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Volume 15, Number 3May/June 1964

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Theater Traditions Of The Desert Lands

The stage play is almost a newcomer to the Middle East, but a rich "theatrical" tradition is not.

Written by The Editors

"Al-baqaa aw al-fanaa thalika howa al-su 'aal"

that's how a famous line of English poetry—"To be or not to be"—sounds when it's spoken in Arabic. The 400th anniversary of the birth of Shakespeare will be celebrated almost as enthusiastically in Cairo, Beirut and Tehran as in Stratford-on-Avon this year. Appreciation of the Bard is a striking characteristic of modern Middle Eastern theater. Yet it's not surprising—here is yet another example of Shakespeare's universality. More surprising is the lively interest shown in the Middle East, not only for Shakespeare but for all Western theater. A theater-goer is as likely to encounter Moliere, Ibsen, Shaw—even Arthur Miller—across the proscenium as the works of local playwrights such as Ahmed Shawld, Mahmud Taimur, Ali Ahmed Bakthir or the well-known Tewfik el-Hakim.

This frank appreciation from a people with proud traditions of their own is partly explained by the fact that theater was not introduced to the Middle East until the nineteenth century. The West for centuries has acknowledged its debt to Arab scholarship in philosophy, architecture, mathematics, astronomy, geography, medicine, chemistry and literature. Yet only about 160 years ago traveling troupes from France and Italy first carried theater to the Middle East. Until then there was no true theater and no conception by Middle Easterners of what theater was.

But now, after a relatively short time, the area is producing playwrights and supporting lively theater groups with an unmistakably indigenous character. Any discussion of current theater, however, calls first for a look at the fascinating Middle East traditions that are essentially theatrical, if not true theater.

Dramatic narrators, known as hakawat, sat in the principal coffee houses of large towns entertaining the all-male patrons by reciting stories. Sometimes they told tales from the Arabian Nights, sometimes from the more popular romance of Abu Zeid. In this latter narrative poem (its length makes Homer's Odyssey look like a sonnet) they specialized in the tales of one particular tribe or another. Today these stories are valuable for insights they give into Bedouin life.

Most dramatic narrators chanted the poetry from memory and after each verse played a few notes on a one-stringed "poet's viol" used only for these recitations. Costume was limited to change of headgear to represent various professions, ages, or character types.

The gift of storytelling is common among Middle Easterners and a recounting of the day's events, a joke or anecdote will be told with relish, meaningful facial expressions and vigorous gestures. A spontaneous theater was a natural outcome of this characteristic. That is, a group of people get together and are given a situation as a framework for plot development and then are expected to improvise dialogue for several hours.

About five years ago improvisation was revived in Chicago theater and is popular now in the United States. Until recently, however, spontaneous theater in the Middle East was strictly private, performed only in the homes of the highly educated.

Spontaneity is characteristic of both shadow plays and puppet plays. Besides three manuscripts extant written by the fourteenth-century Egyptian doctor, Muhammad ibn Danyal, almost no manuscripts from ancient shadow plays exist for the good reason that so few were written down. The player just got behind his little movable stage and invented the story as he went along.

In shadow theater the player is concealed from the audience by sitting in back of a screen that is lighted from behind. With a long stick or two, one in each hand, he presses against the screen figures made of brightly colored transparent leather. The player is supported by his troupe, who help him with the manipulation of the figures and with different roles.

While shadow theater is revived only on occasion in the Middle East, puppet theater, which began with simple hand puppets, continues to be popular. Just recently, the beautifully carved figures of the Cairo Puppet Theater won an international prize for originality and sophistication.

All forms of early Middle Eastern theatrics employed the dialects and accents of regional groups as an integral element of playing. The existence of so many dialects stimulated mimicry and troupes of mimics toured the area. Women especially were fond of imitations of birds and beasts and scenes of village and harem life. Quirks and human foibles were common sources of humor, just as they have been all over the world in all ages.

