Translating Syria’s Foremost Playwright to the New York Stage

By 
Rula Jurdi

On March 3rd, 2014, the Martin E. Segal Theatre Center in New York presented staged readings from “Rituals of Signs and Transformations” (Tuqus al-Isharat wa-al-Tahawwulat) by Sadallah Wannous (1941-1997), Syria’s foremost playwright. This commerated the publication of “Four Plays from Syria: Sadallah Wannous,” co-edited by Marvin Carlson and Safi Mahfouz, with translations from Marvin Carlson, Safi Mahfouz, Robert Myers, and Nada Saab.

Wannous rose to prominence in Arabic theatre during the late twentieth century, particularly after the 1967 Arab-Israeli war. In 1996 he became the first playwright from the Arab World to be invited by UNESCO to give the yearly address for World Theatre Day.

Wannous saw theatre as a medium to explore the human desires, needs, and hopes threatened by social regulations and political structures of community and nation. While Wannous continued to deem the nation-state necessary for modern “progress,” he tried to salvage individuality and selfhood within these collectivities.

In the preface to “Rituals,” Nada Saab writes that for Wannous, “Theatre [became] not just a manifestation of civil society but a prerequisite for the growth and development of such society.” An assistant professor of Arabic Studies at the Lebanese American University, Saab brings her knowledge of Sufi theory and ritual to bear on her understanding of Wannous’s works. Her expertise in the medieval Sufi tradition is reflected in her work “Sufism, Black and White”by Abu al-Hasan al-Sirjani (d. ca. 470/1077), co-edited with Bilal Orfali, associate professor of Arabic Studies at the American University of Beirut. It is also developed in “Sufi Theory and Language in the Writings of Abu Said al-Kharraz (d. 286/899).” Saab’s research contributions cover the modern manifestations and discourses of Sufism in Arab drama and poetry.

Robert Myers and Saab, along with the Chicago-based theatre company Silk Road Rising, had received a MacArthur Foundation Grant to translate “Rituals” in 2012. Robert Myersis, himself, the author of over a dozen stage plays, including “Atwater: Fixin’ to Die, The Lynching of Leo Frank,” and “Dead of Night: The Execution of Fred Hampton,” and “Painting Persia.”  Myers co-translated “Hammam Baghdadi” (Baghdadi Bath) by Iraq’s prominent director Jawad al-Asadi with Saab, produced at LaMama, and as a staged reading at Dartmouth with New York Theatre Workshop.

Myers collaborated with Saab once again in translating “Tuqus” (Rituals). In 2013, Myers produced the English-language premiere of the play at Babel Theatre in Beirut, directed by Sahar Assaf. Saab and Myers collaborated again in the translation of “al-Diktatur” (The Dictator) by the Lebanese playwright Isam Mahfouz, which is expected to appear in print soon.

“Rituals” was performed on stage in Beirut through the efforts of Sahar Assaf, a Lebanese actress and director, and those of Marvin Carlson. Assaf, the co-founder of Beirut 8.30 Theatre Company, teaches acting and directing at AUB. She recently co-directed “From the Bottom of my Brain” (with Zeina Daccache), a play performed by the residents of Al Fanar Psychiatric Hospital at Al Madina Theatre in Beirut in July 2013.

After the staged readings in New York, Assaf discussed the success, which Wannous’s play achieved in Beirut. The staged play took over two hours. Myers noted that there were no criticisms or challenges whatsoever from the audience afterwards. The translation, the directing and the performance were perceived as an astounding success.

Marvin Carlson, the Sidney E. Cohn Professor of Theatre, Comparative Literature, and Middle Eastern Studies at the Graduate Center of CUNY,and recipient of several esteemed awards and prizes, also played a main role in the publication of “Four Plays” and in the performance of “Rituals”in Beirut. His newest work is the “Theatres of Morocco, Algeria, and Tunisia” co-authored with Khalid Amine.

