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A Hair-‘razing’ Adventure: The Head of Mameluke Jaber (2000)

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Ardash’s censure is frequently echoed, in various pitches, by critics and artists of the old guard and has recently erupted in a fierce, vituperative, choral denunciation of the National’s current revival of Sa’ dallah Wannus’s The Adventure of Mameluke Jaber’s Head (1969), retitled The Adventure of Mameluke Jaber. This time, the quarrel is not over the choice of play: Wannus’s piece, though experimental at the time it was written, is now a popular classic of the modem Arab theatre and the most frequently revived of the 1960s dramatic heritage. Wannus is also universally acknowledged as one of the greatest, most intellectually daring and artistically innovative Arab dramatists. His premature death of cancer in May 1997 at the age of 56, and his heroic struggle to continue writing till the end have enhanced his prestige and popularity almost to the point of canonization. Besides, The Adventure of Mameluke Jaber’s Head belongs to Wannus’s middle, pronouncedly socialist and politically committed period and is, therefore, right up Ardash’s and his generation’s street; it is also very much in line and tune with the resurgent taste for obstreperous political declamation and heavy-fisted didacticism (of the kind promoted by Mohamed Subhi in his Theatre for All project), as well as the pervasive critical mood which dismisses as inane and frivolous anything which does not vociferously blazon its moral or political message.

In this respect, Murad Munir’s new stage-version of Jaber’s Head at the National does not fall short; the message is there, loud and clear, shouted from the stage, the boxes on both its sides, the back of the auditorium and its front; it is further underlined by Sayed Hijab’s lyrics which clinch every scene and by the comments of the narrator or hakawati (storyteller) who connects the scenes. The new adaptation left the main action – the story of Jaber – substantially unchanged, restricting its alterations to the outer framework. Writing in his favorite form, that of the-play-within-the-play, and adopting Brecht’s alienation principle and its techniques, cherished by the 1960s generation of leftwing writers, Wannus presents the tragic adventure of Jaber (which he lifted out of an ancient history book by Al-Dinari) as a series of scenes conjured up from the past by a story-teller in a humble cafe, and physically enacted before the audience (the one on the stage, in the fictional cafe, and the one in the auditorium at any performance).

The cafe audience constantly intrudes upon the scenes with their comments, betting on the future course of events, comparing their lot with that of the common people of Baghdad in the story, and establishing pointed parallelisms. They complain that the hakawati has been feeding them nothing but tales of misery and oppression, corruption and famine, as if they haven’t enough of that in real life; what they ache and clamor for is an escape route from the present, wish-fulfilment and vicarious satisfaction through stories of heroic exploits, serendipitous adventures, and miraculous changes of fortune. In response, the hakawati darkly tells them that the time for happy stories has not arrived yet, that it is up to them to make it arrive, and that it all depends on what they can read in his sad stories and the kind of moral they draw from them.

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