Sa’dallah Wannous
Volume 2

Edward Ziter’s Political Performance in Syria: From the Six-Day War to the Syrian Uprising

Edward Ziter's Political Performance in Syria:
From the Six-Day War to the Syrian Uprising
A Book Review
by Safi Mahmoud Mahfouz
 Political Performance in Syria:
 From the Six-Day War  to the Syrian Uprising
 by Edward Ziter.
 Studies in International Performance.
 New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2015.
 Arab StagesVolume 1, Number 2 (Spring 2015)
 ©2015 by Martin E. Segal Theatre Center Publications

Edward Ziter’s latest book Political Performance in Syria, the first comprehensive study of its kind in English, provides a thorough survey of the history of Syrian political theatre from the six-day war in 1967 to the current Syrian Uprising. A recipient of a Fulbright grant and a fellowship from the Humanities Institute at New York University, Ziter’s publication of this remarkable book is another sign of the author’s academic excellence following his highly admired book The Orient on the Victorian Stage (2013). Ziter is an associate professor of theatre history and chair of the department of drama at the Tisch School of the Arts, New York University. Political Performance in Syria is a sprawling work that historicizes Syrian political theatre striving for decades, under censorship and conditional and temporary release from state repression, to instill in the audiences the concepts of civil society and democratic citizenry, and to contest the state’s grand narratives and the existing oppressive regime with the hope of building a civil political system for a future Syria. The book sophisticatedly highlights the historical connection between drastic political reform in authoritarian governments and political performance. Syrian political theatre reflects the people’s aspirations for political reform and an immediate break with the country’s dictatorial regime. Unfortunately, though the author claims that most of the plays discussed are politically anti-regime and that some of the plays written by pro-regime playwrights are discussed as well, this seems not the case. The author’s experiential, cultural perspectives and political views might have influenced his selection of the plays and subsequently his conclusions. This suppression of conflicting evidence seems to have been done on the part of the author to make his argument credible. The author’s approach is judgmental as he describes his personal experiences and interviews with oppositional theatre practitioners thus excluding pro-regime artists from such direct contact.

The book argues that activist political theatre remains a catalyst for radical political change in times of atrocities, civil war, and national disintegration and that is why dictatorial regimes throughout the world have always banned political plays inciting citizens to revolt against them. The Syrian regime is no exception. The book will certainly spawn controversial responses and open up spaces for political discourse worldwide. However, despite its merit in presentation and content, the book falls short of exploring pro-regime political plays, which are still an integral portion of Syrian political theatre. The author discusses only one pro-regime playwright amidst a handful of anti-regime playwrights. This selective analysis might be considered by many as being a parti pris and distorting presentation of the Syrian political theatre scene. Such an omission is not surprising, though the book’s title and the introduction do promise to include such conformist regime plays, and the hope of this reader was that Ziter would venture more beyond the confines of his preconceived perceptions of Syria’s regime. Ziter openly reveals the animus he feels towards pro-regime political playwrights from the start;  however, given the nature of an undertaking written during the Syrian Uprising and the resulting carnage and displacement of Syrians, it is clearly difficult for him or for any other author not to feel and display these regime hostile sentiments. He cites only two plays by only one pro-regime dramatist to back up his claim that political Syrian theatre is mostly anti-regime. Had the book been written by a less biased theatre historian, which is probably not possible, then readers might have seen a completely different scenario. All things considered, the book stands as a success in light of the rarity of English studies on the history of Syrian political theatre. It delivers an exciting account and offers a treasured and absorbing window into the political theatrical scene in Syria.

