On Playwright Yusuf al-Ani

Celebrated Iraqi playwright and actor Yusuf al-Ani (1927-2016) is at the center of the latest issue of the Journal of Contemporary Iraq and the Arab World, which has — in addition to scholarly work on al-Ani’s oeuvre — translations by Salaam Yousif of al-Ani’s poem ‘Pride’ and three scenes from his play Awailakh (Woe Unto Us):

“Not all the doors are closed yet, not all the roads are blocked. We can start again, start by changing ourselves from within.” – The Key, Al-Ani, translated by Salwa Jabsheh and Alan Brownjohn

The translations of al-Ani’s work in the new issue of Journal of Contemporary Iraq and the Arab World, published by Intellect Books, bookend four scholarly articles by Muhsin al-Musawi; Tareq Y. Ismael; Tahrir Hamdi and Tayseer Abu Odeh; and by Hadeel Abdelhameed, as well as three articles translated from Arabic by Aqeel Mehdi, Fadel Soudani, and Yasen Al-Nasayyir. A table of contents is online. The articles look at al-Ani’s dissident women characters, how he fits into popular Iraqi theatre, and his “living ghosts.”

Translations of al-Ani’s creative work are rare; the only other English translation of al-Ani’s popular theatre work seems to be of his The Key (tr. Jabsheh and Brownjohn), which appears in Modern Arabic Drama: An Anthology, co-edited by Roger Allen and Salma Khadra Jayyusi.

This Editor’s Introduction is a pre-typeset version and appears here with permission.

By Shereen Ismael and Salaam Yousif

The October 2016 passing of playwright, writer and actor Yusuf al-Ani saw him mourned as a national icon of the arts by a wide cross-section of Iraqis. As with his artistic work, his legacy was quickly cemented as that of a commitment to comity amongst Iraq’s social cleavages and classes in the face of the post-2003 mobilization of such divides in the drive for political power. Public sentiment overcame any such posturing and instead saw even sectarian or otherwise particularist political actors expressing the eminence of al-Ani and the vision of Iraq he brought into existence through his many works on the stage and screen. This challenge his legacy posed to contemporary Iraq’s sociopolitical divides culminated in a state funeral where large crowds gathered to mourn his passing and celebrate his challenge to the oppression and daily tests confronting average Iraqis.

This special issue of the Journal of Contemporary Iraq & the Arab World is dedicated to the life and works of al-Ani. It can be said that every day begins like any other, until someone close dies. The passing of Yusuf al-Ani was felt far beyond his family and friends, however, as it represented an opportunity for many to reflect on the immense impact his lifelong commitment to the theatre and its power in giving voice to messages of emancipatory potential held. While the absence death brings stays with us for the rest of our lives, al-Ani is to be enduring through the many Iraqi writers, directors and actors in theatre, television and film who have in some way been given inspiration, moulded or provided opportunity through the efforts of al-Ani. While remembrance often forces those left behind to be invested in the impact the deceased have on the living, the al-Ani legacy has been noted without dissent across the many obituaries, remembrances and reflections that appeared in the Arab press.

The central themes that emerge are al-Ani’s role as an organic intellectual who championed the dispossessed and identified with the left across his roles as theatre practitioner, playwright and actor. This came to see him identified as ‘the people’s artist’ during his ownlifetime, expression and function of his artistic craft merging into a coherent approach. Al-Ani’s significance to Iraqi theatre cannot be overemphasized. While his characters were predominantly from the common folk, later joined by Iraq’s emergent intelligentsia, the subject matter of his plays and dramas was serious and committed. Moreover, he pursued accessible productions that would not skimp on sophisticated ideas, firmly committed to a belief that most Iraqis were more than capable of accessing the messages he crafted to challenge traditional authority, gender relations and the tyranny of everyday state oppression. In doing so, al-Ani lifted Iraqi drama to a higher plateau, while at the same time expanding its appeal beyond elite audiences. His works stand today as sketches and frameworks for contemporary expression. The challenges and tribulations faced by most Iraqis have not yet been left to history as they faced ever-increasing authoritarianism, war-induced depredations and the indignity of foreign occupation. Al-Ani’sworks demonstrate how such large injustices are meted out in the everyday lives of many people. In addition to his artistic legacy stands that of his professionalization of the theatre. This came through his training, demonstration of techniques and work with his comrades in the Modern Artistic Theatre troupe, where many talented playwrights, directors and actors joined him before moving on to populate Iraq’s theatre, film and television.

