Thursday,19 October, 2017
Current issue | Issue 1253, ( 2 - 8 July 2015)
Thursday,19 October, 2017
Issue 1253, ( 2 - 8 July 2015)

Ahram Weekly

Did the pioneers go wrong?

Watching a revival of Sa’dallah Wannus’s semi-documentary play about Arab theatre pioneer Abi Khalil Al-Qabbani, Nehad Selaiha ponders the wisdom of defending theatre as sugar-coated moral education

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Al-Ahram Weekly

In an extended study of theatre censorship in Egypt I undertook some years ago, I came to the conclusion that ‘the development of the Egyptian and Arab theatre can be roughly described as an invincible march and holy campaign to gain “respectability” and vindicate its existence on political and moral bases – to prove that it is USEFUL, rather than liberating or pleasurable. … It was on this basis that the famous Arab leader Salah El-Din is reported to have praised a performance of a shadow play he watched in Cairo in 1171 and the famous reformer, sheikh Rifa’ah Rafi’ At-Tahtawi, defended theatre in his account of his trip to Paris in the 19th Century (See ‘The Fire and the Frying Pan: Censorship and Performance in Egypt,’ TDR: Drama Review, Volume 57, Number 3, Fall 2013 (T219) pp.20-47). Since the (so-called) Arab world converted to Islam, endorsing its view of religion as a comprehensive way of life that subsumes all forms of human activity, including thought, creativity and the arts, innovation in any field has been pejoratively dubbed by conservative clerics as ‘Bida’ (heresy), and consequently dismissed as a straying from the right path, or truth (‘Dhalal’); the only way to sanction it, therefore, has been to represent it as contributing to the solidification of Islam and the Islamic way of life as understood by the Salafis.

Naturally, when theatre was introduced in the Arab world, first in Lebanon, by Maron El-Naqqash in 1847, then in Syria, by Abu Khalil Al-Qabbani and others, in the 1860s, it was viewed as a ‘bid’ah’, and, as such, met with great opposition and the usual religious hostility to the art of representation. Like the puritans and ‘the holy men of God’ in Shakespeare’s days who often condemned ‘the vanity and unlawfulness of plays and interludes,’ in the words of ‘the University preacher John Rainolds,’ and described theatres as ‘idle places of intercourse’ that ‘corrupt youth and traduce superiors’ and encourage immorality by ‘bringing vice upon the stage’ (John Price, Puritanism and the theatre-  http://www.pricejb.pwp.blueyonder.co.uk/Britgrad/Puritanism%20and%20the%20Theatre.htm), the ‘ulema’ and the holy men of God in Syria, objected to the appearance of the caliph Harun al-Rashid in a comedy in the 1860s in the same spirit as the cynical informer Aretinus, in Philip Massinger’s The Roman Actor accused actors in England, in 1626, of libel and treason, complaining that they ‘traduce / Persons of rank’ with ‘satirical, and bitter jests’. Going a step further, ‘Shaykh Sa’id al-Ghabra complained to Sultan Abdel Hamid that as a result of the theatre’s increasing popularity, adultery and sin were spreading in Syria and women were mixing with men’ and together with other sheikhs ‘demanded that one of the following governors, Midhat Pasha, Fadil Pasha, or Ahmad Hamdi Pasha, close the theatres’. In both cases, the Second Commandment which reads: ‘Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth’ (Exodus 20.4.), which is acknowledged in Islam, was trotted out against theatre artists as irrefutable condemnation of their art. In Syria, this resulted in ‘an order … banning acting in Damascus in 1884 and al-Qabbani’s theatre was burnt to the ground, perhaps as the result of an arson attack’ (see Essays in Arabic Literary Biography: 1850-1950, edited by Roger Allen, Otto Harrassowitz GmbH and Co., KG, Wiesbaden 2010, pp. 267-70).

