Friday Finds: ‘The First Yemeni Play Translated Into English’

Wajdi al-Ahdal’s short play A Crime on Restaurant Street, translated from the Arabic by Katherine Hennessey, recently appeared on ArabStages:

From ArabStages, a current photo of Restaurant Street. Photo credit: Wajdi al-Ahdal
From ArabStages, a current photo of Restaurant Street. Photo credit: Wajdi al-Ahdal

Although al-Ahdal’s prose is known in English translation, this is the first of his plays that’s been translated — indeed, according to ArabStages, it is the first Yemeni play translated into English.

The country’s “modern” theatre scene didn’t start up until the early twentieth century, according to Hennessey. However, it was 1608 when the crew of the Red Dragon, under the leadership of Capt. William Keeling, set down on a small island that was then part of what would become Yemen. While there, according to scholar Graham Holderness, the crew put on a performance of a relatively new play called “Hamlet.”

The play apparently didn’t leave a lasting impression, and theatre is “considered to have been brought to Yemen in 1904 by a traveling company from India,” with the first local theatre company founded in Aden in 1910.

As noted above, al-Ahdal is known in translation for his novels, which have made their way into English, Italian, and French. William Hutchins’ translation of A Land Without Jasmine cowon the 2013 Banipal Prize. But he is also, indeed, a celebrated playwright: Al-Ahdal’s play The Colonel’s Wedding won first prize for scriptwriting at the 9th Arab Youth Festival in Alexandria.

Al-Ahdal is also known for his criticism of the Yemeni government, as his novel Mountain Boats was condemned by the authorities, and he was forced to flee the country. It was only the intervention of Günter Grass and others that helped him return to Yemen without threat of prosecution.

This play, A Crime on Restaurant Street, premiered in Sana’a in 2009 and is translated by Hennessey and introduced here by distinguished theatre scholar Marvin Carlson. It’s a bleak, funny socio-political satire on the corruption of writers, journalists, businessmen, and others in a corrupt society, and what it takes to “rise to the top.”

As bank teller and agent of corruption Wiswas says: “What you need to understand is that truth is directly connected to our wallets. And since your wallet is empty, and mine is full, that means the truth isn’t in your wallet. It’s in mine.”

Read Hennessey’s translation on the excellent (relatively) new publication Arab Stages and in the original Arabic at al-Jadid.