Interview by Yasmine Marie Jahanmir and Hassan Hajiyah
Mohammed Al-Hemely (b.1986), producer, director, and actor, shines brightly in the constellation of commercial theatre offered in Kuwait.1 His splashy spectacles are peppered with recognizable Western influences and inspired by theatrical innovation he seeks out in London each summer. They are extremely popular with Kuwaiti audiences, often selling out the entire run. His career started early: acting with the historic Al-Shabab [youth] Theater group under the auspices of the Youth Public Authority. In 2011, Al-Hemely founded his personal theatre company, Backstage Group, and has presented numerous comedies, thrillers, children’s shows, and musicals. Unlike most Kuwaiti commercial theatre, which occurs in rented and temporarily converted spaces, often sport clubs, Al-Hemely bought and renovated the Medical Professions Theater in Jabriya (an urban district in Kuwait City). This building is a point of pride for Al-Hemely, and it allows him to extend the runs of sold-out shows, remount previous shows because there is costume and set storage, and most importantly, gives him the freedom to produce theatre all year-round.
Al-Hemely’s most popular and longest-running play, Mujab (2018; see the trailer at https://youtu.be/-OWxlm6WISA), which he wrote, directed, and plays the role of Sror, has run on and off for over two years. The play, set in unnamed slums of Kuwait, centers on Om Sror (mother of Sror), a leader of a hidden community that authorities have at best forgotten and at worst demonized (fig. 1).
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Fig. 1.Sama (Samah) and Tabil (Abdullah Al-Ramyan) are lighting the Al-Yawi bakhour (incense specific to exorcism) during the ritual. (Photo: Nawaf Alsharaf.)
With a reputation for being an exorcist, Om Sror defends her threatened neighborhood from authorized demolition by spreading rumors of possession and inciting fear among the ranks of the police investigators. Based in comedic improvisation, like most of Kuwaiti commercial theatre, this eclectic, humorous, and supernatural play hints at social critique of class, race, and structural inequality. Mujab is also popular with Kuwaiti audiences because it is steeped in folk traditions. In Arabic, Mujab translates as “service and honoring” and often refers to exorcism. As the audience saunters from the box office to their seats, they experience a full-sensory transition into the world of the play with the scent of Al-Yawi bakhour, a type of woodchip incense particular to exorcism. Live drumming accompanies a recording of traditional-style Arabian gulf music such as Tanboura—a music specific to exorcisms called zar. Zar is a type of spirit-possession ritual that originated in East Africa.2 Actors encourage the audience to sing and clap with them while offering bakhour and watermelon (figs. 2–3). Mujab reflects a multifaceted Kuwait onstage by examining the extant social tensions between rich and poor, traditional and modern, and real and supernatural. In Mujab, Al-Hemely successfully explores these contradictions, all while presenting a wildly entertaining farcical play that is, at least in terms of box-office receipts, the most popular play in Kuwait’s recent history.
When we sat down with Al-Hemely in December 2019, his enthusiasm to promote his vision of Kuwaiti culture was evident.3 He had just released a film, The End (2019), uniquely shot entirely in Kuwait. Closure of theatres around the world due to COVID-19 did not abet Al-Hemely’s drive, as he produced one of the first Zoom plays in the Arabic region. No matter what the future holds, there is no doubt that Al-Hemely will continue to make spectacular, comedic, and thoughtful shows that will shape the future of Kuwait’s popular entertainment landscape.
Mohammed: Every year, I have two to five shows. One time, I made a project called “Live Show.” Every Thursday,4 new decor, new cast, new music, everything. One week. A break on Friday to remove everything. Saturday, start again. Develop new decor, costumes, makeup, actors, singers—all. We make the story and the script. After one year like that, we made fifteen stories. We go to (continues speaking in Arabic) . . .
Hassan: (Translating) . . . NCCAL (National Council of Culture Arts and Letters).
M: They are the worst. I give them the script, it takes one month, two months, one year, one year and three months. [NCCAL:] “What’s this? Fifteen? Why? No! Only one per month.” Like, that. I made my project every week. This project built my inside. I’m strong now. Any show? In only four days, I can make it. I have a staff like vampires. They can make anything. I made this project and after it, I made shows for kids, shows for drama, comedy show, stand-up comedy, anything that needs stage and chairs, I made here in my place. (Continues speaking in Arabic) . . .
