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Illustration by Grace Shieh

Hekayah: A Virtual Performance

The event, curated and performed by diverse artists in celebration of the UAE National Day, is, at its core, a night of exploration on themes including identity, home and belonging through spoken word poetry, music and art.

Nov 28, 2020

From under the stars to in front of the screens, from cheering crowds to Facebook live comments, from Abu Dhabi audiences to viewers around the world, the sixth Hekayah, or The Story by the NYU Abu Dhabi Arts Center, took its virtual stage on Nov. 25. The event, curated and performed by diverse artists in celebration of the UAE National Day, is, at its core, a night of exploration on themes including identity, home and belonging through spoken word poetry, music and art.
Bill Bragin, Executive Artistic Director of the NYUAD Arts Center, shared that the inspiration for Hekayah came from La Casita, an event of the Lincoln Center that brings together locally based artists to share their artwork, selected by a committee of curators of diverse backgrounds. Similar to its predecessor, Hekayah this year gave a stage to 11 artists from countries including the UAE, U.S., Egypt, Kuwait, Pakistan, Australia, U.K., Saudi Arabia, Ghana, Canada, and Trinidad, performing arts from spoken word poetry, calligraffiti, Indie folk to classic Arabic singing.
To Bragin, Hekyah is not simply an event of the university and the Arts Center celebrating the UAE National Day. “It felt unique to NYUAD [as it] reflected the transnational reality of our campus community and of the larger UAE,” shared Bragin.
With the diverse curators of the selection committee as a defining feature of Hekayah, the team started as early as late July to nominate performers, review applications of these artists and present a lineup that is unique to that particular committee. “One of the things we’ve done from the beginning was to really think about who the curators are and how well they represent different aspects of society,” explained Bragin.
It is through this committee of past Hekayah performers, NYUAD faculty, students and non NYUAD members that the event can succeed in its ability to bring together many cultures and expand on artists’ existing networks, as shared by Lana Goliath, Associate Producer of the Arts Center.
Among the curators is Maitha AlSuwaidi, Class of 2021, a former Hekayah performer and an emerging UAE spoken word artist. “Being a co-curator for the first time taught me what it’s like to be a curator … that no perspective is right. We all come in with our opinions and it’s about how to bring different stories together and how to bring those stories to life,” shared AlSuwaidi. “The experience has also made me a better writer and performer.”
Originally from Sharjah, her work explores family, identity and mental health, in addition to bilingualism and womanhood. “My identity is intrinsically related to my identification with home, the UAE, especially through the moments in time that I try to capture in my mind and with my writing,” AlSuwaidi explained.
Her piece Amany’s Nose incorporated both Arabic and English and was performed with a theatrical factor of herself moving across the scenes guided by her words. “I bring together English and Arabic in my work because that’s the way we exist,” stated AlSuwaidi, elaborating on her comfort in speaking of specific topics only in a certain language.
To AlSuwaidi, Hekayah is a place where she can be true and supported: “Tell me about the big things that matter to you and your life that shaped who you are today. And you are allowed to be vulnerable … and [together we] celebrate that vulnerability.”
Throughout the evening, themes of family, identity and belonging, were continuously touched upon. “We want to go beyond patriotic, on themes that resonate on the National Day, including family, home, heritage … that explores what the UAE means to people,” Bragin stated. And in this performance special to the UAE, to Abu Dhabi and to NYUAD, these themes became transnational bridges that connect shared experiences of artists from across the world.
The performance of Miyamoto is Black Enough, a spoken word, alternative jazz funk group from the U.S. and Trinidad, explored the idea of what Brooklyn used to be. In this powerful performance of words, sound and images of the city, Bragin shared the piece’s strong ties to Abu Dhabi.
“The piece is about gentrification, about places that are no longer there and watching your neighborhoods change around you,” explained Bragin, elaborating how it resonated with him given that people in Abu Dhabi still refer to landmarks that no longer exist, such as the old fish market behind the DTC and the airport road that doesn’t lead to the airport. “It’s about what it means to live in a city that’s constantly being reshuffled around you but the old version of the city continues to linger in your memory.”
Typically performed on a stage outside of the NYUAD Arts Center, the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic pushed the event onto a new virtual stage. The event was live streamed on the NYUAD Arts Center’s website and Facebook with over thousands of views worldwide and participated by artists who were not necessarily restricted to the region. “It opened up parameters,” stated Bragin.
Taking advantage of the online stage, pre recorded footage, like those of Brooklyn shared by Miyamoto is Black Enough, became part of the artists’ presentation. “It gave us an opportunity to grow in a different area like editing and how to guide yourself in a video performance,” explained Goliath, sharing her amazement at how excitement and creativity bouncing off artists can still be felt online.
For Maryam Khalifa Alshehhi, Class of 2023 and a spoken word artist, her performance focused on themes of navigating between Ras Al Khaimah and Abu Dhabi, between the mountains and the sea. Her reflection of the self was enhanced with recorded scenes of her experiencing places in the UAE, the performance was filmed by Fatema Al Fardan, Class of 2020, who assisted in designing the visual aspects of Al Raheel, a theatrical work performed by both Alshehhi and AlSuwaidi earlier this year, signifying Hekayah’s strength in building a community of local artists.
Throughout the night and across the virtual screens, breathtaking performances followed one another, including Zohab Khan, a spoken word artist from Pakistan, Australia and the U.K., who discussed his family history and pride of being from a lineage of warriors. Rasha Alduwaisan, an oral historian and poet from Kuwait, presented three beautiful poems reflecting on the relation of humans and the environment, and how that differed and resonated with the nomadic roots of the region.
From the NYUAD Office of Public Affairs, Maisoon Mubarak from Egypt and the UAE performed stunning classic Arabic singing while her colleagues and friends supported with a watch party and complementary comments during the live stream. “This is an opportunity for us to celebrate some of the hidden talents and bring out people who are a part of the community but in a different way,” Bragin stated.
Online adaptations have made Hekayah different from before, including a shorter, tighter lineup of live and pre recorded performances that allowed artists to interact with the audience real time during the performance. “It made the artist and the performer approachable; it generates a conversation between audience and performer as the performance is happening,” observed AlSuwaidi.
Additionally, it also gave artists more opportunities to present their works in different formats. “You have a lot of control about what you get to see and how you get to view it. So it’s more curation on your end … it’s poetry and theater, it’s poetry and performance.” shared AlSuwaidi, although she, along with Goliath and other producers, have missed the feeling of being on stage and producing performances in real time.
Despite the changes, the core of Hekayah remains unchanged. “Hekayah is one of those unconventional, unique performances where you really showcase all of the UAE, everything it represents, all the people, all the stories, all the history and all the Emirates,” reflected AlSuwaidi.
Hekayah, The Story, was a night not of flamboyant festivity, but rather, an intimate space of sharing, reflecting and celebrating the journeys of each individual, their families and the memories they carry as they navigate the UAE and around the world. It was a night truly distinctive to the UAE and NYUAD, to a community of people of fluidity who are by heart, by experience, by birth, wanderers, artists and storytellers, who came together to celebrate the uniqueness of this identity.
Grace Shieh is Deputy Features Editor. Email her at
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