As with our collection in this special issue, many of the materials written on al-Ani manifest both considered examinations of his professional and artistic contributions alongside reflections on his person. Al-Ani’s presence within Iraqi arts and letters has proven impactful and far-reaching, leading to previous publication’s aimed at bringing his work to English-language scholarship (Yousif 1997). As an object of scholarly enquiry al-Ani is replete with suggestive avenues for exploration. Our contributors here have engaged him on such hopeful grounds, yet alongside such analysis those who never met al-Ani in life see the man and his work come together in the vignette’s and memories of those who were fortunate to have made his acquaintance. As co-editors we discovered we straddled this demarcation. While devoting his scholarship to examining Iraqi culture, literature and theatre, including those of Iraqi artists and writers, while researching and writing on al-Ani, Salaam Yousif never had the opportunity to meet al-Ani in person. Chance opportunity, however, afforded such happenstance to Shereen Ismael. When she was all of 5 years old, al-Ani joined a social gathering where she was in attendance and that meeting has remained alive over the subsequent years. Al-Ani was enjoying playing with a group of children while their parents were engaged in a dinner party, with his joy at playing with the children evident as he lingered, prompting the adults to come and pull the children away in an effort to see al-Ani rejoin their conversations and revelry. That meeting became an event of some note in the Ismael family, however, as al-Ani expressed that his joy in play with the children and desire to spend time with them was due to the fact that they were ‘free’ young girls. This led al-Ani to expound with the adults, following the children’s withdrawal to an appropriate bedtime, where he explored an idea many others have noted in other interviews and even contributions to this collection. In the face of wider social oppressions, al-Ani spoke often that whether in the context of social issues, politics or creativity in the arts such freedom should be cherished and deemed a goal of a healthy society. His point being that such freedom was not solely the result of the good parenting of any individual family, but also the society in which we all lived. Being able to be allowed to reach our full potential – ‘flowering’ was the word he used – was a foremost objective for social development. Similar anecdotes and reflections on his expression of al-Ani’s depth of consideration of the human condition jump from the page and bring his thoughtfulness alive in the contributions which follow.

This special issue is comprised of al-Ani’s poem ‘Pride’, three scenes from al-Ani’s play Awailakh (‘Woe unto us’) that have been translated and provided introduction by Salaam Yousif. We would like to acknowledge and thank Dr Hamdi al-Toukmachi for granting us permission to translate scenes from the play, while also thanking Dr Salwa Zako for her support for this project and for aiding us in communicating with Dr Toukmachi. Touqmachi’s 2014 edited book on al-Ani, entitled Youssuf Al-Ani: Fanan Al-Sha`b, stands as an indispensable work for the scholar of modern Iraqi theatre broadly and al-Ani in particular. These translations of al-Ani bookend four scholarly articles by Muhsin Al-Musawi, Tareq Y. Ismael, Tahrir Hamdi and Tayseer Abu Odeh, as well as Hadeel Abdelhameed. They are followed by three additional articles by Aqeel Mehdi, Fadel Soudani and Yasen Al-Nasayyir that have been translated from their Arabic original and appear in English for the first time. We would also like to thank Fadhil Thamir, president of the Union of Iraqi Writers, for facilitating our communication with the Iraqi scholars.

