There’s an anecdote that playwright and actor Nadim Sawalha loves to tell about his play based on the life of the iconic Lebanese-American artist, poet and writer Khalil Gibran.
“I read a line about how in 1908 Gibran met Teddy Roosevelt and asked him to help Lebanon free itself from the Ottoman yoke,” he recalls “I thought, ‘Wow, fancy that, an Arab artist sitting with the American president more than a 100 years ago’. It was a story that had to be told.”
But ‘Rest Upon The Wind’, which opened on Wednesday for a four-day run at the First Group Theatre, Madinat Jumeirah, in Dubai, doesn’t only focus on Gibran’s later life. In fact, it’s an intimate look at his life as an immigrant in America, the challenges he faced with adapting, the people who shaped his world view and his ultimate message of love and peace. Issues, Sawalha hopes, will resonate with audiences in the UAE.
“It’s a story that resounds to both the East and West. I’ve lived abroad for so many years and wanted to look at Gibran’s life, which I believe can be an insight into the lives of an awful lot of people. It’s also a mirror to the lives of immigrants who are seeking an identity and their position in the world.”
Gibran, who immigrated with his mother and siblings to the US from Lebanon, is, more than 80 years after his death, still considered a literary hero. ‘Rest Upon The Wind’ is also a phrase taken from his most well known and deeply philosophical book ‘The Prophet’.
Jordanian-born Sawalha, whose acting career includes Bond films The Spy Who Loved Me and The Living Daylights and the critically-acclaimed Captain Abu Raeed, for which he won a Best Actor award at the Dubai International Film Festival in 2007, first wrote the play 12 year ago and revisited it for this production.
“I found it was too lyrical and too wordy. So I developed it after Ali [Matar, the producer] approached me for this project and reworked it,” he says.
Besides his message of love and compassion, there are so many elements of Gibran’s life that is relevant to the Arab world, says the writer.
“I think his first major local message 100 years ago was in his book ‘Rebellious Spirits’ written in Arabic, which propagated human rights and the rights of women. And he was probably one of the first writers after a long period of negligence to call for human dignity and human pity for those who fall through the net, so to speak.
“Then came The Prophet, which is more of a self-help book and had an enormous impact on America and Europe because it came right at the end of the First World War and carried a beautiful message of love. And then there were his art.”
Sawalha, who first discovered the author when he was 17, says he found so many parallels between his life and that of Gibran’s. Born in Amman, he moved to England when he was 18 to study drama. His daughters, Julia and Nadia are well-known actors in the UK.
“I liked his perseverance,” he says of Gibran. “Despite his struggles, he believed in the nobility and spirituality – and he never gave up.”
Director Tanushka Marah, a Briton of Palestinian and Jordanian ancestry, thinks audiences in the UAE will be able to associate with the Arab themes, from the sense of humour to the spirit of the play.
“Miryanna, Gibran’s sister for instance, is like any aunt or mother in a typical Arab family. And from themes of immigration, relationship with America, a sense of belonging, identity, family… these are emotions that don’t change with time,” she says. “Also Nadim is very funny writer. That is what makes the play palatable. He’s very cheeky.”
Mona Ibellini, a Dubai-based TV presenter and journalist, was so impressed by the production of ‘Rest Upon The Wind’, she decided to make a film documenting it. Her self-funded documentary, ‘Backstage with Khalil Gibran’, have been screened at various events across town.
“The idea came to me last year when I found out there was going to be a play. I knew Ali, the producer, and the more he talked about it, the more I started visualising about a film on Gibran using the play as a foundation to talk about his life.” Filming began in June last year, and it took hours and hours of research, says Ibellini, a former Al Jazeera journalist who also wrote, produced and narrated the film.
“We had really great access. I was even helping with the make-up of the cast at some stage,” she recalls.
Making the 42-minute film was also a good excuse to talk about things she was passionate about, says Ibellini.
“There are so many themes that encompass Gibran’s life and that are in the play, like immigration for example. In the play you will see the young Gibran is taken to American with his siblings. That for me was a way of talking about immigration in general. One of the actresses is of Iraqi origin and that was a good excuse to discuss issues about identities and acceptance.”
The screening of the play, and the release of her film, which are not related, couldn’t have come to the Middle East at a better time, she says.
“[It’s] perfect with what’s going on in the world and the struggles especially in the region,” she says. “And also with people like Salma Hayek working on something based on Gibran’s work.”
Hayek is producing, along with the Doha Film Institute, a big screen animation of ‘The Prophet’, with each chapter directed by an award-winning filmmaker. Pre-production of the film began earlier this year.
“The Prophet has been an incredible source of wisdom and inspiration for millions of people all over the world. Being of Lebanese descent, I’m particularly proud to be part of a project that will present this masterpiece to new generations, in a way never seen before,” said Hayek in a release earlier.
Ibellini, who also plans to take her film to Lebanon and the US next, says she hopes people will be inspired and re-energised by Gibran’s message.
“It really comes down to the essence of love and peace and loving yourself, treating each other with respect and equality. It’s a very strong effective, inspiring message,” she says.
*Rest Upon The Wind runs at the First Group Theatre, Madinat Jumeirah, Dubai, until October 20 and at the Emirates Palace Hotel Theatre in Abu Dhabi on October 27. For ticket details, go to gibrantheplay.com