- 1 Located in the al-Bawniya neighborhood, the Cultural Center is owned by the Ministry of Culture, wh (...)
- 2 Anecdote related during interview with Ṣāliḥ al-Ṣāliḥ, Yemeni actor and director, Sana’a, 16 April (...)
1In 2011, at the height of the clashes between anti-regime protesters and supporters of ‘Alī ‘Abd Allāh Ṣāliḥ, a group of young Yemeni actors gathered at the Cultural Center1 in Sana’a to rehearse a play.2 They memorized and recited their lines, pausing occasionally to listen to noises emanating from nearby parts of the city: mass chanting, or bursts of artillery fire. One day, several of the actors arrived at the front gate of the Cultural Center, only to discover a crowd of tear-gassed protesters fleeing a demonstration that had been organized by Tawakkul Karmān — co-recipient, later that year, of the Nobel Peace Prize — in front of the Prime Minister’s office a few blocks away.
2Taking refuge inside the Center, the actors telephoned their tardy comrades to warn them of the situation. But when the noxious smoke cleared, rehearsals resumed, and on December 14th, 2011, the play — Alfred Farag’s Wajhān li-‘Umla (Two Sides to a Coin) — premiered, to a sizeable and appreciative audience.
3Given the unrest and danger, one may well ask why and how this particular show, and others like it, went on. What motivated Yemeni theater practitioners to put their lives and limbs at risk to perform, and Yemeni audience members, to attend? What connections exist between the form and content of plays performed before, during, and after 2011 and the changes being wrought that year in Yemeni society? How did Yemeni theater — already a provocative genre in the years leading up to the outbreak of the Arab Spring — conceptualize, present, and perform the revolution?
4To answer such questions, this article charts a trajectory of socio-political commentary on the Yemeni stage between 2009 and 2013. Amidst the dozens of theatrical performances that occurred in Yemen during this period, this trajectory focuses in particular on four productions: Wajdī al-Ahdāl’s A Crime on Restaurant Street (2009), ‘Amr Jamāl’s Matchstick (2011), Farag’s Two Sides to a Coin (2011), and Muḥammad al-Qa‘ūd and Amīn Hazaber’s Da‘māmistan (2013).
5Though they differ widely in form and style, these plays have been singled out for analysis because the driving conflict in all four is essentially the same: the struggle of an individual to upend the norms and strictures imposed by his or her community. This article proposes that these plays reflect two larger existential trends in Yemeni society between 2009 and 2013: the growing awareness of the dire necessity of revolutionary change, and the progression from hope and aspiration to frustration and despair which has accompanied that awareness. The degree to which, within each play, the protagonist’s efforts actually succeed in creating social change thus serves as a barometer of Yemenis’ conviction that a true socio-political revolution is possible — or to the contrary, as a measure of the despondent belief that no amount of effort will suffice to dislodge or destroy the reactionary forces which dominate a fundamentally corrupt society.
6In order to situate these plays in the proper context, it is necessary to examine the ways in which this article utilizes the term “revolution” in relation to Yemen and to the Arab Spring. Revolution is, after all, a slippery concept. The images that the word conjures up are, in general, violent and militaristic ones, whether the revolution in question is French, American, Latin American, or Bolshevik. Yet we (can) also use the term to describe less gory upheavals, transformations in the way large groups of human beings understand, live, and act in the world around them: revolutions can be industrial, sexual, or Copernican.
7In an article that predated the Arab Spring by 16 years, Sabry Hafez argued that the concept of freedom, as presented on theatrical stages across the Arab world, must be understood to mean liberty of action not merely in the political arena, but also within the much broader context of the constructs and structures of power that delineate an individual’s relationship to his or her society.3 As staged by Arab playwrights and theater practitioners, “freedom”, Hafez argues, can entail the rejection of tradition, religious dogma, oppressive economic or legal systems, or rigid gender roles or sexual mores, as well as the more commonly associated capacity to act without fear of reprisal from repressive state and/or military institutions.
- 4 Neither Allen, 2000, nor Starkey, 2006, whose histories of drama are quite useful for those seeking (...)
- 5 For more on these works, see Chapter 10 of ‘Awlaqī, 1983. Excepting Alfred Farag’s play, all transl (...)
- 6 It is important to note that, despite this similarity, Yemeni theater in the North differs overall (...)
8This article makes an analogous argument about the portrayal of revolution on the Yemeni stage. The long but woefully understudied history of Yemeni theater4 provides numerous examples of Yemeni plays written specifically about the nation’s revolutions, most prominently the toppling of the Imamate in 1962 in the North, and the anti-colonial revolt against the British in 1967 in the South. Most of these plays represent in simplistic and propagandistic fashion the winning side as courageous heroes selflessly dedicated to liberating their nation from the shackles of an evil and tyrannical regime.5 Generally speaking, this “theater of revolution” served to create and communicate a heroic narrative that would shore up support for the neophyte governments of North and South Yemen.6
9Sa‘īd ‘Awlaqī devotes an entire chapter of his seminal work of Yemeni theater history, Saba‘ūn ‘Aman min al-Maṣraḥ fī al-Yaman (Seventy Years of Theater in Yemen), to this type of politically oriented Yemeni drama, from the 1960s through 1975. He is highly critical of the majority of plays that treat the Yemeni revolutions, both North and South, noting, inter alia:
Certain of these dramatic works were presented so directly as to be flat and superficial, overly simplistic in terms of content and artistic form. This was a real disservice, since these plays were trying to portray one of the richest periods in Yemeni history, a period of revolutionary transformation and social, economic, and political change.7
10‘Awlaqī rails colorfully against this period’s theatrical presentations of revolution for their lack of “intellectual vision of historic events” and for the repetitive nature of their plots and characters, surprisingly consistent on both sides of the North/South border.8 The standard villain is a landowner (either a shaykh, synecdoche for the Imam’s regime in the North, or a Sultan, the partner and beneficiary of British colonial interests in the South) who exploits the illiterate peasants who work for him. The hero is a revolutionary who educates the peasantry with fiery speeches about justice and equality, and urges them to rise up and cast off the shackles of their tyrannical oppressor.
