Almost any discussion of Arab playwrights is incomplete without covering the origins of Arab theater, and no exception applies when discussing Alfred Farag. Arab scholars, playwrights, and critics have constantly debated the state of Arab theater, once its birth and recently its decline, especially when compared (as it often is) to Western theater. The late Alfred Farag (1929-2005), one of the leading contemporary playwrights of Egyptian theater, wrote numerous plays and played an instrumental role in bridging Arab heritage to the stage before his death. His bold, experimental style vastly influenced Arab theater as it is known today, and he devoted much of his life to calling for a theatrical renaissance.
The roots of Arab theater continue to be negotiated today, with a divided consensus among scholars. Some acknowledge that performance literature historically does not occur in Arab heritage but was a foreign art introduced in the late 18th century during the French campaign in Egypt. Meanwhile, others argue that other theater models exist beyond the European Greek theater model, and the Arab world had its special iteration of theater pre-dating Napoleon’s arrival in Egypt and even the Islamic period, as cited by Youssef Sharqawi in the online media website Fanack. Arab heritage has witnessed multiple performance phenomena; the pre-Islamic period included literary seasons during Jahiliyyah and literary markets such as Okaz, Dumah Al Jandal, Majanna, and Dhul-Majaz. Theatrical performances of polemic poetry, as in the storytelling traditions of “al-Mohabez” in Egypt, “al-Qwal” in Morocco, “al-Hakawati” in the Levant, and “al-Rowayah” in Tunisia, involved a performer narrating a story through impersonation. Even early forms of puppetry for storytelling — “al-Aragoz” — existed.
In the 1940s, though still in its infancy, Arab theater was rising. From it sprung several talented creators: Tawfiq al-Hakim, Najib al-Rihani, Youssef Wehbe, and Zaki Tulaimat. By the 50s, Alfred Farag entered the scene, introducing modernist, absurdist, and postmodern styles with his plays.
Farag was born in Alexandria in 1829 but did not emerge as a theatrical writer until his late 20s. Before producing his first play, "The Voice of Egypt," in 1956, he worked as a teacher and journalist for several newspapers, including Rose al-Youssef and Al-Gomhuriyya. But perhaps his most defining moment as a playwright was his 1957 “The Fall of the Pharaoh,” which caused a critical uproar and sparked debate between intellectuals and theater lovers. From then on, he established himself as a writer dedicated to the stage. He wrote 27 plays, among them “The Barber of Baghdad,” “Al-Azeer Salem,” “Ali Jinnah al-Tabrizi,” “Marriage on a Divorce Paper,” and “Beautiful, the Fire and the Olive,” as well as two novels and five theatrical research studies.
The late playwright was perhaps best known for modernizing Arab heritage, drawing inspiration from classic folktales like “One Thousand and One Nights.” According to some scholars, his method preceded even the Egyptian writer and dramatist Tawfiq al-Hakim, who also was known for drawing inspiration from heritage. He told Fadel Sudani in Al Mada Supplement, “If we talk about modernity, I do not agree with some artists who believe that modernity is moving away from people and heritage. It is modernity to take inspiration from the heritage and place it in the modern theatrical form.” He continued, “Our need for heritage may be greater than the need of the European public for heritage because Europe has its classics.” European theater was built on a foundation of various classics, from the classic Greek plays of Oedipus, Antigone, Agamemnon, and the works of Aristophanes, to the works of Shakespeare, “who gave theater new horizons,” he said. “We miss the classics that can add a base to the contemporary theater because we do not have a theatrical heritage. Our heritage is storytelling like “One Thousand and One Nights” — folk and religious tales. This is a heritage in the conscience of the people and the national character; otherwise, it would not have lived that long.”
Farag was also uniquely known for his use of theatrical language. When he started writing, many questions occupied early Arab theater, including the ongoing debate over classical or colloquial language. In his approach to developing theater, Farag dedicated his craft to theatrical language, whether classical, colloquial, or English. “This controversy existed because the language written for the theater was closer to the article (literature), which was a major problem. As part of my approach to writing, I addressed it and developed solutions that attracted the attention of critics and scholars at the time,” he said in his interview with Sudani.
