Hope and resilience were the main themes of the Asian Cup 2023 opening ceremony in Qatar.
Held in Doha’s Lusail Stadium on Friday, the rescheduled 29-day football tournament officially began with the debut of a new Arabic musical, The Lost Chapter of Kelileh and Demneh, as well as a powerful tribute to Palestine amid the ongoing Gaza-Israel war.
After a 10-second countdown, leading to a flurry of fireworks being set off from the roof of the stadium, which resembles a traditional fanar lantern, the musical began with actors in vibrant animal costumes marauding towards a centre stage ornately decorated with forests and deserts.
All 24 animals, from the extinct Asiatic lion last seen in Iraq more than a century ago, to the oryx from Qatar and the Indonesian Sumatran tiger, are meant to represent the diversity of the region’s wildlife.
Amid the flora and dunes is a disaffected traveller, who – after meeting the two wise jackals Kelileh and Demneh – learns the true meaning of happiness.
With the characters partly inspired by the ancient Indian short story collection Panchatantra, The Lost Chapter of Kelileh and Demneh is the kind of high-concept production rarely staged to mark the beginning of sporting events.
Created by Doha’s Katara Studios, the lilting and joyful songs disguise the deep existential themes of the lyrics.
“Jealousy is an evil force, it amplifies our flaws with no remorse. You must acknowledge its source,” Kelileh advises the traveller.
While Demneh assuages his self-doubt when stating: “Our flaws are what gives us charm. A soft spot causes no harm.”
The production follows a similar approach adopted by Iraq when it hosted the Arabian Gulf Cup football tournament last year.
The opening ceremony in Basra featured poetry recitals and traditional folk songs extolling Iraq's cultural contributions to the world.
“I think doing it this way is important because sometimes people don’t know this about the Arab world,” says Mishal Al Dosari, the Qatari actor playing the traveller.
“And for me personally, the ceremony can show our people here in Qatar that we can do these big dramatic productions and execute them well.
“A lot of the time these kinds of shows are limited to youth festivals here in Doha and I know have the capacity to do it bigger and better.”
The Lost Chapter of Kelileh and Demneh is to be developed into a musical that will tour the Gulf in 2025.
The segment that followed the musical focused squarely on present regional concerns. In a moving moment, Qatar national side captain Hassan Al Haydos passed the microphone to his Palestinian counterpart Musab Al Battat who took the oath of the competition.
This was followed by a potent rendition of Zahrat Al Mada'en by Qatari singer Dana Al Meer.
Originally performed by Lebanese chanteuse Fairouz and composed by the Rahbani Brothers, the 1967 song is both a sombre reflection on Palestine's pluralistic society and a prayer for its liberation, with the lyrics: "The gates of our city will not be locked anymore, so I am going to pray / I will knock the gate and I will liberate them.”
Speaking to The National before taking the stage, Al Meer said the classic song has taken on extra resonance since the war began in October.
"It is such an important work so the rehearsals were intense for me. I wanted to do it right," she added.
"This song’s message is that we are all Palestine and we will be with Palestine always and for ever."
To underscore that commitment, the ceremony ended with a rendition of the Palestinian national anthem.
The Asian Cup 2023 continues until February 10.