Wajdi al-Ahdal on ‘The First Ever Yemeni Theatre Production in the UK’

Starting tomorrow, a theatrical adaptation of Wajdi al-Ahdal’s A Land Without Jasmine (tr. William Hutchins) will be playing at London’s Battersea Arts Centre as part of “Occupy Festival“:

It is, according to the Sarha Collective that’s staging it, “the first ever Yemeni theatre production in the UK.” Ahead of the production, translator and scholar Katherine Hennessey, who previously translated al-Ahdal’s “A Crime on Restaurant Street” and ArabLit editor M Lynx Qualey asked al-Ahdal a few questions about the production and about Yemeni theatre.

This may be the first ever Yemeni play to be performed in London. What do you hope London audience members take away from it?

Wajdi al-Ahdal: Perhaps to have a look at contemporary Yemeni society. Yemeni women are under tremendous pressure, and most of this comes from the men in the community, although even the men are subject to harassment and pressure. Sexual repression has led to the disfiguration of the Yemeni character.

Which of your characters do you think UK audience members will most relate to, or find most intriguing? 

WA: Yasmin, I expect. This girl affirms that she too has a soul, even though the community treats her as though she’s a body with no soul. …. But pleasure isn’t only a thing of the body, and Yasmin is looking for a spiritual pleasure, although she knows her society will neither agree nor support her spiritual ambitions, and they want to use her.

The author Charles Baxter once said that watching his novel be translated into film was like “watching your child go play in traffic.” Do you have any such anxiety about seeing your work adapted to another medium?

WA: On the contrary, I would be concerned if my artistic vision in the novel precisely matched the artistic vision of the producer. I understand that my novel is being adapted to a different media, and that theatre or cinema requires a new artistic vision that works in the format it’s being moved into. I agreed with the director, Momin Swaitat, that my vision for the novel wouldn’t fit the stage, and I gave him complete freedom to produce a work informed by his experience in the theatre.

Have you read the script? If so, could you comment on what you feel has been gained (and/or lost) in the process of adapting of your novel into this play? 

WA: Unfortunately, I haven’t read it. I don’t read English, but the director, Momin Swaitat, had questions around a few issues, which we discussed.

Does theatre travel differently between languages and contexts — or do you hope it will travel differently — than does a textual work? Are there different opportunities (and pitfalls?) when translating theatrical works (vs. novels, which generally have to be much more “faithful”?)

WA: Yes, I hope that the novel is transferred in a different way than when it’s adapted to a play and presented in the theatre. The novel has an open end and complex allusions, which in my opinion gives more freedom to the dramaturge when writing the script. As for the risks, these arise whenever a work is transferred from one literary context to another. I don’t think there is anyone who want to deliberately distort the work, but because each literary context has its own particular rules.

How does A Land Without Jasmine relate to concerns expressed in your other works–Mountain Boats, The Quarantine Philosopher, A Crime on Restaurant Street, The Colonel’s Wedding, etc.? 

WA: What A Land Without Jasmine shares with my other works is that it’s critical of society. For example, one theme in A Land Without Jasmine is that of societal hypocrisy, which transforms society into a community of idolaters.

If you were going to suggest other Yemeni plays that you think would travel well in translation — by yourself or others — what would they be? 

WA: I would suggest the works of Samer Abdulfattah, whose writings fall into a “theatre of the absurd,” and Abdul Kareem al-Razzihi, who writes comedy theatre.

If you were designing the program, would you add any context for theatre-goers? 

WA: We’re all looking for a comprehensible ending, but unfortunately no one has yet reached it, as such an end doesn’t exist.

Yasmin’s character somehow represents the country that appears on the map with the name of “Yemen,” which is going through a difficult historic period, and may perhaps disappear from the map, as Yasmin disappeared from the city without a trace.

“A Land Without Jasmine” is showing on April 4 and 5 at 7:30 p.m. and on April 6 at 2:30 p.m. Tickets and more at bac.org.uk/.