This week Egyptian artist Wael Shawky played his world-renowned, The Song of Roland: The Arabic Version, in the Theater an der Wien in Austria.
Wael Shawky’s work had its world premiere at the Theater der Welt Festival in Hamburg on 27 May 2017. Work on the production began through a residency for Shawky hosted by Sharjah Art Foundation in March 2017. Since then it has received enormous critical acclaim and has toured globally.
In The Song of Roland, Shawky takes one of the most famous medieval epic poems in European cultural history, and tells it from another perspective. He draws on the oldest traditional work of eleventh-century French literature, written between 1040 and 1115 in the time of the Emperor Charlemagne, which glorifies his reign and conquests along with his nephew Roland’s heroic battle against the Saracens (a term used to describe Muslim Arabs). The translation and adaptation of this text into classical Arabic is sung by twenty fidjeri singers, a vocal tradition which has its roots in the Arabian Gulf and dates back more than 800 years.
The result is a thought provoking and disturbing play. Seemingly certain historical facts are put under scrutiny and questions of cultural identity are raised. Shawky’s work, while ancient in its source, is highly topical and speaks to present day issues of Islamophobia and extremism.