LE POÈTE COMME BOXEUR by Kheireddine Lardjam. ©Compagnie El Ajouad
Volume 1

Rolf C. Hemke’s Theatre in the Arab World : Struggling Against Insurmountable Odds

Rolf C. Hemke’s Theatre in the Arab World:
Struggling Against Insurmountable Odds
A Book Review by Michael Malek Najjar
Theatre in the Arab World/Theater im arabischen Sprachraum
Edited by Rolf C. Hemke, Theater der Zeit, 2013
 Arab StagesVolume 1, Number 1 (Fall 2014)
 ©2014 by Martin E. Segal Theatre Center Publications

In the preface to his edited volume Theatre in the Arab World, Rolf C. Hemke writes, “This book was written with the context of…upheavals in mind, and with the awareness that theatre is often the most political and the most spontaneous of all forms of art. Hence, theatre can function as a seismograph of societal conditions.” Hemke’s volume, written in both German and English, explores how the political, social, and conflictual situations facing contemporary Arab nations both positively and negatively affect theatrical output. Hemke is clear that this book is neither an encyclopedia nor a representative compendium of theatre in the Arab world; instead, he states, “this book is the result of a very subjective research and curating activity that I have had the privilege of carrying out for several years now for my employer, the Theater an der Ruhr…”

The volume contains brief essays by various theatre critics including six by Hemke himself. The nations encompassed in this study include Algeria, Egypt, Iraq, Kuwait, Lebanon, Morocco, Palestine, Syria, and Tunisia. Essays like Moumen’s “Dreaming of Chaos—The Theatre of Fadhel Jaibi” and Sharghi, Al Hadi, and Hemke’s “The Theatre of Everyday Events: Muhaned Al Hadi’s Theatre” provide biographies and overviews of the works of individual Arab theatre artists. Other essays, such as Hemke’s “Ramallah, Amman, Haifa—The Palestinian Theatre Scene in the West Bank and Diaspora” and Mrabet’s “Tunisian Theatre: From Opposition to Revolution” attempt to provide an overview of decades of theatre history in several brief pages. Still other essays such as Peter Sellars’ “Diversity and Democracy—A Tribute to Zoukak” are directed toward extolling the virtues of specific theatre companies.

These essays are not critical in their orientation; in fact, many are outright venerations of these artists. The essayists here view these theatre artists, and theatre companies, as invaluable artistic voices that stand in opposition to religious fundamentalism, state censorship, and the exigencies of war and strife. In nation after nation stories emerge of artists who are struggling against insurmountable odds. “Despite their courage,” Sarah Enany writes of Egyptian artists, “these independent theatre makers—unless they are lucky enough to have influential friends or know a good grant writer—are in a never-ending uphill struggle that all-too-frequently ends with exile or bankruptcy.”  In discussing the difficulties of producing theatre in Beirut Anna Furse writes, “This volatile conurbation, where machine-gun armed soldiers sit atop tanks or behind sandbags, is itself the very grit in the oyster for Zoukak’s unshakable dedication to the contemporary value of theatre as a force for uncompromising acts.” In other words, in places like these, theatre has not the luxury of being solely about entertainment.

The book also includes personal stories about, and quotes by, Arab theatre artists, which, alone, speak volumes about the state of Arab theatre today. Naima Zitane, a female director in Morocco says, “Theatre should accompany social struggle. It should continue no matter what the historical period and the political stakes. Above all, it should have at its heart the fight for freedom.” Exiled Syrian director Omar Abusaada says, “The theatre is also a means of survival, of staying productive, and of not despairing.” These are stories of artists who have been persecuted, exiled and, in some cases, assassinated for creating art.

The essays include photographs of theatrical productions and portraits of the theatre artists themselves. Also, a directory at book’s end includes contact information for national and private theatre and arts institutions in Arab countries.

