Modern Arabic theater has been graced with some excellent playwrights: Tawfiq al-Hakim, of course, who is credited with founding modern Arabic drama, and who perhaps would have won the 1988 “Arab” Nobel for Literature had he not died the previous year. Sa’adallah Wannus. Alfred Faraj. Yusuf Idris, who was also on the “shortlist” for the ’88 Nobel. (Roger Allen names many more.)

Yet little Arabic theatrical work has been translated into English. Some of al-Hakim’s have made their way through in translation. Dina Amin has translated four short plays by Farag, and Salma Jayyusi and Roger Allen published an anthology of Arabic Drama in 1995.

And all right: Words Without Borders ran an excerpt of Egyptian playwright Lenin el-Ramly’s A Peace of Women, translated by Hazem Azmy; el-Ramly’s In Plain Arabic was translated by Esmat Allouba and published by AUC Press.

Surely I am missing other Arabic-language plays in translation. Nonetheless, they do not make up the bulk of what’s transmitted from Arabic into English; nor does one often find them staged in U.S. or U.K. theaters. So I was pleased to discover Plays from the Arab World, edited by Elyse Dodgson and published by Nick Hern Books (2010 U.K., 2011 U.S.).

The collection resulted from a project launched by the U.K.’s Royal Court Theatre and the British Council that focused on assisting the work of twenty-one Arab playwrights. From these twenty-one playwrights, five plays were selected for the collection: “Withdrawal” by Mohammad Al Attar (Syria), “603” by Imad Farajin (Palestine), “Damage” by Kamal Khalladi (Morocco), “The House” by Arzé Khodr (Lebanon), and “Egyptian Products” by Laila Soliman (Egypt).

Each of the plays—and I find this highly unusual, with a collection—is worth reading. The translation quality is admittedly uneven. In a few plays, characters switch between speaking stiffly, without contractions, to a sudden “gonna.” Elsewhere, Arabic terms, such as y3ani or yalla, are inserted seemingly without reason. But each play has a strong dramatic core and interesting conflict. The two most striking are Farajin’s “603,” which takes place inside an Israeli prison, and Laila Soliman’s “Egyptian Products,” which follows the delightful non-love love story of Hadia and Gasser.

“Egyptian Products” is a delight for the point and counterpoint of Hadia and Gasser, both of whom are wonderfully rendered characters: the overbearing but bright and good-hearted Hadia is a strange match for the fastidious, painfully shy, and good-hearted Gasser. The two make a very odd couple, and yet an appealing one as well.

At one point in the play, Gasser looks at a toilet seat: “What is this? How do people sit on this filthy thing?” The stage direction continues: He starts to clean the toilet seat. Hadia, on the other hand, is trying—at twenty-nine—to hurriedly find a husband she can love while her mother, back in Mansoura, insists on finding one for her.

Even the lesser character of the “Ustaz,” for whom Hadia works, is humorously and humanly rendered.

“603,” well-rendered in English by Hassan Abdulrazzak, himself a playwright, finds wonderful layers of story, surprise, disappointment, and metaphor in the lives of the imprisoned Mosquito, Boxman, Slap, and Snake. The most sympathetic is character the writer, Slap, who tells and re-tells of how he was imprisoned for slapping an Israeli officer who had slapped a student of his. However, when one of his prison-mates finds his secret writings, this turns out not to have been reality, which is far more embarrassing and sympathetic.

In her introduction to the collection, Laila Hourani discusses “603,” noting:

While they all fantasise about being released from prison, only one of them actually makes his way to liberty by escaping, leaving the question for the remaining three open: ‘What exactly are we waiting for?’

It’s a question that perhaps all the plays in this volume voice in one way or another.

And no, I don’t think we can simply say: I know! They were waiting for Tunisia!, as each play’s waiting has both its specific and universal character.

These plays are meant to be staged, and it would be wonderful to see them find international audiences. But it is also enjoyable to experience them as written artifacts, practicing what Tawfiq al-Hakim called “theater of the mind.” And this collection—particularly “603” and “Egyptian Products”—stands up very well in the mind.

From the Jayyusi and Allen anthology:

The King Is the King (Al-Malik huwa ‘l-Malik), by Syrian playwright Sa’dallah Wannus, is available free online.

Also:

Egyptian-American Playwright Yussef el Guindi Wins 2010 “Middle East America Distinguished Playwright Award”

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