At the beginning of this discursive one-man show, a Silk Road Rising/Stage Left coproduction, Egyptian-American musician and storyteller Karim Nagi announces he’s taking his audience on a fanciful junket through the Arab world in order to counter the pervasive Western misrepresentations that reduce some 423 million people across 22 countries to mystical genies, exotic seductresses, or extremist terrorists—or, in Nagi’s characteristically glib yet piquant phraseology, to Aladdin, Jasmine, or Jafar. It’s an admirable goal, given the global carnage that results from the relentless othering of Arabs, but like the unwieldy tuk-tuk that’s supposed to carry us “tourists” along yet never gets put to much meaningful use, it’s difficult to know where this tour is headed.
Nagi adopts a playful persona, delighting in cultural customs that, in his estimation, demonstrate a distinct Arab sensibility. Much of this exploration is done through regional rhythm and dance, as Nagi plays his day-glo tabla like a virtuoso while dancing and/or telling stories in rhyming couplets. But he also finds time to lampoon and humanize daily rituals: Arabs, he says, enjoy clapping along to every song, overeating, and talking politics in small rooms, yelling at people who likely agree with them.
He also drops in a few character sketches, personal confessions, and disappointingly toothless cultural criticism (pointing out “orientalist” stereotyping in the fossilized 1955 film Kismet seems particularly facile). By the halfway point, when he’s turned the Arab Spring into a five-minute spoken-word piece, it seems Nagi’s assembling pieces without knowing what he’s building. v