‘The Yemeni Public Loves Writing Laced with Irony and Sarcasm’: On Yemeni Literary and Performing Arts

short stories or novels? Wajdi: Yemeni theatre hasn’t yet responded to these new types of media. How do you see the use of humor in your writing? But most often people ask about the contributions Yemeni women make to the genre. In fact, Sa‘id ‘Aulaqi begins his Seventy Years of Theatre in Yemen (1980), the seminal work of Yemeni theatre history, with the story of a traveling Indian troupe that came to Aden in 1904 and put on a performance so spectacular—supposedly the troupe included talented singers and musicians, traveling with palatial sets, peacocks and trained songbirds—that their example inspired Yemenis to put on their own plays. Advertisements

Share this:TwitterFacebookEmailPrintLinkedInRedditGoogleTumblrPinterestPocketLike this:Like Loading…‹ Sunday Submissions: ‘Nakba + 100’ Guidelines, Stephen Spender Prize, ‘Zabaan’Categories: theater, Yemen Wajdi:   The   horrific war in Yemen, which has now entered its third year,   might rouse the conscience of the play’s protagonist,   ‘Abd al-Latif. What about internet and social media? Your novel, Qawarib Jabaliya (Mountain Boats, 2002), became the subject of sermons and led to criminal charges against you. Many of our university students love   to   read Yemeni novels, but theatre struggles to compete with the lure of qat in the evenings. Why hasn’t it been supplanted by television, film, internet? We have zawamil   — emotional, patriotic poems, usually in four-line stanzas, that people of all ages recite. T.M. Which non-Yemeni playwrights have been the most resonant with Yemeni audiences? There was an incredible performance of Idris’ Al-Farafir in Sana’a in 2013. Katherine: Sites like YouTube and Facebook give Yemeni theatre makers access to content and networks from around the world, which helps them to broaden their own ideas about how and what to perform. And theatre is a democratic medium: it’s a public forum that allows playwrights, directors, and actors to present their views and opinions through performance, and it permits the audience to respond, with approbation or criticism as the case may be. It’s like traveling to the moon. Marwa Khaled (left) and Nargis Abbad on the stage of the Cultural Centre in Sana’a, rehearsing a Yemeni adaptation of Bertolt Brecht’s Mother Courage and Her Children. But sadly, we haven’t yet seen the rise of a new generation of young, media-savvy directors either. His play   The Colonel’s Wedding   won first prize for scriptwriting at the 9th   Arab Youth Festival in Alexandria, and his novel   The Quarantine Philosopher   was longlisted for the 2007 International Prize for Arabic Fiction award. High-culture poetry no longer has   an   audience, but popular forms of poetry have gained a wide following in the wake   of the   civil war. Are/were there any significant links between Yemeni and Indian theatre? His work has been translated from Arabic into Italian   (A Donkey Amidst the Music,   trans. Ibrahim al-Ashmuri, who’s one of Yemen’s greatest living actors, was riveting in the lead role. We have an older generation of directors who still dominate the field, and they’re not aware of all the opportunities the Internet offers. For softening up the reader, for enjoyment, for sneaking other things past? Wajdi: The most interesting contemporary Yemeni playwright is Samir ‘Abd al-Fattah, who writes plays with substance. After the president [Ali Abdullah Saleh] promised that I would no longer be harassed, I’ve had the advantage of being able to write as I choose and as I like, though to do so still carries with it a certain degree of risk. Yes, there are historic links between Yemeni and Indian theatre. Only through the intervention of Günter Grass and other leading   international literary figures was he permitted to return to Yemen without   threat   of prosecution. Katherine Hennessey: Yemen has a number of interesting female playwrights, too, like Luna Yafa‘i, whose Barakash wa al-Kash (‘Barakash and the Cash’) was a fascinating contribution to the 2014 Theatre Festival in Sana’a. What would they be saying to you now? Katherine: This is a great question—I’m impressed that you asked! Wajdi: Right now   it would be   impossible   to   stage   a   theatrical performance that makes   a mockery of   the   current war and   