Though the author is a proven theatre historian, the argument in the book is structured thematically, rather than chronologically, around five themes tackling what constitutes Syrian identity. Extraordinarily, the construction of the book meshes well with its organization and thematic content. Nevertheless, tactically, the plot summaries of the discussed plays and their repetition in subsequent chapters may also confuse readers because they are so numerous as to distort the logical flow of the text. There are five chapters in the book each of which discusses a certain theme—“Martyrdom,” “War,” “Palestinians,” “History and Heritage,” and “Torture.” The book describes in graphic detail Syrian political stage performances within a historical context from the outburst of anti-regime plays written, though not necessarily staged from the aftermath of the Arab armies’ defeat in the 1967 war with Israel to contemporary scripted plays and unscripted activist plays performed in Syria or in diaspora and uploaded on the internet. This meticulous survey of almost all oppositional plays within a historical context shows how daring Syrian playwrights are, because they have the audacity to defy a dictatorial and totalitarian regime and inspire audiences to take political action in the hope of building a lively civil society.

A book written over a decade of academic pursuit and relentless collaboration with many Syrian scholars, theatre critics, directors, playwrights, and actors is indispensable for the readership of the world theatre community. The book takes the reader on a journey through the history of Syrian theatre from the plays of Abu Khalil Al-Qabbani, the renowned father of Syrian theatre, to the unscripted plays uploaded on the internet during the Syrian Uprising which erupted in 2011. In the introduction, the author provides readers with a brief overview of how the Syrian government in the absence of independent judiciary reacted to politically outspoken oppositional theatre practitioners, ranging from strict censorship, to surveillance, dismissal from the Syrian Syndicate of Artists, and detention without trial, and torture. The book demonstrates how the Syrian government has daunted politically active playwrights and theatre practitioners and how the latter in response to this state censorship have used abstraction and ransacked the past in search of precedents and political analogies of the current upheavals to elucidate the present and prefigure the future. In doing so, political Syrian playwrights make tangential political critique of the Syrian regime.

The main proposition of the book is that for over fifty years Syrian theatre has engaged banned issues that mirror the people’s longstanding yearning for civil liberties; an end of the emergency law passed in 1963; pardons for political prisoners housed in unknown prisons; and an immediate termination of state violence, injustice, oppression, surveillance, and torture of political revolutionaries. Since Syrian theatre is entirely state funded, it prohibits through severe censorship the staging of any oppositional plays, and any theatrical performance needs to get approval from the Ministry of Culture before being shown to an audience. The fear of being dismissed from the national theatre and the Syndicate of Artists many Syrian playwrights to write pro-regime plays and even the politically daring ones used historiography as an indirect critique of state tyranny. Such restrictions on Syrian playwrights made many of them impose self-censorship on their writings even before submitting them to the Director of Theatres and Music at the Ministry of Culture for filtering, gatekeeping, and approval before being published and performed in the country.

Dress rehearsals of all plays are attended by censors and intelligence officers to ensure their compliance with state bans on anti-regime plays. However, the Syrian government sporadically and arbitrarily allows some plays containing indirect and hinted critique of the state to be staged in the country to show that it licenses theatrical productions without any sort of surveillance and censorship. However, this limited licensing of political criticism, which the author calls a form of momentary “breathing” or releasing the pressure from state control, does not negate the fact that all plays without any exception must go through several stages of filtering by gatekeepers of the Ministry of culture. In fact, the Syrian government has always sponsored a traveling theatre troupe company touring the country criticizing the state. The author remarks that such uncensored political satire that tarnishes most regime figures, with the exception of regime elites and the president, is deliberately overlooked by the government, constituting “a remarkable oversight or a profound sense of humor on the part of the censors.” Moreover, such a direct and public critique of the Syrian government, the author asserts, reflects the confidence of the regime in its rule of the country. (23)

