Niqabi Ninja – Edinburgh International Festival

Written by Sara Shaarawi

Directed by Catrin Evans

Rating: 3 out of 5.

Simultaneously across five Scottish locations, a series of Graphic-Novel stills emerge over the various cities. They’re artwork – striking, sensational and tapping on a reservoir of potential brilliance; created by Gehan Mounir as marker pieces of Sara Shaarawi’s audio-story performance written in reaction to the mob sexual assaults in Tahrir Square, Cairo, which took place between 2012 – 2014 and their re-emergence still as harrowingly relevant today.

In a similar vein to contemporary rape-revenge narratives of a similar ilk (The Nightingale or Revenge), Niqabi Ninja channels the aggression and desperation a young woman Hana will go towards to keep herself and other women safe. Echoing her own experiences and words to a hypothetical being, an inner self desperate for the opportunity to emerge, this promenade method of storytelling throbs with a visceral desire to resist gendered and state violence, with a fearless and darkly comedic pulse.

Director Catrin Evans’ pacing understands the gravity and likeliness of distressing audience members as their walk moves into the latter half. And this weariness pervades into the structure as Niqabi Ninja has a sudden burst of momentum, only to stagnate and seem uneasy with progressing.

Not to say the subject matter is spoken down to – quite the contrary, as Evans’ direction is unapologetically righteous and efficacious in the force with which Rebecca Banatvala and Juliana Yazbeckchannel Shaarawi’s piece. It takes no shortcuts or side-lines to the abuse women have suffered, and the wandering hands and eyes men perpetrate. Both Banatvala and Juliana captivate the audience, and concoct a wicked sense of humour across the production, utilising their calming nature to ensure the audience’s safety and comfort as they listen to the more distressing moments.

Where the writing may take a grim and upsetting for many, mundane and troubling reality lies with the repeated mantra of the expectations of women as they walk home. The sharp objects between the fingers, bypassing dark paths, avoiding a man’s gaze and making it clear (for the third time) they aren’t interested. In these moments Shaawari captures a frangibleness that will later counteract the saturated bloodlust Yazbeck emanates for vengeance to clean the streets where no one else will.

Drip-fed, Mounir’s illustrations are lasting in their impact, but the limitation of six clouds the hour-long walk doing little to break up the production. There are points of reference where the graphics assign a ‘chapter’ to the narrative, but depending on the walker’s pacing and decision making (and sense of direction), they can simultaneously confuse listeners and potentially remove themselves from the story.

Their beacon-like placements in corners of Scotland’s famous cities service both the intrigue of passers-by and those willing to hunt out the staff-wielding sīmorgh of the night. A being rising from the winds, not by the light of day, but the intentions of midnight. The promenade theatre encourages the safe space to think about what it means to stroll the evening streets without fear and to reflect on the enraging factors which play a part in our streets remaining unsafe for women.

There’s such an intense desire for representation, and the war cry for the abuse to finally be over, that the diffusion of tension becomes messy – regardless of the magnitude of subject matter. The ferocity and intention of Shaarawi’s bite is prevalent, as is the eagerness to enjoy the piece, but Niqabi Ninja loses its way on its twilight stroll across these Scottish cities, lost in a world of words and brilliance it cannot quite articulate enough amidst the storytelling mechanics.

Photo Credit – Mihaela Bodlovic

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