H: (Translating) . . . It’s like he is the enemy of NCCAL. The national council.
Yasmine: Why? Tell me more.
M: How can you make anything on your stage? They want to control me. [NCCAL]: “Because we are higher than you. How can you make everything in your place and who gives you this place?” Everyday I have problems with them.
Y: Have you ever had any issues with the plays and the government?
M: (Speaking in Arabic) . . .
H: (Translating) . . . They don’t approve the scripts.5
Y: Why don’t they approve the scripts?
M: Because they are afraid. When I think something was good for my country and my life . . . I have a message. They [the censors] smoke cigarettes, drink coffee in the morning. And say: “No no, can’t make this show.” Why? In Bahrain, it takes only four days to get approval. Only four! I am here, I send emails [to Bahrain], send the details. . . . They say: “OK, approved.” In Saudi Arabia, one hour [to get approval] maybe. When I go there, I give them the script. They say: “What’s your name?” “Mohammed.” “What is the name for the script?” “Al-Ahdab” [the Hunchback]. “When will you present this?” “In March 2020.” “Okay, then make it. Go.”
Y: So they don’t censor anymore?
M: No. But, if we [Saudi government] come and see something is not good for the country connections or God or anything, something in the show is not good, we stop you.
H: (Translating from the Arabic) They have to see it, right?
M: No, in Saudi Arabia, no.
H: I mean, before any show they would come and see it, right?
M: No, no.
H: What about here?
M : Here they attend five times. . . . In Saudi Arabia, only during the show, they see come see it. “Bravo.” Kuwait, no. The rules for the [Kuwaiti] national council. There are only three rules. [Rule 1]: Don’t speak anything [bad] about another country. Egypt or India. [Rule 2]: Don’t speak [bad] about God. Okay, hamdullilah, something simple okay, but don’t do anything [more than that]. And [Rule 3]: Don’t say anything bad about the Emir. [Rule 4]: Demonstrate the general morality of Kuwait citizens. No kissing and no sex. Okay, only four rules. He [the censorship officer] told me: “No, the end of the story is not good. Change it.” I said: “Who are you? I am the producer.” [Censorship Officer]: “Change the decor.” “Why? It’s up to me, not to you.” The employees take it personally. They don’t only see the four rules and close the book. They want to control everything. And they take a long time. I want to have a show here next week—I can’t. This is a big problem.
Y: How do you write your own shows? Do you write them? Do you collaborate?
M: First step, everybody comes here. I tell them, I have a project. The look for the project is like Aladdin. When we finish the workshop, [I say] “thank you everybody, go home.” I stay here and I write what I heard in the workshop. After this step, I call for the set designer, before even the actors. I have this image. I want to go to this place.
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Fig. 2. Sror (Mohammed Al-Hemely), Om Sror (Haifaa Adel), and ensemble invite the spirits while the Al-Zar (exorcism) music is playing. (Photo: Nawaf Alsharaf.)
Y: You do everything? You head everything?
M: Yes, I do everything. Why? Because you can’t come inside my [points to head], I see too many things, I visit too many stages, I go backstage in many theatres, in Kuwait and outside. My blood is theatre now. Somebody (Speaking in Arabic) . . .
H: (Translating) . . . some people see him as arrogant.
M: Dictator. No, I am not a dictator. I know where I want to go. Now maybe I have made up to fifty shows. Some good, some normal, some for kids. The last show I made, directed, for the best company in Saudi Arabia, the number one company, named MBC. You know?
M: And the best actor there is Nasser Al-Qasabi. He is the best and the one and the only in Saudi Arabia. They wanted an Arab director. They went to Egypt, Lebanon, Gulf, and they came to Kuwait. When they saw Mujab, they presented me a contract to come to Saudi Arabia, to make Saudi Arabian theatre because they don’t have theatre, only small (speaking in Arabic) . . .
H: (Translating) . . . small experiences.
