First As Shadow, Then As Farce: An Evening with Medieval Puppeteer Ibn Daniyal

Earlier this month, the City University of New York hosted a theatrical reading of work by the playwright Ibn Daniyal:

By Anna Della Subin and Hussein Omar

programThe thirteenth-century oculist Muhammad Ibn Daniyal, said to have occasionally blinded his patients, is remembered both for his tragic optometry and for his comedic shadow puppet plays. A refugee from Mosul, Ibn Daniyal once entertained sultans and urchins alike in the streets and salons of medieval Cairo. Perhaps he was better at summoning the shadows than the light. His Tayf al-Khayāl trilogy (“The Shadow Spirit”) is known as the only work of Arabic drama to have survived from the pre-modern period in its entirety.

On April 8, Ibn Daniyal’s notoriously scatological cast of libertines and layabouts, Sheikh Who-evers and whores, snake-charmers, a hunchback, and at least one “Beard that Farts” descended on Manhattan. At the Graduate Center at CUNY, a packed room had assembled to watch a reading of the scripts in their new translation by Marvin Carlson and Safi Mahfouz. In lieu of camel-hide puppets on sticks, the plays were read aloud by members of the Noor Theatre, a company of actors and writers of Middle Eastern descent. The excitement was palpable: “These texts are among the earliest secular plays known to humankind,” the program stated. The executive director of the theatre Frank Hentschker announced, “For over seven hundred years these works have not been performed.” The night was full of merriment, dirty jokes, and like any good scene from Ibn Daniyal, a certain amount of nonsense — albeit of an academic stripe. As we realized, the evening’s laughter had a politics of its own.

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Before the fun could begin, Carlson informed us of a “very difficult situation.” The translators had intended to live-stream the reading on the Internet and broadcast it to the world. Yet they had found out only a few days prior that the live-streaming of events was forbidden by the union to which most of the actors belonged. Deeply dismayed, Carlson offered the following: “Many of you will be surprised by this situation, as there is a widespread belief in this world that the American theatre, unlike many theaters around the world, is not subject to censorship. As you can see, this is not true…. It strikes me as deeply ironic, when my friends and colleagues in Egypt… have taken to the streets in the name of free artistic expression… that a historic production of a major Egyptian dramatist is being censored in the United States for transmission to Egypt, the center of today’s struggle for free expression….” In solidarity with “persons in the Arab world who will be deprived this glimpse into a major part of their cultural heritage only recently rediscovered,” Carlson announced a boycott of the presentation of his own work. Then he walked out of the theatre.

Prevented from flickering across the digital screen, the shadow play nonetheless went on. (Before they began, the actors insisted that they, on the other hand, supported their union.) By far the most compelling of the scenes they read was the fantastic “Elegy for Satan,” written in response to the Mamluk Sultan al-Zāhir Baybars’ campaign against vice in Cairo around 1267 CE. The story goes that Ibn Daniyal was at a dinner party when his host apologetically informed him that, given the Sultan’s crusade, wine could not be served. The host instead encouraged him to recite a funeral ode for Iblīs.

“Sultan has inflicted defeat on Satan!” the actors-as-shadows cry. Tavern keepers are heartbroken; winemakers have been crucified, each with a goblet of wine around his neck. Drunks are “in a state of shock to see wine spilled on the floors, their souls almost spilled out with it!” And worse— “packets of hashish are being burnt in fires that would horrify even the Magi sun-worshippers!” On this austere day, “philandering bums” stand around the pyres of burning hashish, shedding tears to try to put out of the flames. Devastated whores bid farewell to their clients.  “Master Satan has died— Law and Order have killed him,” the actors announce. “Mourn his death.” As the shadows despair the loss of their heavenly Hell, humor emerges as the best weapon in the face of any prohibition — be it boozing, fornicating, or live-streaming.

In the panel that followed, which included the directors of the Noor Theatre, Mahfouz, and an empty chair for Carlson, Hentschker began by asking why seven hundred long years had passed before this evening. Mahfouz’s reply, that the plays “have been kept in the closet … because they are so obscene,” made the audience chuckle. Later, in response to a question from the audience as to Ibn Daniyal’s possible influence on subsequent storytelling traditions, he reiterated that he has not been able to impact later theatre history in any way, for “his influence has been kept in the closet, along with the playwright and the plays.” Mahfouz added, “Maybe after this translation they will be translated into other languages and maybe they will be read by Arab audiences in English— then they might have some influence.”