This book is the latest in an array of fascinating books about Arab theatre that have been produced in recent years which include Houssami and Khamissy’s Doomed by Hope: Essays on Arab Theatre, Hamdan’s Poetics, Politics and Protest in Arab Theatre: The Bitter Cup and the Holy Rain, and Ziter’s Political Performance in Syria: From the Six-Day War to the Syrian Uprising. These volumes have dispelled notions about the paucity of theatre and performance in the contemporary Arab world, and have chronicled the astonishing resiliency of theatre artists living and working under the most extreme and dangerous circumstances. Through books like these, theatre and performance artists and scholars can better understand the complicated and precarious world in which these Arab theatre artists create their vital work.

Michael Malek Najjar is an assistant professor of Theatre Arts at the University of Oregon. He holds a PhD in Theatre and Performance Studies from UCLA, M.F.A. in Directing from York University (Toronto), B.A. in Theatre Arts from the University of New Mexico. He is an associate member of the Stage Directors and Choreographers Society (SDC), and an alumnus of the British/American Drama Academy (BADA), Lincoln Center Director’s Lab, Director’s Lab West, and RAWI Screenwriters’ Lab (Jordan). He directed the world premiere of Jamil Khoury’s Precious Stones and a staged reading of his own play Talib, both at the Silk Road Theatre Project, ChicagoHe is the editor of Four Arab American Plays: Works by Leila Buck, Jamil Khoury, Yussef El Guindi, and Lameece Issaq & Jacob Kader and Arab American Drama, Film and Performance: A Critical Study, 1908 to the Present published by McFarland & Co., Inc. Publishers.


Arab Stages
Volume 1, Number 1 (Fall 2014)
©2014 by Martin E. Segal Theatre Center Publications

Founders: Marvin Carlson and Frank Hentschker

Editor-in-Chief: Marvin Carlson

Editorial and Advisory Board: Fawzia Afzal-Khan, Dina Amin, Khalid Amine, Hazem Azmy, Dalia Basiouny, Katherine Donovan, Masud Hamdan, Sameh Hanna, Rolf C. Hemke, Katherine Hennessey, Areeg Ibrahim, Jamil Khoury, Dominika Laster, Margaret Litvin, Rebekah Maggor, Safi Mahfouz, Robert Myers, Michael Malek Naijar, George Potter, Juan Recondo, Nada Saab, Asaad Al-Saleh, Torange Yeghiazarian, Edward Ziter.

Managing Editor: Joy Arab

Table of Content

  • Brecht’s Theatre and Social Change in Egypt (1954-71) by Magdi Youssef
  • Re-orienting Orientalism: from Shafik Gabr’s “What Orientalist Painters Can Teach Us about the Art of East –West Dialogue” to Ayad Akhtar’s Disgraced by Fawzia Afzal-Khan
  • ‘Now I will believe that there are unicorns’: The Improbable History of Shakespeare in Yemen by Katherine Hennessey
  • Radhouane El Meddeb’s Experiments With Gender: In Search of New Bodies by Omar Fertat
  • Coptic Christian Theatre in Egypt: Negotiations Between The Minority and The Majority by Mohammed Musad
  • A New Perspective on Mikhail Ruman’s Smoke in A President of His own Republic? by Anwaar Abdelkhalik Abdalla
  • Kheireddine Lardjam, Traveller Between Two Shores by Marina Da Silva
  • Where Theatre has failed Syrians by Rolf C. Hemke
  • The Arab Aristophanes by Marvin Carlson


  • Solitaire by Dalia Baisouny
  • The Imam and the Homosexual by Jamil Khoury


  • Struggling Against Insurmountable Odds: Theatre in the Arab World/Theater im Arabischen Sprachraum A Book Review by Michael Malek Najjar


  • Malumat: Resources for Research, Writing/Publishing, Teaching, & Performing Arts compiled by Kate C. Wilson


Martin E. Segal Theatre Center
Frank Hentschker, Executive Director
Marvin Carlson, Director of Publications
Rebecca Sheahan, Managing Director

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