Arab Theater, US Framing

A 2012 collection, Doomed by Hope: Essays on Arab Theatre (ed. Eyad Houssami) takes Syrian playwright Saadallah Wannous as its guiding light:

BookCoverBut the collection, which proves to be a wonderfully noisy big tent, with essays by academics, theater practitioners, and critical observers, also has several secondary motifs, including US funding and framing of Arab theater.

In “Staging a Protest: Socio-Political Critique in Contemporary Yemeni Theatre,” Katharine Hennessey writes about watching three plays in Sanaa, Yemen, where theater was once a much more important part of public life. But, she writes, “More recent decades have not been kind to this genre.” Hennessey suggests that the three plays discussed might constitute a “slow but significant return” of theater’s prominence in Yemen. (There was indeed an explosion in theater during the height of the recent protest movement, documented here and elsewhere.)

One of the hurdles for Yemeni theater practitioners, Hennessey writes, is funding, “as is the dearth of appropriate performance spaces and of audio-visual technology and equipment.” Each of the three plays that she discusses was foreign-funded, the first (Maak Nazl) by Das Deutsche Haus and the second two (Where Are You Now and Ravings) by the country’s US embassy. Indeed, Das Deutsche Haus didn’t just provide funding: Maak Nazl was adapted from a German play, Linie 1, at a suggestion by the Haus’s director.

But, while the US embassy may not have influenced the content of Where Are You Now and Ravings, the embassy here – as elsewhere – could not help itself from framing the plays, and they were “prefaced with a speech by the American ambassador to Yemen.”

Hennessey can only speculate on how this changed reception of these two plays, but even from this distance it shifts the staging entirely. As Saadallah Wannous surely knew, the whole experience is theater, and prefaces, audience interjections (real or otherwise), and other interactions all shape the life of a play.

Doomed by Hope opens a number of questions about the relationship between NGO funding and Arab theater. Another recent NGO-sponsored theater project in Yemen, the Youth Theater Contest, was organized by the U.S. Middle East Partnership Initiative. They posted a montage of their project on YouTube:

Although no particular essay is dedicated to NGO funding, it could get the same “optimist/skeptic” treatment that Margaret Litvin gives US framing of Arab theater in “Doomed by ‘Dialogue,’ Saved by Curiosity? Post-9/11 Arab Performances under American Eyes”.

While acknowledging a host of traps for Arab theater as it travels to the United States, Litvin is ultimately optimistic about these possibilities: perhaps, in the end, because optimism offers more breathing room. She writes:

The skeptic says: it is not art’s job to teach or edify, and artists can even be corrupted by playing to audiences whose curiosity is ethnographic or forensic.  The optimist says: events like Arabesque and (perhaps to a lesser extent) Muslim Voices actually can expand audiences’ knowledge of Arab or Muslim realities, and this is a good thing.  Likewise, the skeptic says, organized efforts to promote “dialogue” with “the Other” through art are doomed, because they must begin by reifying the Other into a single addressable interlocutor.  And yet, the optimist retorts, isolated small moments of dialogic give-and-take sometimes do emerge – although they more often fail to emerge, as in the “deaf dialogue” Brooklyn Q&A described above – from particular playgoers’ encounters with particular performances.  The skeptic says: the box is Orientalist, how could it not be? And yet, the optimist says, there are wonderful things inside.

(Although whether one is optimistic or skeptical of NGO funding for Arab theater, American embassies should really be able to live without putting their stamp and face on absolutely everything they touch.)

The collection also addresses Arab/American theater, as in “The Things I am Afraid to Tell You: Performing Palestine in Diaspora,” which takes as its focus the mechanisms of Jennifer Jajeh’s solo show I Heart Hamas: And Other Things I am Afraid to Tell You.

One of the most wonderful things about Doomed by Hope is the collection’s varied tone, swinging as it does between academic exploration and personal, first-person account. Perhaps the most moving essay is Zeina Daccache’s “12 Angry Lebanese in Roumieh Prison,” where one does indeed feel “doomed by hope,” a phrase of Wannous’s that he used in one of his last texts, “Thirst for Dialogue.”

There are also many explorations of Wannous’s work and legacy that should be the subject of another post.


“Doomed by Hope” is also a theater series, coming to New York March 26-27 and New Haven March 28-29. Follow their blog at, or on Facebook or Twitter.

Similarly doomed by hope, in Ramallah, in this week’s Qantara: Theatre of Hope

Jennifer Jajeh writes in The National: Theatre in places such as Beirut can be rehearsal space for revolution

Apparently the Yemeni play Maak Nazl also went to Berlin and was staged there: Ma’ak Nazel play wows audiences in Berlin (Yemen Today).