Across the Middle, Past the East – A Review

Across the Middle Past the East, an all-female collective of Middle-Eastern born, Berlin-based artists, was pitched as an unsettled, backward-looking evening of cabaret, and indeed it was. Performers hailed from Israel, Jordan, Lebanon, Palestine, Syria and there was one German (I didn’t ask, probably something to do with funding).

I’m happy to report that I’m being paid for this review dear reader, which puts me in a more generous and professional mood, so let’s begin.

Across the Middle was held at the Kantine Hall in the Sophiensaele, a warmly-lit expanse housing four columns and an expensive corner bar. We were greeted by writer and performer Moona Moon, invited to hang our coats by the wall, choose our own seating and gently instructed not to take photos. Our tables were furnished with a healthy jug of rakia, under which lay texts I forgot to read, and above which hung delicate, handcrafted candelabras. I won’t beat about the proverbial bush dear reader, I was impressed.

Singer and the evening’s master of ceremonies Enana opened with a multilingual address, inviting those of all genders to ‘open up your gentleness and gentle up your openness’. The silky baritone meandered the crowd, mentioned Trump and where the toilets could be found. We were in for a night of Middle-Eastern folklore, wailing song, and tales of suffering, at times in languages we didn’t understand. Someone would mention black people (more on that later, friend).

I’m excited to say that nobody took their clothes off, though there was talk of nakedness, and quite early on. Choreographer and performer Roni Katz stood on the bar, signature orange in hand, and began to ruminate on a number for her burlesque. She wasn’t sure who would be stripping for a free Palestine, but kept saying something about ‘the two Israelis, the Palestinian and the German’. And as she towered above us, peeling the orange and layering her thoughts, I became more confused and hungry. It was a lengthy monologue, but I think the message was this: nakedness and Palestine can coexist. Life changing.

Classical guitarist and songwriter Rasha Nahas sang a sad song with great poise and conviction. I can’t say much more than this, only that she repeated the line ‘a song for you to cry on’ over and over again. And when that line was sung, members of the collective would wail from across the room. This caused audience members to turn away from the stage, so I wouldn’t do that next time. She later gave a spoken-word piece about blacks being entertaining, at which point I stopped listening.

Perhaps the most moving moment of the evening was in the first act. Writer Sirine Malas gave a powerful reading in Arabic and, although I didn’t understand what she was saying, I felt like I understood what she was saying. So this was very deep. Malas’ voice appeared to crack slightly towards the end, and I thought I saw a tear, which was quite moving. But as she walked among us, voice rich with emotion, I couldn’t help wondering why she was in a purple wig. Then I thought: perhaps this is deliberate. Perhaps the wig is a metaphor? What is a metaphor? And so forth.

The most theatrical moment came when choreographer and performer Lee Méir recounted the story of Raya and Sakina, Egyptian sisters of serial-killer fame, on a wooden camel. It was an impressive tale, told with a British accent and music that seemed to become more intense the harder Méir rocked that camel. Or was that just me? Anyway, the performance was framed by a  live shadow theatre executed by Fulvia Dallal and Katz and lots of things happened. It was wonderful. But should an Askenazi jew, pondered Méir on camelback, be the one telling this story? A reflective and worthy question. She did it anyway, dear reader.

There were of course other acts (a three-legged dance about Israel and Lebanon, a story about a racist, a poem etc.) but it would be remiss to leave out the most unsettling act of the night, when the whole collective gathered on stage, in still portrait, and began asking a series of questions.

How much would you pay for this production, asked one person? Would you double it, asked another? What are your thoughts on generosity? Have you ever had to apologise for where you were born? Did you join the army? Would you take the bullet? What would you do if you were Ahed Tamimi? The questions continued, punctuated by nervous bouts of audience laughter as the performers left the stage, one by one.

After the show, audience members mingled outside in the courtyard, most planning the next phase of the evening. And what followed could not have been scripted. I was standing next to a performer when a woman approached to congratulate her on the piece. ‘It was great – exotic!’, she said. ‘We have a lot to learn from you!’

Indeed, I thought.


Author: Riri Hylton

Photos: Andre Lewski

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