In ‘The Nightmare of Carlos Fuentes,’ The Audience Isn’t Sure Whether to Smile or Cry

Al-Mustafa Najjar recently attended a showing of The Nightmares of Carlos Fuentes, based on a short story by Hassan Blasim:

By Al-Mustafa Najjar

Selva Rasalingam as Kevin/Khaled Al Hamrani and Nabil Elouahabi in "The Nightmares of Carlos Fuentes."
Selva Rasalingam as Kevin/Khaled Al Hamrani and Nabil Elouahabi in “The Nightmares of Carlos Fuentes.”

“Arabs are savage tribes, but Britain is the land of democracy,” shouts Salim Abdul Hussein—or Carlos Fuentes — as he struggles in his broken English to convince the UK Border Agency officer of the validity of his asylum claim.

Based on a short story by the award-winning Iraqi writer Hassan Blasim, The Nightmares of Carlos Fuentes is a captivating play, currently premiering until August 16 at London’s Arcola Theatre. Directed by Nicolas Kent and adapted to the stage by Rashid Razaq, the play is about Salim (Nabil Elouahabi), an Iraqi refugee, who comes to London to pursue his dream of becoming — as he puts it — a citizen of “the land of the free and the home of the brave.”

Weary of everything Arab or Middle Eastern, once in London Salim does everything in his power to get rid of his national, ethnic and religious roots. He changes his name to Carlos Fuentes — not that it is a British name, but at least it is not Arab. He finds a British wife, Lydia (Caroline Langrishe), who patiently, yet in a patronizing manner, “rebrands” him. She teaches him how to speak properly and match his clothes so that he, or her “exotic” husband, can live up to the expectations of her curious friends.

Yet Carlos’s metamorphosis is interrupted by a series of disturbing nightmares. Soon he finds himself at Heathrow airport, handcuffed and accompanied by a nonchalant security guard waiting for the first flight bound to Iraq. To the security guard, the deportation of Carlos is as trivial as changing his socks.

The play opens and ends in Carlos and Lydia’s bedroom. The bed dominates almost half of the (Arcola’s tiny) stage, such that it stands for a third character. Carlos’s process of transformation, mainly orchestrated by Lydia, takes place on the bed. On it, he recites to Lydia the names of Henry VIII’s six wives, is instructed he cannot wear a tie without a jacket so that he does not look like a waiter at a Lebanese restaurant, and is handcuffed by Lydia in case he suffers another horrible nightmare and turns violent.

Carlos, like every tragic hero, is a victim. He is the product of the political and sectarian conditions in Iraq that conspired against him and millions of his countrymen; he is the victim of Lydia who, like the security guard at Heathrow, fails to see the human side in him. In fact, she sees in him another “marketing project” and calls him “the work.” Salim falls prey to Carlos’s unattainable ambition to become British.

Carlos is unlikely to find the key to Britishness. This is emphasized by Lydia, who in the first and final scenes is shown on all fours desperately searching for the key to remove her husband’s handcuffs.

The Nightmares is not a tragedy, however. It is not a black comedy, either. Readers of Blasim’s short stories will be familiar with this apparent uncertainty: As a member of the audience, one does not know how to react to Carlos’s dilemma. More than once, I caught myself staring at the audience’s faces, looking for a clue as to how to respond to Carlos’s story. Some were grinning, some looked distressed. I felt confused.

Al-Mustafa Najjar’s review previously ran in Al-Sharq al-Awsat. Al-Mustafa Najjar is a Syrian journalist/translator at Asharq Al-Awsat. He holds a master’s degree in Post-1900 Literatures, Theories and Cultures from the the University of Manchester. He is based in London and we hope that some day he will take over editing ArabLit.