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  • Conjuring Kuwait Onstage: An Interview with Mohammed Al-Hemely
  • Yasmine Marie Jahanmir (bio) and Reno Hassan Hajiyah (bio)

Mohammed Al-Hemely (b.1986), producer, director, and actor, shines brightly in the constellation of commercial theatre offered in Kuwait.1 His splashy spectacles are peppered with recognizable Western influences and inspired by theatrical innovation he seeks out in London each summer. They are extremely popular with Kuwaiti audiences, often selling out the entire run. His career started early: acting with the historic Al-Shabab [youth] Theater group under the auspices of the Youth Public Authority. In 2011, Al-Hemely founded his personal theatre company, Backstage Group, and has presented numerous comedies, thrillers, children’s shows, and musicals. Unlike most Kuwaiti commercial theatre, which occurs in rented and temporarily converted spaces, often sport clubs, Al-Hemely bought and renovated the Medical Professions Theater in Jabriya (an urban district in Kuwait City). This building is a point of pride for Al-Hemely, and it allows him to extend the runs of sold-out shows, remount previous shows because there is costume and set storage, and most importantly, gives him the freedom to produce theatre all year-round.

Al-Hemely’s most popular and longest-running play, Mujab (2018; see the trailer at https://youtu.be/-OWxlm6WISA), which he wrote, directed, and plays the role of Sror, has run on and off for over two years. The play, set in unnamed slums of Kuwait, centers on Om Sror (mother of Sror), a leader of a hidden community that authorities have at best forgotten and at worst demonized (fig. 1). With a reputation for being an exorcist, Om Sror defends her threatened neighborhood from authorized demolition by spreading rumors of possession and inciting fear among the ranks of the police investigators. Based in comedic improvisation, like most of Kuwaiti commercial theatre, this eclectic, humorous, and supernatural play hints at social critique of class, race, and structural inequality. Mujab is also popular with Kuwaiti audiences because it is steeped in folk traditions. In Arabic, Mujab translates as “service and honoring” and often refers to exorcism. As the audience saunters from the box office to their seats, they experience a full-sensory transition into the world of the play with the scent of Al-Yawi bakhour, a type of woodchip incense particular to exorcism. Live drumming accompanies a recording of traditional-style Arabian gulf music such as Tanboura—a music specific to exorcisms called zar. Zar is a type of spirit-possession ritual that originated in East Africa.2 Actors encourage the audience to sing and clap with them while offering bakhour and watermelon (figs. 2–3). Mujab reflects a multifaceted Kuwait onstage by examining the extant social tensions between rich and poor, traditional and modern, and real and supernatural. In Mujab, Al-Hemely successfully explores these contradictions, all while presenting a wildly entertaining farcical play that is, at least in terms of box-office receipts, the most popular play in Kuwait’s recent history.

When we sat down with Al-Hemely in December 2019, his enthusiasm to promote his vision of Kuwaiti culture was evident.3 He had just released a film, The End (2019), uniquely shot entirely in Kuwait. Closure of theatres around the world due to COVID-19 did not abet Al-Hemely’s drive, as he produced one of the first Zoom plays in the Arabic region. No matter what the future holds, there is no doubt that Al-Hemely will continue to make spectacular, comedic, and thoughtful shows that will shape the future of Kuwait’s popular entertainment landscape. [End Page e51]


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Fig. 1.

Sama (Samah) and Tabil (Abdullah Al-Ramyan) are lighting the Al-Yawi bakhour (incense specific to exorcism) during the ritual. (Photo: Nawaf Alsharaf.)


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Fig. 2.

Sror (Mohammed Al-Hemely), Om Sror (Haifaa Adel), and ensemble invite the spirits while the Al-Zar (exorcism) music is playing. (Photo: Nawaf Alsharaf.)

[End Page e-52]


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Fig. 3.

Om Sror (Haifaa Adel) begins the exorcism ritual while the ensemble plays the Tar (drums), an instrument associated with zar. (Photo: Nawaf...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1086-3346
Print ISSN
1054-8378
Pages
pp. e-51-e-58
Launched on MUSE
2021-12-15
Open Access
No
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