its belligerents. Who are the most interesting young playwrights? William Hutchins   — along with   Zayd Mutee’ Dammaj’s   The Hostage   and   Ali al-Muqri’s   Hurma, trans. Katherine: I wrote that back in 2013 and 2014, before the Houthi insurgency gained traction and before the Saudi-led coalition began their devastating bombing campaign. Wajdi al-Ahdal: Yes, when   I   write for   the   theater, I focus on   local audiences, which means I can include certain allusions which I’m sure the   Yemeni public will understand, even if I don’t spell everything out. Yemeni Actress Amani al-Dhamari, in costume for ‘Aismur Ma’ish al-Siraj (2012/13), a play that brought Yemeni folklore into dialogue with Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice. That’s part of the reason I believe Yemeni theatre is an important topic: it helps provide a counterbalance to a whole raft of stereotypes and misperceptions. The latter won the 2013 Banipal Prize for literary translation. Abbad adapted the script, setting Brecht’s action in Aden during the British occupation. Others? People are often surprised by that, and by learning, for example, that Yemen has prominent female directors. What sorts of questions are you most often asked about Yemeni theatre? Wajdi, when you write for theatre, are you focused on a Yemeni audience, more than with short stories or novels? Where do you think the most exciting Yemeni creative writing is being done in the 21st century? And a   writer in the diaspora   may have more of a following in Yemen than a writer who lives here. I firmly believe that many Yemeni theatre makers foresaw many of their nation’s looming crises and crafted their performances as a warning—one that went sadly unheeded. In 2009 the ‘Beirut 39’ project, under the aegis of the Hay Festival of Literature (UK), named al-Ahdal one of the top 39 writers under the age of forty in the Arab world. For foreign authors, we turn to   Shakespeare and Molière. And   Yemeni readers understand when an   author is directing barbs at those who deserve   it, like religious leaders,   the   military and politicians. Wajdi al-Ahdal   is a celebrated Yemeni novelist and playwright, and   author of four novels, three collections of short fiction, two   plays   and two film scripts. What sort of satiric theatre — that doesn’t yet exist — would you like to see written now, about the current moment? William M. Katherine Hennessey is an Assistant Professor at the American University of Kuwait, and the author of   Shakespeare on the Arabian Peninsula (Palgrave 2017). She writes about theatre in Yemen, the Arabian Gulf, and Ireland, and has translated several works of Yemeni literature, including al-Ahdal’s play A Crime on Restaurant Street and Sa’id ‘Aulaqi’s Seventy Years of Theatre in Yemen. Francesco de Angelis as   Un asino tra i suoni, Poesis 2010), French (Mountain Boats, trans. Wajdi: In Yemen, the most commonly performed Arab authors are Tawfiq al-Hakim, then Saadullah Wannous and Muhammad al-Maghout. Are writers in exile an important part of the creative dialogue? Yemeni literature and creative arts have received little   attention   in English, either before or during the country’s current state of multi-front war, disease, and privation. Aplin. Where is their work staged, how do they develop their skills? You’ve written that Yemeni theatre “is a place — perhaps the only place at the moment — where Yemenis are proposing considered solutions to the myriad problems on the national horizon.” Do you still think it’s so? Katherine: I’d add Alfred Farag and Yusuf Idris to Wajdi’s list. For playwrights like him, moving their work from the page to the stage is incredibly difficult. Did winning the battle over this book   have a long-term effect on your ability to write as you chose and freely express yourself? Wajdi: I think that satire of all kinds has been the most successful type of writing since the turn of the century. But I agree with Wajdi that Yemeni theatre-makers generally underutilize social media. Hutchins, Garnet 2012). They’re participants in the performance in a way that watching a video or a TV show can’t replicate. Wajdi, if you were to write   A Crime on Restaurant Street   now, or revisit the characters and setting, how would they have changed? Katherine: There’s a huge range, from whether Yemeni plays are censored, to how