Muhsin Al-Musawi’s ‘In remembrance of human glory: Yusuf Al-Ani’s living ghosts’ examines al-Ani’s commitment to have artistic expression play a leading role in the effort to raise popular consciousness. Al-Musawi demarcates al-Ani’s accurate portrayals of the social and political conditions of Iraq and the wider Arab world and places them in the context provided by his remembrances of contributors he witnessed over his long career. This exploration highlights al-Ani’s career-long effort to promote Iraqi theatre, cinema and the arts.

Notably, al-Musawi investigates the role of collaboration and the acknowledgment of al-Ani’s stylistic and intellectual influencers, exploring both through the prism of his 1999 volume Shakhsiyyāt wa dhikrayāt (‘Personalities and memories’). In this collection, al-Ani investigated a wide array of voices through a memorialization of Iraqi and other Arab intellectuals, artists and educators. Al-Musawi’s close examination of al-Ani’s chosen vignettes of these varied influences establishes a sensibility in which to better appreciate the contributions and interventions made in the past for their impact(s) on artistic expression in the present. The depth of his analysis and the layered portraits he provides of his subjects drives home the vast assemblage of al-Ani’s friendships, engagements and correspondences with both Iraqi and Arab intellectual milieus. Through personalized portraits and laser-like identifications of individual contributions al-Ani provides a focus on the opportunity Iraqis were afforded to embrace and develop their talents in the arts, a period of development al-Musawi highlights for its role in expanding artistic expression in the early post-monarchical era. Al-Musawi notes that in spite of his indefatigable efforts and consistent humour al-Ani’s volume supports a critical conclusion of the role of the state and political power for its stifling of artistic expression and social advance through the arts.

Tareq Y. Ismael’s contribution, entitled ‘Legacy, legitimacy and compromise: Baghdad’s visionary Yusuf al-Ani and post-colonial Iraq’, adopts a more hands-on recollection of the era when al-Ani rose to prominence. Ismael surveys al-Ani’s influence on the development ofpopular theatre and his desire to convey his art through a deliberative expression of contemporary popular understandings of how Iraqis saw themselves. Through his own interactions with al-Ani in the years following the 1958 revolution, as well as his experience as a witness to the impacts of al-Ani’s plays during this period, Ismael provides insights into al-Ani’s interactions with the Iraqi intelligentsia. Moreover, during the period prior to the overthrow of the monarchy, Ismael sketches the social milieu of the period, establishing a way for the reader to explore the social context in which al-Ani worked. Reflections on the devastation of Iraqi civil society broadly – and its intellectuals in particular – emerge from Ismael’s reminiscence of al-Ani’s insights into the social and political demise of the Iraqi state under the Ba’ath and Anglo-American occupation and this later era as compared with that of the overthrow of the monarchy. Relying also on formal interviews conducted in 1986, 2005, 2007 and 2008 the reader is introduced to al-Ani’s impression of the broad swath of modern Iraqi experience, with direct acknowledgement of how these events fed into al-Ani’s artistic creations and therefore his impact.

Tahrir Hamdi and Tayseer Abu Odeh’s ‘The intellectual resistance of Yusuf Al-Ani’ delves into al-Ani’s preternatural determination that Iraqi and Arab society could change, principally through one of his most intellectual characters, Nouar. In al-Ani’s al-Miftah (The Key), Nouar states that ‘Not all the doors are closed yet, not all the roads are blocked. We can start again’. Hamdi and Abu Odeh suggest that this encapsulates al-Ani’s innovative people’s theatre, which never shied away from starting anew, introducing new themes and styles. Their article focuses on the intellectual and artistic resistance embodied in al-Ani’s life and work, which, they argue, prominently exhibits the most important elements of Edward Said’s concept of the intellectual. Hamdi and Abu Odeh articulate for the reader al-Ani’s people’s theatre as a revolutionary force for necessary change, with the connection to anti-colonial resistance examined in some detail. They identify important Saidian and postcolonial themes, such as speaking truth to power, secular criticism, representing the oppressed and a refusal to surrender in the face of death and desolation, all of which are located and analysed in al-Ani’s work. Al-Ani’s break with tradition, in their accounting, is not only thematic, but also aesthetic and imaginative, exhibiting an irreconcilability that can perhaps be best described as Saidian ‘late style’. The essential role of al-Ani’s people’s theatre in igniting resistance and change is highlighted through examination of two of al-Ani’s longer plays, 1968s The Key and 1970s al-Kharaba (‘The ruin’), providing considerable terrain on which Hamdi and Abu Odeh explore the sophisticated ideas conveyed by al-Ani’s apparently straightforward dramas.

