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Playwright Sara Shaarawi: ‘If I wanted to write for an Egyptian audience, I’d move back to Egypt’

Sara Shaarawi. Photo: Alan McCredie Sara Shaarawi. Photo: Alan McCredie
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Sara Shaarawi was raised in Cairo and settled in Scotland after studying there. She tells Tim Bano about bringing Arab work to the Edinburgh Fringe with the Arab Arts Focus showcase and Chill Habibi cabaret…

How did you become a writer?

In 2013, I spent August in Edinburgh seeing plays. Theatre Uncut had a showing of its new plays and I was a bit disappointed that it had focused on America and the UK and didn’t have all the international plays that it did the year before. The company said: “If you want to write your own thing, you can write a scene.” Egypt had just overthrown the Muslim Brotherhood so I wrote a 10-minute scene about it. Julia Taudevin was programming a festival of new writing by women and asked me to write something different for that. At the time, there were mob sexual assaults happening at demonstrations in Cairo. There was also a rise in comic books with Muslim female superheroes, so I wrote a monologue about a woman who would fight the men who sexually assault women by buying a burqa and becoming a ninja. Since then, I’ve been writing plays.

How did the Arab Arts Focus come about?

I was approached by Ahmed El Attar, director of the Downtown Contemporary Arts Festival in Cairo, who has an Arab Arts Focus in his festival, which focuses on new work by Arab artists. It’s totally my thing: how does Scotland and the Arab world fit together? People are always really confused, but it doesn’t need to make historical or logical sense. It’s great to bring arts from any region and go: “This is what’s happening over there.” People are dying from bombs in the civil war, but there’s also art and love. People are doing extraordinary things, as well as doing ordinary things. I feel like there is a connection between where I come from and where I live right now.

Is there a lack of Arab voices in theatre?

I don’t get produced and one of the reasons is that people say: “There isn’t an audience for your type of work.” What I hear when people say that is people don’t want to see Arabs on stage; it might be too alien for them. That’s quite patronising to audiences. I tell people that if I wanted to write for an Egyptian audience, I’d just move back to Egypt. I’m not here as a refugee or asylum-seeker, I’m not here because I’m forced to be here, I’m here by choice because I’m lucky enough to have an Italian passport. So it’s always important for me, being bilingual and growing up with an Egyptian mum and Italian dad. I felt that one thing I could do is be a bridge and bring people from different parts of the world together.

Tell me about Chill Habibi.

It’s an idea me and Henry Bell came up with. We just want a relaxed, informal atmosphere, as if in a bar. We could have collaborations and jam sessions between artists in Scotland and Arab artists that we bring over. We can put a Scottish rapper together with a Lebanese soundscape artist. Arabic work that gets programmed in festivals in Europe has to tick boxes: the revolution, the war, the refugees. People in the Arab world often avoid making work that doesn’t deal with those themes, because it won’t get international funding and they won’t make a living. We wanted to create a space where they don’t have to be ‘the refugee’ or ‘the sob story’. I really want to get food involved – mezze, really cold beer – and make it like a cabaret. We want to keep it really flexible, so that if we see someone cool during the fringe we can say: “Hey, do you want to come and sing a song?”

CV: Sara Shaarawi

Training: MA in European theatre, Edinburgh University
First professional role: Niqabi Ninja (2014)
Agent: None

Chill Habibi is at the Edinburgh Fringe from August 4-27

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