Chirine El-Ansary: A Thousand and One Layers of Storytelling

September 27, Chirine El-Ansary performed her version of the Thousand and One Nights at the Rich Mix Theatre. The performance, Al-Mustafa Najjar writes, was astounding:

By Al-Mustafa Najjar

I’ve often wondered what the inside of an author’s head looks like, and I can finally claim to have been offered an opportunity to witness this rare phenomenon. No, it is not what you think it is — I have not seen an x-ray picture of a writer’s brain. Nor have I witnessed an experiment carried out on writers under hypnosis. I recently had a chance to view the process of storytelling being represented on stage. The entire process, with the writer’s side notes, comments, doubts, revisions, and so on were dramatized step-by-step on stage.

On September 27, Egyptian storyteller and physical performer Chirine El-Ansary delivered an astounding two-hour show to a dumbfounded audience at the Rich Mix in London. With A Thousand and One Nights, it is Ansary’s verbal and kinaesthetic fete that takes the world classic to new levels. Thanks to her superb literary and acting skills, and with an Egyptian sense of humour, Ansary revives the Arabian Nights, a classic that year after year proves resistant to aging.

There was nothing that a fan of the Nights would not expect: Characters included Scheherazade, Shahryar, Ali Shar, Ali Baba, and Zumurrud, among others. The stories dealt with the worlds of magic, imagination and passion. Typical of the Nights, Ansary’s stories incorporated mundane and larger-than-life characters, ordinary people, and supernatural beings, and spanned all four corners of the earth. But it was obvious that the plot and characterization were of secondary, if any, significance in the French-born storyteller’s one-woman show.

Plots bred sub-plots and characters flaunted the boundaries between the real and the fictional. The two-part show was an experiment on storytelling par excellence in which Ansary played the writer, the storyteller and the actor.

What Ansary obviously had in mind is the aesthetic representation of the esoteric process of storytelling, the dramatization of the writerly acts of inventing storylines, creating characters, refining language, drafting and redrafting. Plots bred sub-plots and characters flaunted the boundaries between the real and the fictional. The two-part show was an experiment on storytelling par excellence in which Ansary played the writer, the storyteller, and the actor.

Use of Egyptian dialect was dominant. Sentences like “Zumurrud!  Al-Gariyah Zat El-Khasr El-Naheel w El-Sha’ar El-Taweel Zat El-Khudood El-Wardiya w El-Oyoun El-Assaliyah” were purposely inserted by Ansary without an English translation. But this was also part of her experiment. After all, the process of storytelling does not fully make sense to writers, so why should it to the audience?

It is this process of building layers over layers of storytelling that lies at the heart of Ansary’s art.

In an interview with Al-Ahram newspaper Ansary described her shows as “cycles of stories” and claimed to have a tendency towards “stories that contain elements that contradict each other.” It is this process of building layers over layers of storytelling that lies at the heart of Ansary’s art. Audiences do not have to track the plotline or closely follow the gradual build-up of events. Rather, like a Shahryar, they are meant to surrender themselves to the enchanting powers of Ansary, a Scheherazade-like storyteller.

Al-Mustafa Najjar is a Syrian journalist/translator at Asharq Al-Awsat. He holds a master’s degree in Post-1900 Literatures, Theories and Cultures from the the University of Manchester. He is based in London and we hope that some day he will take over editing ArabLit.

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