Ibn Battuta — A musical odyssey

Friday 19/06/2015
Egyptian actor Abdel-Rahman Abou Zahra

Muscat - “Fasten your seat belts and get ready for a journey alongside Ibn Battuta,” read the pro­gramme notes for Ibn Battuta: A Musical Journey through Arabia at the Royal Opera House in Muscat.
The curtain rises inside the grand hall of this state-of-the-art build­ing, the pride of Oman, and the audience is invited to follow in the footsteps of one of the world’s most notable travellers – the 14th-century Moroccan scholar Abu Ab­dullah Muhammad Ibn Abdullah al-Lawati al-Tanji Ibn Battuta.
“Travel abroad, search for the highest bounty, seek knowledge even as far as China,” Ibn Battuta wrote in his account of the 75,000 miles he travelled during 30 years crossing the kaleidoscopic Muslim world, recounting his encounters with kings and sultans, holy men and mystics, dervishes and warri­ors and magicians and fire-eaters.
Bringing together 180 artists from the Arab world and Europe, Ibn Battuta: A Musical Journey pre­sents one of the greatest journeys of all time. It begins in modern times with passengers at an airport in a hurry to find their departure gates. A girl (played by Heba Raslan) finds an old book and is joined by Ibn Battuta in old age, played by Egyp­tian actor Abdel-Rahman Abou Zahra, who walks her through his life story, presented in captivating music, choreography and sets.
Ibn Battuta lived in the golden age of Muslim travel, encounter­ing many different peoples and customs. Drawing on this idea, Ibn Battuta: A Musical Journey unites the artistic forces of many coun­tries. The music was composed and conducted by Hisham Gabr (Egypt), and the dancing was cho­reographed by Walid Aouni (Leba­non). The piece was performed by the Orchestra I Pomeriggi Mu­sicali (Italy), the Conservatory of the Lebanon Choir, the Sofia Ballet Company (Bulgaria), and soloists and actors from Egypt, Lebanon and Oman. Lighting was by Karoly Ferenczy (Hungary), and costumes were by Dina Nadeem (Egypt).
The audience is taken to the city of Tangiers in Morocco, where Ibn Battuta was born, and then to Egypt, the Levant and the Gulf. Through a mix of colours, striking sets and splendid costumes, the piece represents the uniqueness of each country. The captivating blend of Western music with orien­tal nuances adds particular splen­dour to the show, and Gabr’s score is rich in harmonies from both modern and historical music and features a skilful mixture of West­ern and oriental scales.
From the beat-driven music that reflects commotion at the airport, the audience is taken to a second scene where the ambiance of the Muslim world is felt for the first time. Captivating projections are used, along with percussive, dance-like music featuring colourful or­chestration. The following scene, presenting Egypt, moves the audi­ence from the country’s pharaonic to Islamic eras. Again, projections are used to transport the audience to ancient Egypt with the composer choosing glorious colours and unu­sual rhythms and scales to suggest the music of the period.
The Islamic part of the piece is a showcase for Gabr’s harmonisation of the Western and oriental musical scales, the latter not lacking char­acteristic quarter tones.
The audience follows the older Ibn Battuta’s memories, while his younger self, played by Ezz el Os­tool, interacts with the girl. The orchestra is joined by the choir and soloists who lead the audience further into the Levant. The music becomes soothing and melodious, delivering an oriental feel.
The scene set in Oman is a skilful mixture of rhythmically complex segments and symphonic orches­tration as Omani traditional musi­cians take to the stage. In the finale, breathtaking, rondo-like music is used that incorporates the previ­ous themes. Wrapped in an extrav­aganza of colours and movement, dancers fill the stage to celebrate Ibn Battuta’s years of journeys and discoveries.
The historical Ibn Battuta trav­elled further to South and East Asia, but the musical ends in Oman. Though the piece was also performed in Bahrain in 2012 in a smaller version, producer Ahmed Abouzahra considers its staging at the Royal Opera House in Oman to be its world premiere. In July, it is to be performed at the Expo 2015 in Milan, and Abouzahra has prom­ised to take it yet further afield.
Leaving the hall after the perfor­mance and inspired by this tale of distant times and places, the audi­ence cannot fail to be aware of the show’s importance for regional musical history. The Arab world has seen successful projects mar­rying music with theatre before, among them the operettas of Egyp­tian composer Sayed Darwish and pieces performed by the famous Caracalla Dance Theatre in Leba­non, but Ibn Battuta: A Musical Journey is the first contemporary piece that unites a full-size orches­tra with a choir, soloists, dancers and actors.
Ibn Battuta: A Musical Journey through Arabia was performed May 30th and 31st at the Royal Opera House in Muscat.