Rituals of Signs and Transformations. Beirut 2013. Photo by Alexy Frangieh
Volume 2

Staging the Self: Autobiography in the Theatre of Sa’dallah Wannous

Staging the Self:
Autobiography in
the Theatre of Sa'dallah Wannous
by Ali Souleman
 Arab StagesVolume 1, Number 2 (Spring 2015)
 ©2015 by Martin E. Segal Theatre Center Publications

The author acknowledges with gratitude the support from the Scholar Rescue Fund of the International Institute of Education, the support from the Council for At-Risk Academics (CARA) and the support from St. John’s College at the University of Oxford which enable him to pursue this research.

The tendency to release the self from restricting ideological frameworks in the plays of the later phase of the Syrian playwright Sa’dallah Wannous’ career  led to the emergence in his work of the private space of the individual and to the appearance of recognizable autobiographical elements. Representing the self in these plays is an element of a new dramaturgy, which is based on a major theme common to these works:  the tension between the individual/private space and the collective space.

This study will examine the representation of the self in the last phase of Wannous’ career in two interdependent contexts. The first consists of the successive phases of development in Wannous’ career, and the second is the cultural context of self-representation and autobiographical writing in modern Arabic culture. The analysis of the autobiographical elements in the plays of the 1990s and the explicitly autobiographical text Rihlah fi majahil mawt ‘abir (A Journey Through the Obscurities of a Passing Death, 1996) will reveal the significance of representing the self in the last phase of Wannous’ career, where these texts, as will be shown, represent their author’s efforts to produce self-reflexive theatre within a changing epistemology of the subject of the private self—in both the psychological and cultural senses of the word.

The space of the public/the collective in Sa’dallah Wannous’ theatre during the 1960s and ’70s marginalised the individual/private space. In that phase, the private sphere always dissolved into the public. As Khalidah Said points out, “the ego of the intellectual is dominant in Wannous’ plays of the 1960s and 1970s, while the ego of the self is absent.”[1]  The “I” of the storyteller or the intellectual in those early dramatic works was always preoccupied with the other.[2]  The self looked in the mirror just to see the other undergoing its transformations. The literary self in this case is the other, who fully occupies the vision of the author. Thus, in Wannous’ case, the author’s text was, in the 1960s and ’70s, the space in which the author could unite the two spheres of the private and the public (or the self and the other).[3]  In the plays of the 1990s by contrast, the character occupies the front of the theatrical scene, and the individual performs the act of revelation and exposure of the self, which is the foundation of the dramatic discourse. The representation of the personal and the private in all the plays from this phase are characterized by a fatal movement, which is the contradiction and tension between the self and the other, between the private and the public, and between the individual and the collective.

This tension between the private and the public, the self and the other, and the individual and the collective in artistic creation has come to be connected, by literary theory and cultural studies, to the broader historical and cultural context of the Third World and non-European culture. It is relevant here to quote Fredric Jameson when he remarks:

I will argue that, although we may retain for convenience and for analysis such categories as the subjective and the public or political, the relations between them are wholly different in Third-World culture. Third-World texts, even those which are seemingly private and invested with a properly libidinal dynamic, necessarily project a political dimension in the form of national allegory: the story of the private individual destiny is always an allegory of the embattled situation of the public Third-World culture and society.[4] 

Jameson here argues that in the West the public/private split tends to reduce everything to subjectivist or psychologized phenomena, where one of the determinants of capitalist culture, that is, the culture of the western realist and modernist novel, is a radical split between the private and the public, between the poetic and the political, between what we have come to think of as the domain of sexuality and the unconscious and that of the public world of classes, of the economic, and of secular political power: in other words, Freud versus Marx.[5]

On the other hand, the radical disparity of the Third World lies in its uneven, unsynchronized milieu, where subjectivity is grounded and refigured by its social context, where “the telling of the individual story and the individual experience cannot but ultimately involve the whole laborious telling of the experience of the collectivity itself.”[6]  Therefore, the question of the position and role of the writer/artist in this cultural context is always linked to what is referred to as the function of the intellectual, where the situation in the Third World is such that the intellectual is always in one way or another a political intellectual.[7]

Jameson’s assumption here is reasserted by some scholars from the so-called Third World in their reading of self-representation in their cultures.[8]  In the context of modern Chinese culture for example, Feng-hsin Wang points out that:

The historicity of the forms of individual consciousness, the social contradictions immanent in the language of the psyche, the dynamic interconnections of social existence registered in the flows of desire and flux of lived experience—all these axioms found in Gramsci can be used to explain the collectivist impulse behind artistic representation. In Third-World countries, this impulse is very much alive…[9]