11The dramatic potential of this content is obvious. However, as ‘Awlaqī laments, it was subsumed by the mediocrity and sheer quantity of the plays that ceaselessly drew on it:
- 9 ‘Awlaqī, 1983, p. 187-188.
The peasant was always presented in the same ossified mold, the revolutionary likewise. The helpers of the Sultan or the Shaykh worked against the members of their own social class, as did the Sultan or Shaykh’s guards. The conflict between the peasant and the Sultan always hinged on the peasant’s beautiful daughter and, occasionally, on a piece of land. The Shaykh or the Sultan was always fat, paunchy, and dim-witted, thinking with his genitals…9
- 10 Written by ‘Alī Musīblī and directed by ‘Abd Allāh Musīblī; performed 30 November 1968 as part of t (...)
- 11 ‘Awlaqī, 1983, p. 193.
- 12 Ibid.
12Though this was the dismal rule, according to ‘Awlaqī, certain plays of the period did constitute exceptions. The tragedy Shahīd al-Waṭan (The Nation’s Martyr, Aden, 1968)10 seared into its audience’s memory the image of an innocent Yemeni interrogated and then tortured to death by the British authorities, who suspect him of aiding the revolutionary forces. Here, the protagonist’s patriotic martyrdom consists not of violent or militaristic actions but of fortitude in maintaining the truth of his innocence even in the face of pain and death. A production of Bertolt Brecht’s Die Ausnahme und die Regel (The Exception and the Rule) in Laḥj (ca. 1969)11 criticized entrenched class divisions which consistently favor the rich at the expense of the poor. A play called Khadīja, performed in 1970 in Abyān, modeled its protagonist after a real-life female Yemeni activist, and called for all Yemeni women to rebel against moribund patriarchal traditions and seek freedom.12
- 13 Cf. Caldwell, 1972 for more on Davis.
13Other plays looked beyond the frame of Yemeni history to contextualize their portrayal of revolution. The Trial (1973), for instance, written and directed by Ḥusayn al-Sayyid, examined the struggle of American civil rights activists against systemic racial discrimination, focusing in particular on the controversial trial of activist Angela Davis on charges of kidnapping, murder, and criminal conspiracy.13 Such plays sought, along lines similar to those described by Hafez, to demonstrate that though the Yemeni revolutions against the Imam or the British had reached their conclusion, the larger task of transforming Yemeni society had only begun.
14 These plays represent some of the most important contributions to Yemen’s “theater of revolution” in the 1960s and 1970s. Subsequent decades, however, were not as kind to the genre: with the professionalization of theater from the 1970s through the 1990s, in particular the predominance of national theater troupes attached to government ministries, came a level of expectation that performances would celebrate, directly or indirectly, the achievements of the regimes in power, rather than praising those who rebel against authority. It is not until the 21st century, in particular after 2005, that Yemeni theater truly returns the concept of revolution to center stage.
15The work of contemporary Yemeni theater practitioners continues along the lines laid out by the best works of the “theater of revolution” of the 1960s and 1970s. Rather than depicting activists, politicians, generals, or demonstrations, Yemeni playwrights and directors are meditating upon the events of the Arab Spring within the framework of uncommon genres like science fiction and fantasy, and utilizing avant-garde and experimental dramatic techniques. They are also expanding the definition of the concept of revolution, which on the contemporary Yemeni stage is not merely an uprising against a particular political regime, but rather a sweeping indictment of all facets—law, economy, family, society, etc. — of a stagnant status quo.
- 14 I am deeply grateful to Subḥi al-Zurayqī, an outstanding teacher of Arabic, whose attentive and tho (...)
- 15 For more on al-Ahdal, see Deheuvels, 2003.
16 Wajdī al-Ahdal’s Jarīma fī Shāri‘ al-Maṭā’im (A Crime on Restaurant Street) provides one of the harshest such indictments.15 Originally written as a short story, then adapted for the stage, this play was performed in April 2009, well before mass revolt against the regime of ‘Alī ‘Abd Allāh Ṣāliḥ had hit the Yemeni streets. Jarīma portrays the utter futility of an individual’s attempts to remain honest and humane in the face of forces that actively seek to degrade him. In this play Yemeni society, in particular the substratum that supports Ṣāliḥ’s regime, is not merely corrupt but also fatally corrosive.
