Authentic Rumi on a London theatre

The diverse cast members bringing to life the story of Sufi poet Rumi hope to dispel Western stereotypes of the region.

Nadim Naaman, who plays Rumi in 'Rumi: The Musical', rehearses with his cast at London's Royal Shakespeare Company [Urooba Jamal/Al Jazeera]

London, United Kingdom – In a large room of the Royal Shakespeare Company’s London quarters, a rehearsal ensemble gets to work, knee-deep in final preparations for Rumi: The Musical.

The stage production brings to life the story of Jalal al-Din Rumi, the revered Persian poet. The group includes Nadim Naaman, a British-Lebanese singer, actor and writer Dana Al Fardan, known as Qatar’s first female composer, and several other mostly Middle Eastern, North African, and South Asian members.

Rumi expressed his ideologies through music and dance, “the components of musical theatre”, Naaman, who plays Rumi, told Al Jazeera during a rehearsal break. They decided to “take [Rumi’s] text … and see what happens”, he added.

Known simply as Rumi, the Sufi poet’s aphorisms – or aphorisms attributed to him – are quoted endlessly in the West. In the lyrics of songs by pop stars from Madonna to Coldplay, on paraphernalia sold online, or on social media messages hoping to inspire.

But Rumi, still the best-selling poet in the US today due to translations of his work by Coleman Barks in the mid-1970s, is often stripped of his Muslim identity.

It is that Rumi Naaman and Al Fardan hope to bring audiences worldwide – played by people who came from the same region.

“Across the Middle East … there are many fans of the arts and many fans of theatre, but they spent their whole life only seeing Western stories on stage,” said Naaman.

“We thought we would see what would happen if we incorporated that style with iconic figures from the arts and literary scenes of the Middle East.”

The cast of ‘Rumi: the Musical’ during a rehearsal at London’s Royal Shakespeare Company [Urooba Jamal/Al Jazeera]

‘Dispel stereotypes’

“[Y]ou don’t get these universally accessible … beautiful thoughts associated with the Middle East [in] Western media,” Al Fardan, who is usually based in Doha, told Al Jazeera.

The musical is based on a novel written by Evren Sharma and its 20 songs are inspired by Rumi’s poetry.

It recounts Rumi’s encounter with the mystic known as Shams of Tabriz and its aftermath. The two are rumoured to have had a love affair, even as Rumi was married with two children.

Because it follows this earlier period of Rumi’s life, before he became a poet, Naaman says the musical helps humanise him.

When Shams disappeared, Rumi turned to poetry, writing thousands of poems dedicated to him, the Prophet Muhammad and God.

Shams is played by Ramin Karimloo, an Iranian-Canadian Tony-nominated actor.

Benjamin Armstrong plays Sayyed, a follower and friend of Rumi in ‘Rumi: the Musical’ [Urooba Jamal/Al Jazeera]

‘A room of creatives who look like you’

Ahmed Hamad, who plays Rumi’s son Aladdin, said that during rehearsals, he felt free to introduce himself with a non-Anglicised pronunciation of his name.

“Usually, there’s one or two people of ethnicity in musicals,” Hamad, whose heritage is Sudanese, told Al Jazeera. “To look around and see a full room of creative people that look like you … it’s so heartwarming.”

Benjamin Armstrong, who has Sri Lankan ancestry and plays Sayyed, a friend and follower of Rumi, is making his debut on the West End.

“There’s nothing else that I want to be doing,” he said.

The musical builds on the success of Al Fardan and Naaman’s 2018 show Broken Wings, based on a novel by the Lebanese poet and writer Kahlil Gibran. That production, which returns to London in January after a pandemic pause, helped the duo discover an appetite for Middle Eastern icons.

“Dana and I as a team we represent … so many exchanges: one male, one female, one Christian, one Muslim, one based in Europe, one based in the Middle East,” said Naaman. “We want to promote that. We want to show what happens when the Middle East and the West join forces.”

Rumi the Musical will be playing at the London Coliseum on November 23 and 24.

Source: Al Jazeera