From the same perspective, the question of the tension between the individual and the collective seems to be fundamental, whenever scholars read or examine self-reflexive artistic works in the context of modern Arabic culture. “Is a person more a particular and unique individual or an individual who embraces the collective, especially at pivotal moments in a people’s history?”[10]  Boutros Hallaq raises this question in his analysis of two autobiographical texts by two modernist Arab writers, Turabuha za’faran (City of Saffron) by Idwar al-Kharrat and Dhakirah lil-nisyan (Memory for Forgetfulness) by Mahmud Darwish, and he observes that the relationship between the individual and the collective in these texts disrupts accepted autobiographical norms in Western modernity, which established the individual, i.e. the individual subject, as the driving force of history.[11]  For the narrator in Darwish’s autobiographical text, “although his individuality is clearly an issue throughout the narrative of his past and the distress which grips him at present, he is not only obsessed by it, but is equally occupied by the destiny of his people and nation.”[12]  Here the problematic question facing scholars in their attempt to study or theorise Arabic self-reflexive literature in general, and autobiographical writing in particular, is that of whether, because of these cultural/historical differences, we must “disregard other forms of modernity, which perceive of the world differently? Particularly places which, at important moments in their histories, feel threatened by a certain type of Western modernity?”[13]

In view of this question, Yumna al-Id remarks that “the narration of the autobiography in novelistic discourse is, for Ḥanna Minah, a creative pursuit which opens it to a human horizon and expresses a collective, general consciousness.”[14]  This is because “man, in the novelist/author’s view, the author of this story, lives the dialectic of reality and social struggle—’he’ is the historicization of human history because membership is not untroubled and identity is not gained.”[15]  The field of postcolonial studies is particularly preoccupied with the historicization of the experience of the individual subject and the inevitable politicisation of the relationship between the private sphere and the public sphere in the societies and cultures described variously as postcolonial countries, the Third World or the South. Bill Ashcroft, to quote only one example, argues that:

If the power of discourse over the subject can be represented by writing then the capacity of the subject to write itself into being, by an interpolation into the grand narrative of history becomes a primary mode of post-colonial agency.[16]

Within this general cultural context, which characterizes and determines the aesthetics and pattern of self-representation in the artistic/literary works of modernist Arab writers, the output of Sa’dallah Wannous’ during the 1990s is a radical new development in his career with regard to the representation of the self. These developments are evident in two contexts, the first being the implicit presence of elements and fragments of the self in the plays of the 1990s, and the second being the explicitly autobiographical text of Rihlah fi majahil mawt ‘abir.

The Self, Allegory, and Dramatic Representation
Commentators and critics have very often regarded Wannous’ relationship with dramatic writing as a desperate attempt on the part of the author to survive death. During the last five years of his life, a period much longer than the maximum life expectancy he had been given by the doctors, Wannous himself was keen to state that the only thing left to him in his fight against cancer and death was writing drama. In 1996, UNESCO invited Wannous to address the international theatrical community on the international day of theatre. In this address, he explains:

I have been fighting cancer for four years. Writing for theatre in particular has been, during this period, the most important of my methods of resistance. During those four years I wrote many plays. And one day I was unfortunately asked why I insist on dramatic writing at a time when theatre is declining and vanishing from our life? … It was difficult to explain the depth of the long relationship that connects me to theatre and to explain that abandoning dramatic writing while I am on the verge of the end of my life is a sort of denial or betrayal, which my soul cannot bear. That can only hasten my death.[17]

Imminent death is a dominant theme in the last phase of Wannous’ career. James Olney describes the consciousness of death as an essential drive behind autobiographical writing;[18] this is indeed very much the case in Wannous’ work, particularly in Rihlah fi majahil mawt ‘abir. In his plays, too, death is a major theme, and a metaphorical dramatic event that symbolises or resembles the personal fate of the author. It is metaphorical in the sense that Olney gives it when he quotes from Yeats, “every true artist is an Artificer of the Great Moment.”[19] If these men/authors, Olney adds,

Succeeded in creating symbolic images in their autobiographies, then one cannot doubt that it is because they lived symbolic lives and that they continue to live them in their autobiographies; and in consequence their books mean more to us in the reading, much more, than the account of an isolated life without pattern, a fact without relation or rhythm, an experience without revelation. What they have left us, as Essays, as Memories, Dreams, Reflections, as Quartets, is metaphors for ourselves.[20]

It is in this understanding that Jabir ‘Usfur comments that “theatre is the cross of Wannous, his paradise and hell.”[21]  In his reading of the play Munamnamat tarikhiyyah (Historical Miniatures, 1993), the scene with the character of al-Sharaiji, the crucified intellectual, is for ‘Usfur an allegorical representation of Wannous’ own fate, and the fate of the rational modern Arab intellectuals.[22]  The tragedy of al-Sharaiji is that he believed in the culture of rationality and the historical/moral responsibility of the intellectual in a time of decline and defeat. The on-stage crucified body of the Damascene intellectual is indeed a powerful allegory and explicit self-reflection for any contemporary Syrian democratic intellectual, who, like al-Sharaiji, suffered systematic, violent exclusion and marginalisation by various dominant political, social and cultural forces. In this transparent historical allegory, through the total siege of the intellectual, his tragic fate dramatized in the most cruel and violent way, Wannous articulates a tendency to deal with the past, and to criticise the self and to rewrite history. This tendency has been attributed to autobiography in contemporary arts.[23]