In her article, ‘Staging women’s implicit dissidence in Yusuf Al-Ani’s The Silk Thread’, Hadeel Abdelhameed presents an overview of the intellectual atmosphere that shaped the Iraqi theatre during the period of the 1980s Iraq–Iran war. She focuses on al-Ani’s 1986 play Khayt Al-Breesam (‘The silk thread’) to demonstrate how Iraqi theatre-makers struggled under the oppressive restrictions on expression imposed by the former Ba’athist regime. In particular Abdelhameed explores how playwrights and directors presented anti-war viewpoints though indirect means, including theatrical representations of female characters, playing on societal views of women to open portions of dialogue that audiences would grasp and censors not always immediately identify for attention. In her article, Abdelhameed examines Khayt Al-Breesam as an example of what she identifies as deliberate disassociation from the dominant war narrative of the period. In this space created within dramatic presentation, they could express common views about the war without outright expression of opposition and the reaction of the state it would necessarily bring about. Moreover, Abdelhameed notes the ability of Iraqi dramatists’ tacit representation of dissident Iraqi women for its emancipatory potential within a patriarchal society then steeped in state-sponsored renderings of ‘appropriate’ gender roles.

Following these four scholarly contributions from academics now based in the west, the special issue turns to three Iraqi commentators through works they wrote on al-Ani’s contributions prior to his passing in 2016. All three appear in English translation for the first time and provide unique perspectives from their interactions with al-Ani and his work as they appeared for the first time onstage and screen. Aqeel Mehdi’s ‘Yusuf al-Ani’s dramatic journeys and his theatrical cane’, translated by Ghyath Manhel Alkinani, provides an account of al-Ani’s artistic development as both actor as well as playwright and his experience in the Iraqi theatre. Mehdi explores the role of folklore and theatrical realism in the manner developed by Bertolt Brecht, alongside progressive social and political concepts that influenced al-Ani’s works. Mehdi finds that the harmonization of experimentation between the native expression evident in al-Ani’s writing as well as his dramaturgy, that is, the combination of originality and the folkloric aspect that captures the essence of the experience of the Iraqi individual, altered the potential for Iraqi theatrical expression. Moreover, Mehdi notes that the connection between this and al-Ani’s commitment to see such conceptual commitments be expressed through an Iraqi idiom, provided the theatre with intellectual respect amongst Iraqi intellectuals. The author also notes that al-Ani’s efforts to professionalize and develop Iraqi theatre troupes and production capacities led to a growing regional and global reputation for both al-Ani as well as the wider Iraqi theatre. This provided great opportunity not only for al-Ani, but also for the Iraqi arts broadly and the theatre in particular. As Mehdi persuasively considers for his reader, by developing deep roots withinIraq’s emerging public culture, al-Ani supported Iraqi theatre-makers who followed to be afforded considerable opportunity. He concludes that the debt modern Iraqi theatre owes to al- Ani, through his enormous talent and prodigious efforts to elevate the art form to the highest levels to connect the artist to his society, is considerable and Mehdi suggests long-lasting.

