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Bubbles and Balloons: The Amman Theatre Festival (1995)

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Food. The word suddenly flashed before my eyes. These people had come from a country which lives in a state of near famine. I remembered all the sad stories I had heard at lunch from a Palestinian friend who had recently left Baghdad. With meat costing 1500 Iraqi dinars per kilo, and onions 650, it has become a struggle indeed to keep body and soul together. (The average monthly income now is, optimistically, 2000 dinars – formerly about 6000 and currently worth $2). Serious malnutrition is currently a hard fact in Iraq, and children are the ones worst affected by it. Last Ramadan, the Iraqi regime decided, in a magnanimous gesture, to remind its subjects of the taste of poultry in honor of the holy month of fasting. Each family got two chickens free (for the entire month), and the Iraqi media made a propaganda meal of the occasion. For many, it was the only meat they had tasted, or are likely to taste, for many months. Still, it is not only the physical health of the Iraqi nation, which is being deeply damaged by the international economic sanctions, but also its mind. Currently, with so many intellectuals, artists, scientists and writers rushing out whenever they get the chance, the country is undergoing a serious brain drain. Awatif Na’im’s glazed eyes and the sight of a handful of expatriate Iraqi theatre people, living in Jordan now (but who knows where they will be next year), were cruel reminders of the tragic state of affairs in that once thriving land.

I was pondering the cruel indifference of history to man when the ceremony began. Mohamed El-Abedi, the honorary head of the festival, gave a highly emotional, lyrical speech which hinted at the many obstacles encountered by the members of the Fawanis (Lanterns) Theatre Group in organizing this non-governmental festival, at the resistance the idea had met with in many quarters, and at the many struggles that lie ahead. It all sounded familiar; it is the story of any free artistic enterprise in the Arab world. I remembered how our free theatre groups had struggled for the past five years to hold their annual free theatre festival, how disturbing the phenomenon had proved for all official theatrical organs, and how, after four festivals, the movement had run out of steam and fizzled out. This year, instead of holding their 5th festival, the once defiant young Egyptian artists are waiting meekly at the door of the Cultural Development Fund which has decided to sift through the different troupes and choose a few to subsidize and put under its direct supervision. I wonder if the lucky chosen ones will still retain the word ‘free’ in their names.

The non-governmental denomination of the Amman Festival was its major attraction for me. I wanted to compare the experience of the Fawanis Group in launching their festival with that of our Free Theatre Movement and find out how they had navigated their way round the many lethal autocratic rock formations that infest the treacherous waters of cultural life in the Arab world. The secret, as I discovered from many sources, lay in a triple policy of:

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