The art of storytelling is an ancient one. Drawing inspiration from the 1001 tales of the Arabian Nights, Kamaal Hussein presents the story of his life – of a boy born in Baghdad to an Iraqi-Canadian couple, and growing up in 60s and 70s Britain. Interspersed with the tales of seven voyages of Sindbad and set in the atmospheric Anatomy Lecture theatre at Summerhall, the show feels very much like a campfire tale in the oasis of a Persian desert.
Hussain is dressed in the traditional Arab guthra and igal. With a minimal set to support him, he launches into the tales of Sindbad the Sailor, alternating between the seven voyages and those of his own. He talks of his grandparents, his childhood, the move with his parents to the UK and his own experiences.
The writing is very informal, which makes the show feel more like a conversation; the props that denote the big ships and the little boats are very creative, and tie in nicely with the accompanying roar and hush of Hussein’s voice. (The screen in the background, which just shows sea waves on loop, adds nothing though.) There is also the added intrigue of how the various relationships in his life pan out, as some aspects of a massive cultural gap have just been too difficult for him and his family to bridge. Let’s just say the story isn’t straightforward, and as he ends by catching up to the present, it falls into place why he is a modern-day Scheherazade.
I too am an immigrant from the east, living in Britain – and I also moved here for education, albeit not fleeing political instability back home. So I identified strongly with many of the observations Hussein made about life and culture here. There were some humorous anecdotes about how people here make assumptions about you, like the girl in primary school who though he would "so handsome, if only he had blue eyes!" He talks too about how immigration takes away your belongingness to either your home country or your host, and makes a strong case for holding on to the good bits of your own faith and culture, especially if it is so misunderstood.
Not everyone will have the same background, and for those born and raised in Britain the sense of recognition and kinship will inevitably be less. But I would recommend this show to anyone who wants to see past the regular media stories about Iraq: to hear one man’s personal story, learn a little bit more about Iraqi culture, and feel how in the end, we are really all just the same. The same fears haunt us, and the same hopes and dreams keep us going. Don’t miss the Arabian Nights in Edinburgh.