Al-Ahram Weekly Online   17 - 23 November 2011
Issue No. 1072
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Nehad Selaiha

Wannoos revisited

Nehad Selaiha remembers Saadallah Wannoos as she welcomes a new student production of his Rites of Signs and Changes

Saadallah Wannoos's Rites of Signs and Changes, adapted and directed by Effat Yehia, AUC Department of Performing and Visual Arts, New Cairo, 24-31 October, 2011.

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Of his generation, Syrian playwright Saadallah Wannoos (1941-97) is perhaps the best known in the Arab world and the most widely read and performed. After a number of one-act plays, mostly existentialist in sensibility and outlook and not performed until much later, he burst upon the Arab theatrical scene with a tremendous éclat when his Soiree for the Fifth of June was staged in 1968. Written in the aftermath of the defeat of the Egyptian and Syrian armies in the June, 1967 war with Israel, it savagely satirized the totalitarian regimes responsible for this military disaster, thus capturing the mood of anger that prevailed then and proving an instant hit.

With this play, Wannoos embarked on what critics later labeled the political phase of his career, producing in succession a string of bold political satires marked by experimentation in form and technically influenced by Brecht's epic theatre. The Elephant, O King of All Time (1969) was followed by The Adventures of the Head of Jabir, the Mameluke (1970), An Evening with Abu Khalil El-Qabbani (1973), The King Is the King (1977) and Hanzalah's Journey from Unawareness to Awareness (1978). Then followed a long silence, which lasted 12 long years. When Wannoos finally broke it in 1990, his writing seemed to have undergone a profound change. The plays produced in this third and last phase of his career betray not only a change of mood, technique and intellectual perspective, but a broader sympathy, an aversion to facile moral judgments and a new interest in individual human suffering as well. In them, the dramatic conflict gains in depth and complexity and is no longer a simple confrontation between separate, well-defined and morally identified forces. The characters are no longer types, symbols or ideas, but real people facing real existential and moral dilemmas.

This does not mean that Wannoos's last and, by critical consensus, greatest plays left politics behind and turned to 'human' themes. Indeed, they are extremely political, but in a more profound, more comprehensive sense than the earlier ones -- a sense, which is best expressed in the slogan 'the personal is political'. If the earlier plays assumed that a democratic form of government and a fairer distribution of the nation's wealth among the people would automatically create a better Arab world, the later plays leave this illusion behind and demand no less than a thorough questioning, revision and fundamental re-evaluation of the cultural heritage of the Arabs and their way of life, including their moral codes, concepts of honour, dignity and heroism, their attitudes to women, love and marriage, and their views on homosexuality, incest and conjugal fidelity. No wonder that in these last plays -- Rape (1990), A Day of Our Times and Historical Miniatures (1993), Anguished Dreams and The Rites of Signs and Changes (1994), The Mirage Epic (1995) and Drunken Days (1996) -- women are given prominence while the conventions and traditions of patriarchy are savagely anatomized. In all of them, whether the setting is historical or the present, the action scope limited or panoramic, the individual is shown in crisis, grappling with different value systems and modes of apprehending human existence, while the content of experience remains shifting and of relative truth. Many critics have described these last plays as the most daring and outspoken in the history of Arab drama. And they are right. They were written in feverish succession at a time when Wannoos was daily staring death in the face and had nothing more to fear.

It was one of these last daring plays, the most audacious of them all in fact, that Effat Yehia, founder of Al-Qafilah (the Caravan) independent theatre troupe and one of the most gifted theatre artists of her generation, hit upon when invited by the Performing and Visual Arts Department of the American University in Cairo to direct their annual Arabic play production. The choice of Tuqoos Al-Esharat wa Al-Tahawulat (Rites of Signs and Changes, or, literally, Transformations) was a daunting challenge -- and not only on account of the play's extreme outspokenness on taboo subjects, its profound critique of Arab culture, its intriguing mixture of poetic/mystical flights and obscene language, and its complex themes and characters. The Rites of Signs and Changes would be the first Arabic play in classical Arabic that Yehia tackles. All her previous work was based on Western texts that she herself translated and adapted for her own purposes, rendering them into Egyptian colloquial Arabic.

Set in Damascus, in the second half of the nineteenth century, during the Ottoman rule of Syria, Rites centers on a quest for freedom from the crippling, debilitating traditions of a repressive, hypocritical and morally corrupt patriarchal society. The quest is played out through 4 major characters: the high born, well-educated, respectably married Mu'mina (literally Faith) who, following a crisis, scandalizes everybody by turning into a famous and much sought-after courtesan, calling herself 'Al-Masah' (the diamond); her ex-husband, Abdallah, a lecherous libertine who conceals his appetites under the robes of the head of the city's dignitaries and who, when caught with a prostitute by a rival and sent to prison, swings to the other pole, divorces the pleasures of the flesh and turns into a rigorously ascetic mystic; Al-'Afsah, a police officer who carefully hides his homosexuality under his sturdy, manly appearance until he falls in love and reveals it, whereupon he is spurned by his lover, scorned by everyone, socially ostracized and driven to suicide; and the grand Mufti of Syria, the official expounder of Islamic Law and upholder and defender of that society's culture, religion and morals, who, having lived a dry, arid life, channeling his sexual energy and passion into power struggles and the pursuit of political ambitions, is finally awakened to love by Al-Masah, becomes her helpless slave, a religious renegade and social outcast. Though they follow different courses, these characters are united by their search for their true self, for integrity and truthful self-definition -- goals that the play suggests can only be achieved through the unity and harmony of mind, body and soul. Only then can the body be liberated and restored to its inborn dignity; only then can the soul shine through it like light through transparent glass; only then can appearance and reality become one and the same thing.