17 The script opens at a café on “Restaurant Street,” an actual location near Taḥrīr Square in the city of Sana’a, so named for its proliferation of eateries and teahouses. The café brings together a motley assortment of patrons representing all facets of Yemeni society: Murshid, the muthaqqaf (“cultured one,” intellectual); Yāsir, the journalist; Ḥurayb, the waiter; and Jamīla, the pretty, penniless orphan of eighteen or nineteen who begs from the customers in order to support her young siblings.16
18Two incongruities spring to view: a white toilet, placed towards the front of the stage close to the audience, and a golden ball hanging from the ceiling, swinging from side to side, with the word “Bank” and a dollar sign inscribed on it. An elegantly dressed middle-aged man enters, strolling proudly past the other customers to his seat.17 This is ‘Abd al-Laṭīf, doomed protagonist of the play.
19As one Yemeni literary critic has noted, the course of ‘Abd al-Laṭīf’s life has been shaped and molded by death and displacement.18 Having lost his parents, ‘Abd al-Laṭīf lives with his grandfather until, at the age of ten, he moves with his uncle from Yemen to Kenya. When his uncle dies, the boy is rescued from the Kenyan streets by a Lebanese Maronite family, who adopt him and provide him with stability, education, wealth, and the experience of travel throughout the world.
- 19 Al-Ahdal, 2009, p. 12.
- 20 Ibid. p. 9.
20As a result of his adoptive family’s largesse, ‘Abd al-Laṭīf becomes a fannān, an “artist,” both by profession and by nature, as a person of heightened aesthetic sensibilities. He works as a muhandis dikūr, a phrase open to a range of translations, from “interior decorator” to “[theatrical] set designer.” Effectively, he is a creator of beautiful spaces — and a highly successful one, having during his decades abroad amassed a fortune of eight hundred thousand USD.19 Since his return to Yemen, however, his bank account has been frozen, and he has been reduced to eating other people’s lunch leftovers.20 Yemen, the play implies, is not a place conducive to artistic creation; not even a muhandis dikūr can transform Yemen’s poverty and squalor into something beautiful and harmonious. If spaces here change, it is inevitably for the worse.
21The bank director (mudīr al-bank), a shadowy, disembodied character known to the audience only through his voice, which emanates from the golden ball, has the power to unfreeze ‘Abd al-Laṭīf’s assets, but has instead made the decorator a target, a laboratory rat who will prove the bank director’s pet theory: that “people will engage in criminal behavior if this is the only way to attain what they deserve within society, materially and spiritually — like animals in the jungle. And the axiomatic reward for committing such crimes is being admired as a good citizen.”21 Society, according to the bank director, is simply a nexus of coercive power relations in which every citizen has only two options: commit crimes, or fall victim to them. An obsessive desire to demonstrate the truth of this distorted Nietzschean “scientific theory” drives the bank director to engineer a plot whereby ‘Abd al-Laṭīf is given no alternative but to commit a heinous act of violence.
22 The bank director sends his henchman Wiswās to ‘Abd al-Laṭīf with a proposal: the bank will release the hold on ‘Abd al-Laṭīf’s account if ‘Abd al-Laṭīf commits any one of seventeen suggested violent crimes, listed on a blue sheet of paper which ‘Abd al-Laṭīf reads in disbelief, then furiously tears to pieces. Undeterred, the bank director stages a fight between ‘Abd al-Laṭīf and Wiswās, which culminates in ‘Abd al-Laṭīf being jailed for attempted murder.
- 22 Al-Ahdal, 2009, p. 17.
23Wiswās eventually visits ‘Abd al-Laṭīf in prison, taunting him that, with one telephone call, the bank director could set ‘Abd al-Laṭīf free — or, alternatively, ensure that he rots in jail for the remainder of his life. “One day the truth will come to light,” ‘Abd al-Laṭīf protests, but Wiswās laughs: “The truth! You’re so naïve! The truth is something you buy — and since we’re the ones with the money, we can purchase whatever truth we want!”22
24Stunned, ‘Abd al-Laṭīf asks what crime he has committed against the bank director to merit such punishment. Wiswās explains, “Your crime is that you haven’t committed any crimes at all!” and proceeds to explicate the bank director’s theory. “So… the best citizen is the biggest criminal?” ‘Abd al-Laṭīf asks in disbelief. “Exactly!” says Wiswās. ‘Abd al-Laṭīf is silent for a long moment; he asks for a cigarette, then for the blue paper, after which all the lights go out. In the darkness, the audience hears the sound of wolves howling. The play concludes as follows:
Red and purple lights. ‘Abd al-Laṭīf leaves his prison cell, and Wiswās hands him a Kalashnikov […] The coffeehouse customers are sitting at their tables, Jamīla begging from them. Ḥurayb is wiping off the tables with a sponge. ‘Abd al-Laṭīf approaches the café, raises his rifle, and opens fire on everyone […] The customers, Jamīla, and Ḥurayb all fall to the ground, dead. Sounds of screams and weeping. ‘Abd al-Laṭīf retreats from the scene of the crime, and goes to sit on the toilet, striking a heroic pose with his rifle. Wiswās applauds feverishly. Curtain.23
25‘Abd al-Laṭīf purchases his release from prison with this final bloodbath, all the more shocking as the violence is directed against those he knows. There is no redeeming reading of this final moment; it represents no cathartic cleansing of society’s squalid elements, no releasing of the innocent Jamīla from her life of misery. It is simply a portrayal of the dangerous and degrading depths to which, in the author’s opinion, endemic corruption within Yemeni society will inevitably lead, as clearly symbolized by ‘Abd al-Laṭīf’s final pose upon the toilet. The play thus illustrates both the absolute necessity of a complete societal transformation, and an utter lack of belief that such a transformation will ever take place.
