On Sudanese Playwright-Poet Adil Ibrahim Muhammed Khair

Adil Ibrahim Muhammed Khair, sometimes called the “Sudanese philosopher of theatre,” is particularly known for turning toxic masculinity into sharp-edged humor:

Lemya Shammat

Adil Ibrahim Muhammed Khair — born in February 1955 in Khartoum — is an eminent Sudanese playwright, scriptwriter and poet and one of the all-time greats of  Sudanese live theatre. His more than three-decade-long contribution includes many radio, television, and theatrical works that resulted from more than a dozen marvelously perceptive and fun-filled plays.

Khair began his cooperation with the National Broadcasting Corporation in 1975, before he graduated from Cairo University’s Department of Philosophy in Khartoum in 1984. In a 2018 interview with al-Quds al-Arabi, Adil revealed that, during his cruel and shattered childhood, reading was his only solace, before he found his voice in writing. He said it was his grandmother who greatly influenced his life and imagination. Khair was raised by his grandmother, who introduced him to drama through her participation in the Zar ceremony, a Sudanese spiritual practice “that entails spirit possession and trance-like performance,” usually held by women who fiercely dance to a backdrop of strong throbbing drums. Khair recalled that his grandmother used to have 13 bags full of distinct and diverse ritual outfits.

His piercingly ironic stagings, with their distinctive flavor and transgressive sense of humor, have defined the style of his theatricality. Khair gained a nationwide reputation through works that elegantly and openly address many hot-button issues, often woman-centric ones. The oft-avoided topics and unspoken aspects of womanhood, as well as the burdensome baggage that comes with it, have been creatively and artfully analyzed, discussed, and woven into the fabric of his plays in a way that doesn’t feel direct or heavy-handed.

Few playwrights have nailed such issues as profoundly and shrewdly as Khair. His hugely entertaining and illuminating shows strive to wake society up to the true cost of oppressing, degrading, and marginalizing women. It is no surprise that cheering, clapping and whistles resound across National Theatre space and neighboring areas at the end of his eagerly awaited shows, which continue to attract crowds of theatre-goers.

“The Women’s Ward in the Madhouse,” “Kandaka,” and “Bit Al-Mena Bit Massa’d” — a Sudanese version of Federico Garcia Lorca’s “ House of Bernarda Alba” trilogy is one in which Khair highlights oppressive social, patriarchal forms of oppression, marital disharmony, and the heavy domestic burden that falls on women. He also reflects on the women who refuse to be silenced, subdued, and tamed, and the unbearably enormous consequences that accompany this choice. His shows are unceasingly keen to shed light on the peripheral, forgotten, and heavily tasked lives of women, and the odds that are stacked against women, which take a toll on mental and physical health. He also portray’s women’s inner woes and fears, the cruelty and unfairness that devour much of their lives, the roles they have been pushed into and the rigidly gendered stereotypes. These seem to cause onlookers to bark with laughter at the bitterly gibed and mocked toxic masculinity, or feel the themes tug at their heartstring and cause sharp bangs of guilt for an audience that is being glided smoothly into being made aware of the injustices tunneling under the beliefs of the society that continues to feign a blind eye at them.

Adil Ibrahim Muhammed Khair has truly graced the Sudanese theatre, pushing it to be an environment inclusive of a broad spectrum of society, with generous doses of art uncompromised by market demands. His plays unfold life in front of the audience and lay bare the potentially destructive inhumanity and ugliness of patriarchy, offering them a true reflection of society through his smart and multi-tonal shows. These nourish theatrical souls and bring a sense of togetherness, shared euphoria, and appreciation.

Khair’s shows make the slow-paced town and the dilapidated, decayed and history-laden theatre building pulse with energy and life, pumping lifeblood into the underfunded and cash-starved local performance arts.

Essayist, short-story writer, and critic Lemya Shammat has a PhD in English Language and Linguistics from Khartoum University and is an Assistant Professor at King Saud Bin Abdul Aziz University in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. A member of the Sudanese Writers Union, Shammat has published a book on literary criticism and discourse analysis as well as a collection of short-short stories. She also translates between English and Arabic, and her work appears in ArabLit Quarterly.