The direct political/historical allegory in Munamnamat tarikhiyyah is, however, more complex and less direct in the plays that followed. In these plays, the tendency to deal with the past is associated more with the individual, the private and the sexual, or, in Fredric Jameson’s terms, invested with a libidinal dynamic. This dynamic is most apparent in the play Ṭuqus al-isharat wa-al-tahawwulat (Rituals of Signs and Transformations, 1994). The libidinal drive is fundamental in the transformation of the social and political spheres. Moreover, this drive is dramatized as the essential dynamic that controls and determines the two foundational movements in the drama: the deconstruction of the dominant ideological narrative, and the act of self-realization by the characters. Here again, the self-reflection in the discourse, features and fate of the main character Almasah is apparent, albeit more implicit and more suggestive. The voice of Almasah, the marginalized voice of an individual who knows the dark truth behind public life, who has a different narrative to tell and who knows the tragic fate in being different from the dominant corrupted social, political and cultural systems, this voice, although dramatized as an individual, in a particular way reflects elements of the author’s self. It is only in the final scene of the play that the allegorical dimension of this character is fully, and, to some extent, directly and rhetorically revealed. Almasah’s speech while she is being killed by her brother echoes fragments of the voice of that intellectual, who, facing his death, still holds onto the dream that something in his discourse, his stories, in Almasah’s words, something of his project, dreams or voice will remain, to flourish in the realm of the other, of the public in particular.

All the main characters in the plays of the 1990s consciously face death. And each of them, facing her or his death, has a last story, words or testimony to tell or articulate. For all these individuals, this last act is, with some variations, a protest against or a condemnation of an alienating, suppressing, dark and hostile socio-political reality. This last act performed by the individual is not devoid of a social and political dimension. However contrary to the previous phase of the 1960s and 70s, it is deeply rooted in the sexual, personal and private, and it is self-conscious and self-reflexive. Facing death, here, is always associated for the main character with a sense of self-realization, a sort of fulfillment, which can only be fully understood if seen within the context of the ironic tone that dominates the dramaturgy of the last plays written by Wannous. The irony in these plays is that the individual quest for self-determination, freedom and self-realization is always fulfilled precisely during, or because of, the act of facing or experiencing death. The individual aspiration for freedom and self-determination is always associated with a sense of loss and endings, the loss of faith and the loss of communal belonging.

Aside from whether, and to what extent, it reflects fragments and elements of the author’s personal life, particularly in respect of his experience in facing his imminent death, this sense of loss and longing is explicitly dramatized in the plays’ obsession with memory, a totally new theme in Wannous’ drama. Jeanette Malkin describes a situation recognised by several other scholars when she writes that:

The memorised obsession of postmodern drama is not an isolated phenomenon. It is part of a broader cultural longing for—and inability to—return to and have done with the past. The present preoccupation with memory and memoried art probably has as much to do with loss and endings, the loss of faith in what Habermas calls the ‘unfinished project’ of modernity, and the ending of this violent century—as with a desire to retrieve or restore.[24]

In this perspective, the drama in al-Ayyam al-makhmurah (The Drunken Days, 1996), for example, starts with Sana’s dying body. Sana’s imminent death triggers the retelling of the story of her life and initiates the act of remembering, in an attempt to retrieve or restore the story of a life destroyed by the tragic conflict between the individual and the social and political domains. This conflict is explicitly dramatized in the play as the inevitable outcome of a distorted modernity. The play al-Ayyam al-makhmurah, in particular, highlights how memory, within the polyphonic dramaturgy and the multiple, intersecting and fragmented narrative, is the medium that facilitates a new type of interaction between the individual and the public or between the self and the other. Such dramaturgy can be seen, as one related theatre study puts it, to “forge a dialogue with the memory of the audience, forcing on us the tasks of remembrance; while their chaotic form and thematic conflations deny the possibility of reconstruction, recuperation, or of a Proustian “salvationist” restoration of the past.”[25]

The story of public space and the other is, in all of the plays of the 1990s, a variation on the tragic story of the collapse and failure of modernity and all national modernist projects. Within this framework, the individual story or the literary self in these plays is invested with an allegorical dimension. Here, the intellectual or the author represented by Wannous cannot but read his personal fate, his death, his suffering and his encounter with the great moment, within the context of overall political and social tragedy. The personal death is a metaphor or an allegory of another tragedy taking place in the sphere of the other, in that of the collective and public.

