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Meeting one of world’s leading magicians, Aladin
Although well practiced in the art of impressing an audience, Aladin is loath to talk about magic discovers THEO PANAYIDES
Aladin and I have a small problem. I want to talk about his magic. He wants to talk about anything but that.
Aladin is one of the world’s great magicians. Posters on a forum called talkmagic.co.uk – a site that seems to host practitioners of magic as well as aficionados – say things like “he blew our minds” and “this guy’s technical ability is just out of this world”. But you won’t find his magic on YouTube (he doesn’t allow his “practice” to be filmed) apart from a couple of clips from The Book of Cool, a compilation project with assorted virtuosos showing off their skills – and you won’t hear about it from him, except very vaguely.
Admittedly he’s here (for one night only) to do a magic show – but then again, not really. He’s actually a speaker at an exhibition at the ARTos Foundation in Nicosia titled ‘Does Europe Exist?’, conducting what he calls a “one-hour public intervention” called ‘Becoming European by Magic’. First he’ll give a talk on notions of ethnic identity, then expand on that theme using his magic skills as a kind of way-in, a means to an end; “the sugar-coated, Trojan-horse thing of introducing ideas via another route,” as he puts it.
So what will the magic show actually entail?
That I couldn’t say, he replies. “I improvise entirely, so I never know”. No two shows are ever the same.
Of course. But just a general description?
“I’m not interested in describing stuff, I just do stuff,” he replies patiently. “I’m not in the industry of describing what I do. I just do stuff, and that’s it.”
But just for our readers, I persist, who have no idea what you do. What kinds of props do you use, for instance?
“To reassure your readers, I have used a deck of cards before. I might use a deck of cards at some point tonight”. Later I read on talkmagic.co.uk that he can throw cards at incredible speeds and distances (50 or 60 metres), perform “beautiful card boomerangs” and do an “angle separation” (whatever that is) which “nobody else in the world can do”.
So what kind of card tricks –?
“I don’t do tricks,” he interrupts. “And I don’t do card tricks.”
But you mentioned a deck of cards…
“I will use the cards during the magic that I do. But it is not the agent of the magic.”
He and I are sitting on the roof of the ARTos headquarters in the old neighbourhood of Ayioi Omoloyites, looking down at the narrow streets and cramped warren of houses. There are tables set out downstairs (the event kicks off in an hour), but when I asked where he wanted to sit he pointed up at the roof, so now we’re side-by-side on a small flight of stairs leading up to a kind of attic. It’s dark and deserted, with the night sky above us and a sea of poky houses below – and far more special than sitting downstairs would’ve been, an ordinary interview turned into something memorable, what Aladin might call something “real”.
He craves this kind of experience. “My intention is always to have a good process and conduct myself in an ethical way, a way that has humility,” he says. He talks in spurts and tangents, the thoughts coming out so fast he sometimes stumbles over the words; he’s extremely well-spoken, using words like ‘hegemonised’ and ‘deracinate’ in casual conversation. “I’m just trying to be real in what I do,” he goes on. “And the only way to do that is by allowing yourself to be affected by what’s around you.”
Today, for instance, he spent much of the day walking around Nicosia – and now reaches into his pocket, bringing out a small travel alarm clock. He bought it this morning, from an 85-year-old man of Armenian and Turkish origin. The clock represents an experience, like his decision to sit on the roof instead of downstairs with everyone else. “I felt the most connected when I just chatted to someone [i.e. the old man],” he muses. “He treated that conversation as real. He said goodbye to me in a very real way. And he took his time”.
Magic, on the other hand, isn’t real (by definition). “That’s why I’m not so lost in the flashy meretricious areas of magic,” he confirms, “which is actually about the dressing-up, and producing eye-catching stuff”. His conception of magic is a little different, says Aladin: “I don’t see a difference between doing magic and” – he picks out a random example – “banking, or being a mother, or planting corn, or walking down the street. I mean, I see it as a very everyday process”.
Real magic is about treating the audience as a partner, not an Other to be tricked. “The objective,” he explains grandly, “is to create a kind of communion, an engagement, a reciprocity – which is the opposite of the asymmetry and the proscenium-based performance that we see.” He doesn’t hate popular entertainment, he adds quickly. “I’ve had TV series offered, I’ve shot multiple pilots, and I’ve been in films and stuff – but I think the media have hegemonised the term ‘magic’, and wrested it away from its roots. And its roots were a kind of healing practice that came from civil society, and went back in.”