It soon became clear that the panel was quite impaired by Carlson’s refusal to participate (or his failure to show up.) For in his own scholarly work, Carlson has devoted many pages to demonstrating the tremendous influence of these closeted plays on the history of Arabic theatre, particularly on the modernist playwrights of the 1960s and 70s. An edition of Ibn Daniyal’s work was published in Cairo in 1963 and consequently inspired a generation of artists who found in the medieval optometrist’s absurdist humor a way of engaging with social conflicts of their own day. A year after the new edition of the scripts came out, the Egyptian writer Yusuf Idrīs wrote a play called Al-Farāfīr (“The Silly Ones,” elsewhere translated as “The Flipflaps” and “The Farfoors”), modeled directly upon a section of Ibn Daniyal’s Agīb wa Gharīb (“Strange and Curious”). The Moroccan director al-Tayyib al-Siddīqī created experimental political dramas in the style of Ibn Daniyal’s puppet theatre, which were performed in Damascus in the spring of 1973. Syrian playwright Sa’dallah Wannūs also looked to the oculist as a means of countering the claim that modern Arabic drama was blindly mimicking an essentially European form. Indeed, for this generation of theatre-makers, many of whom were nationalists, Ibn Daniyal was a symbolic point of reference through which to trace a non-European, indigenous, and authentically Arab ancestry to their own avant-garde.

Even into the nineties, Ibn Daniyal was an important influence on Cairo’s most innovative theatre company, al-Warsha, a collective of street entertainers, magicians, actors, and storytellers founded in 1987. Al-Warsha’s director Hassan al-Giritlī worked with three surviving masters of the puppet stage, Hassan al-Farran, Ahmed al-Kumi and Hassan Khanūfa, to adapt Ibn Daniyal works and create new shadow plays. Inspired by Ibn Daniyal, al-Warsha created an Egyptianized version of Alfred Jarry’s Ubu plays, which toured both Europe and the United States and was met with considerable critical success. It seems quite evident that the shadows have not been waiting, for seven centuries, to be let out into the light in Manhattan.

41IsCaMxbML._SL500_SS500_Equally problematic was Mahfouz’s repeated boast that “No translator has ever tried to translate these plays.” It was not only obscenity, he alleged, but the difficulty of Ibn Daniyal’s Arabic verse and prose which has deterred translators. At this point members of the audience quickly took issue. A man seated in the back leapt up and, hands shaking, exclaimed, “Sorry, sorry, but there has been a lot of misinformation tonight!” He began to list the names of scholars, in English, French, and German, who have worked on the plays. These include the scholar Paul Kahle in the 1930s, a protégé of the German Orientalist Georg Jacob who is credited with “discovering” the manuscripts. Excerpts from Kahle’s English translation of the plays were published in 1940 and his critical edition of the Arabic text posthumously in 1992. James Monroe’s English translation exists, though it remains unpublished.One may also find translations of Ibn Daniyal in the work of scholars such as Li Guo, who has translated the “Elegy to Satan.”

Mahfouz countered, “The plays have not been translated into any other language except by me and Carlson.” “Let us be accurate!” the audience member shouted— at one point waving a shadow puppet of an elephant— “Let us be humble!”

Indeed misinformation abounded: a woman in the audience asked whether women ever performed shadow plays, “because this was roughly Shakespeare’s time, and there were no women in his plays.” [Groans of “No!!” from the audience. An appeal to the three centuries dividing the playwrights.] The panelists replied that women did not. And yet, in the work of Ibn Daniyal’s contemporary, the poet al-Minawi, we learn that there were indeed female shadow-players, who performed in front of men. In one such verse, the poet sings beautifully of a slave girl: “She showed us a shadow play, with the curtain before her; she showed us the phantom of the sun behind clouds. / She played with the figures behind her curtain just as her actions toyed with men’s hearts.”

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That women in medieval Cairo could not perform such plays was only one of many assumptions made over the course of the night. The discussion soon turned to how, because they are “insanely obscene secular plays,” in the words of Noor Artistic Director Lameece Issaq, Ibn Daniyal’s work could not possibly be staged in Cairo, or anywhere in the Middle East, at this moment. At one point, Issaq commented, “It would be interesting to get these plays into the world. Because I think, we don’t associate scatagorical [sic], obscene works with the Middle East.” Executive Director Maha Chehlaoui interjected, “Yeah, let’s do that!” “Right, let’s get a fatwa against us,” countered Issaq, to the laughter of the audience. When Mahfouz commented, “I think it would be very difficult to stage [Ibn Daniyal] in any part of the world except New York,” the room broke out in applause. “They are very obscene and they need only daring actors,” he explained. “Let’s take them to Syria!” Issaq laughed. She then asked Mahfouz, “Do you think artists in Cairo, who are really into new ways of looking at things, would be interested in staging them, like underground? Like, in the Williamsburg of Cairo?” Mahfouz shook his head.

Conversation dwelled on the plays’ supposedly prohibitive obscenity, to the effect that much of the more interesting literary and dramatic qualities of Ibn Daniyal’s work were obscured. Shriveled penises, yes, but then again, for any place in time, there are fifty shades of humor. While it may be obscene to a Manhattan audience, none of this would have been shocking to sixteenth-century Cairenes, for whom the professional farter, called zarrat, was a familiar figure in street festivals.


Throughout the conversation, there seemed to be an implied equation at work that obscene means secular. As profane as it may seem, the play is laced with verses from the Quran, the language of Sufi mysticism, and common Islamic allegorical themes. Filled with invocations to God, these entertainments were often performed on the particularly long nights of Ramadan. It was precisely by engaging with these matters that Ibn Daniyal was able to comment meaningfully upon the social conflicts of his day — issues that have very much remained apt — such as the conflicting interpretations of Islamic moral code. In one of the scenes the actors read, the profligate Prince Wissal, who once would have sex with “anything that had the slightest signs of life or crawled on land,” has decided to reform himself, to devote himself to God and to undertake the haj. He later reports back to the audience that he has attained the greatest heights of the spiritual elite.