The interaction between the self and the other, or the personal and the collective, is signified in a more complex manner in Wannous’ autobiographical text Rihlah fi majahil mawt ‘abir. Within the autobiographical narrative, it is signified as part of a complex web of relationships between multiple voices, the imaginary and the factual, fiction and reality, death and life, and the past and the present.

Rituel Pour Une Métamorphose. ©Comédie-Française

Rituel Pour Une Métamorphose. ©Comédie-Française

Writing the self
Wannous’ autobiographical text presents two sets of questions. The first is cultural, and concerns the tension between the individual and the public in a given historical and cultural context. As explained above, these questions have been articulated by different trends in critical theory; they have revolved mainly around cultural differences in the understanding of concepts such as individuality, personhood, the relationship between the individual and the public, and the allegorical tendency in self-representation outside the cultural space of European modernity. The second set of questions presented by Wannous’ text is aesthetical and is mainly concerned with the theory, definition, and history of autobiographical writing. Is it, for example, possible or useful to define autobiography as a genre? Is not the temptation in defining autobiography as a genre? As Paul Jay remarks:

Either to create borders that are too exclusively narrow or ones that are so large as to be meaningless. And if the border between autobiography and fiction is erected on a privileged notion of referentiality, then the study of autobiographical works will always be partly founded upon an illusion.[26] 

The question of referentiality, as Robin Ostle points out in his introduction to Writing the Self, seems to have been regarded in recent years as irrelevant, as “either philosophically or critically, it is no longer possible to accept that the subject of an autobiography is either isolatable or indeed self-identical.”[27]  However, when examining Wannous’ autobiographical experiment, there are two other questions that preoccupy the ongoing debate and discussion concerning autobiographical writing.

The first question concerns the fictionality of autobiography, the second the literary form of autobiography. Regarding the first question, Wannous’ text seems, as will be shown, to be a contribution to the mode of autobiographical writing where the classical boundaries between the fictional and the factual are deconstructed. As for the second question, regarding literary form, Wannous’ text is a unique example in Arabic autobiographical writing, for this text experiments in mixing different genres and mediums of expressions, namely narrative and drama.

Rihlah fimajahil mawt ‘abir is a text that narrates and represents the author’s personal experience with illness and death. It is an account of one of the health crises the author experienced during the extensive sessions of chemotherapy he received to treat his cancer. The narrator narrates his experience in the intensive care department in a Damascene hospital. The first person narration follows the details of the daily encounters with pain, fear of death, medical examinations, the contact with surrounding individuals, and the embarrassing situation of being naked, powerless, and largely disabled. This narrative of the present is interrupted in several places by texts or narrative in various forms: flashbacks, memories, dreams, and reflections on literary texts or mythologies, texts by Wannous himself, hallucinations, monologues, and fantasies. All of them present or narrate fragments and stories of the narrator’s life, making explicit the identification between the main character/narrator and the author, Sa’dallah Wannous. The text is made up of two major elements. The first is the narrative in the first person, which contains all those narrative elements and texts, such as monologues and dreams, mentioned immediately above. The second is a relatively long section, consisting of a dramatic scene. The dramatic scene is contained within the first narrative element and, although seemingly independent in terms of genre, which is dramatic representation, it is an organic part of the text as a whole. It even contains the same interruptions by the other major narrative elements. This dramatic scene is a part of the flow of memories and personal stories the text represents.

What Philippe Lejeune calls “the sophisticated games, by means of which modern autobiographers express identity problems or seek to charm their readers”[28] is the immediate question presented by Wannous’ text, when examining it as an autobiography. The explicit identification between the author, narrator and the main character is, for Lejeune, the condition for the existence of an autobiographical pact, and thus for the text to be an autobiography.[29]  In his treatment of the question of identity and the autobiographical pact, Philippe Lejeune stresses the proper name of the author as the basis of identification and of the textual contract between the reader and the author.[30] Lejeune notes “that the case in which the proper name of the central character is missing is perhaps the trickiest, and one that consequently places the greatest demands on other potentially pact-creating criteria.”[31] The autobiographical pact in Wannous’ text thus operates according to more sophisticated pact-creating criteria than the presence of the proper name of the author.

The text Rihlah fi majahil mawt ‘abir does not mention the name of its author Sa’dallah Wannous. However, there are two elements in this text that signify the identification of the author with the narrator.  The first consists of the narrator’s explicit references to the first names of members of his family, and to the full names of some of his friends. The names of his wife Fa’izah and his daughter Dimah are the names most frequently mentioned, in addition the names of friends such as Mari Ilyas and Ḥasan M. Yῡsuf.[32] The second element consists of the intertextual links between this text and other texts published by Wannous in the volume that contains Rihlah fi majahil mawt ‘abir.  In a narrative text entitled ‘Thakirat al-nubu’at’ (The Memory of Predictions), which appears in the same volume, immediately before the text under discussion, the author narrates, in a style reminiscent of memoirs or entries in a diary, his recollections of his vital medical trip to Paris. The importance in this text is that the identification between the narrator and the author is made explicit by stating the author’s first name, Sa’d, and the names of his wife and daughter, Fa’izah and Dimah, as well as names from his extended family. During this trip to Paris, as the text tells us, the narrator becomes aware that his cancer is in an advanced stage and there is no hope of a cure, and that he has no longer than six months to live, according to the French doctors. In Rihlah fi majahil mawt ‘abir,[33] reference is made to this trip to Paris, and to the French doctors’ decision about whether or not to continue his chemotherapy treatment.