The first chapter, “Martyrdom,” illustrates how the concept of self-sacrifice for the state on one level and Arab nationalism on a larger level is transformed in oppositional plays to the martyr being killed by his own government. The second chapter, “War,” analyzes plays examining the Arab defeat in the 1967 war with Israel and the consequent collective trauma of the war and its grave consequences on Arab national identity. It also elucidates theatrical representations of the 1973 war in which Arab dignity and national belonging were restored despite their lamentation of the failure of the Arab militaries to retrieve territories occupied by Israel during the previous war. The third chapter, “Palestinians,” discusses plays examining the 1948 Palestinian exodus, the trauma and crises of refugees living in diaspora in Arab host countries, and the influence of the refugees’ influx into neighboring Arab countries on Syrian national identity. Plays discussed in this chapter shed light on Palestinian resistance movements and the representation of the Palestinian identity in diaspora. The fourth chapter, “History and Heritage,” examines theatrical representations of how the Syrian regime manipulated the region’s political history, heritage, popular culture, and the Palestinian cause to spread its hollow propaganda of being a defender of Arab nationalism and Palestinian rights in their struggle with Israel. The fifth chapter, “Torture,” scrutinizes plays depicting the conditions of political prisoners detained in unknown prisons for long periods without trails, how they are continually exposed to torture, and the psychological trauma they suffer after their release from prisons.

Syrian political playwrights obliquely contested the regime’s forced mainstream narratives and rhetoric of martyrdom and pan-Arab resistance to colonialism. The author argues that the Syrian government has always methodically spread its ideology of martyrdom for the state amongst its citizens to enforce its propaganda of being a defender of Arab nationalism and consequently legitimize its rule. It is crystal clear that the theatre scene in Syria went hand in hand with the nation’s political upheavals. The plays discussed in this chapter such as Mohammad al-Maghut’s The Hunchback Sparrow (1967), Sa’dallah Wannous’s Soiree for the Fifth of June (1968), and Mamduh Udwan’s The Trial of the Man Who Didn’t Fight (1970) address the issue of martyrdom and sarcastically show how the martyr sacrifices his life for freedom and dignity, thus defying the state ideology of martyrdom and its perception of the martyr as an individual who dies defending the regime and its slogans of pan-Arabism, Arab nationality, and patriotism in the face of colonialism. The plays undercut the government’s rhetoric invoking the haunting sacrifices of Syrian soldiers who died in the 1967 war with Israel. The ideology of martyrdom adopted by the Syrian regime is deeply seated in Syrian popular culture, media, and the education system, and is invoked in annual national celebrations.

Like many political plays Maghut’s The Jester (1973) was written as a response to the Arabs’ defeat in the 1967 war to satirize the state’s security services and their repression of general freedoms. Maghut’s October Village (1974) is one of several political plays that sarcastically celebrate the victory of Arab armies in the 1973 war with Israel.  The playwright ironically depicts the failure of the Syrian and Egyptian military forces to reclaim the Golan Heights and the Sinai occupied by Israel in the 1967 war. Some Syrian plays such as Maghut’s The Jester (1973), Ali Uqla Arsan’s A Demonstration of Opponents (1976), and Mamduh Udwan’s Hamlet Awakens too Late (1976) transcend the borders of Syria to criticize Egypt, a brethren state,  for separately signing a peace treaty with Israel in 1979 and for normalizing ties with the Zionist state. These playwrights considered such a treacherous peace treaty a severe blow to pan-Arabism. These plays posit that this embarrassing peace treaty betrayed memories of the 1973 war martyrs who seem to have died in vain to liberate occupied Arab territories. Some of the plays cited by Ziter hint that some Syrians were martyred by the state rather than by the enemy. An illustrative play is Maghut’s Out of the Flock (1999), which sarcastically ridicules the Syrian government’s political rhetoric of being the soul of Arab nationalism. In such plays the talk about liberating Palestine and pan-Arabism is portrayed as merely being a cliché and tired rhetoric invoked by the regime to promote its commodity of martyrdom ideology. This commodification of the state’s ideology of martyrdom is of crucial importance for the logic of the authoritarian regime that has transformed the country into a giant police state. (32)

