As anyone who watched my acceptance speech for the Arab British Centre Award for Culture will know – I was shocked to win the prize. I still am. But it all became real on 12 January when I boarded a plane to Tunisia to attend the Arab Theatre Institute’s 10th theatre festival there, as part of my prize generously funded by the British Council.
I brought a copy of Hanan Al Shakyh’s Arabian Nights, a swimming costume (I’m an optimist) and, most importantly, Alia Al Zougbi with me. Alia is a brilliant theatre producer (and actress and storyteller) who worked on my play Scenes from 68* Years and who I’m proud to call my good friend. On this occasion she was also my voice, as my French is poor and my Arabic worse. I needed a translator and Alia had kindly agreed to come with me for that reason.
When we arrived in Tunis it was raining (we’d brought the weather with us!) but the sun quickly came out in the form of Imed Belkhodja , who is the Projects Manager for British Council Tunisia and one of the nicest and most hospitable humans I’ve ever had the pleasure to meet. He was the mastermind behind my packed three-day schedule which saw me attend six plays and meet a host of Tunisian theatremakers, both veterans and from the emerging generation. He’d also kindly allowed time for eating which was a delight, my first taste of Tunisian food (and wine) at the wonderful Fondouk El Attarine had me hooked. Particularly the local Tunis special: Brik a filo pastry triangle with meat and a runny egg in the middle – I’m salivating at the thought of it.
On the first day Imed was sure to show us where all the theatres were and instruct us how to collect our tickets for the shows. Over the course of the visit we saw many plays: A Moroccan production of Genet’s The Maids directed by Iraqi luminary Jawad Al Assadi; The Escape by Tunisian actor and director Ghazi Zaghbani – whose theatre, L’Artisto, is a small but perfectly formed black box any director in London would kill to work in. On Sunday we saw In the Heart of Bagdad by Mohannad Hedi (Sweden/Iraq) , and Lebanese director Roger Assaf’s The War of Troy at the gorgeous and sumptuous Municipal Theatre (Alia and I even managed to seat ourselves in a box as it was open seating). Then Monday brought two Tunisian shows, a delicate puppet show The Encounter at the cavernous Ibn Rachik Cultural Centre and finally an impressive piece of physical theatre/ modern dance by Nejib Khalfallah called Miscarriage.
On Sunday, Robert Ness the head of the British Council in Tunisia graciously hosted a lovely lunch where Alia and I had the opportunity to meet a host of interesting people from many different walks of life, not just theatre. He even organised some sun for the occasion.
In other meetings we encountered veteran Tunisian critic Abdelhalim Messaoudi ; actresses Chekra Rammeh and Khaoula Hadef; and Wafa Taboubi a director who was the first woman to take the Best Director award at the Carthage Theatre Festival last year for her play The Widows. Alia and I were sad to have missed that one, especially on glimpsing the recorded version which was theatrical and compelling, even on a small screen.
After our whirlwind trip I felt exhilarated and inspired. I’m really hoping the trip will lead to further fruitful conversations and hopefully, in time, collaborations with some of the impressive people I was privileged to meet. Watch this space…