That’s his goal, I suspect, to become a kind of shaman – the old village magician whose main task was to use his gifts for healing and helping the community. This is where I should mention (or perhaps it should’ve been mentioned from the start, in lieu of the magic) that Aladin has extensive training in counselling and psychotherapy, has worked as a ‘strategy consultant’ – not least for the Mayor of London, co-chairing the ‘Cultural Strategy Group for London’ – and also has 20 years’ experience of “street work” with vulnerable people. It’s led him to many an “interesting experience” – and in fact he had one today, walking around Nicosia, just before buying the alarm clock. “I saw some young people who were decorating a tree with cloth,” he explains, “and I found that really interesting, it looked very ‘outsider art’. You know, they dressed very differently from anybody else, they looked different, slightly edgy.
“I started to chat to them, asked them what they were up to – at which point a young person suddenly appeared who felt very, um, invaded by my presence, and came up and was physically very confronting and challenging. But you know,” he shrugs, “I’ve done decades of work with gangs. I’ve had a gun in my mouth, a gun in my side, people have drawn a knife on me seven times. So I’m used to that work. I didn’t feel at all frightened or threatened.”
It’s hard to imagine this cerebral, articulate man approaching gangstas on the street outside some council estate. But perhaps the magic comes in handy in those situations, to defuse tension – and of course he’s also different “when I’m doing my practice”, unlikely to use words like ‘hegemonised’ and ‘deracinate’. “If you’re working with people with profound disabilities, if you’re reassuring people who are about to kill themselves, it’s not through over-talking, it’s the opposite.”
That recalls his late father, one of the two most important relationships in Aladin’s life (the other is with his nine-year-old daughter Roxana). Abul Fateh, who died in 2010, was a major figure, a senior diplomat for Pakistan then for Bangladesh when that country became independent in 1971 (he was also its first Foreign Secretary). “For outsiders he was a very important person in global diplomacy,” recalls his son, “but he was a very humble person who just treated his work as service, and he just did it very quietly and retired very quietly, lived incredibly simply, to the extent that he used to queue in the Post Office for his pension”. Dad was gentle, spiritual (in his private life he was a Sufi, something akin to a Muslim mystic) and very quiet, a man of few words; he seems to have been a great inspiration to Aladin – above all in supporting him and valuing “how I was, [because] I was actually quite different to other kids”.
In what way?
“I just was.”
Maybe that’s how it all began. Maybe – and of course we’re only speculating here – magic was a form of escape for a restless child of no fixed abode, born in Washington DC, travelling the world as the son of a diplomat, “having to adjust to a new school each time as a new kid, and a foreign kid”. No-one, after all, is born with the kind of remarkable skills Aladin has. At some point he must’ve been obsessed (he’s entirely self-taught), practising endlessly, doing nothing but magic – but then perhaps, even from an early age, something else played a part, his father’s virtuous example and his concept of “service”, the two eventually melding to create the Aladin of today, using his skills for higher ends and “the wider discourses in society”.
There’s no doubt he’s unusual. His whole vibe, the energy he radiates, is unusual. He sits there on the roof at ARTos, looking astonishingly younger than his 53 years. He doesn’t drink or smoke, he says (though he used to), and every morning “I do about 10-15 minutes of very, very intensive exercise, without any equipment”. This is something he designed himself, after careful research; “It’s very intensive – it’s something which would be unnerving for anyone to watch!” He doesn’t meditate or do yoga, though he’s able to just “decompress” if necessary, even in public. He’s very intense, each of my questions prompting a long, voluble disquisition, most of which he delivers without looking at me, looking out instead at the starry night. What does he do for fun? “All of this is fun.” Yes – but doesn’t he feel like doing something mindless occasionally? “No,” he replies. “I try to live-stroke-work in a whole way.”
I actually feel a little bad for pestering him about the magic; there’s obviously so much more to the man. Deep down, I think, he relishes the role of being an outsider – a maverick, as he puts it, albeit ascribing the word to those who feel “threatened or challenged” by his style (at one point he speaks, with glancing scorn, of the British “arts mafia”). In a way, perhaps, the more popular magic becomes – the more hits it gets on YouTube – the more intensely he feels the need to detach himself from that world of applause and adulation, the “popular entertainer who’s put on a pedestal”. It’s not real, after all. “You cannot sweep what’s real under the carpet”.
“It’s a bit like giving somebody a pencil,” explains Aladin – and that person “could write something which describes a history which needs to be written up and shared, and I think really honours the role of writing. Or you can just use a pencil to do a drawing of yourself, or to say ‘Hello, I’m great’, or ‘Here is my complete amazing curriculum vitae’ … So there will be magic. And I do the magic. If I must do a magic show, that’s fine. But what I’ll bring to that is stuff to make people think, and leave them with ideas.
“For me, magic is about revelation. It’s not about deception. It’s not about mystifying. It’s about creating incredible communion through revelation about yourself, and the world around you”. He smiles, and starts to climb down from the roof to the people below.