Equally significant is the fact that the pleas made by the Syrian pioneers of Arabic theatre in defence of their art did not swerve from the general drift of those made by their fellow actors in Britain two centuries earlier. In the confrontation between Abu Khalil Al-Qabbani and Shaykh Sa’id al-Ghabra in Sa’dallah Wannus’s semi-documentary play Sahrah Ma’a Abi Khalil Al-Qabbani (A Soirée chez Abi Khalil Al-Qabbani), the former responds to the latter’s attack on theatre by assuring him that the plays he presents ‘abound in wise examples that incite people to virtue and offer the spectator moral lessons and useful sermons’ and does all this ‘in an atmosphere of pleasant entertainment and innocent gaiety.’ And when the sheikh, in response to Al-Qabbani’s claim that theatre can benefit the nation and serve the cause of progress, exhorts that ‘real progress lies in recovering the virtues of our worthy ancestors and venerable forefathers and the strength of their belief in the faith,’ Al-Qabbani eagerly declares: ‘And by God, this is our principal aim too. All we seek is to whip up the enthusiasm of the people to recover the virtues of the forefathers and their straight path.’  A little further on, he argues: ‘Theatre is not a heresy or apostasy. It is a good means of improving morals and manners and instructing people in the ways of politics. Ostensibly, it presents histories and biographies; in reality it inculcates morals by parables and examples’ (Sahrah Ma’a Abi Khalil Al-Qabbani, Dar Al-Adab, Beirut, 2000, pp. 59, 60).

Doesn’t this argument about teaching by parables and examples remind you of Sir Philip Sidney’s Apology for Poetry in 1595 and his claim, in which he echoed Aristotle, that by combining the liveliness of history and the ethical focus of philosophy, poetry is more effective than either in rousing its readers to virtue and leading to virtuous action? And isn’t Al-Qabbani’s defence of theatre the same in essence as Paris’s defense of the stage before the Senate in the third scene of Philip Massinger’s 1626 play The Roman Actor? Both Wannus’s Al-Qabbani and Massinger’s Paris point out that plays generally end up by reinforcing conventional morality, rewarding virtue and condemning vice in line with broadly traditional standards.  In ‘Theatrical Politics and Political Theatricality in Massinger’s The Roman Actor’, D. A. Walen argues that ‘Massinger’s play rehearses social and political arguments in contemporary Stuart London from the relative safety of the Roman setting he employs’ and discusses ‘both the question of political authority and absolute rule, as well as the power, place, and purpose of theater in early modern England’ (http://www.thisroughmagic.org/walen%20article.html). I think that Wannus was doing pretty much the same in A Soiree chez Abi Khalil Al-Qabbani. Not that he didn’t want to commemorate that pioneer’s struggle and celebrate his achievements; he did, but he also wanted to articulate a critique of authoritarianism, religious hypocrisy, and social repression in Syria and the Arab world and expose the Arabs’ stagnation and political decline especially in the years following the Arabs’ defeat by Israel in the 1967 war, and do all this at the relative safety of the historical setting he employs, using the Ottoman Empire, or the ‘sick man of Europe’, as it was dubbed in the mid-19th Century, as a metaphor for the ailing Arab nation. Furthermore, by presenting his historical narrative of Al-Qabbani’s career in a meta-theatrical form and incorporating in it excerpts from one of Al-Qabbani’s plays – Harun Al-Rashid with Ghanem Ibn Ayoub and Qut Al-Qulub – both in the rehearsal stage and in performance, he was illustrating (not for the first time) his ideas about the kind of theatre he advocated and wanted to see evolving in the Arab world – ideas which he collected in his Bayanat li Masrah Arabi Jadid (Manifestos for a New Arab Theatre) in 1970, three years before he wrote A Soiree chez Abi Khalil Al-Qabbani.

