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Theater in the Middle East: Between Performance and Politics

Theater in the Middle East: Between Performance and Politics

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Theater in the Middle East: Between Performance and Politics

317 pagine
4 ore
Jul 27, 2020


The collected essays from noteworthy dramatists and scholars in this book represent new ways of understanding theater in the Middle East not as geographical but transcultural spaces of performance. What distinguishes this book from previous works is that it offers new analysis on a range of theatrical practices across a region, by and large, ignored for the history of its dramatic traditions and cultures, and it does so by emphasizing diverse performances in changing contexts. Topics include Arab, Iranian, Israeli, diasporic theatres from pedagogical perspectives to reinvention of traditions, from translation practices to political resistance expressed in various performances from the nineteenth century to the present.

Jul 27, 2020

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Theater in the Middle East - Anthem Press

Theater in the Middle East

Theater in the Middle East

Between Performance and Politics

Babak Rahimi

Anthem Press

An imprint of Wimbledon Publishing Company

This edition first published in UK and USA 2020


75–76 Blackfriars Road, London SE1 8HA, UK

or PO Box 9779, London SW19 7ZG, UK


244 Madison Ave #116, New York, NY 10016, USA

© 2020 Babak Rahimi editorial matter and selection; individual chapters © individual contributors

The moral right of the authors has been asserted.

All rights reserved. Without limiting the rights under copyright reserved above, no part of this publication may be reproduced, stored or introduced into a retrieval system, or transmitted, in any form or by any means (electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording or otherwise), without the prior written permission of both the copyright owner and the above publisher of this book.

British Library Cataloguing-in-Publication Data

A catalogue record for this book is available from the British Library.

Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data

Library of Congress Control Number: 2020936152

ISBN-13: 978-1-78527-446-6 (Hbk)

ISBN-10: 1-78527-446-5 (Hbk)

This title is also available as an e-book

To Nasrin Katouzian

Artist, Painter, and the kindest mother


List of Illustrations




Babak Rahimi


Chapter 1 Teaching Middle Eastern Theater: Creation, Challenges and Rewards

Michael Malek Najjar

Chapter 2 Harem Entertainers: Female Performers in Qajar Courts

Rana Salimi

Chapter 3 Nehad Selaiha and the Egyptian Theater

Marvin Carlson

Chapter 4 The Reinvention of Storytelling Tradition in Moroccan Theater: From Postcolonial Hybridity to Women’s Empowerment

Khalid Amine


Chapter 5 Artistic Practice and Production at the Freedom Theatre: The Interpenetration of the Personal and the Political

Gary M. English

Chapter 6 Domestic Arts: Sigalit Landau, Emily Jacir and Israel-Palestine

Shelley Salamensky

Chapter 7 Radio Drama by and about Syrian Refugees: Reimaging the Nation on SouriaLi

Edward Ziter

Chapter 8 No Demand No Supply: Documentary Theater Transforming the Mainstream Media

Sahar Assaf

Notes on Contributors



2.1 Dancers and musicians at the Qajar court, late nineteenth century. Courtesy of Harvard University, Institute for Iranian Contemporary Historical Studies.

2.2 Forugh al-Dowleh and her daughters. Courtesy of Harvard University, Institute for Iranian contemporary historical studies.

2.3 Appearance of a prostitute woman; description on the Ministry of Culture card: Two female prostitute—their clothing and makeup. Courtesy of Harvard University, Institute for Iranian Contemporary Historical Studies.

2.4 Two women and a male impersonator in male clothes with short but feminine hairstyle and no beard or mustache. Courtesy of Afshin Arami.

2.5 Little Girls of the Court and Two Women and a Girl. This photograph belongs to the album from the Firouz Firouz Collection. Courtesy of Harvard University, Institute for Iranian Contemporary Historical Studies.

7.1 Publicity Image, We Are All Refugees .

7.2 Radio SouriaLi.


This book owes its existence to the support of the Department of Literature and the Department of Theatre and Dance at the University of California, San Diego. I am deeply grateful to my colleague Shahrokh Yadegari, who provided the logistical support in organizing a conference on the subject of Theatre in the Middle East, from which several of the chapters in this volume originate. I am also very grateful to Soodabeh Malekzadeh for her diligent work in copyediting the volume. Many thanks to Maryam Mianji for introducing me to Sayna Ghaderi, whose photo appears on the book cover. Ghaderi’s photography is reflective of the innovative form of performance art culture that this volume seeks to identify. Finally, I would like to thank the contributors who have generously provided their expertise on the subject of theater and the broader question of performance in the Middle East. Our collective hope is to (re)present the region, known as the Middle East, from the prism of expressive action and performative agency. Perhaps these collected essays could also be viewed as performative markers in contributing to what the late Polish playwright and theorist Jerzy Grotowski once described as theatre’s transformative power of self-exposure and, above all, in disclosing the secrets of the human condition.

