“We need more freedom to exist as who we are”: An Interview with Abeer Ali
The Unfamiliar show is a theatrical performance of dance and music, which combines the styles and traditions of the various backgrounds of its participants. With themes of migration, memory, and language, it is a nostalgic journey through the cities of Alexandria, Damascus, and Berlin. The Unfamiliar show is a product of the Project Hescheck Bescheck, which is a Berlin-based theatrical collaboration of women of diverse backgrounds to create music, dance, theatre and other forms of storytelling.
The project was founded by Abeer Ali who is a freelance artist in Berlin with almost twenty years of theatrical experience. Having studied theatre in Egypt, Ali went on to become a theatre maker, actress, singer, and storyteller. She has participated in numerous international theatre festivals and has won several awards, such as best supporting actress of Egypt’s National Theatre Festival. Currently, Ali is a part of the Ensemble Multiplex at Expedition Metropolis Theatre, the project Young Mind Lab by SISYPHOS theatre company, and the project Musikmacher at Hans-Werner-Henze-Musikschule. Most recently, she presented an exhibition and live performance for the Rundgang at UDK Berlin on 23.07.2022, and was awarded the Artist Training Prize 2022 for Unfamiliar.
What exactly is Project Hescheck Bescheck and what led to its foundation?
The project started in 2019 when I moved to Berlin from Cairo. I was part of a theatre group in Cairo. They were doing storytelling, dance, singing and music, and they were also trying to combine them all together and empower people. But it wasn’t focused on gender. It was for professional amateurs. I was a part of this project since I was a professional actress, and while there I learned to sing and dance and to play music.
I was inspired by this project. Its name is Elwersha, which means the workshop: Elwersha theatre troupe in Cairo. I was inspired by them, and I then moved here [to Berlin] to join my husband. I was about to have my first and only child. I was trying to find something to do to start from in Berlin, and also to find a space for me as an artist and as a woman in the Berlin art scene. I got to know some friends. One plays an oud, which is an old Arabic musical instrument, and the second one plays percussion. One was Egyptian, and the second was German. We discussed just meeting together and jamming, to see what it would be like if we just played some traditional songs, some Arabic traditional songs. We came together, and then the idea came to me that we could open the space for more women.
It happened suddenly that we were three women, and it became more of a safe space for us as women, especially from immigrant backgrounds. So we started with music, but we got the idea that we can speak, tell more stories, talk about the situation we have here, the situation we had before in our countries, and the conflicts that we experienced: trying to have the freedom to be ourselves in our countries; and here there other struggles as you are a foreigner. There are many barriers here.
So it happened that we found a frame to put all these ideas together. How to make the stuff that we like to do, and we didn’t have the chance to do before, or the freedom, or the flexibility of the time, because we were studying. But we didn’t have the chance, or support from the community, from our families, to express ourselves in theatre and art. Then we opened up a bit and started to recruit other people into the project, and then every time and every stage, we had different people, and they were all interested in joining and also in sharing similar struggles or different experiences.
The Hescheck Bescheck Project seems to be focused on women and their experiences. Could you elaborate on its process and structure?
We were always mixed and diverse, so there are Arabic women, German women, European women, and we also invited people from Latin America. Our wish was to get to know more women from different destinations. The structure is that we are a project for women to play music, to tell stories, to dance, to play instruments, to sing, and to express ourselves and our identities through the performing arts. It differs from project to project and performance to performance, from one face to another face. Sometimes we can invite more people, sometimes we will have it as a concert with limited persons because we don’t have time.
Last year, I had a Weltoffenes Berlin fellowship, and collaborated with the Expedition Metropolis theatre in Kreuzberg. So I had one year covered with a paid fellowship. We opened a lot of workshops, and not only to women but all people. It was also for practicing percussion, dance, and so on. Last year we performed at the Kreuzberger HofFestSpiele festival at the Expedition Metropolis, which was the outcome of the percussion workshop and the different workshops we have. Not all of the participants took part, but most of the people who were committed to this work were at the performance. I think it was about 14 women on stage together, and just one week before, we had an internal event for the workshops of everything we had done, so when we performed it was more than 20 women on a stage together. It was a full-day event. We had a presentation for each workshop, a dance workshop, and we had a cooking performance. We had different concerts at the same day in different languages: one concert in Arabic, one concert in German and English, and one concert with other international music.
The Unfamilar show is a theatrical performance developed by the Hescheck Bescheck Project. What is the show about and where did the idea come from?
The idea started just after we received the invitation to join the cause. I talked with one of the colleagues who initiated this project with me. We wanted to summarize what we were doing in this project and so we had this idea that we are doing unfamiliar stuff, like choosing the name of this project: Hescheck Bescheck. It means that women dare to dance, and in Arabic countries, to dance and to make music, even if this is forbidden by the communities that are conservative. So we are doing things that sound unfamiliar.