they’re funded (since admission is free), and from where performances take place to how they’re publicized. Wajdi: Facebook has broken the   barrier   that   distance once put in our way. Wajdi: Mountain Boats was   my   first novel,   and my subsequent ones have in fact been more outspoken. And in terms of training: some members of the older generation had scholarships to study theatre abroad—a number of those who grew up in the South, in the former People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen, for example, were able to train in Moscow or Eastern Europe. What is the relationship between Yemeni authors in Yemen and those in exile? The younger generation, unfortunately, has had fewer of those types of opportunities, and both playwriting and acting seem to be learned more through practice and trial and error than formal training. Novelist and playwright Wajdi al-Ahdal is one of a handful of Yemeni writers to have a full-length work translated into English —   A Land Without Jasmine,   trans. Wajdi: The Yemeni public loves writing laced with irony and sarcasm. In Yemen spectators laugh uproariously, applaud feverishly, and often call out advice or admonishments to the characters they see on stage. Right now, because of the political unrest, there’s just not much theatre happening, but once a modicum of calm returns, I predict, and I fervently hope, Yemeni theatre will come storming back as a forum for socio-political debate. Plus the   freedom that writers can enjoy in exile has a positive impact on   Yemeni literature   as a   whole. Is your relationship to a prospective audience different when writing theatre vs. You’ve written that television had a broad impact on Yemeni theatre. No one I know has chosen, for example, to produce a play to upload to YouTube. Most other authors just write light comedies to suit an audience’s desire for entertainment. There is a sort of informal apprenticeship system available to younger practitioners, whereby older, more established actors and directors help mentor the next generation, a fact which Yemeni actress Marwa Khaled first brought to my attention. I always answer the question “Are Yemeni women allowed to act?” with a list of some the things I’ve seen a Yemeni actress do on stage: knock a male actor to the ground; track down out and then reject the deadbeat father of her illegitimate child; threaten a villain with a knife and slap him, resoundingly, in the face; verbally eviscerate imams for hypocrisy and intolerance; pour a jerry can of gasoline over herself, her abusive husband, and her complicit parents, and light a match; and lead a crack anti-human-trafficking commando unit in the Yemeni military, just to name a few examples (and all in character, of course). I’d love to see a site or a YouTube channel specially dedicated to Yemen’s theatre scene, where actors and directors could post videos and people both in and out of Yemen could watch and comment on them. How have they changed Yemeni theatre? Here, al-Ahdal and translator Katherine Hennessey, who brought Ahdal’s short play A   Crime on Restaurant Street   into English, speak with ArabLit about Yemeni theatre and other forms of literary and performed   creation:
Sulayman Daoud (left) and Khaled al-Bahri in the comedy Marzouq in the Role of the Terrorist (2014). Saadallah Wannous? But that’s precisely the kind of theatre Yemen needs. Why is live theatre still so important as a cultural-political space? Sarah   Rolfo   as   Barques de   montagnes, Bachari   2011),   and English   (A Land Without Jasmine,   trans. Katherine, you write about the on-the-ground censorship of a play called al-Dawdahiyya (by storming the theatre). Image credit: Benjamin Wiacek. Photo credit: Wagdi al-Maqtari. In 2002 his novel   Mountain Boats   was condemned by Yemeni authorities and he was forced to seek refuge in Damascus. But ‘Abd al-Fattah’s plays are almost never produced. In theatre, poetry, short stories, novels, somewhere else? Now he might say he would   prefer life in prison, and   refuse   to   kill ordinary people. Katherine: There’s no substitute for human interaction, and Yemeni theatre is an interactive experience—audience members are vocal to a degree that’s startling to those of us who assume that the spectator’s role is to listen quietly and attentively to the performance. Image credit: Benjamin Wiacek.