A History of Water in the Middle East – Royal Court

Reviewer: Maryam Philpott

Writer: Sabrina Mahfouz

Director: Steph O’Driscoll

The myths of the British Empire are built on the might of the Royal Navy, and what resource does a powerful navy require above any other? – water. Controlling access to the seas of the world ensured British trade routes were developed and protected, the political consequences of which Sabrina Mahfouz’s 2019 play A History of Water in the Middle East explores, and now available as an hour-long audio drama available from the Royal Court.

In a whistle-stop tour of seven countries in the Middle East, Mahfouz ‘connects the dots’ between very different water stories, political uses and historic associations with the British Empire’s desire to protect its economic requirements whatever the cost. A History of Water in the Middle East makes a compelling case for the very contemporary consequences of Imperialism in each of these nations, while an interview for the Secret Intelligence Service (SIS) in 2009 frames the conversation.

Filled with facts and examples, Mahfouz’s play has an energetic beat poetry approach that mixes lecture-style delivery with dramatised talking heads, songs and garage music. It moves swiftly from place to place, building its damning case that puts water rather than oil at the centre of international concerns, using the devices of entertainment to make fierce and convincing political arguments about the legacy of empire and the long shadow of historical decisions made decades or centuries ago.

What makes A History of Water in the Middle East so interesting is the ways in which Mahfouz’s overarching narrative comments on both the sweep of history and the very personal, individual experience of water shortages and management. From the search for Weapons of Mass Destruction in an Iraq separated from the sea after the First World War giving America a chance to flex its international muscles to Britain re-establishing its Naval base in Bahrain, sexual assaults on women in Yemen and the wealthy inhabitants of the UAE advancing science to preserve their own privilege, the wider implications of water politics are fascinating and impassioned.

All of this is framed by an increasingly accusatory interview with an Establishment figure within the Security Services vetting Mahfouz in 2009 for a role she was asked to apply for it. What begins as an interesting contrast between two very different people builds to something much more suspicious as the Interviewer attacks Mahfouz with questions about her finances, whether she associates the British flag with violence and her father’s attitudes to the Suez crisis. What it reveals are blinkered attitudes to the value of different cultural experiences and why the mindset of Britain’s elite figures is stuck in the past.

Performed by Mahfouz, Laura Hanna, David Mumeni and Kareem Samara, this audio adaptation is as compelling and lively as it must have been on stage, blending acted scenes, description and music but retaining a clear narrative and creative voice that never deviates from the exploration of ‘landscapes, lies and legacies’ in the Middle East and the continuing scramble for control of its water.

Runs here until 30 January

The Reviews Hub Score

Fierce and convincing

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The Reviews Hub - London

The Reviews Hub London is under the acting editorship of Richard Maguire. The Reviews Hub was set up in 2007. Our mission is to provide the most in-depth, nationwide arts coverage online.

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