Even when I tell someone here that the project is named Hescheck Bescheck, they say “oh such a different name” because this is an unfamiliar name, and it is unfamiliar to call the project Hescheck Bescheck. We decided together to get more into this idea, bring things together. So doing unfamiliar stuff, being unfamiliar in a new country, being unfamiliar in your old home or your hometown, because you were doing also unfamiliar things. You are unfamiliar to the people. You are unfamiliar to yourself.
As we play music from different backgrounds, we put different tunes together, like Arabic tunes with Western tunes, with Eastern tunes, and Turkish tunes with German tunes. At the end, it sounds unfamiliar, because people are not used to hearing this kind of thing. A music that fusions together: we are doing unfamiliar music tunes while producing unfamiliar melodies. We also talk about the unfamiliar stuff we have in our recent situations, and we also talk about the unfamiliar stuff we had before.
We chose the main concept: that we were going to present some unfamiliar material from music, from stories, and then the dance would also reflect this. The group and I decided to focus on and talk about three different cities.
In the Unfamiliar show, Alexandria, Damascus, and Berlin are the cities that are presented. Why were these cities chosen and what do they represent?
Each city belongs to a stage of someone in the group’s life. We decided to have a scene or a segment in Alexandria, Egypt; another segment in Damascus, Syria; and the third segment with Berlin, which gathers all these ideas and feelings together. Then we started to think more. What’s unfamiliar? Happenings in Alexandria. What’s unfamiliar still? I still have in my heart here, my mind here also. So what’s unfamiliar there? What’s the unfamiliar feeling I have here in in Berlin, which is connecting to Alexandria. So I wrote a story about this idea and then we combined the sound effects or sound tracks from Alexandria. This made a sound environment from the city with some visuals.
Syria was typically the same. I asked two of our colleagues from Damascus to write a story about Damascus, and it has the same idea: this confusion that I don’t feel good there, but I’m still connected to this city and would love to get back, but I want to change it and I miss it, but I don’t miss it because I feel comfortable here, but I’m not so comfortable here because I’m still different, and people here like looking at us and they are expecting that we are perfect and ideal and we are not ideal.
This is the stress of Berlin, and the last scene and segment were in Berlin. We decided to talk about Berlin as a big Hauptbahnhof. People are coming and traveling. They stay here for some time. So we talked about Berlin as an intimate city, but it’s crazy, it’s fast. We also had the idea of bringing the sound environment from Berlin by the musical instruments, and also from the DJ sound designer. We had some visuals also from Berlin, and we combined the stories with the music.
We started to tell the first two stories about Alexandria and Damascus in Arabic, and Berlin was in German. The first two scenes we had a German translation. The third scene, we had an Arabic translation. Not only were German-speakers speaking German, the Arabic-speakers were also speaking German, so we combined and shifted things.
What themes or ideas do you want the audience to take away in general from your work?
I like this nostalgia feeling that people have; that you can bring people to somewhere else, and you can remind them of something that happened to them. They can relate to what we are performing. You really touch something inside their minds, inside their history. That’s why I feel grateful to do this kind of work. When I relate to the people and when I remind them of themselves, when they are about to cry…
I love to make this project possible because I really feel like I touch these people. I perform and discuss these things because we need more freedom to exist as who we are or where we are. We need more freedom to be here in this time and place. Especially, of course, women, and especially women from Arabic backgrounds.
We’re not bringing nostalgia because we want to get back home, or we’re missing our pasts. It’s because it’s a cycle: if we bring this now, we can have a more inclusive future for us, as human beings, and of course, as women. That’s what I’m really looking for here in Berlin. That’s how we can be more inclusive together at the same place and the same time and we can work without barriers, without stereotypes. So far this is what I’m really proud of, at this moment of this project. We perform as 12 women, with three German women, one Italian, one Kurdi, three Egyptians, two Syrians and they were all really creative and committed and supportive to each other.
Would you like to make any final comments to end the interview?
I just wanted to mention the names of the people that work for this production. It’s about us as a group. People are always asking me to talk and do interviews, but they are doing very nice experiments or work together, and each one of them is talented and powerful:
The original production was presented by:
Valentina Bellanova, Storywriter, Storyteller, Musician, Nai Flute.
Dima Dawood, Musician, Qanun Player.
Berivan Ahmed, Musician, Percussionist.
Ronda Ramm, Storywriter, Storyteller, Singer, Musician, Guitar.
Anna Boehme, Storywriter, Storyteller, Singer, Musician, Clarinet.
Kristiane Fehrs, Storywriter, Storyteller, Singer, Musician, Violin.
Shadia Abu Hemdan, Storywriter, Storyteller, Singer.
Hend Taher, Storywriter, Storyteller, Dancer.
Dina Abdulhafez (Nougaa), Dancer.
Seba Ali Mahmoud, Visual Artist.
Basma Mostafa, Camera Woman.
Yara Mekawei, Sound Artist.
Sawi Laila, Light designer.