The book classifies representations of the martyr in Syrian political theatre into three categories. In pro-regime plays the martyr is represented as someone who dies defending the regime; for the Islamic militants, the martyr dies defending his creed; whereas for the secular revolutionaries, the martyr dies for his fellow countrymen, defying state oppression in the hope of attaining civil liberties and human rights, which can only be achieved with toppling the government and the fall of the regime. (37) The author dedicates a large portion of this chapter to discussing the politically motivated short film End of Broadcast (symbolizing the end of the regime) by the outlawed documentary film collective Abu Naddara, literally translated as “The Man with Glasses,” which uses dark humor and irony to satirize state violence and their fellow citizens toiling under the siege of their own government (38). The videographers, the author points out, have posted several short videos of politically oppositional nature in support of street protests against state violence and violation of human rights since the beginning of the Syrian Uprising. (39) This shows that the Syrian Uprising itself is a collective performance against the regime and its lackeys. The author argues that due to the state’s policing mechanism and surveillance of the old theatre structure, political activists and theatre practitioners in diaspora made use of the internet as an outlet for uncensored free expression to condemn state violence, thus creating bedroom theatres. (55) It should be noted that such short sketches shot with cameras and mobile phones recording spontaneous street protests and consequential events during the Syrian Uprising and then uploaded on the internet are far from being a part of a theatre tradition in any country. Such short political sketches seem forced into the text to conform to the thematic chapter division. The book seems to fall short of its exhausted content of tackling both anti-regime and pro-regime political plays to discussing street protests in a war zone. The later section of the chapter reads much like a newspaper report rather than a commentary on the theatre scene in Syria. Street performances, but not street demonstrations, are an integral part of a country’s theatrical repertoire. The Arab Dream Theatre Troupe staged many street theatrical performances such as An Ode to the Martyrs of Truth in which they directly blame both the regime and the opposition forces for the brutal killing of innocent civilians. Some puppetry theatre troupes staged comical finger puppets of the political satire genre depicting the atrocities the regime committed against innocent civilians, calling for non-violent resistance to dissociate citizens from the regime and its slogans.

The second chapter on “War” covers plays representing the Arab-Israeli conflict mainly the creation of the state of Israel, the ensuing Palestinian exodus in 1948, the 1967 setback, and the 1973 war.  The plays reflect, through using anti-Israeli and anti-colonialist rhetoric, the post-war unending trauma resulting from the loss of Palestine and the Golan Heights. Such plays shed light on Syria’s claim of being a defender of the Palestinian cause and the stronghold for Arab nationalism. In spite of the Syrian government’s strict censorship on theatrical productions criticizing the regime, it allowed the staging of many plays portraying the Arab-Israeli struggle. However, some plays discussed in this chapter managed to satirize state repression and violence and the regime’s hostility to Israel at the same time. All theatrical representations of the 1967 war depict the trauma of the defeat, territorial loss, state violence, oppression of the populace, and the fake representations of all slogans of Arab nationalism. Sa’dallah Wannous’s Soiree for the Fifth of June argues that state oppression of citizens, the suppression of freedom and political persecution constitute the main cause of the Arab defeat in the 1967 setback. Mamduh Udwan’s The Trial of the Man Who Didn’t Fight is also an indirect harsh critique of the Syrian regime for its inability to reclaim the Golan Heights despite its claims of being a defender of Arab nationalism. Ali Uqla Arsan’s The Strangers (1974), one of the only two pro-regime plays discussed in the book, indirectly and through analogy makes references to Israel’s occupation of Palestine in 1948 and the consequential Palestinian exodus in diaspora. The play is both pro-regime and anti-Semitic in that it denies any historical existence of Jews in Palestine before the creation of the Zionist state, which to the playwright is merely a representative of modern colonialism. (91) The play explores the causes of past Arab military defeats, the trauma of the Palestinian refugee crisis, support of the regime against Zionism and Western threats, and depicts a utopic image of a unified Arab nation without Israel.  The play also portrays the 1973 war as a refurbishment of Arab pride and national dignity after the defeat in the 1967 war and the subsequent loss of Arab territories. Mustafa al-Hallaj’s Hey Israeli, It’s Time to Surrender (1974) similarly portrays the Arabs’ reclamation of their national pride in the 1973 war. Maghut’s unscripted cynical, black comedy October Village (1974) makes indirect references to the setback of 1967 and the short-lived victory in the 1973 war, but still satirizes the failure of the Arab armies to reclaim lost territories. The play indirectly and through the culture of laughter in the manner of carnivalization criticizes the state’s policing of citizens, imprisonment of political activists, and torture in prisons. The author argues that Syrian playwrights intimidated by fear of dismissal from the theatre scene or even worse, imprisonment and torture, failed to openly and directly criticize the Syrian regime and instead resorted to indirect tactics of political critique such as historical analogy, fable, or setting the events in an unnamed Arab country.(60) Such revolutionary plays cynically celebrate steadfast resistance, delusional heroism, the refugee as the exemplar of the traumatized self, defeatism, territorial loss, regime oppression, and the silencing of the nation with the aim to politicize the audiences. Such political plays portray how state violence and the regime’s tyrannical rule have created a frightened populace and a defeated nation lacking any sense of human dignity.

