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Mind Your Language

December 23, 2014


Still thoughtful and spinning with excitement, after an intense week of audition and selection process for Home Grown youth theatre project, a collaborative initiative between Middle East Theatre Academy (META) and Kevin Spacey Foundation (KSF). I wanted to share a few thoughts and insights, which I am still digesting, as these seem important in the wider context of Middle East and its arts community. I will focus on thoughts related to the Arabic language for this post.

The main part of the application process of Home Grown was the audition speech, which was taken from Withdrawal by Syrian playwright Mohammed Al Attar. This was available in both the English translation and the original Arabic in which it was written, and candidate had the choice to perform the speech in either language (and some submitted videos in both!). The play we plan to produce in January 2015 was commissioned by British-Iraqi playwright Hassan Abdulrazzak; written in English, the play will be presented in both Arabic and English for the final production. The Home Grown creative team took extracts of Abdulrazzak’s play, hastily translated into modern-standard Arabic, to Sharjah for cold readings with shortlisted candidate. We chose to do ‘cold readings’ to get a spontaneous feel for those presenting, rather than a studied product. I read from the extracts (generally badly!) with potential participants, over two full days of live and Skype auditions. Unsurprisingly, I feel a particular connection with all 60 or so young people I read with. As the translated extracts were done in a very short time, candidates had to deal with a somewhat stilted text, complete with typos and yet-to-be-translated sections, and yet all somehow managed to make this work to their advantage.

Quality of translation aside, I am left fascinated and curious as to how Arabic is perceived as a language for the theatre. Modern-standard Arabic (or fus7a) is the standard written and presented form (on the news, TV programs, radio, newspapers and books etc). From my limited understanding, this is also how theatrical plays are traditionally delivered. There’s been a move, in the arts, which encourages the use of national dialects, for example, Al Attar’s play is written in his native Syrian dialect. Candidates had the option of reading in modern-standard or in dialect, and as we wanted to gain insight to their personality, I encouraged readings in their native dialect, and so we had a wonderful mix of duologues with my Iraqi dialect spoken with Suadi, Lebanese, Syrian, Yemeni, Tunisian, Algerian, Emarati, Palestinian and more. When asked which they preferred, most said their native dialect, whilst some chose modern-standard. The former allows a national and regional idiosyncratic identity and personal connection to the text, whilst the latter draws on the weight and wealth of a linguistic form uniting all the Middle East and North Africa. As a native Arabic speaker myself, both these forms speak straight to my own heart, and I relished this opportunity to work in the Arabic language within a theatre context  (my first!).

Often, candidates would choose to read in English, perhaps to generously to include our (mainly non-Arabic speaking) creative team, and yet, when directly asked to read in Arabic, so much more character and life flowed through the text. At times, even for those who had grown-up in an Arabic-speaking country, English remained their preferred language. Many had gone to schools and universities where English is given precedence, and so understandably, English is more often than not, the everyday working language. I relate to this on a personal level; since the age of 11 years, when my family moved to the UK, English has been my dominant language, although I’d been in an exclusively Arabic speaking Iraqi education, I now communicate in English, even with Arabic-speaking Middle Eastern friends (!). I feel a sadness at what I believe is a lack of validation we (as Arabs educated with a Western model) give to our linguistic heritage. I witnessed a pride of the Arabic language, from some candidates, which I found inspiring and immensely encouraging.

I left with excitement and curiosity as to the possibilities of mixing some of the diverse Arabic dialects in our Home Grown production. I am familiar, and enjoy mimicking, the many regional accents within my native Iraq, and am aware how this can be used as valuable material for the actor’s creative characterisation process. I want to encourage young Arabic actors to draw on their heritage, to find ways of including their national and regional identities in their artistic endeavours, rather than always looking towards Hollywood, Disney and Shakespeare for inspiration. This part of our identity, with its cultural implications, is what makes us unique. And arguably, the other part/s will continue to have a Western influence, via past colonisations and modern globalisation.

As I write this, I wish I could do more than a Google Translate version to Arabic readers (post to follow), and yet, I simply don’t have the skill. I’ll make an attempt, and invite corrections and suggestions from others better equipped than myself!