In the scene, Ibn Daniyal is able to satirize both the depraved and the overly-moralistic. Yet it is absurd to think that the playwright’s irreverent mocking of, and qualms with, certain kinds of hypocritical moralism can be equated with secularism. The late Peter Molan has even argued that the aura of carnival and inverted morality in the plays has its roots in the celebrations of Nayruz, the beginning of the Coptic liturgical year, that would take place in Ibn Daniyal’s day. Casting the plays as “secular,” a category that is anachronistic as much as it is inaccurate, only serves to whitewash the colorful threads, sacred and profane, that have converged within them.

At a certain point, the same audience member questioned the evening’s assertion that these plays have nothing to do with Islam. With no sensitivity to history or context, Mahfouz replied, “We know that in Islam, sculpture, painting is prohibited, for that reason acting was prohibited.” When the man replied, “No that’s not true,” one of the Noor actresses interjected, “I am a Muslim and that is true!”

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It seemed that profanity— and the obscuring of the plays’ religious dimensions in favor of the “secular” — was the agenda of the night. Rather than trying to dismiss the term “secular” as an ultimately irrelevant anachronism, a misleading concept for apprehending so much of the world and its literature, the evening’s discussion seemed to lionize it.  By celebrating this mis-attributed quality in the plays, “secular” once again became a measuring-stick by which all non-Western and non-modern literature could be seen as deficient. By doing so, and by emphasizing New York as the lone safe haven of the obscene, the evening only served to privilege its Western perch, in a spirit quite at odds with that of Ibn Daniyal. So, too, in his reaction to the union’s decision on live-streaming video, Carlson only recycled the pernicious cliché, in which America, the land of the free, gives the gift of free expression to an artistically and otherwise repressed, creatively stymied Middle East. Hence Carlson’s assumption that surely many viewers in the Arab world must want to tune in to America in the dead of the night to watch their own heritage — “recently rediscovered” thanks to CUNY — being performed in English.

It seems clear that, just as he once did for the modernist generation of Wannūs, Idrīs and others, Ibn Daniyal has come to serve as a point of origin for a different project — the search, of post 9/11 Arab-American theatre artists, for a non-religious, hilarious and uncensored ancestor to their own work; a figure to whom one might point and say, this has always been us. Ultimately, the project of Ibn Daniyal’s translators and performers at CUNY was to dispel stereotypes about Middle Eastern culture and art. Yet by casting the plays as “secular,” by stressing the impossibility that such plays could be performed anywhere in the Middle East today, and by being so uninformed about the historical work they were bringing to life, the translators and actors did little but reinforce such stereotypes.

It’s a shame, for the shadows themselves hint at something quite transcendent. Ibn Daniyal’s plays would begin with the puppet master, or rayyis, telling the audience to watch the plays closely, for they are a means of attaining a higher understanding. Lit by a single candle, the shadow theatre was seen as a sublime allegory for human existence itself: for while we think that we are moving and speaking, the puppets reveal to us that it is the muharrik, or “Prime Mover,” who determines our movements, just as the puppeteer holds the stick. The screen, in turn, is the veil that hides from us the secrets of His divinity and of our own futures. When asked by the great conqueror Saladin his opinion of a shadow play that had entertained them, the Palestinian jurist al-Qadī al-Fadil (d. 1199) remarked, “I have had a lesson of great significance. I have seen empires going and empires coming, yet when the screen was folded up, the Prime Mover was but one.” So too, when al-Warsha performed shadow plays in the eighties, they would open with the reminder:  “When the lamps are put out, and the puppets put away, the shadows will be gone but the Maker remains.”

For Ibn Daniyal and his contemporaries, all created things were but shadows of the one Reality, and the lower world was but a theater for acting it out. It is recorded that the oculist would keep his puppets in two baskets: from the first he would take out the figures, arranged in the order of their appearance, and then lay them in the second basket after they had performed. One basket was the womb and the other was the grave.

Perhaps these plays are best left to the disembodied shadows, floating across a curtain— without names, without agendas, and without the burden of identity politics.

Anna Della Subin is a New York-based writer and a contributing editor at Bidoun. Hussein is pursuing a PhD in the history of modern Egypt at Merton College, Oxford.”

Watch a video:

Of the opening of the discussion.

Also: The translations will soon be published by The Martin E. Segal Theatre Center.


  1. What a TERRIFIC post! Thank you Anna, and thank you Marcia.

    1. Me? Oh yeah, I did that part where it says “By Anna Della & Hussein.”

  2. Of course I’m delighted to hear that Ibn Daniel’s work is being performed in New York but some of the participants clearly needed to do their homework. They also have rather perverse, narcissistic ideas about New York’s uniqueness on the sale of artistic freedom! Thankfully the authors of the post did do their homework, so thanks.

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