Indeed, in terms of content and form, A Soiree is typical of the second politically-committed/experimental phase of Wannus’s playwriting career which, following his existential juvenilia, started with An Evening Party for the 5th of June in 1968 and ended with Hanzala’s Journey from Slumber to Consciousness in1978. In this phase Wannus sought to create a ‘theatre of politicization’ that would replace the traditional ‘political theatre’ and play an active role in bringing about social and political change. To realize this kind of theatre, he resorted to experimentation, dramatizing material from history and the popular Arab heritage in the form of parables by exploiting many of the techniques of Brecht’s epic theatre, including the use of short, quick scenes, often introduced by signs giving their titles, as well as live music and song and storytelling, and merging them with some indigenous forms of popular entertainment, like storytelling, the puppet show and the shadow play, as well as traditional ceremonies and rituals, to create a kind of interactive theatrical experience which allows for improvisation by the actors and critical and evaluative comments by the audience. This new kind of interactive, participatory theatrical experience, he hoped, would gradually ‘politicize’ the audience, training them to become a positive force of change, and would feel ‘authentically’ Arab while fighting against tyranny and oppression.

Hanzala’s Journey from Slumber to Consciousness was followed by a long period of silence which lasted until 1990. Wannus was not alone in this; many Arab writers too went silent at that time, some of them forever. The world had changed around them; many illusions had been shattered and many idols had fallen; the socialist dream had collapsed and Arab nationalism was no longer a viable cause. Wannus, as he admitted in an interview with Palestinian/Syrian drama critic Mary Elias, needed times to sort out himself and his world. It was a period of deep soul-searching reflection and self-revision and he came out of it ‘washed clean of all illusions,’ as he put it. The defiant spirit and fighting optimism of the second stage of his career gave way in the third (and sadly last) one to intellectual pessimism and a stunning clarity and depth of perception. In the works of this period, one detects not only a change of mood, of technique and intellectual outlook, but a broader sympathy with and profounder understanding of humanity, an aversion to facile political solutions and conventional moral judgments. The dramatic conflict gains in depth and complexity and is no longer a simple confrontation between two 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 Wannus’s last, and by consensus greatest plays left politics behind and turned to ‘human’ themes. Indeed, they were extremely political, but in the profoundest, most comprehensive sense of the word – a sense which is best summed up in the slogan: the personal is political. If the earlier played assumed that a better system of government and a fairer distribution of wealth would create a better Arab world, the last plays demanded no less than a thorough revision and fundamental re-evaluation of the cultural heritage of the Arabs, their mental habits, established assumptions, and way of life – including their attitudes to women, love, sex, marriage, and even homosexuality, incest and conjugal fidelity, and, of course to pleasure, beauty and the arts. In the last plays beauty is not suspect; pleasure is not sinful; and the function of theatre is to question rather than edify, to subvert rather than consolidate and to propose different constructions of reality rather than solidify the existing, inherited ones. You will not catch a character here declaring, as Al-Qabbani does that all he seeks as artist ‘is to whip up the enthusiasm of the people to recover the virtues of the forefathers and their straight path.’

Watching the current Youth theatre revival of A Soiree chez Abi Khalil Al-Qabbani in an intelligently pruned and condensed version written and superbly directed in line with Wannus’s aims and instructions by Khaled Hassounah, and listening to Ahmed Ezzat (as Sheikh Sa’id Al-Ghabra) mocking Mohamed El-Abasiri’s claim, in the character of Al-Qabbani, for the educational value of theatre by sarcastically retorting: “in a little while you would make theatre to be an educational institution the same as a mosque”, I could not help thinking that perhaps our Arab theatre pioneers had been completely, thoroughly wrong when they followed in the footsteps of their European predecessors and sought to defend their art on the grounds that it edified, corrected and reinforced accepted norms and conventional morality. If they hadn’t done so, if they had made their apology for theatre by pointing out, as Nikolai Evreinov did in his Apology for Theatricality in 1908, that it was a basic human instinct rooted in a primitive desire for transformation, to change, to become other than oneself, if they had believed with him that theatre is not a temple, a pulpit, a tribunal, a school, or a mirror of life and that if it attempts to become any of these it betrays its nature as a liberating force and its origin in play – if they had done so, perhaps Arab theatre would have really become a force of change and liberation and we wouldn’t have had to keep on defending the practice time and time again, up until the present moment.

