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Meet the artist after the performance on 10/05
Dubbing is the process of providing a soundtrack to films or series in a foreign language. The re-recording of voices gives the image an anthropomorphic power and makes it seem real. Ever since her childhood in Kuwait, Monira Al Qadiri has been fascinated by the shift between cultures and identities through the Japanese cartoons she faithfully watched that were dubbed in Arabic. She herself is developing a multidisciplinary and multimedia work today that defies categorisation. For Feeling Dubbing, she brings dubbing out of the dark to create a sculpture of sounds. In it the human voice gets its own body: it is spoken, recorded and replayed, multiplied and propagated. It becomes a “thing”, an element that shapes what we are and what we do in the world. Feeling Dubbing is a tragedy of fragmentation and plurality, a lucid and funny piece on the confusion sown in our lives by the stream of images from popular culture. The cryptic story of “the Voice”.
Concept, creation & direction
Monira Al Qadiri
Monira Al Qadiri, Wahid Jalal
Technical direction & light design
Puppeteering & puppet design
Ma’n Abu Taleb & Monira Al Qadiri
Doris Boerman, Gaelle Choisne, Aldo Brinkhoff
Sacha Camus, Mohammed El Majide, Jean-Vitold Godin, Emma Laurent, Zoé Lemage, Axelle Matongo Ngima, Léo Nortier, Kamal Otmani, Cameron Peki Vania Ya Luzolo, Barnabé Philippe, Simon Vanden Steen, Roxane Vanpevenaeyge, Andrei Vasilescu
Special thanks to
Adèle Cooken, Sébastien Marandon and the scolars of l’Institut Sainte-Marie (Rue Emile Feron 5, 1060 Brussels)
Kunstenfestivaldesarts, Boghossian Foundation – Villa Empain
Kunstenfestivaldesarts, Thalia Theater / Theater der Welt 2017 (Hamburg)
Six Short Stories on Arabic Voice Acting
It felt like a sacred pilgrimage when I first arrived at the ruins of what was once Baalbeck Studios in a suburb of Beirut. This magical place that had changed the course of my life was now abandoned and lying in neglect, overgrown with weeds and vegetation, barbed wire encircling its easily trespassed fences. I was lucky there was still the Arabic sign outside to indicate its physical existence. It left me speechless to imagine all the strange and wondrous activities taking place in those exposed, dilapidated rooms some decades ago, at a time when a belief in the imaginative life of the pan-Arab child was at its peak, and when contributing to our collective cultural experience was viewed as a serious undertaking worth everyone’s while.
Baalbeck Studios was famous for recording countless albums of many a legendary Arab diva, and was also the largest music and television production facility in the Middle East at the time (1962-1994). However, there is another history of performance here that is much less trodden, less recounted, and was perhaps never offered the luxury of the spotlight, though it is deeply etched into our infantile collective memory. A history forever relegated to the realm of urban myth, hearsay, or obscure online blog commentary. It is the history of Voice.
In the 1980s, a group of Lebanese producers and actors took it upon themselves to translate foreign cartoons into Arabic for children across the Arab world. Since animation was such a technical and costly undertaking and no such industry existed locally, dubbing a pre-existing cartoon seemed like the next best thing, something to feed a generation of kids hungry for Arabic popular culture. With financial investment coming in from Kuwait, the Lebanese producers carefully handpicked animated television series that they assumed wouldn’t be too outlandish or foreign in content for Arab audiences. For reasons that I have not quite deciphered yet, most of these cartoons were Japanese in origin. So in reality, the content was very alien and otherworldly to the Arab child’s eye despite the producers’ best intentions.
Mysterious Kanji script, unfamiliar names, strange traditional clothing, weird cuisine, mountainous landscapes, and inexplicable rituals were all part of the concoction called Karton Yabanee (Japanese cartoon). In fact, many children were unaware that these films were actually Japanese, which gave them an added fantastical, cryptic edge. They were dramatic and grandiose, emanating from a mysterious, faraway, two-dimensional universe that we could never physically reach.
