Jennifer Jajeh has written a brilliant article in The National this week, entitled ‘Theatre in places such as Beirut can be rehearsal space for revolution’. Her own journey to Beirut and her exploration of the themes in Doomed by Hope (Pluto, 2012) make for a fascinating read. We’ve reproduced part of the article below. For the full length version, check out The National, by clicking here. Purchasing information for the book is below.
* * *
In October, Beirut-based Masrah Ensemble, an organisation dedicated to encouraging theatre on the Arab stage, invited me to participate in its International Theatre Series celebrating the publication of Doomed by Hope: Essays on Arab Theatre. The invitation arrived a day before the central Beirut car bombing that injured more than 80 people and claimed eight lives, including a prominent anti-Syrian intelligence official. News of the bombing prompted conjecture about Lebanon being pulled into the ongoing violence in neighbouring Syria. Meanwhile, my friends and family expressed concern about my plan to travel to a city that seemed on the verge of unrest. Many said I should decline the invitation.
But aren’t we always surrounded by violence as Arabs? Isn’t the threat of war, incursions, clashes and clampdowns always imminent? Growing up in the United States, news reports of violence and bloodshed were a common sight in my household. We were always under attack, or so it seemed, and the parade of these endless images only reinforced that feeling.
Acquaintances in Europe asked if I’d be safe. The Beirut in the minds of those cautioning me probably looks a lot like the one depicted in the current season of Homeland, the US television series: a city full of angry crowds chanting anti-American slogans and shadowy bearded militiamen roaming the streets with assault rifles. Indeed, this fictionalised version so offended Lebanese officials that the tourism minister threatened to sue Twentieth Century Fox for damages due to such gross misrepresentation of their capital city.
No, I told them firmly, I was headed to another Beirut; a city that in my mind and the common Arab imagination was considered the most modern, open and liberal of the Arab world. Parties – not sectarian violence – spilt onto the streets of this Beirut. I readily accepted the invitation to perform and packed my bags.
Doomed by Hope: Essays on Arab Theatre begins by visiting the work of Syrian playwright Saadallah Wannous and his commitment to theatre as a place to reflect upon sociopolitical and historical circumstances and national identities, a place to call forth the possibilities of a new communal self-identity shaped by active civic engagement and individual empowerment. The book, published in both English and Arabic, takes Wannous’ work as a foundational point of departure to examine a wide swathe of contemporary Arab theatre, with essays from practitioners and academics highlighting specific and contextualised performance and theatre movements in Syria, Egypt, Lebanon, Palestine, Kuwait, Yemen and the diaspora.
The resurgence of interest in Wannous’ political works now, 15 years after his death, seems no small coincidence. As demands for dignity, transparency and regime change continue to sweep the region, Wannous’ plays and writings seem to not only have foreshadowed the growing calls for reform but also point the way for ordinary citizens to create an open and democratic dialogue using theatre as the space to begin that conversation.
Reflecting on how authoritarian regimes and their figureheads become the tools of popular oppression, stripping citizens not only of rights, but also of the possibility for constructing narratives about their past and their future goals, Wannous created a map for enacting change not just onstage, but urged those to eventually move the dialogue to the streets. The theatre is seen as a rehearsal space for individuals to move from being spectators to active participants.
But can theatre be a way forward in these times? Does it contain the power to call one to action and aid communities and nations in crafting a more democratised society?
From the classrooms of West Bank universities to the theatre movements that were precursors to the youth movements in Yemen in 2011 leading to the reclamation of public spaces for protests and growing dialogue, the answer seems to suggest such potential.
Several essays examine the growing documentary theatre movements stemming from Tahrir Square protests, asserting the performances not only provide a shared account of the experiences witnessed, but also serve to viscerally connect the larger community who were unwilling or unable to protest in the streets to the unfolding events. These works came from both theatre practitioners and amateurs with the intent of encouraging new waves of activism while creating a shared sense of belonging and of an Egyptian identity associated with courage and empowerment.
To read the rest of this article, click here.
Essays on Arab Theatre
Edited by Eyad Houssami. Foreword by Elias Khoury
A beautifully presented collection of essays by writers and artists which traces the history of contemporary Arab theatre.