- 24 Hazaber recounts that he considered staging the ending as al-Ahdal wrote it, but found it emotional (...)
26Thus far we have examined the script of the play as Wajdī al-Ahdal wrote it, but the theatrical production in April 2009 changed a number of the play’s key tropes. Director Amīn Hazaber opted not to include the toilet as part of his set, opining that to put such an object on stage would be an offense to good taste, regardless of its symbolic resonance. He also, more controversially, changed the final scene of the play: when forced to choose between a lifetime in prison or an act of terroristic slaughter, his ‘Abd al-Laṭīf decides that suicide is preferable.24 Though by no means as visually powerful an ending as al-Ahdal’s, the message — that decent human beings simply cannot endure the evil pressures of a corrupt society — remained clear.
- 25 Al-Ahdal points out that, among other things, he intended the dollar sign ($) on the golden ball as (...)
- 26 The recording was prepared so that it could be broadcast on Yemeni television. This does occasional (...)
27These changes did not obscure the provocative nature of the play in the eyes of the members of the Yemeni Political Security department, who requested a copy of the script and questioned Hazaber about its contents; the absolute power and insidious corruption of the bank director was too obvious an insult to ‘Alī ‘Abd Allāh Ṣāliḥ to be ignored.25 Despite harassment from the security forces, the play was performed and recorded at the Cultural Center in Sana’a.26 In Yemeni literature from the years leading up to the Arab Spring, Jarīma fī Shāri‘ al-Maṭā’im remains one of the most compelling portrayals of the intolerable position in which Yemenis with a moral compass found themselves in relation to their society. It illustrates both the desperate need for change and a pessimistic conviction that no change, except for the worse, is possible.
- 27 My sincere thanks to Dr. Nizar Ghanem of Sana'a University, scholar and founder of the FPfD, for pr (...)
- 28 A number of important dramatic performances in Yemen have been produced with the assistance of fore (...)
28Two years after the production of Jarīma fī Shāri‘ al-Maṭā’im, citizens of Yemen found themselves in the thick of a previously unimaginable revolt against the very systems that al-Ahdal had so fiercely criticized. In the midst of this upheaval, the noted Yemeni actor, playwright, and director ‘Amr Jamāl authored a play entitled ‘Ūd Thaqāb (Matchstick), which comments on the events of the Arab Spring through the trope of a dysfunctional family. Produced in collaboration with the Future Partners for Development foundation (a Yemeni NGO which sponsored a number of important plays in 2010 and 2011),27 and with support from the Dutch Embassy in Sana’a,28 this play was performed in Aden on the 3rd of October 2011.
29The opening scene of ‘Ūd Thaqāb shows Qāsim, Maḥmūd, and Fāṭima, respectively husband, father, and mother of the play’s protagonist, Amāl. Amāl is missing, and the three other characters accuse each other of having driven her away. Fāṭima furiously accuses Qāsim of having wronged Amāl. “Your daughter is crazy,” Qāsim retorts angrily, “she’s sick,” and faults the way Amāl was raised: only years of parental negligence, he says, could give a girl the idea that it’s permissible to run away from her husband’s house. Fāṭima then turns on her husband: the disgrace is Maḥmūd’s, for having married Amāl off too young, to a man thirty-five years her senior.
30Suddenly all of the characters freeze in mid-gesture and Amāl enters, providing meta-theatrical commentary on the scene that has just passed. Her appearance recalls Qāsim’s reference to her unhealthy psychological state: her hair is wild, and her heavy eye makeup has run down her cheeks in streaks — the tracks of tears. She dismisses the previous dialogue: none of the three is innocent. Each of them, Amāl tells the audience with her hand gesturing towards her heart, has deeply wounded her.
31The second scene illustrates one of these early wounds. Fāṭima reminisces about Amāl’s childhood; Amāl, now played by an actress of around seven or eight, runs in to show her mother a crayon drawing she has just made:
Amāl (proudly, indicating the sheet of paper): This is you, and this is me.
Fāṭima (frowning): And I’m sick?
Amāl: And I’m a doctor, and I’ll cure you.
Fāṭima (affectionately): You’ll be the most beautiful doctor in the world, darling.
32After her child counterpart scampers happily to the side of the stage, the adult Amāl enters, and accuses her mother of painting a false, self-serving picture. Fāṭima implores the audience to believe that she has told the truth, but Amāl sternly commands the spectators: “The truth? Look at it! Look at the truth!” Fāṭima and little Amāl then go through all of their recent motions in reverse as the audience hears the sound of a tape running through a machine at high speed, as though someone has pressed the rewind button while watching a videocassette.
33The two actresses now replay the scene from the beginning, but this time we see Fāṭima angrily grab her daughter by the hair when she discovers Amāl has been drawing rather than cleaning.
Fāṭima: Go clean the bathroom now, then come back and do this room and the bedroom.
Amāl: But I have to study, I have tests tomorrow!
Fāṭima: Ufff, ufff, tests, tests! Forget tests! […]
Amāl (weeping): But my dream is to be a doctor!