M: They wanted a big project. With me. I took the contract and two months I stayed there and made a big show. They told me: “We knew you’d make a big show, but not like this.” Because they had dreams, I made big dreams for them. Also, here in Kuwait, JACC,6 when I present a project or I go to meetings there. They tell me, “Mohammed, we can’t work with you, because you are local, you are not international. We want to bring from USA, London, Egypt from Lebanon. From Kuwait? No. Because nobody in Kuwait is serious.” I laugh. “Not serious? Come to my place and see what I do.” They don’t see anybody here in Kuwait. This is my little problem. But I take my steps outside. When I come from Saudi Arabia, all companies in Kuwait, call me: “Mohammed, we know you have your work during Eid. Make my show, just direct it.” Okay, sure. In past years, I only made one-to-two shows in the high season. Now, thanks to God, this year, I have six shows during Eid. It took a long time for me to be in this place. I am with my friends. The life is simple. Because the art wants your heart (speaking in Arabic) . . .
H: (Translating) . . . your humanity.
Y: What do you think the role of theatre is in Kuwait? Two questions: Kuwaiti theatre versus other Arabic theatre. How are they the same and how they are different?
H: (Translating from the Arabic) Kuwaiti theatre is supposed to be artistic and touristic.
M: Tourist. It’s like British theatre and like USA . . . Broadway. But what is the difference? The Broadway and the British? The government supports the [theatre] companies. And puts your flyers, your brochures, in the airport, in anyplace, and you get extra box office for your tickets, because they want to help you make an image for the country. In Kuwait, it’s different. We don’t need Mohammed to make images for the visitors. Why? “Because you are not government. You are one person.” Not good. And I think, after two years now, this place has changed. Because there are too many companies, too many directors won’t work.7 Also, families. On the weekends and in high season, where can they go? In Kuwait, there is no place for children to play. There is no Disney, no Universal . . . only cinemas and theatre. There is nothing in Kuwait. You know and only the beach in the summer. I think that entertainment is the first (speaking in Arabic) . . .
H: (Translating) . . . entertainment is number one.
Y: How is theatre in Kuwait different from other Arab countries?
M: In the Gulf, nobody can produce themselves like me. . . . Most of it is (speaking in Arabic) . . .
H: (Translating) . . . most of it is government-supported. In other Gulf countries, they can’t do what he can, because they all have to be supported by the government.
M: Or a company. It’s not like they sleep and wake up and make anything. They can’t. We have some things they don’t have in the Gulf, in Kuwait, we have producers, we have stars. In Egypt and Arabic theatre, in Lebanon, (speaking in Arabic) . . .
H: (Translating) . . . in Lebanon, the audience is cultured. Free speech is more widespread.
M: Aziz took one script from Syria? Lebanon? With George Khabaz.8
M: When he brings the same [show] to Kuwait, he can’t say anything in the script.9 Also in Saudi Arabia, how far is Saudi Arabia from here? One hour on the plane, forty-five minutes? The show I made with Nasser Al-Qasabi and MBC, I know we can’t bring it here. Because we were very free with what he could say [in Saudi Arabia]. No problem. Here we have policeman on script: “Don’t say it like that. Everyone is afraid.” “Afraid of what?” “I don’t know. I’m afraid, so close your mouth.” (Laughs) I think they are afraid of change.
Y: When I saw Mujab, I thought it was really powerful. Is there a specific social context that you’re referencing? If so, what was the message and why do you think it was so popular here?
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Fig. 3.Om Sror (Haifaa Adel) begins the exorcism ritual while the ensemble plays the Tar (drums), an instrument associated with zar. (Photo: Nawaf Alsharaf.)
M: I am Kuwaiti, but I feel like I am not in Kuwait. (Speaking in Arabic) . . .
H: (Translating) . . . He feels like a stranger in his own country.
M: In my own country! This is a big problem. When you go to Syria, they have a place, they have a home, but they have no . . . (speaking in Arabic) . . .
H: (Translating) . . . there is no safety.
M: No safety. Now in Kuwait, I have my own building, shows, but no safety. But anytime, I don’t know who, they might close everything. Because the rules in Kuwait and the decisions.
H: There’s no rules now.
M: Anybody, any place in the world. He lives in the place and knows this place is not for him. Every country has an icon . . . (speaking in Arabic) . . .
H: (Translating) . . . a thought, a belief.