The nearest relative to Western theater in the Middle East, though it is strictly religious in intent, is the Passion Play performed annually by members of the Shi'ite sect of Muslims during the month of Muharram. Essentially, passion plays are dramatized dogmatics; theological sayings of the heroes of the faith are constantly quoted. More important to the play is the idea of salvation through the sacrificial death of Husain.

The play itself, ta'zaya, takes only a few hours but is preceded by a ten-day period of mourning and purification. On the tenth of Muharram, the Muslim New Year, the whole town gathers at the camel market. After a prologue foretelling the entire action, the "actors" (townspeople who are thespians for the day) arrive. There is a camel caravan carrying women and children; a manacled prisoner in black robe and green turban; several horses covered by red-spotted sheets affixed with darts; two horsemen, their heads surmounted by helmets fixed to symbolize decapitation; last, a litter with a figure under a "blood-stained" sheet. The whole caravan disembarks at tents representing Husain's camp in the desert. The stage is set. Action: Husain's "Ring of Steel" wearing helmets and chain mail rush out, scimitars gleaming, and protectively surround the camp. From the opposite end of the field rides El-Hurr with a handful of soldiers sent to persuade Husain to return to Mecca. But Husain presents his cause so movingly that El-Hurr is won over to his camp. After many lengthy predictions of the terrible event to happen, the forces of Omar ibn Sad, clad in pink, with a clatter of hooves charge out and then the red-robed horsemen of Beni Ummaya urge straining horses toward the tents to clash with the Ring of Steel. Warriors grapple and fall. Riders are thrown by their excited mounts. To a loud roll of drums Husain's slayer, Shimr, clad in scarlet, appears and slays Husain to the accompaniment of the crowd's groans and curses. The caravan then makes its way to the mosque and other shrines, ending a bloody and reverent commemoration of an event that changed the history of the Muslim world.

Early theatrical attempts, after the introduction of Western traditions, were criticized for being static and imitative. But with Tewfik el-Hakim (b. 1898) theater in the Middle East received a great push. His play called The Deal (As-Safka) revitalized the ancient Arabic language, the only acceptable, polite language for literature, but the language was so remote from the spoken language that the play lacked spontaneity. An untutored audience found its nice distinctions laughable, while the educated were left uninspired. (Picture a play about factory workers and unions presented in the English of King James.) Plays in the vernacular received some popular favor among those who understood the regional dialect used. Rather than legitimate plays, a kind of vaudeville was much more successful and the great vaudeville actor Najib al-Rihini, called the Oriental Moliere, was a national hero.

Though loved by all, al-Rihini was "popular," not "classic" and audiences then divided themselves sharply into the educated and the less educated, crippling the theater. The playwright el-Hakim tried to close the rift by selecting for his dialogue (written in classical Arabic) terms used also in the colloquial idiom; at the same time he simplified the syntax of the ancient tongue. When delivered, his lines sound spontaneous, as though written in the colloquial, but an inspection of the writing shows that it complies with the rules of the literary language. El-Hakim's "third language," as it has come to be called, has received wide acceptance on and off the stage.

But even with the development of true local theater, the theater-goer is as likely to encounter Ibsen as el-Hakim on the boards. Two months is a long run for any play, and there is nothing comparable in the Middle East to the Broadway pilgrimage that keeps plays in America running for years. Thus repertory troupes seek out audiences by touring extensively. Female parts are now played by women, though it is not yet common practice everywhere. The famous playwright of Saudi Arabia, Ali Ahmed Bakthir, had his first play, calling for the general education of Arab women, produced in Egypt, where contemporary theater and cinema are popular. Serious dramatists, including many from Syria and Egypt, fret over the public's demand for musicals. Still, "the play's the thing," or, as they say it in Arabic: "Al-masrahya hya bait al-qassid."

This article appeared on pages 8-9 of the May/June 1964 print edition of Saudi Aramco World.


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