Education

    Playing Brecht in Damascus
    A Book on Post-Revolutionary Arab Theatre

    Theatre is often described by practitioners as a ‘safe space’: a forum in which it is not only permissible but desirable for performers to express emotions, break taboos, speak uncomfortable truths, reach out, experiment, fight, and come together.

    For most, if not all, of the Arab practitioners profiled in this book, theatre, as a forum for free expression, is a place of existential importance. It is not, however, safe. Some, like the Iraqi director Monadhil Daood, were forced into exile after staging work critical of the regime. Others, such as Morocco’s Naima Zitane or Tunisia’s Meriam Bousselmi, have received threats in response to plays examining the treatment of women in Arab society. In 2011 Juliano Mer-Khamis, the former artistic director of the Freedom Theatre in Jenin, who worked with young Palestinians and described himself as ‘100 per cent Palestinian and 100 per cent Jew’, was shot dead in front of his theatre building.

    Arab theatre practitioners do not, then, always enjoy the luxury of safety. However, they are in a position to create theatre that possesses an immediacy, urgency and relevance it generally lacks in safer, more comfortable societies. Good drama thrives on conflict, and contemporary Arab theatre makers certainly have no shortage of material. The ‘Arab Spring’ sparked upheaval all across the region, but as Rolf C. Hemke – the editor of this elegant anthology of essays – comments, its effect on Arab theatre has largely been overlooked. This is all the more surprising because, as Hemke says, ‘Theatre is often the most political and the most spontaneous of all forms of art. Hence, theatre can function as a seismograph of societal conditions.’

    A dramaturg who for some years now has curated the international ‘Theatre Landscape’ festival in Mühlheim an der Ruhr, Hemke stresses that Theatre in the Arab World should not be mistaken for an encyclopaedia. It makes no claim to represent Arab theatre in its entirety: rather, it is a subjective overview, a brief introduction to the contemporary theatre scene in nine countries from Morocco to Kuwait, examining a few key figures in each. It opens a window onto an unfamiliar world: a world that is, by its very nature, ephemeral – all the more so in these fast-moving times. Published in late 2013, this edition may already need updating: Is the Syrian director Omar Abusaada still living and working in Damascus? How is the quasi-documentary independent theatre that emerged with the revolution in Egypt addressing the country’s ongoing political vicissitudes?

    Invaluable Snapshot

    It is, nonetheless, an invaluable snapshot of contemporary Arab theatre – and apparently the only book of its kind. The text is complemented by dozens of atmospheric black-and-white portraits and production photographs. It piques our interest with outlines of the practitioners’ work, including tantalising descriptions vividly recalling past productions. In Banafsaj [Violet] by the Lebanese director Issam Bou Khaled, for example, a woman recreates herself out of body parts from mass graves and goes searching for her young, dead son. She embarks on an odyssey through a dreamlike, parallel world, but when at last she ‘believes she is once again holding her child in her arms, the sandbag she has taken to her heart bursts and the “child” slips away from her grasp, like the passing of time in an hourglass.’ The reader is often left wishing one could still reserve a ticket.

    Germany’s Theater der Zeit and Sud Editions in Tunis have collaborated to publish the book in parallel bilingual editions – German/English and Arabic/French – making it immediately accessible throughout the region, as well as to interested foreign parties. One of their stated aims is to find ‘active partners’ for Arab theatre makers abroad. Creating innovative alternative theatre is always a financial struggle: publicity, sponsorship, invitations, co-productions and foreign tours are often essential to keep a company going.

    Anyone with an interest in the topic should buy the book for its reference section alone. It contains a list of contact details, not only of the main local funding bodies and training institutions, but also of theatres, theatre groups, directors, festivals and cultural centres. There is a brief description of the kind of work they do, which ranges from theatre in education to experimental, site-specific performance, from original, devised shows to re-interpretations of the classics. Shakespeare is especially ripe for adaptation: we read of a Tunisian Macbeth with Ben Ali as the power-hungry tyrant, Kuwaiti director Sulayman al Bassam’s Arab Shakespeare Trilogy, and Monadhil Daood’s Sunni-Shia Romeo and Juliet.

    Daood’s early training in Baghdad has shaped his whole approach to theatre. His university tutor ‘used the Arab tradition, but […] encouraged us to find “our” conflict on the stage, and to look around in our world to see what is relevant to us for dramatisation.’ This book spotlights a number of people who have adopted a similar approach to creating powerful, original Arab theatre. Ignoring what is going on around them is simply not an option. ‘The theatre is one of the methods to observe from a distance what is happening to us,’ explains the Syrian director Mohammad al Attar. ‘The theatre is also a means of survival, of staying productive, and of not despairing.’

    Theater im arabischen Sprachraum – Theatre in the Arab World, edited by Rolf C. Hemke. Bilingual German-English edition published by Verlag Theater der Zeit (Berlin 2013) simultaneously with the French-Arabic version from Sud Editions, Tunis.
    Charlotte Collins is a journalist and translator specialising in theatre.

    Copyright: Goethe-Institut e. V., Fikrun wa Fann
    June 2014

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