With the aim of scholarly thoroughness and accessibility to a broader readership, the present volume adopts a system of transliteration of Arabic, Persian and Turkish inspired by the model used by the International Journal of Middle East Studies (IJMES), with modifications and elimination of most diacritical marks except when translation passages from the original text are included. In addition, all years mentioned in the volume relate to the Common Era unless otherwise stated.



Babak Rahimi

The eerie, minimalist set design on the stage evokes the ominous unfolding of an incident. The metal staircase and a large, circular tube, covered with plastic stripes on a shadowy back wall, set the background of a stage, designed for a theatrical narrative under a cloak of foreboding. Several wooden benches, delineated with bluish shades on an unkempt floor, induce an awareness of emptiness, amplified with reflections of bright lights that float off several hanging lamps that are tied to long wires from the dark ceiling. The single piercing bluish light through the mysterious tube is the most disconcerting to an audience that has its first encounter with the play through such disconsolate scene design.

The uncanny combination of color and dark shades uniquely distinguish the brightly lit yet gloomy indoor setting of this 2016 production of Arthur Miller’s 1964 Incident at Vichy at Iranshahr Theatre, Tehran’s first privately run theater.¹ The ensemble of several men and women, sitting on a bench or standing, as they anxiously wait for their fate in detention after a police roundup of Jews, invites the audience to a tantalizing performance of a traumatic experience to be unfolded in Vichy France in 1943. The location is a metaphoric setting for the banality of evil and, concurrently, the human denial of such peril, ironically, as a means for survival. This one-act play, which has been on revival for its depiction of dehumanization and moral predicament under the shadows of the Holocaust, has undergone a translative transformation in postrevolutionary Iran. With this unique performance at the Iranshahr Theatre, the play has now taken on a new life.

On a stage that fuses realist and abstract themes, the unnerving ambiance of a chain-wired fence, symbolizing militarized detention, has a haunting effect on the audience. The dark, securitized space of detention becomes intrinsic to the performance of Iranian actors who seek to depict an incident of moral and universal significance, though translated for an Iranian audience. What translates is a tense relationship between the realism of human futility, best personified by Leduc, a Jewish psychiatrist, and the idealism of Von Berg, Prince Wilhelm Johann, a nobleman from Austria, whose ultimate act of courage allows Leduc to escape detention and seek a better life. There is an ostensible design of humanism in this performance, a desire for human agency and a shared sense of guilt, which has the potential for the realization of humanity, best depicted by Von Berg.

Translated and directed by Manijeh Mohamedi, one of Iran’s foremost theater directors and the lead artist of the famous Payvand Theatre Group, the 2016 staging of Incident at Vichy is significant for its dramaturgical, political and philosophical undertones. Depicting in what Miller once described as a play of theatrical linguistic significance for expressing commonness and humanity, the Payvand Theatre Group performers with veteran actors such as Mahvash Afsharpanah and Mohammad Eskandari display a stunning performance of an American play; its author’s more famous work, The Death of a Sales Man, saw a creative depiction in Asghar Farhadi’s 2016 The Salesman.² In this performance, however, Incident at Vichy combines several theatrical features that continue to permit the ensemble of actors to stage a play that can both speak to its Iranian audience and address universal themes that occur in a perceived present time.

The distinguishing theatrical features here are threefold. In Mohamedi’s Incident at Vichy, the theme of guilt, central to the play and most evident in the character of Lebeau, seems less pronounced. Miller’s Incident at Vichy was meant to bring to light not only the evils of racial and ethnic cleansing, but also the complexity of the human reaction in the form of self-blame and guilt, which leads to inaction. In Mohamedi’s Incident at Vichy, it is the human capacity for responsibility to overcome guilt that takes front stage, though mostly manifested toward the end of the performance, as Miller also intended to achieve self-determination. Moreover, there is the unique aspect of restaging the narrative based on her own translation of the play. While her translation has shortened the play by cutting out some of the dialogues, the performed dialogues are ironically overemphasized. This is used to give credibility and intrigue to the individualized life of the characters who highlight the anguish of waiting in a guarded detention room that could be anywhere, and yet nowhere.

However, the most intriguing interpretative aspect of Mohamedi’s directorial staging of the play appears with the cutting of the original 21 all-male characters down to 11, of which 3 appear as females and are played by Mahvash Afsharpanah, Farnaz Rahnama and Nastaran Paykanu. The introduction of female characters from different age groups animates an inclusive and perhaps universal depth to the 90-minute-long performance. According to Mohamedi, the inclusion of women in the narrative was meant to reflect changes in today’s social conditions and enhance the broader appeal of the performance for the contemporary audience. It’s not important if the characters are men or women, but how they are.³ And by how they are Mohamedi speaks of characters on the human level, understood in terms of their quest for autonomy amid intractable conditions, a sort of humanism that she views to be central to Incident at Vichy.