None of them, however, achieves such unity. In her rebellion against the taboos inscribed on her body, Al-Masah opts for unbridled physical indulgence, thinking to reach the inner springs of her being through sex and hoping that as she sinks deeper into the dark abyss, her body would spring wings that would lift her up to a new sphere of existence, but ends up killed by her brother, leaving only a tale behind. Abdallah's pursuit of the soul, on the other hand, drives him to extreme forms of humiliation, deprivation and physical mortification. Self-destruction is Al- 'Afsah's fate: he hangs himself in despair when he realizes that hypocrisy and falsehood are conditional to acceptance by society and his fellow men. As for the grand Mufti, he is a lost soul at the end and is condemned to loneliness and eternal longings that can never be satisfied. It is significant that the only characters in the play who display a degree of unity of being, a harmony between self and body and achieve true fulfillment through love are two poor servants. Marginalized, existing on the fringe of society, they are untrammeled by its hypocritical moral codes and precepts and, therefore, come out safely at the end, pointing, as it were, the right way to their masters.

But the play has also a substantial political dimension and ruthlessly satirizes the corruption and injustice of political leaders, the hypocrisy and power lust of clerics and the lethal collusion of religion and politics in oppressing a nation. And it is this dimension that Yehia focused on and foregrounded in her production. Opting for Egyptian colloquial Arabic -- a medium easier to handle by her young cast of students and more accessible to the audience, she carefully abridged and edited the text to underline the villainy of the Wali (the Sultan's Viceroy), the grand Mufti and their state security system. Using period costumes in the first part, she switched to modern dress in the second, visually effecting a startling temporal shift to underline the topical, political relevance of her version of the play and bolstered this by inserting open references to the forming of Islamic parties and political coalitions into the dialogue. More drastic and daring, however, was her superimposition onto the play of Ali Badrakhan's famous, 1978 Shafiqah and Metwally movie. One of the highlights of that movie was a catchy, satirical song, written by Salah Jahin, put to music by Kamal El-Tawil and sung by Soad Hosni, the star of the film. Adapted for the screen by Jahin from a play by Shawqi Abdel-Hakim, which he in turn had based on an old, popular ballad centering on an honour killing, the film made the play into a powerful indictment of political oppression, social injustice, the exploitation of the poor and dispossessed and the thorough corruption of rulers and their circles. As such, it seemed to suit Yehia's purpose. At two or three important junctures in the second part, she caused Dalia El-Guindi, who played Mu'mina/Al-Masah, to chant portions of that song by way of a commentary.

While this interposition underlined the political aspect of Wannoos's play and its relevance to the current political situation in Egypt, and even made a cunning, subtle dig at the Islamists and their proposed religious rule, it completely disoriented me. Unlike Wannoos's complex heroine, Shafiqah of the film was seduced and deserted by a lover and, thus dishonoured, was forced by poverty to take up prostitution as the only profession open for women of her fallen state. I could not help feeling that the identification of the two was facile and damagingly reductionist, simplifying and diluting Al-Masah's rich complexity and, by reflection, the play as a whole. However, it is only fair to say that the snatches from the film's song delighted the young in the audience and were uproariously cheered.

The belly-dancer's suit worn by Sandra Girgis (in the character of the lascivious prostitute Warda, who is seen lustfully cavorting with Abdallah in the opening scene), together with her bawdy language and gestures, and the sexy, revealing, modern getups she and El-Guindi donned in the second part were equally sensational and caused a thrill among the audience. When Al-'Afsah appeared in woman's dress to plead his love, the suppressed giggles and embarrassed titters that had frequently accompanied the show burst into hoots of laughter which, unfortunately, drowned the tragic pathos of that scene and its poignant message. This was to be expected perhaps. Homosexuality is never treated seriously, in depth, on Arab stages and only surfaces as a cliché in comedies and farces. And though sexual innuendoes are plentifully used in the commercial theatre, straightforward bawdy language is carefully avoided.

Yehia, who usually designs her own productions (and usually with great success and a touch of originality), was fortunate here in having costume and set designers Jenny Arnold and Hazem Shebl among her crew. Arnold's period costumes in the first part were rich and elegant and, in the second, her seductive, feminine designs were a joyful celebration of the female body and seemed to openly defy the Mufti's puritanical decrees banning singing, dancing, liquor and lewd books, like The Arabian Nights. Shebl's simple, ingenious set placed the actors on a bare, semi- circular platform, running along 3 sides of the black box theatre, bordered at the back with a bare, obdurate-looking stone wall and surrounding the audience on three sides; on this platform, the only props to be seen were a couple of moveable stools and a fixed bench on one side. The scene changes (from Abdallah's house, to the jail, the Mufti's office, the Wali's palace, the bordello...etc.) were indicated by the movement of the actors and the dialogue. The audience, provided with swiveling seats, could turn round to follow the action as it moved smoothly, swiftly and seamlessly along the platform, The circular stage also had the added benefit of allowing the characters to face each other across the dark pool in the middle, where the audience sat, giving a sharper dramatic edge to some of the monologues and speeches, making them seem like forceful confrontations.

A difficult play like Rites naturally requires professionally skilled, seasoned actors, Yehia's young cast grappled heroically with the text, with the women generally faring much better than the men. Yacoub El-Masri, however, gave a very decent and sometimes moving performance in the difficult part of Al-'Afsah and, in many cases, the performances of the actors were supported and enhanced by the live music supplied by a small oriental band consisting of Wa'el El-Mehallawi (qanun, or psaltery), Marwan Abdel-Mon'im and Adham Yasin (lutes) and Hassan Abul Roos (percussion). Yehia's version of Rites may not be the best I have seen of the play, but it was certainly a brave creative venture and the most daring, provocative Arabic play ever performed at the AUC.

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