On Thursday, Emirati playwright Reem Almenhali brings her theatre production Al Raheel | Departure, co-created with award-winning director Joanna Settle to NYU Abu Dhabi Arts Centre. Weaving together Arabic and English poetry, over a backdrop of images and movement, the performance explores the depth and diversity of life as a woman in the UAE.
Almenhali describes it as a contemporary performance, rather than a play, centred around a group of women on stage going through different phases of life together. “The production has an overarching theme, which is growing up in a world that is constantly changing; having a body that changes, a personality that changes, in a world that changes around you," she says.
“Within that overarching theme, there are subthemes such as bilingualism, what it is like to think, speak and feel, in two languages."
Building on this theme, the production features a blend of English and Arabic dialogue. Reflecting on her own experience, Almenhali, 25, says while writing it, she explored her relationship with the two languages. “I was starting to understand that I feel in the Arabic language, but I think in English. My soul is rooted in my Arabic language, but my operating system is in English.”
The NYU Abu Dhabi graduate says she has always written poetry in both languages. “A lot of the time, when I start to write, the poem chooses its own language. Other times, I have to sit and choose what I want to write.”
Her production flows seamlessly from one language and style to another, following the thematic journey. “One of the scenes for example is written in the style of classical Arabic poems, while some other scenes are written in the style of Arabic free verse poems, and others are more like contemporary English poems.”
Almenhali says the two languages “co-exist on the stage through speech”; alternating between dialogue spoken in one, and then the another, led by which was most poignant for each. “One of the scenes focuses on how the world changed through the perception of an older woman who is in her nineties now.
“Most of the stories that we hear from the elderly in the Emirati community, we hear them in Arabic, so I had the choice of writing that scene in English, because you don’t usually have access to that information in English.”
During the production's first run in 2020, it was viewed by a diverse array of audiences — some predominantly Arabic-speaking, some English-speaking, and others a mix of the two, and even bilingual. Audiences also represent a wide range of ages — which Almenhali says reflects the subject matter.
“Even in the performance, we have elements from different ages. We have an audio recording of a woman who was in her nineties talking about how she gave birth.”
The production's dynamic approach to language reflects a broad spectrum of influences, which Almenhali says she draws from. “I’m always interested in seeing how theatre exists in other languages, like Noh plays in Japanese culture and the Mahabharata in Indian culture, so I feel like there’s no one culture that I draw from — I keep myself open to what I can learn from other cultures.”
Despite her familiarity with Emirati theatre, she says her production goes against what she has seen in the past.
“The Emirati plays I’ve seen before always had male main characters. I always wanted to do something opposite to that — I wanted to make sure the main characters in my play were women. And not just supporting characters.”
Al Raheel | Departure runs until Sunday at The Black Box, NYU Abu Dhabi Arts Centre. Reem Almenhali will also present a workshop on October 10, and Joanne Settle will host her own the next night. More information is available at www.nyuad-artscenter.org
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