Before watching the staged performance of “Rituals” in New York, I read Myers’ and Saab’s joint article, “Sufism and Shakespeare: The Poetics of Personal and Political Transformation” in Sadallah Wannous’s “Tuqus al-Isharat wa-al-Tahawwulat.” The authors suggest that the play’s unique and “aesthetic power derive from aspects of Shakespeare, principally ‘Measure for Measure’, and from motifs, lexicon and ritual theatricality derived from Sufism as aesthetic form and religious practice.” Myers and Saab stress how the Sufi tradition offers Wannous a way to critique ritualized religious practice and to break with it, hence, the “radical metamorphosis,” which a number of his characters undergo, a transformation expressed in body, and self, and, one may add, indirectly in the body politic, that is, the nation.

Saab draws additional insightful links between the character of Mumina and the Sufi ‘martyr’ al-Hallaj, whose torture and death have inspired many modern poetic and dramatic writings. Indeed, in the play, Mumina refuses to conform to her father’s, brother’s, husband’s or the Mufti’s expectations. She embarks on a path of forbidden sensuality, replacing marriage with sexual exploration and spiritual journey, which transforms her and those around her. This results in an outcome both liberating and tragic.

After he had been diagnosed with a terminal illness, Wannous wrote “Tuqus” in 1994. The point of departure in the play is a social-historical incident, which occurrs in the 1880s in Damascus, and is treated by historian Fakhri al-Barudi.  In this incident, Damascus is polarized between two feuding clerics and their allies. The first cleric is Shaykh Qasim, the Mufti, the chief religious authority and implementer of the shari‘a, and the second is Sayyid Abdallah, the Naqib al-Ashraf, a dignitary who is descended from Prophet Muhammad. Wannous reworks the social roles, using not only the views articulated in the historical account but also the silences, and the absences. He presents the voices of the women who were formerly marginalized or appeared acquiescent, and brings forth a powerful feminist, multi-sexual, and antinomian (non-shari‘a based) affirmation of self.

Despite their power struggles, in “Rituals,” the Mufti and the Naqib appear united in defending their gendered privileges and public conformity to social rules. Thus, in the second scene, the Mufti is seen rushing to save the Naqib’s reputation when the latter is arrested with his mistress during lovemaking.

The play investigates a number of dualities including those between self and society, carnal desire and spiritual desire, man and woman, and heterosexual and homosexual. These dualities appear to be resolved or transformed in the case of the Naqib who becomes a Sufi. Wannous explores these dualities in their material and spiritual dimensions; dualities, which Sufi thinkers consider a veneer for a deeper unified reality.

In the case of the Mufti, his unexpected love for a “fallen woman” like Mumina (who turns into a high-prostitute named Almasa), goes against his teachings and clerical role. This love opens him up for the recognition of new dimensions of womanhood intertwined with divine love, hence the reference to his “annihilation” just at the verge of having sexual intercourse with Almasa.

The presentation of homosexuality in the play is also multifaceted. On the one hand, homosexuals are well-integrated into the society. On the other hand, there is a social acceptance of bisexuals who publicly present themselves as heterosexuals. Pure homosexual passions and love, on the other hand, are denigrated as a sign of a “lack of masculinity.”

I felt curious as to how these complex Shakespearian and Sufi features would travel in their multiple Arabic layers and forms, to find expression through multiple layers and forms of English. The powerful translation and the creative rendering of the Arabic classical and colloquial dimensions of “Rituals” into English, struck a chord in me. More importantly, I was captivated by the performance of Ito Aghayere-Kim who appeared in the role of the Naqib’s mistress, Jacqueline Antaramian as Mumina/Almasa, Michael Braun as Afsa (a commoner), Ramesey Faragallah as the Naqib and as Abbas (a commoner), Peter Ganim as the Mufti, Nuah Ozryel as Simsim (a homosexual), and Evan Zes as (Mumina’s father).

Hadi Eldebek accompanied the performance with beautiful pieces from his Oud. The staged readings of “Rituals” in New York was produced by Noor Theatre and directed by Kim Weild. Noor Theatre is dedicated to supporting and presenting major works of theatre artists of a Middle Eastern background.

The attempt to bring “Rituals” to English-speaking international audiences is the more significant given the way Sufism has permeated various intellectual and artistic domains in modern Arab society, and how radical thinkers and feminists have adapted it as a critique of patriarchal structures and oppressive states.

This review appeared in Al Jadid, Vol. 18, no. 67

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