Fāṭima (sarcastically): A doctor! We can barely pay for your needs and your schooling now—who’s going to pay to send you to medical school? [. . . ]I’ve told you a hundred times: girls have a house and a husband. Education is for boys!
34At the conclusion of the scene, the adult Amāl sadly informs the audience that her whole life has been a long parade of such wounds. Some may heal, but the worst never will.
35With that foreboding note still ringing, the harrowing next scene opens. Little Amāl has been raped on the street. She kneels silently center stage, head bowed in shame, for the entire scene. Around her, her parents weep and rail at fate and each other. Maḥmūd blames Fāṭima, whose work as a seamstress supports the family, for having left Amāl unsupervised while she delivered clothing to her clients. At a certain point, Maḥmūd announces his intention to kill Amāl. When Fāṭima protests, he insists, “I’ll kill her, and you with her!”
36But this scene, too, is frozen, reversed, and begun anew. This time Maḥmūd pleads with the audience to understand that he “was never a cruel father, just ignorant. I forbade her to go to school, but I did it believing it was for her benefit…” After all, he asks, what good is education for a girl who will just end up taking care of her husband’s house? Fāṭima springs to life and, after an extended argument, each of them strides furiously off the stage — leaving traumatized little Amāl alone, kneeling silent and immobile on the floor.
- 29 The actual period of elapsed time is not specified in the play; this is my estimation.
37Around four years later,29 Maḥmūd’s expensive qāt habit has left him heavily in debt to Qāsim, a middle-aged man with a reputation as a womanizer. Taken with Amāl (now played by a third actress, of around twelve years old), Qāsim proposes to forgive Maḥmūd’s debt. In return, he asks to marry Amāl — and given that “what happened, happened,” as Qāsim euphemistically alludes, who else would ever want Amāl as a wife? When Maḥmūd still demurs, Qāsim angrily threatens to demand immediate repayment of the debt.
38Though this carrot-and-stick approach wrings a reluctant consent from Maḥmūd, the marriage, predictably, is not a happy one. Amāl refuses, even as an adult, to sleep with Qāsim, and he retaliates by bringing other women to the house for that purpose. She confronts him (“I see them! I see them every day, coming out of my bedroom!”), but like her parents, he responds with endless self-serving justifications of his own behavior, delivered to her and to the audience in turn.
39By the play’s end, Amāl can take no more. The play’s eerie conclusion sees the three authority figures replay the opening scene; they act its final moments in slow motion, then return to real time as eight-year-old Amāl enters stage left, visibly startling them. The three glance to back center stage as though looking for an escape, but twelve-year-old Amāl blocks their way. Finally adult Amāl enters smiling, stage right, carrying a can of gasoline. She pours some on herself, then splashes her husband and parents with the remainder. She pulls a box of matches from the sleeve of her dress and lights a matchstick; Qāsim, Maḥmūd, and Fāṭima all scream “No!” and the stage lights instantly go out.
40In October 2011, Yemeni audience members would have immediately grasped the allusion to the self-immolation of Muḥammad Bouazizi, the Tunisian street vendor whose despair and fury over endemic and personally-endured injustice in his society drove him to set himself on fire on the 17th of December 2010. Bouazizi’s act of protest was itself a matchstick that helped to ignite the fiery wave of protests in Tunisia and across the Arab World now referred to as the Arab Spring. And Amāl is clearly intended as a Yemeni, female Bouazizi, traumatized once by an appalling act of violence, then over and over again by the words and actions of those authority figures that surround her. Powerless to improve her lot, she responds with an act of self-destruction. It bears emphasizing, however, that in contrast to Bouazizi, Amāl is not merely immolating herself, but also those around her. This character is prepared to set ablaze everything and everyone that has contributed to her misery.
41As a young person whose dreams and ambitions have been ignored, obstructed, or demeaned by members of an older generation, Amāl’s plight is emblematic of that of much of Yemen’s youth. The early scene where Fāṭima reminisces about Amāl’s drawing is not merely a banal mother-daughter interaction but a parable about the laudable ambitions of Yemen’s younger generation to educate themselves and to contribute what they can to build and to heal their society — and about the systematic crushing of those hopes by entrenched forces too ignorant or too self-serving to engage with them. The entire play dramatizes Amāl’s attempts to force authority figures to a reckoning with the truth and the consequences of their behavior towards her. Her ultimate inability to achieve this is an additional trauma, one rooted in part in the psychological trauma of her rape: the lies, too, are a form of violation which she is powerless to prevent, and ultimately they feed a dangerous appetite for destruction of self and others.
42In late 2011, the play would likely have been read by thoughtful audience members as confirmation of the absolute necessity of Yemen’s ongoing Arab Spring revolution. Some may have perceived in it a desire to transform Yemeni society not merely at the upper echelons of power but down to its very building blocks, the family and the individual. The most politically astute may also have sensed an underlying warning. In October, with Ṣāliḥ still clinging tenaciously to his office, many members of Yemen’s youth protest movement had begun to express frustration and anger that their efforts and aspirations were being marginalized by more powerful factions. Amāl’s needs and concerns are similarly ignored or trivialized, and her husband and parents fatally underestimate her determination to extricate herself from their coercive grip. The message is clear: the regime must relinquish its hold, and the concerns of Yemen’s youth must be heeded. Otherwise Yemeni society risks a violent series of rifts and reckonings. In 2011, the warning was prescient; today, it still rings ominously true.
