05 April 2007

Zenobia Receives Royal Patronage

Zenobia Gets a Royal Boost from His Highness Sheikh Hamdan Bin Mohammed Bin Rashid al Maktoum.

Sadly, this doesn't mean that the HH of Dubai is backing my novel (Chronicle of Zenobia: the rebel queen) but rather, according to the press release, boosting a "Massive Mansour Rahbani Musical Play".

Music on an epic scale
The play [written and directed by the composer Mansour Rahbani] is truly a megaproduction: Zenobia will run from April 18 to 23 at a specially-constructed 70, 000 square metre [± 210K sq ft] venue at Dubai Studio City. It will feature 130 actors, who will reenact dramatic battles between Palmyra and Rome on the gigantic stage. 150 technicians will be flown in from Lebanon and Europe. Dozens of trained horses from the Dubai Police will take part, and several camels. Seating capacity will be 3000 per night.
Rahbani adds, “We have all poured massive amounts of energy into Zenobia --- in fact, 700 people have contributed to this production. We are building Rome and Palmyra in the desert, and construction has been under way for several weeks already. The audience will witness history reenacted, as Zenobia, one of the greatest Arab leaders of all time, fights for freedom from imperial oppression.”

The only problem with this is that Zenobia was not an Arab. She was a Syrian, certainly, but lived hundreds of years before the Arab conquest of Syria; and a descendant (on one side) of Macedonian Greeks, most probably. But her language was Aramaic (Palmyrene dialect) and not an early form of Arabic. While it's no longer fashionable to see Palmyra as "an Aramaic island in an Arab sea", it is just as erroneous to give her the wrong ethnicity entirely. The political use of history in the Middle East has a lot to answer for. But I don't want to nag (even if Rome wasn't built in a day, nor ever in the desert) Anyway, an anti-imperialist Arab queen, one might think, is a deserved Eastern revenge for the grotesque misreading of history in the film 300.

This is not the first play about Zenobia, although it's probably the first that sets her to music. In 1995, the Royal Shakespeare Company gave us playwright Nick Dear's slightly camp Zenobia at the Young Vic -- with Penny Downie as the queen, and Colin Farrell as her husband, Odenathus. It was not a great success ("A warrior queen goes soft" opined The Times) and, as far as I know, it has not been revived. One unremarked oddity: it had 24 male roles and only one female part. What kind of life did Dear think she led? But, then, as the critic said at the end, "Nothing is dull, much is fun, little is serious." At a guess, much the same will be said of Zenobia the Arab.

Meanwhile, for those who don't make it to Dubai, you might want to read the epic book behind the musical. Julia Mamaea, too, is coming soon.

Just in: Carole Samaha, the popular Lebanese singer and actress, will play Zenobia.

Lebanon Links gives more details: "The Talent of Carole to act and sing at the same time allowed her to perform many songs written by great composers in the Middle East such as Mansour Rahbani and perform them on Stage."

I'll update if I get more pictures.


  1. Anonymous19/4/07 09:20

    I saw the play last night. It was an epic embed in a theater.

    Great Audiovisual effects, great music, great acting skills, great organization, including use of Horses and Camels on stage, water falls and burning fires. Great Work of art.

    Thanks to Mansour Rahbani and every person in the teams that created this epic event.

    I just wrote a blog entry on my blog (which has nothing to do with art and social events) just to do the thanks : http://www.al-tamimi.net/blog/

  2. Thanks very much for taking the time to tell us about the epic. It must have been an enormous experience. I wonder if it's been filmed....



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