Syrian playwrights have examined the Palestinian cause as a national experience by depicting the loss of Palestine, the Palestinian exodus, and the suffering of refugees in diaspora as being at the core of the Arab identity crisis.(103) Some Syrian political playwrights of various political affiliations lamented the lack of Arab unity and highlighted the significance of the emergence of an independent Palestinian nationalism. These playwrights criticized Arab countries for not showing solidarity with the Palestinian people in their struggle to liberate Palestine, thus safeguarding the Syrian government’s sole role as the legitimate defender of Palestinian rights. Many Syrian political plays such as Farhan Bulbul’s The Scarlet Walls (1968), Ali Uqla Arsan’s The Palestinian Women (1971),  Mamduh Udwan’s If You were Palestinian (1977) and The Resurrection (1987), and Sa’dallah Wannous’s The Rape (1989) predict Palestinian resistance to the Israeli occupation as an emerging reality and call for widespread Arab resistance to claim Palestine. (104) The author argues that despite the fact that Syria proclaimed itself as the defender of the Palestinian cause, Syrian arts have surprisingly rarely depicted actual Palestinians.(104) The state’s age-old hostility to the Palestine Liberation Organization has made Palestinian identity and the resistance movement a controversial issue for Syrian playwrights. The author points out that giving paramount attention to the Palestinian cause would undermine the state’s struggle against external Western threats. (104) Sa’dallah Wannous’s Cleansing the Blood, the first Syrian play featuring a Palestinian main character, conjures up a unified Arab nation fractured by the creation of the state of Israel in Palestine. (107) The play probes into the trauma of Palestinian refugees living in diaspora. Such marginalized refugees, as if expelled from history, are represented in the play by a silent chorus constantly standing dumb and motionless on stage. Unlike the chorus in Greek drama, this chorus of Palestinian refugees does not comment on the onstage actions and remains silent throughout the play. Wannous portrays Palestinian refugees in diaspora as being people without identity living in camps scattered in different Arab host countries. Such marginalized refugees have no voice and cannot express their communal will, and therefore the host countries speak on their behalf. Ali Uqla Arsan’s The Palestinian Women (1971) portrays a utopic worldwide uprising in support of the destitute and the oppressed—mainly refugees living in camps—and asserts that resistance is the only route to liberate occupied lands. The play asserts that the conflict is not between Palestinians and Israelis but is rather between Arabs and colonialism, and victory in such a conflict cannot be achieved in the absence of Arab unity. Mamduh Udwan’s If You were Palestinian (1977) portrays the advent of an independent and solitary Palestinian resistance movement amidst the decline of Arab nationalism. The play examines the destitute conditions of the impoverished Palestinian refugees in Arab host countries and the manipulation of the Palestinian cause by Arab countries.(131) Mamduh Udwan’s The Resurrection (1987) explores the loss of Palestinian communal identity in diaspora and demonstrates that Palestinian organizations which have subjugated themselves to Arab regimes for financial aid and harboring have themselves become tyrannical. The play seems to assert that Palestinian resistance fighters in diaspora are intimidated by their host Arab countries and have consequently abandoned their right to resist occupation. Such resistance fighters, the playwright states, “have buried their weapons in the grave of a now-dead resistance.”(141) Sa’dallah Wannous’s The Rape (1989) portrays an autonomous Palestinian resistance movement from within the occupied territories and raises questions about the likelihood of Arab-Israeli coexistence. (142) The play discusses many issues such as Palestinian collaborators with Israeli occupation forces, detention of political prisoners without a fair trial, state violence, Palestinian civil disobedience, and armed resistance.