Please note: this blogpost expresses my personal opinion and experience on Home Grown, and is not necessarily representative of KSF or META, nor other individuals involved on the Creative Team.  

From → Artistic, Community

  1. Ahmad Hasan permalink

    What about when you expressed to me how relieved you were that I have chosen to read in English because you were having difficulties reading it yourself, would you have minded your language then?

    The Arabic extract I was given to read during the audition was faulty as I was told by you. Proper Arabic (الفصحى) is not English, which makes any insignificant faults in it sound gibberish. I was discouraged to read it in the Arabic that it was written in because of that known fact amongst people who actually studied Arabic throughout their academic years. Then you suggested that I try and read it in my own dialect. Arabic dialects aren’t just changing accents, as you might well know.

    There are so many great playwrights who write in Proper Arabic and not in their Arabic-Levantine dialects. I felt cheated and limited resourcefully. Especially that this is being held in my country, which has a complete different dialect. 18 out of the 35 finalists were from the Arabic-speaking-Levantine countries. Maybe it should’ve been held in Jordan with Jordanian money or something.

    I have the right to feel some sort of disappointment. Truth be told though, you and your team were more than kind and professional during the audition so for that I’m thankful. I wish you a wonderful experience. Good luck.

    • Dear Ahmad, thank you for your comment and thoughts.

      You are right, as I mentioned in the post above, the translation we had was very much lacking, and I was initially worried that because of this, we’d not be able to gauge participant acting ability. So my relief was palpable. I’d only received the translation on the day of our first audition workshop, so I’m sure I was relieved to work in English at an earlier stage. My reflections were more in hindsight, despite the difficulties at the time. I did not mean to criticise, but rather to be mindful of how we can use Arabic creatively in theatre (as much a note to myself as anyone else who relates!).

      I am a novice with contemporary Arabic plays, so do please share examples, especially from the Arab Gulf. I’d appreciate any Youtube links, references and such. There’s always a lot to learn. Writing in regional dialects or in modern-standard (I wouldn’t say one is superior to the other) has a long and ongoing debate, and playwrights have experimented with writing in both (!) as a means to speak to audiences from the heart and head. I do hope your participation in Home Grown was a useful learning experience in itself, and I hope you gain some satisfaction at being shortlisted, out of the hundreds who applied.

      I note your disappointment- I truly empathise- and you’re not alone. I wrote the last blog with those, like yourself, I enjoyed meeting and working with, and who sadly we couldn’t include in the final selection. As mentioned, we worked hard to strike a fair balance, and hopefully those part of the company now are representative of the MENA region as a whole, not merely their country of origin.

      Let’s find more to connect than divide, otherwise we wouldn’t ever build bridges and networks for the arts and more…

      • Ahmad Hassan permalink

        Yes! I believe you favorited a tweet of mine by mistake. @awemette, this is my Twitter. Your director talked to me in person before the auditions.
        I enjoyed my experience with you, good people. Whatever it was, my disqualification from your workshop was my first actual disqualification from anything ever so it is only understandable. All people have to go through some sort of disapproval.

        This is my life’s passion and I know it to be true. Maybe just because it was theatre, and maybe I should’ve showed more range BUT I do know I was just as good as any people shortlisted. Just not Levantine but Emirati.
        I wish you a great experience, regardless. I hope all those kids are familiar with who Spacey is and his work.

        Proud of you Tara, Matt, Olly and your pretty Blonde producer. Good luck with the winners. Bye bye ❤️

      • Dear Ahmad, you may have been eliminated from Home Grown, but not disqualified. The difference is important to note. Indeed, as you say, all people, and particularly artists/ performers, need to find ways to deal with rejection. I’m very glad to hear your determination to follow your life’s passion, as well as your pride in your Emirati identity. You’ve a lot to be proud of, and as someone of Arabic heritage, I share this pride.

        I will pass your complimentary salutes to ‘pretty Blonde producer’, Roxanne, and the rest of the team…

        Ma3al’salama 🙂

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