Al-Ahram Weekly Online   16 - 22 April 2009
Issue No. 943
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Nehad Selaiha

Theatre in the Gulf

Nehad Selaiha finds politics at the centre of the 10th edition of the biennial Gulf Theatre Festival, held in Kuwait

You cannot complain it was hectic; indeed, the rhythm of the 10th edition of the biennial Gulf theatre festival was relaxed to a fault. Compared to the first edition, held from 26 March to 2 April in 1988, which featured a symposium that continued over 5 days, hosted a large number of the most prestigious theatre makers, writers and scholars from all over the Arab world and chose for its topic that vital but much neglected element in the phenomenon of theatre -- namely the audience, besides treating its audiences to nine interesting and high quality productions, the current edition, which one expected to far exceed, in terms of intellectual maturity, artistic ambition and technical fineness, the initial one, seemed a pale, emaciated copy and a faint, sorrowful echo.

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Six modest to mediocre productions were all we gleaned in this session, besides a prosaic mime and dance rendering of Macbeth presented on the opening night by way of an inaugural show; and instead of a five-day, pan-Arab, brain-storming seminar, there was only an extensively shrunk and regionally self-enclosed two-day roundtable that discussed the challenges, obstacles facing theatre in the Gulf area and suggesting solutions. Since I had taken part in preparing the final draft of the recommendations of the 1988 symposium, this session's list of recommendations, which seemed almost a replica of the 1988 one, as if no years have lapsed in between and nothing has changed, struck me as bitterly ironical.

However, in all the papers presented at this symposium -- by Isma'il Abdullah from the United Arab Emirates, Yusef Hamdan and Ibrahim Abdullah Ghalloom from Bahrain, Mohamed Al-'Aytham from Saudi Arabia, Abdel-Karim Bin Jawad from Oman, Saad Bursheed from Qatar and Khalid Abdel-Latif Ramadan from Kuwait -- you could perceive attempts to reach to the heart of the problem and pinpoint the reasons why theatre still retains its marginal status in the culture of the Gulf states, remains tame and toothless and keeps going round in circles.

Central to most of the papers was the question of censorship which was cited as one of the major obstacles facing the countries of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC). Though the number of theatre censors in Qatar was reduced from nine (in the 1970s and '80s) to the present four, the ministry of Awkaf and Religious Affairs and the State Security department still feature prominently on the censorship committee and exercise unlimited powers. In Saudi Arabia, where all-male theatrical activities were for a long time strictly limited to schools and university campuses and have only recently been allowed restricted access to the public sphere, mainly in local and Arab festivals, women are still banned from the stage and performances have to undergo rigorous ideological examinations. In Bahrain, as Yusef Hamdan fiercely argued, the religious authority still remains all-dominant and "has the power to bury alive all art and beauty." In Kuwait, a similar situation obtains; "far more difficult than dealing with official, governmental censorship ... is trying to bypass the kind of rampant societal censorship which has sprung and grown as a result of the rising tide of religious conservatism." In Oman, the picture is equally bleak; there, and, indeed, in all the GCC states, according to Bin Jawad, theatre suffers from 'a multi- lateral form of censorship'. More pernicious still is the fact that being 'obscure both in its basic features and methodology' and far from 'consistent in level and intensity', it "engenders an inner, personal censorship within the creative artist, which could be even harsher than official censorship ... in a passionate desire to win over the 'establishment' and conciliate the societal (i.e., the religious) authority."

Failing to understand what theatre was all about and censoring its activities accordingly, seemed to be the crux of the problem of theatre in the Gulf, the Bahraini Ghalloom argued. Rather than an independent, democratic, civil institution that, as a condition of its existence, has the right to freely question the status quo and creatively propose alternative realities, theatre, in the Gulf states, has been regarded from its incipience as an addendum -- as a supportive system to consolidate the status quo, be it religious, political, or ethical. Rather than a challenge -- an irking, disturbing, rebellious, and questioning 'other' to the dominant worldview and existential mode, theatre was legitimated as a subsidiary educational tool.