43 Better known under the title ‘Alī Janāh al-Tabrīzī wa Tābi‘uhu Quffa (‘Ali Janah al-Tabrīzī and his Servant Quffa), the play Wajhān li-‘Umla was performed at the Cultural Center in Sana’a on December 14th, 2011. It was originally scheduled for performance in the spring of 2011, as part of the annual theater festival in Sana’a sponsored by the Ministry of Culture, but instability and violent unrest, including the murder of 52 protesters in Change Square on March 18th, led to its repeated postponement. This means that the production spans three distinct phases of the Yemeni Arab Spring: the idea to perform it came to life in the heady early months of 2011, amidst the excitement and euphoria that preceded Yemen’s “Day of Dignity” (March 18th); rehearsals had resumed before November 23rd, when Ṣāliḥ finally signed the GCC-brokered transition agreement; and the performance took place after Ṣāliḥ had officially agreed to step down.
44 In the playscript by Alfred Farag, the hero uses the power of his imagination to spark a social revolution. Generous to a fault, ‘Alī Janāh al-Tabrīzī spends all of his money entertaining his friends, who then abandon him. In the play’s amusing opening scene, he consoles himself and his self-appointed servant Quffa by imagining a splendid banquet. The two sate themselves on gorgeously described but non-existent morsels, then inebriate themselves on invisible wine. They then agree (since al-Tabrīzī’s house is about to be repossessed) to set off for the borders of China. Here, al-Tabrīzī poses as a prince from Baghdad who has arrived in advance of his caravan filled to overflowing with the finest of merchandise. Magnificent descriptions of al-Tabrīzī’s imaginary wealth, coupled with his unhesitating largesse in distributing Quffa’s life savings to the city’s poor, convince the city merchants and the King to loan him all of their money, which he redistributes to those in need. He even marries the King’s daughter. But as weeks pass and his caravan does not appear, those he has tricked threaten to kill him. Only a clever intervention by Quffa, who disguises himself as the caravan driver and announces its impending arrival, permits the two men (and the King’s daughter) to escape.
45 Farag is an Egyptian rather than a Yemeni playwright, and his play is a classic work of Arab theater, dating back to 1969. Yet its themes were of immediate relevance in Yemen in early 2011, and accumulated additional meaning as the year’s events unfolded. The greedy King and the grasping merchant class — all corrupt, indifferent to the plight of the poor, and obsessed by their desire to prevent each other from attaining profit or advantage — were in Yemen obvious analogues to ‘Alī ‘Abd Allāh Ṣāliḥ and his main political rivals, the wealthy al-Aḥmar clan. Moreover, like many of those who participated in Yemen’s demonstrations, al-Tabrīzī has a passionate desire for social change, but no prestige or economic resources. The only tools at his disposal are vision and rhetoric. Yet, as the play insists, the ability to envision an alternative reality is the crucial first step towards bringing it to fruition. When Quffa scoffs that the caravan is a lie, al-Tabrīzī reflects that its effects on society have been real nevertheless:
Hasn’t [Quffa] seen for himself that this caravan’s brought prosperity to the town before it’s even arrived? Prosperity which can be seen and touched. Hasn’t it created jobs with concrete results for the people: food and drink and clothes? […] All this even before the caravan arrives; what will happen when it does?30
- 31 El-Enany, 2000, p. 193. My thanks to Dr. El-Enany for his reflections on an early draft of this art (...)
46What indeed will happen when the caravan arrives? Al-Tabrīzī is an Arab Robin Hood, and his actions bring about an important modicum of social change; as Rasheed El-Enany has argued, al-Tabrīzī like all of Farag’s heroes is a knight “riding audaciously in an arduous quest for the fulfillment of justice on earth.”31 Yet at the play’s conclusion, more remains to be done. Al-Tabrīzī has robbed the rich and fed the poor, and he eventually escapes the King’s wrath, but the King and the merchants remain in the city. Whether their dominance over the poorer classes has been definitively broken is an open question.
- 32 Farag, 1995, p. 345.
- 33 Yemenis whom I asked to interpret this image referenced “the Prophet ‘Isā” (Jesus) but also mention (...)
47 The Yemeni production of the play, directed by Ṣāliḥ al-Ṣāliḥ and starring Nabḥān al-Shāmī and ‘Abd al-‘Azīz al-Ba‘dānī as al-Tabrīzī and Quffa, deliberately highlighted this ambiguity. One particular visual image suggested how much fortitude and self-sacrifice would be required of the protesters to sustain their revolution. When al-Tabrīzī is seized, Farag’s script calls for “two poles to which ‘Ali is tied by the wrists”32 as he awaits the orders for his execution; in the Yemeni production, however, the two poles were arranged in the shape of a cross, so that he seems to hang crucified. Although in the Islamic world the image of crucifixion can call to mind multiple images and historical moments,33 it is undoubtedly an image of agony, suffering, and humiliation at the hands of a vengeful and omnipotent force; to its audience it may well have recalled the violence that protesters had endured at the hands of security forces and plain-clothed thugs.
