- Old Beginnings, and: Chagall's Arabian Nights, and: Arabian Nights
"Once upon a time, in a fading dream, / There was a great and powerful King." With these words the Los Angeles-based performance artist Tamadhur Al-Aqeel opens an evening of her own dramatic retellings from The 1001 Nights, that timeless and celebrated sequence of overlapping and embedded tales drawn mostly from medieval Arab sources. Her introductory formula, pronounced like an incantation, is based on the Nights and an old Iraqi poem. For her storytelling presentation, Al-Aqeel takes on the role of Shahrazad, the vizier's daughter whose narrative skills must stay the murderous wrath of her husband, the Sultan Shahrayar. Al-Aqeel's unique and captivating performance is one of several recent revivals of Arabian Nights lore, including a new play by Karim Alrawi and a recent ABC Television miniseries.
Tamadhur Al-Aqeel first played Shahrazad in the 1994 stage production of Sharhazad and the Arabian Nights, a play which she cowrote and which received a nomination from the LA Weekly for Production of the Year. The play was drawn from the Nights, from other Arab folktales and from contemporary political events, since it was created in the aftermath of the 1991 Gulf War. Al-Aqeel has also written another play adapted from the Nights—The Market Tale, produced in 1999 by the Cornerstone Theater Company.
Al-Aqeel's very warm and direct stage manner imparts an intimate flavor to the tales which, like the original, she tells in a densely embedded and interwoven pattern. The 1001 Nights have always been marginal to classic Arabic literature, too secular and even scandalous for the stricter standards of Islamic tradition. Yet they remain an astonishing representation of femininity and civilization as [End Page 116] they triumph over masculine rage and violence. Al-Aqeel's performance reveals a subtle psychological insight, one that is difficult to discern in the written text, which recognizes the therapeutic effect of narrative. Miracle and enchantment have the power to rescue Shahrayar from his nightmares and vengeful urges. Al-Aqeel is contributing to a very contemporary recognition of Shahrazad for her ability to achieve some autonomy of her own in the very male-centered court. This marks a certain kind of awakening feminism which is presently taking root among Muslim women who are seeking antecedents from within their own tradition.
Alrawi's play is called Chagall's Arabian Nights and deals with an episode late in the life of the painter Marc Chagall. During the spring of 1946 when he was nearly sixty, Chagall lived in High Falls, a town in the Catskill Mountains of New York State. While still mourning the death of his wife, he took on a commission to produce illustrations for an edition of the Nights. The play moves back and forth between Chagall's personal anguish and the message of the stories whereby Shahrazad seeks to heal the Sultan's tormented soul.
Karim Alrawi was born and raised in Alexandria, Egypt. At age fourteen his family moved to England, and there he began writing and working in theater, radio, and television. He was Resident Playwright at the Royal Court Theatre in London and Literary Manager of the Theatre Royal Stratford East. He has over thirty professionally produced stage plays to his credit, and several have won major national and international awards. He is currently an Associate Artist at Meadowbrook Theatre in Rochester, Michigan, where Chagall's Arabian Nights was produced under the direction of Debra L. Wicks.
The play offers a rare glimpse of Chagall at age fifty-eight just after the Second World War. It resonates with contemporary political concerns when it reveals the painter's sympathy with the Palestinian people and his opposition to the forced implementation of Zionist designs in the Middle East. Yet this motif is a brief prelude to the central...