M: Like Santa in America. In Kuwait, we have something like that. But it’s not Santa. We have old stories. One, his name is Bo Dariah,10 he comes from the sea. We have something in the village, Hamarat Al Gailah.11
M: She comes at noon. Sometimes the donkey comes at noon, so the children don’t go outside.
H: It’s a mythical monster.
M: But in Kuwait, we don’t have Santa. We made Mujab. Mujab is like . . . (speaking in Arabic) . . .
H: (Translating) . . . a national . . .
M: . . . national [folklore]. I told you we have a ghost inside ourselves. Sometimes it guides you; sometimes you don’t need it. In Kuwait, somebody steals or commits a crime. Why he does he do that? And he goes “Ohhh oohhh. I have something in me.” And the police go, “It’s a cover, it’s a cover for his problem [crime].” Now, when he makes this cover, his sister and brother, mother, father, or family makes the cover. The circle is big now. Even in my family, I have somebody who did this. We don’t speak to him. Why? Oh, he has ghost inside him, he’s a bad guy.
Video 1: Video, Mislih (Abdullah Al-Khuder) performing a fake exorcism, in gibberish, on Sror (Mohammed Al-Hemely). (Video Nawaf Alsharaf.)
After many years, I do some research and I see no. It is nothing. But maybe it is little things: it’s religion or traditional culture. This one time, somebody was afraid when I told him Mujab, said “No no, it’s an old story, we don’t want . . . okay. In drama, for me, I want to take one story and I think everyone is afraid . . . but it is my country, it is a national story, it is like Santa, and I make Mujab . . . and (speaking in Arabic) . . .
H: (Translating) . . . and this is why it succeeded, because we got something from our own identity . . .
M: . . . from my own country. Somebody said, “Don’t talk about these things.” No, I will speak these things, because they are powerful.
1. The bulk of Kuwait’s theatre happens during the various holiday seasons or Eid, predominately during Eid al-Fitr and Eid al-Adha.
2. We borrowed these definitions from an incredibly rich discussion of traditional music in the Gulf region, see: Lisa Urkevich’s Music and Traditions of the Arabian Peninsula: Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Bahrain, and Qatar (Routledge, 2014).
3. The authors, Yasmine Jahanmir and Hassan Hajiyah, conducted the interview with Mohammed Al-Hemely on December 17, 2019 at the Backstage Group’s theatre. Playwright, director, and acting educator Abdulaziz Safar was also present. The interview was conducted predominantly in English, with some Arabic translation as noted in the text. The authors wish to thank Abdulaziz for coordinating the interview, and would also like to thank Mohammed for his time and hospitality during the interview.
4. Thursday is the last day of the work-week in Kuwait, equivalent to Friday in most Western countries.
5. Kuwait recently changed its censorship laws. Before June 2021, theatre-makers were required to get pre-approval of their scripts from NCAAL. Now the censors only attend the dress rehearsal and make recommendations for changes. While censorship still exists, this new process is significantly less onerous. (Source: “Minster of Communication Frees Scripts from Censorship after 40 Years,” Al Qabas (2021).
6. The JACC is shorthand for the Sheikh Jaber Al-Ahmed Cultural Centre (www.jacc-kw.com). First opened in 2016, the Cultural Centre is a magnificent building with multiple theatre spaces and concert halls. The venue mainly features international touring artists, productions, and symphonies. Ticket costs are often substantial.
7. It is really difficult for an individual director to put on a show because the cost is high and there is no government support. Directors must rent a space, chairs, lights, speakers, and more in order to produce a show. When competition is high, there is little financial incentive to produce new work.
8. George Khabaz is a well-respected Lebanese playwright, director, and actor.
9. Al-Hemely is referring to the time that Abdulaziz Safar, a friend of George Khabaz, directed his play Matloob (Wanted) in Kuwait. Al-Hemely is noting the fact that Aziz had to change the script to abide by the government’s rules.
10. Bo Dariah means “father of the sea.” It is a mythical monster that comes at night to kill sailors in their sleep. Bo Dariah also pretends to be a drowning man. Sailors who try to save him get their supplies stolen and their ships damaged.
11. Al Gailah means “noon” and Hamara means “female donkey.” She is a hideous part-woman with the head and legs of a donkey, and she eats children who go out at noon.