As a seven year-old living through the Gulf War (1990-1991), the things we could do as kids while in hiding at home or in bombproof basements, were limited. School was permanently off the cards and we weren’t allowed to leave the house, so naturally we were bored out of our minds, and, being children, we obviously didn’t fully grasp the dangers we were living through. Our parents did their best to distract us from the war raging outside by providing practical and mentally-stimulating toys to pass the long, idle hours indoors. Most of our time was spent painting and drawing, playing video games, and watching cartoons between power cuts. Escapism was the order of the day. The Arabic-dubbed Japanese cartoons were especially poignant – we watched the VCR over and over again, slowly destroying the tape with each repeat viewing. The visuals, the characters, the story, the setting: everything was so colourful and so much more beautiful than dreary war-torn Kuwait.
My favourite was the one about a crazed noodle-eating ninja named Kabamaru who was forced to relocate to Tokyo after his oppressive grandfather died in their rural family dojo. He enrolled in a high school as a ‘regular’ student, only to cause a ruckus because of his absolute inability to adapt to modern life. His tanned skin, thick black hair, and enormously playful but primitive character, mirrored me. His superhuman ninja abilities made it seem like the world was infinitely malleable, and his masculine Arabic voice was powerful and triumphant. For us, this was a necessary dose of hyper fantasy that helped us get over the helplessness of war.
It was thus both coincidental and ironic when later I found out that these cartoons had been dubbed in Beirut during the early 1980s, arguably the worst stage of the 15-year civil war in Lebanon. In 1982, Israel invaded Beirut and Baalbeck Studios was reported to have been bombed. All activities there subsequently stopped. According to several online fanblogs, the dubbing of many of these cartoons had to be rushed as a result. Dubbing-voices were exchanged or multiplied according to who could actually get to the studio on any given day. Different characters often had the same voice or temporarily changed voices mid-episode. As young viewers, we noticed the changes, but they somehow became part and parcel of the whole mysterious experience surrounding the composition.
Although now I am beginning to wonder how intense the strain would have been on the actors living through such dire circumstances while focusing their time on the job of dubbing. It must have heightened their emotional input in this seemingly invisible activity. Perhaps they imagined their recorded voices being the last traces of themselves left in this world, foreseeing that they may or may not be alive tomorrow. Would this explain why the vocal performances and expressions were so intense? So convincing? The explosive need to be excessively creative reflected my own experience of war. The close shadow of death is a muse.
“This is a topic about the legends of old dubbing. I am asking all the members to describe the feeling aroused by their favourite dubbing actor or actress, and which are the scenes in which the intensity of the voice cannot be portrayed in words. As for my personal opinion on feeling dubbing, I mean that when the voice is so fantastic it outshines the image, even when we hear the voice without the images we can feel real emotion, whether the scene is happy or sad.”
Excerpt from the kaizu.land blog on Arabic dubbing
As many a fan would attest, the emotional power of the Arabic voice-acting that was hidden behind the recycled Japanese animations was astounding. Not only did the actors perform their anthropomorphic duty towards the characters themselves, but somehow they also outdid them, bestowing additional life to the entire scenario. The level of theatricality and playfulness they injected into the sequences directly energised our tender psyches, elevating the voice above the image, where it almost felt as if the image was no longer a necessary part of the equation. We were witnessing a new theatre of voice, with acting liberated from vision. It was magical, surreal, and very passionate.
The melodramatic nature of the Arabic language also helped achieve this effect, especially since the lexicon employed was classical Arabic (fus-ha). Since Arabic is diglossic, classical Arabic is never used in day-to-day situations. The reason behind its use here is most likely educational or imbued with a utopic vision of pan-Arabia, in that the script can be understood by any Arab child who decides to tune in. Unlike contemporary dubbing, which focuses on dialects to forge a sense of informal intimacy, the combination of the high-brow fus-ha with the absurd, animated scenes, just exaggerates the perception of otherworldliness. In our young minds, classical Arabic became the de-facto language of cartoons. I would repeat Al-Quraydes Al-Maqley (fried shrimp) after Kabamaru, when he eyed a sumptuous bento box. We memorised and repeated these lines again and again, as if learning the code to a secret language – the language of robots, ninjas, and princesses.
