From the Archives: Wajdi al-Ahdal and Katherine Hennessy on Yemeni Theater

Back in 2017, Yemeni author Wajdi al-Ahdal and translator-scholar Katherine Hennessey, who brought Ahdal’s short play A Crime on Restaurant Street into English, talked with ArabLit editor M Lynx Qualey about Yemeni theatre and other forms of literary and performed creation:

Sulayman Daoud (left) and Khaled al-Bahri in the comedy Marzouq in the Role of the Terrorist (2014). Image credit: Benjamin Wiacek.

Wajdi, when you write for theatre, are you focused on a Yemeni audience, more than with short stories or novels? Is your relationship to a prospective audience different when writing theatre vs. short stories or novels?

Wajdi al-Ahdal: Yes, when I write for the theater, I focus on local audiences, which means I can include certain allusions which I’m sure the Yemeni public will understand, even if I don’t spell everything out.

How do you see the use of humor in your writing? For softening up the reader, for enjoyment, for sneaking other things past?

Wajdi: The Yemeni public loves writing laced with irony and sarcasm. And Yemeni readers understand when an author is directing barbs at those who deserve it, like religious leaders, the military and politicians.

Your novel, Qawarib Jabaliya (Mountain Boats, 2002)became the subject of sermons and led to criminal charges against you. Did winning the battle over this book have a long-term effect on your ability to write as you chose and freely express yourself? 

Wajdi: Mountain Boats was my first novel, and my subsequent ones have in fact been more outspoken. After the president [Ali Abdullah Saleh] promised that I would no longer be harassed, I’ve had the advantage of being able to write as I choose and as I like, though to do so still carries with it a certain degree of risk.

Where do you think the most exciting Yemeni creative writing is being done in the 21st century? In theatre, poetry, short stories, novels, somewhere else?

Wajdi: I think that satire of all kinds has been the most successful type of writing since the turn of the century. High-culture poetry no longer has an audience, but popular forms of poetry have gained a wide following in the wake of the civil war. We have zawamil — emotional, patriotic poems, usually in four-line stanzas, that people of all ages recite.

Many of our university students love to read Yemeni novels, but theatre struggles to compete with the lure of qat in the evenings.

Who are the most interesting young playwrights? Where is their work staged, how do they develop their skills?

Wajdi: The most interesting contemporary Yemeni playwright is Samir ‘Abd al-Fattah, who writes plays with substance. Most other authors just write light comedies to suit an audience’s desire for entertainment. But ‘Abd al-Fattah’s plays are almost never produced. For playwrights like him, moving their work from the page to the stage is incredibly difficult. It’s like traveling to the moon.

Yemeni Actress Amani al-Dhamari, in costume for ‘Aismur Ma’ish al-Siraj (2012/13), a play that brought Yemeni folklore into dialogue with Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice. Photo credit: Wagdi al-Maqtari.

Katherine Hennessey: Yemen has a number of interesting female playwrights, too, like Luna Yafa‘i, whose Barakash wa al-Kash (‘Barakash and the Cash’) was a fascinating contribution to the 2014 Theatre Festival in Sana’a. And in terms of training: some members of the older generation had scholarships to study theatre abroad—a number of those who grew up in the South, in the former People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen, for example, were able to train in Moscow or Eastern Europe. The younger generation, unfortunately, has had fewer of those types of opportunities, and both playwriting and acting seem to be learned more through practice and trial and error than formal training. There is a sort of informal apprenticeship system available to younger practitioners, whereby older, more established actors and directors help mentor the next generation, a fact which Yemeni actress Marwa Khaled first brought to my attention.

Which non-Yemeni playwrights have been the most resonant with Yemeni audiences? Saadallah Wannous? Others? 

Wajdi: In Yemen, the most commonly performed Arab authors are Tawfiq al-Hakim, then Saadullah Wannous and Muhammad al-Maghout. For foreign authors, we turn to Shakespeare and Molière.

Katherine: I’d add Alfred Farag and Yusuf Idris to Wajdi’s list. There was an incredible performance of Idris’ Al-Farafir in Sana’a in 2013. Ibrahim al-Ashmuri, who’s one of Yemen’s greatest living actors, was riveting in the lead role.

You’ve written that television had a broad impact on Yemeni theatre. What about internet and social media? How have they changed Yemeni theatre?

Wajdi: Yemeni theatre hasn’t yet responded to these new types of media. No one I know has chosen, for example, to produce a play to upload to YouTube. We have an older generation of directors who still dominate the field, and they’re not aware of all the opportunities the Internet offers. But sadly, we haven’t yet seen the rise of a new generation of young, media-savvy directors either.

Katherine: Sites like YouTube and Facebook give Yemeni theatre makers access to content and networks from around the world, which helps them to broaden their own ideas about how and what to perform. But I agree with Wajdi that Yemeni theatre-makers generally underutilize social media. I’d love to see a site or a YouTube channel specially dedicated to Yemen’s theatre scene, where actors and directors could post videos and people both in and out of Yemen could watch and comment on them.

What is the relationship between Yemeni authors in Yemen and those in exile? Are writers in exile an important part of the creative dialogue?

Wajdi: Facebook has broken the barrier that distance once put in our way. And a writer in the diaspora may have more of a following in Yemen than a writer who lives here. Plus the freedom that writers can enjoy in exile has a positive impact on Yemeni literature as a whole.

