Arrival and Illusion in Arabic Theatre’s Northernmost Outpost

This article is based on conversations between the author and co-founders of Arabiska Teatern Helen Al-Janabi and Oskar Rosén in Stockholm on August 6, 2018:

By Johanna Sellman

On August 24, 2018, the Arabic theatre in Stockholm, Arabiska Teatern / Al-Masrah al-Arabi, premiered its first original production Norrsken / أورورا / شفق قطبي (Aurora Borealis). The play is crafted from around twenty in-depth interviews with recently arrived Arabic speaking asylum seekers and immigrants. Interviewers posed a series of open-ended questions and participants responded with stories of unexpected encounters and impressions in a new homeland, of shape-shifting relationships, and more. As the process unfolded, the play held the working title Sverige, Sverige älskade vän? (Sweden, Sweden dear friend?) — lyrics from a song by the Swedish rock band Kent. Syrian playwright Mudar al-Haggi, now based in Berlin, then transformed the stories into a script. The play will feature six characters played by the three actors Helen al-Janabi, Anji al Youssef, and Ibrahim Manaem.

Founded in 2015 and producing its first large-scale production (The Little Prince) in 2016, al-Masrah al-Arabi takes as its mission to create and perform world class theatre in Arabic in Sweden. The core team consists of seven Arabic-speaking theatre professionals, including actors, dramaturges, playwrights, and directors based in Sweden and in other European countries. They, in turn, cultivate active partnerships and collaborations with theatres and professionals in Sweden and Europe.

From “The Little Prince”

According to its founders, al-Masrah al-Arabi is the first Arabic language theatre in Europe. As such, it is among a number of venues and spaces for Arabic literary events and performance that have been established in Europe recently, mostly by displaced Syrian artists and cultural actors. These include spaces like the Pages bookstore in Istanbul and Amsterdam and the Baynetna Arabic library in Berlin, both of which host literary events and performances. There are also theatres that occasionally host performances in Arabic and feature Arabic plays in translation or in multilingual productions as well as the work of Arab Swedish playwrights who write in Swedish.

Al-Masrah al-Arabi may be a first of its kind, but it actively models itself on a longer tradition of migrant theatres producing plays in minority languages, such as the many Yiddish theatres of North America and Europe that were active in the 19th and early 20th centuries or the Great Star Theatre in San Francisco, which was established in 1925 and quickly became a landmark for Chinese plays and opera. There are contemporary precedents in Sweden too, such as the Uusi Teaatteri in Stockholm, where each production features alternating performances in Finnish and Swedish. Arabic is likely the second most widely spoken language in Sweden. Unlike Finnish, however, it is not one of the officially designated minority languages since current legislation limits this category to languages that have a long-term historic presence in Sweden. Nonetheless, al-Masrah al-Arabi has so far found significant public sector and institutional support for its productions.

Though many of the actors, playwrights, and directors who work with al-Masrah al-Arabi are from Syria, the intention is not to create a Syrian theatre in Stockholm. Rather, the team hopes create venues for Arabic-speaking audiences (as well as job opportunities for professionals) in the broadest possible terms. The potential audience is significant; while the Swedish government does not keep statistics on languages spoken, estimates range from around 200,000-450,000 speakers of Arabic, formidable numbers in a population of just above ten million. In our conversation, members of The Arabic theatre suggest, that the true numbers are in the higher range, considering second-generation speakers and others, such as the large Kurdish community in Sweden, who also may speak Arabic fluently. They see themselves as an Arabic (and not necessarily Arab) theatre in which Arabic is a transnational vehicle of creativity and expression in a now globally connected Arabic literary and theatre culture.

So far, al-Masrah al-Arabi has chosen to a combination of world literary classics and original plays that are deeply enmeshed in its local societal fabric. The premiering production of The Little Prince toured over forty venues in Sweden. In the spring of 2019, a production of Don Qixote is planned as well as an original play which, like Aurora, will be inspired by stories gathered from newly arrived immigrants and asylum seekers in Sweden. As they continue to develop their scope, they hope to maintain this interplay between classic and contemporary works.

From “Aurora”

So how is the relationship between the collected stories and the artistic vision of the group mediated in Aurora? As members of the group explained to me, when the script eventually coalesced around the theme of illusion, wahm and around the stories of women. One of the characters, who has always dreamed of seeing the northern lights insists on being placed in a town in the far north when she arrives in Sweden. However, her first (and only) sighting of the aurora borealis shatters the illusion. In place of wonder, she finds only biting cold. The dissolution of expectations that many of the characters in the play grapple with mirror the powerful yet ephemeral natural phenomenon that the play is named after. One character begins to hear voices after descending into depression. She decides to confront them in a final bid to reconfigure her transformed relationship to family.

The characters in Aurora take on a life of their own, distinct from the original storytellers. The aim, al-Janabi and Rosén of Al-Masrah al-Arabi suggested to me, is to dramatize scenarios, ideas, and questions that the audience might relate to and use them as a starting point for both art and conversation. The Arabic language context renders the politics of performance and reception quite distinct from the numerous contemporary plays in European languages on the theme of migration (see Litvin and Sellman on the politics representation in Arab Nordic theatre of migration). One recalls the words of Syrian playwright Saadallah Wannous, who in his address on the occasion of World Theatre Day in 1996 emphasized how theatre makes possible a multilayered process of dialogue: between audience and actors, among audience members, and between theatre and society.

Arabiska Teatern insists on the value of these conversations taking place in minority as well as dominant languages. Their mission, as they see it, is to create theatre by and for speakers of Arabic. Aurora also open up interesting questions about the interplay between theatre and its social context and between the collected stories, audience, and the mediating role of art. In Aurora, illusion becomes a point of entry.

Johanna Sellman is Assistant Professor of Arabic Literature in the Department of Near Eastern Languages and Cultures at The Ohio State University. At OSU, she teaches courses on Arabic literature, cultural studies, and translation. Johanna has authored articles on the changing meanings of exile in post-1990s Arabic literature, Arab-Nordic theater, and on pedagogies of teaching the Arabic language through literature. Her current book project, Borders of Belonging, analyzes the transformations of Arabic migration literature in an era of mobility, displacement, and globalization.