inclination to impose order on the world.

A few days after meeting him, I went to see Harrington perform a close-up show. As he did the envelope trick, I stood behind him, determined to learn his secret. I couldn't, and that turned out to be OK. On the way home, I remembered a story Gaston Quieto had told me, about a guy he'd met who'd spent 15 years developing a single illusion. "It was the only one he knew, but he was the best in the world at doing it." Of all the tricks he's seen over the years, Quieto added, this is the only one he has never been able to figure out.

"He fooled me so badly," he said, grinning like this was the greatest thing ever.