Mohamedi sums up her notion of humanism in the following account, which is worth quoting:

Every single theatrical piece that I have been involved with has been directly related to the world around me. This is especially the case today since fascism has spread more than ever; and that since Hitler’s time, it has only changed in form, but the content remains the same. Accordingly, Miller’s plays pertain to our time as well and the audience is able to relate with it. Similar to [Miller’s] After the Fall, which is his most personal play, [yet] fascism is still present. The Iranian audience knows its conditions very well and adapts to what it sees and feels accordingly. To be honest, I never had heroism in mind when I directed the play. What I wished to portray was humanity (ensāniyat), which today’s world is increasingly moving farther away from.

There is something sumptuously candid in the above statement. Mohamedi makes explicit Miller’s universal concern for human responsibility during a tumultuous time in American history, as the country faced numerous injustices of racial segregation, the political repression of McCarthyism and the violence of the Vietnam War. Incident at Vichy also foreshadowed the anti-war movement that began in 1964 and escalated in the late 1960s when a new generation of activists sought to move beyond guilt and demand responsibility for a better world. Mohamedi’s Incident at Vichy demands the same awareness from its Iranian audience. She wants her audience, who knows very well its condition, to think again about their responsibility to the current times and the ever-presence of fascism and move past their guilt of inaction. Theater is more than an enactment, but a critical practice.

The Iranshahr production of Incident at Vichy, which its final shows premiered at the 35th Fadjr Theatre Festival in Tehran, identifies a theatrical ensemble that, through the performance of translation, exceeds the theatricality of the national stage. In a long tradition of translational practices that have defined Afro-Eurasia as a transcontinental zone of contact since antiquity, the postrevolutionary Iranian Incident at Vichy involves the transplantation of cultural and political frameworks beyond which a dramaturgical tradition in a specific region is embedded.⁴ The dynamic relations between translated text and performance of staging and viewing a play as such attests to a porous reality that keeps aesthetics and politics in close proximity—in a performative space where experience and interpretation redefine power and resistance with contested intensity.

What the play also identifies is a type of innovative performance that part and parcel of a growing theatrical landscape in a region known in the twentieth-first century as the Middle East.⁵ I use quotation marks for Middle East since the term has become common in usage only since the second half of the twentieth century; and, in its temporal-historical context and territorial conception, it has involved a performative dimension insofar as marking a distinction of an enactment based on a geographical imaginary of a Eurocentric bias with colonial historical roots.⁶ The Tehran-based production of the Incident at Vichy is exemplary of a vibrant theatrical culture in a changing region with multifaceted dramaturgical traditions that can also be witnessed in Egypt, Kuwait, Lebanon, Morocco, Palestine, Syria or Tunis, to name just a few countries conventionally associated with the region.⁷ In such a dramaturgical context, theatrical practices are constructed in complex political-institutional dynamics and philosophical underpinnings that combine cross-fertilization of ideas, designs, performances, organizations and media productions that highlight transculturation through which theater becomes both an indigenous and a global phenomenon.⁸

This book is an attempt to understand the theatrical traditions of the region not from an encyclopedic or ethnonationalist but a conceptual perspective open to a critical idea of theater as a transcultural set of practices with complex experiential and interpretative dimensions. From public-funded theatrical productions at major venues, such as the Municipal Theatre of Tunis (established in 1902) or the National Theatre of Iran (established in 1911) to street performances in Cairo or the staging of al-ḥalqa traditional theater in Morocco, the notion of the Middle East Theater adopted in this volume moves beyond the ethnonational categories while focusing on diversity of performative forms, staging repertoires, troupe of players, directors, producers, critics and audiences linked by geography, class, gender, family, nationality, ideology or transnational ties. In fact, the very notion of the Middle East adopted in the following essays should be understood not as a physical-geographical concept but as a performative one, that is, enunciatory practices that change the realities they seek to depict through performance.⁹ While a study of distinct theatrical traditions within a country would require in-depth sociohistorical and political analysis, it is imperative to recognize the interconnected traditions and cultural industries that transcend the geographical region. In a globalizing context, such interconnectedness brings to focus the cross-fertilization of dramaturgical practices that continue to undergo complex changes on national, (sub)cultural and subaltern levels.