In addition to the issue of the proper name, some implicit elements of identification could be read into the intertextual framework of the text. In the short play ‘Bilad adyaq min al-hub (A Country Narrower Than Love), which appears in the same volume, the main character Nabῑl is, like the protagonists of the other two texts, diagnosed with cancer, and he is consciously awaiting an imminent death. The narrator also makes references to his own career as a playwright: “I will never rest unless I replace the endings of my plays by happy endings.”[34]

Irrespective of whether or not the identification between the author and the narrator and the autobiographical pact in this text conform to the classic definition of the autobiographical pact, the contract with the reader, or the autobiographical pact, clearly exists in the structure of the text. Despite the absence of the proper name of the author/narrator, there is no attempt on the part of the author to disguise his identity. The interaction here between the fictional and the autobiographical, or between the imaginary and the factual, is a departure from the techniques used by many Arab writers in their attempt to disguise the identity of the author and to keep the autobiographical pact secret. And perhaps it is not incidental that the narrator in this text reflects on the prevailing culture of shame and honor, which deprives the individual of the freedom of expressing the self and the private: “I am from a family that is exhausted by modesty and terrified of shame. And during so many years, I thought that my mother does not have that daily business in the lavatory.”[35]  This culture is a source of fear for the narrator throughout his experiences in the hospital:

Yes, the doctor and the nurse exchange an expressive look while they uncover me to insert the bladder tube. Nakedness is still an abuse or a terrifying scandal for us. There are still complicated barriers between us and the healthy body and freedom, covers of fixed values, the saying of the dead and the law of the tyrants.[36]

With the explicit identification between the author and the main narrator, the fictionality of Wannous’ autobiographical text in this context is much more than the disguise technique or mask so often attributed to modern Arabic autobiographical writing. Rather, it is a reflection of a changing concept of literary self and selfhood on the part of the author and, in addition, an indication of a new artistic sensibility, which liberates the author from the collective ideological discourse that embraced collectivity and, for a long time, suppressed any individual and personal impulses in literary/artistic creation. In this changing concept or epistemology, selfhood is, as is clear in Wannous’ text, a complex process of interaction between fiction and reality. Some studies of self-representation and autobiographical writing in the twentieth century have shown how autobiographers have changed our thinking about autobiographical truth because, according to Paul John Eakin, “they readily accept the proposition that fictions and the fiction-making process are a central constituent of the truth of any life as it is lived and of any art devoted to the presentation of that life.[37] Indeed, fiction and the fiction-making process should not here be limited to the literary imaginative discourse that intersects, intermingles or intertextualises with the autobiographical truth, but rather, in the case of Wannous’ text in particular, it should also be rrecognized that, as argued by many critics, and articulated here by Northrop Frye, “the autobiographical narrative, in selecting, ordering, and integrating the writer’s lived experiences according to its own teleological demands, is beholden to certain imperatives of imaginative discourse.”[38]

These two levels of the fiction-making process in Wannous’ text, the first being the literary imaginative discourse that was placed in discourse with the autobiographical truth, the second being the strategies of the autobiographical narrative in selecting, ordering and integrating the writer’s lived experiences, are examined here within two contexts. The first is the intertextual links of the text as a whole to various kinds of literary, popular and mythological texts. The second is what Philippe Lejeune calls the “phantasmal pact” [pacte fantasmatique].[39] Lejeune explains that modern autobiographers, in their sophisticated methods of expressing the question of identity, reveal types of borderline cases, which allow us to bring out what is usually implicit in the use of “persons.”[40] Lejeune here examines the characteristics of autobiographical writing in the third or second person in all three kinds of self-representation: “fiction, the reading of which does not depend upon what the reader knows about the author, or autobiographical fiction, which lends itself to an ambiguous reading, or autobiography, in which referential reading and author’s posture are combined.”[41]  In the case of autobiographical fiction, Lejeune argues, a statement made in the third or second person would have to be considered from the point of view of a phantasmal pact: “this conveys something about me, but is not me.”[42]  This brings both relief and tension to the text, where, according to Lejeune:

One feels it—I feel it myself as I write—to be an unnatural ellipse of the enunciation, and keeps expecting a relaxation of the ban on the use of the first person, just as, when reading a lipogram, one watches for the return of the forbidden letter.[43]

