‘I don’t think theatre is a place for argument’

Ambika Shaligram
Thursday, 15 November 2018

Mohammed Saif Al-Afkham, president of International Theatre Institute, who was in the city, shares his thoughts on theatre in the Arab world and how he wants to build a bridge between various cultures

Promoting peace, humanity and making friends globally are some of the driving points for Mohammed Saif Al-Afkham, the president of International Theatre Institute (ITI). In the city to inaugurate the third edition of IAPAR’s International Theatre Festival, Al-Afkham tells us how he got introduced to the art form in the military school he studied in, and how he now wants theatre to touch the lives of his people in the United Arab Emirates, and specifically in Fujairah.

His story is that of any typical Indian. Al-Afkham got attached to theatre when he was in school, but instead of taking it up professionally, he studied engineering. “If you learn something when you are young, you fall in love with it. The attachment increases as you grow up and stays with you until you die. I got introduced to theatre in a military school, but I couldn’t pursue it professionally. It was widely believed in my time that one couldn’t earn a livelihood from art. So I never told my parents about my dream. Luckily though, I could please myself and everyone around me. I studied engineering in the USA. I got my job as a director-general of Fujairah emirate because of the Monodrama Theatre (auditorium) that I started. Now, we also hold Fujairah International Monodrama Festival in the region. We started in 2003 and now it has become really big. This year, we invited groups from India, Africa, Brazil, Russia and Egypt,” he says. 

It was Al-Afkham’s wish to introduce and promote theatre amongst his people, so that their lives change for the better. “The big cites in UAE have theatre audience, but people in smaller cities, towns are not familiar with dramas and plays. It’s all limited to schools, in which boys perform with boys, and girls with girls. That’s what happened with me. So I established a Monodrama Theatre in Fujairah. We also have one or two good groups. You know, introducing something new in a small place is not easy. So we decided to talk about social issues — telling people not to take drugs. The ruler of Fujairah, His Highness, Hamad bin Mohammed Al Sharqi, says, ‘If you don’t make young people busy with good things, they will get busy with bad things’. So theatre is one of the ways of keeping them on straight and narrow path,” he adds.

Keeping with times and aspirations of youngsters, the festival now has music, dance and fine arts too. “After our group became stronger, we thought of arranging something in a bigger way, like a festival. We have seen theatre festivals in the Arab region with varying degrees of success. So we decided to have a monodrama (one man show) festival. Now after 10 years or so, youngsters have come in with a fresh approach and new ideas. Our intention is to build bridges and bring people together,” he explains.

Al-Afkham adds that the festival is a means to an end — working together, exchanging ideas and creating peace. “Fighting isn’t good, going against each other for no reason is not good. Making friends globally makes us one city, one big family. That’s what we try to do in Fujairah festival,” he points out.  

There are seven emirates in UAE and each emirate has one or two theatre groups. Then, there are private individuals who also stage dramas. “We have some plays talking about our history and culture, some on our daily life. We have comedy, tragedy and some adaptations of William Shakespeare’s works, which I am not a fan of. I think people like comedy more, because they like to laugh. Theatre is about entertainment, after all,” he adds.

When asked about writers and the literary contribution to the stage, Al-Afkham adds, “We have good local writers. They have very good ideas, good stories. We had a competition for the scripts that came in for the monodrama festival. We gave prizes to first three winners, and we published their plays in Arabic and English. They are stocked in our library so that people can refer to them.” 

Contrary to popular perception, the roots of theatre are very strong in Arab world, especially in Egypt, Damascus, Syria, Lebanon and Jordan. “Egyptian civilisation is, I believe as old as India. They have deep connection with the arts. One of the founders of ITI was writer Ahmed Zaki from Egypt. We learn from the East and the West, because we are right in the middle (geographically). Our youth study in Egypt and also in India, so they come back with fresh ideas,” explains Al-Afkham. 

We then ask him about another stereotype associated with the Arab world. Can the arts and creative people talk about religion and politics through their work? 

“Sure,” Al-Afkham responds almost instantly. He then goes on to add, “You can talk about religion and politics, but there is always a line. Two educated persons can perhaps talk in depth about religion and politics. But the layperson won’t understand, nor does he care. We have to understand that what is right according to me, might be wrong according to others. We should respect our religion and other people’s religion to be able to live together. I don’t think theatre is a place for argument. Even if I convince you, I cannot convince the entire audience. You need to be discreet. Do you want the audience to go out and riot on the street for no reason? We should teach them to take care of each other, of their parents, to send children to school etc. This will ensure that our society is good.” 

This is Al-Afkham’s second term in ITI and he affirms to UNESCO’s message of spreading peace and art in the world. “ITI is a big organisation, responsible for all performing arts. We are helping Africa, India, Egypt, Arab world to work together as artists. An artist should have a message for society, for the world. ITI is promoting this through its committees — writing, drama, dance etc. We have theatre in conflict zone which is very helpful, to bring people together. We tell them, ‘You are not left alone. Theatre is for everybody,” he says on a concluding note.

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