Silk Road Theatre Festival in the Ruhr

As part of the Silk Road project, four directors from the Maghrib were invited to work at Theater an der Ruhr. During a panel discussion, they explored the relationship between the Occident and the Orient in their work. Eva Schmidt was there.

For centuries, the old Silk Road was the most important link between the Orient and the Occident. However, merchants on the road traded in more than just silk, silver or gold: as is always the case when people from different backgrounds come together, ideas and philosophies of life changed hands.

Since the mid-1990s, the Theaterlandschaften Seidenstraße Festival (Silk Road Theatre Festival) has brought together theatre people from over 15 countries along this ancient trading route in the Theater an der Ruhr in the German city of Mülheim. Similarly, Roberto Ciulli and his ensemble have taken their productions to countries like Iran, Turkey, Uzbekistan and Iraq.

Aesthetic proximity and critical distance

The focus of this year’s Silk Road Festival in Mülheim was on two entries from Iran and the art of theatre in the Maghrib. Despite their aesthetic proximity to European theatre, the critical analysis of the heritage of the colonial era is tangible in the productions from Algeria, Morocco and Tunisia.

And so it was that of all things, Ahmed Khoudi from Algeria chose to put on a play from the French literary canon: King Ubu by Alfred Jarry. For Abderahmane Zaboubi of the Algerian National Theatre, this fantastically absurd play about a violent ruler who establishes a horrific regime of terror holds a mirror to the society in which he lives. ‘We want to show just how many King Ubus there are in our country,” said Zaboubi at the directors’ final panel discussion. The fact that this discussion was conducted in three languages - German, Farsi and Arabic - made it a sensual treat for the ears.

Sabah Bouzouita’s production of August Strindberg’s Dance of Death was outstanding. With this production, the Tunisian director turned her back completely on the folklore of Arabic theatre. She was also rewarded for her acting with the 2003 Theater an der Ruhr Theatre Award.

What makes this festival so fascinating is not least the variety of languages and forms of acting expression, which despite their aesthetic obstinacy are imbued with the flair of the most varied cultural identities.

The West exports more than just freedom and democracy

The Iranian director Shabnam Toluie explains the social predicament of young people in Teheran: ‘The third generation after the 1979 revolution is currently trying to find itself.’ Her production, Bitter Coffee, features young people in a western-style café. A toilet is positioned at the front of the stage. The protagonists hear the same music on the radio as young people in Germany are dressed in jeans and T-shirts, struggle with drug and relationship problems, and suffer from loneliness. Shabnam’s aim is to draw the audience’s attention to the fact that the West not only exports freedom and democracy, but also all the problems associated with individualisation.

It’s easy to criticise from the outside

During the panel discussion, the obligatory question of the compulsory headscarf, which the female actors wear with a certain degree of casualness, is raised. ‘Are women in Teheran even allowed to go into cafés alone?’ asks one woman. Roberto Ciulli grasps the opportunity to educate those present about a country most people haven’t had the chance to get to know on their holidays. ‘The production breaks boundaries’ and pushes them back by allowing women’s hair to peep out from beneath the headscarf and men and women to hint at bodily contact on stage. ‘Let’s not try to be more courageous from the outside than the most courageous people in Iran,’ warns Ciulli.

For Najib Cherradi of Tunisia’s ‘El Teatro’, the existential sharpness of the play The Palestinians by Jean Genet lies in ‘people who are oppressed but put up resistance’. The production, which was directed by Taoufik Jebali, creates disturbing images for Genet’s attempt to put into words the massacre of Palestinians in the Lebanese camp in Schatila.

Maghribi and European theatres face similar problems

The problems faced by Moroccan directors are astoundingly similar to those faced by their German counterparts: theatre attendance has been steadily declining over the past ten years. Hassan Hammouche of the ‘Tensift’ group wants to get people back into the theatre by ‘creating a new harmony between folk theatre, theatre, the intellectuals and the public.’

Inspired by their meeting in Mülheim, the Maghribi directors now want to set up a joint festival in their own countries. And so, a few new links have been created in the ‘Theaterlandschaften Seidenstraße’ network. It’s all about barter: instead of trading in gold and silver on the old Silk Road, here the currency is a glance, a laugh, rage and sometimes even pain.

Eva Schmidt, © Qantara.de 2003

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