World

The Show Must Go On

Qatar’s expats confront tragedy

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• 912 words

Doha—The final dress rehearsal of the Doha Players’ Sinbad the Sailor is a calamitous affair. A phalanx of children lines the stage, occasionally screeching its way down the aisles. A towering, dreadlocked black American in drag, several short, balding Brits in lamé pants, a chunky Canuck in a flower-print dress and floppy sun hat, and sundry others dressed as seafaring Arabs from the disco era round out the cast, ethnically if not sartorially representative of Qatar’s expats. A gaudy print of the Yemeni city of Shibam—dubbed the Manhattan of the desert for its mud-brick “skyscrapers”—hangs from the set, while in the wings, shimmering tinsel and a large tinfoil fish evoke an under-the-sea-themed prom night.

The amateur theatre troupe has been one of the city’s few persistent cultural institutions since Qatar started pumping oil in 1949, and this furiously air-conditioned college auditorium is its temporary home. Kerry Suek, a cheerful, heavy-set college instructor from Labrador City with ba-da-bum comic timing, is the Players’ past chairman and chief booster. He’s been acting his whole life, and with the Players since he arrived in Doha in 2002. “I came in from the airport, I went to my hotel, had a nap, and called ’em,” he remembers. “I went to an audition, got a part, and tried to be in everything.” Many other Players tell a similar story. Dima Issa, a twentysomething Lebanese-Canadian woman with large, dark eyes, has been with the troupe since she was twelve. “This was my home, my outlet,” she says. “It made me who I am.”

For twenty-five years, the Doha Players’ theatre compound provided a refuge for foreigners living in the Qatari capital. But during a performance of Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night on March 19, 2005, just as Suek, playing Feste, was about to utter a fool’s witticism, Omar Ahmed Abdullah Ali, an Egyptian expat in his thirties, drove a Land Cruiser loaded with explosives and old car parts through a barrier and into the compound. Issa, as Viola, was onstage with Suek when the air inside the theatre simply disappeared. Jonathan Adams, a British teacher and the play’s director, had opened the auditorium door to see what the racket outside was about when the bomb detonated. The explosion blew Adams back inside and reduced the building to smouldering rubble.

Still dressed as ancient Illyrians, the cast dragged an unrecognizably disfigured Adams outside and tried to revive him in the scorched parking lot. One audience member was yanking out chunks of her hair. Others were screaming, looking for friends and family members. Adams’s wife, Rosemary, wandered through the flaming wreckage calling Jonathan’s name; Suek desperately performed cpr, not realizing at first that he was leaning over the blistered body of his friend. Fortunately, the full force of the blast had not hit the audience, but the compound was levelled, and Adams died staring up into the eyes of a fool.

The attack gave the lie to the idea that, like Shakespeare’s Illyria, Doha was a parallel and untouchable world, a place that could be here, there, or anywhere. Expats in Doha live a divided existence, one foot at home, one in a desert steadily giving way to Western comforts. But those comforts come at a price. “I said to myself before I came here that I’m going to a country where the crazy people are looking for me,” Suek recalls. “So when the bomb happened, I thought, there it is.”

Issa, however, is not so phlegmatic. “I’m a little nervous these days,” she says. “There’s lots of security here, and I suppose I’m trying not to think about it.” At home, Issa has been unable to close her Twelfth Night script; it lies open to the line “Here comes the man, sir, that did rescue me.” She was close to Adams, who was her way into Shakespeare. “He was old school—very superstitious. You couldn’t say Macbeth in a theatre around him.”

Issa’s high-heeled Sinbad boots clunk along the boards as she is called to the stage to join her chintz-swathed cast mates. The music starts up with a deafening feedback squeal. Lights dim and spots hit the tinsel, approximating rippling water. Sinbad marks the first time that Issa has performed since the bombing; the jittery, damaged woman of a few minutes ago has transformed herself into a pantomime ham onstage. Play by play, performance by performance, the Players have rebuilt themselves—The Importance of Being Earnest, Uncle Vanya, Annie. Suek’s next role is in Neil Simon’s Laughter on the 23rd Floor. A fundraising drive, initiated by Qatari authorities and generously supported by the Emir, may mean a theatre will once again stand in the compound’s charred footprint. A section of the new building will be named after Adams.

In Twelfth Night, Feste’s mirthful histrionics and good cheer overcome the dour fundamentalism of Malvolio, in this case played to tragic effect by Omar Ahmed Abdullah Ali. But Feste himself puts it best: “Any thing that’s mended, is but patched.” Malvolio still skulks in the wings, awaiting his cue.

Richard Poplak (richardpoplak.com) is the author of The Sheikh’s Batmobile; Ja, No, Man; Kenk: A Graphic Portrait; and Braking Bad: Chasing Lance Armstrong and the Cancer of Corruption, an ebook.