Sheikh Sultan bin Mohammed Al Qasimi: a man of many words

Al Namrood, a play written by the Ruler of Sharjah and staged by the Sharjah National Theatre has been quietly building a following around the world.

Mohamed Yousif, the director of the Sharjah National Theatre.
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At the grand Palace of Arts in Budapest, the curtain rises to the lilting sounds of Arabian flute music and the assembly of Hungarian dignitaries lean forward in their seats expectantly.

There are no sets, few props and minimal dialogue. The script may be Arabic and the tale an ancient one of Nimrod, the Biblical tyrant who mistreated his people and eventually received his comeuppance at the hands of those he oppressed.

But this latest work from the hand of the Ruler of Sharjah, Sheikh Sultan bin Mohammed Al Qasimi, has, improbably, been helping bridge the gap between East and West for several years now.

The play Al Namrood has been quietly building a following around the world during its four-year run.

It has been a success, says Mohamed Yousif – the director of the Sharjah National Theatre, which stages the production around the globe – because Sheikh Sultan writes not as a ruler but from the point of view of an ordinary human being.

The universal themes of suffering and retribution that he evokes have resonated with audiences as far afield as Scotland, Ireland, Egypt and Jordan and the play been seen by nearly 10,000 people.

The Ruler of Sharjah has long enjoyed a reputation for his artistic leanings. He has been pivotal in turning his emirate into a cultural hub and a centre for art exhibitions, museums and an annual book fair.

He first wrote, directed and performed in a play in 1963 in the newly opened Sharjah Cultural Club, nine years before becoming Ruler.

But it is little wonder he has felt inspired to put pen to paper in more than 30 books and plays, for his own life has proved a rich source of material.

The Hungarian capital was the latest site to host Al Namrood last month and the setting, opened in 2005, was an apt one. A strikingly contemporary take on the city's Gothic architecture, with its lush, red interior, imposing pipe organ and concert hall, the venue was 150 years in the making, with Hungarians campaigning to have a major new cultural site to sit alongside the city's more historic ones.

Like Sharjah's ambitions to create a cultural and artistic hub with its expansive museums and theatrical projects, it bridges the gap between tradition and modernity.

"The play is about a human character who exists in every part of the world and in every religion, be it Islam or Christianity," says Erika Nyul, a spokeswoman for the Palace of Arts.

Al Namrood, which was first performed in Sharjah National Theatre in 2008, opens with a band of masked villagers miming their simple lives.

The show in Budapest featured surtitles in Hungarian flashed up on a large screen, but the Emirati actor Ahmed Al Jasmi, a television producer and actor on Sama Dubai TV who plays the lead, says the themes are universal and easily understood.

"Drama has a language, just like music. The work of artists is one language. You do not need to explain. If you cannot see what is going on, you understand with your ears. And if you cannot understand what you hear, you can understand with your eyes," he says.

A community production, the 20 cast members have full-time jobs and range from government employees and journalists to TV producers.

They gather in the evenings after work to rehearse when the show goes on tour. The production is not on year-round; it travels sporadically, depending on where it is invited to perform.

The performance in Budapest was part of a cultural exchange initiative between Hungary and the Arabian Gulf region set up by Bela Velez, a Hungarian diplomat to the UAE.

The minimalist nature of Al Namrood not only makes it easier for non-Arabic-speaking audiences to understand, but gives the production the flexibility to pack up and travel anywhere, with the play serving as a form of cultural diplomacy, challenging preconceptions of the Islamic and Arab world.

Yousif says: "We took this story to Europe because Sheikh Sultan said there was a distance between us and other people. He said: 'They do not know our culture.'

"We took the show abroad to tell people that in the UAE, we have art and theatre." At the end of the play, the seemingly omnipotent main player is felled by a mosquito flying into his head through his ear. The villagers attempt to help kill it and at his behest, start throwing shoes at his head, which ultimately leads to his demise.

Written years before the Arab Spring swept through the region, the themes are timely. The message may be subtle, but the parallels with modern political life are powerful ones, while the scenes of commoners subdued by corrupt political leaders and being avenged are eerily reminiscent of recent footage of Saddam Hussein and Muammar Qaddafi in the last days of their lives.

Sheikh Sultan's prescience stems from the dramatic changes he has witnessed in the Arab world, says Al Jasmi.

"I think he is able to see what happens tomorrow. He told us: 'It has been like this before many years ago and it will happen again.'"

Ultimately, though, as the Ruler says in the foreword to the play's programme: "We as human beings are mere mortals. But the theatre is as eternal as life itself."

A life full of rich experiences

As the longest-surviving ruler from the early days of the UAE and the Ruler of Sharjah for 40 years, Sheikh Sultan's life has been as dramatic as his plays and provided a rich vein of material for his writings.

He was appointed Ruler at the age of 33 and his autobiography documents him growing into his role as a leader and the nascent formation of the country.

Born in 1939, he was studying in Egypt when the call came to return to the UAE in August 1971 as the emirates prepared to unite. He took on his current role in January 1972.

But aside from his leadership, he has established himself as an important historian and patron of the arts.

The author of more than 30 titles, he has written historical works and theatrical plays, including The Myth of Arab Piracy in the Gulf, The British Occupation of Aden and The Fragmentation of the Omani Empire.

While academic texts on the Arabian Gulf are typically written by those from the West, such as Wilfred Thesiger, Sheikh Sultan's works are primary sources providing invaluable material for those studying the Gulf region.

Bela Velez, a Hungarian diplomat to the UAE who helped orchestrate the Budapest performance of the Ruler's play Al Namrood, says: "There is no other voice from within the Gulf and to get that information from the ruling family is very rare."

Sard Al That, or My Early Life, will be followed by two more volumes, one focusing on Sharjah's cultural accomplishments and the other highlighting its educational growth and the building of universities.

Under Sheikh Sultan's patronage, Sharjah has emerged as an important centre for art and culture on a global scale. It was named Unesco's Arab Capital of Culture in 1998 and boasts 14 museums while Sharjah National Theatre was opened in 1976.

The culture department, which plans its own TV channel, organises the Biennale art exhibition, the Arab Youth Forum and Sharjah Book Fair. Sharjah Cultural Days is a travelling exhibition setting up in two countries each year and was most recently hosted by South Korea last September, an event inaugurated by Sheikh Sultan.

Abdullah Al Owais, the director general of Sharjah's culture department, says: "We have a responsibility to promote Arab culture throughout the world."