Fadel Soudani’s article ‘Yusuf Al-Ani and the concept of Iraqi popular theatre’, translated by Wadhah Hasan Muhi, provides the reader with an examination of al-Ani by placing his creative efforts and intellectual influences of his works within their contemporaneous context. Soudani accounts for both sociopolitical as well as the roles played by al-Ani’s professional colleagues in the theatre. The article examines how al-Ani provided a unique adaptation and popularization of the concepts made famous by Bertolt Brecht, bringing concept to form within the Iraqi theatre community. Soudani examines al-Ani’s The Key, The Ruin and The Spinning Wheel for their themes and effective deployment of ‘epic theatre’, the routine development of an Iraqi popular charter, as well as al-Ani’s focus on presenting characters who evidenced the lived reality of Iraqis from across all social classes. Soudani notes al-Ani’s ability to mobilize well-known folklore and classic tales, with which all Iraqis would be familiar, before examining them for the effective manner in which al-Ani was then able to recast such characters and themes in a way that challenged conventional ideas and social mores.

Finally, Yasen al-Nassayyir’s article ‘Yusuf al-Ani: Working without rules’, translated by Falih Hasan Al-Sudani, examines al-Ani’s creative development within the context of his collaborators and intellectual influences. Al-Nassayyir places special emphasis on al-Ani’sorigins and motivations for the posture of his acting, writing and direction in the formative period of the Iraqi theatre. His article then turns to al-Ani’s influence on the modern Iraqi theatre. Al-Nassayyir examines al-Ani’s collaboration with an array of other directors and performers, analysing such relationships for their impacts on the development of al-Ani’s work, especially in the absence of theatrical training amongst Iraqis then working in the professional domain. Al-Ani’s Firqat al-Masrah al-Fanni al-Hadith troupe is also analysed by al-Nassayyir for these relationships in light of how many Iraqi directors, actors and writers emerged from its success over subsequent years. Notably, al-Nassayyir identifies al-Ani’s deployment of ‘The Little Man’ and Iraqi folk tales, weighing them for their innovative ability to allow his work to speak to all social classes. Al-Ani’s considered iterative development of his writing and style, al-Nassayyir finds, led to a sophisticated portrayal of such grounded characters on both stage and screen. This saw al-Ani’s works take the familiar found in many Iraqis’ lives and carry that to the stage, encouraging new perspectives that audience members would necessarily then apply to their lived realities outside the performance venue.

References

Touqmachi, H. (ed.) (2014), Youssuf Al-Ani: Fanan Al-Sha`b, Amman: Adib Books.

Yousif, S. (1997), ‘The people’s theater of Yusuf Al-Ani’, Arab Studies Quarterly, 19:4, Fall, pp. 65–93.

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Salaam Yousif received his BA in English from the University of Baghdad, Iraq, and his Ph.D. degree in Comparative Literature from the University of Iowa, USA. He teaches literature at California State University, San Bernardino. He has published articles on Iraqi culture and literature and translated contemporary Iraqi poems into English, including Iraqi poet Jamal Juma’s collection Letters to My Brother: A Handshake in the Dark, which was set to music as a choral piece by Michael Nyman and premiered by the BBC Symphony Chorus and Orchestra in 2007.

Shereen T. Ismael held tenure as an Associate Professor at Carleton University in Ottawa, Canada (2006–13), prior to which she held an Assistant Professorship at the University of Northern British Columbia in Prince George, Canada as well as a SSHRC Post-Doctoral Fellowship at McMaster University in Hamilton, Canada (the first Post-Doctoral Fellow in Social Work), following completion of a Ph.D. in Social Policy in 2002. In 2013, she made the difficult decision to resign her position in the Faculty of Public Affairs at Carleton to relocate to care for family. Her most recent publications include the forthcoming: The Destruction of Iraq: A Critical Examination of the Documentary Record (Routledge, 2020) with Tareq Y. Ismael and Jacqueline S. Ismael, ‘Captured by the Quagmire: Iraq’s lost generation and the prospects for children across the Arab region today’, Arab Studies Quarterly (2019), ‘The Arab Spring and the uncivil state’, Arab Studies Quarterly (2013) and ‘Children of the occupation: A decade after the invasion’, International Journal of Contemporary Iraqi Studies (2013), both with Jacqueline S. Ismael.

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