In Wannous’ text, it is the acute consciousness of death that shapes this internal structure of the text. Within the intertextual framework of the text, the narrator moves backwards and forwards between the painful, unbearable present and the relentless attempt to narrate or represent the unpresentable experience of death. This movement creates two levels of narration: the direct, factual and realistic representation of the present time in the hospital, on the one hand, and the symbolic, imaginary and fictional representation of the narrator’s memories, dreams and contemplations, which are mainly preoccupied with the question of death, on the other. He writes:

In a hole that is not like any place, at a time that is not like any time, in a haze in which one cannot recognize a beginning or end, I was laid down on a narrow bed like a cage. A tube in my nose supplies me with oxygen. I hear the water moving in the blue-green vial, which releases the oxygen directing it to my nose. I listen to the monotonous sound of the water imagining a group of naked girls walking on the grass singing hymns… Then I the sound vanished. I do not know whether I was unconscious for a while, then woke up again.[44]

The narrative on the latter level is always open in various ways to the non-personal, to the imagination and to other texts. The story of life and death, the eternal epic of human existence, is the theme of the three texts the narrator inserts into his narrative. The first is a reflection on the mythical space of origins. Water, women, and death are the three essential elements in the narrator’s version of the story of creation. The second text is a reflection on a popular poetic epic by a popular poet called Muhammad al-Milhim. The third is the story of the Quranic figure Ayyub, who corresponds to the biblical figure Job.

In the first section, the narrator starts by reflecting on the story of creation in the Indian epic of The Mahabharata, and then, expressing his dislike for this version of the story, he narrates his own version. The present experience of pain, fear of death, the collapsing body and the harsh reality of the hospital, narrated in the first person, interrupts the narrative of the story of creation, which in turn emphasizes the contradictions between the narrator’s experience and the momentous questions of life and death. The dirty and collapsing world of the hospital is contrasted, in the narrator’s version of the story of creation, with the fertility and beauty of woman, the strength of man and flowing water, which contains the essential act of creation, the sexual contact between woman and man. As water in this story symbolizes the apocalyptic chaos, characterizing the end of this world, as well as the potentiality of the birth of another one, it celebrates death as an essential and organic part of the cycle of life. Death here is the return to nature and earth, through the eternal flow of water, which takes the body of the female after giving birth to earth, the soil. This is the only meaning of death indicated by the text, the ability of nature to re-create life from the dead body.

The feeling of absurdity and anxiety vis-à-vis the question of death is the theme of the other text inserted into the narrative, the epic of the poet Muhammad al-Milhim. In this popular epic, the narrator is al-Milhim himself after his death. His skull tells the story of how, after his death, al-Milhim was taken to hell, but because of his charity and decency, and because of the good and charity he had done for poor people, hell refused him and he was taken to paradise. However, because of his infidelity, paradise refused to accept him. And so al-Milhim, after his death, becomes a problematic issue for God’s system. The narrator indicates that he thought of writing the epic of al-Milhim as a play and had made some plans for that play. In the planned play al-Milhim remains a problem for God, who decides that man is more complex than his system of good and evil, and therefore cancels the system of hell and paradise, leaving mankind to face the eternal question of the meaning of life and death. This question is the recurrent theme for the narrator/author himself, who faces it without any faith or metaphysical belief: “from darkness we came, and to darkness we go back. This is the whole story.”[45]

As he tells the story of Ayyub, the narrator reflects on Ayyub’s fate, as narrated in the Book of Job in the Bible. He summarizes the story of Ayyub. Proud of his servant Ayyub, God asks Satan whether he has ever seen a man with such uprightness and faith. As in the biblical story, Satan asks God whether Ayyub does all his good deeds for nothing, and challenges God that if Ayyub is examined, he will turn from his faith. God accepts Satan’s challenge, and allows him to expose Ayyῡb to all possible kinds of suffering, and to afflict him “with loathsome sores from the sole of his foot to the crown of his head.”[46]  At this point the narrator adds his own reflections and interpretations to his narrative of the biblical story. For him, Ayyub’s fate is a result of an arrogant bet between God and Satan. How could it come about that God could be involved in such bloody and violent games?  This is the question which makes the narrator concludes: “anyway, if we look to our world and what it contains of discrimination, unfairness and grievance, we see that what indicates the absence of God is more than what indicates his existence.”[47]

This direct and, indeed, daring approach to such a taboo on the part of the author is perhaps unique in modern Arabic literature. To deny the existence of God or to express atheism in an explicit autobiographical text reflects striking courage on the part of the author, particularly in the 1990s, the decade that witnessed some of the most violent clashes between modernist intellectuals and the rise of Islamic fundamentalism. The case of Salman Rushdie, the killing of the Egyptian intellectual Faraj Fudah and the trial of Naᾱr Ḥamid Abu Zayd are only a few examples. In Wannous’ text, what makes the approach to the question of death and the taboo theme of faith and religion so unique is that it does not use any kind of literary mask to confront and express these issues. On the contrary, the explicit autobiographical narrative puts these questions into a personal context. The narrator, facing his death, reads in the story of Ayyῡb his own tragedy, only to challenge all dominant metaphysical references, theological myths and cultural values which are associated with the theme and experience of death. Contemplating Ayyub’s situation, the narrator reflects that,

