Sometimes thrills land at quiet moments. On a cool evening two weeks ago, in the open courtyard next to Warehouse421, the organisers of Abu Dhabi Art erected a rudimentary stage, whose floor was barely raised above the Mina brickwork.
The Palestinian actor Ahmed Tobasi strode on to the stage and for the next hour and a half, without a pause or supporting actor, he performed And Here I Am – the story of his journey from the Jenin refugee camp to an Israeli jail to the Norwegian stage, and back to Jenin.
It was a strong rendition of the choices – or lack thereof – facing Palestinian youth, and of the redemptive possibilities of art. Tobasi joined the armed resistance – partially to impress the girl who lived across the street with whom he had fallen in love. He emerged three years later, at the age of 21, from an Israeli prison with few prospects beyond re-enlisting in the armed struggle. His And Here I Am show launched a new exhibition that is part of Abu Dhabi Art's year-round programme, which encourages art galleries to exhibit in the capital beyond the November art fair.
Working on the same question – the challenges facing Arab youth – the Jeddah art gallery Athr is presenting an exhibition based on Omar Saif Ghobash's Letters to a Young Muslim, enlivening the book in an art context. The exhibition, Letters: Fragments of a Memory, is the first of six chapters of the show, which was curated by Mariam Bilal and Hanouf Alhouthan and launched last June in Saudi Arabia. The remaining chapters will be shown at Abu Dhabi Art in November.
Commenting later from London, Abu Dubai Art director Dyala Nusseibeh, who organised the event, quoted the cultural theorist Homi Bhabha: "'Remembering is never a quiet act of introspection or retrospection. It is a painful re-membering – a putting-together of the dismembered past – to make sense of the trauma of the present'," she says. "Tobasi's uncompromising autobiographical performance is made up of recollections of key episodes from his life. The play proposes cultural resistance in place of an AK-47. It seemed a fitting way to open the exhibition, acknowledge the loss at the heart of Ghobash's Letters to a Young Muslim and to bring the idea of remembering some of the turbulent histories of our region to the forefront.
"The first part of Letters engages with the idea of memory and brings together artists whose works connect to this, often in political ways, given the histories of our region," says Nusseibeh. "In the book, the idea of memory is a personal one to the author, relating to the political assassination of his father, who was tragically mistaken for someone else, when the writer was a child. As for Tobasi, memory is fragmented, and inevitably linked to loss."
For Mohammed Hafiz, the founder of Athr gallery, the show was sparked by thinking about his own children.
The idea for the show came "a year ago, over lunch with Omar", he says. "We were talking about challenges that are facing our teenage children: studying abroad, identifying with religion, feeling proud of who they are, where they come from." Hafiz says he started reading Ghobash's book, which the auther wrote as a series of letters to his son about how to embrace a moderate path of Islam.
"I lived through those same issues: the Afghan war, and how it was shown in our countries, and then 9/11 and the challenge with language, and gender separation. I thought, this book has to be reacted to in an art context."
The exhibition at Warehouse421, which has been changed somewhat from the original Jeddah make-up, focuses on recollections of the past. These range from the personal – Aya Haider, for instance, exhibits a copy of Albert Camus's Exile and the Kingdom, which her grandfather left behind in Lebanon when the family fled to the UK (she has doctored the cover to read Exile and the United Kingdom) – or regional. The exhibition includes, for example, Moath Alofi's series of doors from Medina, and the Lebanese artist Rayyane Tabet shows documents referring to the story of Tapline – a US venture in the 1940s to transport oil above-ground from Saudi Arabia to Palestine, while Hajra Raheed exhibits images of the swimming pools from Aramco compounds – long the only swimming pools allowed in Saudi Arabia.
The idea of how we access memory also predominates. Hazem Harb shows images from his TAG series (2015), which apply social media's means of identifying faces to archival photographs, drawing a line between the digital square that overlays faces and the practice in Ottoman times of drawing a line on to figures' necks in paintings to emphasise that the depicted beings weren't animate.
The show, whose stories often mined the historical links within the Middle East, also helped to forge links between the Arabian Gulf of Athr and Abu Dhabi Art and the Levant of And Here I Am, and the downshift from the theatre's direct mode of analysis to the art's more oblique means of representation felt generous, like someone holding your hand as you walk down a ladder.
Tobasi changed from his costume of playing his younger self into hipper attire – the five-panel cap that is currently the style among cycling Brooklynites – and spoke about the fears he had of playing himself, when he was approached by the Iraqi-UK playwright Hassan Abdulrazzak to collaborate on the work. "How they will look at me? Why are you talking about yourself?" he says he asked himself. "Are they going to look at me like I'm crying on the stage? Am I presenting myself as a Palestinian the right way?"
The play had its premiere as part of last summer's Shubbak Festival, the biennial event that showcases Arab culture in London, and has since travelled to Cairo, Zimbabwe, Oslo and to the Freedom Theatre itself, the Jenin theatre that inspired him to give up arms and take up acting.
The reception among Palestinians, Tobasi says, has been extraordinary. "They thank me," he says. "Some of them remember their families in the prison. Some of them remember what happened in 2002. Some of them say, we hear all about that but we didn't know what happened."
Tobasi, who has gained Norwegian citizenship, has now returned to the Jenin refugee camp to work with the Freedom Theatre. He clarifies the play's significance beyond his own story, "It is not just about me but about all Palestinians. They're born there in this situation, and you think you decide for yourself, your life, but there are no choices. You never decide anything.
“You just do what they expect you to do. I didn’t go to prison because I’m a terrorist. It’s because I was born in Jenin camp. Here you grow up with your father in prison, where you see your cousins get killed, or the neighbour’s house destroyed. And you have to throw stones, and then you go to prison.
“That’s your life as a Palestinian. I’m not adapting any political idea. I’m just telling my story.”
Athr Gallery's Letters: Fragments of Memory is at Warehouse421 until April 15. Open Tuesday to Sunday, 10am to 8pm