Summing up the situation succinctly, Ghalloom said: "censorship is the most serious and critical problem in the Gulf area. ...We may have, according to many people, got rid of the kind of political censorship which permeated our cultural life in the Gulf States in the '70s and '80s. However, ... censorship does not constitute a problem in terms of the laws, regulations and traditions which the state likes to preserve; rather, its danger resides in the fact that it permeates the general climate of culture and hinders any attempt to liberate ideas and forms of cultural and theatrical production. The penetration of censorship in public affairs takes a number of forms, all of which reveal a kind of schizophrenic attitude, and has made it into a far-reaching, dynamic force, capable of permutation and assuming a variety of guises. Sometimes, it is explicit; at others, it is concealed and subtle, slipping through other concepts which, likewise, appear in several permutations." This "schizophrenic attitude to theatre is one of the manifestations of censorship and can be clearly seen in the egregious lack of empowerment for the theatre and culture by the state, even while it claims to be adopting and nurturing both... Such alternation between prevention, suppression and punishment, on the one hand, and encouragement, support and public display, on the other, is one of the gravest manifestations of theatre censorship and has hindered its complete assimilation into society and its culture, while, at the same time, breeding a defeatist spirit among intellectuals, making them feel that censorship, with all its arguments and evidences, constitutes an entity superiour to creativity."

From such a state-adopted view of theatre, being regarded as safe, supplementary addendum, to theatre turning into a commercial, entertainment enterprise, it was a small step, most of the speakers seemed to believe. In Kuwait, which has no national theatre company, commercial theatre is thriving and is the only kind of theatre aired on Arab TV channels. In such a context, no wonder that the six productions showcased in this 10th GCC states theatre festival displayed clear signs of a feeling of crisis and a distressing dividedness between rebelliousness and conciliation. The folk heritage, with its images of organic, coastal communities and pearl-fishing fleets, with their Lords, songs, internal feuds and heart-felt longings provided a protective and, indeed, quite charming shield through which to project many rebellious messages of contemporary relevance.

In the United Arab Emirates's Al-Luoual (the song of retrieving a lost object), Bahrain's Al-Mahmal (the fleet of pearl-fishing ships) and Qatar's Noura (the name of the eponymous heroine of the play), life in the gulf region before the oil boom was the context, and the conflict between the 'Nawakhzas', the owners of the pearl-fishing fleets, and their employees was the dramatic substance and served as a vehicle for scathing political comments on modern life in the Gulf and the spread of rightwing, conservative religious dominance there. Saudi Arabia's Mawt Al-Mu'alif (Death of the Author), based on a number plays by the late Syrian playwright Saadallah Wannus, Bahrain's Al-Mazar (The Shrine), where a religious crook propagates the worship of an imaginary saint at an empty, manufactured shrine, and Kuwait's version of the Iraqi director/playwright Jawad Al-Asadi's Insu Hamlet (Forget Hamlet), which he himself had directed in Egypt, in a memorable production at Al-Hanager Centre under the title Shibbak Ophelia (Ophelia's Window), (reviewed on this page on 17 February, 1994), bespoke a similar protest against the stifling effect of the dominant ideological status quo, both political and religious.

In all the productions, there was a noticeable and praiseworthy effort in terms of dramatic ambition, artistic craftsmanship, creative innovation and ideological protest. Nevertheless, having witnessed the first GCC states' theatre festival, one could not but mourn the loss of momentum 20 years on, or notice a sense of crisis that informed all the shows -- a feeling of being incarcerated, besieged and having to speak through metaphors and symbols. Throughout this festival, where women were conspicuous by their scarcity, you could not but feel that theatre was a tarnished outsider and suspicious intruder -- an unwelcome guest, barely tolerated for God knows what reasons. What a terrible ordeal the men and women in the Gulf theatre face, and how truly brave they are.

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