He has some consolation. He has that faith and that power and metaphysical entity, to whom he can relate the meaning of his tragedy and suffering, and whom he asks for consolation and meaning. But in my case, I wanted to find someone whom I can ask. Unfortunately, I have no body to ask other than some small men like me. And as for them, what is the point of asking them?[48]

The painful reality remains for the narrator at the end of the text without any consolation or faith: “Is life really glorious? Is man that miracle, whom Sophocles talked about? Ayyub argued with his god. With whom I can argue and I have nothing except this desolate certainty: I came from darkness, and to darkness I shall return.”[49]

This intertextual framework is the most dominant feature of the autobiographical narrative throughout Wannous’ text. The first-person narrative, within this framework, is open to other texts and voices and, through the structure, creates a polyphonic narrative, where the self, i.e. the voice of the “I,” is merely an organic part of a complex web of interaction between the factual and the imaginary, the self and the other and autobiography and fiction. On the other level of the fiction-making process, the text dramatizes this polyphony through the multiplicity of persons and narrators in the dramatic section. In this dramatic representation, narration in the third or second person, as Lejeune explains, reveals types of borderline cases, as these allow us to bring out what is usually implicit in the use of “persons”. What is significant in Wannous’ text is that the second- or third-person narration does not abandon the voice of the first person. On the contrary, the voice of the first person still dominates, but within a framework of interaction between different voices. This form of drama allows the space in which all voices can exist and interact.

In a dream-like sequence, the narrator imagines a theatrical place. It is a stage suspended from above by four ropes that meet in the center above the stage. The stage is empty and it is flooded in moonlight. Through the events and the dialogue that take place on this fictitious stage, it comes to be defined by the characters as the passing point between the world of the living and the world of the dead. This is the place where each dying individual has to narrate his story, to be able in the end to successfully pass this transitional examination and enter the world of the dead. The narrator is represented in this dramatic scene by a character called “Ana” (I), and the other five characters are “Hiya” (She), “al-Shahid” (the witness) and three women: Bahiyyah, Faṭimah and Ruqayyah, who are friends of the character named “Hiya.” “She” is dead, and comes from the world of the dead, falling from the light of the moon. She represents the first love story of “I” and is the only person who can help “I” to narrate his past and to settle with his death:

I: Between us a story, we must narrate it.

She: What is the point of narrating it?

I: I feel that my death will not be completed unless our story is    narrated.[50]

Wannous’ autobiographical experiment suggests that there is another dimension to Arabic autobiographical writing that goes beyond the aesthetic aspects raised by scholars and critics over the last two decades. This dimension is socio-political, and is concerned with autobiographical writing as a social and political practice within a certain political context. The question here is connected to the ongoing political dilemma that troubled Wannous’ generation of modernist Arab intellectuals, this being their ever-problematic relationship with power. From a socio-political point of view, the question is, as identified by several scholars, and summarised in the words of Irving Louis Horowitz, “will totalitarian systems, with their special emphasis on mass participation and mass identification, come to find the autobiographical genre intolerable?”[51]  This question seems to be at the centre of Wannous’ experiment. It is present in the language and structure of his autobiographical text, where, as shown above, autobiographical writing is essentially, for the author, a confrontation and subsequent sense of total disillusionment with the prevailing culture. It is the total disillusionment with the totalitarian systems, which for Sa`dallah Wannous are represented not only by the ruling political institutions in Arab countries, but more importantly, by the totalising, collectivist political culture of his generation of Arab intellectuals.[52] As he often stressed during the last five years of his life, the tragedy of his generation was that they suppressed the self and any sort of individuality or inclination to being different.

We live with the idea that we have to suppress our individuality for the sake of society. I realised that I spent my life suppressing my own individuality … a social system like ours, which suppresses individuality and particularity and prevents expressing the self and the different, will be always poor, disabled and incapable of creating a truly free civil society.[53]

If, in Wannous’ work, autobiography is viewed as neither truth nor fiction, but rather as a form of self-confrontation, and hence, as filtered self-awareness, then it indeed represents a confrontation with the prevailing culture, and a representation of a sense of disillusionment with an entire ideology.