The author addresses heritage arts, popular culture, and historiography as foundations of forming Syrian national identity. The renowned and internationally acclaimed playwright Sa’dallah Wannous’s plays The Adventure of Mamluk Jabir’s Head (1970), An Evening with Abu Khalil al-Qabbani (1972), Historical Miniatures (1993), Rituals of Signs and Transformations (1994), and Wretched Dreams (1994) all use historiography, heritage, and popular culture to politicize audiences. The author argues that these plays present Syrian history and cultural heritage as being merely state constructions, the purpose of which is to deceive the populace. (147) In such plays Wannous uses folk tales, popular culture, expressionism, historical realism, allegory, historiography, and political analogies to politicize the audience members and engage them in a political debate about the current political situation in Syria. Wannous’s “politicizing theatre” blames, through historical analogy and folk tales, the masses for perpetuating the police state and its totalitarian regime.(148) The author remarks that theses plays show how the regime manipulates the nation’s collective memory, historical imagination, falsification of history itself, cultural heritage, and popular culture to perpetuate their rule at the expense of the common good of citizens. The plays strive to seize the past from the grip of the functionaries of the state’s official culture so as to engage citizens in a political debate, increase their historical consciousness, draw political analogies to examine current state oppression, and incite them to take part in shaping a better future political system for Syria. (149)

In The Adventure of Mamluk Jabir’s Head (1970) Wannous uses the hakawati, storyteller of folk tales and epics of past Arab heroism drawn from cultural heritage, to engage responsive spectators in a café into a political debate over current political events. Historical Miniatures (1993), which portrays Damascene resistance to Tamerlane in the fourteenth century, shows that history is no more than a process of selection and presentation by state functionaries and chroniclers to suit the hoped-for objectives of those who write it. The play stresses the fact that the people’s fiasco in failing to topple the regime and its lackeys and hold them accountable for their atrocities committed in the country is both a result and cause of state tyranny.(171) Rituals of Signs and Transformations (1994) which is set in nineteenth-century Damascus during the Ottoman Porte, envisages a brothel as an arena for “radical performance, joyous narcissism that transforms the individual… thus associating theatre with prostitution.”  The play’s carnivalesque world, in which existing hierarchical political structures are subverted, portrays the lives of both homosexual men and heterosexual women to assert the liberation of the individual’s lower bodily stratum as a reflection of their desire for their liberation from despotism, oppression, and state violence.(178) Wretched Dreams (1994), which is set in Damascus in 1963 subsequent to the Ba’ath coup, portrays a patriarchal society where the oppression of women is a metaphorical reflection of state oppression, policing, and surveillance on citizens. Gender oppression in a society crippled by a patriarchal culture where women are marginalized and seem to have no potential for autonomy or self-actualization is a representation of an entire population crippled by state tyranny and violence. (182)

