By simply rubbing his fingers together, UAE magician Suhail Al Bastaki is able to make playing cards appear, from what it appears to be nowhere.
The 28-year-old Emirati practices a branch of the illusionary arts called manipulation magic, which plays with light and hidden gadgets.
In his country, says Al Bastaki, audiences are surprised to see an Emirati magician on the stage, as some in the region associate the craft with mysticism and the dark arts.
“As soon as they see my magic and sleight of hand, they would say it’s black magic,” explains the aspiring professional magician, who currently performs at local theatres.
“It has really nothing to do with this. This is all about skills and it’s all about practicing,” he says, highlighting his eight years of practice, which include traveling to South Korea to receive special training.
There are few world-renowned magicians hailing from the Middle East and North Africa. Emerging from the conservative kingdom of Saudi Arabia, however, is illusionist Mamdouh al-Marzouqi, known publicly as Mumdo.
He is capable of making a helicopter appear out of nowhere, an act that took him about a year to perfect and helped him win the Merlin award, the Oscar equivalent for magic.
At the beginning of his career in 2010, the former brand manager says he was restricted to entertaining private parties, but that all changed about five years later when Saudi Arabia began to liberalise its cultural offerings.
“Now, I’m much more relaxed when telling people I’m a magician,” says the Jeddah-based artist. “Ten years ago, I was a little bit nervous about telling people I was a magician because they would you know – just disappear,” he says, with a chuckle.
Saudi Arabia, and other countries in the MENA region, are gradually easing restrictions on public performance of magic and other creative arts. Until there is widespread acceptance, however, performance communities will continue to provide the greatest support to one another.
In the UAE, the Home of Flow, as the community calls it, has been a haven for performers of all types over the past seven years.
The 40-member group of ribbon dancers, fire breathers, and flow artists who gracefully wield anything from lightsabers to burning flames, gather every other week to train and showcase their talents.
One of its founders is Dutch-Tunisian, Salina Bakaou, a yoga instructor-turned-professional hula hoop performer, who can rotate about 30 hoops at time.
She says that while the life of a performer can be financially unstable, a nine-to-five job is too mundane.
“When you get amazing energy from the audience, it is one of the nicest feelings in the world, honestly. That’s what drives me,” says the artist who’s also a contortionist.
In addition to performing at the Home of Flow, members of the UAE-based cast of creative types share their stories of hardship in the industry, and explore ways to help one another.
One issue performers in the region face is getting paid on time, and paying talent agents hefty fees to find them work.
It’s an issue magician, fire and flow dancer of ten-years Suhail Khoury knows all too well. It prompted him to develop a mobile phone application that guarantees performers next day payment terms and clearer contracts.
“There wasn’t any real transparency on what the market price for each act was, so people would try to rip you off while making a ton of money from you,” says Khoury, the co-founder of Soul Artists.
Khoury says that this is his way of giving back to the Home of Flow community, which is celebrating one of its last gatherings, as the permanent residents of the building they meet in plan to move out.
However, this won’t stop the band of brothers and sisters from supporting one another, members say, as they continue to entertain audiences at venues across the region.
SEEN ON SOCIAL MEDIA: MAGIC TRICKS
Illusionist Raymi from Lebanon floated this magical idea with his social media fans.