Director Khaled Hassouna was lucky in getting Masrah Al-Midan space in the opera ground. There he staged the play in an open-air marquee, sporting at its door a sign saying ‘Masrah Al-Qabbani’ and plastered on the inside with posters of old Egyptian movies famous for their engagement with social and political issues, as if to emphasize Al-Qabbani’s plea in the play for the value of art to the nation’s progress and carry it into the present. Than upon careful, critical scrutiny most of these films would be found deplorably reactionary, scratching only the surface of a problem without delving deeper to discover its pernicious roots amused me. And though I squirmed at Al-Qabbani’s declaration that his goat as a theatre artist was the same as that of stuffy, fanatical Sheikh Sa’id Al-Ghabra (so convincingly played by Ahmed Ezzat that I really hated his guts), I could not help smiling indulgently at his (Al-Qabbani’s) belief that plays like his Harun Al-Rashid with Ghanem Ibn Ayoub and Qut Al-Qulub, which reward Ghanem Ibn Ayoub’s virtue in abstaining from cohabiting with Qut Al-Qulub when he discovers that she is the Caliph’s favourite concubine by allowing him to marry her with the Caliph’s blessing at the end – a reward for virtue perfectly in line with conventional morality and accepted norms – could benefit the audience! That the play never questions slavery or the harem tradition for a moment, implicitly condones the Caliph’s absolute authority and his right to own hundreds of slave girls and makes a virtue of Ghanem Ayoub’s giving away of his sister as a gift to the Caliph in return for his kindness without consulting her wishes did not seem to bother him.

But they must have bothered Khaled Hassoun and his vivacious young cast – Ahmed Ezzat, Mohamed El-Abasiri, Nawal El-Adl, Karim Farrag, Angham Abu Zeid, Alaa Abdel Qader, Mohamed Awwad, Ibrahim Nakhla, Sayed Eid, Mahmood El-Fowi, Na’el Ali, Hadi Mohei El-Din and Mohamed Khalaf – since they decided to go against Wannus’s strict injunction in his preface to the printed text and make a mockery of the whole thing, presenting this play-within-the-play as a hilarious burlesque, like a satirical animated cartoon. I could not have tolerated it otherwise. By contrast, the scenes portraying Al-Qabbani’s hopes, successes, disappointments, relations with his troupe and his confrontations with his religious opponents were enacted with sympathy and careful attention to mood and shades of feelings.

 The alternation of burlesque and serious scenes, the constant trafficking between the fictional story of Harun Al-Rashid and the historical record of Al-Qabbani’s struggles and the ceaseless migrations in place and time gained in speed thanks to the adaptation and were facilitated in performance by Shadi Qatamish’s simple set of a row of mobile panels hugging the performance space and gaily painted with various beautiful Islamic decorations of different colours and motifs, suggesting the walls of a mosque, a palace, a cafe and a stage backdrop. Except for a throne, which when turned round served as a tombstone, an occasional table and a couple of chairs in the café scenes, and a clothes-rail on wheels in the rehearsal scenes, the whole performance space was left free for Hassounah’s ebullient cast (cheerfully and correctly dressed to suit their parts by Manar El-Bey) to romp around in.

Thirteen in number, this wonderful cast of talented, disciplined, highly trained young performers, who besides acting could sing and dance with admirable skill, doubled in many parts, efficiently undertaking the roles of the fifteen characters and six extras mentioned in Wannus’s list of dramatis personae. Under Hassounah’s intricately coordinated direction, and with the help of Hamed El-Saharti’s lyrics, Dia’ El-Din Mohamed Abdel Karim’s lively music and Mohamed Habib’s spirited choreography, together with a few of Al-Qabbani’s own original songs, played on record or sung live, they were able to recreate for us quite vividly the atmosphere and ambience of an evening in the theatre in 19th Century Damascus, and in the process, celebrate the real spirit of theatre as play and transformation and stick out their tongues at all religious bigots and puritanical extremists.

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