Farag was no stranger to criticism and often found himself at the center of it, not just because of his works but for his political beliefs. Between 1959 to 1963, he was imprisoned alongside other leftist writers and intellectuals. During this time, he wrote his play “The Barber of Baghdad” (Hallaq Baghdad), which was performed by fellow inmates and smuggled out with their help, according to Nehad Seleiha in the online Arab World Books. Throughout the 1970s, Egyptian theater suffered under censorship and political pressures. Farag was banned in 1973 from writing in the media, and performances of his plays were canceled, forcing him into exile to Algeria and later London, where he remained until his death in 2005.
Today, many view Arab theater as a declining art that continues to fall further behind the Western theater. Farag was vocal about its shortcomings, commenting on its lack of accessibility to the average person due to the negligence of the educational system in teaching students about theater, leading to worsening attendance rates as well as rising ticket prices. “Theater teaches the art of discussion, disagreement, and intellectual dialogue. It also sharpens the students' analytical tools and deepens their comprehension of hidden textual meanings and verbal ambiguities. It teaches them the art of dialectics and debate. These are all necessary tools that the upcoming generations must learn,” he said in an interview with Dina Amin in Al Jadid (Vol. 5., No. 29, Fall 1999).
In the past few years alone, numerous theater houses have closed their doors, and as recently as this year, another controversy occupied one Lebanese theater. Medina Theater in Beirut came under fire after its director, the actress Nidal al-Ashqar, opened its stage to host Ashura ritual ceremonies (large demonstrations of high-scale mourning as it marks the death of Prophet Muhammad’s grandson Husayn ibn Ali, who was beheaded during the Battle of Karbala in 680 CE). The decision sparked an outcry on an artistic and cultural level. Some criticized the theater for misusing the stage meant to host theatrical, creative, and cultural performances for religious events. Many considered the decision another symptom of Lebanon's downward spiral, commenting, "At a time when the culture in Lebanon is already suffering from a lack of support and encouragement, the theater opens to promote religious discourse and narratives" and that "this precedent is another dangerous step in one of Lebanon's many simultaneous paths to economic, social, and cultural downfall," as cited by Jana Jabbour in Nida al-Watan. Though theater had already been on the decline for the past two decades, the loss of art in Lebanon has been exacerbated by the recent economic breakdown. It is now threatened directly by political division.
Hezbollah’s looming presence remains the most glaring reason for the backlash, rousing fears that Arab theater is “falling into the trap of extremism” and “fanaticism,” in the words of Haera Slim in Raseef 22. Though Hezbollah is not officially affiliated with the event, the party approves of it, and Jabbour notes that Ashqar is known for her secularism. Ashqar reassures that the event will not be violent and instead aims to present stories and lectures, though critics remain skeptical. She did not reject the request because the theater "is an open space for everyone and cannot exclude anyone," and she stands by her reasoning that Ashura is a part of heritage.
Indeed, Medina theater has hosted other religious and political events in the past, renting the theater out for Kurdish, Armenian, and communist events. According to Mohammed Houjeiri, a cultural editor at Al Modon newspaper, Ashqar’s treatment of the city’s theater gives the impression that it is a hall for “rent,” contradicting her statements that the theater is a space reserved for culture and arts. Additionally, every year, it has hosted the Al-Nabawi group’s celebrations of the Prophet’s birthday by Al-Ahbash. However, Hazem al-Amin in Daraj points out the difference between the events, stating that while Al-Ahbash is non-threatening, Ashqar’s decision to allow the Ashura event is indirectly associated with Hezbollah. According to him, one cannot ignore the presence of Hezbollah and the power it exercises or the division it causes. Because of this, Ashura cannot be treated as any other heritage event. At the heart of the issue, the objection is not specifically to Ashura, a respected religious heritage, but Hezbollah’s covert presence behind it.
The marriage between heritage and modernity has been a defining characteristic of Arab theater since its early days, especially under the teachings and influences of Alfred Farag and others. But at what point does it do more harm than good for art in the modern age? In the words of Hazem al-Amin, deferring to heritage as an all-encompassing justification to the platform any and all events is a poor model for the future of Arab theater. Such decisions require sensitivity, which he claims Nidal al-Ashqar lacks in this specific case, and her decision sets precedence for similar cases in the future that may prove the downfall of Arab theater. Just as heritage gave early Arab theater its identity, it also poses a challenge to its future.
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