He has swallowed glass pieces, set himself on fire and made the grand Burj Khalifa disappear but 32-year-old Emirati Moein Al Bastaki is not a sorcerer: he’s a professional illusionist and mentalist. His work is good enough for the attention-grabbing city of Las Vegas and on par with that of his idol, David Copperfield. Yet he doesn’t have the crew and production team of the likes of Copperfield or Dynamo, nor does he have the facilities for creating magical stunts. Given that magic is still taboo in Arabia, often confused with sorcery, witchcraft and ‘real’ black magic, his story, full of passion, danger and the unexpected, is a pretty extraordinary one.
His journey began in Dubai, his hometown, when he was six years old. ‘One day my grandfather took a coin, put it in his mouth and bit it in half. I thought that he might have really strong teeth, but then he shook it and the coin became whole again. I was mesmerised! I went outside, looking for all the damaged, bent, abnormal coins and took them to him asking to turn them into normal ones so that I could buy a bicycle.’
His grandfather, a tradesman, used to travel to India for business, where he also learnt the art of illusion from the fakirs (wandering holy men). He tried to pass on the tricks to his sons – Moein’s father and uncles – but they weren’t interested. Moein, on the other hand, was hooked. As chance would have it, his father owned a video shop at that time and Moein came across the David Copperfield series, which he watched and studied closely, ‘After high school I went to my dad and told him I wanted to be a magician. He gave me a slap and said I should finish my studies.’
Undeterred, Moein studied his way to a Master’s degree, but spent all his spare time learning about magic. When he became a bank manager, Moein went again to his father and told him he still plans to become a magician. This time his father took him seriously and offered his support. ‘Magic is my passion, it’s in my blood. It is who I am and I give it my all.’
Every new trick Moein perfected, he would perform for his friends, as well as broadcasting them on Youtube and his first website, Momi Illusions. Then one day a TV station came across his magic and asked for an interview. The broadcast had a domino effect. TV stations from all over the world began wanting him on their sets and organisers invited him to perform at their events and festivals. Being an Emirati magician performing in the kandoora though still caused consternation amongst some. ‘People here tend to accept magic shows if the performer is not an Arab, but for an Emirati it would be unacceptable, so it came as a shock. That is why I always explain on my shows that I have no super powers, I am no wizard and everything I do is an illusion.’ Still, his audience, although increasingly intrigued, would every now and then approach him with the inevitable request, ‘Would you turn my husband into a ring that I can wear on my finger? Can you teleport me to London?’
Eventually, working with celebrities and performing privately for royal houses began to break down barriers. As his tricks became more complex, like his unique dancing shishas creation, he left people like soccer legend Diego Maradona astounded. ‘The hardest and most dangerous stunt I did was to set myself on fire. My whole body was in flames. I had some protective clothing, but I left my head and my hands uncovered, so I could show people that it was really me.’
Nothing seems more spectacular than making Burj Khalifa disappear though. ‘It wasn’t invisible from every angle, but it did disappear,’ he tells us. It took him three years to create this stunt, which was inspired by his idol, David Copperfield, who once made the Statue of Liberty disappear.
One of his dreams now is to levitate over the Arabian Gulf, and all he needs to do it is get the necessary permission. Pulling off a stunt of that magnitude really would make him give up the day job. To learn more about Moein, visit his website www.moeinalbastaki.com.