Representations of police interrogation and torture of revolutionaries and political activists in prisons is an integral part of Syrian political theatre from its inception to the political performances of Arab Spring activists. The plays discussed in this chapter show how the state uses its security apparatus of intelligence, informants, and lackeys to silence citizens and sustain its existing power dynamics. (194) The author points out that Syrian playwrights used different dramaturgical approaches to portray the detention without trial, interrogation, and torture of political dissidents. Some playwrights used lyricism that transforms the detainee into an unmatched figure obliterating the state’s forced rhetoric and monopoly of speech. In some plays interrogators are mockingly represented as idiots working in the apparatus of state violence against innocent civilians. Some plays used comic reversals whereby the detainee satirizes his interrogator through naivety. Some playwrights transformed the representation of jail inquisition into a representation of the detainee’s self-discovery. Whereas, other playwrights depicted inquisitors as themselves being victims of state violence once their mission is accomplished.(194) Syrian political activists and revolutionaries have always been exposed to torture and collective punishment throughout history, beginning with the Syrian resistance during the Ottoman rule and then the subsequent resistance during the French Mandate (1923-1943). Political Syrian plays show how the independent Syrian police state inherited this tactic of the intelligence, surveillance, and torture of regime opposition activists and political prisoners from their Turkish and French predecessors. (196)

The author confirms that interrogation and torture of political prisoners, intimidating citizens by intelligence and military security system constitute an assault on national consciousness. (197) Mohammad Maghut’s absurdist play The Hunchback Sparrow demonstrates the power of language of sarcasm, catachresis, and dark humor rather than state’s paranoia. The play centers around a touching conversation over political theory and memories of torture between innocent prisoners detained without a trial for a long period for no apparent causes or merely for committing trivial offences. Maghut’s salacious farce The Jester (1973) ridicules a state that claims to be a defender of hollow Arab nationalism, the Palestinian cause, and martyrdom in the face of colonialism while it oppresses its own citizens and terrorizes them with interrogation, torture, and persecution, thus weakening them and turning them into a docile nation. Such horrific scenes of cross-examination and torture are repeated in Maghut’s Cheers Homeland (1978) and October village (1974). Walid Ikhlasi’s The Path portrays how a buffoon and politicized simpleton reacts with humor when he, all of a sudden, finds himself in the grip of the state’s security services interrogated and tortured for committing no offence. Mustafa al-Hallaj’s The Dervishes’ Search for The Truth (1970) similarly uses the harmless naive clown detained by the security services to satirize the regime’s apparatus of interrogation and torture. The play shows the state’s thirst to subjugate, humiliate, and torture persons committing the least verbal defiance of the regime and blacklisting them in its intelligence archives. (216) Ironically, under torture the detainee confesses offences he did not commit hoping to be released after a short period of detention and torture. The author remarks that the power of theatre is greater than the silencing power of the authoritarian state. (218) In Waiting: Play with Beckett (2006) Walid Kowalti likens the absurdity of the two tramps’ actions and violence in Beckett’s Waiting for Godot with the triviality of the Syrian regime’s sate violence through its apparatus of intelligence thugs. (224)   The Solitary (2008) dramatizes and traumatizes torture to explore the state torturer’s agony of betrayal to his homeland and brethren citizens by building a sense of intimacy between the torturer and the tortured who are both victimized by the state. Tomorrow’s Revolution Postponed until Yesterday (2011) by Mohammad and Ahmad Malas portrays the citizens’ euphoria in a utopic Syria at the initial outbreak of the Arab Spring where torture has become a thing of the past. Syrians have united in the face of authoritarianism, and the despotic regime has fallen. Could You Please Look into the Camera (2012) portrays a young woman’s project of making a documentary film based on the testimonies of people tortured in prisons throughout Syria during the Uprising. It is obvious that these political plays highlight the power of therapeutic theatre to heal politically traumatized individuals in times of atrocities and political upheavals.

