The desert has made an imprint on the landscape of my soul

I have met inspiring Arab women through my work says Padraig Downey, an Irish theatre maker in Dubai

Padraig Downey with Emirati actor friends

Padraig Downey with Emirati actor friends

 

Padraig Downey, who is originally from The Hill of Allen in Kildare, left Ireland in 2002. Having lived in California, New York, Paris and Rome , he has lived in Dubai since 2011 and is currently working as a theatre director and instructor

Five years ago, I wrote in Irish Times Abroad about my experiences starting a theatre company in Dubai, Danú Dubai, and how it ignited a movement. Having been close to leaving to take up other opportunities, something unexpected happened. In 2019, I was awarded a Golden Visa by the Dubai Government for my role in developing theatre in the United Arab Emirates . I was one of the first artists to receive such an honour and the first to have “Theatre Director” as an occupation listed on my visa.

Before I knew it, my photo was in the newspapers alongside Ronaldo, Novak Djokovic and Luis Figo: a surreal experience. Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, prime minister of the UAE brought in a cultural visa scheme to retain cultural talent. Other categories - sports, science and business - were also included. The Golden Visa is a renewable 10-year visa making it easier to do freelance work and be independent, the next best thing to a passport, I guess.

I’ve directed more than 30 productions in Dubai over the past decade. What started as a desire to mobilise the community and bring some theatre to the city has exploded into a cultural oasis and I’m humbled to have been a part of it. Now, there are new productions each week with multilingual theatre troupes; there is an opera, a digital theatre, a devoted area just for the arts (Alserkal Avenue) as well as a number of theatre spaces which are popping up all over the city.

It is still a challenge as fees for theatre spaces are extortionate along with all the red tape. Some highlights over the past couple of years have been a rewriting of A Doll’s House by Ibsen, placing Emirati and Arab actors in the roles (women in the UAE have the right to divorce); an Arab version of Hamlet, a collaboration with actress Sahar Ali about growing up black and Muslim in Ireland; as well as a piece on Rachel Corrie, who died while defending Palestinian homes in Gaza. Cindy Corrie, Rachel’s mother, wrote a thank you note.

Much of my work focuses on women and the stories they have to tell. I have connected with Arab playwrights to showcase their work. I don’t take payment for my work (I earn my money teaching). Any surplus revenue is donated to charity, especially refugee charities.

The Emiratis are very welcoming once an effort is made. We have communal dinner; seated on the floor, sharing food from one massive plate, eating with our right hands. Rice is their potato

My recent Irish pieces have ranged from Beckett to Enda Walsh and Marina Carr. I don’t have an image of Ireland frozen in time and don’t feel obliged to show a romanticised Ireland. Getting support from the Irish embassy can depend on the individual ambassador and their personal tastes. The sports are sponsored and celebrated as they should be, but we are often forgotten. I have received requests from royal families from Gulf countries to discuss or share theatre and I am always pleasantly surprised at their openness and enthusiasm for theatre.

I also teach theatre, starting at 7am, finishing at 5pm, which is followed by adult theatre rehearsals or project work in the evenings until 9pm. I have worked with the Ministry of Education and the Ministry of Tolerance here on project work such as a major show promoting tolerance featuring 400 young people. Weekend work is the norm. I am also completing another Master’s in international relations so I try to make time for study. When I finish my studies in a few months, I hope to specialise in Middle Eastern diplomacy with SOAS, London.My friends are mostly from the UAE. Most weeks, I visit my friend’s majlis, which is an area where men sit adjacent to the house and we drink tea, chat, plan and catch up. Through the majlis, I have made many friends. The Emiratis are very curious and welcoming once an effort is made. We have communal dinner; seated on the floor, sharing food from one massive plate, eating with our right hands. Rice is their potato; they like to add yogurt and hot sauce. We eat meat; chicken, lamb or ostrich and camel (on special occasions). The men take pride in how they prepare their rice and meat.

We never clash about religion; there is respect shown; the Abrahamic religions have more similarities than differences. I have been a guest at their weddings, have held their newborns and have mourned the passing of their loved ones. If we were to meet in the main house, female relatives would cover as I am not family - hence the function of the majlis. Many Emirati and Gulf women are highly educated and some choose not to cover.

I have met inspiring Arab women through my work, including those in roles of authority such as ministers and sheikhas (royal women); there is a real movement towards women being more present in leadership. I also teach local and Gulf women; they are bright and inquisitive, with many going to elite universities around the world including in Ireland, which their government sponsors.

On weekends, I go to my friends’ farms, especially in the winter. They adore the rain and the winter “chill” in the same way we cherish a bit of sun. Poetry and storytelling are a huge part of our evening around the fire. The men cook by placing the food in a cooking pit in the ground, the traditional way. I enjoy visiting my Omani, Kuwaiti and Bahraini friends (many of whom studied in Dublin).

Padraig Downey (right) celebrating the wedding of a friend in Dubai
Padraig Downey (right) celebrating the wedding of a friend in Dubai

The approach to Covid has been strict but pragmatic. Mask wearing is non-negotiable. There is a feeling that we want to get through this as quickly as possible and that we trust what the government is doing. Many people lost their jobs or took salary cuts. I continued my theatre rehearsals online and luckily the government allowed us to perform with a reduced capacity, suspending all fees to encourage us. I was also invited to be part of an advisory group so that policy-makers could listen to the needs of artists.

When I was home in Ireland recently, I could not understand how people can be crammed onto a train or Luas, yet not attend a socially-distanced performance in a theatre? The Arts deserve more.

In Dubai, the economy is bouncing back; students are back; the vaccination rate is one of the highest in the world, and Dubai is gearing up for the biggest event ever to take place in the Arab world: EXPO, the World Fair, which starts on October 1st. The mantra here is to learn to live with Covid as safely as possible. Testing is robust and inexpensive; there is an app in which a nurse comes to your door to do a test within two hours. The rules in Abu Dhabi have been stricter. We were fortunate in Dubai as there were a range of vaccines available from early in the year.

I never imagined I would still be here, a decade on, but I have been welcomed with open arms. I like to make the most of every place and believe that we can all make a positive change, in our own small way. Regardless of where I go in the future; through my friends, I will always feel at home here. The desert landscape has made an imprint on the landscape of my soul.

If you live overseas and would like to share your experience with Irish Times Abroad, email abroad@irishtimes.com with a little information about you and what you do

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