Dr. Ali Souleman  is a visiting professor at St. John’s College, the University of Oxford where he is working on his current research project: The Representation of Violence in Syrian Theatre. From 2005 to 2014, he worked as a Professor of Theatre Studies in the Higher Institute of Dramatic Arts in Damascus where he taught courses on Intercultural Theatre, Analysis of Dramatic Text, Shakespeare and Modern Culture, and Modern Western Theatre. Ali’s publications include Zil al-Wardah: Masrah George Schehadé (The Shadow of the Flower: the Theatre of George Schehadé), Dar Afaq, Damascus, 1998 and regular articles, reviews, and cultural commentaries in Arabic press.

[1] Said, Khalidah, “Min masrahat al-‘alam ila masraḥat al-dhat”, in al-Qayyim, ‘Ali, al-‘Awdat, Ḥusayn and Yusuf, Ḥasan M., ed. Sa’dallah Wannus: al-asda’ al-ula lil-rahil, Damascus, Wizarat al-thaqafah, 1997, 64.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Jameson, Fredric, “Third-World literature in the era of multinational capitalism,” Social text, 15: (1986), 69.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid., 85- 86.

[7] Ibid., 74.

[8] For a comprehensive reading of the impact of culture on Autobiographical memory see: Wang, Qi, The Autobiographical Self in Time and Culture, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013), 127-150.

[9] Wang, Feng-hsin, “Third-world writers in the era of postmodernism”, New literary history, 28: 1 (1997), 47.

[10] Hallaq, Boutros, “Autobiography and polyphony”, in Wild, Stefan, ed. Writing the self : autobiographical writing in modern Arabic literature  (London: Saqi Books, 1998),  201.


[12] Ibid.

[13] Ibid.

[14] Ibid. p 174.

[15] Ibid.

[16] Ashcroft, Bill, “Against the tide of time: Peter Carey’s interpolation into history”, in Hawley, John C., ed. Writing the nation: self and country in postcolonial imagination, Critical studies,(Amsterdam: Rodopi, 1996). 199.

[17] Quoted in Abu Dyab, Ṣalaḥ al-Din, Sa’dallah Wannus : al-Ḥudur wa-al-ghiyab: dhakirah, bi’ah, shahadat, (Kuwait: Dar Su’ad al-Sabaḥ, 1997).140-1.

[18] Olney, James, Metaphors of self : the meaning of autobiography (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1972), 50.

[19] Ibid.

[20] Ibid.

[21] `Uṣfῡr, Jᾱbir, “al-Intisar ‘ala al-mawt”, in al-Qayyim, ‘Ali, al-‘Awdat, Ḥusayn and Yusuf, Ḥasan M., ed. Sa’dallah Wannus: al-asda’ al-ula lil-rahil, (Damascus: Wizarat al-thaqafah, 1997), 87.

[22] Ibid.

[23] Gibbons, Joan, Contemporary Art and Memory : Images of Recollection and Remembrance, (London: I.B. Tauris, 2007), 52.

[24] Malkin, Jeanette R., Memory-theater and postmodern drama, Theater–theory/text/performance (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1999), 10.

[25] Ibid.

[26] Jay, Being in the text : self-representation from Wordsworth to Roland Barthes (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1984), 18.

[27] Ostle, Robin, “Introduction”, in Ostle, Writing the self, 21.

[28] Lejeune, Philippe, “Autobiography in the Third person”, New Literary History, 9:1 (1977), 27.

[29] Malti-Douglas, Fedwa, Blindness & autobiography : Al-Ayyam of Taha Husayn (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1988), 95.

[30] Lejeune, “Autobiography in the Third person”,  30.

[31] Quoted in Malti-Douglas, Blindness & autobiography : Al-Ayyam of Taha Husayn, 95.

[32] Wannous, ‘An al-dhakirah wa-al-mawt : nusus, (Damascus: al-Ahali, 1996), 96, 97, 101 and 121.

[33] Ibid., 122- 123.

[34] Ibid., 141.

[35] Ibid. 112.

[36] Ibid., 105- 106.

[37] Eakin, Fictions in autobiography : studies in the art of self-invention (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1985), 5.

[38] Renza, Louis A., “The veto of the imagination: a theory of autobiography,” New Literary History, 9:1 (1977),  2.

[39] Lejeune, Philippe, “Autobiography in the Third person”, Ibid.,29.

[40] Ibid., 27- 28.

[41] Ibid., 28.

[42] Ibid., 29.

[43] Ibid.

[44] Wannous, ‘An al-dhakirah wa-al-mawt : nusus, 95.

[45] Ibid., 172.

[46] Ibid., 124.

[47] Ibid., 125.

[48] Ibid.

[49] Ibid., 175.

[50] Ibid., 146.

[51] Horowitz, Irving Louis, “Autobiography as the presentation of self for social immortality”, New Literary History 9:1  (1977), 177.

[52] Ilyas, “al-Ḥayat masraḥ tijari tuzihah al-kitabah: hiwar”, al-Karmil, 64 (summer, 2000), 23.

[53] Ibid.


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
  • Junūn: 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
  • 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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