Wajdi, if you were to write A Crime on Restaurant Street now, or revisit the characters and setting, how would they have changed? What would they be saying to you now? 

Wajdi: The horrific war in Yemen, which has now entered its third year, might rouse the conscience of the play’s protagonist, ‘Abd al-Latif. Now he might say he would prefer life in prison, and refuse to kill ordinary people.

Katherine, you write about the on-the-ground censorship of a play called al-Dawdahiyya (by storming the theatre). Why is live theatre still so important as a cultural-political space? Why hasn’t it been supplanted by television, film, internet?

Katherine: There’s no substitute for human interaction, and Yemeni theatre is an interactive experience—audience members are vocal to a degree that’s startling to those of us who assume that the spectator’s role is to listen quietly and attentively to the performance. In Yemen spectators laugh uproariously, applaud feverishly, and often call out advice or admonishments to the characters they see on stage. They’re participants in the performance in a way that watching a video or a TV show can’t replicate. And theatre is a democratic medium: it’s a public forum that allows playwrights, directors, and actors to present their views and opinions through performance, and it permits the audience to respond, with approbation or criticism as the case may be.

You’ve written that Yemeni theatre “is a place — perhaps the only place at the moment — where Yemenis are proposing considered solutions to the myriad problems on the national horizon.” Do you still think it’s so?

Katherine: I wrote that back in 2013 and 2014, before the Houthi insurgency gained traction and before the Saudi-led coalition began their devastating bombing campaign. I firmly believe that many Yemeni theatre makers foresaw many of their nation’s looming crises and crafted their performances as a warning—one that went sadly unheeded.

Right now, because of the political unrest, there’s just not much theatre happening, but once a modicum of calm returns, I predict, and I fervently hope, Yemeni theatre will come storming back as a forum for socio-political debate.

Are/were there any significant links between Yemeni and Indian theatre?

Katherine: This is a great question—I’m impressed that you asked! Yes, there are historic links between Yemeni and Indian theatre. In fact, Sa‘id ‘Aulaqi begins his Seventy Years of Theatre in Yemen (1980), the seminal work of Yemeni theatre history, with the story of a traveling Indian troupe that came to Aden in 1904 and put on a performance so spectacular—supposedly the troupe included talented singers and musicians, traveling with palatial sets, peacocks and trained songbirds—that their example inspired Yemenis to put on their own plays.

What sorts of questions are you most often asked about Yemeni theatre?

Marwa Khaled (left) and Nargis Abbad on the stage of the Cultural Centre in Sana’a, rehearsing a Yemeni adaptation of Bertolt Brecht’s Mother Courage and Her Children. Abbad adapted the script, setting Brecht’s action in Aden during the British occupation. Image credit: Benjamin Wiacek.

Katherine: There’s a huge range, from whether Yemeni plays are censored, to how they’re funded (since admission is free), and from where performances take place to how they’re publicized. But most often people ask about the contributions Yemeni women make to the genre.

I always answer the question “Are Yemeni women allowed to act?” with a list of some the things I’ve seen a Yemeni actress do on stage: knock a male actor to the ground; track down out and then reject the deadbeat father of her illegitimate child; threaten a villain with a knife and slap him, resoundingly, in the face; verbally eviscerate imams for hypocrisy and intolerance; pour a jerry can of gasoline over herself, her abusive husband, and her complicit parents, and light a match; and lead a crack anti-human-trafficking commando unit in the Yemeni military, just to name a few examples (and all in character, of course).

People are often surprised by that, and by learning, for example, that Yemen has prominent female directors. That’s part of the reason I believe Yemeni theatre is an important topic: it helps provide a counterbalance to a whole raft of stereotypes and misperceptions.

What sort of satiric theatre — that doesn’t yet exist — would you like to see written now, about the current moment?

Wajdi: Right now it would be impossible to stage a theatrical performance that makes a mockery of the current war and its belligerents. But that’s precisely the kind of theatre Yemen needs.

Wajdi al-Ahdal is a celebrated Yemeni novelist and playwright, and author of four novels, three collections of short fiction, two plays and two film scripts. His play The Colonel’s Wedding won first prize for scriptwriting at the 9th Arab Youth Festival in Alexandria, and his novel The Quarantine Philosopher was longlisted for the 2007 International Prize for Arabic Fiction award. In 2009 the ‘Beirut 39’ project, under the aegis of the Hay Festival of Literature (UK), named al-Ahdal one of the top 39 writers under the age of forty in the Arab world.

In 2002 his novel Mountain Boats was condemned by Yemeni authorities and he was forced to seek refuge in Damascus.  Only through the intervention of Günter Grass and other leading international literary figures was he permitted to return to Yemen without threat of prosecution.

His work has been translated from Arabic into Italian (A Donkey Amidst the Music, trans. Francesco de Angelis as Un asino tra i suoni, Poesis 2010), French (Mountain Boats, trans. Sarah Rolfo as Barques de montagnes, Bachari 2011), and English (A Land Without Jasmine, trans. William M. Hutchins, Garnet 2012). The latter won the 2013 Banipal Prize for literary translation.

Katherine Hennessey is an Assistant Professor at the American University of Kuwait, and the author of Shakespeare on the Arabian Peninsula (Palgrave 2017). She writes about theatre in Yemen, the Arabian Gulf, and Ireland, and has translated several works of Yemeni literature, including al-Ahdal’s play A Crime on Restaurant Street and Sa’id ‘Aulaqi’s Seventy Years of Theatre in Yemen.