Friday, 25 October 2013

The Arts in Saudi and Inappropriate Emotions

We’ve just returned from a week in London over the Eid break.  We loved our time away and especially enjoyed doing things we can’t do in Riyadh. Three evenings ago for instance, we went to a performance of Shakespeare’s Midsummer’s Night Dream in the East End’s Noel Coward Theatre.

As we left the theatre afterwards and made our way to the underground, we reminisced about past performances.  One of my earliest memories was being taken to a film version of Dickens’ Great Expectations. I was just seven and we were living in Iran. The showing was at the British Embassy and was meant to be a family treat. However, my most vivid memory is absolute terror when at the beginning, Pip is confronted by a chain-dragging, escaped convict. I think I spent most of the rest of the movie with my head in my father’s lap, eyes tightly closed.

Nevertheless, this signified the start of a tradition of family outings. When our own daughters were 6 and 9, we took them to an outdoor performance of Romeo and Juliet. A typical New Zealand summer evening was perfect for outdoor theatre and the backdrop of Christchurch’s Old University stone buildings created a magical setting. I remember our two little girls, pigtailed and cross-legged, sitting up by the stage, following the story from their own ‘Children’s Shakespeare’ book.

But now we live in Saudi Arabia and as I write this, I’m returning to a city where the arts are banned. Music is haram or forbidden. Local schools and universities do not teach music. Those choosing to learn an instrument either have to teach themselves, hire a tutor or learn abroad. There’s an interesting irony in all this. Shops exist which sell musical instruments, but in line with Islamic laws forbidding the performance of music in public, they ban prospective buyers from trying out any instruments before purchasing.

There's no playing this shut, sealed and sellotaped piano. It's not hard either to imagine what the sign says... 

The nearest I’ve come to seeing performance dance in Saudi is a traditional sword dance at the annual Janadriya cultural festival. Men carrying swords stand in two lines and perform set movements to the accompaniment of a drum and chanted verses.  Here’s what it looks like. These Saudi men are performing in a Dubai Mall.

Art is also governed by an Islamic law forbidding the visual representation of the human face or form. So artwork is only acceptable if it’s abstract. The murals in Centria Mall that wind their way up the escalator are beautiful and finely crafted. But without a human element, something vital is missing. There’s no emotional connection.

I remember a nine year old student acting the part of Prospero in a child-friendly version of Shakespeare’s The Tempest.  One of Prospero’s final acts is to free his companion and servant, Ariel, before leaving his island home. I remember Sam saying his line in rehearsal one day, ‘‘Fare thee well Ariel,” and then looking at me and saying, “When I said farewell, I felt sad too, just like Prospero.” 

Whether it be dance, theatre, music or art, this is the transformative power of the arts. They move performer and audience from rational response to subjective experience.  

Chopin wrote his Revolutionary Etude in 1831 to express his pain when his beloved Poland fell to the Russians.   

And Guernica was Picasso’s response to the senseless bombing of a small village in his native Spain. It's a powerful anti-war statement.

A Muslim colleague once explained to me that music, like art, is banned in Saudi because it arouses inappropriate emotions.

Inappropriate emotions?  I don't think so.

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