In the end, the drawings, the characters, and the story were all a work of fiction, but the voices were real. The voice is a trace of the human body, an ephemeral projection of vocal chords into space. Recording it allows that ephemeral moment to be re-echoed over and over again in countless spaces and minds and memories.
Generating vigour in a momentary oral performance can have the same power as the permanence of visual representation, but in this configuration it remains anonymous and invisible. I began fantasising about putting names to these voices. I wanted to someday meet the voices. “One day,” I thought to myself, “I will find the voice of Kabamaru and thank him. His voice really guided me and shaped who I was to become.”
Standing by the Tooth of the Elephant
When I began living in Beirut in 2011, I sensed that the geographic triangle of my life – Kuwait, Japan, Lebanon – was now somehow complete. What seemed like a random collection of places would suddenly describe an intrinsic relationship, as if fate had forced them together, crystallised by my own life and body. In truth, ushered by this obsession with Arabic-dubbed Japanese cartoons, I moved to Tokyo in 1999 at the age of 16, and studied there for 10 years. With time, I became convinced that if it wasn’t for the Arabic voice actors, the cartoons may not have been so convincing and my life might have turned out differently. In fact, I had watched the series in its original Japanese format and it didn’t even come close to the dramatic intensity that the Arabic version had expressed. This was a bittersweet disposition, especially since I had an extreme love-hate relationship with modern life in Japan itself. I was always left wondering whether it was really the right decision to go there or not, whether my childish obsession with this two-dimensional fus-ha-speaking world was mainly concealing a serious desire to escape. To escape from repression, patriarchy, and boredom.
I stood there frozen in front of Baalbeck Studios in the suburb of Sin el Fil (literally: The Tooth of the Elephant). Strange thoughts flooded my mind. I felt the need to recite a poem. In Arabic literature, there is a formof prose called Standing by the Ruins, in which a melancholic eulogy isdedicated to the ruins that deceased loved ones once occupied. I imaginemy poem would read like this:
“There are abandoned rooms
In the tooth of the elephant,
Where voices once proudly spoken
Still ring in my ears.”
Where is William?
I entered an old phone booth in Beirut with a number scribbled on a small piece of paper. A friend of a friend who was an actor in the 1980s had told me this was the contact number for the voice of Kabamaru, and hastily wrote it down for me. He said he hadn’t been in touch for years and that he didn’t want anything to do with him. Apparently Kabamaru’s life was not as glamorous as I’d like to have imagined: he was now a wandering, penniless drug-addict. Kabamaru’s real name was William. I phoned and let it ring and ring, but there was no answer. The next day I tried again. And the next day. There was no answer. Where was William?
I had heard from other acquaintances that many actors of that generation were currently living in miserable conditions, some of them completely excluded from acting or anything to do with theatre. It made me sad to think that the group of people that had once given us so many colourful dreams – and perhaps risked their lives while doing so – were now living in squalor. They were never honoured or revered for their vocal contributions to society; their oral passions never praised or awarded.
This tragic circumstance made me hesitate in my search for William. If I do finally meet him, my glittering dreams might come crashing down. I became content with not finding him, as if I had been searching for an apparition. I tried to forget what I’d heard about his difficult life. He was a ghost now, never to reveal himself to me in the flesh.
The voice of Kabamaru crying in front of a bowl of noodles somehow sufficed. It echoed a reality in which artists exist like transient beings or angels, living forever inside our memory.
Monira Al QadiriBack to top
Monira Al Qadiri (b. 1983) is a Kuwaiti visual artist who was born in Senegal and educated in Japan. In 2010, she received a Ph.D. in intermedia art from Tokyo University of the Arts, where her research focused on the aesthetics of sadness in the Middle East stemming from poetry, music, art and religious practices. Her work explores unconventional gender identities, petro-cultures and their possible futures, as well as the legacies of corruption. She is also part of the artist collective GCC.Back to top