The book stops short of where it should ideally end, since the final paragraphs do not seem to draw a definite conclusion. Regrettably the book is plagued with typos, grammatical slippages, unjustified omissions, incomplete statements, and redundancies throughout the text. The book seems to have been published hastily without proofreading and professional editing. The book is in dire need of another phase of meticulous proofreading, and such typos and language slippages will likely be alleviated in later editions. Though the book is well referenced, the author uses translations of the original plays liberally to exemplify his contentions without quoting from already published translations of some plays. Four Plays from Syria: Sa’dallah Wannous co-translated and co-edited by Marvin Carlson and Safi Mahfouz and published by The Martin E. Segal Theatre Center seems to be ignored in the undertaking. However, these are a minor distractions from the author’s stimulating elucidation of the history of Syrian political performances. The book offers readers some of the best scholarship on Syrian political theatre, and its historical account is a valuable contribution to the field.

Dr. Safi Mahmoud Mahfouz is an associate professor of modern American literature, drama and theatre, comparative literature, and Middle Eastern literatures. He is a former Fulbright postdoctoral visiting scholar and a fellow at the Martin E. Segal Theatre Center, the Graduate Center of the City University of New York (2012/2013). He is the co-editor and co-translator of  Theatre  from Medieval Cairo: the Ibn Daniyal Trilogy (2013) (Safi Mahfouz & Marvin Carlson) and Four Plays from Syria – Sa’dallah Wannous (2014) (Marvin Carlson & Safi Mahfouz) both books published by The Martin E. Segal Theatre Center, at The Graduate Center CUNY. His research and teaching interests cover a wide range of topics including modern American literature, American canonical drama, American ethnic theaters, Arabic drama in translation, Middle Eastern literatures, world literature, comparative literature, literary theory, and contemporary poetics, postmodernism, ethnicity, diaspora, and post-colonialism.


Arab Stages
Volume 1, Number 2 (Spring 2015)
©2015 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, Hala Nassar, George Potter, Juan Recondo, Nada Saab, Asaad Al-Saleh, Torange Yeghiazarian, Edward Ziter.

Managing Editor: Joy Arab

Table of Content

  • Science Fiction in the Arab World: Tawfiq al-Hakim’s Voyage to Tomorrow (Rihlatun ilal-ghad) by Rani Bhargav
  • Tawfik al-Hakim and the Social Responsibility of the Artist by Majeed Mohammed Midhin
  • Junun: Poetics in the Discourse of Protest and Love by Rafika Zahrouni
  • Ritual and Myth in Dalia Basiouny’s Magic of Borolos by Amal Aly Mazhar
  • Staging the Self: Autobiography in the Theatre of Sa`dallah Wannous by Ali Souleman
  • The Arab Theatre Festival by Jaouad Radouan
  • France’s Théâtre d’al-Assifa: An Arab-based Alternative Theatre Model by Magdi Youssef
  • A Dramatic Anticipation of the Arab Spring and a Dramatic Reflection Upon It by Eiman Tunsi
  • Rania Khalil’s Flag Piece by Dalia Basiouny and Marvin Carlson
  • Silk Road Solos: A Three-Thread Performative Stitch by Jamil Khoury

Short Plays

  • Excerpts from Jihad Against Violence: Oh ISIS Up Yours! by Fawzia Afzal-Khan
  • Alternative Dramaturgy for Jihad Against Violence: Oh ISIS Up Yours! By Fawzia Afzal-Khan, Nesrin Alrefaai, Katherine Mezur
  • ReOrient Theatre Festival 2015:
    Bitterenders by Hannah Khalil
    Lost Kingdom by Hassan Abdulrazzak
    Picking Up The Scent by Yussef El Guindi
    The House by Tala Manassah & Mona Mansour


  • Edward Ziter’s Political Performance in Syria – A Book Review by Safi Mahmoud Mahfouz
  • The Gap Between Generations: The Revolt of the Young: Essays by Tawif al-Hakim– 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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