Western history from an Arab perspective

La Chanson de Roland

Wael Shawky

You are looking at a performance from our archive

The Egyptian artist Wael Shawky looks at Western history from an Arab perspective in his work. He has exhibited in various places, including New York (MoMA), London (Serpentine Gallery) and Mathaf Arab Museum of Modern Art Doha, and last year the Holland Festival presented his film Cabaret Crusades: The Secrets of Karbala, which presented the Crusades history from the Arab point of view. This year he is directing a music theatre adaptation of La Chanson de Roland. This epic poem, written between 1040 and 1115, tells the story of Charlemagne and his nephew Roland, who were embroiled in war with the Saracens, a people who had converted to Islam early on. Shawky retells this timeless tale with a cast of twenty to thirty traditional Fijiri singers from the gulf states.



Due to the Ramadan the Holland Festival decided, in consultation with the company, to change the dates and the starting time of the performances. 

New starting time
The performances will start after the Iftar. That means they will be moved from 8 pm to 11 pm. 

Expected end time
The performance lasts about one hour, so it will end round midnight.

The performance of Monday 12 June will be moved to Saturday 10 June. 

No 'meet the artist'
Due to the late end time of the performances, the 'meet the artist' with Wael Shawky will be canceled.


Wael Shwaky
staging assistant
Giorgio Benotto
Fidjeri-musicians from the United Arab Emirates: Juma Yousif Jumaja Almukaini Aljneibi, Abdulla Lashkarieid Mohammad, Fahed Omar Abdulla Heba Marzouq, Aman Khamis Juma Aashir Almarashda, Matar Jasim Malalla Binnabhan AlMarzooqi, Mohamed Ali Khamis Alashar Almarshada, Anwar Ali Jasim Ahmed, Khaled Ali Mohamed Aljaffal, Yusuf Khamis Sbait Mubarak Alfarsi, Ali Husain Ahmed Husain Altamimi, Shawqi Abdulla Sabt Saud, Saad Ahmed Mohamed Aljaffal, Khaled Saad Salem Rashed, Ahmed Saleh Mohamed Alshabaan, Ahmed Abdulla Juma Farhan, Idrees Rabeea Idreses Bakheet, Ismaeel Mohamed Mesfer Saad, Faraj Mohamed Mesfer Saad, Yaqoob Ali Mohamed Bujaffal, Isa Ali Mohamed Aljaffal
Kampnagel Hamburg
Theater der Welt Festival, Sharjah Art Foundation, Holland Festival, Onassis Cultural Centre Athens, Theaterspektakel Zürich
funded by
Federal Agency for Civic Education, Germany

Background information

The Egyptian artist Wael Shawky (Alexandria, 1971) is returning to the Holland Festival with La Chanson de Roland, a large-scale musical theatre performance based on one Europe's most influential chivalric stories and the oldest traditional literary work in the French 

language. This epic poem, which is shrouded in myth, centres around a battle between Christians and Muslims.

Last year, Shawky left a big impression at the Holland Festival with his film Cabaret Crusades: The Secrets of Karbala (2016). This formed the final part of his trilogy about the Crusades, viewed from an Arab perspective in a filmed puppet show. The first two parts were The Horror Show File (2010) and The Path to Cairo (2012). In contrast with Shawky's previous work, La Chanson de Roland does not use puppets or marionettes. The story is told by a cast of around twenty Fijiri singers from Eastern Arabia's Gulf states, who give the performance a special dimension with their traditional, choral singing, percussion and dance (originating from the working culture of Arabic pearl divers).

The original text of La Chanson de Roland, of which there are many different versions, was written between 1040 and 1115. The song is composed in stanzas of irregular length and describes an event from the year 778. At the Battle of Roncesvaux Pass (in the Pyrenees, between Spain and France), the rearguard of Charlemagne's Christian army was betrayed. The Saracens (A people who had already converted to Islam at an early stage) strike. They threaten to crush the Christians, whom they outnumber, but the heroic Count Roland – Charlemagne's nephew – blows hard three times on his horn. Then he drops down dead. Charlemagne rushes back, and his men pursue the Muslims into the river Ebro. That is the myth. The story incorporates various conflicts, such as the clash between Christian and Pagan/Islamic ideologies, the contrasts between French people and Saracens and the internal conflict of the leading actors who attempt to reconcile seemingly irreconcilable ideals. The story remained extremely popular until well into the 14th century.

More than 1000 years later, Shawky retells this story from the Arabic perspective. He selected the most important passages and translated them into classical Arabic. Shawky's La Chanson de Roland now consists of three layers. The first is formed by the poetic Arabic text, and the musical composition and song of the Fijiris provide the second layer. This is complemented by a third, extremely rich visual layer, consisting of dance, objects, scenography, costumes and art objects. The original stage design was inspired by Shawky's previous sets for Cabaret Crusades: The Path to Cairo: wonderful scenographic landscapes, based on famous Persian miniatures.

By shifting the emphasis in this performance from puppets and marionettes to living performers, Shawky creates a poetic live experience that refers to age-old musical storytelling traditions in both Western and Eastern civilisations.



The Egyptian artist Wael Shawky (1971) is one of the most recognisable artists to have emerged from the Middle East in the last ten years. His work has received international acclaim. In his films, installations and performances, he uses historical breaking points to 

investigate the effects of globalisation on our present-day Western society as well as the Arabic world. Politics, culture, religion, surprise, facts and fabrications are interwoven. With the help of marionettes, puppets, child actors and television show formats, he investigates the ways in which historical and mythical stories shape the way we view the world. His epic trilogy Cabaret Crusades (2010-2015) was a global success and was shown at prestigious art institutes such as MoMa PS1 (New York, 2015) and at documenta (Kassel, 2012). In 2016, the final part of this trilogy, the film Cabaret Crusades: The Secrets of Karbala, was shown at the 2016 Holland Festival. Shawky has exhibited at Kunsthaus Bregenz (Bregenz, 2016), Fondazione Merz (Turin, 2016), Museum K20 (Dusseldorf, 2014-2015), Sfeir-Semler Gallery (Beirut, 2010), the Venice Biennale (2003 and 2005), the Istanbul Biennale (2015), MoMa New York (2015) and at Mathaf: Arab Museum of Modern Art in Doha (2015). His work has received various awards. In 2010, he founded MASS Alexandria, the first independent studio programme for young artists. Shawky lives and works in Alexandria.


This performance was made possible with support by