At the core of specific cross-regional theatrical traditions lies historical contextuality. As it has been argued by William Beeman and Khalid Amine, theatrical traditions have been practiced in the region long before the introduction of their Western form in the nineteenth century as a result of European colonial modernity.¹⁰ The most significant Islamic drama, Taʿzieh, performed in Iran in commemoration of the martyrdom of Hussain, the grandson of Prophet Muhammad in 680 CE in Karbala, Iraq, had an indigenous growth in the late seventeenth-century Safavid Iran.¹¹ It later developed into a full-blown street-neighborhood theater in the late eighteenth century and state theater under the Qajars in the second half of the nineteenth century.¹² The construction of the massive Takkiyeh-e Dowlat, also known as the Royal Theatre, commissioned in 1868 by Qajar king, Naser al-Din Shah, is a testimony to a form of religious theatrical that had state patronage but also identified in what Peter Chelkowski has famously described as indigenous avant-garde theatre for fusion of material and themes from history, legends, and myths and everyday situationality.¹³ Other forms of indigenous dramatic performances ranging from storytelling to mythical-poetic drama date back to Pharaonic Egypt, Achaemenid and Sasanian Iran. After the spread of Islam and the rise of early-modern Islamicate empires, we witness the growth of shadow puppet drama, narrative drama, religious epic drama, comic improvisatory drama and siāhbāzi, improvised comic plays that feature blackface performances.¹⁴ Shadow plays (karagoz), performed under the patronage of the Ottoman Sultans, grew in popularity in their imperial domains, especially in the Levant and North Africa, while puppet shows (kheimeh-shab-bāzi) appear to have flourished on the street and market levels in Safavid Iran and Arab Ottoman regions.¹⁵ As for another example, the circle of storytelling drama (al-ḥalqa), as described in Chapter 4 by Khalid Amine, provides a unique indigenous case of audience–actor interaction for what Amine and Marvin Carlson point out as a form of self-reflexive drama that continues to undergo change today as a type of experimental theater on a popular level.¹⁶

The introduction of Western theater, and productions in their distinct form of proscenium stage in the nineteenth century, as in the satirical plays of polyglot Yaʿqub al-Sanuʿa (1839–1912) in Egypt, primarily inspired by French and Italian drama and performed in spoken Arabic, coincided with deep-seated change in the region caused by European colonial expansion that purported Westernization as a principle cultural intervention for progress.¹⁷ The rise of a mostly all-male intelligentsia with modernizing missions to change local cultures mirrored a colonialist mission to downplay indigenous traditions in favor of modern theatrical institutions performed on a proscenium frame and marketed in the form of ticket sales and assigned seats. Islam, long considered as an impediment to the growth of dramatic arts in the region, has also contributed to how theater became perceived in key urban centers such as Cairo, Beirut and Damascus based on European models of artistic production and consumption. Yet, as Carlson has demonstrated in his seminal study on theater and Islam, the local production of theatrical works in North Africa, in particular in Morocco, saw the support of Salafi reformists who viewed theater entail anti-colonial and patriotic values, and accordingly promoted dramatic arts through pedagogical initiatives in the Free School institutions in the Maghrib.¹⁸ Similarly, in Christian Lebanon, Arab theater saw the growth of religious drama in the 1930s and 1940s, while Jewish theater also grew in the newly formed nation-state of Israel from 1948 onward.¹⁹

Here, the notion of modern theater can be contested as a form of secular drama. This is so since the meaning of the term modern remains open to a value-laden description in the context of the global history of secular modernity, though deeply contested based on competing projects of being (or becoming) modern in shifting (post)colonial contexts. This is particularly true in the discourse and practice of modern theater in the Middle East, as Carlson explains, which had a different historical formation and conception than in Europe.²⁰ In its European context, the development of indoor theaters with proscenium stage can be credited to the rise of post-Renaissance theatrical culture, in particular in early modern England and Spain, which saw its maturity in nineteenth-century Europe. Though with Greco-Roman roots, the proscenium frame introduced a specific spatial marker that divided the increasingly professional actors and their growing middle-class audiences. This ultimately reflected a worldview that positioned the spectator as an emerging consuming (middle) class of cultural products on the rise in the late nineteenth century when Romanticism and revolutionary frenzy gave new nationalistic impetus to its growing popularity.

In Ottoman and Qajar territories, in particular, modern theater was an innovative but intractable appropriation of European colonial cultural hegemony. Colonialism tied to European nationalism served as an institutional means to diffuse a perceived high culture of theater in various regions around the world, particularly in Ottoman territories such as Beirut, where figures like Lebanese-Christian Marun Mikhail al-Naqqāsh staged theatrical performances of plays by Molière (1847).²¹ Also the same year in Syria, Salim Naqqāsh established a theatrical troupe by staging The Miser (al-Bakhil), perhaps the first Arab theater drama, performed at his

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