Woman of the world: growth and identity in the culture lab

Al Raheel | Departure, which premieres on 24 and 25 January at NYUAD in The Arts Center’s Black Box theatre space, isn’t the first play to use more than one language. It isn’t the first play by an Emirati, it isn’t the first play to reflect on the experience of growing up across two cultures, it isn’t the first to be based on a series of personal poems, and it isn’t the first to reflect on what it means to be a woman. It probably isn’t even the first to have an all-Emirati all-female cast.

But it probably is the first to combine all of those. As The Arts Center’s director Bill Bragin says, “Voices from the UAE are heard too rarely on international theatre stages … Al Raheel | Departure represents an investment in developing exciting young Emirati talent”.

All of which is true, and you can also count in the contribution of an award-winning American director, Joanna Settle, who happens to be on faculty at NYUAD and who collaborated in interpreting the script for the stage as well as directing the piece.

For all those reasons, Al Raheel | Departure is a significant event both in The Arts Center calendar and in the development of UAE theatre.

But those are all descriptors and implications. The content of the work – what it’s actually about, and how and what it delivers as a play – are more important.

It’s certainly an interesting subject area, summarised by Bragin as “the perspective of Emirati women who live in a world that toggles between English and Arabic, and who navigate expectations and opportunities in the dynamic and quickly changing world of the United Arab Emirates”.

Or as the playwright Reem Almenhali says: “it’s about the experience of growing up in a world both traditional and universal”. This is a classic dilemma for a young person who comes from a rich cultural background but has an international outlook – which requires buying into (or at least understanding) the influences, aspirations and expectations of the outside world, the Western world.

For Reem Almenhali this created opportunities to find insights and nuances in concepts of ‘home’ and ‘identity’ – “it turns home into a place to explore and the outside world into a place to inspect and find the relatable in.

It’s about the experience of growing up in a world both traditional and universal

“I believe it is important to make local work that integrates the rapid development of this country into our growth narratives.”

Joanna Settle, who is Associate Arts Professor of Theater at NYUAD as well as the director of Al Raheel | Departure, is eloquent on the subject of the UAE as a social and cultural laboratory. “Perhaps those of us who live here are participants in the world’s largest scale art installation, where the form and content of the work evolves perpetually and the living is the artwork.

“These questions of how nationhood is created and recreated have never been so present for me in a creative process. The textures of personal growth embedded in a globalising world directly translate to be the textures of the performance world, the light, the objects in the artwork.

“The Emirati women in their teens and 20’s whom I’ve come to know in Abu Dhabi – in this cast and in my classroom – are on the brink of inheriting a history woven into them in ways far deeper than our English word ‘respect’ can capture. Simultaneously, they race to personally create the future.

“This performance collects and collides tangibles and intangibles to explore the interior life of this extraordinary generation of women.”

Reem approached Professor Settle a year ago towards the end of a semester she was teaching. “She had a series of poems and the idea of producing a scene for the class that would be based on her own experience but also had a theatrical quality …”

Says Reem: “I had three poems written in Arabic and I came to her asking if I could try directing them as a scene to show at the last day of class. Most of my classmates don’t speak Arabic, so my main goal was to make the ideas of the scene make sense independently of the language they use.”

That obviously interested Joanna Settle – one of the beauties of theatre is the way meaning can transcend the actual words spoken, or rather as Reem says “Al Raheel shows how the duality of languages expands the possibilities for meaning … I hope the coexistence of the two languages prompts the audience to approach meaning in more than one way. I think translation offers interestingly different pathways to the same destination.”

The finished piece weaves poetry in Arabic and English through the stage performance – featuring an all-female cast of four young women: NYUAD’s Class of 2020 student Reem Almenhali herself, plus Class of 2021 students Maitha AlSuwaidi and Maryam Khalifa Alshehhi as well as ZU Class of 2020 student Sara Rasheed.

“Most of the poems were written at various times during my life,” says Reem, “and I did not anticipate them becoming a stage show. I’ve edited them, added new poems, and threaded together in a way that sets a logical structure for the show.

The performance has been collaboratively developed from a series of poems that detail the development of women from childhood to adulthood and old age.

“I gave the script the title ‘Al Raheel, Departure’ because I wanted the play to carry the essence of fleeting things. As with everything in life, there comes a time that it finishes or leaves. So the title broadly connects to the idea of departing from one stage to another.

“I want the audience to reflect on the familiar and consider approaching what’s relatable or familiar with fresh eyes.”

So what’s next for Reem Almenhali? There’s the chance of a tour with Al Raheel, but she’s already looking at another of the key cross-cultural features of UAE life: “I’ve started working on a script about the lives of women’s kandura tailors here. I hope to show the importance of the members of south Asian community in the UAE in narrating and maintaining the UAE’s culture.”

Al Raheel | Departure is a dual-language performance created by Reem Almenhali and Joanna Settle. It has been co-commissioned by The Arts Center at NYU Abu Dhabi and the Abu Dhabi Cultural Foundation.

Al Raheel | Departure plays on 24 and 25 January at NYUAD in The Arts Center’s Black Box theatre space. Tickets are AED 100; information here.

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