48Moreover, after the conclusion of the final scene, the Yemeni production called for the characters to reappear on stage in a tableau. In an echoing voiceover, Quffa exhorts the audience: “You can’t build anything with only good intentions. Work, for through work we can build everything. Do not say, ‘we will build this or that,’ but rather ‘we have built this and that.’ For only when we work with a single purpose can we make our goals a reality.” These lines’ emphasis on the need for concrete action runs somewhat counter to the play’s theme of the transformative power of the imagination. Yet given the incomplete state of the nation’s political transition at the time of performance, with Ṣāliḥ widely suspected of trying to undermine the success of the new regime in favor of his son Aḥmad, the lines sounded an appropriately cautionary warning that Yemen’s revolution was not yet over.
- 34 This is not the first time the play has been re-christened. Dina Amin notes that in 1991 Farag’s pl (...)
49 The performance thus served as both a celebration of the triumphs of the Arab Spring, and as a warning that protesters may well have to make more sacrifices before their hopes for change are fully realized: the “two sides of the coin” of Yemen’s revolution, as referenced in the play’s Yemeni title, Wajhān li-‘Umla.34
50A year and a quarter after Wajhān, another Yemeni play explored the fraught nature of contemporary politics through the genre of science fiction, and the metaphor of a Yemeni experiencing the utopian political system that exists on a different planet. The play Da‘māmistān was performed in late March 2013 in Sana’a University’s Gamal ‘Abd al-Nasser Auditorium. Its theme comes from an eponymous short story published in 2006 by Yemeni author Muḥammad al-Qa‘ūd.
- 35 al-Qa‘ūd, 2006, p. 39.
51While walking home from evening prayer at the local mosque, stumbling through the darkness of a sudden power outage, the protagonist of al-Qa‘ūd’s text is hailed by “a strange car, the likes of which [he has] never seen before.”35 Its passengers explain that they are a delegation from outer space, from the republic of “Da‘māmistān.” The citizens of Da‘māmistān have a tradition of electing their president from among Earth’s inhabitants, and this year our protagonist has been chosen to fill the position.
52His fear and incredulity rapidly give way to feverish plans: he envisions the orders that he will give, the money he will have at his disposal, the plum positions he will dole out to relatives and neighbors. Carried away by these jubilant expectations, he hurriedly signs his contract, not bothering to read it. The strange car transforms into a spaceship, and whisks him away to his new home.
53But the reality of life as President of the Republic of Da‘māmistān fails to meet his expectations. No fanfare greets his arrival at the new planet’s airport. He is assigned a simple car and basic accommodation, and though his imagination had conjured a horde of servants waiting on his every whim, he finds to his chagrin that he will be expected to cook and clean for himself, and even to make his own tea. When he vigorously protests that he is the president, the delegation points out that every aspect of the job and the remuneration is laid out in the contract that he signed.
54Finally reading this document, he discovers to his dismay that he has agreed to perform the duties of President of the Republic for a meager salary, paid in Da‘māmistāni dollars, supplemented monthly by a kilo of raisins, a bottle of Vimto, a can of al-Mumtāz condensed milk, and a goat on major holidays.36 He has also agreed NOT to carry out dozens of the flamboyant and extravagant actions he had dreamt of, including raiding the Treasury, making nepotistic appointments to public office, and hanging his portrait in public places.
55The delegation is unsympathetic to his outrage that their rules render him unable “to eat so much as a chicken at the Treasury’s expense!”37 and sternly tell him to cease wasting time and get to work. But he soon causes an interplanetary incident when he slaps his driver for refusing to carry out his orders to exceed the speed limit. The drivers’ union declares a strike, human rights organizations from other planets protest, and an emergency session of the Da‘māmistāni Parliament suspends him from work for a week and imposes a fine, to be taken from his salary and paid to the driver and his family.
56In the meantime, he meets the Yemeni who preceded him as President of Da‘māmistān, who now works as a waiter to pay off debts incurred during his time in office. During one of their chats, the protagonist suddenly finds himself unable to respond or to move; after a few disoriented moments, he suddenly wakes to find himself in his own home, in front of the television, which is running a sci-fi film about aliens invading earth. The whole experience has been nothing more than a vivid dream, inspired by the film.
- 38 I am grateful to Amīn Hazaber for providing me with a video recording of this and other plays perfo (...)
57Amīn Hazaber, aforementioned as director of Jarīma fī Shāri‘ al-Maṭā’im, read al-Qa‘ūd’s story with interest, and decided to dramatize it. The resulting play was performed in March 2013, seven years after publication of the short story, and with the additional historical perspective of the events of Yemen’s Arab Spring and the semi-successful transition of power from Ṣāliḥ to Hādī in 2012. Hazaber’s play lengthens and embellishes al-Qa‘ūd’s tale in creative and topical ways including, for example, a comedic scene centered around the protagonist’s arrival at the Da‘māmistān airport, when he is required, like all other citizens, to pass through the metal detector, and must remove his belt, shoes, coins, cell phone, and multiple layers of clothing as he repeatedly sets off the alarms.38
- 39 Yemen’s Arab Spring protesters explicitly celebrated al-Hamdī’s example on October 7th, 2011, dubbe (...)
58The protagonist’s indignant protests that as President he should receive special treatment would undoubtedly have reminded at least some audience members of a popular anecdote about Ibrāhīm al-Hamdī, former president of North Yemen: once when this president’s motorcade was returning to Sana’a, a soldier at a checkpoint attempted to wave the cars through without the usual security procedures. Al-Hamdī exited the vehicle and proceeded to reprimand the soldier, telling him that everyone’s car should be screened, including the President’s.39 But even for spectators who did not draw that connection, the play’s message is clear: a president is, or should be, subject to the same laws and rules by which his citizens abide.
