Posted by Joshua on Sunday, March 29th, 2009
“A Night at the Theater with Saadallah Wannous”
Dispatch from Damascus 19 (29/03/09)
Ali Khan, “Syria Comment” (Photo by Ketan Gajria)
A group of us from my class decided to go and see a play in the main theatre in Ummaviyeen Square. I went to buy tickets a few days in advance and was impressed by the modern building, the cleanliness and the organisation; the booklet listing the various plays, musical concerts and other performances even had a little colour-coded map at the back to help one choose the seats. However, I was most impressed with the prices of the tickets. A balcony seat was only slightly more than two dollars. Like any other place in Syria, just like in India, there were more people working there and milling about than seemed necessary but all of them were keen to help.
I had asked around whether I needed to wear formal clothes, as it indicated on the back of the ticket, but most people had assured me that as long as I didn’t show up in a Manchester United shirt, not that I have one or would ever dream of committing such an offence, and a pair of shorts, I would be alright. The evening was cold and windy and I softly uttered a few expletives as I saw Audi A8s and BMW X6s pull in to the theatre. I am always shocked by the number of new models of various cars that I see in Syria, some of which I have not even seen in London or New York. From a distance, I had seen a large sculpture in front of the main gates of the theatre. On closer inspection my fertile imagination interpreted it to be one of the symbols of the Anti-Christ, an upside down cross, with lots of colourful glass stuck on to it to add a modernist touch. However as soon as I triumphantly declared this to my friends they burst out laughing and said that it was actually meant to be the sword of the Umayyad Caliphs! The main building in the complex seemed to be having an identity crisis of sorts as the colour of its roof changed every few minutes from fluorescent pink, to yellow, to marine blue to emerald green!
Outside the main doors and large crowd had collected and all seemed dressed to the nines. The men wore sharply cut designer suits with patent leather shoes and the women carried frilly fur overcoats and gleaming handbags. Apart from the group of these mutathaqifeen, or would be cultured people, (it is amazing to ‘play’ with Arabic verbs) there was an odd mix of acting students, academics in their existentialist black, a few language teachers from the university and a group of French ladies in red anoraks. We all felt somewhat shabby and quickly headed inside and found some seats in the lobby. A group of young Syrians struck up a conversation with us. After the usual questions about where we live in Damascus (I have a sneaking suspicion that some people ask this so as to figure out ones ‘social and financial status’ rather than genuinely wanting to know where foreigners live), why we study Arabic and if we like Syria, I asked one of the long haired men who was lolling about on the sofa what he did. In the typical nonchalant yet studied way in which actors answer questions, he looked towards the ceiling and proclaimed: “Oh, I am an actor.” Meanwhile he was trying to appear aloof yet interested in the constant throng of women that were coming up to him. Later someone said that he was part of the “theatre scene” in Damascus.
The play was called Tuqoos al-Isharaat wal-Tahavulaat, or Rituel pour une Metamorphose as the program card helpfully translated it, by Saadallah Wannous. In English it would roughly translate as Rituals of Signs and Transformations. Originally from Syria, Wannous studied in Cairo and was deeply influenced by famous existentialists like Camus and Satre. Later on having lived in France and having seen the works of famous socialist playwrights like Peter Weiss and Bertolt Brecht, Wannous became convinced of the need for ‘an ideology’ in theatre in order to educate the masses. Wannous is a legend in the Arab world for his astute plays about the human condition and political commentaries on the Arab world but unfortunately died in 1996 because of cancer.
Our seats were close to the stage and the theatre seemed to have all the necessary modern equipment and if it wasn’t for the large hijabi lady in front of me, I could have easily imagined that I was in any of the European capitals. The play began with an arrestingly explicit opening scene where a prostitute is shown cavorting with a married man. Above the stage, the French translation of the play was being projected on an empty space but for the French ladies who could not speak any Arabic, it was a choice between watching the play or reading the lines.
In short, the play depicts the shows how a girl, Wardah, who lived in a religious scholar’s house eventually becomes a prostitute and has sexual relations with the scholar. The scholar’s daughter, Almassa is married to man, Abdallah, who also has an affair with Wardah. Almassa’s brother, Safwan is gay. Abdallah is caught and thrown in jail and Safwan’s gay lover is also thrown in jail. Almassa decides that the only way in which she can redeem herself is by having her own body violated and so decides to become a prostitute. For this, her gay brother eventually kills her rather than bring ‘shame on the family.’ The revolving stage had two levels and worked wonderfully by interchanging the spaces used for the bordello, the jail, Almassa’s home and government offices. During the play there were various references to the decrees of the ‘Mufti’ of the town on various issues including the banning of liquor and lewd texts like 1001 nights.
I have tried, only somewhat successfully, to read the play and I talked to a few people who are familiar with the works of Wannous and all of them were surprised by the fact that one crucial dimension of the play had been deliberately left out by the directors. The play we saw successfully depicted Wannous’ cautious approach to religious authorities but neglected to portray his critique of an unjust government! I also found that many key scenes that portrayed the struggle between the Ottoman Wali and the Mufti had been removed from the play. Despite the fact that the play was heavily edited and therefore was not a fair portrayal of the author’s original intentions, the Brechtian influence on Wannous’ work was clear. The concept of ‘distancing,’ and the audience not just as passive receptors is evident from the attempt by Wannous to make people think about the play and not just empathise with the actors on the stage by stripping normal human acts and recreating them to be more arresting to listen to and view. This is why the play is set in the historical period of the Ottoman’s rule in Syria. This will inevitably trigger a historical search by the audience to think about the context of the play in real terms rather than just passively watching the play. Brecht too believed that theatre should try to make people think critically and induce self-reflection rather than just create a moment of false emotional empathy.
The actresses were both superb and very fluid in their movements and monologues but most of the men either overacted or were too stiff. Obviously, I am not at all qualified to judge the performance of the actors or for that matter the play itself but I do feel that the people who edited and chose the scenes did not do justice to Wannous or his play. I did however enjoy my first trip to the theatre in Damascus.
Until next week Ma’as Salaama!
p.s [landis] Saadallah Wannous’ daughter, Dima Wannous, recently published her first novel, called “chair” (kursi). Tafasil [Details], a collection of nine short stories, was published in 2007 (Dar al-Mada, Damascus). An extract of one story – “Sahar” – can be read in Banipal: A magazine of Modern Arabic Literature. Dima is married to Ibrahim Hamidi, al-Hayat’s bureau chief in Damascus and they have a son, Saad. See this Obituary of Wannous by Elie Shalala.