Or, to give it its full title: Here is the News from Over There (Over There is the News from Here), a Borderless Twitter Ballad from the Middle East, which follows on from last year’s romping success The Bloody Great Border Ballad Project, also led by Northern Stage’s director Lorne Campbell, with playwright David Grieg on board as dramaturg. Last year it was Scotland. This year, the emphasis is on the Middle East, the project featuring new writing, provocations and performance from over 20 artists and writers from Egypt, Syria, Algeria, Palestine, and Iraq (amongst other countries) together with artists based in the UK whose heritage is linked to the Middle East and/or the Arab world (which are not the same thing, we are reminded).
Let’s begin at the end: We’re here to create a song that will build nightly throughout the Fringe. We learn the chorus. It goes ‘ Aha aha oh oh, Aha aha oh oh – sheb-sheb, sheb-sheb!’ And what does sheb-sheb mean? Flip-flop. Congratulations, you have your first word in Arabic…
Building up to this moment is a rather chaotic – but yes, that is par for the course – mix of readings of short stories or other texts, and a reconstruction of a notorious interview on Egyptian TV.
It’s all held together, sort of, by compere Abdel Rahim Alawiji, a Lebanese man in a kilt who has the vibe of a stand-up comedian, but is in fact a writer of short fiction and film scripts, aided and abetted by Egyptian woman writer who might be called Sabrina, who is not credited in the programme notes for the day (today’s show has something of an Egyptian bias). Each night will be different, but what we get first at this, the opening show, is a short story called Cairo Taxi Driver, read with the help of an audience member as passenger, and footage on the large screen behind them of the chaos of Cairo in the rush hour, where (we learn) the way to cross the road is to look the car drivers steadily in the eye and never lose nerve.
We next hear five or six short pieces by Palestinian writer (again, information is not easy to track down) which include a very poignant short story of a boy playing with a balloon in an alley, the balloon bursting as a group of Israeli soldiers enter the alleyway…
Today’s special guest Hassan Abdul Razzak presents a reconstruction of a TV interview with an Egyptian self-proclaimed atheist, who blogs and posts on YouTube. This interview is an affront to good broadcasting, with the interviewer turning on her interviewee and accusing him of abandoning his faith and thus his country. An expert, a psychologist, is brought in to offer pronouncements on how misguided this young man is; how he things he understands how things are, but his information is false. ‘Scientists propagating Darwinism are mostly Jewish’ this so-called expert says at one point.
What’s extremely interesting about this interview is how familiar the language of his accusers is. He is, apparently, under the influence of people who are corrupting his mind. He is spending too much time on the internet browsing suspect websites that are trying to radicalise young people. He comes from a good home, but he has rejected his parents and they don’t understand how this could have happened (his mother is brought into the debate in a phone interview!). Yes, we’ve heard it all before – but the evil terror that we are hearing about over here is ‘Islamism’ not ‘atheism’. Interesting, very interesting.
Behind all this, at the back of the stage, is a whole crowd of people doing who knows what on laptops. Plus a woman weaving on a loom, live, images of her busy-fingered activity sometimes projected onto the screen. Plus to the side the cast of Third Angel’s The Paradise Project, who have been drafted in to play bit parts in the readings. It’s a great big glorious mess, and it will grow and grow. Future guest performers will include playwright David Grieg, Daniel Bye, Tassos Stevens, Nazli Tabatabai-Katambbakhsh from Zenzeh, Amit LaHav from Gecko, and Nir Paldi from Theatre ad Infinitum.
So I can’t say what you’ll see and hear, but I can say it’ll be an interesting mix. And I have given you a head start with the song, as you now know the chorus.
All together now:
‘Aha aha oh oh, Aha aha oh oh – sheb-sheb, sheb-sheb!’
Presented nightly at 23.10, Northern Stage at Summerhall. Information on special guests will be posted on www.northernstage.co.uk/edinburgh