- 40 To get a sense of the startling on-stage effect of this choice, one might try to imagine Hillary Cl (...)
59 In an interesting contrast to the short story, the play gives prominent and powerful roles to female characters. Two women in particular represent the serious, disciplined, efficient bureaucrats of Da‘māmistān. They are dressed in matching taupe pantsuits and high heels and are given the role, among other things, of reading the protagonist’s contract to him — two young female figures effectively laying down the law to the President.40 In effect, the play presents Da‘māmistān as the state envisioned and advocated by many of Yemen’s young Arab Spring revolutionaries: a nation in which all citizens have equal rights and responsibilities, where the apparatus of the state functions fairly and efficiently, and in which the many are not subject to the caprice of a powerful few.
- 41 Al-Mu‘āllamī’s death in July 2013 was a tragic loss for Yemeni theater and for all who knew him.
60The contrast between this imagined utopia and Yemeni reality is ironically underscored for us early in the play as the protagonist plans his triumphant arrival on his new planet. In a monologue delivered to the audience as though to a group of co-conspirators, the protagonist, ably played by Sām al-Mu‘āllamī,41 announces that he must set the proper tone for his term by being shadīd (harsh and demanding) with his new subjects from the outset. He will rule with an iron fist or, as the Yemeni phrase runs, show them “his red eyes, his bull’s eyes” (‘uyūn ḥamra’, ‘uyūn al-thawr). The important thing, he stresses in conclusion, is that he will tolerate no dissent. At this point, members of the cast, who have filtered out into the audience, begin to chant (and to encourage their neighbors to chant) “Irḥal!Irḥal!” thus staging a meta-theatrical protest against him before he has even assumed the office of President.
61Ironically (and in stark contrast to ‘Alī ‘Abd Allāh Ṣāliḥ), by the end of the play the protagonist desperately wants to escape from the responsibilities and constraints of his office. As opposed to the short story’s more ambiguous ending, the play shows us the protagonist rejoicing wildly, yelling happily, “Anā mish rā’is al-jumhūriyya!” (“I’m not the President of the Republic!”) when he is rudely awakened from his dream by a kick from a hired goon: in the darkness of the power outage, our protagonist has lain down for a nap on the streets of Sana’a a bit too close to the entrance to an important shaykh’s house. The protagonist is thus simultaneously returned to reality and to his lack of status, influence, and power within the Yemeni social hierarchy. The audience is left to speculate whether his elation upon waking will fade to nostalgia for the order, discipline, and equal treatment under the law that his dream-vision showed him.
62This play suggests the Herculean difficulties that face any attempt to root out entrenched corruption. Even when surrounded by a just and honest populace, the protagonist persists in his desire to bend the rules in his favor, and simply refuses to conceive that a leader can be anything other than covetous and self-serving. He is, in fact, the personification of all those members of the previous regime whom the Yemeni revolution has thus far proved unable to dislodge. Da‘māmistān is a sobering assessment of where Yemen stood more than two years after the revolution. Though many Yemenis had grown more aware of and more vocal about the need for socio-political change, by early 2013, despite the presidential succession, the essential structures of power in Yemen remained very much as they were two years earlier.
63Throughout its long history Yemeni theater has repeatedly reflected, critiqued, and challenged unjust and retrograde social and political hierarchies. From its inception, stirring calls for revolt against injustice, stagnation, and corruption have resounded from the Yemeni stage. Certain plays have targeted particular persons or groups, such as the British occupying forces in the South or the Ḥamīd al-Dīn Imams in the North, as the necessary objects of revolution. Others have called for sweeping changes throughout Yemeni society, targeting underlying systems and attitudes that encourage inequality and discrimination or that obstruct progress and personal liberty.
64Contemporary Yemeni plays portray the concept of revolution in sophisticated and multivalent fashion, not merely as the transition from one political regime to the next but rather as a sea-change in the relations between young and old, between women and men, between the individual and society. In the four plays examined here, performed before, during, and after the Arab Spring in Yemen, we hear Yemenis’ own voices proclaiming to us why they desire far-reaching socio-political and economic reform, and to what degree they believe such reform is possible.
65The first and last plays in this series are an excellent example of this. In 2009 Jarīma fī Shāri‘ al-Maṭā’im portrayed Yemeni society as horrifically corrupting. In 2013 Da‘māmistān imagined a Yemeni’s experience of a utopian and perfectly functional society. The events of the Arab Spring were crucial factors in bringing the vision of a more just, Da‘māmistān-esque society into mainstream Yemeni discourse. Yet despite this difference, the two plays are the same in essence: Al-Qa‘ūd’s protagonist is an ironic inverse of al-Ahdal’s ‘Abd al-Laṭīf, powerless to change the society around him, or to be positively changed by it.
66Sadly, the euphoric hopes and imaginative visions of early 2011, expressed on the Yemeni streets as in Alfred Farag’s play, were only one side of the coin. In the end ‘Amr Jamāl’s Matchstick, with its poignant emphasis on both the fragility and the destructive potential of Amāl’s revolt, may well prove to be the play that most fittingly encapsulates Yemen’s unfinished revolution.